An authentic antique experience

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

A 1921 Model T greets entering visitors.

A 1921 Model T greets entering visitors.

The Barn in Santa Margarita

Santa Margarita has had a front-row seat to the unfolding of American and Californian history. It was a meeting place for Native Americans; the chosen site for a Spanish asistencia to the Mission in nearby San Luis Obispo; a Mexican land grant; and finally a U.S. town, in prime position to watch the development of the railroads and of the eventual Highway 101.

It boomed for the five-year window when it was the last stop going south from San Francisco on the Southern Pacific. And when the Cuesta Grade’s tunnels were completed in 1894, the train whistled by as it left the town in the dust.

But just after the turn of the century, Santa Margarita was ready to shine again.

“We had a lot of building in between 1900 up until the depression,” says Cheri Roe of the Santa Margarita Historical Society, explaining that the First World War spurred a flurry of development, and the onset of the American automobile age fueled that fire. Positioned as it was on the El Camino Real, Santa Margarita was poised to profit. The town, at this time, sported a motor inn, a hotel, six gas stations, garages, pool halls, restaurants, fraternal organizations, taverns, a new schoolhouse and a baseball team, according to the Historical Society.

Among these boom-time buildings was one large wooden facility in particular, which at different periods over the years has served as a dance hall, a stage coach stop, a garage, a Sunday school, a Star Shell gas station, and a Greyhound bus depot, and which still stands today, looking much the same as ever.

Roe pulls out an old, dog-eared picture of the building, now called simply “The Barn,” pointing out the tiny form of a “Mrs. Proud” in the foreground, saying that she and Mr. Proud owned it when it was the Star Shell gas station. Back then, she says with a smile, “People had to hand-pump the gas into a glass jar and then [let] gravity flow [it] into the car, usually one or two gallons at a time.” Faded from black and white to a spectrum of golden grays, this photo tells of a different era, a time that seems long gone.

But if you walk through the doors of that same building today, the past comes vividly back to life.

The Barn Antiques & Unique poetically preserves the legacy of the building it’s housed in by filling its 6,000 square-foot interior with every imaginable artifact of the past. For the collector, the history-buff, or merely appreciators of American culture, the Barn is a treasure trove.

Its signature 1921 Model T, which greets entering visitors, starts the engines of imagination and nostalgia, paying tribute to the edifice’s role in the golden days of the first automobiles. From there, bits and pieces of Americana peer out from every nook and cranny. An old stoplight signals those interested in auto memorabilia to slow down, while others accelerate past it into an area devoted to ornate European furniture or to a section packed with antique and vintage kitchen items.

“You never know what you’re going to find, a little bit of everything,” says Barn Antiques & Unique Owner Cathy Hendrix, who purchased the former Antique Auction Barn a year and a half ago. Hendrix says many of her customers start out as window shoppers. “A lot of them are just reminiscing. They’ll spend hours in here. It’s like going in a museum maybe. So many of them say, ‘Oh, I remember my mom had that…’”

She also notes that the hobby of antiquing and collecting seems to be passed down from one generation to the next, just as the antique treasures themselves are. Hendrix sees a lot of mothers-and-daughters, or whole families, shopping together, and many older people tell her that they used to go with their own parents as children.

An ever-busy entrepreneur who has dabbled in numerous fields over the years from bail bonds to trucking, Hendrix says this is what she loves best about the antique business: the people.

“The people are always happy. It’s just a fun business,” she says, describing how she gets to witness again and again each day that moment when a shopper finds that magical item. “They’ll come in and they don’t know what they’re going to buy, so when they find their treasure they’re really happy. It’s exciting.”

And so, while the town outside the barn develops once again into a booming tourist destination fixed on the future, Hendrix, a proud curator of cultural history, works tirelessly to ensure that the Barn will always be a place where people can come together, pick up and turn memories over in their hands, and take home a bit of the past.

Find your treasure at 22390 El Camino Real in Santa Margarita, or learn more at

— Jamie Relth

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