COMMERCIAL HISTORY OF YOLO COUNTY
By C. W. Bush
The commercial history of Yolo county practically began in the year 1869. There were two events in the preceding
autumn which gave impetus to commercial activities: the incorporation of the Bank of Woodland (the first bank organized
in the county) and the beginning of the first railroad. The track was laid from Vallejo to Sacramento at this time,
and during the early months of 1869 a branch was built from Davis to Woodland. The writer well remembers his trip
up from Vallejo in the spring of 1869, which consumed a good part of the day over unballasted rails, his overnight
at Davis and ride in a mud wagon to Woodland the following morning.
Yolo county was really isolated from communication with the outside world. But with the completion of these roads
conditions rapidly changed. Soon afterward a connecting road was projected, through the instrumentality largely
of N. D. Rideout, a pioneer capitalist of the Sacramento valley, connecting Woodland with the city of Marysville.
The construction of this road required the expenditure of a large sum of money, as it was necessary to cross many
miles of the overflow lands, and trestles had to be built covering this portion of the construction. The scheme
was financed with great difficulty. The construction was necessarily cheapened, and during many of the winter months
the road was not in use, owing to the insecurity of the trestles. Subsequently it was taken over by the Southern
Pacific Company at considerable profit to the original builders.
A few years later another road was constructed, tapping the main line at the town of Elmira in Solano county and
extending up through the Vaca and Pleasant valleys in said county to the town of Winters in Yolo county, thence
along the foothills and up to the head of the Capay valley in western Yolo. Many tribulations followed the erection
of this road, as the projectors were without means and depended upon the land owners for financial assistance.
George W. Scott furnished teams, graders and men to grade the road from Winters to Madison and subsequently paid
a debt of many thousands of dollars, for which he became liable as endorser. Mr. Scott died recently, honored by
all who knew him, the possessor of a large estate. To the writer's knowledge, this was his last experience as an
endorser. He was liberal to a fault, and many times subsequently loaned money directly to people desiring assistance,
rather than endorse their notes.
If the building of the road was a calamity for several individuals, there is no doubt of the benefit it proved
to be to the county at large, as it opened a market for all of the western portion of the county south of Cache
creek. Prior to the construction of these roads the Sacramento river supplied the only means by which outside markets
could be reached. Knight's Landing was the most accessible shipping point, yet there was a good deal of team freighting
during the dry season across the lowlands lying between Woodland and the city of Sacramento. It was quite customary
to take to Sacramento a wagonload of produce and return with merchandise for household use. A very large proportion
of all the merchandise was purchased in Sacramento, to the injury of local merchants.
Knight's Landing became an important shipping point for all kinds of produce, yet, considering the possibilities
of production, the totals were small. Farming was in its infancy. For many years the country was given over to
grazing. The first trekers with their prairie schooners and small bands of stock were attracted by the extensive
growth of wild oats all through the valley, sufficient to furnish inexhaustible feed. They pitched their tents
and herded their stock and drove their beef cattle to Sacramento for marketing. Titles were gradually acquired
by pre-emption, use of script and through Spanish grants. Many thousands of acres of the best lands along the water
courses had been granted by Spain and Mexico. On Cachecreek were the Harbin, Gordon and Hardy grants; on Putah
creek was the grant Jesus Maria. William Gordon, the grantee, was probably the earliest settler in Yolo county,
although the Wolfskills, who held under the Jesus Maria grant, might dispute this statement. The Hardy grant was
long in litigation. The holders were contesting alleged claims of non resident heirs, but eventually won out in
the courts. The population was necessarily sparse and scattered.
In 1868 the lands under cultivation were quite generally planted to wheat. The virgin soil yielded abundantly,
and the prices paid were good. With stock fattened on free range and crops realized, the early settlers' prosperity
was exceptional, as is proven that they lived and gradually increased their holdings while they were paying for
the use of money, interest ranging in rate from fifteen per cent to twenty four per cent per annum.
