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.
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.