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Santa Cruz County History - People
The S. H. Cowell Years (1911-1955)
by Laurie MacDougall
There were now three surviving members of the Cowell family, S. H., Isabella and Helen. None of them had married, and they lived together in various combinations, either at the Cowell mansion on Jackson Street in San Francisco (opposite Lafayette Park), or in the Cowell estate on 22 acres in Atherton, until their deaths.
Upon Ernest's death, S. H. took control of the family business. Because of his interest in livestock and horses, he made several changes in company holdings. He purchased some prime grazing land, and horse breeding farms. For awhile he raised white Herefords, experimenting with purebred bulls, according to George Cardiff, who added: "He enjoyed himself. He loved horses and cattle. That was his hobby. He was an outside man." 64
His interest was not confined to horses and cattle, however. At various times he raised angora goats at the Cowell Ranch, and experimented with raising exotic non-indigenous breeds of animals such as elk and, even, buffalo. 65 Such was his love of animals that a 1912 magazine article about a visit to the Cowell Ranch makes reference to the numerous animals there, including "two fat little lambs [that] came around from the kitchen door," cats, dogs, peacocks, black Minorca chickens, white turkeys, tame quail and, of course, horses. "And every step or two you see another horse, one of the fine carriage horses, either taken out of a buggy or harnessed into a buggy, or tethered for a bite of grass, or led for exercise; and all these fine-grained, fine-strained horses are pets, and Mr. Cowell calls them all by name." 66
According to George Cardiff, S. H. had the finest racehorses in the state. "He had racehorses, all kinds of racehorses. He sent his trainer back east and brought in a carload of horses that all had records right up to two minutes, which at that time was fast. And one day we were up at the races in Sacramento, and he was winning. 67 These horses he brought in, each one was winning their races [sic] right along. I said, 'Gee, Mr. Cowell, it must be wonderful winning all these races.' He said, 'George, there's absolutely no honor in it. Here I go...out and buy these horses all trained, and they've all got their records, and I bring them here and they win. Now where is there any credit? If I raise a colt, and make it run, and get a record out of it and all that, there would be some honor in it. But there is no honor in this.'" 68
S. H.'s feeling for nature extended to the land as well, and he stopped the annual burn-off of brush that had taken place on the Cowell Ranch for many, many years to allow the land to revert to its natural state. 69 He visited each of the Cowell family holdings on a regular basis, and at each he had a saddlehorse kept for his own use so he could personally inspect the land. 70
In addition to his concern about the land, S. H. was concerned about the welfare of his employees. George Cardiff remembers that whenever S. H. visited the Cowell Ranch, he would rise at 6:00 to have breakfast in the cookhouse with the men. 71 Adalbert Wolff, who worked as timekeeper on the Cowell Ranch in 1915, substantiated the fact that the Cowell employees were well-treated. "The food was wonderful, always ample and good," he recalls. And about S.H. himself, Wolff said: "He treated his men fairly...everybody said that there was a feeling he treated them well...I'm sure that if anybody had been hurt on the ranch, Mr. Cowell would have taken care of him." 72
George Cardiff, too, had the highest praise for S. H. as an employer. "Mr. Cowell was a man that was wonderful with his employees...he never let a man go. He lost money the last few years (which didn't mean anything to him), but as he said, those old men had been at that all their life [sic] and knew nothing else, and if he didn't keep that running, where would they go?" 73
S. H. was concerned with preserving other things as well. The nature and locus of the Cowell family business had changed dramatically since the days when lime was brought down to Cowell wharf by huge ox-teams. The wharf itself, unused after the railroad came through Santa Cruz and replaced ocean hauling, had broken up in a storm years ago. The Cowell Warehouse, too, was unused. In order to preserve in perpetuity the beach below the cliffs where the warehouse stood, S. H. deeded what became known as Cowell Beach to the City of Santa Cruz in such a way that it could never be sold.
Meanwhile, Isabella and Helen were living together in the Atherton mansion that Henry Cowell had built many years before. They took annual trips to Europe, but little else is known about their activities. News accounts suggest that Helen had bad luck with automobiles. In 1919, she was sued by her gardener, who charged that the car she was driving collided with his "machine." He was awarded $15,000. 74 Then in 1930, another news account indicates she was hurt in an auto accident, although her chauffeur was unhurt. 75
Despite these setbacks, however, there was time for joint family philanthropy, as S. H., Isabella and Helen built Blindcraft, which later became the San Francisco Association for the Blind, then Lighthouse for the Blind in 1924. 76 This three-story reinforced concrete building still stands, at the corner of Howard and Seventh Streets.
Then, Helen died in 1932 at the age of 66. She left no will, so, as her only surviving kin, S. H. and Isabella were clearly her heirs. Isabella ordered the supports of the Atherton house to be pulled out from under it, so that the top half of the structure toppled over. Thus it sat for many years. Isabella further ordered that a high wire fence be put up around the semi-demolished house, 77 and she moved into the Cowell mansion in San Francisco, where she lived with S. H. for the remaining 18 years of her life.
During this time, the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company continued to prosper. Under the umbrella of this parent company, several companies continued to do business, producing products under the names of Mt. Diablo Cement and Cowell Santa Cruz Lime. Isabella served with S. H. as a director of the company, and several reports exist that were prepared in response to her queries about different aspects of the business, suggesting that she was actively involved in management affairs. 78
In 1950, at the age of 92, Isabella died, leaving S. H. Cowell the only surviving heir to the Cowell fortune. Isabella's will, holographic like her father's and Ernest's, was handwritten in 1934 on lined notebook paper. In it, she made a number of bequests. She left a memorial to her sister in the form of a bequest of one million dollars to build the Helen Cowell Children's Hospital in Sacramento. 79 She left her jade and art collection to the M. H. deYoung Memorial Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and made one curious additional stipulation. She ordered that the residence she shared with S. H. on Jackson Street in San Francisco be torn down (as she had ordered the Atherton residence that she had shared with her sister demolished 18 years before). The proceeds of the sale of the property were to be given to the Old People's Home, located then on Pine Street. 80 S. H. liked the mansion too much to allow it to be demolished, so instead he gave the dollar value of the property to the Old People's Home to honor the intent of the bequest yet retain the home he had lived in for so many years. 81 Isabella's estate was valued at $5,529,451. 82
At the time of his sister's death, S. H. was 89 years old. He had already taken the steps necessary to conserve the natural beauty of Cowell Beach, but there was more to be done. George Cardiff remembered that S. H. wanted the redwoods on the Cowell property preserved. Through a complex set of maneuvers with the County of Santa Cruz and the State of California, 83 in 1953, on the San Lorenzo River near Felton, he created the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in memory of his father. 84 Included in the 1,732 acre park are 40 acres known as the Welch Big Tree Grove, which include one of the oldest and finest stands of redwoods known to exist. 85
Then, in 1955, S. H. Cowell, last member of the Cowell family, died at the age of 93. His obituary noted: "He had been bed-ridden since he broke his leg in a fall last November. Death was attributed to pneumonia. He would have been 94 on Monday." 86
The will of S. H. Cowell, like that of his brother, Ernest, made bequests to long-time company employees. But the most significant stipulation in the will was the provision for the creation of a foundation that would carry on the philanthropy practiced by his family during their lifetimes. And so the S. H. Cowell Foundation was established.
Text and photographs are from: Henry Cowell and His Family (1819--1955). published by the S.H. Cowell Foundation, 1989. Used with the permission of the Foundation.
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