It takes water

Last year around this time I was asked to write some blog posts for Fresno Historical Society that would be published on their website. I wrote the posts but nothing was ever done with them. Since it’s been a year, I think they deserve the light of day so I am publishing them on my own blog. 

It takes water

Driving through the park, on my way to the mansion, I see the effects of this current drought. Large patches of lawn have died due to the cutbacks in watering. The hot summer days have scorched the park. Trees have lost limbs to the high temperatures and lack of water. Some losses are so severe that the trees must be cut down. That’s happened up by the servant’s quarters, a beautiful shade tree lost to the drought.

The land needs water to grow the bounty of food and fiber. It has always been this way, and I wonder, as I gaze out at those parched lawns, what M. Theo Kearney would think of this year’s water situation. The arid and barren wasteland he had first seen when he came to the Valley had taken enterprise, ambition, and water to turn it into such a vibrant garden. He had seen the canal system built and the water brought from the mountain streams and rivers to the valley floor, to the colony’s small farmers, to make the dry land productive. The water, needed to grow the crops, had been a big part of the promotion of the colony expansion.

The land requirement to secure irrigation water in 1871 was a 160-acre minimum at $5 per acre. Bernard Marks, founder of the Central California Colony, came up with an idea to secure the water rights for a large tract of land, break the land into smaller twenty-acre plots as family farms, with each farm sharing the common water delivery. Three colony attempts failed due to the lack of secured irrigation water before the Central California Colony made another attempt. M. Theo Kearney was brought onboard to use his promotional skills to aggressively campaign for land sales. Kearney’s advertising materials told perspective buyers that they would have all the water they needed to irrigate their farm for the cost of sixty-two and a half cents per acre per year. The large lithograph that hangs in the estate office shows a couple walking across a canal full of water.

The canals surveyed and constructed in 1875 are still here. Sixteen feet wide and two feet deep, these are the canals that provided water to the initial settings of grapevines. The water rights were secured from Moses J. Church’s Fresno Canal and Irrigation Company although arguments between Marks, Church, and the colonists lead to early withholding of water. Some of the vines died. Mr. Kearney knew about the importance of water, and yet, he was not pessimistic. He planted a 250-acre park of trees to surround his Estate. This was not uncommon in the colonies. There are many pictures showing homes ringed with trees and shrubs. There was a sense of confidence in the land and its future.

That sense of confidence was demonstrated in M. Theo Kearney’s promotions that he developed for the colonies, first Central California Colony and then Easterby Colony with N.K. Masten, and eventually his own Fruit Vale Estates. He kept a positive and upbeat flow of information on the production of the farms and on social events going to the local newspaper, the Expositor. As with the flow of publicity so was the delivery and flow of water, helping to establish the success of the colony venture.


Back to the present. The lack of rainfall on the Valley floor. The lack of snow in the mountains. Farmland left fallow. Politicians, farmers, environmentalists all fighting about water storage and usage. Scorched lawns and dying trees. I don’t know what Mr. Kearney would say to this current situation, but with his optimism and ability to dream big, he might say to carefully use the water supply we have and to replant the trees so that they will grow tall just like the ones he planted in 1882 when the land was dry and barren. The picture of the chateau still hangs in his office, over his desk, and I believe he would still have his dream of building his castle and living in a beautifully landscaped, well-manicured park.




In the house on a hot summer afternoon

Last year around this time I was asked to write some blog posts for Fresno Historical Society that would be published on their website. I wrote the posts but nothing was ever done with them. Since it’s been a year, I think they deserve the light of day so I am publishing them on my own blog. 

Kearney Mansion as it currently looks

Kearney Mansion as it currently looks

It’s a hot summer afternoon, and although Mr. Kearney would most likely have been far away from Fresno on a day like this, here I sit, at his desk, pondering what he would have worked on today had he been in attendance. The estate office would be busy in this season of growth and harvest. Weight tickets piling up to be calculated and filed. The vault door would swing open often as money was exchanged. People delivering, picking up, paying bills, getting their wages. The clerks would have been busy processing invoices, writing cheques, sorting through harvest figures.

