Editor's note: This truly interesting profile could not be included in the latest newsletter because of its length.
A National City Investor: Theron Parsons (1805-1893)
Compiled by Molly McClain, Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department, University of San Diego, San Diego California
(Also published in the Journal of San Diego History, Volume 54, Summer 2008, Number 3) Reproduced with permission of both the author and the San Diego Historical Society. Submitted by Gary A. Parsons, our Historian, Theron Parsons was his 2nd great grandfather. Molly A. McClain, is also a descendant of Cornet Joseph and Theron Parsons.
In 1868, National City, CA, was known as “Kimball’s town,” the property of Frank Kimball and his brothers Warren and Levi. They purchased the former Rancho de la Nación, intending to develop a powerful trade city that might compete with Los Angeles for the terminus of the transcontinental railroad. An early settler, Theron Parsons, described the transformation of National City over twenty-five years. He noted the introduction of commercial agriculture, the development of the railroad, and the “boom and bust” of the 1880s and early 1890s. His diaries complement the important Kimball family collection at the National City Public Library. They also shed light on the activities and attitudes of an early American settler and his extended family.
Theron Parsons was the son of Capt. Noah Parsons, IV, (1780-1859) and Thankful Edwards (1781-1814), both of Westhampton, MA. He grew up in Onondaga Co., NY, and worked as a printer in Adams and Watertown during his teens and early twenties. In the late 1820s, he established two newspapers, Thursday’s Post and the Censor. He married Lovina Collins (1807-1873) on Sept. 25, 1827. Six of their seven children survived to adulthood: Marie Antoinette, La Rue Perrine, Silenus DeWitt, Harriett Amelia, Latricia Jane, and Josephine Arthusa.
Like many men of his generation, Theron Parsons looked for real estate opportunities in the West. He moved to northern IL with his brother Timothy in 1832, not long after the Black Hawk War, and remained there until 1854. For several years, he kept a temperance tavern at “Hafda,” or Half Day Village in Lake Co. In 1842, he and his neighbors formed an abolitionist society, the Lake Co. Liberty Assoc., which aimed “to effect the entire abolition of slavery in the United States.”
Theron Parsons visited San Francisco in 1852, one of thousands who headed to CA after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. He most likely accompanied his sister-in-law, Cynthia Elvira Parsons, whose husband Timothy had died in IL in 1849. She and her sons, Francis Marion, Theodore La Rue, George Henry, and Augustus Belding, and her daughter Agnes Olivia, moved to CA and eventually settled in the Santa Clara Valley. Theron did not stay, however, perhaps feeling that he would get a safer return on his investment in the upper Midwest.
In 1854, Theron Parsons moved with his family to Mankato, Minnesota Territory, shortly after white settlers had staked the first claims to lands occupied by the Dakota tribe. They took a steamboat, the Black Hawk, up the Minnesota River, expecting this new form of transportation to bring additional settlers. Parsons bought farmland and built several houses. His diary for these years contains brief descriptions of trips from Mankato to St. Paul and Chicago to buy and sell goods like writing paper and shoes. He returned, occasionally, to Half Day, IL. He wrote of his success at developing and renting out property, made reference to growing apples and wheat, and noted the income received from a stone quarry in 1866. He did not mention the election of Abraham Lincoln, the start of the American Civil War, or the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. The latter led to the trial of over three hundred Dakota and the execution of thirty-eight warriors in Mankato, one of the largest mass executions in American history.
By the time the railroad came to Mankato in 1868, Theron Parsons was a modestly well-to-do man. At the age of sixty-three, he began to travel again. Accompanied by his wife, he went to VA with daughter Latricia Jane and son-in-law Peleg Griffith to see where the latter had fought during the Civil War. A captain in the MN Volunteer Infantry, Griffith had been involved in the James River Valley campaign and the siege of Richmond. Three years after the war had ended; the relics of his encampment at Evergreen Plantation were “very visible, although in quite a dilapidated state. Peleg was able to distinguish the quarters of each regiment, and his own tent of poles and cedar bows, together with his sleeping couch, which served to bring the scenes of the past into fresh recollection.” Parsons noted, “I am certain that it made the matter seem more real to myself.”
