Santa Cruz County History - People

Old Soldiers: Santa Cruz County Civil War Veterans
by Robert L. Nelson


History of Santa Cruz County California, Edward Sanford Harrison

Photograph of James F. Cunningham
James F. Cunningham

James F. Cunningham

The ranks of industry and successful business and professional life are more largely recruited from the farm than any other source. It would seem that the manual training of farm life imparts a vigor and stamina of physique and breadth of perception and comprehension, which make the safest and surest foundation for success. It is not the province of this space to inquire why the successful youths who come from the factories, from the marts, or from the professions are lesser in number. This thought and comment were provoked by knowledge of the fact that the boyhood days of the subject of this sketch were spent upon an old Canadian farm.

Mr. Cunningham was born in Queens County, New Brunswick, October 23, 1844, and until he was thirteen years old worked on a "hard scrabble" farm. He served an apprenticeship of little more than three years in a dry goods store, and in the fall of 1861, when in his seventeenth year, stimulated by a desire for adventure, he went to Eastport Maine, and enlisted in the Fifteenth Maine Infantry. Several months afterward he accompanied his regiment, which was conveyed by the ship Great Republic, from Portland, Maine, to Ship Island, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, and was a member of the expedition under Butler that captured New Orleans. He served in the Department of the Gulf under Butler and Banks, until the conclusion of the war, nearly four years of service. Among others he participated in the battles of Baton Rouge, siege of Port Hudson, the Red River expedition, and was engaged in many skirmishes and minor encounters, being for one year detailed in Florida, engaged in fighting guerrillas. He was slightly wounded twice, but never seriously hurt, although his health was very much impaired when he was mustered out of service. At the conclusion of the war Mr. Cunningham was a First Lieutenant.

After he was mustered out he went to New Brunswick for a visit, and returned to New York and worked in a dry goods store in Brooklyn for six months. Acting upon the advice of a physician, he went South, and located at Mobile, Alabama, working in the dry goods line for one and one half years, when he established a store of his own. This was his first business venture on his own account, and proved to be very successful, but ill health again demanded that he should seek a different climate, and in 1869 he sold out and started for California, arriving in San Francisco October 10 of that year. He put all of his money in a San Francisco bank, and went to work as a dry goods clerk, until such time as he could see a good opening to engage in business. In the following spring the bank burst, and he lost all of his money, the earnings of several years, and was left almost penniless, in ill health, and a comparative stranger in a strange land.

It was at this critical period of his life that his early training on the "hard scrabble farm" was of service to him. He had been to Santa Cruz, and as there was much government land unoccupied at that time, he resolved to go to the Santa Cruz Mountains and avail himself of his rights as an American citizen in taking up land. He accordingly went up above Felton, on Fall Creek, and squatted on a quarter section of timberland. This was in 1870, and during the following year he peeled tanbark, made shakes, and got out split stuff. In a few months he accumulated $1,000, and with this he established a store of general merchandise in Felton, October 1870, with H.W. McCoy as partner. After one year and a half Mr. McCoy retired and D.L. Kent became a member of the firm. In 1878 he sold out his interest to his partner, and in 1881 started another store in Felton, bought a shingle mill there, and from that date until Feb. 1891 was continuously engaged in the mercantile business. In 1885 he sold out his interest in Felton and commenced business in Boulder Creek. He cut the timber from where the town of Boulder now stands.

Santa Cruz Sentinel (June 10, 1892)

On Wednesday Col. J.F. Cunningham, Past Senior vice Commander of the G.A.R. [Dept of California] was presented on behalf of the Veterans Guard with a badge which is silver and gold and suitably inscribed. Col. Cunningham is one of four honorary members of the Guard, the others being General Barnes, General Dimond, and Governor Markham.

Santa Cruz Sentinel (November 24, 1907)

A few months ago the deceased told an old Santa Cruz friend who visited him on his sick bed on a farm near Mountain View, Santa Clara Co., "I'm about all in, and I have been my own worst enemy. I have done much good and I trust, not much harm".

In 1878 James Cunningham was recognized as the smartest, brightest, most popular and successful businessman and politician in the San Lorenzo valley. Everything was going his way. He was the ruling spirit of that section.

Mr. Cunningham was born in New Brunswick in 1844, served as apprentice of three years in a dry goods store; in 1861 joined the Maine infantry; was under Butler in the capture of New Orleans; was in the battles of Baton Rouge and Port Hudson and Red River; was slightly wounded twice, retiring at the conclusion of the war as a first lieutenant. In 1870 he engaged in bark peeling in the San Lorenzo valley. In 1881 in merchandising in Felton, in 1885 in Boulder Creek. He was interested in shingle and saw mills. In 1878 Mr. Cunningham was elected a supervisor, and in 1880 he was elected to the Assembly. Later Gov. Stoneman appointed him a trustee of Agnew Asylum. In 1873 he married Miss Sarah Glynn.

While Mr. Cunningham remained in the San Lorenzo Valley he was a business owner. When he came to Santa Cruz and opened a lumberyard and started a planing mill in opposition to the Hihn Co., the Loma Prieta and the Grooves, he was up against something hard. Later his company consolidated with the Grooves, and still later he went out of business, engaging in farming in Santa Clara Co.

Mr. Cunningham was liked by those who knew him, was large hearted and always had a good word for his fellow man.

Santa Cruz Sentinel (November 26, 1907)

A Very Notable Santa Cruzan Laid at Rest

Monday the remains of James F. Cunningham, at one time a prominent citizen of the county, but of more recent years a resident of San Jose, was met at the afternoon train by old friends, and citizens, members of the G.A.R. and a firing party of the Naval Reserves, and followed to their final resting place in Holy Cross Cemetery.

