William Wright Historic Farm House

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It may surprise many current residents, but Cherryhill neighborhood is in fact one of the oldest in California.

Most schoolchildren in Sunnyvale are taught about the founding of this city. That is, how the Murphy-Stephens-Townsend party, in one of the greatest pioneer journeys in American history, crossed the plains and became the first party of families to cross the Sierra Nevada.

Kids usually are also taught some of the remarkable anecdotes of that journey: how, while crossing a snowmelt swollen Yuba River, baby Elizabeth´s sling was lifted off the saddle pommel of the horse on which see was riding, and she was swept away – only to be rescued and renamed Elizabeth Yuba Murphy. Or how Moses Schallenberger stayed behind at Donner Lake to guard the party´s supplies as the rest raced over the snow-covered pass &ndash and ended up being the first American to survive a winter on the mountains. Or how the Murphy party rested at Sutter´s Fort – only to be enlisted into fighting in the Bear Flag Revolt that created the State of California. Or how the Murphy men formed the team that went back over the Sierra and rescued the ill-fated Donner Party (who weren´t as organized or resourceful as the Murphy party had been in the same situation).

Schoolkids (and their parents) are usually surprised to realize that many place names they know – Schallenberger Rd. in San Jose, Stevens Creek (a misspelling of Stephens name), and the scores of Murphy´s (including everything from Murphy St. in Sunnyvale to Murphy´s in the Gold Country) – are named for that pioneering party. But what is not usually taught is what happened after the Murphys arrived in the Bay Area. Martin Murphy Sr., who was the aging patriarch of the Irish family, but it was Martin Murphy Jr. who is historically the most important and dynamic figure, and the founder of Sunnyvale.

He was looking for pasture land, and there was none better than in the southern San Francisco Peninsula. The bad news was that the land had been divided up as giant ranchos years before and awarded by the Spanish crown (later the Mexican government) to politically-connected speculators. The good news was that these land barons, at least the shrewder ones, recognized that American pioneers would soon overrun the territory, and that the American government was much more interested in governing the region than the Mexican government was.

One of those padrones was Sr. Castro, who had been awarded the entire region of what is now Mountain View, Sunnyvale and parts of Santa Clara, and his ranch was named Rancho Pastoria de las Borregas. Castro saw the writing on the wall and decided to sell a large section of the ranch – not only to cash out, but to enjoy the protection of a partnership with an American.

He made a smart choice in picking Martin Murphy Jr. as his partner, as Murphy was a kind of genius land speculator: he would reportedly become, before his death forty years later, the largest private citizen land-owner on Earth, with huge holdings not only in the South Bay, but vast tracts from Gilroy south and entire regions in Argentina. On his 50th anniversary he would invite the entire state of California to the party – the largest social event in the state in the 19th century.

Murphy immediately took two momentous steps. First, he ordered a house built in New England, dismantled and shipped around the Horn to California. This was the legendary Murphy House, the first true American home in California . . . and stupidly destroyed by Sunnyvale´s city father´s in 1960 [The new Sunnyvale Historical Museum, which will open at the Community Center on Fairoaks is a reproduction of that house]. Second, in order to establish his foothold in the area, Murphy sold comparatively small segments of his holdings to other Americans. The first and most important of these was William Wright.

Wright was a department store clerk in Baltimore in the late 1840s, and like many other young men at the time, read ‘penny dreadfuls’ and was soon filled with the desire to head to California and make his fortune in the Gold Rush. Pooling his money with a group of fellow clerks, he booked passage on a ship heading around Cape Horn to California.

They almost didn´t make it: after being abandoned in Buenos Aires by an unscrupulous captain, sitting becalmed and almost dying of thirst off Baja, they at last made it to San Francisco – whereupon several members of the group gave up and went home. In the end, only Wright and one other young man of the group would end up staying and being part of the Gold Rush.

Wright never made a big fortune, but he did find some gold – and was smart enough to use it to buy supplies in Sacramento and open up a store in the Gold Fields near China Flat. And with that money he headed to Santa Clara County. His timing was once again perfect, because Martin Murphy, fearful of a swarm of squatters coming down from the gold fields, agreed to sell him 320 acres. Ultimately, we believe, Wright´s holdings grew to about 640 acres – roughly a square mile, covering a rectangular area running from Homestead to about Knickerbocker or El Camino, and from Mary to Bernardo. In later years this farm would be surrounded by other farms with familiar names: Hollenbeck, Stelling, etc.

The Wright House, as you know, still stands, and is the oldest house in Sunnyvale – and probably the oldest American house in the South Bay. The plaque on the driveway says it was built in 1862; but that is just the earliest record of the house. It was, in fact, likely built about 1851-52 as a single room shack within the current foundation (roughly the entry hall and library). As Wright grew his farm, the shack was expanded to include several rooms for hired hands and even a simple second floor.