They ended their trip with a three-month visit to Vineland, NJ, where their friends, John and Portia Kellogg Gage, had helped to found a progressive community that supported abolition, women’s suffrage, temperance, and spiritualism. Theron Parsons spent Thanksgiving Day 1867 with Lucy Stone Blackwell, a well-known abolitionist and pioneer in the women’s rights movement, and Robert Dale Owen, son of the founder of the Utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana, and one of the early advocates of birth control. Parsons described it as “as pleasant Thanksgiving time I think as I ever enjoyed.” After dinner, he went to hear Lucretia Mott speak at Union Hall before the opening of what would become the NJ Women’s Suffrage Association. He and his wife attended the convention and listened to speeches by Blackwell, Owen, and others. Several months later, their hostess Portia Kellogg Gage would become the first NJ woman to attempt to vote in a municipal election.
Theron Parsons held liberal opinions and strong religious convictions. According to his son-in-law, Theron was “the most honest man I ever saw. I have put him down as being of that character and as being disposed to do right, let consequences be what they may.” He added, “I recalled a quotation from some worthy old patriarch which he frequently used to make use of. It is ‘as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,’ putting an accent upon ‘will.’ I used to think it was rather an orthodox idea he intended to convey, but I have more recently given a more liberal interpretation.”
In 1868, Theron Parsons decided to move with his extended family to CA. His daughters and their husbands left Mankato early in the year. Josephine and Thomas Walker and Harriett and David Lamb traveled to CA via steamship and stayed with relatives in Santa Clara before heading south to San Diego. Parsons wrote, “Were it not for the expectation we have of joining them soon in their new home in the far west, we should miss them still more.”
In Nov., Theron Parsons and his wife left Mankato for NY. They purchased tickets from the Pacific Mail Steam Ship Co. and arranged for boxes of sewing machines to be shipped to San Diego where they would be sold. On Nov. 16, they boarded the Rising Star for CA. He described the voyage through the Caribbean, the trip across the Isthmus of Panama, and the fifteen-day journey to San Francisco. At Acapulco, “the boat commenced coaling soon after anchoring and we were surrounded in a short time by Mexicans in small boats with tropical fruits, coral, etc.” Going ashore, he found that the town had altered little in the 17 years since his last visit. In San Francisco, however, he found a “great change.” They spent one night at the International Hotel before heading south to the “picturesque” Santa Clara Valley. He noted that the land was “highly cultivated and commanding a high price—from $150 to $1,000 per acre.”
Theron Parsons and his wife took the steamer Orizaba from San Francisco to San Diego, arriving on Dec. 22, 1868. He wrote, “We arrived in San Diego at 9 o’clock a.m. and were thankful that we had reached our destination in safety, and we were glad to see our dear children and grandchildren once more.” On the 24th, he traveled south to the Tía Juana River Valley where Lamb had a claim. He thought that it would be “a pleasant place to live when it is settled and improved.” On Christmas Day, he “looked about some and made a claim.” On his way back, he stopped at Frank Kimball’s place “and examined some lots in his town site.” Six months earlier, Kimball and his brothers had bought 26,612 acres of Rancho de la Nación for $30,000. They surveyed the land, which extended from San Diego in the north to Tijuana in the south, and chose the northwest corner as the site for the first building development, National Ranch, later incorporated as National City.
Theron Parsons began purchasing land almost as soon as he arrived in San Diego. On Jan. 5, 1869, he and W. J. Pettit, a former state representative from Owatonna, MN, bought a block of Alonzo Horton’s Addition for $1,000 and a corner lot owned by Capt. S. S. Dunnells for $300. On Jan. 12, he bought 10 acres of land from Kimball for $300. A few days later, he “commenced to build our house” on 8th St. between E and F Ave. He then purchased another 40 acres of ranch land in National City at $25 per acre. A hand-drawn map in his 1889 diary showed properties bounded by 15th and 16th Streets and 7th and 8th Ave. He and his son-in-law Thomas Walker later built rental houses west of National Avenue, near the waterfront.