The almonds are being harvested as I drive up Kearney Boulevard and into the park this afternoon. Grapes are ready to pick. Soon the raisins will be on the ground, drying. Because of the commotion that would have been in the estate office, I have closed the connecting door so I am not disturbed. I can look out into the entry way and up the stairs. The housekeeper, Mastuichi Nakamichi, may have been finishing with cleaning the bedrooms and making his way down the stairs to see if Mr. Kearney had anything he needed to have done, wiping the banister as he came. Would Mr. Kearney point out the smudge on the mirror in the entry?

I have a clear view of the porch. Who would have been tromping up the steps and onto the porch at this time of year, back in 1905? The buzzers are built into almost every room in the house so as to call servants and workers at the push of a button. Who would Mr. Kearney have summonsed today? Would he want to know how the almond harvest is coming along? How many more days? Would he call the vineyard dressers in to hear how big the grape harvest will be this year? When would they need pickers?

The trees in the park are now so large, reaching to the sky. Blocking any view. Could I see the chateau’s location from the one window in the office if the trees were still small? Did Mr. Kearney sit here and look out and dream of his castle, and look up and see the lithograph of what it would be when completed? Did he think of more furnishings for the castle? Would his investors come calling, on a hot afternoon? Who would have made the drive out the long driveway, now called Kearney Boulevard, to have visited on a hot summer afternoon? Perhaps Mr. Kearney would summons Harry Kunishige from the kitchen to bring cool glasses of lemonade for the visitors. Cooled with the ice stored in the ice house, which is still there, across the roadway from the superintendent’s lodge.

Sitting at the dining room table, I get a feeling for what it must have been like for Kearney to have his meals here. What was served? Who brought the food over from the kitchen that is in the servant’s quarters? Who actually served it and what did they do while Mr. Kearney ate? The house is remarkably quiet. Not a sound on this hot afternoon. No secrets being given up. Just as Kearney would have wanted it.

With no school children, no guest tours, no farm employees, the house rings hollow. It seems so lonely. It seems to wait. To wait for life to come in the door, whether through the front as guests or through the rear as servants and estate workers. Or, for Mr. Kearney to return and complete the work he started 110 years ago. For now, the house is held in suspension…waiting.

An unpublished blog post

Last year around this time I was asked to write some blog posts for Fresno Historical Society that would be published on their website. I wrote the posts but nothing was ever done with them. Since it’s been a year, I think they deserve the light of day so I am publishing them on my own blog. 

The view from the porch

The front porch of Kearney Mansion

The front porch of Kearney Mansion

The screen door thwacks as I walk out onto the porch this late spring morning. The sun is already casting shadows through the trellised arches onto the painted wooden floor. Birds are calling. I saw a couple of hawks keeping watch in one of trees this morning as I drove along the winding road that leads from Kearney Boulevard to the office at the Historical Society which is housed in the servant’s quarters here at the park. Hawks that will swoop down on the squirrels I can see running across the wide span of lawn. A slight breeze blows across the front of the house, giving a bit of cool respite on what will be a hot day in the San Joaquin Valley. The kind of day that M. Theo Kearney would have experienced as he was planning this oasis in the desert. The trees, shrubs, and lawns all offer a visual treat, 112 years after the house was built.

Kearney Park

Kearney Park

M. Theo Kearney was a visionary. He arrived in the Valley to see flat fields of grain but envisioned rows of vines and trees producing a wealth of crops. He could see, where others couldn’t, a series of connected waterways, canals, bringing water to crops that would feed the world. He stood here, on this porch, looking out at his Fruit Vale Estate, and imagined a whole different scene than the dry and barren land he had originally purchased.

I look out on the fountain, with the tall palm tree in its center, and think of the photo in the archives that shows a short tree, just getting its start in the early 1900s. This palm tree has had a long life. Even the photo of the May Day party in the 1920s on the front lawn shows a shorter tree than is here now. The tree, ever keeping watch over the mansion. Kearney Mansion. The home Mr. Kearney planned and built for his farm superintendent. A home to store his treasures that he would collect for his chateau to be built north of this house. Two feet thick adobe walls to keep the cool in and the heat out on the hot summer days. This wide wrap-around porch to keep the sun at a distance.

The palm tree in a May Day Celebration.

The palm tree in a May Day Celebration.

