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June 25, 2013 > History: Prominent Palmdale People

History: Prominent Palmdale People

The recent talk about the real estate development plans of the Sisters of the Holy Family got us to thinking about prominent people who have lived on that property since Mission days. Jose Vallejo secured permission from Juan Baptista Alvarado, governor of California, in 1840 to build an adobe house on the land across the road from the Mission San Jose Church. The Vallejo family lived in this house at the corner of Vallejo Street and Washington Boulevard for many years.

Elias Lyman Beard purchased a disputed title to Mission San Jose land including this property in 1849. He built a home there when the mission property was returned to the Church. Beard died in 1880 and, the property went through a series of owners.

Don Juan Gallegos was a wealthy Costa Rican. He married Donna Julia Montealegre, daughter of Dr. Jose Maria Montealegre, a physician and the third president of Costa Rica. He brought both families to San Francisco about 1872.

Gallegos bought the huge Beard ranch in Mission San Jose in June 1881. He remodeled the Beard home, planted more palm trees, and turned the garden into a paradise which he also called Palmdale. He started planting a 600-acre vineyard in 1881 that covered the slopes from Irvington to Mission San Jose, and it was soon called the most marvelous vineyard in California.

Then hard times came to Palmdale and the Gallegos family. Jose Montealegre died in 1887 and was buried in St. Joseph's Cemetery. The price of wine dropped; Phylloxera invaded the area and killed off the vines. Juan Gallegos faced financial ruin and fought to save his empire. He moved the main part of the Montealegre house across Mission Boulevard so his family would have a place to live when he lost his property.

He sold the Palmdale gardens to Henry Lachman and divided the ranch to sell to farmers. He improved the grounds and moved a number of large palms from the old nursery grounds to the swimming pool area in 1908. He also erected a new fence and built a garage large enough to hold several cars. Lachman entertained many famous people and groups at Palmdale. He was a vigorous worker for the first Mission San Jose Chamber of Commerce. His death in July 1915 was a great loss to the community and the restoration effort.

Lachman's sister married Sam Metzgar, who became a famous flying ace in World War I. The Metzgar family lived at Palmdale at various times. Metzar's sisters married Davis brothers; Vera married Alvin Davis, and Elsa married Sylvan Davis. Alvin and Vera lived in a large house - eight bedrooms, maids' quarters and a full basement - near Olive and Starr Street when they were in town. The driveway entered from Washington Boulevard. Their daughter, Marjorie, married Pete Abbenheim. Pete was a local television personality who entertained children as Captain Fortune. The house was called the Fortune House when they lived there. It was later used as a vacation retreat by the Davis family, but burned in 1963.

Hazel Pauline Wagness married Oscar L. Starr, an engineering machinist. Oscar Starr was with the Holt Company in Stockton, and when it became Caterpillar Tractor Company he became first vice president. Hazel and Oscar L. Starr and Irene Hansen, Hazel's sister, purchased Palmdale. Irene married Herbert Hansen, but the marriage ended in divorce. She became a secretary for Daniel Best at the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

Hazel loved her collies and had her chauffeur take them for a daily ride around town. She also enjoyed showing horses. Irene built a Tudor Style house that featured stained glass windows and ceilings with hand-turned wooden borders. She had the shrines built in the Palmdale gardens. The ponds were cemented so that they would hold water, and canoes were provided for guests. Daniel Best founded the Best Manufacturing Company in San Leandro and operated it with his son, Clarence "Leo" who married Irene in 1931. They built the Starr and Best Houses and swimming pool. The gardens were designed by a Frenchman and their overseer was German and the workers were Portuguese.

Leo and Oscar retired and sold Palmdale to the Sisters of the Holy Family and moved away. The Sisters purchased the Palmdale Property including the Best and Starr Homes and transferred the Novitiate from San Francisco. The new Novitiate was dedicated by Archbishop John J. Mitty on August 29, 1949.

The late Felipe "Phil" Galvin came to the Sisters of the Holy Family in June of 1972 and worked there until his retirement in September 2011 as part of the gardening and maintenance staff. His carpentry and painting talents surfaced and he was always available for special projects. His family has remained dedicated to the Sisters through the years.

The body of Dr. Jose Maria Montealegre was exhumed in 1978 and returned to Costa Rica. The winery is gone, the grave is empty, the house has been moved, but the Gallegos legacy lingers on.

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