A story of my great-great grandfather: a man from Standish who visited the residence of the President, dined at the US Capitol and didn’t quite become a wine mogul in California…
Lots of us have discovered the joys and frustrations of researching our family history online. I’ve created a Family Tree on Ancestry.com and posted before about some of the exploits of my ancestors that I’ve been able to uncover.
The process is very similar to physical archaeology or, I imagine, gold-mining. It involves long periods of frustration punctuated by short instances of blinding discovery, the thrill of which is enough to sustain the addiction to persevere through the next, inevitable long period of frustration.
This time, it was my cousin, Adam, who found the nugget of gold while out prospecting. He was following up on a totally different part of the family story when he came across this story in the 25th January 1913 edition of the ‘Wigan Observer’ – exactly 110 years old.
It appears our great-great grandfather, James Bentham, former cattle dealer and farmer had, in December 1912, been part of a delegation of wine investors to inspect a vineyard in Wahtoke, just outside Fresno, California. If you Google ‘Wahtoke’, you find the settlement is now abandoned but but was established enough to have a US Post Office between 1905 and 1916.
What’s most interesting about the letter is his description of arriving in Washington DC, en route, and managed to find themselves being received at the White House “where the President [William Howard Taft] and Cabinet were sitting in one portion of the building”. They subsequently visited other Governmental buildings, including the Capitol, where they witnessed an impeachment hearing and were then invited to dine.
The letter includes a number of interesting details of the trip from Liverpool to Wahtoke, via New York, Washington, New Orleans, El Paso and Los Angeles, including something of a fixation with the quality of paving. Remember also that they made that Liverpool to New York crossing, in “exceptionally rough” seas, only eight months after the loss of the Titanic.
Here is the letter, transcribed in full, by Adam and copied and pasted, by me:
From The Wigan Observer and District Advertiser, Saturday 25th January 1913.
A Wigan Gentleman in California
Mr Samuel Taylor, J.P. the Chairman of Directors of Anglo-California Vineyards Ltd. has received the following letter from Mr. James Bentham (of Wigan and Blackpool) who is now on a visit to California.
December 26th 1912
Dear Mr. Taylor
I left Liverpool on the 30th November with my friend, Mr. Crompton of Preston, for the purpose of personally inspecting this vineyard, which was recently acquired by friends, principally in Wigan, Southport and Blackpool districts, and floated as the Anglo-Californian Vineyards Ltd. about which I shall have more to say later on.
The sea journey was exceptionally rough, even for this time of the year, as we had to face north-western gales and high seas for about seven days, and we landed in New York on the 9th day. We found this city with 16 degrees of frost, and were not long in making up our minds to go out west. Our impression of New York, with its badly paved streets and network of tram and railway lines, was not good enough to induce us to spend much time there.
We, therefore, made our way in the afternoon to Washington. The whole of the land between these cities, so far as could be seen from the train, was nothing but swamp and barren land. We were delighted with Washington, the streets being very wide and well laid out. The public buildings are also of a very high order, and we were privileged to enter the ‘White House’ where the President and Cabinet were sitting in one portion of the building.
We visited the Treasury, Army and Navy, and other public buildings (inside) including the Capitol, where we had the pleasure of listening to a debate of the Senators (who were trying to unseat the member for Philadelphia for corruption at his election) after which we had the privilege of dining in the building.
In the evening we left for New Orleans, passing through Mobile, which is the great shipping port for timber in the Gulf of Mexico. On arrival at New Orleans we were introduced to several members of the Cotton Exchange, who were kind enough to make us members for 10 days, thus enabling us to be present at the sales when the important announcement of the total cotton crop was made. It is impossible to describe the excitement that took place for about half an hour. The city is wretchedly paved outside the principal streets, but the buildings are fine.
We left at midnight, the whole train passing over the Mississippi River by ferry in three sections, and in the morning we were in Texas, which grows more than one fourth of the cotton in America. We were two days and nights passing through this large state, which is called a ‘dry State’ which means that you cannot even get a bottle of lager to dinner.
We picked up a lot of soldiers who were going out to quell the rebellion in Mexico, and put them off there at a place called El Paso. Finally, we reached Los Angeles, where we might have spent a day or two in a beautiful city, but we were anxious to get to our destination, and went on to Fresno, where we had to remain two days before coming here.
And now I must say something of Alameda. After a week’s stay and general inspection we have come to the conclusion that there is no better cultivated land or better kept vineyard in California; the houses and buildings are quite equal to the land.
I see from the papers (one of which I am sending you) that the value of land is going up greatly in this district.
I am, yours faithfully,
I’ve learned that it’s dangerous to take anything like this at face value so there are some layers of verification to apply before we take for granted that this story is as it appears.
First, James and his wife Alice lived in Standish for many years, first on High Street, then at While Hall on Cross Street (approximately where Standish Library now stands) and then at Broomfield House on Bradley Lane, where both my Dad (Jim) and Adam’s mum (Anne) grew up. In the 1911 census, James and Alice are shown as living at ’42 Chesterfield Road, Blackpool’. The specific reference of “Mr. James Bentham (of Wigan and Blackpool)” leaves far less possibility that it applies to another James Bentham.
Having moved out of the family farm and (as we’d say today) ‘downsized’, it’s also more likely that he would have the capital to both invest and travel. I’ve often wondered why he and Alice moved to Blackpool. Alice died in December 1913, aged 66, so my theory always was that they moved to “take the [sea] air”, as was common for people living with poor health in those days. There’s no reference to Alice accompanying him on this journey. She may have been unwilling, unwell or simply uninvited.
What happened next? Was James one of the team of investors? What happened to the Alameda Vineyard? Aside from family rumours about of swindling, I can’t say if, or by how much, James was financially involved. Prohibition in 1919 would not have helped the business plan but the loss of the Post Office, during wartime, in 1916, suggests that the town’s fortunes may have receded even before that.
I can say my grandad was born, six weeks after the publication of this letter, on 6th April 1913, although I’m not sure if James, his grandfather, was back in England by then. Two days after Christmas that year, James’ wife, Alice, died and only six months after that, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, leading to the outbreak of the First World War, within weeks. As we now know all too well, James seemed to have been in the process of making plans in a world that was about to change out of all recognition. He lived on until the age of 81 and died in Blackpool in November 1930.
Anyway, here’s a picture of part of the article.