Soon a school tour will be arriving and the students will excitedly line up on these steps to begin their tour through the house, the carriage house, the servant’s quarters. They are always so full of enthusiasm to see the mansion and to hear its stories. Then, this afternoon, the public tours will bring people from all walks of life to this porch. They will gather in small groups, chatting while the docent opens the door to welcome them, admiring the arches and looking out, as I do now, on the park, designed by Rudolph Ulrich. In a few months I will stand, with autumn light slanting through the trees, trees grown larger than Mr. Kearney could have ever imagined, and watch the Civil War battle of the Atlanta Campaign being enacted just yards from the house. The canon fire will rattle the window panes. The battle cries will rise up to the porch. Children will be running across the floor boards, excitement bubbling over as they experience a moment of history.

A tour group lining up on the front steps

A tour group lining up on the front steps

For now I must get the house ready for the school tour, turning on lights, checking the furnishings, setting the thermostat. Although Mr. Kearney never imagined any kind of cooling beyond the natural elements he built into the house, we now have air conditioning to keep us comfortable. I think Mr. Kearney would be very pleased with the addition

Blog posts that were never published

Last year around this time I was asked to write some blog posts for Fresno Historical Society that would be published on their website. I wrote the posts but nothing was ever done with them. Since it’s been a year, I think they deserve the light of day so I am publishing them on my own blog. 

It was all business

M. Theo Kearney was all about business and making money. He was a marketer and Fresno was his product. In the first years of the 1890s, Kearney was intensely involved in a high-power promotional effort to entice investors to purchase 10 and 20 acre farms in Fruit Vale Estates. He also focused on the development of vineyards and acres of diversified crops that were directly under his ownership. He brought all that promotion and development right into the farm superintendent’s lodge which we now call Kearney Mansion.

If you come through the front door you will immediately see Kearney’s office to the right. His desk and personal effects are still there, almost as if waiting for him to return from Europe and set to work on his next promotion of the Estate. A large color lithograph of the castle hangs above his desk. When pointing it out to students I suggest it was an early ‘dream board.’ Mr. Kearney kept his dream in view at all times, never losing sight of his grand scheme.

Go around the porch to the back door and you will step into the farm office, where all the Fruit Vale paperwork was completed and stored. Interesting set-up for an early twentieth century farm house. There is the well-worn counter where delivery persons, farm employees, and ranch customers would bring their invoices, inquiries, money, or bills of lading.

When elementary students come for school tours to Kearney Mansion I stop first in the entry hall to describe certain elements. We talk about the raisins for which Mr. Kearney was famous, pointing out that even his light fixture in the entry hall is in the design of grape clusters. Then we go into the farm office, which is light and bright, and very large. The students ooh and aah at the spaciousness of the room and are also very curious about the old office machinery that is on display. They want to know about the file cabinet with drawers for all of the products and crops produced on the estate. The walk-in safe, although closed, is also a big attraction to the students, as it seems out of character for the house to have its own vault, with a combination lock.


Like any master marketer, Mr. Kearney knew he had to tell a story, weave a tale, and stir up a desire in the heart of the listener. We have television, the Internet, social media, even radio, to do that today, but how did one do it in 1889? With pictures. With flowery language. With a personal touch. Mr. Kearney brought in a photographer, not an easy task back then, to document the work being done on the Valley floor. He showed pictures of homes in and around Fresno. He had photos taken of fields, heavily laden with produce. And when there wasn’t an actual photograph he could use, such as one for his Chateau Fresno, he substituted a drawing such as we see in the large advertisement from 1889 that hangs in the farm office.

Advertisement for Fruit Vale Estates

Advertisement for Fruit Vale Estates

I tell the students who come through on tours that if Mr. Kearney was alive today and developing this land, he would have a You-Tube channel, tweet on Twitter, post on Facebook, and constantly upload his photos to Instagram.

M. Theo Kearney passed away on May 27, 1906, at age 64 aboard the British luxury liner Caronia, on his way to Europe to purchase more artifacts for the castle, whose foundation was being excavated as he set sail. In the Raisin King’s final will, he bequeathed the 5,400 Fruit Vale Estate to the Regents of the University of California with the wish that they establish an experimental station as an adjunct to the University’s College of Agriculture. Ever the forward-thinker and the consummate businessman, Mr.Kearney wanted the Fruit Vale Estate to continue to produce and to be well known.

