The main entrance to the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) is gateway not only to a world class institution of higher learning, but also to the Cowell Lime Works Historic District. The district encompasses 30 acres of the UCSC Campus near the main entrance and holds what was the center of the largest lime manufacturing region
in California during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Preserved are four lime kilns, the cook house, a cooperage (where barrels were made), a hay barn, The Cardiff House, several workers’ cabins, and many other structures from the 19th century.
A succession of companies operated here. The first to make lime on a large scale was the firm of Isaac E. Davis and Albion P. Jordan starting in 1853. In 1865 Henry Cowell bought A. P. Jordan’s half of the business and, in 1889, Davis’s share. Cowell, and later his sons, ran lime-making operations at this and three other nearby locations in Santa Cruz County. They also made lime in the Sierra foothills and in Washington state. The last of Cowell’s Santa Cruz County kilns, beside Highway 9 in what is now Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, ceased operation in 1946.
The Cook House: A Lucky Place
What is now the UCSC Admissions Office was originally where the lime workers ate their meals. The house is built of redwood and the local limerock. According to oral history, the building was constructed in the 1880s. While most buildings here were whitewashed, the Cook House was always red (considered a lucky color by Cowell’s Chinese cooks).
During peak operations in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some 40 workers lived here, many of them immigrants from the Azores (part of Portugal), and Italy. Still earlier, many were Irish. Meals were pretty basic: beans, potatoes, bread, coffee, and beef—lots of beef. Cowell kept herds of cattle on the property. Once a week they slaughtered a steer—always a tough one according to the late John Hong Dong, one of the last cooks. Indeed, old cattle bones unearthed in an archaeological dig beside the Cook House in 2008 corroborated that they ate poorer cuts of meat from older animals.
The University remodeled the building for use as offices in the 1960s and again in 2008.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of UCSC Lime Kilns Tour by Frank Perry on behalf of The Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
The content for this blogpost and the AppTour was prepared by The Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District, University of California, Santa Cruz, and is © 2015 by The Friends. Much of the information is from the book, Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County. The book can be purchased at the Museum of Art and History in person or on-line. It’s also available through Amazon.com.
If you take the AppTour tour you will see that some of the historic buildings have been put to modern uses by the University. Others remain unused but are gradually being restored with private gifts of funding and materials. For more information on how to help, contact the Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District. This UCSC friends group is dedicated to researching, preserving, and teaching about the history of this historic site.
- Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County, by Frank A. Perry, Robert W. Piwarzyk, Michael D. Luther, Alverda Orlando, Allan Molho, and Sierra L. Perry. Published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History; 2007.
- Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District Website.