Theron Parsons was well aware that he was investing in property only recently seized from Mexico. Soon after his arrival, he “went to the sea shore and saw the monument erected between the United States and Mexico defining the boundary line” established twenty years earlier. He noted his son-in-law’s frequent trips to collect wood in Tijuana and watched as nearly five hundred soldiers “passed on their way to Tía Juana” between Oct. 1870 and Jan. 1871. He recognized the fluid nature of the border, writing that he had seen a flock of 5,000 sheep from Los Angeles head to their grazing lands in Baja California. Still, he liked to remind himself of the safety of his investment. When he visited Pettit on his ranch in the Tía Juana River Valley, he stopped to visit the border monument on the Pacific Ocean. He and his daughter Josephine often visited the monument, sometimes bringing out-of-town visitors to admire the view. In 1887, “Mr. and Mrs. Shaubut,
Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, Peleg and Winnie and Phenie and Josephine went to the hot springs, monument, etc.”
Theron Parsons rarely mentioned ethnic or racial groups, despite the large number of non-whites living and working in San Diego Co. He continued to be interested in the plight of freed slaves, keeping an article on “Race Prejudice in Georgia” in the back of his 1887 diary. He employed a worker, “Congo” or “Condo,” who “hoed in the beets,” planted barley, and ran the mower. He recalled buying celery and turnips from an Italian and, in December 1887, noted that “John Chinaman called with an assortment of China goods.” But he did not document either Mexican or native inhabitants of the area.
Theron Parsons shared Kimball’s dream of transforming the former Rancho de la Nación into a New England-style town and economy. He particularly wanted to expand the agricultural potential of the region which, traditionally, produced only wheat and wool in considerable quantities. To this end, he began to experiment with a variety of crops. On arriving, he planted peas, potatoes, onions, beets, beans, butter beans, watermelon, musk melon, cucumber, winter squash, sweet corn, peanuts, early Dutch turnips, corn, cabbage, and tomatoes. He “set out 140 grape cuttings” and planted “70 trees of different varieties” that had arrived by steamer, including fig, chestnut, lemon, orange, almond, plum, and English walnut. In early 1870, he measured a sweet potato that had been raised by R. S. Pardee “which was 23¼ inches in length and 13 inches in circumference.” In 1873, his son-in-law Walker “raised a peach measuring 8 ½ inches in circumference, weighing 6½ oz.”
Like many early settlers, Theron Parsons was encouraged by San Diego’s mild climate. He made a daily record of morning, afternoon, and evening temperatures, comparing it favorably to the weather in the East. On his first trip back to MN in May 1872, he noted that “the atmosphere is damp and unpleasant as compared with the climate in California.” In 1875, he went to Tuscumbia, AL, where his daughter Antoinette Wardlaw lived with her husband on a “very secluded place.” He noted that the temperature at noon was 92 degrees with “no wind at all—could not be induced to live in such a climate.”
Theron Parsons learned what crops would grow by traveling throughout Southern CA. In 1872, he learned from Capt. Henry James Johnson that the steamship Orizaba laded 5,000 boxes of oranges per month from Los Angeles. Shortly afterwards, he visited Anaheim, Santa Ana, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Santa Barbara. He noted that “Mr. Russell started a nursery at Riverside in the spring of ’72 and has a fine lot of trees of different varieties and is prepared to fill orders for all kinds of trees—has 13,000 orange trees 2 years old last spring—offers to deliver 1,000 trees next spring at San Diego for 50 cents.” He admired the Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara where “we saw an almond orchard of 25,000 trees” and remarked that Santa Paula had “more land that will produce a crop annually without irrigating it than I have seen before in the southern part of the state, and more timber also, and on land that is good for cultivation.”