A panoramic view of the Kearney Farm c 1903.

A panoramic view of the Kearney Farm c 1903.



Good news

My daughter texted me this morning while I was herding four-year olds at Vacation Bible School that my granddaughter would be released from the hospital later today. Her white blood count showed no infection so she can continue her recuperation from her burst appendix at home. 

Leeya was so happy to return to normal that the family stopped for sandwiches after her release. Jennifer texted this happy picture to me. 


Sans makeup

After Vacation Bible School at our daughter’s church, we brought the grandchildren with us back to Fresno. In the six days they were here, I think I put a touch of makeup on my face just one day. I was too busy the other mornings to ever take the time to do so.

As the week progressed, I kept thinking, “how do mothers with numerous children ever get anything like makeup application accomplished?” I realize I was much younger when raising our daughter, and there was only ONE of her, but I did manage to put on makeup, fix my hair, and dress accordingly every single morning. Even on weekends I did the hair and makeup thing because I left the house on those two days, too.

That’s another thing. How did I have the energy to stay so busy? I worked all week, then did laundry, housekeeping, and grocery shopping on the weekends. I taught Sunday School most of those years that Jen was growing up. When I was teaching high school I would use Sunday afternoons to do grading and prepare for the next week. Could I have done all of that if there had been more than one child in this house, as there was this past week with two small grandchildren?

The week was filled with food preparation, laundry, making beds, cleaning up, providing crafting materials, helping with an assortment of tasks, and even a few trips. One day we went to a goat farm in our local foothills and then on for a picnic lunch at a nearby recreation area. I took Judah to the Fresno State farm store for watermelon and then a school supply store to pick up more crafting items. Because of lack of time and extreme temperatures, I never put an ounce of makeup on my face on those days.

The last day, the day we made the return trip to San Mateo, I had to pack up the kids and their sundry items after fixing their breakfast. Again, no time to apply makeup. I can only imagine how I must have looked when we dashed into the emergency room with Leeya at Redwood City Kaiser. I was frantic that she was in so much pain and not concerned with how I looked, just wanting to get some relief for the poor child. After Jen arrived, I broke down in tears. Good thing I was sans makeup or I would have looked even freakier with mascara running down my face.

Update on Leeya: She is in the hospital, recuperating from surgery, and will probably be there for a week so as to make sure there is no infection due to the rupture appendix. As of Saturday afternoon she was still nauseous and unable to keep water down.

Harrowing day

Let’s just top off the past two weeks with a medical emergency.

After working one week for our daughter at her Vacation Bible School, we brought our grandchildren to Fresno for a week with us while our daughter and son-in-law did a second week of VBS for a new group of children. The annual event has become so popular that Jennifer was turning away families which broke her heart. By doing two weeks, she doesn’t have to turn away anyone. Terry and I, though, do not have the ability to be away from home for two weeks so we do our part by taking care of the grandchildren at our house.

We decided to take Judah and Leeya home a day early this year due to a big festival in one of the cities we must travel through. The traffic backs up the freeway for miles in both directions during the weekend of the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Going and coming on Thursday made more sense.

Shortly after making our turn onto Hwy 101, Leeya had severe abdominal pain. It would not get better and she was screaming and writhing in pain as we traveled north toward her parents. It had come on so suddenly that I thought it might be food poisoning or a blocked bowel.

Finally, as we neared Redwood City, and there was no improvement, I told Terry to get off the freeway and make his way to the Kaiser hospital where the kids were born. We drove up to the ER entrance, ran her inside and was seen very quickly. Jennifer arrived shortly afterwards. Chad came later, after closing up the church from another day of VBS. I was so glad to have Leeya’s parents there.

Terry and I had not planned to stay overnight on this return trip so had packed nothing and had not made arrangements for our cats. We headed back to Fresno about 2 o’clock. It was determined, while we were on the road, that Leeya had a ruptured appendix and would be taken by ambulance to a hospital in Santa Clara for surgery. Jennifer texted at 5 this morning that the surgery was over and Leeya was resting in her own room. We are all relieved but still anxious as to how this will all turn out.

It is hard to see your children, big and small, hurting.