Monday, May 17, 2010

Niles - The Shinn Nurseries

Lucy and James Shinn. Shinn pursued horticultural interests before coming to California; he and Lucy lived in Texas before moving to Niles in 1856 with their two-year-old first child, Charles.
The three Shinn children that survived to adulthood; four other children were stillborn or died young. Charles Howard Shinn pursued many interests but is best known for his work with forest conservation. Milicent Shinn was the first woman to graduate from UC-Berkeley with a Ph.D. Her degree was in child psychology and the child she is holding is one of her nieces, Ruth. Ruth was her test study subject for her book, The Biography of A Baby. Joseph Clark Shinn Sr. took over the Shinn Ranch when his father's health began to fail; he was only 18 at the time.

Partners and brothers-in-law. Joseph Clark (left) was a wealthy furniture merchant based in San Francisco. He loaned J.J. Vallejo $100,000 for back taxes owed to Alameda County. When Vallejo failed to pay Clark back in cash, he accepted over 11,000 acres of Niles property as payment. James Shinn (right) initially agreed to manage 150 acres that Clark had purchased from William Sim; he and his wife eventually owned the property.

William Sim built this cottage ostensibly from wood harvested from a schooner abandoned during the Gold Rush. San Francisco Bay was choked with abandoned ships as men rushed to the Mother Lode. James and Lucy lived in this cottage for 20 years before building the three-story mansion that has been preserved as a house museum today.

A reminder of where the Shinn property was located. It was on Lot 82 and was composed of 210 acres in 1878. They would later add another 150 acres to their holdings. Note Sim's lot directly south of theirs. Alameda Creek wound through the Shinn acreage and the land marked off for the Contract and Finance Company (the Central/Southern Pacific Railroad) was developed during the 1880s and 1890s.

The front cover of one of the later Shinn's Nurseries catalogs with both Shinn and Clark as proprietors. Note the emphasis on fruit trees with ornamental plants in a secondary position. In a preface to "our customers" inside the catalog, Shinn indicated the immediate proximity of the railroad and how that enabled him to ship plants easily and quickly to distant locations.

A Shinn fruit crate label. You can see the Shinn buildings and Niles hills in the background.

This 1904 page from a Shinn Ranch ledger clearly shows a Chinese employer being paid for a "gang" of laborers to work on the property. Additional pages show numerous similar entries. The Chinese were a presence at the Shinn Ranch from 1889 until the late 1950s. This was unusual as most of the Chinese workers by the turn of the century had died of old age or returned to China, with Japanese and Philipinos taking their place.

This little girl is Florence Mayhew. She is with her father, who bought property immediately adjacent to Vallejo's mill. His orange orchard thrived after being planted on top of the old cattle corrals, no doubt due in part to the manure-enriched soil.

Florence Mayhew as a young woman. She married Joseph Clark Sr. in 1905 and ran the ranch after his death in 1947. She gave the remaining 4.5 acres of the original property to the City of Fremont to keep as a park and aboretum in 1962, with the caveat she live there until her death. She became ill in 1968 and died in a nursing home in 1971. Her memorial service was held in the Shinn garden she had gotten married in back in 1905.

The Shinn mansion buried under a Lamarque rose. Lucy Shinn and Lucy Clark (Joseph Clark's wife) are standing near the front door.

As mentioned earlier, Lucy and James Shinn came from Texas to Niles in 1856. Lucy Shinn’s brother, Dr. Joseph Clark, had purchased 151 acres from William Sim (the charmer who had tried to push his wife headfirst into a flour barrel!) and Clark signed an eventual ownership agreement with his sister and brother-in-law. Clark also loaned J.J. Vallejo $100,000 in 1862 for back taxes; Vallejo defaulted on the loan and Clark ended up with 11,148 acres—“all of present-day Niles and most of what would eventually become the Shinn Historic Park”—some 200 of which he eventually sold to the Central/Southern Pacific’s Contract and Finance Company for the development of Niles. That development proved slow—California was experiencing an economic bust in the 1870s—and the company ended up leasing most of the land for agricultural purposes until the 1880s started booming and more settlers moved into the area.

The Shinns later purchased another 150 acres and ended up with 300-350 acres in all (accounts vary). Shinn was already an experienced horticulturalist before coming to California. He was giving fruit trees away to neighbors before establishing Shinn’s Nurseries in 1870, according to his oldest son, Charles Howard Shinn. The close presence of the Niles Station allowed Shinn’s Nurseries (which Shinn co-owned with his brother-in-law) to become commercial rather than local, as he was able to ship balled trees by rail to distant locations both in and out of the state. The advent of the transcontinental railroad helped establish California as an agricultural force in the United States; before it existed, Californians were forced to rely on purchasing many seeds and plants from the East, and few California plant products were making their way East.

A look at a later Shinn’s Nurseries catalog reveals that Shinn was primarily producing multiple varieties of apples (67 varieties geared for summer, fall and winter harvests), pears, plums, prunes, peaches, nectarines, cherries, persimmons and figs. He also grew several nut bearing trees, including English walnuts, American black walnuts, American white walnuts, almonds, Italian chestnuts, pecans and English filberts. His second focus was on ornamental plants of all sorts. However, in 1888, his sixth child, Joseph Clark Shinn Sr. (who took control of the ranch in 1881) sold all of the ornamental stock to two San Francisco nurserymen, and focused primarily on fruit and nut production. In 1889, Charles Howard Shinn estimated about 1,000 total acres in Niles were dedicated to fruit. He prophesied 5,000 acres would ultimately be planted in the area, but fruit production in California peaked between 1910 and 1915. Ornamental plants were on the ascendancy and would fill the landscaping needs of California’s population boom of the 1920s. The California Nursery Company would capitalize on that population growth and emphasize the need of landscaping for the home and for public parks in their advertising.