He also participated in activities organized by the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, a fraternal organization for American farmers founded after the Civil War. The group worked to protect the interests of farmers and farming communities, fighting railroad monopolies and pushing for rural mail deliveries. A chapter was organized in National City in 1874, with Frank Kimball as Master. Parsons mentioned lectures at Grange Hall and, in 1889, went with “a delegation of National Grangers…to the Mexican line and also to Sweetwater Dam.”
By the 1880s, Theron Parsons and his son-in-law Walker had developed a successful orchard and fields that produced apples, oranges, peaches, apricots, barley, corn and strawberries, among other crops. In 1879 he reported, “I have received $5.38 for apricots sold from one tree” after paying Mr. Sheldon a 25 % commission for marketing them. In Oct. 1881, they picked 1,300 pounds of apples and 25 pounds of pears. They experimented with twenty two guava trees and several thousand olive cuttings. In 1886, Parsons noted that “vegetation is growing rapidly—the whole face of the country, as far as can be seen, is clothed in a beautiful garb of green.”
The development of a “fruit growing community” attracted considerable investment. An article in the Los Angeles Times observed: “The subdividing of many of the old Spanish grants and the cultivation of the rich soil has been accompanied by planting numerous large orchards and vineyards, which have abundantly repaid investments.” Over 800 people attended the Co. Fair in 1880, hosted by National City. Its success led to an annual springtime Citrus Fair, first organized by the National Grange in 1881. Parsons described it as “a large and splendid exhibition of citrus fruit, as also other fruits, raisins, etc., and the fair was in all respects a success.”
Transportation, however, would be the most crucial factor in the successful development of National City. Kimball and his brothers knew that they had to attract a transcontinental railroad in order to develop a commercial port. To that end, they offered land and money to Gen. M. C. Hunter, a backer of the Memphis, El Paso & Pacific Railway Co., who visited in 1869. When that Co. went bankrupt in 1870, they turned to Col. Thomas Scott, president of the Pennsylvania R.R., at that time one of the largest corp. in the world. He proposed to bring the Texas & Pacific R.R. to the Pacific and sought a suitable site for a terminus. But this railroad never reached CA. Next, Kimball tried to attract the interest of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. In 1879, he went to Boston to persuade the Co’s president, Thomas Nickerson, to build to National City. The deal, which was finalized in 1880, required a land subsidy of 16,000 acres from the Kimball’s. In Oct., the CA Southern R.R. was chartered for the purpose of constructing a line from National City through San Diego to San Bernardino. Parsons noted the arrival of engineers, contractors, “lumber and timbers for R.R. Co,” steel rails and coal. Schooners and steamships from Britain, Canada, Belgium, and the Netherlands arrived with steel rails and coal.
He thought that “all the improvements being made present a business-like appearance.”
In the early 1880s, Theron Parsons began to improve his properties. In 1881, he sold his remaining properties in Mankato, MN, to his son, La Rue, for cash. The following year, he sold one lot in National City for $1,000 and used the money to build a new house on 11th St. and E Ave. He hired Messrs, Brown, and Arnold to build a two-story Victorian with two fireplaces, a cellar, and hot and cold running water, and an ornamental balustrade. Doors and windows arrived via steamship from San Francisco. He deeded two lots next door to his farmhouse on 8th St. to the Congregational Church which he and other early settlers had founded in 1869. The church was dedicated on Dec. 3, 1882. He also encouraged his daughter Harriett to exchange her land on the Sweetwater for a house and two lots in National City.
In 1884, trains began to run between National City and San Bernardino. At the end of 1885, the first transcontinental train left for the East. The San Diego Union speculated that the coming of the Santa Fe R.R. might start “a period of moderate expansion.” In fact, it attracted thousands of new residents and created an unprecedented economic boom.
