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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester


Californian Hospitality

Californian Hospitality.—Sunday morning, June 23, came in with a warm and genial atmosphere, entirely free of fog. Such a day is rather uncommon in San Francisco during the summer months; and, to find a warm climate, the people are accustomed to go to the valleys, as up through Napa to Calistoga and White Sulphur Springs, or down through the Santa Clara, to the various charming villages and towns, or the palatial homes which are scattered all through San Mateo County. At one of these homes we are to spend the day, and enjoy the hospitality of its genial host. Eight o’clock found us all on board the train, which traverses the Santa Clara Valley, and over a road which they are pushing on as fast as possible to be one link in a Southern line which is to cross the continent. The Central Pacific Company have named this one of their many lines the Southern Pacific. We are to go to a station named Menlo Park, where Mr. Ralston is to meet us. On our trip down I had an opportunity to chat with Mr. James Lick, one of the richest and largest real-estate owners in California, who built the famous Lick House. Mr. Lick early went to Mexico, and during the years 1848-49 wended his way north, and reached San Francisco. He at once began to purchase lands, and year by year found himself growing rich beyond the dreams of the greatest enthusiast of the newly-founded city. He is a widower, of excessively plain habits and dress; lives in his log-cabin on a rancho near the city of San Josť; carries a dilapidated carpet-bag, and wears a dilapidated hat; walks instead of rides; and, when he visits the city, finds his wants supplied in the poorest room, and with the simplest fare, in his great hotel. By trade he is a cabinet-maker; has a fine mill, where he works a little, but finds his chief enjoyment in cultivating his garden, where he collects trees from all parts of the world, plants them, and cares for them tenderly. In speech he is not fluent, but talks with intelligence; in carriage he is awkward, and there is nothing to indicate a man of talent. His wealth is counted by millions; yet he leaves the management of his property mostly to others, and does not seem to be conscious of his vast possessions. He is not what you would call a miser, yet he prefers not to spend any of his money for what most of us deem comforts in this world. He has one son, a farmer in one of the great States east of the Rocky Mountains, who will inherit his vast wealth.

El Capitan, Yosemite Valley
[click to enlarge]
EL CAPITAN—YO-SEMITE VALLEY

A ride of about an hour brings us to the station, where Mr. Ralston receives us kindly, and asks us to a seat in his carriage. Our party consisted of Superintendent Sickels, his wife and two daughters, Grace Greenwood, Mrs. Mitchell, and myself. Mr. William C. Ralston is a man rising forty, of stout build, with a countenance and air which tell of the hospitality and cheer which he loves so well to bestow. He is free from all affectation; and you at once forget the money-king, and see only the genial gentleman.

The carriage was built upon the English style, with seats lengthwise, a raised seat in front, and with the usual attachments of a brake, which is indispensable for the hills. To it were harnessed four bays of perfect form, and full of spirit. As soon as we were all seated, Mr. Ralston himself took the reins, and at a word the horses started at a lively pace.

We were in a beautiful country — a great park, by Nature formed and planted. The roads, although dusty, were wide, and as we passed by we could see the houses among the low-branching live oaks, which are the pride of the county.

It was too late for the flowers; the grain, too, had ripened, and, in most parts had been cut. After a short ride, we were drawn into the grounds of Milton S. Latham, where no expense had been spared to make the place attractive. We visited the stable, which, for size and splendour of finish, we never saw surpassed. The beautiful woods of California had been used, and these had been finely polished; while all the fittings and appurtenances were in keeping. It seemed to be just completed; and, in unpacking the furniture which was to be placed in the servants’ quarters above, the men had set the small mirrors in the stalls, one in each; upon which one of the ladies remarked: ‘Yes, indeed, this is the finest stable I ever saw; for don’t you see they have furnished each horse with a mirror to make his morning toilet by?’ The new mansion house here is not yet completed; the former one having been, I believe, destroyed by fire.