During the Spanish possession about the adobe homes small vineyards had been planted of what were known as Mission
grapes. These grapes had no marketable value, but were for home consumption and the manufacture of a heavy, sweet
wine. These vineyards during the dry season offered the only relief to the broad plains of yellowing grain and
grasses. Farming was extravagantly conducted. Ground was carelessly broken and crops carelessly gathered. Machinery
stood in the field neglected and exposed from one season to another. A quite uniform custom was to gather two crops
from one plowing. The second was known as a volunteer crop and often yielded abundantly from the grain wasted at
the previous harvesting. Principally to meet local requirements, in due time an occasional flour mill was erected;
the earliest, I believe, were at Woodland, Yolo (the former county seat), and at Madison. These mills were never
profitable as investments. The Woodland and Madison mills were in time destroyed by fire. The Yolo mill is yet
standing, but for many years has been out of commission. Steam was the only possible available power for grinding,
and the heavy cost for transportation made it impossible to compete with mills at Sacramento and other river points.
These conditions have continued to hamper the growth of Yolo county until within very recent times. Now, with sufficient
electric power and reduced transportation rates, through competition, Woodland is making good in manufacturing,
as is proven by the success of its large flouring mills, which are conducting a profitable business aggregating
in volume $50,000 per month from their output.
With the opening of the first railroad mentioned quite an impetus was given to business and to grain raising. A
strong market for grain was immediately developed. At the time a very large proportion of wheat was taken from
San Francisco to Liverpool in sailing vessels. During the harvest time San Francisco bay was filled with vessels
awaiting cargo charters, and at times the competition between vessel owners was very sharp. Charters were bartered
on the exchange, and often big profits were realized by speculators. The prices to be paid for grain were largely
determined by the price paid for the charter. When the ship was loaded it was quite the custom to sell the cargo
before it was cleared; very often it was sold when afloat, prior to its arrival at destination. Generally payment
was made by a ninety day bill drawn against the consignee. The banks realized a profitable business discounting
these bills for the cargo sellers, thereby furnishing them capital for new ventures. There was an undoubted element
of chance in the purchase of cargoes, as the market was bound to fluctuate between the time of selling and marketing
I have in mind one local speculator who practically bankrupted himself by floating cargoes and speculating on the
price to be realized at time of arrival at destination.
There were many grain brokers in San Francisco, and they established purchasing agencies at all points in the interior
where grain was marketed. When tonnage was plenty and charters were low the rivalry between these men was very
keen, often the price of wheat was forced up $4 or $5 per ton within a few days. The ships were chartered and unless
immediately loaded there was a heavy demurrage charge imposed at the docks.
With an active demand, the temptation of the producer was to hold his grain. To speculate is a characteristic
of the Californian. The habit was undoubtedly formed during the time of intense excitement when such great fortunes
were won and lost in mines. Mr. Friedlander was the king of all grain operators in this day, and many farmers were
indebted to him for prices paid in advance of the market. He had a perfectly organized connection with all parts
of the state and handled a large proportion of the grain raised.
Among the pioneer agents in Yolo county were Frank S. Freeman of Woodland, Laugenour and Brownell of Knight's Landing
and William Dresbach of Davisville. The latter achieved fame and reaped disaster from his attempt, assisted by
San Francisco capital, to corner the wheat market in California. The losses were enormous, but the money lost was
distributed among the farmers, to whom he paid prices for grain away beyond what the market would justify. Laugenour
and Brownell were advantageously situated at Knight's Landing, on the banks of the Sacramento river, from which
point grain was shipped to tidewater on immense barges in tow of steamboats, at a much reduced freight rate. All
of these men had warehouses for the storage of grain, from which they realized handsome profits. While a good proportion
of grain was stored in these local warehouses, a large quantity was shipped for storage to tidewater. There were
certain advantages. These houses were generally recognized by the grain exchange. When stored the grain was graded,
and the storage receipts of the better quality passed in the stock exchange. Then the grain was on hand for immediate
shipment, and it was well known that the moist coast atmosphere increased the weight.
In active times great difficulty was realized in staining cars for shipment from the interior. At such times there
was no market for grain stored in the interior. Since the robbing of the warehouses several years ago of grain
stored from the interior by the Eppingers at Port Costa but little grain has been sent to the coast for storage.