In 1889, the Shinn family diversified by also producing gravel out of Alameda Creek, which bisected their property. Joseph Shinn signed a contract with the Pacific Improvement Company (the business arm of the Central/Southern Pacific owners, the aforementioned “Big Four”) and reaped handsome profits as the Shinns provided most of the gravel used by the Central Pacific for their rail beds throughout the West. Julia Morgan specified a certain grade of gravel purchased from the Shinns for the reinforced concrete used to build the UC-Berkeley Greek Theater in 1903; she was the supervising architect for this John Galen Howard-designed structure. Howard also recommended the use of California Pressed Brick Company bricks (also produced in Niles) for other Berkeley campus buildings. While horticulture was one of Niles’s first important industries, it was not the only one. We have already seen how Vallejo Mills started as a mill town. The mill was closed in 1884 and the body of the miller was discovered a few days later, an empty bottle of poison by his side. This man’s despair is another indication that Niles is not—and never was—some bucolic bubble where nostalgia negates the ever-present realities of change and economic vicissitudes.

Another event that took place in 1889 was that Joseph Shinn hired Chinese laborers to harvest almonds. As Cecelia Tsu told us in her article, “Independent of the Unskilled Chinaman,” most fruit orchards—large or small--in the Bay Area could not rely on family labor alone, despite how settlers and boosters of California saw themselves. Many of the Chinese were hired on as seasonal laborers for the various crops (the Shinns also had a Chinese cook for the household) but a few of these men lived in a bunk-house cabin known as "China Camp" or "China House"near the creek year after year. They lived in San Francisco in Chinatown on a permanent basis but lived on the Shinn Ranch when needed for relatively long periods of time. Run by the Fong family, the workers appear to have split their time between the Shinn Ranch and the nearby California Nursery Company. More on that later in light of George C. Roeding's opinion of the family farm not needing alien assistance! (Of course, one could hardly consider the 600-acre California Nursery Company a family farm, so perhaps that is how Roeding rationalized his use of Chinese workers at Niles.) Hiring the Chinese, who came to dominate agricultural work in the Bay Area in the 1870s through the 1890s, allowed the Shinns to expand their business as the Chinese were willing to work longer hours for less pay. They would have helped with planting, pruning and harvesting the various fruit and nut crops.

Joseph Shinn had married Florence Mayhew in 1905. Florence had grown up in Niles; her family owned property adjacent to Vallejo’s mill. Twenty years younger than Joseph (he died in 1947 at the age of 86), Florence had three children and played as prominent a role in the community as her husband did. They donated land for a school in 1912 and again in 1933. They also began selling off parcels of land between 1912 and 1962, when Florence Shinn donated the remaining 4.5 acres to the City of Fremont as a park. She died in 1971 so I am a little confused as to why the Shinn plaque reads that the Shinn ranch was operated by the same family from 1856-1978.
The Shinn Historic Park and Arboretum today features a house museum that is a perfect example of a Victorian house set within an agricultural landscape. The house is open for tours the third Sunday of each month from 1:00-3:00. Other outbuildings include the Santos barn (a nearby barn moved to the property in 2002 after the Shinn barn burned down) and what looks like one surviving remnant of one of the four Chinese structures that had originally been built near the creek. The four Chinese buildings (two cabins or bunkhouses, a cookhouse, and an outhouse) were moved away from the edge of the creek, part of which was undermined by the gravel being processed. The Shinn family cemetery had to be moved for the same reason, with the Shinns reinterred in an Oakland cemetery after the 1955 flood. Now is a great time to visit the park. It is open every day and the spring flowers are putting on a beautiful show. There are also many heritage tree specimens standing on the grounds.
The resources I used for this blog were: 1) "Niles and Vicinity," San Francisco Call (2 Dec 1891), 2) Shinn, Charles Howard, Historical Sketches of Southern Alameda County (First Published in the Oakland Inquirer as a Series of Articles June 8-November 18, 1889) (Oakland: GRT Publishing, 1991), 3) "Shinn's Nurseries" advertisement, Pacific Rural Press (24 Oct 1874): 268, 4) Shinn's Nurseries Descriptive Catalog, undated, 5) Shinn Ranch Account Ledger, 1904, 6) Butterfield, H.M., "Some Pioneer Nurseries in California and Their Plants, Part 3" California Horticultural Society Journal (26: 1966): 132-139, 7) Country Club of Washington Township Research Committee, History of Washington Township (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 3rd ed., 1904, 1950-1966), 8) Holmes, Philip and Jill Singleton, Niles Fremont (San Francsico: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 9) Hunt, Lyla, Shinn Historical Park (Fremont, CA: Mission Peak Heritage Foundation and Country Club of Washington Township, 1976), 10) Page and Turnbull, Inc., Shinn Historical Park: Dwelling Nos. 1 and 2, Cookhouse and Outhouse (Historic American Building Survery Documentation, 10 July 2007), and 11) Taylor, Judith and Harry Morton Butterfield, Tangible Memories: Californians and Their Gardens, 1800-1950 ( Xlibris Corporation, 2003).

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