Mr. Cunningham was prominently identified with the early development work of the San Lorenzo valley and participated actively in political life while resident in the county, but always with a tolerant spirit that allowed him to retain the close friendships he enjoyed to the last.

He was a soldier in the Civil War at seventeen and fought under Butler and Banks to the last, attaining the rank of first lieutenant before the close. At one time he was Past Senior vice Commander of the G.A.R. of the Department of California and Nevada.

He was married in 1873 to Miss Sarah L. Glynn, who survives him.

At the cemetery Father McKay of San Jose officiated. After the last sad rites had been performed three volleys were fired over the grave.

In addition to the wife, who is left to mourn his taking is a sister, Mrs. I.B. Kent, Brother Cunningham of Santa Clara College, and J.W. Cunningham of East San Jose.

Santa Cruz Surf (November 25, 1907)

James F Cunningham

Family, kinfolk, friends, comrades and acquaintances have followed the body of James F. Cunningham to his last resting place and they have strewn the way with kind thoughts of the man who in the day of his strength never oppressed, but was willing to lend a hand to his fellow man.

For one who had made his way in the world from the bottom up by personal force and aggressiveness, "Jim" Cunningham was a remarkably lovable man, and to him the people in his employ and of his neighborhood were notably loyal.

To him, more than to any other one man the San Lorenzo valley owes its development during the years from 1875 to 1890 and he gave promise at one time of ranking among the leading men of the state.

The first political "fight" this writer ever made in California was for James F. Cunningham before the Assembly. That was before the days of dailies in this section, the battle being waged through the columns of the Courier-Item, the weekly antecedent of the SURF.

The GOP was entrenched behind from 300 to 500 standing majority in the county, yet Mr. Cunningham won the election by a majority of 11 votes, uncompromising Democratic that he was. He was an extraordinary good campaigner himself and a clean candidate for newspaper support. Mr. Cunningham "made good" in his legislative record. At that date the San Francisco Chronicle was the most severe civic censer in the State but at the close of the session it published the name of Cunningham as among the clean senate members of the session. He never again sought public office, although an active partisan and for many years a delegate to Democratic county and state conventions.

James F. Cunningham was born in New Brunswick on one of those "hard servable" farms of that province and developed as a farmer's boy until he was 13, when he commenced clerking in a store.

He was 17 when the Civil War broke out and to thirst for adventure took him across the border into the state of Maine where he enlisted in the 15th infantry.

He followed his regiment to the Gulf States and was under Butler and Banks. Twice he was slightly wounded. He left the service at the close of war as a First Lieutenant.

He worked in a store in Brooklyn New York and on account of his health being broken by army exposures, he went south to Mobile and was engaged in merchandising there as clerk and as owner of a small store.

Still seeking a better climate on account of his health he sold out and came to California in 1869 at the age of 25 years. He deposited his entire fortune in a San Francisco bank which failed.

In this hour of emergency his experience of the "hard scrabble" farm back in New Brunswick came to his aid and availing himself of Uncle Sam's gratuity he took up a quarter section of timber land on Fall creek above Felton.

Here with his ax in a single season he put himself $1,000 to the good and engaged in merchandising in Felton in Partnership with H.W. McCoy. Afterwards D.L. Kent was a partner for several years.

In 1873 he married Sarah L Glynn who is his surviving widow. He continued in the merchandising and lumber business in Felton until he went to Boulder Creek.

During his residence at Felton he served one term as Supervisor from that district and was one of the best Supervisors ever on the board from that township.

During the time of his operations in the San Lorenzo valley he was associated at different times in partnership with James Dougherty and H.D. Middleton and his brother J.W. Cunningham.

Cunningham and Co. cleared the side of what is now the town of Boulder Creek and milled some of the finest timber tracts in this valley. They erected the building and conducted the store now operated by the California Timber Company.

About 1890 Mr. Cunningham sundered his partnership in Boulder Creek and came to Santa Cruz. Here he erected what at the time was the finest planing mill in this part of the state. The firm of Cunningham & Co. had a capitalization of $150,000 and carried on a large business. But local competition was keen and worse a partnership was formed with the Grover Company, not so much for mutual advantage as for self protection, but for neither purpose did it prove successful.

The times were also out of joint. Mr. Cunningham became identified with the "Pacific Ocean House Crowd" and when he went the pace he was also remembered. He never permitted any man in the company to pay out more money, or take the consequences oftener than he did. There was but one termination to this combination of conduct and circumstances.

In the boom days of 1887 to 89 Mr. Cunningham, in company with E.J. Swift and T.V. Matthews, bought the famous Ynigo ranch in the Santa Clara valley.

He managed to hold on to this property with stiff encumbrance and thither he retired to recuperate broken health and fortune and was fairly successful in both endeavors, enjoying many years of quiet life and a farmer's content.

Latterly he leased the ranch and lived in the city of San Jose.

On the ground floor James Cunningham was a good man, good to his family and his fellow men and one of the most useful and estimable citizens of this county, but like many others, when on the pinnacle of success, he wobbled and tottered and tumbled. At his best he was a fine type of self-made American of his generation and his memory will be cherished by those of his contemporaries who remained on this side of the great Divide.

Obituary Notes from Phil Reader

Civil War Vet, Holy Cross J.F. Cunningham, Co. K 15th Maine Infantry D: Nov 25, 1907 Age 64 Native Petersville Maine

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