Deciding where to meet Topper and me was an easy choice for Elsie Louis. I had asked her to pick out one spot in all of San Luis Obispo County that was special to her. She invited us to see a tree.
“Don’t you think it’s a nice place?” Elsie asked as she guided us through the garden. “It’s so lovely and peaceful here.”
Topper sniffed at the flowers and bushes with the curiosity of a research botanist. We sat down in the shade and began to talk about Elsie’s own roots in San Luis Obispo. She is a spirited 76 years old, the granddaughter of the legendary Ah Louis. Like most members of the Louis family, Elsie was born above the Ah Louis Store, now a state historical monument at the corner of Chorro and Palm Streets.
But this Louis is hardly a relic. Elsie has led a life that Walter Mitty could only dream of–even now, her daily routine would tire many people half her age. Elsie left town when she was 18, spending nearly half a century on the road. She raised sheep in Australia and lived throughout Central and South America.
Along the way, Elsie flew airplanes and taught fencing, and brags about having played every golf course in Chicago. She would like to parachute from an airplane someday.
“A lot of people have given up on life,” Elsie said. “They say they can’t do this, they can’t do that. They seem to think it’s all over. I don’t.”
What finally brought Elsie home to San Luis Obispo a few years ago was her father’s failing health. Young Louis died in 1988 at the age of 94. The tree planted in the Dallidet Adobe was arranged by Elsie’s mother, Stella, who still lives in town.
“The tree is a memorial,” Elsie explained. “My parents helped get the Dallidet Adobe for the county Historical Society. This place has always had a special meaning for my family.”
Spud, the caretaker’s cat, wandered over to join us, completely ignoring Topper. Elsie now had a cat on her lap and a dog at her feet as she began sharing photos of her childhood.
“I grew up during the war,” Elsie said, handing me a picture of herself as a very young girl during WW I. “I used to sell doughnuts for the Salvation Army. I’d go door-to-door all the way up Palm to the railroad tracks.”
A second photo showed Elsie in 1928, being welcomed home by her Girl Scout Troop after winning the California State Spelling Championship in Sacramento–but Elsie admits she doesn’t remember the word she spelled correctly to win. What she does remember clearly is a San Luis Obispo of another era (“a good place to grow up in”), seemingly isolated from the rest of the world.
“We didn’t have a whole lot,” she said. “We had the Elmo Theatre, which featured vaudeville on Sunday. My father was the manager, and my uncles were the stage hands.” Entertainment was a challenge for her. All the Louis children took music lessons and they were talented enough to appear on local radio in Santa Maria.
The favorite Louis family spot was Pismo Beach. Elsie recalls huge bonfires, and being able to drive out on the beach. And fireworks. Her father was in charge of San Luis Obispo’s July 4th fireworks display. Anything left over, well, the Louis family would take to Pismo Beach for a private celebration.
Elsie left town after graduating from high school in 1932. She married twice and her second husband, a dentist she met at a San Francisco fencing competition, had incurable wanderlust. He converted an old Dodge ambulance into a motor home and hitched up a small trailer loaded with spare parts and supplies. The couple hit the road in 1947, spending the next three years driving through Central and South America. Years later, the couple was living in Texas when the husband decided he wanted to raise sheep.
“He didn’t know that much about sheep, except that they had four legs,” Elsie said.
The couple commuted between Texas and New South Wales for almost four years before finally moving there. Elsie enjoyed Australia more than she did raising sheep. “It’s a beautiful country, but you never want to be a manager there. It’s hard to get people to work for you.”
The sheep-raising business eventually folded. Elsie and the traveling dentist divorced and she returned home to San Luis Obispo–almost 50 years after leaving. She discovered a town that had blossomed in her absence.
“It’s completely a different world now. It has really changed,” Elsie said. “The shocking thing is that there is a symphony and concerts and all the things you had no idea about way back when.”
Some things haven’t changed. Elsie still gets together with old high school friends for lunch. The Ah Louis Store remains busy, as does Elsie. She takes classes at both Cuesta College and Cal Poly, devoting what little spare time is left to reading to the blind.
Spud left Elsie’s lap to explore another part of the garden. Topper appeared anxious to follow, but Elsie was in no hurry to leave.. She glanced over towards the tree planted as a lasting memory to her father.
“I don’t think San Luis is as bad off as other places I’ve seen, even with those Poly riots everyone’s been talking about. I’ve seen it a lot worse. So far it’s been pretty nice here.”
Originally appeared in the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (May, 1990)