One of the earliest promising efforts to establish a county-wide junior college in Santa Cruz County was in 1948 when the Federal government offered Camp McQuaide as war surplus property for…$1.00. The State Department of Education nixed the idea saying it was too remote from most of the county’s population.

One of the earliest promising efforts to establish a county-wide junior college in Santa Cruz County was in 1948 when the Federal government offered Camp McQuaide as war surplus property for…$1.00. The State Department of Education nixed the idea saying it was too remote from most of the county’s population.

Happy 60th Birthday Cabrillo College!

Wrong Date?

Cabrillo has consistently celebrated its milestone (10th, 25th, etc.) commemorations to coincide with the first students passing through its doors in September of 1959, I would humbly submit that the college’s actual BIRTH was in the county’s voting booths in October, 1958.  And, that election set in motion one of (if not the) most momentous changes in the history of this place.

If you want to know why this county is the unique and special place it is, you should know this story.


Disclosure:  Sandy Lydon, the author of this here website joined the history faculty at Cabrillo College 50 years ago.  Though now retired from full-time teaching he still occasionally hauls out some notes (?) and teaches either credit classes or through Extension. What follows has neither been approved nor reviewed by any committee, nor  Cabrillo College..  They don’t know this story either.


It was a difficult birth.  

The idea of raising taxes for almost anything was an anathema to postwar Santa Cruz County voters, and even though the number of high school graduates going on to higher education was one of the lowest in California in the early 1950s.  

And those who did had to leave the county to do so.

Idea first out of Watsonville

The idea of a Santa Cruz County junior college first surfaced in Watsonville in 1920 and was presented to the Watsonville High School Board of Trustees by the Watsonville Women’s Club.  The idea did not go anywhere, but a Watsonville educator, T.S. MacQuiddy became the champion of the idea. MacQuiddy came closest in 1948 when the War Assets Administration offered to sell the 400+ beachfront Camp McQuaide, locasted up-coast from Sunseet Beach.  The stipulation was that the site had to be for a junior college.  The price was $1.00. 

A county-wide coalition of the three highs school districts (Santa Cruz, Boulder Creek and Watsonville), service clubs and business leaders rallied around the idea. Fearing that the idea might result in higher taxes, the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously against the idea, free land or no.

 The Camp McQuaide property was eventually sold to the Seventh Day Adventist church that established Monterey Bay Academy, a boarding high school attracting students from all over the world

The Camp McQuaide property was eventually sold to the Seventh Day Adventist church that established Monterey Bay Academy, a boarding high school attracting students from all over the world

The State Department of Education, citing the remoteness of the site andthe narrow access road, rejected the idea and the countywide coalition collapsed.  MacQuiddy died the following year, his dream of a jc unfulfilled.  

A Fractured, Contentious, Balkanized County

The various tribes and micro-cultures throughout the county didn’t trust each other and hadn’t since the county was founded in 1850. The fiercest rivarlry existed between  Pajaro Valley and Santa Cruz, and had for a century when the junior college idea bubbled to the surface in the early 1950s. 

By the early 1950s, hundreds of Santa Cruz County high school graduates were attending junior colleges in neighboring counties, and state law required that Santa ruz County reimburse those colleges for educating its students..  They made so much money on Santa Cruz County students that they provided free bus service to make it easier for the students to attend.  The President of MPC used to point to some of his buildings and declare,  “That one was bult by Santa Cruz taxpayers.  Thank you!”

So, the basic argument against a junion college wasn’t so much about readin’ and writin’-- it was financial.  Opponents to the idea pointed out that this here junion college would require a site, buildings and faculty. Money.  They argued it was cheaper to send students to Salinas, or wherever.  And so they wrangled.

Sentinel headline jc is beaten May,   1954.JPG

First election down to defeat

In 1954 the junior college idea crept up onto the ballot,, and the wrangling heated up something fierce. The San Lorenzo Valley had some support, but Santa Cruz and Watsonville opposed the idea and the voters broke the proposal over their electoral knee with a resounding 66% vote NO!  Historic tribalism prevailed.

The Magical Campaign

Over the next four years junior college proponents organized what the best countywide campaigns in history (before or since.)  Recognizing the historic distrust, but also recognizing that all this wrangling was hamstringing the county, there were compromises and deals made.

In interviews I conducted with many of the participants three important (unwritten) conditions emerged if the junior college proposal were to succeed. 

1) The junior college would have a generic name – no Santa Cruz Junion College. 
2) The permanent site would be between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, as equidistant as possible. 
3) The temporary site of the college would be in Watsonville. (It was from 1959-1962.)