Yolo county was at the time a distinctively grain raising section and profited greatly. Money began to accumulate,
and most of it was sent to Sacramento banks Some of it was deposited with merchants. Laugenour and Brownell of
Knight's Landing and F. S. Freeman especially can be called to mind as custodians of quite large amounts from time
to time. The necessity arose for a local bank. The first steps were taken by John D. Stephens, a pioneer settler
on the Gordon grant, who with his brother owned large tracts of land. Stock to the amount of $100,000 was easily
subscribed, and immediately following, in November, 1868, the Bank of Woodland was chartered. In the February following
its doors were opened for business. This bank is yet in existence; from time to time to meet increased business
requirements its capital has been increased. At this date it has a paid up capital of $1,000,000 and an accumulated
reserve of $250,000. Mr. Stephens was elected its president and F. S. Freeman its vice president. The latter immediately
transferred his business to the bank and remained a valuable customer to the time of his death. His memory is treasured
by many of the old settlers. He carried in his store everything required by the farmers, from grain bags to machinery,
and it was not uncommon for him to carry debit balances from year to year to protect his customers from failure,
often to his own disadvantage, as his personal fortune was moderate. For fourteen years the Bank of Woodland was
without opposition and prospered greatly. With increased demand for grain, local brokerages multiplied; Messrs.
Laugenour and Brownell removed to Woodland. Mr. Brownell became associated with A. J. Hall and C. T. Bidwell in
the grain business. Mr. Laugenour opened a loan office for the employment of his own fortune. C. S. Thomas, formerly
of Knight's Landing, associated himself with W. G. Hunt of Woodland.
Notwithstanding the fertility of its soil, the development of the county was very slow and from one decade to another
there was no appreciable increase in population. Lands were farmed in large tracts, and the policy of the owner
was to buy out the holdings of his neighbor rather than to sell. In time the old vineyards of Mission grapes began
to disappear. They were supplanted by many imported varieties, which had value for shipment and drying, and many
vineyards were planted to grapes suitable for wine. It may truthfully be said that in this industry R. B. Blowers
was the pioneer, and by his knowledge and advice, freely given, added greatly to its development. Mr. Blowers is
said to be the pioneer raisin maker in California. His muscat raisins brought a gold medal at the Centennial exposition
in Philadelphia in 1876. On his place he dug large wells, which demonstrated the fact that there is underlying
the surface of this section an inexhaustible supply of pure water.
The county also became known as a section peculiarly adapied to the raising of livestock. In different lines of
this industry Yolo county men have achieved national reputations. This became and continues to be an extensive
and profitable pursuit. Frank Bullars was the pioneer in fine sheep raising. Long since deceased, his sons are
now conducting the business. William B. Gibson was the shorthorn cattle man; he, too, has departed this life, but
his son, T. B. Gibson, accumulates each year a string of prizes captured at various stock exhibits George W. Woodard
was the horse man. Horses bred by him have made reputations in all parts of the country. Dr. H. P. Merritt dealt
in and reared mules and jackasses and accumulated a large estate.
Among the most notable of local business men was A. D. Porter, undoubtedly the most public spirited resident of
Woodland. For many years he conducted a profitable grocery business, and as his fortune accumulated he invested
large portions of it in Woodland property; he is recognized as the largest property owner in the city. In the year
1883 he conceived the idea that another bank was needed. His idea was that it should become a popular institution,
and he started out with the determination that stock should be subscribed in every section of the county and that
no single subscriber should be allowed more than $10,000 of stock. Three hundred thousand dollars was subscribed
within a short time. The bank was immediately incorporated under the name of the Bank of Yolo and opened for business
May 31, 1883. Dr. H. P. Merritt was elected president and W. W. Brownell vice president. In due time, with his
indomitable energy, Mr. Porter organized the first savings bank in the county, known as the Yolo County Savings
Bank, in which institution he accepted the position of president. The bank now has upwards of $1,000,000 of deposits.
In 1893 the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank was organized, principally through the energy of Hon. M. Diggs, Hon. R.
H. Beamer and Dr. George H. Jackson. This institution was afterward reincorporated under the national system as
the First National Bank of Woodland, and it maintains under the same management the Home Savings Bank.
Like all new countries, all new enterprises developed slowly in Yolo county. It required years of infinite patience
to make the raisin industry profitable; markets had to be sought and established. For a time raisins hardly paid
for the packing There were instances where producers went east with their stock and peddled them out. Alfalfa hay,
too, at times hardly paid for the cutting. But as the quantity of stock increased and creameries were established
and alfalfa meal mills were erected, the demand became, and is now, great. For several years it has been one of
the most profitable crops.
As fruit and alfalfa raising began to be profitable there sprang up a demand for small tracts of land at increased
prices, prices which tempted the owners to sell. In all parts of the county one can now find comfortable homes
on small tracts of intensely cultivated lands. The owners are thriving because the cultivation has become diversified.
