The Great “Adobe Inn” Move of 1962

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver

“It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help plow up this valley in the cause of progress.”

So stated President John F. Kennedy on August 18, 1962, as he stood atop a simple wooden stage 10 miles west of Los Banos, California. And plow up the valley he would – by helping depress the dynamite plunger located on the dais, Kennedy would formally set in motion the eventual inundation of nearly 20 square miles of land and bring about the destruction of the oldest adobe building in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

President Kennedy arriving and speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for the San Luis dam, August 18, 1962 (above).

A Bureau of Reclamation graphic from 1968 showing the then current and planned structures, reservoirs, and canals of the California Central Valley Project. The San Luis Dam, formally named the B.F. Sisk Dam, can be seen center right.
A map of the proposed San Luis Unit dam and reservoir displayed at the Merced County Fair in July of 1961.

However, our story neither starts nor ends on that particular day, so let us first go back to 1819 when Francisco Perez Pacheco ventured into present day California. Francisco had a son, Juan, in 1824, and 19 years later Juan was awarded a land grant from the Mexican government, the Rancho de San Luis Gonzaga, that bordered several ranches his father had acquired. A simple 46’ by 21’ adobe ranch house, even featuring gun ports in the wall, was built shortly thereafter and is where our story begins.

The bronze plaque installed in 1931 on the adobe house denoting its history, as seen on October 10, 1961

With the U.S. victory in the Mexican American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848 handing over large swaths of land to the United States. This included present day California and the Pacheco ranch. The treaty recognized and preserved land grants issued by Spain and Mexico so the massive property stayed in the family over the ensuing century. Paula Fatjo, Francisco’s great-great granddaughter, inherited the spread following WWII and moved from San Francisco into the adobe home, restoring it and settling into a ranching lifestyle breeding Arabian horses. Fatjo’s livelihood would soon come in direct collision, however, with California’s growing thirst for municipal and irrigation water.

An aerial shot of the ranch headquarters, the “old adobe” or the “adobe inn” as the house is referenced in Bureau of Reclamation captions, in the center, with a modern service station located next door. This photograph was taken the day before Kennedy spoke nearby, on August 17, 1962.
The courtyard and rear, looking southwest, in October 1961. The arched porch seen here was constructed in the 1930’s when the building was used as a roadside tavern.
A view showing the front (south) and west side of the building. The home measured 46’ by 21’ with 2’ thick walls that were 9’ tall.
Southwest corner, looking west.

In 1962, Fatjo lost much of her land to eminent domain. California, working with the federal government through the Bureau of Reclamation, continued to embark on an ambitious and far-reaching partnership to manage the rivers of the state’s Central Valley. The ranch house was located where the San Luis Reservoir was slated to soon be, an adobe Atlantis of sorts unless it was moved. So Fatjo made plans to relocate and set about stabilizing the home for the move.

The wooden floor was removed so excavation could begin in order to help stabilize the wall during the move. Here we see an interior shot facing south, showing the fireplace.
Further exterior excavation work to help stabilize the building prior to the move, photograph looking south and taken October 26, 1962.
In this photograph from November 20, 1962, owner Paula Fatjo along with several cats watch as timbers are put in place to lift the structure. Seen here is the southwest corner of the building.

On December 6, 1962 – only months after the Kennedy speech – the adobe house was loaded up on a trailer to be moved to a site where Fatjo had built a new foundation for the old home. That evening while chugging up a hill, the months of preparation came to naught when the walls of the old home gave in; the move had failed.

December 6, 1962 – moving day. Looking west as the building is pulled onto the road.
Looking east as the tractor and trailer slowly move the house along the highway.
The original photo caption sums it up best: “The ‘Adobe Inn’ that had been located in the proposed San Luis Reservoir area collapsed during transportation to a new location. Looking east. (10:00 p.m.) 12-6-62 Bureau of Reclamation Photo by W.G. Bell”
The next morning, December 7, looking northwest.

It was later thought that unseen termite damage had weakened the walls. The ruins were still set down and preserved as best they could while the original site was slowly flooded after the dam construction.

The 3.5-mile long earthen dam, holding back the 2.1 million acre foot San Luis Reservoir where much of the original Rancho de San Luis Gonzaga lays below, as seen in 1970.

When Paula Fatjo passed away in 1992, she left the remaining 6,890 acres of her ranch to the California Parks System, creating the Pacheco State Park where today one can visit the remains of Juan Perez Pacheco’s adobe ranch house.

The preserved ruins as seen in 2015 at the Pacheco State Park (Photograph courtesy of the California State Parks).

The National Archives at Denver holds hundreds of thousands of original photographs and negatives created by the Bureau of Reclamation (Record Group 115) chronicling the massive water projects in the West. A recent project digitizing nearly 40,000 pages of caption lists has opened up vast sections of these photographic holdings to better discovery and it was through these efforts that the photos used in this essay were discovered. All photographs and information come from “Photographs, Central Valley Project, San Luis Unit, 1963-1971” NAID 1143095 and “Project Histories, 1911-1979″ NAID 562811. Additional information for context was found at:

Remarks in Los Banos, California, at the Ground-Breaking Ceremonies for the San Luis Dam.

San Luis Gonzaga Adobe, Written Historical and Descriptive Data.

San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area Draft Resource Management Plan.

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