Santa Cruz County History - People

The Santa Cruz Years (1865-1897)
by Laurie MacDougall

By 1865, Henry was in control of a thriving business in San Francisco, with significant assets, including at least a warehouse and wharf located on the busy San Francisco waterfront. 23 This would have been success enough for most men, so what prompted Henry to take the step he took next? Is it related to what happened in the business relationship between Henry and John? 24 Why did Henry make sweeping changes in his business and personal life that would uproot his young family and completely change their lifestyle from urban to rural? The answers to these questions will never be known. What is known is that his drayage business was successful enough to enable him to purchase Jordan's share of Jordan and Davis for $100,000 in that year, when Jordan became too ill to continue in the business. 25 The company was renamed Davis and Cowell, and Henry moved his entire family to Santa Cruz, where they lived for the next 32 years, 26 although he retained business ties to San Francisco. 27

Photo of Two of the Cowell Sisters.
Two of the three Cowell sisters.

The home the family occupied was a farmhouse on the large ranch that constituted the lime manufacturing operation. 28 This ranch was a self-contained world that provided all needs for the family and the firm's employees, with orchards, a dairy business, cattle and pigs, vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. It was also self-supporting in terms of the industries necessary to manufacture, package and distribute the lime. The business not only quarried the limerock on the ranch, it also included a lumbering operation that provided the fuel to fire the lime kilns, a cooperage that made the barrels in which the lime was shipped, a drayage operation that brought the barrels of lime to the company warehouse and wharf, to be shipped on company schooners to San Francisco. 29 The company managed the entire process from the acquisition of raw material, through manufacturing, to distribution of the product.

According to George Cardiff, who managed the Cowell Ranch during its last years of operation, the quarrying of the limerock was done by hand labor, with picks, shovels, hand drills and gunpowder. The limerock was loaded on carts that were drawn by mules along a wooden tramway to the lime kilns. Meanwhile, other workers felled trees in 8 foot lengths in the forested portions of the ranch, and these were brought on wagons drawn by ox-teams to the kilns.

Frank George, the Cowell ranch manager for 50 years, provided the following information about the operation of the kilns:

"It took 325 tons of selected limerock to fill a kiln. An arch was first constructed from the rock; the arch went the length of the kiln and the fire was placed under it. After the arch was constructed, the balance of the rock was placed on top until the kiln was filled. After the burning, 135 to 150 tons of lime remained. When wood was used it took 140 cords of 8 foot wood to complete the burning and the total time needed was 6 days...An even heat had to be kept - the temperature was somewhere between 1500 and 2400 degrees. The size of the rock determined to some extent the time needed to 'cook' it. Since no chemical determinations were run in those days, the men judged whether or not the rock was done by its appearance. At night the rock was transparent; in the day it had a yellow-golden color when cooked. The rock did not decompose into powder; it remained in solid chunks and was placed in the barrels that way. The lime powder one sees today has undergone a grinding process before being bagged." 30

The barrels were then loaded onto large wagons, drawn by ox teams from the ranch down the 1.6 miles of gentle incline to the company warehouse, located on the cliffs above the company wharf. 31 Several eyewitness accounts exist of the method for loading the schooners anchored on the wharf. 32 From the warehouse on the cliffs above, a small trolley ran down to the wharf below. The barrels of lime were loaded on the car, which descended by gravity along the trolley tracks to the wharf, and from there the lime would be loaded on the waiting ships. An old horse would follow the car down, then be hooked onto it to pull it back up. This would be loaded while another car descended.

A description of the business written in 1897 states that the company employed 175 men, and had a payroll of over $100,000 a year. 33 This latter figure is substantiated by George Cardiff, who said that Henry Cowell only paid his men once a year, when he would make the trip to San Francisco to get $90,000 to $100,000. Henry and his bookkeeper would then sit all night in the paymaster's house with the gold, and pay off the men the next morning. 34

The ranch required 300 tons of grain, and over 1000 tons of hay a year for its livestock, which included 75 horses and mules, and 50 yokes of oxen, in addition to "extensive dairy interests." The company mined and distributed bituminous rock and "its superior quality is so generally recognized that it is shipped to all parts of the Pacific Coast and even beyond." 35 Another source says of the Cowell's bituminous rock mining operation that it is "the largest deposit of bituminous rock on the coast, and one that also turns out the finest quality bituminous. To develop this property large sums have already been expended, but the vast increase in the demand for the article warrants it." 36 The company was also engaged in the importation of cement, plaster, hair, marble dust, fire tile, fire bricks and fire clay. 37 In addition, the ranch provided tan bark and peeled oak for the tanning industries that were very active in Santa Cruz County during this same period. 38

By this time, the company had undergone more changes. Isaac Davis died in 1888, and Henry Cowell had purchased his share of the business from his heirs. The business had been renamed the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company. And, perhaps most significantly, Henry Cowell had been busy acquiring land.

