Rearview Mirror: Dwight Murphy

Posted on Jul 15 by SEASONS Magazine

This silver-horned capped saddle was made for Dwight Murphy by Visalia Saddle Company. Photo courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

This silver-horned capped saddle was made for Dwight Murphy and is currently on view at Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Photo courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

Quiet Generosity on a Golden Steed

By Cheryl Crabtree

Santa Barbara celebrates its Spanish and early California roots in a huge way every August during Old Spanish Days Fiesta, a five-day festival with dance and musical performances, a rodeo and mercados with delectable foods. On Fiesta Friday, one of the nation’s largest equestrian parades marches up State Street, led by men and women dressed in authentic Spanish costume, sitting in silver-embellished saddles atop magnificent golden palomino horses.

This beloved equestrian tradition dates back to the first Fiesta parade in 1924 and has everything to do with one of Santa Barbara’s greatest philanthropists, Dwight Murphy.

Murphy’s parents, Peter and Jennie, visited Santa Barbara in 1904 and became so enamored with the climate and setting that they decided to build a home in Montecito. (The second version of the home is now Kerrwood Hall at Westmont College.) Dwight came to Santa Barbara in 1905 and decided to stay for a bit. The Murphy family operated a railroad equipment manufacturing company in Pittsburgh, but also had a ranch in Kansas where Dwight learned to ride horses and helped with ranching duties at an early age. He volunteered to work as a ranger with the National Forest Service, which meant he spent many months roaming the Santa Barbara County backcountry on horseback.

Murphy returned to Pennsylvania in 1907, but visited Santa Barbara often. Over the years, he met other avid outdoors people and civic-minded community members who became lifelong friends. He married a local gal, Grace Price, and their only child, Marjorie, was born in 1912. Although Murphy’s business responsibilities required him to spend significant time back east, his heart remained in Santa Barbara, and he began to establish roots in the county.

In 1920, Murphy leased 3,500 acres of land around Paradise Road and called the property Los Prietos Ranch. According to Edward A. Hartfeld, author of California’s Knight on a Golden Horse, Murphy developed an elaborate facility with houses, stables and other structures. He planned to breed palominos, a rare type of horse with a golden hue that was on the verge of extinction.

In 1924, Santa Barbara decided to host a citywide event to attract visitors and focus on early California’s Spanish heritage. Dwight Murphy was asked to chair the parade committee, and as an avid equestrian, he made sure the event included horses. A 1924 photo in Hartfeld’s book shows Murphy posing in the classic garb of a Spanish Don, atop one of his prized palomino stallions, Fernando.

Murphy serving as Old Spanish Days El Presidente. Photo courtesy Old Spanish Days.

Dwight Murphy serving as Old Spanish Days El Presidente. Photo courtesy Old Spanish Days.

The first Fiesta was a great success, and Murphy was the event’s first El Presidente (1925–1926). He stepped down in 1927, but continued to lend his palominos and silver saddles to dignitaries to ride in Fiesta parades.

In 1925, Murphy sold his stock in the family business and retired at just 40 years old. Dwight, Grace and Marjorie moved permanently to Santa Barbara, and Murphy set up an office on the second floor of the new El Paseo building in downtown Santa Barbara.

“In 1925, Murphy began his palomino breeding experiments at Los Prietos; he succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination by increasing the odds of producing a palomino from one in 1,000 to about eight in ten. He soon initiated weekly exhibitions of these beautiful horses, and as they gained attention in newspapers and newsreels, owning a palomino became fashionable among the wealthy,” writes Hartfeld. Dozens of prominent people, including film stars, governors and presidents, were among the flood of visitors to the ranch.

After his permanent move, Murphy spent the rest of his life helping to preserve and improve the local community. His managerial skills, humanitarianism and ample personal wealth enabled him to make big projects happen. Along with friends such as editor and publisher Thomas More Storke and yeast king Max Fleischmann, Murphy led the charge to acquire and preserve the waterfront, construct the breakwater to create the harbor and develop an abundant parks system.

Murphy also organized efforts to transform a salt pond into the Andree Clark Bird Refuge. He helped rebuild the mission twice and was instrumental in the construction of Bradbury Dam and Cachuma Lake, even though it entailed the loss of some of his own prized ranch land. He helped establish and promote the National Horse Show, and convinced the state to build Earl Warren Showgrounds (opened in 1958). In 1953, Dwight Murphy was named Santa Barbara’s Man of the Year, and in his 1968 obituary, Santa Barbara News-Press dubbed him “Man of the Century.”

Murphy was a major force in Santa Barbara’s preservation and beautification efforts, as well as a substantial donor to scholarship programs and other charitable endeavors. However, you won’t find his name attached to most of his projects; he was an extremely modest, unassuming man who preferred to donate anonymously. A lone exception is Dwight Murphy Field across from Santa Barbara Zoo, which was dedicated to him in 1932.

Murphy did share a bit of his life with the public by donating a number of items to Santa Barbara Historical Society, including saddles and paintings. Two saddles are on display at Pershing Park’s Carriage and Western Museum. Several of his saddles are also prominently displayed in a new exhibition, In the Saddle, at Santa Barbara Historical Museum. “The saddles we have of Dwight Murphy’s aren’t just any old saddles,” says Peterson. “They’re special. … The saddles had silver horn caps with an owl on them … and are of incredible quality.”

As for Murphy’s palomino legacy, look for the golden palominos in the Fiesta parade on August 4—many of them descendants of his superb stallions, Fernando and Rey de los Reyes.  

Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

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