John Center, "Father of the Mission" dies at his Sixteenth Street" Home
Was Pioneer of Pioneers
Planted Business Part of District to Vegetables
Played Important Part in Building the City
A man of Strict Integrity He Set Principal Above Convenience or Fortune
(Those are all captioned in the Newspaper heading)
(This is the body of the article)
<< The Mission Times Saturday July 25, 1908.>>
John Center, the "Father of the Mission" died at his residence at he corner of Shotwell and Sixteenth streets last Sunday, at the advanced age of 91 years.Few men have done more in the building of San Francisco than he; none has taken a larger part or had a wider influence in the development of that part of the city which lies from thirteenth street south to a county line.I has well been said of him that his name appears at least once upon every abstract of title to mission real estate..........
A Native of Scotland
The dead pioneer was a native of Aberdeenshire, Scotland where he was born in 1817. Before he attained his majority, in fact, before he had celebrated his twentieth birthday, he left his native island, to become one of the builders of the new America.
He reached the new world in 1836 when the tremendous possibilities of the Middle West were just beginning to be realized. To be sure, even then, Ohio was practically a wilderness while the territory west of the Mississippi was an unknown land. As for California, the territory was yet to be brought to the attention of the Atlantic States by the Mexican War. there was a world of opportunity at the feet of the young Scotsman, and he was not the man to let opportunity pass unheeded.
In Wisconsin Mines
The now famous Iron mines of Wisconsin were then just coming before this country, and their possibilities appealed to him strongly. He accordingly cast his lot in the then western wilderness, where he labored for more than a decade. There, in the Wisconsin forests, news that gold had been discovered in California reached him. He was then in his prime, 31 years old. With the sound judgment amounting almost to intuition which characterized his entire career, he recognized the possibilities of the territory of the El Dorado which within two years was to be admitted to full statehood. He lost no time in settling up his affairs in Wisconsin preparatory to starting West. In October 1849, he arrived in San Fransisco.
Conditions in California
He found on the beach that skirted what is now Montgomery street, men from every quarter of the globe, all gold mining mad. For them there was but one purpose in life, to reach the mines. Famine prices ruled for all commodities, but few dared to sacrifice the opportunities offered at the mines to engage in trade, and no one so much as thought to become a producer. with strawberries selling at 25 cents each, with peaches commanding 2.50 a piece, with onions and potatoes a dollar a pound, Center recognized that more gold was to be made in California from the production of vegetables and fruits than was to be dug from mines. So he gave up all idea of hunting for gold bearing sands, but went in a quest for land that would grow vegetables. He hunted the peninsula over for it, going out over the sand hills of what is now Market Street, into the rich level ground of what the generations that were to come after him were to call the Mission. here he found what he sought, and here he spent the balance of his life, three score years,in managing interests which under his guiding hand grew in value from hundreds, to thousands, to millions.
The Center Gardens which he established soon became one if the show places of the country south of San Fransisco. They covered that territory which lies between Folsom, Mission, fourteenth and Seventeenth streets. Here the pioneer gardener experimented with every variety of seed and plant that he could secure. He has, of course, many discouraging failure, but he also met with more than compensating successes. the prices which he received were fabulous. One year, for example, from a single acre he sold 30,000 worth of onions.
Pioneer Real Estate Dealer
Convinced from the beginning that soil and climate were favorable to the cherries and pears, from which he eventually received enormous returns. Some of these fruit trees. set out more than fifty years ago, survive the dead planter. Some of the trees are to be seen at the Spreckels home on Howard street; others still produce fruit at the Center place on sixteenth and Shotwell streets, where the man who planted them lived for more than half a century, and where he died. Intent though he was in his garden and orchard enterprises, the pioneer gardener was alive to the growth of the young city, and quick to note its possibilities. His own experience in the Mission district convinced him that here was the ideal residence part of the peninsula. As early as 1864, he set about in his characteristic forceful way to take advantage of the opportunities for settlement which he was among the first to recognize. He accordingly secured the property bounded by Mission, Harrison, ninteenth and twenty-fourth streets, known in those days as the Union Race Course, for subdivision purposes. This he cut up into town lots and put on the market. The success of the enterprise was immediate. The sale was so successful that Mr. Center purchased and subdivided the Pioneer Race Track property, which included the lands lying
between Potrero avenue and Howard street, and south of Twenty-fourth. In the purchase of lots in these two tracts, hundreds not only secured homes, but lay the foundation of fortunes which were eventually to be told in stories of five and even six ciphers.