At their most extensive, the Cowell family holdings stretched from as far north as Canada (Texada Island), down along the coast as far south as San Luis Obispo. While some of the holdings were added by his sons after his death, the majority of the acquisitions were made by Henry Cowell himself. At the time of S.H. Cowell's death in 1955, the listing of family holdings included acreage in the following California counties: Butte, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Kern, Merced, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, San Benito, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo and Yolo. The total of these land holdings was 82,491 acres. Not counted in that total were a number of prime San Francisco lots under an acre. These included the company offices at 2 Market Street, at the intersection of Market, Sacramento and East Street (now Embarcadero). 39 This site is presently occupied by the public space in front of Embarcadero Four, of the Embarcadero Center, and the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Other prime San Francisco financial district properties included the corner of Clay and Sansome, Drumm Street near Sacramento, and the corner of Grant and Sutter Streets.

Henry Cowell had an instinct for land that was part of his heritage as a New England Yankee farmer. He was primarily seeking new limerock deposits and grazing land for livestock. 40 Fortunately, these extensive land holdings turned out to be situated squarely in the path of central California coastal progress, which perpetuated, and even augmented, the family fortune.

While Henry Cowell was busy creating a fortune, his family was busy, too. His five surviving children were growing up in the town of Santa Cruz. All children attended the Bay View Elementary School, and are listed among the top students scholastically, particularly Sarah, who was listed in the Santa Cruz Sentinel for three years in a row as having the highest average in the school. 41 The boys, Ernest and S. H. (known in his youth as Harry), are remembered as lively lads. According to Ernest Otto, well-known Santa Cruz newspaperman and unofficial historian, "The Bay View School had some of the most sportsmanlike boys of the early day prominent families who were good with their fists. Among them were...Ernest and Harry Cowell." 42 The girls, Isabella, Sarah and Helen, are remembered as very bright and pretty, although, according to George Cardiff, "They never had beaux. The old man wouldn't allow boys coming around the house at all." 43

Apparently Ernest and S. H. were both quite athletic. S. H. was a great roper, according to George Cardiff, and loved working with the livestock. As a boy, his father gave him two oxen calves a year old. S. H. broke them as a plow team and his father gave him $200. "That was the only spending money I had when I was a boy," S. H. told Cardiff as an adult. 44

A physical description of S. H. exists from 1892, when he was 31 years old. He is described in the Great Register of Santa Cruz County as blond, with blue eyes, 5 feet 10 3/4 inches in height, with no visible marks. His athletic ability is further attested by the fact that he was a member of the Alert Hose Team while he lived in Santa Cruz. There were several hose cart companies of volunteer firefighters active in Santa Cruz during the 1880s. According to Ernest Otto, S. H. "was always in the lead when the team competed in hose tournaments. He was very popular with this wonderful hose team." 45

A physical description of Ernest from about the same period comes from the same source. The Great Register of 1896, when he was 37, describes Ernest as light complected, with gray hair and blue eyes, and 5 feet 7 inches in height. His relatively small stature didn't stop Ernest from pursuing his own extensive athletic activities, however. The yearbook of the University of California at Berkeley, the Blue and Gold, lists numerous activities and interests for Ernest while he attended as an undergraduate. His athletic activities include football (he was captain of his team), baseball (he played third base and centerfield), field events such as shot put (16 pounds), mile foot race (he placed second at the 1879 Field Meet) and the standing broad jump. In addition to these activities, he is listed as a member of the whist club, the Durant Rhetorical Society, and a member of the "Oft in the Stilly Night" Glee Club. He belonged to Sigma Delta Phi fraternity, and served on the Board of Directors of both his freshman and sophomore classes.

Virtually nothing is known about Henry's wife, Harriet, during this period. However, several sources mention the familiar sight of the Cowell family in their high-topped buggy, driving each Sunday to attend the First Congregational Church, of which they were longtime members. 46

As Ernest and S. H. grew up, they became involved in different aspects of the family business. According to George Cardiff, Ernest and his father, Henry, were "altogether lime," whereas S. H. was a true Westerner, who loved livestock and the range. "He was a cattleman. All cattle." 47 All three Cowell men, however, had reputations as excellent employers. Numerous sources substantiate that concern for employee welfare was a widely recognized trait of the Cowells. 48

During the last years of the nineteenth century, the Cowell family business and holdings grew so extensive that several branch offices were opened, and the main operation was moved to San Francisco. With this move, in 1897, the family finally left Santa Cruz, although they continued to frequent the Cowell Ranch for recreation and business. Ernest moved to Tacoma to manage the branch office there. 49 During this period he married, the only one of the Cowell children to do so. The marriage produced no children, however.

>>Continue with:The Tragic Year (1903)

>>Return to: Henry Cowell and His Family (1819--1955): Introduction

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.

View similarly tagged articles:

Cowell family, Henry Cowell, jobs, quarries


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