From here we were driven to the fine estate named ‘Valparaiso Park,’ owned by F. D. Atherton, Esq. Mr. Atherton met us upon the piazza; and, having given the ladies over to those of the house, conducted the gentlemen through his fine grounds, where orchards of almond, nectarine, English walnut, apple, cherry, and fig, were growing, having been planted only three years. The cactuses (cactaceae) seemed to delight in this situation; and one plant had attained the height of fifteen feet, and was stout enough to sustain itself. The finest tree not indigenous to the place was the pepper-tree, near the house, the feathery foliage of which was swayed by the slightest breath of air. The great oaks, with their extended branches, from which hung the moss in graceful tassels, dotted the extensive grounds; and flowers, magnificent in colour, and in a profusion unknown to our New-England gardens, made the air fragrant, and gave to the place exquisite beauty.

It was too lovely a spot to leave so hurriedly; but Mr. Ralston summoned us for a ride towards his own mansion. Our party had now been increased by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Lawrence of Boston, and Stephen Masset, Esq., well known as ‘Jeemes Pipes of Pipesville,’ whose pleasant bon mots gave a zest to our other pleasures during the rest of the day.

A Day with Ralston.—It was a delightful drive which took us towards the village of Belmont—the neatest railroad point to Ralston’s home. Passing over a well-built road, through the town, which is regularly laid out, and where are many pretty cottages, we reach ‘Glenwood,’ our destination. The first object which meets our view is the neat building where gas is produced for lighting the house, out-buildings, and grounds. Mr. Ralston shows us his stables, where twenty-one horses await their master’s summons, with grooms sufficient to care for them. One thing was noticeable about the stables, which told something of the character of its owner—that, while the utmost neatness prevailed, it was not over-nice, as was the first stable we visited to-day. The inside is kept freshly whitewashed; and the carriages seem arranged for instant use, instead of show.

At the house, the party was welcomed by Mrs. Ralston, whose gracious manners soon taught us to feel at home, and that the house was made to live in, and all the splendid and costly things surrounding us to be not only looked at, but handled. I should judge that the house was not built at once, upon a matured plan, but was the outgrowth of required accommodation. A dining-room, drawing-room, and library, surrounded on three sides by a gallery, with windows extending from floor to ceiling, with the kitchen and laundry in the rear, and built directly into the hill, with a beautiful corridor at the top of the main staircase, from which the chambers open, while over the kitchen is a large but as yet unfinished banquet-hall, comprise the main house. It is of wood, painted white, and is placed in a very sheltered position among the foot-hills of the coast-range of mountains, on the side towards the bay. Fine pictures, costly bronzes, and other works of vertu, are scattered about in defiance of all conventional taste; but their very freedom gives a pleasing and hospitable air to the house.

At twelve, breakfast was announced; and, for nearly two hours, the courses of delicately-prepared food were brought in, while conversation and gaiety filled up the intervals. After breakfast particular pains were taken to conduct us to the kitchen, and show us the Chinese cooks, who prepared the food of which we had partaken. Here a chief cook with two assistants presides, while Chinamen do all the general housework. The steward is a coloured man; the waiters are white men, probably Frenchmen; and these, together with the help employed out of doors, make some twenty-five. Such an establishment, conducted in an orderly manner, would be a wonder in the East, and with our present service system quite impossible. The same order and conduct on the part of the servants prevail here daily, as I am assured by those who have spent several days together at the mansion. I was strongly reminded of an English country house.

To me the most beautiful development of English life and character are the country homes scattered over the smiling land where reign so much peace, plenty, and virtue. England has a stronger bulwark of national life and prosperity in these, than in all her navies and all her armies. Would that in America we had more such homes! Our cities are growing at the expense of the country. Home ties are forgotten in the rush for wealth, and our people are finding themselves with riches but without health and cultivated tastes to enjoy them. I must end this digression, and continue my narrative.

We were next taken to view the estate. From the eminences we had beautiful views of the surrounding country. Leaving Ralston’s at three o’clock, we passed from one fine estate to another, charmed with the beautiful gardens and parks around the houses. We also drove through the place where lives Hayward, the ruler in the stock-board, who, by the recent fall in stocks, found himself raised by millions—almost the only one who profited by that terrible calamity which overtook the ‘dwellers in California Street.’

When the Boston Board of Trade and their friends returned from San Francisco, all we heard of for some time was the praises of their entertainment by Mr. Ralston; and I must own that they could not over-praise the elegant manner in which the hospitality of Glenwood was dispensed. I have described our visit thus minutely, that my readers might gain an idea of the mode in which rich Californians entertain their friends; for, although Mr. Ralston’s receptions are more princely, still there are many others who outdo our Eastern magnates.



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