During the wheat era the land owner had money only once a year, when his grain was sold. Now there is a continual
stream of money coming to him. Twice a month he draws his creamery check. The Woodland creamery alone distributes
$125,000 each year to the dairymen, and there are several competing creameries. The land owner also has proceeds
from eggs and chickens and hogs sold, besides the five crops of alfalfa cut each year from his hay field under
Referring to irrigation, James Moore was the pioneer irrigator in the county. He was a man of great determination
and tenacity of purpose. He secured water rights on Cache creek and erected and maintained ditches for irrigation
to the limit of his means. For years he was litigating with claimants above him on Cache creek, but finally obtained
his undisputed titles. After his death his interests were sold to a corporation known as the Yolo County Consolidated
Water Company, which company has in turn sold to others of sufficient capital to make this one of the finest irrigating
systems in the country. I say this advisedly, because the Cache creek possibilities for irrigation have been pronounced
by government experts to be the most satisfactory of any in the west. This creek has its source in the large body
of water in Lake county known as Clear Lake The creek divides the county into two nearly equal parts and the lands
slope from the creek to the north and south, making it possible to irrigate nearly every portion of the county
east of the foothills, and much of it lying in the valley of the mountains. The creek furnishes water for irrigating
each year until July 1, independently of dams; at this time the new company is erecting a large concrete restraining
dam which will furnish water at any season of the year. In addition it is generally understood to be the intention
to furnish water for power.
There are now in Woodland six banks including a savings bank recently inaugurated by the Bank of Yolo.
The following is a condensed summary taken from the sworn reports under date of August 14, 1912: Capita] stock
fully paid, $2,602,100; reserve fund, $573,025; deposits, $3,682,741; total of capital and reserve and deposits,
The population of the city is probably a scant four thousand. The banks will therefore be holding in money an amount
equal to $1700 for each inhabitant. In the town of Winters, in the south-western portion of the county, there are
two banks, and in the town of Davis is a branch of the Bank of Yolo.
Davis has recently come into public notice as the site for the State Agricultural School. A commission after inspecting
lands in different sections decided upon the location at Davis. It is an exceptionally fine body of land. Fertility
of the land considered, and climatic conditions, the judgment of experts is that this will become one of the best
schools in the country. At this session there are enrolled one hundred and fifty pupils.
For many years it has been the dream of citizens of Woodland that the city would be connected by rail with Sacramento,
lying eighteen miles to the east. Many years ago John D. Stephens started a subscription list to build from the
head of Cache creek canon through Woodland to Sacramento. A large amount of money was subscribed, but not enough
to carry the plan through and it was abandoned. At the time the physical difficulties were almost unsurmountable,
because of the flood waters and primitive methods employed in construction. Nothing could be considered but steam
roads. Electric roads were not dreamed of.
A little more than a year ago the local banks were approached to furnish money by purchasing bonds which were to
be laid upon a proposed electric road extending from Woodland to Sacramento. In the judgment of the financiers
of Woodland there could nothing else occur which would so greatly stimulate the growth of Yolo county or contribute
to the advance in land values. The proposition was a serious one because the Yolo flood basin would have to be
trestled for a distance of two miles, and extensive levees would have to be erected and fortified to resist the
current of the great body of water which fills the basin each year.
It was estimated that more than $750,000 would be needed to complete the work, but a company of San Francisco capitalists
agreed to complete the road and equip it if subscriptions could be obtained for this amount in bonds. The Bank
of Yolo, the Bank of Woodland and the Yolo County Savings Bank were the initial subscribers for large blocks of
the bonds. They were firm in the conviction that the investment would prove profitable. In a short time the balance
of the bonds were sold and construction begun. On July 4, 1912, the road was so nearly completed that it brought
several thousand people from Sacramento to celebrate the day in Woodland. Since then it has a good deal more than
paid expenses - interest charges, and sinking fund requirements - and has given the residents of the two cities
an hourly daily service, the trip consuming about thirty minutes.
As was anticipated, business has been stimulated by this enterprise, and the prospects of Woodland and the county
generally are brighter than at any previous time. Extensive improvements are being made in Woodland in public and
private buildings, streets are being macadamized, and the sentiment is decidedly optimistic Within three years
the best lands have doubled in value, yet the demand for the same is increasing. Beet culture has done much to
stimulate values. There are possibly six thousand acres under cultivation, the yield has been good and of exceptional
quality. Through the example set by beet men, many fine wells have been developed for purposes of irrigation by
electric power in different sections of the county. The near future promises cheap power, as several power companies
are headed for Yolo