Gin Chow was a strawberry farmer and “weather prophet” whose reputed prediction of the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake went unheeded. But everything he said thereafter was recorded by the scribes of the period, who considered him a kind of seismic Nostradamus.
Southern California has had boatloads of seers, from cricket-listeners and stargazers to rainmakers and palm readers.
But stories about Chow’s predictions caught the attention of the press, which helped make a California legend of the man who once sold strawberries and casaba melons on the streets of Santa Barbara.
All the accounts came after the fact, but the gist of them is this: Two days before Christmas in 1920 or 1923, depending on the source, Chow supposedly posted a notice in the Santa Barbara post office stating that the city would be flattened by an earthquake on June 29, 1925.
Sure enough, the biggest and deadliest temblor since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire struck at 6:44 a.m. that day. The ground shuddered for 19 seconds, about the time it takes to draw three or four slow, deep breaths.
When it stopped, nearly a dozen people were dead and hundreds injured.
Almost every stone and brick chimney was shaken loose by the 6.3-magnitude temblor, and 70 buildings in the commercial district were leveled.
Part of the 1797 Spanish presidio was destroyed, and one of the Santa Barbara Mission’s two famous bell towers crumbled.
Parts of the luxurious Arlington Hotel collapsed, injuring Capt. George Allan Hancock and killing his 22-year-old son, Bertram, who was asleep in an adjoining room. (Nine years earlier, Hancock had donated 23 acres of Hancock Park’s La Brea Tar Pits to the citizens of Los Angeles.)
The capriciousness of the disaster was sobering: A maid who ran to a doorway in answer to her rich employer’s screams saw the elderly woman plunge several floors to her death as the floor gave way beneath her bed.
In the midst of the chaos, a Times reporter filed his story via telegraph from a table set up in the middle of the street.
But it was Santa Barbara newspaper publisher Thomas More Storke and Times columnist Harry Carr who fashioned Gin Chow’s reputation.
Beginning six years after the earthquake, in books and eventually hundreds of newspaper articles, the two praised Chow as a “weather prophet.”
In late 1931, Carr encouraged Chow, an immigrant from Canton, China, to write a book of forecasts: “Gin Chow’s First Annual Almanac,” with a foreword written by Carr.
Storke, a son of the man who founded the 19th century Los Angeles Daily Herald, wrote in his 1958 book “California Editor” that Chow’s record for accuracy on disasters, wars and weather was uncanny.
“He predicted the 1923 earthquake in Yokohama, which killed 143,000 Japanese,” Storke wrote. “His most remarkable prophecy, however,” was forecasting the date of the Santa Barbara quake at least two years before it happened.
Storke wrote that Chow “hit it right on the nose, to the undying puzzlement of the seismologists who had ridiculed his audacity. Scientists still have no idea how he did it.”
Storke also cited a 1932 prediction of a U.S. war with Japan that would end in 1946 -- a year later than World War II actually ended -- and his long-term weather predictions. Chow wrote that it would rain on March 19, 1939. It did.
It took a few years after the Santa Barbara earthquake for the world to hear about Chow’s “prediction.”
The skepticism about his forecasting was overwhelmed by the celebrity buzz of the moment.
But there were doubters.
Santa Maria Rotary Club members called him “crazy.” A pair of scientists at Scripps Research Institute chided him on a few errors he had made.
But Storke wrote that Chow’s “batting average in the meteorological department was far better than that of the U.S. Weather Bureau.”
Chow was born in 1857, the son and grandson of teachers, whom Chow called prophets.
At age 16, he sailed into San Francisco with an uncle. His first job was washing dishes in a French restaurant.
By 1890, he had moved south and become renowned in the Santa Barbara area for his fruit and vegetables. He grew them on his small farm in the Lompoc Valley, where he lived with his wife and three children.
Chow’s predictions -- derided though they were -- made him a celebrity in a state that loved its oddballs.
At Carr’s suggestion, Chow put his past predictions and some future prognostications into the little book.
In February 1932, wearing traditional Chinese robes and hat, the “Prophet of Lompoc” signed more than 2,500 of his books at J.W. Robinson’s posh downtown Los Angeles department store.
Chow said he used a mystic “key” handed down from his ancestors to make his “calculations.” Critics derided it as magic in the guise of science.
Chow kept 60 journals from decades of his predictions, according to a Times story in 1931, which described them as “bound in red paper, the shade of firecrackers. The thin tissue-like pages Gin Chow fingered with expertness revealing familiarity. The characters on the pages were in red and black ink.... “
Of course, the reporter could not read Chinese -- and therefore could not know what Chow had written.
But Chow had his believers, including the Times’ Carr, who used Chow’s weather forecasts in his daily column.
Readers began betting on Chow’s predictions -- and lost money as his forecasts became more erratic. Then readers lambasted Carr for having printed the predictions.
Chow himself made his weather forecasts over KHJ radio, sometimes weeks and months ahead. For a time, he was a popular guest speaker at clubs and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
Chow needed the income from his book, which was published in two editions, to help save his farm from bankruptcy.
His other travails included a lawsuit against the city of Santa Barbara, which had dammed a river flowing through his property. The suit, filed in 1928, was settled a few months before he died, but not in his favor.
The case set a precedent for the state to build more dams, according to Santa Barbara Historical Society curator David Bisol.
Chow’s last known prophecy proved correct, at least in part.
In mid-1932, he was seriously gored by a neighbor’s bull. Doctors held out no hope, but Chow was sanguine.
“My time still one year off yet,” he told the nurses at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, saying he would die in August 1933.
He was right about the year but not the month.
In June 1933, as Chow walked along State Street in Santa Barbara, he was struck by a farmer’s truck. He died the next day, at 76.