The Scent of a University campus

As the October 1958 election approached, another argument in favor of the junior college filled the air, particularly in Santa Cruz. State policy required that a University of California campus would not be located in a county without a junior college. Supporters of luring a UC campus to Santa Cruz County knew that having a junior college would enhance their chances.  No jc, no UC.  And, the possibility of UC would help the chances of a jc.  Symbiosis. 

One of the strongest statements in favor of the junion college proposal was printed in an ad taken out by the Santa Cruz County Construction and Building  Trades Council. 

“…[passage of the junion college proposal]

will encourage and enhance the chances of getting a campus of the University of California to located in the area. Potentially it would be one of the greatest things that could possibly happen. This could be the chance of a lifetime.”

An Astonishing Reversal in 1958

 The Santa Cruz Sentinel declared the 1958 election victory for the junior college a “landslide.”

The Santa Cruz Sentinel declared the 1958 election victory for the junior college a “landslide.”

On October 21, 1958, in an astonishing reversal of the 1954 election, the voters approved the establishment of a county-wide junior college district with a 66% positive vote.  Watsonville voted 3 to 2 in favor, while Santa Cruz buoyed by the dream of a UC campus voted 3 to 1.   

The Lesson of 1958

As an historian who has thought a lot about the major turning points in the history of this itty-bitty county, election day, October 21, 1958 is one of them – along the state legislator drawing the county’s southern boundary down the middle (?) of the Pajaro River,  San Mateo County’s theft of the northern part of the county iin 18168 and the completion of the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1880.

Before 1958, Santa Cruz County was one of California’s “cow counties” with only those who could afford it going on to a university education.  Those wishing to extend their education at a less-expensive junior college and livee at home were consigned to 40-mile round trips each day.  The county unity and the establishment of a junior college provided a progressive backdrop for the UC Regents when they began to narrow down their choices for new campus. 

 The Founding Cabrillo Trustees from left: Bud Rice, Art Hubbard, Keith Shaffer, Hal Hyde, Joe Chamberlain, Carl Conelly, Marguerite Blaisdell.

The Founding Cabrillo Trustees from left: Bud Rice, Art Hubbard, Keith Shaffer, Hal Hyde, Joe Chamberlain, Carl Conelly, Marguerite Blaisdell.

It can be argued that neither Cabrillo nor UCSC would have happened without the other. 

The First Cabrillo Board of Trustees

Most of those who were elected to the new junior college’s first Board of Trustee had been directly involved in the successful 1958 campaign.  They knew the agreements and promises that had prevailed in the election and they were committed to seeing that they were kept as the new college took wing.  It would only take one misstep, one broken promise to unglue the tenuous alliances that had been formed.

 The old (contemned) Watsonville High School building was not safe for high school students, but was for Cabrillo’s first three years of instruction.

The old (contemned) Watsonville High School building was not safe for high school students, but was for Cabrillo’s first three years of instruction.

The tribes were waiting for the Trustees to screw up.  They didn’t.  The neutral name of Cabrillo was selected in Japnuary 1959, a charismatic leader, Dr. Robert Swenson was hand-pcied from over 20 candidates in Aptil. and classes began in September.  This was the GI Generation at work.  They had won a war.  Building a college was easy. 

The Bond Issue - 1960

Finally, the Trustees had to approach the bond-issue crushing Santa Cruz County voters to pay for the mid-county site and the buildings that it would need.  It was the largest bond issue that county voters had ever confronted -- $6.200,000.  That bond issue was a referendum on everything that had gone before – the site, the curriculum, the staff, everything.

 Cabrillo students help the campaign by putting up signs promoting the bond issue.

Cabrillo students help the campaign by putting up signs promoting the bond issue.

The voters issued a resounding YES in June, 1960 – it passed by an 82% YES vote.  In six years from a 34 % vote affirmative in 1954 to 82% in 1960.  All of the cajoling and shoe-leather pavement pounding and deal-making had paid off.  And, the promise of the University campus had also borne fruit in December of 1960 with the UC Regents approving a new campus in Santa Cruz.  High education had arrived. 

Incubating UCSC’s founding administration 

Besides the students that arrived on the new Cabrillo campus in the fall of 1962, about a dozen of UCSC’s founding administrators and staff moved into temporary offices on the junior college campus.  In interviews I did with Chancellor Dean McHenry and Library Don Clark, they both were nostalgic about what they called their “Cabrillo years” while they planned for the new “different kind of college” on the hill.

The two institutions may have been interwoven in those initial years, but could not have been more different in their creations.   Cabrillo was organic and had grown out of a carefully-prepared political landscape.  The college’s allegiance was to the Santa Cruz County taxpayers that had approved it..  UCSC was beholden to a state-level Board of Regents and ultimately to the State Legislature.  Their early histories were quite different, but that’s for another time.

Happy 60th birthday Cabrillo College!  Birthdate: October 21, 1958.