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April 27, 2010 > History: The Mystery of Palmdale

History: The Mystery of Palmdale

By Phil Holmes

The origin of most local place names is well known. Everyone recognizes Fremont Blvd., Irvington High and Central Park. Those a little more obscure can be researched. For example, Lake Elizabeth is named for a former sister city; Paseo Padre Parkway makes reference to the travels of the early missionaries. However, the origin of "Palmdale" is more obscure!

Those who've attended functions there and have walked its paths are enchanted by the elegance of the buildings and grounds at this jewel in the heart of Mission San Jose. Much is known about its owners and its rich history, but there is little agreement on its name. This is the mystery of Palmdale.

It was Oroysom, the home of Native Americans for many years. It became mission land when Mission San Jose was founded in 1797. Mission workers planted trees there, including palm trees.

John Horner, Elias Beard and George Tingley bought 30,000 acres of Mission San Jose land that included the Mission from Pio Pico, the Mexican governor of California, and his brother Andres Pico. Beard whose family lived in the mission quadrangle.

Beard planted vineyards, orchards, gardens, more palm trees and conducted a nursery. When the United States government returned the mission and some 28 acres to the church, Beard built a home across Mission Boulevard and moved his family there. Some historians wrote that he called his nursery Palmdale, which comes from a German word that means "Palms in the valley." We certainly have palms, and they are on the edge of our valley.

John Horner and Elias Beard secured financing for their extensive farming operations from the banking firm of Palmer and Cook Company of San Francisco. Joseph Palmer sometimes visited Beard at Mission San Jose. He liked the area so much that he bought the Peak Vineyard in 1852, established a residence there and helped develop Mission San Jose as a grape and wine producing area. His residence and vineyard are pictured in the 1878 Atlas of Alameda County. Some writers claimed that he called his country home Palmdale, but it was located more nearly where Ohlone College is now. Historian William Halley wrote in 1876 that Palmer had the best and most extensive vineyard in the county. Here is a common tradition that Palmdale was named for the Palmer family, but we have no evidence to connect the name with the family.

Juan Gallegos came from Costa Rica by way of San Francisco to Mission San Jose. He bought the Beard ranch between Mission San Jose and Irvington, established a 600 acre vineyard, built Palmdale Winery, planted more palm trees and turned Beard's nursery into a paradise he also called Palmdale. He planted an avenue of olive trees along a road we now call Olive Avenue. Charles Shinn wrote in 1889 that "The old E. L. Beard garden home has had a name and fame second to no farm in California."

The parade for the centennial celebration for Mission San Jose in 1897 formed in the main avenue of the Palmdale grounds. The culmination of the celebration was a Spanish style barbecue held in the beautiful Palmdale grounds" an idyllic place with its lawns shaded with rows of stately palms." The Gallegos family served the guests "pure wines from the Gallegos Cellar."

Then hard times came upon the Gallegos family, and they were forced to sell most of the estate in 1904. Henry Lachman purchased Palmdale, moved and planted palms and advertised the gardens as a place where "springs never fail and frosts never come." Palmdale was publicized as "the magnificent country estate of Henry Lachman" and was predicted to be known as "the most beautiful place in California." In a 1910 article it was labeled "the Grandest Home in the World."

Henry Lachman died in 1915. The Sam Metzgar and Alvin Davis families took over the property and rented it or hired a ranch manager. Matt Whitfield, Sr. moved his family there in 1927 to manage the ranch, and the Whitfield name became forever linked with Palmdale.

Hazel Starr and her sister Irene Best bought Palmdale in 1927. They cemented the bottom of one of the four pools, but it cracked and was filled in. They still had some problems with the creek flooding. Irene installed lots of shrines in the gardens.

The Sisters of the Holy Family purchased Palmdale in 1949 to serve as the center of their administration and continued to enjoy it as a special refuge for rest, relaxation, inspiration, and meditation. They invited guests to enjoy the estate which included two large ornamental ponds, two oriental gardens, a redwood grove and two famous houses. Matt Whitfield, Jr. who grew up on the ranch helped the Sisters build the Motherhouse in the fifties. He was honored at the annual 1994 summer benefit, "Palmdale Under the Stars."

Yet the mystery remains. Who first named it? Was it Elias Beard, Juan Gallegos, Joseph Palmer or someone else? Does it really matter? What's important is that the Sisters of the Holy Family have been guardians of Palmdale for 70 years and have preserved its beauty for future generations. They are determined to preserve the land, gardens, historic buildings and shrines as close as possible to "their current serene state."

It has been renamed many times by writers through the years, but apparently no one has campaigned to change the name. Palmdale appears to be immune from those periodic attempts to change names of places.

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