The 'Hidden Figures' of SLO

Ever wonder how our town came to be? Meet seven incredible women in history who have left their mark on the San Luis Obispo community!

Grace Barneberg

Barneberg was born in San Luis Obispo on September 24, 1877. She left briefly to attend university at Stanford University, graduating in 1901 with a degree in History. Ultimately, she returned to San Luis Obispo and began a legacy of community outreach.

Like Margaret Chase, Barnberg served as the president of the Monday Club and during a time of club expansion. In 1928, the Monday Club membership was up to 350 people and they were in need of their own clubhouse. At this time, renown San Francisco architect Julia Morgan was working with William Randolph Hearst to build Hearst Castle in nearby San Simeon. Barneberg was instrumental in recruiting Morgan to help design the Monday Club house, reaching out through Morgan’s cab driver to ask if she would be interested in the opportunity. Morgan agreed in exchange for the Monday Club membership arranging for her room and board when she came to SLO.

In addition to her role in establishing a clubhouse for Monday Club, she also devoted her time to women’s prisons. Barneberg was a member of the Board of Women’s Prisons and even gave a speech at the 1934 convention of the California Federation of women’s clubs, advocating for a separate penal institution for women and encouraging women to continue fighting for the new women’s prison established in Brite Ranch.

However, Barneberg’s impact on the SLO community does not stop there. Barneberg was also involved in establishing SLO’s Mitchell Park, and for being a part of the following organizations: the California State Hospital Libraries, San Luis Obispo Free Public Library, the San Luis Obispo Dental Clinic, the County Health Center, and the Red Cross.

Margaret Chase

Chase originally came to San Luis Obispo in the 1908 to teach English at the local high school, California Polytechnic School. She became the head of the academic department for 17 years and then served as vice president of the college from 1917 to 1932. Chase also acted as the president for six months in 1924 -- the only woman thus far to have been named as the university president. In 1945, Chase finally retired, ending her 38 years as a teacher and an administrator at Cal Poly. In this legacy, she is credited to transforming a two-to-three year technical school into a strong four-year college, a difficult feat due to budget cuts and restricted class offerings. For her incredible work at Cal Poly, Chase Dormitory (at the south end of campus) was named after her in 1930. Originally, this building was a dorm but has since turned into an administration building.

Aside from making an impact on Cal Poly, Chase also made a huge impact on the local SLO community. She was a charter member and past president of the Monday Club, a community outreach organization for women. In addition to the Monday Club, she was an active member of the Red Cross, a past president of the World Affairs Council and a founder of the SLO branch of the American Association of University Women. In Chase’s honor, the branch’s first fellowship grant was named after her.

Maxine Lewis

Lewis was born in Longview, Texas in 1926. From a young age, she was exposed to the poverty that faced Indian reservations in California and Oklahoma. As a result, Lewis developed a passion for helping others, especially children and the elderly. She carried this mission with her when she moved to San Luis Obispo in 1959 with her husband Jewel and their family of eight children.

In SLO, Lewis made a name for herself as a devoted and determined community leader. San Luis Obispo Mayor Ron Dunin in 1988 called her a “the biggest champion that the underprivileged people of this city ever had.” From Lewis’s very start in the SLO community, she opened the doors to her home to feed strangers on Thanksgiving days -- a tradition starting in her home that would eventually become a community event feeding hundreds. Lewis was also heavily involved in local poverty center Grass Roots. Part of the 1964 War on Poverty Act, the organization sought out housing solutions for low-income people and offered child care programs, adult literacy classes, and educational programs. Lewis first started out as a volunteer and eventually was elected to become the director of Grass Roots.

Lewis has been honored in recognition of her community work. Phi Delta Kappa named her as Citizen of the Year and she also received a Citizen of the Month award from the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. To this day, her name lives on through the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, a homeless shelter in SLO named in her honor.

Alice Martin

Originally from Illinois, Martin came to San Luis Obispo in the 1940s with her husband Clarence F. Martin who was stationed at the local military camp. When her husband was deported, Martin moved to Montana, but moved back permanently to San Luis Obispo in 1969.

Martin strived to bring affordable housing to San Luis Obispo, a cause she was especially passionate about. For several years, she served as the City of San Luis Obispo’s Commissioner for the Housing Authority. At the same time, Martin regularly volunteered for organizations such as the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), the Boy Scouts, Grace Church, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. All of this volunteer work added up to more than 10,000 hours of community service to the city of SLO, a feat that Martin was recognized for by the SLO County Community Foundation on her 97th birthday.

Margaret M. McNeil

In the early 1920s, McNeil moved to San Luis Obispo to live with her sister. Here, she gradually gained experience in local dress shops. McNeil was trained in alterations at Kipper’s Dress Shop and then in sales at Abbot’s, another dress shop on Higuera St. McNeil finally found her home when she was convinced by a woman named Mamie Motz convinced her to work for her shop called “Motz.” Motz trained McNeil as a buyer in both Los Angeles and San Francisco markets. When Motz passed away in the 1940s, Motz willed her shop and her belongings to Margaret. Only one change was made -- the name was changed to “Motz Style Shop: Margaret McNeil.”

McNeil ran her shop for 30 years and in the meantime, she also became involved in city politics. McNeil became the first woman to be elected onto the San Luis Obispo City Council in 1962, a position that she served for one year. During her term as a City Council Member, she worked with many charitable organizations such as the Soroptimists and Children’s Home Society. Her contributions to the SLO community eventually led her to title as Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 1967.

Nettie Sinsheimer

Sinsheimer was a member of the prominent Sinsheimer family, a German-Jewish family that emigrated from Germany and eventually came to San Luis Obispo, where they ran a successful grocery store called Sinsheimer Bros. In 1878, her husband Aron was invited to work in the family business and came to San Luis Obispo with his wife Nettie Sinsheimer and a family of six children. Known for her clever and lively personality, Sinsheimer was referred to as “the General” within her family. Aside from this dynamic presence within her family, Sinsheimer was also a large figure within the San Luis Obispo community, being responsible for many contributions to the town’s culture.

In 1879, Sinsheimer founded a Jewish Sabbath School and later became its superintendent. Sinsheimer also helped to organize and served as the first president of the San Luis Obispo Chapter of the American Red Cross. However, Sinsheimer’s biggest accomplishment was during her work as president of the Carnegie Library trustees. Sinsheimer convinced Andrew Carnegie to donate $10,000 for a new library building. In 1904 to 1905, she oversaw the building of this Carnegie Library in SLO. To this day, her contribution is honored at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Center.

Queenie Par Warden

Originally born and educated in Iowa, Warden first came to California in 1876 and stayed for a year as a tourist. Warden finally became a permanent California resident in 1879. She came to San Luis Obispo County, where she would stay for the remainder of her lifetime.

Warden almost became the first woman elected mayor of San Luis Obispo in 1917, but she lost to Dr. W. M. Stover by a handful of votes. Additionally, she was well-known for her community activism and served as the president of the Civic Club for two terms, a club of women serving the local SLO community. Warden also became involved in local business and was considered to be a successful businesswoman. She purchased People’s Pharmacy in 1916, a store that was influential within the San Luis Obispo commercial life.

Throughout history, accomplishments achieved by members of marginalized groups -- like the amazing women featured -- have remained hidden for the most part. Here’s to hoping that will change!

I would like to give a special thanks to Kennedy Library’s Special Collections and Archives, Library Services Specialist Laura Sorvetti, and Kennedy Library Curator Catherine J. Trujillo. Thank you for the support and research assistance!