Fiona Lenihan has crossed an ocean, so why not a continent?
Welcome to the Valley of Heart’s Delight, also known as the Santa Clara Valley or Silicon Valley. Back in the 1850s it was a sweeping plain with oak trees and marshes, dotted with thousands of grazing cattle and sheep. The Valley of Heart’s Delight series tells the adventures of Fiona Lenihan, a single mother traveling to California with her two young children in 1857. She fled the Irish Potato Famine in Black ’47– 1847 — with her two brothers, and lived in Philadelphia until circumstances left her in search of a new beginning. Her journey brings her to the Valley of Heart’s Delight.
The 87,000-acre Coe Park is located near Morgan Hill, south of San Jose, in the Diablo Range. The park is the largest in northern California. It began as the Pine Ridge Ranch, a 12,230-acre cattle ranch owned by Henry Willard Coe, Jr., from 1905-1943. Coe’s daughter, Sada Coe Robinson, repurchased the ranch in 1950 and in 1953 donated it in memory of her father to Santa Clara County, with the intention it become a park. She wanted to preserve open space and wilderness for residents of the growing urban Santa Clara County to enjoy.
In 1953 the Henry Willard Coe County Park opened. In 1958 it became a state park. Over time other ranches were added to the park, and it grew from its original 13,000 acres to its current acreage.
Driving through Coe Park, it’s easy to imagine how things were decades ago, when the valley was filled with ranches, fields, and orchards, most of it now housing developments and office parks. Serendipity brought us to the Visitor Center on a day that volunteer historian Teddy Goodrich was onsite. She shared wonderful stories about the Coe family, the ranch, and what the locals did for entertainment back in the day.
“The women were tough,” Goodrich noted, telling a story about Sada taking on trespassers, shotgun in hand.
Ranching was hard work. It incorporated more than keeping tabs on the grazing cows, which was done on horseback. The cattle wandered the hills feasting on grasses until it was time for the ranchers and ranch hands to herd them to the towns of Madrone and Coyote, where the cattle were loaded onto trains bound for the slaughter houses in south San Francisco.
In between, there was endless maintenance on fences and ranch buildings. Ranchers and ranch hands built stock trails, planted grasses such as hardinggrass, baled hay, and fed stock. Branding was done when the calves were two to three months old. It was a big social event. Different ranches had different brands so the cattle could graze together. Branding made it easy to separate the herds when they were driven to market.
Other social events were dances held at local schools and at Madrone Soda Springs. Teddy explained all the ranchers went. They came back in the dark, giving the horses their heads for the return trip. The ranchers and people who worked for them didn’t have money to stay overnight in a hotel.
Ranchers didn’t eat beef because cattle were their cash crop. They hunted deer, squirrels, rabbits, rattlesnakes, and birds, and ate fruit from the abundance of orchards, including apricots and French prunes. Homesteaders grew potatoes. Trips to a general store were rare because of the distance and expense; town was about thirty miles away.
Gardening was tough because water was always an issue. During the rainy winter months there was water in the seasonal creeks and lakes, which could at times overflow. The creeks ran dry in the hot summer months.
Stoves were rare on the ranches. They cooked on hearths and baked in the ashes. Dutch ovens and cast-iron spiders on legs could sit over the coals. Extra coals could be placed on top of a Dutch oven. The Visitor Center has a Dutch oven on display.
Today, it’s not cattle but hikers and campers who enjoy the lyrical, rolling hills and spectacular views of the Santa Clara Valley. Sada Coe Robinson would be pleased: “May these quiet hills bring peace to the souls of those who are seeking.”
The Santa Clara Valley’s history is rich with stories of immigrants, including Italian and French families who settled there. As with all immigrants, they brought their traditions with them, including drinking table wine with meals. Local wineries sold younger, fruitier red and white wines than are in vogue today, as the style of wine then was far different from the modern standards of aged wine, especially using oak barrels. Customers brought their own vessels to fill, typically ceramic jugs. Wine was made for home or sacramental use — all of which was interrupted during Prohibition, which began on January 17, 1920, when The Volstead Act, or National Prohibition Act of 1919, went into effect.
