Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway-Free in California: Money, Power, and Pyromania (LATC May 2013)


If you have been to the Mt. Hamilton observatory, you have driven through Joseph D. Grant County Park.  It is a beautiful drive in spring.  The road meanders upward between hills coated with the electric green of new grass, highlighted by swathes of day-glo yellow mustard as if God had taken a magic marker to the landscape.  Higher up the roadside cut is spangled with glowing orange California poppies set off by patches of purple lupine and yellow sheep’s tail.

The park brochure tells you that Joseph Grant was the son and heir of Adam Grant, for whom Grant Avenue in San Francisco is named.  The senior Grant was a co-founder of Murphy, Grant & Co., a drygoods store which rivaled Levi Strauss in selling overalls to miners during the Gold Rush.  The San Francisco store burned in a spectacular fire in 1875, but most of the inventory was saved and the demand for Nonpareil Overalls remained.

Joseph was a mover and a shaker.  He managed the family business, started the Columbia Steam Company, was President of the California –Oakland Power company, and and was a life trustee of Stanford University.   When Herbert Hoover was defeated by FDR, he came to stay at Grant’s ranch for three weeks to lick his wounds.

The brochure doesn’t say much about Mrs. Edith Grant, or about the three Grant children.   But if you are lucky you might find a park ranger who would guide you around the ranch house and tell you about how daughters Edith and Josephine did not get along and would engage in rolling-around-on-the-floor fistfights at the mansion, sometimes during social events. And how sometimes they would join forces and invite some of the ranch hands to join them on rides into town (San Jose) for supplies, throwing empty liquor bottles out of the limousine in both directions to mark their trail. He might tell you about the nightly drunken parties  Josephine would hold in one of the older side-buildings, and about how Joseph burned the building down to stop the parties.

He might tell you about how daughter Edith used to shoot at people who trespassed on family property–including the mailman. It was said that she also shot her own horses if they came in range of the front porch.

He might tell you about how son Douglas, a business disappointment but adept at golf and drinking, died in a house fire lit by one of his neglected cigarettes.  And about how Josephine, when she took over the ranch, burned all the family letters and documents.

There is a novel to be written here, don’t you agree?



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