The R.R. brought friends and relatives to National City. In 1886, Dr. and Mrs. Lewis visited “the first family that has been here from our old home in MN (Mankato) since we have lived here over 17 years.” Michael Hund, formerly of Mankato, “bought a round trip ticket from Topeka to San Diego for $10.00.” That same year, his daughters Maria Antoinette and Latricia Jane, with her husband and children, moved to National City from Danby, VT. Theron Parsons built them a house, a barn, and farm buildings. In Jan. 1887, George Marsh of Mankato arrived with an excursion party and expected to remain in CA for 4 months. Parsons’ son Silenus arrived via the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe R.R. in May. At the end of the year, he wrote, “I think that we must have had quite an acquisition to our population in the last few days by the loads of trunks that have passed by and household goods.”
Visitors came from across the country. Theron Parsons mentioned friends and acquaintances from Mankato and Vineland, NJ. He recorded the arrival of 400 Civil War veterans who had been to San Francisco for the Grand Army Encampment in Aug. 1886. He took note of visiting speakers such as “Mrs. Green, a temperance lecturer from Santa Cruz”; Mrs. Parker and Mrs. Waldron of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; and former presidential candidate John Pierce St. John of KS “who is to give a Prohibition lecture Fri. and Sat. of this week in San Diego.” Edward Fabian, a “distinguished elocutionist and basso teacher of New York” stayed with Parsons and his family as did many other visitors associated with the Congregational Church.
Theron Parsons sold some of his property to new arrivals eager for land. In 1886, he sold 15 lots for between $200 and $600 ea. The following year, he remarked on the sale of a 5 acre property for $5,000 to William Green Dickinson who managed the Land & Town Co., the real estate arm of the CA Southern R.R. He wrote, “Several sales of town lots and small tracts of 5 acres eligibly located are reported at advanced rates” and observed that “real estate agents are active, carrying customers about in different directions.” He added, “I was enquired of this morning by a real estate agent if I had any lots to put into market for sale, remarking at the same time that they were troubled to find lots enough on the market to supply demand.” At the end of 1887, Parsons sold one lot for $900. He also raised rents on single rooms from $10 to $25 per month.
Population growth led entrepreneurs to open new businesses and build additional houses. In Apr. 1887, Ferris & Hill “opened a Drug Store on National Ave.” A San Francisco firm purchased property at the corner of National
Ave. and 24th St. “for a large manufactory of wagons and carriages of all descriptions.” J. A. Rice “built a fine two story building next to Mr. Field’s for an office and a dwelling.” Kimball “commenced ten brick two-story dwelling houses on the block east of his residence,” later known as Brick Row.
Contractor Elizur Steele, meanwhile, put up “a large two-story building on the back side of his block on National Ave. for furniture rooms for Chadburn’s Furniture Store.” In Apr. 1888, Parsons walked down 8th St. to 3rd Ave. “where the Coronado Motor R.R. is being built, and was surprised to find so many buildings in that locality, back of the Steele Block. I should think that between 25 and 30 dwellings had been erected north of 9th St. in the last 6 or 8 months and of a good class of buildings.”
In Jun. 1887 the National City & Otay R.R. Co. began taking passengers from San Diego to National City, the Sweetwater Valley, Chula Vista, and Tijuana. Parsons described it as the “Moto Road” or “Moto Railway” and wrote that it carried 550 passengers on the day after its grand opening. He went with his daughters and their families to San Diego and bought a pair of shoes at Wright’s Shoe Store before going to Coronado to see the new hotel and the ostrich farm. A few days later, he observed that “a picnic party from San Diego, two car loads this afternoon, went over to the picnic grounds on the Sweetwater. ” The R.R. also brought San Diegans to National City for the first service in the newly built St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church (1887). Parsons wrote, “there was a large congregation—from 75 to 100 persons came out from San Diego on the cars.”
