Sam McManis

Discoveries: Harmony, population 18, has big plans

New owner Alan Vander Horst has plans to turn the tiny town’s long-closed creamery into a tourist destination off Highway 1 in the Central Coast.
New owner Alan Vander Horst has plans to turn the tiny town’s long-closed creamery into a tourist destination off Highway 1 in the Central Coast. smcmanis@sacbee.com

A mere 147 steps, give or take a stumble or two over cracked asphalt, will get you from one end of “downtown” to the other.

If that isn’t enough to show the shrunken size of Harmony, 2.5 acres, in toto, of mostly rolling, cow-dotted hills in San Luis Obispo County, check out this oft-told anecdote from bygone days:

A former town owner – it’s technically an unincorporated community – once held a whimsical Doo-Dah parade on the main drag, the block-long Old Creamery Road. But the “floats” and kazoo-wielding performers remained stationary, while the spectators circled the parade route. It just seemed more efficient, not to mention entertaining, that way.

We’re talking small, folks, blink-and-you-miss-it small.

In fact, I drove right by the turnoff on Highway 1 for Harmony, 5 miles south of Cambria and 9 miles north of Cayucos, twice before figuring it out. I finally turned off Google Maps and paid attention, eventually noticing a sign planted on the road shoulder surrounded by nothing but grazing land: “Harmony Pop. 18 Elev. 175.”

Once making the turn, I knew I was in the right place because, in a gesture of either civic pride or overkill, two additional green city-limits signs greeted me, one faded to the point where it read only “Har__ n_ P_p 1_.”

No ghost town this, though. Harmony is downright humming on a wet weekday morning in January. Two cars – count ’em, two – were parked on the meterless spaces along Old Creamery Road. Yes, tourists had descended. Susan Weeks of Eugene, Ore., Jessica Rivera of Santa Maria, and Peter Norton and Lilian Rojas, both of Villahermosa, Mexico, were doing the whole San Simeon/Big Sur swing north on the highway and thought, what the hay, why not check out Harmony?

They “did” the whole town. First, they stopped at the erstwhile post office, dating from 1914 but closed in 2008, where town “manager” and municipal maven Aarika Wells dutifully brewed up some coffee and put out some cookies near the visitor registry. (A perusal showed recent signatures of folks hailing from Fresno, O’Fallon, Mo., Porterville and Austria.) Then they visited Harmony Glass Works, a gallery and studio featuring works from world-renowned glassblowers at the north end of town, and Harmony Pottery on the south end.

When I approached, they were milling in the middle of the street after having already strolled through the courtyard and ogled the outside of the town chapel, whose entrance looked more like that of an oversized, arching wine cask. They proceeded to take turns taking photos of themselves in front of a giant, heart-shaped topiary, no doubt a nod to the town name.

“Charming place,” Weeks said. “I’m glad we stopped.”

Then, they were gone, back on the road north, Hearst Castle in their sights.

But Harmony, once a major dairy and creamery producer (1869 to 1955), wants to be more than a stopover (with, duly noted, a couple of portable toilets available for the traveler). People here, all 18 of them, have plans. Big plans for the small town.

It’s been a real ebb and flow here. There have been some good periods and periods where not much has happened. But the town deserves to be (preserved).

Aarika Wells, town “manager” of Harmony

New owner Alan Vander Horst harbors no William Randolph Hearst-like pretensions but, yup, he’s Harmony’s newest version of a magnate bent on civic improvement. The town has gone through a succession of owners since the creamery shut its doors in the 1950s: First Ralph Casper and Paul Fields, then George Meyer (he of the Doo-Dah parade), followed by locals Jim and Kay Lawrence, and, from 1997 to 2014, Los Angeles-area businessman James Mehdizadeh, who had always spoken vaguely of spiffing up the town but never really followed through.

Longtime residents, like Wells, have patiently waited for a financial savior to return the town to its glory days, chronicled on a mural on the side of the cracked creamery building that states, “Hearst was a familiar face as he stopped off for fresh dairy products on his way to the ranch (and) Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri stopped in Harmony on their way to visit Hearst.” Rumor has it that, in 1926, Valentino only stopped in Harmony to use the facilities – and for many years, Harmony kept the toilet on display for passers-by to marvel; sadly, it is gone now.

“It’s been a real ebb and flow here,” Wells said of Harmony’s fortunes. “There have been some good periods and periods where not much has happened. But the town deserves to be (preserved).”

Now, 18 months after Vander Horst paid an undisclosed sum for all the buildings (not including private homes, of course) and land, changes are slowly but inexorably taking shape.

Come back in late summer – county permitting and inspection processes willing – you’re likely to see a thriving little burg up and humming once more. Vander Horst and project manager Tom Halen plan to take the long-dormant creamery, which features a main building with a cavernous ground floor and enough warrens, nooks and alcoves to make M.C. Escher lose his sense of direction, and turn it into a 70-seat cafe, with indoor and patio seating. Also planned: a wine-tasting room, wine cellar, a dairy shop with ice cream and curds, a lounge, a gazebo and mini-amphitheater for concerts, retail spaces on the upper floor, and even an artisan cheese-making shop.

“It’ll be a nano cheese-making (space),” Halen said, laughing. “That’s even smaller than micro.”

