“We have just received the horrible news of the assassination of President Lincoln — San Francisco is one mass of excitement. There were some copperhead (pro-Southern) papers here and the mob just cleaned them out very quickly. Their type, papers and everything belonging to the offices were pitched into the streets . . . Business is entirely suspended and every building is draped in deep mourning.”
– A letter from Robert E. Jack to his parent dated April 19, 1865.
The 73,000-acre Jack Ranch in Cholame continues to receive notoriety for an event on Sept. 30, 1955 at the junction of Highway 46 (formerly 466) and Highway 41.
Actor James Dean's new Porsche 550 Spyder crashed into Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed’s Ford station wagon. Dean was dead on arrival at the Paso Robles Hospital and an American legend was born.
The stainless steel Dean memorial at the Jack Ranch Café has overshadowed a legendary ranch and Maine-born Robert Edgar Jack, the man who along with his father-in-law, Col. W. W. Hollister, created it.
R. E. Jack’s early life reads a bit like Forrest Gump. He was connected to many of American history’s great events. He left Maine Wesleyan Seminary to become an accountant with a shipping house in New York City. The Civil War had begun and Jack enlisted in the 56th New York Infantry.
His regiment moved to Harrisburg, Pa. to support the Union troops in the Battle of Gettysburg. They were quickly returned to help quell the anti-Negro riots in New York City. These riots remain the largest racial insurrection in American history.
Near the end of the war, Jack traveled by ship to Panama, crossed the isthmus and boarded a ship for San Francisco. Col. W. W. Hollister had made his fortune by driving 12,000 sheep from Missouri to California to feed the miners during the Gold Rush. The Colonel needed an accountant and secretary to operate his vast San Justo Ranch surrounding the present town of Hollister.
Hollister and Jack subdivided that property and together purchased the Cholame Rancho. Jack married Lucy Ellen “Nelli” Hollister in 1870 and after the death of Colonel Hollister, purchased Hollister’s interest in the Cholame. Jack became the largest wool grower in Central California. He converted the ranch to diversified agriculture and cattle.
Jack’s entrepreneurial and political interests also diversified. Like many Union Army veterans, he rose quickly in the ranks of the Republican Party, organized the County Bank of San Luis Obispo and promoted the arrival of Southern Pacific’s Coast Route. He became a principal in the West Coast Land Company that had subdivisions from San Miguel to Los Alamos and the Lompoc Valley.
During the “land boom” of the 1880s he built the two-story Italianate Victorian house on Marsh Street which his son, Howard, gave to the city of San Luis Obispo before his death in 1973.
Howard also gave the R. E. Jack papers to the city and they were taken to Cal Poly Library’s Special Collections and beautifully organized by Elinor Smith for the Jack House Committee. Marilyn L. Darnell of San Luis Obispo has edited the earlier papers, publishing them as Anything but Dull - The Personal letters of R.E. Jack: His Legacy from Maine to California 1856-1869. The book lives up to its title!
The History Center of San Luis Obispo County is hosting a special exhibit titled “The Jack Ranch: History Doesn’t Stop,” at 696 Monterey St. through Aug. 3. In 1965, Howard Jack sold the ranch to the Hearst Corporation. It’s more than a coincidence that the History Center is hosting another exhibit titled “Phoebe Apperson Hearst: California’s Grande Dame” through Nov. 2.
Everyone interested in the history of our region should read Marilyn’s book and see these exhibits.