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James Lick, Miser and Philanthropist

by Gail MacGowan

Miserly, selfish, reclusive, “touched in the head,” – but absolutely honest and an astute business-man. This is what James Lick’s contemporaries thought of the eccentric, disagreeable Gold Rush pioneer who, at the end of his long life, astonished them by using his millions to benefit his adopted state.

Lick’s Beginnings

Born in rural Pennsylvania in 1796, James Lick learned fine cabinetmaking from his father, and from his mother inherited a passion for gardening. He fell in love with the daughter of the local miller, and when she became pregnant with his child he sought her hand in marriage. The rude rebuff he received from her father would mark Lick for life: the wealthy miller ridiculed him, saying that only when Lick owned a mill as large and costly as his could he consider the marriage.

His dreams dashed, the furious Lick relocated to Baltimore, where he learned to build pianos, then in 1821 moved to South America to start his own piano manufacturing business. Lick remained there for twenty-seven years, living first in Buenos Aires, Argentina, then in Valparaiso, Chile, and finally in Lima, Peru. In 1832, after making his first fortune, he returned briefly to Pennsylvania to claim his bride and 14-year-old son, only to learn that she had married another. James Lick never married.

Onward to California

He was already in his 50s when, believing California would soon become part of the United States, he sold his considerable South American assets and boarded a ship north. He arrived in San Francisco on January 7, 1848 – 17 days before James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill. Lick brought with him his cabinetmaking workbench and tools, 600 pounds of chocolate made by his former neighbor in Lima,

Domingo Ghirardelli, and $30,000 in gold coins from selling his piano business. (The chocolate sold so well that Lick convinced Ghirardelli to relocate to San Francisco.)

Upon his arrival in the village of San Francisco, Lick set about buying land. In three months, he spent $7,000 to buy 50 San Francisco lots, most of which he kept for the rest of his life. One notable exception was the lot at Montgomery and Jackson that he bought for $3,000; in 1853 he sold it for $32,000 to William Tecumseh Sherman to build a new bank.

Lick also bought large tracts in Santa Clara County as well as parcels near Lake Tahoe, in Napa County, in Virginia City, Nevada, and in present-day Griffith Park in Los Angeles. He also acquired Catalina Island.

He himself lived very austerely in the South Bay for most of his twenty-eight years in California. There he planted imported plum, apricot, and pear trees and pioneered new horticultural techniques. Tales are told of the rail-thin Lick, dressed in shabby old clothes, coming to town and traveling from restaurant to restaurant to collect their old bones to grind into fertilizer for his orchards. He also built a garret for 1,000 pigeons so he could fertilize with their manure.

It was in Santa Clara County, too, that Lick sought his revenge on the now-dead Pennsylvania miller who so long ago had rudely shunned the enamored young suitor’s request for his daughter’s hand. Lick spared no expense in building a mill of cedar and exotic woods costing the unheard of sum of over $200,000. Lick ultimately gave the mill to Baltimore’s Paine Memorial Society, which made him furious when they sold it for only $18,000. The “Mahogany Mill” was destroyed by fire in 1882.

In 1855, at Lick’s request, his son John, then 37, came from Pennsylvania to live with the father he had never known. Near the mill Lick built the beautiful 24-room Lick Mansion, but lived there only briefly before abandoning its opulence to construct a less pretentious home. John Lick had a difficult time with his cantankerous father and returned to Pennsylvania in 1863. The Lick Mansion and grounds were preserved and today are open to the public.

Despite his disdain for luxurious accommodations, in 1862 Lick opened the opulent Lick House, a three-story luxury hotel on Montgomery between Post and Sutter. Its magnificent dining room, a copy of one Lick had seen at the Palace of Versailles on his one trip to Europe, became the meeting place of San Francisco’s elite. The Lick House was destroyed in the 1906 fire. From Miser to Philanthropist

At age 77, James Lick was disabled by a stroke. The next year he announced he was setting up a trust to distribute his fortune, which at his death two years later totaled $2,930,654. He specified the following gifts:

• Lick Observatory: Lick gave $700,000 to fulfill his obsession to build the world’s largest telescope. He initially wanted it built on his land at 4th and Montgomery, then at Lake Tahoe, but was finally convinced to purchase Mount Hamilton in Santa Clara County.

• California School of Mechanical Arts: $540,000 built Lick School, which is today Lick-Willmerding High School. For many years the carpentry workbench Lick brought from South America in 1848 sat in the school’s entrance hall.

• Public Baths: $150,000 was used to construct free public baths for San Francisco’s poor. They opened in 1890 at 10th and Howard and operated until 1919.

• Pioneer Monument: $100,000 was ear-marked for this historical statue erected at Grove and Hyde in 1894, and now located between the New Main Library and the Asian Art Museum.

• Old Ladies Home: $100,000 built the home on University Mound in southern San Francisco.

• Protestant Orphan Asylum, Ladies Protestant Relief Society, and San Jose Orphans: Each received $25,000. The Protes-tant Orphan Asylum was never built.

• Mechanics Institute and SPCA: $10,000 contributions went to each.

• Francis Scott Key Monument: $60,000 was set aside to honor the author of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

• Family Monument (in Pennsylvania): Lick gave $46,000 for a monument to his grandfather, who had fought under George Washington.

• Son John Lick and collateral heirs: $535,000

Sharing the estate’s remaining $604,656 were:

• Society of California Pioneers: Founding member Lick had donated land at Montgomery and Gold in 1859 for its first building. He was the Society’s president at the time of his death.

• California Academy of Sciences: Lick had previously given them land on Market Street between 4th and 5th. They used the estate funds to build a public museum. It was destroyed in 1906.

James Lick died October 1, 1876. His remains are interred under the dome of the Lick Observatory.

Sources: Block, Eugene: The Immortal San Franciscans; Finson, Bruce: “The Legacy of James Lick,” SF Examiner/Chronicle California Living Section, 3/6/1977; Lick, Rosemary: The Generous Miser; Worrilow, Wm. H.: James Lick, 1796-1876, Pioneer and Adventurer;; James Lick file, SF History Room, SF Public Library.

Photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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An undated drawing of James Lick

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Lick's gift of a monument to Francis Scott Key was unveiled in Golden Gate Park in 1888. Key's "Star Spangled Banner," published in 1814 when Lick was 18, was the most popular song of its day.

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After ordering a copy of London's Kew Gardens for his San Jose property, Lick changed his mind. His heirs donated it to San Francisco, whose citizens raised the funds for its construction in Golden Gate Park.

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The opulent dining room of The Lick House hotel on Montgomery at Sutter seated 400 and boasted walls and floors of exotic woods and three crystal chandeliers imported from Venice.

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Lick School at 16th and Utah merged with Willmerding School of Industrial Arts in 1915 and moved to Ocean Avenue in 1956.

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The Lick Old Ladies' Home, later renamed the University Mound Old Ladies' Home, is shown here in 1930 before it moved to a new building in 1932.

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