Retracing a bandit’s trail

A 1955 Chevy Bel Air cruises along San Benito Street in Hollister. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

(Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a multi-part travel series in Hollister, Gilroy and Morgan Hill.)

Recently my wife Sarah and I took a drive back in time to do a little history dig around Hollister, Gilroy and Morgan Hill. Spurring our one-day journey was a book we both read, “Bandido, the Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez,” by John Boessenecker.

Vasquez was a notorious bandit who plagued the lands just mentioned, the Pajaro Valley and elsewhere. American author John Steinbeck once wrote: “Everybody thinks Vasquez was a kind of hero, when really he was just a thief.” The 471-page hardbound “Bandido” book explores some of his misdeeds and the rugged trail of his history. Sarah and I have been intrigued with some of his haunts, including Tres Piños, New Idria and Paicines south of Hollister.

We headed out Highway 129 through Chittenden Pass and crossed over Highway 101 onto San Juan Highway, which is a great way to access San Juan Bautista through its back door. We split off onto San Justo Road to Lucy Brown Road which runs square into Highway 156, where we turned left toward Hollister. Passing through huge agriculture fields of strawberries, lettuce, groomed soil and flowers, we turned right onto Union Road and worked our way into downtown Hollister.

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Sprawling agricultural lands surround Hollister. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

The city has a population of around 35,000 and has seen a huge boom lately, with massive housing projects, defined by towering walls and trendy names like Sunnyside Estates, The Lanes at Allendale, The Knolls at Allendale and Hillcrest Meadows. The area has garnered big headlines in the news lately regarding built up traffic — a lot of which heads each to Silicon Valley.

Hollister is an agricultural town in San Benito County. The region was historically inhabited by the Mutsun band of the Ohlone Native Americans. When Mission San Juan Bautista was built in 1797, many of the Ohlone were forced into the mission way of life. Hollister was founded 1868, by William W. Hollister. The sleepy downtown of today still boasts scores of historic buildings that dot the main drag of San Benito Street and side streets.

We drove around the tiny downtown district a get a feel for the area and spotted the stately Veterans Memorial Building, a former bank know known as The Vault, the handsome brick Hollister Methodist Church and the faded wood Hollister train depot. By now we were starving so we settled on the Hollister House Bar & Grill, 500 San Benito St., for lunch. We lucked out because their Tri-Tip grilled cheese sandwich was outstanding and Sarah’s $4 spinach salad was tops. A huge outdoor mural across the street provided us with some Hollister history before we headed south toward Tres Piños and Paicines on Highway 25. The highway is largely known for being the northern entrance to the Pinnacles National Park. First we came upon the San Benito Historical Park. A brass plaque fused to a boulder there read: “Costanoan people passed through this area along a trade route from their villages between The Pinnacles and San Juan Bautista. During the Mexican era of Alta California, this property was government land adjoining Rancho Santa Ana Y Quien Sabe.” Eventually the county bought the land and the park was dedicated in 1982. It features scores of early-day buildings that were moved there, including the Cottage Corner Bar, the Palmtag Cutting Shed, the Dunneville Dance Hall and the Canepa Ranch Tank House, and numerous informational signs.

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The Canepa Ranch Tank House is part of the attractions at the San Benito Historical Park. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian 

Further south we drove through the open countryside of vineyards, rolling hills and farmlands. We stopped at the intersection at Panoche Road (Route J1) where a small market stands with another big boulder on the side of the road with a brass plaque that reads: “The original town of Tres Piños had been here for more than a decade when its Post Office opened on Jan. 24, 1871. The town lost the use of its name after Aug. 12, 1873 when the Southern Pacific Railroad opened the Tres Piños Station 4.7 miles away. The town turned its name to Grogan on Aug 4, 1874 and the Tres Piños Post Office reopened near the station six days later.”

We drove east on the lovely Panoche Road toward New Idria through dry, winding hills, over several dried out creek beds, past cattle farms and several old farmsteads. At one point we stopped, shut off the car and the only things we could hear were the wind and a few distant birds. These remote hills were precisely the terrain Tiburcio Vasquez and his band of outlaws sought for comfortable refuge, mainly due to the vast uninhabited swaths of land and because law officials wouldn’t risk being drawn out into such distant parts.

In the next part of this series we wrap up our venture into the wild outback, head north into Gilroy for a coffee break, a taste of the Garlic Capital and on to our friend’s walnut orchard near Morgan Hill that got started in 1894.

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Cottage Corners, which got going more than 100 years ago, was the first saloon to serve steam beer in the area. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian 

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