History of San Lorenzo, California

William Meek -- Pioneer Farmer

William Meek was the model settler-farmer of South County, one of the pioneers of commercial agriculture in Alameda County. From his arrival in 1859 to his death in 1880, he worked energetically to develop the fertile agricultural region in Eden Township and the surrounding area.

Born in 1817, Meek grew up in Ohio and Iowa. Following the tragic death of his young wife and two sons in 1847, Meek left home and emigrated to Oregon. He established the first commercial fruit-tree nursery on the Pacific Coast in the Williamette River Valley, five miles from Portland, with Henderson Lewelling. He started with grafted fruit trees carried from Iowa by wagon train, the first such trees to reach the Pacific Coast. He began shipping trees and fruit to California, receiving fabulous prices for their goods in the lucrative San Francisco Bay Area market.

In 1859 Meek and Lewelling sold out their Oregon holdings and reinvested them lands of the Francisco Soto grant to the north and west of Guillermo Castro's grant and his village of Haywards (as it was then called). Lewelling reestablished his nursery business at San Lorenzo, and later Niles. William Meek began general farming on his large acreage, ultimately three miles of land running north-south between Mission Blvd. and Hesperian Blvd., from San Lorenzo Creek to A Street in Haywards, as it was then called (see 1877 map). His farm contained 2,200 acres of the highest quality deep loam in the state.

During the Civil War Meek develoted himself to grain-growing and sheep-raising, and by 1866 had developed a system of rotation his crops. In grains he sowed 600 acres of wheat one year, Chevalier barley the next, and sometimes corn and oats. One year he planted 50 acres of tobacco, which was harvested and sent to auction houses in Louisville, Kentucky, where it commanded premium prices.

As economic conditions changed and South County grain yields declined due to soil exhaustion, California's new grain areas developed in the inner Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. By 1880 Dr. Hugh Glenn was farming the largest grain ranch in the world -- 66,000 acres in Colusa County producing one million bushels of wheat annually!

Large-scale farming of pears, cherries, plums, apricots, and peaches replaced the grain fields in southern Alameda County. In 1880 the invention of the refrigerator car made it possible for local farmers to send fruit to Atlantic seaboard markets and reap large profits.

William Meek developed his own nursery stock and planted 20,000 almond trees on his own land and sold another 7,000 to South County neighbors. His orchards contained 4,200 cherry trees, 3,000 plum and prune trees, and 225,000 currant bushes. Local legend has it that the "Bing" cherry variety originated on the Meek farm, and was named after the Meeks' Chinese cook, who first used the cherries to make superb pies.

Meek built a water reservoir on San Lorenzo Creek, where it cuts its way through the Prospect Street hill, and ran pipes to carry the irrigation water as far as 3 1/2 miles to his fields and orchards.

Meek employed over 100 farm hands, in addition to Chinese cooks and house servants. Over 100 horses and mules were stabled in his barns and milk herds numbered two dozen producing cows.

His still-surviving ranch home -- commonly called the "Meek Mansion" -- was built in 1870 for $40,000. He lavished $5,000 on furnishings.

In addition to his distinction as the "first farmer" of Alameda County, William Meek was known for his participation in all facets of life in early Alameda County. He was elected county supervisor for four terms beginning in 1862. Meek organized Hayward's first Agricultural Society, which chose him as its president in 1867. He was a member of the first board of trustees of Mills College and was active in many other community services.

After Meek's death in 1880 his estate was left to his sons, Horry and William, who continued to manage the property for many years. Horry Meek was distinguished as the president of the Bank of Hayward, while William Meek headed the firm that built the first electric car line from Oakland to Hayward in 1892.

Sources: John Sandoval, "A Century of Agriculture in the East Bay," #3 in a series (no date), Chapel of the Chimes, Hayward; other sources.