The R.R. made possible the construction of Sweetwater Dam, completed in 1888. On New Year’s Day, 1889, the Parsons family and friends “went up to the Sweetwater Dam and stayed until 4 o’clock—had our lunch on the south side of the reservoir where we witnessed the eclipse and spent the day very pleasantly. There were several small parties scattered about us, which appeared to enjoy themselves.” On another occasion, he watched water “rushing through the waste gates, several feet deep, tumbling and foaming over the rocks for 80 or 90 feet—which makes a grand waterfall worth seeing.” In 1891, he observed the effects of development on the region: “Went up the Sweetwater with Thomas this afternoon…and was surprised to find so many improved places. It has changed the appearance of the valley wonderfully, so that it is now quite an attraction and you feel well paid for a drive through it.”
Theron Parsons was optimistic about development. At 86 years old, he had seen his share of “booms” and “busts” and remained untroubled by the vicissitudes of the R.R. By 1888, the Santa Fe had completed a line from San Bernardino to Los Angeles and had begun moving its terminus and machine shops out of National City. As one historian noted, “the Santa Fe R.R. realized that it had made a mistake betting on San Diego; the future of southern CA lay in the city of Los Angeles and the port of San Pedro.” Parsons responded by moving his rental houses from the waterfront to his subdivision at E Ave. between 8th and 10th St. He noted with dismay the falling prices of agricultural products: “Peleg took 1,300 limes to San Diego and could only get 40 cents for the lot.” But he continued to be hopeful about the future of the region. In 1890, he “rode out to Chula Vista” and remarked, “It has been built up and improved wonderfully in the last 3 years.”
Parsons continued to observe the progress made in transportation and technology. In 1891, he and family members rode on the newly established cable car line from L St. to a park and pavilion, overlooking Mission Valley, later known as Mission Cliff Gardens. They “called at the cable car works to see the machinery and at the Chamber of Commerce where we found fine displays of the products of San Diego Co.” He looked forward to the opening of a match factory in National City, hoping to be soon “supplied with home production of that article.” He also mentioned that the city had raised a $200,000 subsidy for “an iron and steel manufactory” established by Charles Eames in Point Loma.
Others were not hopeful about San Diego’s future. E.W. Scripps described the city as “a busted, broken-down boom town…probably more difficult of access than any other spot in the whole country.” Many newcomers who had gambled on a transcontinental R.R. left town in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Parsons mentioned that “Miss Ida Murry, who had been living at Dr. Risdon’s for a year or more past, left this morning for her former home in VT.” He also complained that the Handley brothers started back to MN after a visit of only a few days, “the consumptive discouraged in not finding immediate relief from his disease in coming here.” He remarked on the lack of public spirit, writing on Jul. 4, 1892: “There was no public celebration at National City. Some of our citizens went to Point Loma and other places of interest.”
As Theron Parsons approached the end of his life, he recorded the passing of other early settlers. In Jul. 1891, he wrote “Mr. Moses Norris (aged 74 years) died this afternoon. He was an old settler and well respected.” Orlando S. Chapin, a prominent nurseryman in Poway, died in Feb. 1892. Gail Borden, who settled in National City in 1868, died the following month at the age of 77. In Jun.: “Capt. Amos Crane was found dead in his bed this morning—age 87 ½ years, he was an old settler, came here in 1868—had been a Sea Capt. and was a man of general intelligence.” In Jul., Parsons described the passage of the R.R. promoter J. S. Gordon, aged 59 years: “Mr. Gordon was an old settler—came to San Diego in 1870, and for several years past resided at National City.” In Aug.: “Dr. Lewis Post died in his 97th year—was an old settler.”
Theron Parsons died on Sept. 26, 1893, at the age of 88. Like many of his contemporaries, he had taken advantage of the investment opportunities offered by the forced resettlement of Native Americans and the U.S.-Mexican War. He combined strong religious convictions with a belief in individual liberty and progress. He also worked for social justice, endorsing the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the prohibition of alcohol. He is remembered as one of the founders of the First Congregational Church in National City. He also joins the ranks of San Diego’s early investors and entrepreneurs.