“But,” Vander Horst quickly added, “it makes sense to have it – to honor the history of the place.”

History, in a slightly decaying form, remains evident in the creamery, which at its height in the early 20th century produced 1,200 pounds of cheese and butter a day. You can even see the rusted-out rings where dairy vats once sat when local dairymen would back their horse-drawn trucks up to the loading dock. A massive scale remains, and Vander Horst exclaimed a hearty “Of course!” when asked if such artifacts would be incorporated into the retail and restaurant complex whose design and decor will honor the Swiss-Italian roots of the town.

“I’m not here to change everything and make it all new,” Vander Horst said. “We really want to keep Harmony’s quirkiness. I like the rustic feel.”

Halen, who has worked in both the financial and food-service industry and has trained at the California Culinary Academy, sees a modestly lucrative future for Harmony, given that the area already is a major tourist draw with nearby beach towns such as Morro Bay, Cuyucos and Cambria and, of course, San Simeon and Big Sur farther north.

“Look at all the traffic that goes by here on (Highway) 1,” Halen said. “The town gets a lot of people now, in the summer. It should get more when there are more attractions.”

18 Official population of Harmony

Vander Horst, 48, is a third-generation dairyman, not an entrepreneur. But he knows potential when he sees it, and he has a finely developed sense of history dating to his undergraduate days at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, when he was studying agriculture and learned all about Harmony’s creamery and dairy history. In the 1990s, he worked for the Dairyman’s Cooperative Creamery Association in the Central Valley, then moved to Texas to build his own dairy operation. But he’s back in the San Luis Obispo area now and, soon, he promises some of his cows will be grazing on the verdant hillsides of Harmony.

He laughed when it was suggested that people might envy him for the ego boost of owning his own town.

“Yeah, well, they don’t know all that goes into it,” he said. “But it’s worth it, totally worth it.”

In fact, Vander Horst kind of had Harmony fall in his lap. He had been on the phone with a San Luis Obispo realtor about some other property the Mehdizadeh family had on the market, “and he just mentioned that the town of Harmony was for sale, too,” he said. “The owner didn’t want to sell it to just anyone. I think it was important that someone keep the town the way it was. Quirky and rustic.”

The rustic part comes from the weathered buildings that dot Old Creamery Road. The quirky part, at least in recent decades, comes from the people who’ve called Harmony home. In the 1960s and early ’70s, it became a local artists hangout – the pottery and glass works business remnants from that time, as was a recording studio, which only recently closed. The wedding chapel has been around for decades, too, mostly to draw visitors and their tourist dollars since, with a population of 18, townsfolk don’t have a lot of weddings.

About that “Pop. 18” claim: Wells, who has lived in Harmony for a quarter of a century, confirms with a twinkle in her eye that its “census” number has remained stagnant. Allison Duncan, who manages the glass works and commutes from Cambria, winked and said, “Yes, someone dies but a baby’s born. It stays at 18.”

Whatever, that’s part of the charm. As is the town name.

Its origin remains murky. Wells said it may have been named after the school called “Harmony,” which predated the town, in the early 1870s.

“But there are some more romantic stories behind it,” she said. “There was talk of two dairymen fighting it out over who had the tastier cheese that was as good as that found in New York City. There also was the story about it being named Harmony after a murder.”

According to Debbie Soto, author of “Living in Harmony: The School, Creamery and Town” (Blake Publishing, $16.95, 116 pages), the town was definitely named after the school. But, the school being named Harmony “could’ve been inspired by this murder in 1874, not in town but a little more up-creek,” a year before the school’s founding. That murder, Soto said, citing an 1874 Sacramento Bee story, of a man named James Yates Stewart by George Clocke, was not over the taste of cheese. Rather, it was a “domestic dispute.”

Hence, the need for Harmony.

And, over the years, an array of people have been inspired by the town’s harmonious vibe. In 1979, singer Jehry Miller had a minor country hit with his song “Harmonizing in Harmony Population 18.”

Chorus: “I’ll soon be harmonizing in Harmony/Singing songs of living free/Harmonizing in Harmony/Population 18.”

Sample verse: “I’m headed out for blue skies and rolling hills/An ocean far as I can see/On the run, driving Highway 1/I’m going home to Harmony.”

The YouTube video of the song has a photo of Miller, in a tuxedo with bow tie raffishly undone, standing in front of the Harmony city limits sign with one foot jauntily up on the fender of his Mercedes-Benz. Another shot shows a poster promoting a May 1979 concert in Harmony.

Vander Horst confirmed he has seen the video, said he was amused. I mentioned he should get Miller, apparently still harmonizing at age 79 in Santa Monica, to appear when the restaurant opens. Vander Horst was noncommittal on that. But he did confirm he and Halen will be bringing back the Doo-Dah parade, this time adding fiberglass cow sculptures.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Why not another parade? That’s low-hanging fruit, man. We’ve got to do that.”

Harmony

Location: In San Luis Obispo County, 5 miles south of Cambria and 9 miles north of Cuyucos. Take the Harmony Valley Road exit off Highway 1.

Businesses: Harmony Glass Works, 2180 Old Creamery Road; harmonyglassworks.com; Harmony Pottery, 2191 Old Creamery Road; harmonyca.com/harmonypottery.

  Comments