Emilio Guglielmo emigrated from the Piemonte Region in northern Italy. He landed at Ellis Island on September 19, 1909, and worked his way across America. He even worked in the silver mines in Oklahoma!
He arrived in San Francisco and sent for his sweetheart, Emilia, after saving enough money for her journey. Looking ahead to the end of Prohibition, they purchased land for vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley. In 1925 they bought the land where the Guglielmo Family Winery stands today in Morgan Hill, California.
Recently, I spent an enjoyable afternoon talking with George Guglielmo, the winery’s president and winemaker. We discussed the history of winemaking in the valley and the remarkable life of his grandfather, Emilio. George offered a tour of the winery’s buildings, including the first, built in 1933 after Prohibition, which still stands and holds original redwood fermenting tanks. Redwood was plentiful and inexpensive at the time.
Known as Emilio to his Italian friends and Emile to his French friends — he was bilingual, growing up in northern Italy near the French border — he made wine in a cellar whose concealed trap door you can still see today in the original winery building. Prohibition laws allowed for the head of a household to make enough wine to last one family for one year, as well as wine for sacramental use. Emilio specialized in hearty, Italian-style wine that he sold to his Italian and French friends for whom wine was an everyday tradition — wine made beneath the secret trap door.
Today the winery makes red, white, rose, sparkling, and dessert wines, some of which are aged in oak barrels. The original redwood barrels remain, where the wine ferments as it has for nearly a century.
The Harris-Lass House Museum is an oasis in Santa Clara, California. Walking onto the grounds of the last farm site in the city is a step back in time. The museum preserves the spirit of the Harris and Lass families who lived on the property for 125 years. The site incorporates the farm house built in 1865, barn, summer kitchen, tank house with windmill, landscaped gardens, and a Heritage orchard. The house is fully furnished, with most of the items belonging to the Lass family.
On a sunny winter day, we had the privilege of receiving a tour from Sue Kozdon and Mary Hanel. Learning about the history of the families, farm, and Santa Clara — and of day-to-day life of the people who lived there — made for an enjoyable visit.
Henry Harris, an immigrant from England, and Mary, an immigrant from Scotland, purchased thirteen acres and built the original house in the Italianate style in 1865. The property included a prune orchard. Henry and Mary lived in the house with their children, Albert and Miriam. After Mary’s death in 1886, Henry and Miriam moved to San Jose.
Albert Harris inherited the house in 1886, the year he married Ada, a native of New York. They had one daughter, Miriam Alice. Albert served as a director for Santa Clara’s public school system, president of the Santa Clara Valley Bank, town treasurer, and as a director of the San Jose Water Company. During the 1890s, the house underwent extensive remodeling, which included adding a sun porch and kitchen. One of the improvements expanded the drawing room space for entertaining. Albert built a second home, a mansion in Santa Clara.
After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Albert sold the farm to Captain Christian Lass, a German immigrant and sailor who was full- or part-owner of eighteen merchant ships. Three generations of the Lass family moved into the home, including Captain Lass and his wife, Julia, their three daughters, a son and his wife, and Julia’s unmarried sister and brother, whose recently built home had been destroyed in the earthquake.
Johanna Lass Haynes, Captain Lass’s youngest daughter, was the last surviving member of the Lass family. After her mother died in 1969, Johanna lived at the house until 1985 when she moved to a retirement community. She sold the property at a discount to the City of Santa Clara with the stipulation that the house be maintained as an historical site.
Bronwyn is a nurse by day and writer by night. She crafts stories about strong women like the women who have inspired her over the years, especially women who come to know their strength through adversity. Custodian of the Spirits tells the tale of such a woman. This blog will provide updates and behind-the-scenes information about the Valley of Heart’s Delight series, published by The Wild Rose Press. Books are available at http://www.thewildrosepress.com and at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other fine retailers.