But the pioneer's enterprises were not confined to real estate transactions. He was one of the first to see the possibilities of woolen manufacture, and was largely instrumental in the establishment of the woolen mills which were long a feature of Mission industry. But more important was the organization of the cotton manufacturing enterprises, of which he was pioneer leader and promoter, and which has developed into an establishment with an investment of upwards of 2,000,000 with factories in East Oakland. This factory gives employment to hundreds of skilled operatives, and it is one of the most important on the coast. Mr. Center continued, up to the time of his death, one of the principal directing forces of the enterprise.
As a Road Builder
But more important in the shaping of the future San Fransisco that all his other enterprises, was the work of road building on which he devoted the better part of twenty years of his active life. When he planted his gardens with the present Thirteenth street as their northern boundary, a wilderness of sand lay between his property and the rapidly built city of tents and huts along what is now Montgomery street. Walking over these sand dunes was difficult; teaming impossible. Mr. Center conceived the idea of building plank roads out through the sand into what is now the Mission District.
he broached the subject in the early 60's but met with little encouragement. He finally secured permission, however,to build plank toll roads, which he did, following the lines of what are now folsom and Mission streets. Like the majority of the enterprising pioneers undertakings, the toll roads proved successful from the start. A demand that they be extended to the Santa Clara county line, led to the contract for the construction of the extension being awarded to Mr. Center. This was deemed a tremendously large undertaking in those days, but Center completed his contract to the satisfaction of all. For years this road was used by the thousands who were in pioneer days constantly passing between San Fransisco and the Santa Clara Valley.
Street Car Service
The plank road was to have its day in the development of San Fransisco, to give way to the horse car, which was i its turn to be supplanted by the cable car, which was to pass with the application of electricity to traction. But of the several changes, the running of the street car was the most important in the development of San Fransisco. Mr. Center was foremost among the organizers of the street car enterprise, being one of the investors in and directors of the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company. He was for years active in the management of this enterprise, which made it possible for the downtown merchant of forty years ago to have his home south of Thirteenth street. The building of the steam railroad line between this city and San Jose was another tremendously large undertakings for the pioneers. the road was built by the San Fransisco and San Jose Railroad Company of which Mr. Center was one of the organizers and most loyal supporters, back it not only with his tremendous industry and enterprise, but with his fortune. The building of the road, in which he played so conspicuous a part, was a long step in the development of the San Fransisco which the generation knows.
Could Always See His Way
None of the large enterprises which he engaged was taken haphazard. Many of them were radical departures from the beaten track, but were engaged in with an astonishing foresight which characterizes all the John Center did. Not only was this illustrated in his large public enterprises, but in his private affairs. Convinced, for example, that the Spring Valley water service would one day prove inadequate, he sank wells on his property at Sixteenth and Shotwell streets, put up tanks and stored water against the day when Spring Valley should fail the city. A quarter of a century later the day of need came. The great fire was stopped and Sixteenth and Folsom streets with water from the John Center tanks, and millions of dollars worth of property lying south of sixteenth saved. Since the fire, hundreds have followed the example set by the pioneer builder a quarter of a century ago, and have put up storage tanks against the day of possible disaster.
Steadfast for Principle
In all his extensive business operations, Mr. Center was governed by a strict intergrity, and a stern sense of responsibility and duty, inherited from a long line of right-living, right-thinking ancestor. He aimed to do right by all men regardless of the consequences to John Center, and required with iron resolution that those with whom he had dealing should show the some consideration for him. Such was his policy in all his dealings, large or small. The magnitude of an enterprise never seemed to impress him so much as the principles involved; no undertaking could in his estimation be so important as to permit the sacrifice of principle. This stern view rigidly adhered to in his personal as will as his business and public enterprises, earned him a reputation for fair dealing which he unquestionably prized infinitely beyond the fortune which he accumulated. Throughout his lifetime John Center practiced a practical philanthropy which gave many a man his start on the road upward to success. As quick to assist the worthy and deserving, as he was to discover and refuse the sloughful and the imposter, his philanthropy was a positive and effective as his business judgment.
Lesson of His Life
Such is a brief sketch of the career of the man who long ago earned for himself the title, "Father of the Mission". In his lifetime he saw, after a half century's building in which he took active part, a great city cover the peninsula which he had found a wilderness of sand and the virgin soil of part of which he had broken and brought under cultivation. In a twilling, he saw the city a half century's building lay in a mass of ruins. And he lived to see younger hands than his undertake the re building, until some hint of the magnificence of the second city was given him. And then he died.
True to his principles, true to his neighbor, true to himself, John Center set an example of sturdy righteousness, more important than the roads that he built, the mills that he established or the fortune that he accumulated. In a large way San Fransisco has profited by the works of John Center; in these days of too common sacrifice of principle for gain the community has more to profit in his example.