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The 1862 date is actually a good milestone for when the Wright house began to take on its current appearance. As near as we can piece together, it was in that year that Wright´s new wife arrived from Baltimore. She was probably an arranged marriage, or mail-order bride, and was probably hoping to get out of Maryland (the Battle of Antietam was just a year away) and the war-torn East. They were married for fifty years.

In preparation for her arrival, Wright appears to have spruced up the house, turning it into a vernacular American Gothic of the era, with a front porch and single large center gable. There is a lithograph of the house, drawn in 1876, showing the water tower/tank house in its original location about 100 feet behind the house. There is also an interesting possibility that Mrs. Wright brought with her a memento of her old life, a holly seed or plant, and planted it within view of that central gable. If that is the case, then the ancient holly tree in the current yard is the oldest example of that species in California.

The next important era for the neighborhood was 1890-1910. William Wright Jr. and his family now lived in the house and ran the farm. Wright Jr. had been a pioneer in artesian wells and orchardry in the County, and now the farm became a showpiece. An 1895 photograph shows him and his family standing amongst cornstalks that are at least 12 feet tall. He also planted (in about 1895) the tall palm tree that still stands behind the house.

To have visited the Wright farm in 1910, you would have come down from a train station on what is now Foothill Expressway or Stevens Creek Blvd. Today´s Wright Avenue would have been the mile-long entrance driveway to the farm, a long tunnel through endless plum, prune-plum, cherry and apricot trees. This driveway would have led you to the big fruit drying sheds located about half-way between the farm house and what is now De Anza Park – this spared the Wright´s from the noise, lights and dust from the trucks.

To have reached the farmhouse, you would have turned left and parked on a large driveway loop in front of the house. That loop passed through the pairs of giant eucalyptus trees that now stand on either end of the Wright House lawn. The two big date palms (and probably the huge redwood trees) were planted about 1910-20.

The Wright farm was very successful, and William Jr. used his profits to transform the aging farmhouse to its current neo-classical style by adding the living room extension, turning the back porch into a solarium, cutting the single gable down and making it three, and most of all, creating the distinctive portico.

William Wright Jr. died in an accident in one of the pump houses (where the big tanks are today) about 1920, and his widow eventually had to sell the farm during the Depression. The Wright descendents, like the Murphy children before them, left the farm and moved to local cities – though they had none of the impact of the Murphy´s, who built Santa Clara University, University of the Pacific, and many of the big Victorian mansions in downtown San Jose.

The Wright House went through several owners over the next sixty years, including Sunnyvale´s first city manager, a retired Ford executive, a well-known local doctor named Humphries and the somewhat-notorious Seagraves (who tried, and failed because of neighborhood resistance, to turn the farmhouse into a B&B). Meanwhile, the Murphy ranch became Murphy Station – then, thanks to an ambitious real estate developer, was renamed Sunnyvale.

The Wright Farm, already home to a number of small homes and plots rented to employees (you can still find them around the neighborhood), was slowly sold off to developers hoping to cash in on the post-war boom. This neighborhood of Brown & Kaufman homes was built in the 1960s, a few years after the relatively famous Eichler neighborhood nearby. The grid of Sunnyvale, largely aligned to El Camino, Mary and Homestead, resulted in a layout of suburban ranch houses in which the Wright House essentially faced sideways to the nearly created Cranberry Avenue, but aligned with the now-walled off Wright Avenue.

But the historic importance of this neighborhood hardly ended with the rise of suburbia. On the contrary, it had just begun.

You could make a very strong case that the modern world was created on the old Wright Farm . . .and certainly it saw the one of the greatest intersections of historic figures in the 20th century.

That´s not overstating the case: on a given afternoon in the late 1960s, had you stood at the corner of Fremont and Bernardo, you might have seen Robert Noyce driving home from Intel (which he co-founded) to his house in Los Altos; one of his employees, Ted Hoff, going home to his house right at that corner, and Steve Wozniak riding his bicycle home from Cherry Chase swim practice to his Eichler on Wright Avenue. In other words, you would have seen the convergence of the inventors of the integrated circuit, the microprocessor and the first popular personal computer – all at an anonymous intersection in Sunnyvale. Indeed, Woz, Jobs and Fernandez bought parts for the Apple I at Owen Whetzel´s hobby shop in what is now the Hallmark Shop at Westmoor Shopping Center, once again on the old Wright Farm.

There´s a lot more history to this neighborhood than that: earthquakes, suicides, a tornado, etc. But those are stories for another time.

Michael S. Malone

Michael S. Malone is an author, television producer, and journalist. He is the current owner of the Wright House.