San Joaquin County
HON. BENJAMIN F. LANGFORD
HON. B. F. LANGFORD.--In recounting the history of the California pioneers who have been associated with San Joaquin County, there are none who appear in a light more prominent or more honorable than the gentleman above named. A few facts of interest in relation to his early life and antecedents introductory to his career in California, will therefore be of interest in this volume. Mr. Langford is a native of Smith County, Tennessee, born thirty miles from Nashville, on the Cumberland river, December 27, 1829, his parents being William and Mary (Coffey) Langford. The Langfords were of Scotch origin, but were known in this country as one of the old Virginia families. Grandfather John Langford removed from Virginia to Tennessee and implanted the family there, and afterward died in the latter State. The Coffeys, also of Scotch origin, were likewise long established in Virginia, through the mother of our subject was born in Tennessee. B. F. Langford was the third child and only boy of his parents’ seven children. He was reared at his native place, and received all the educational advantages possible there. His schooling finished, he entered the employ of the well-known mill-builder and contractor, Ephraim Whitmore, of Maryland, and commenced the trade of millwright with that gentleman, whose business extended over a very wide scope of territory. His first work was in Maryland, and afterward throughout the Western States. It was not long before Mr. Whitford noticed that his new apprentice was going about his work with something more than machine-like plodding, and that his nights were employed in familiarizing himself with the plans of work on hand; and he observed that the boy’s knowledge of what was wanted in particular instances often gave him an advantage over old workmen, whose only aim was to plod along in the old grooves in which they had started. The result was that when yet a mere boy in years he was placed in a position of responsibility and in control of men who had spent many years at the work. He next turned his attention to pattern-making, for which he had a natural talent and became superintendent of a large foundry in St. Louis. Going back to Tennessee, at his father’s advice, he started in the foundry business in a small way in Nashville, in partnership with a man named Ament. The building of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad gave them an opportunity for advancement which was readily taken advantage of, and from a small shop their place of business grew to be a great establishment with a plant capable of turning out the largest work which could be demanded of them, and they had a monopoly of the Nashville & Chattanooga’s trade.
Among Mr. Langford’s intimate friends were H. M. Newhall (who later became so prominent and wealthy in San Francisco) and J. G. Shepherd, editor of the Nashville Union, and one of the brightest minds in the South. One of the three received a letter from John C. Fremont, in which he spoke of the fabulous golden wealth of California, where quartz rock would turn out fifty cents’ worth of the precious metal per pound. They at once set about making preparations to go to California, Mr. Langford manufacturing in his iron works the necessary machinery for quartz mills, and having the work done by the end of 1849. Early in 1850 they started, making the trip via New Orleans and Panama, and transporting their machinery across the Isthmus on mule-back. On the Pacific side they arrived in time to take a passage with Captain Peck, on the first trip of the steamer “Columbus,” and arrived in San Francisco on the 5th of May, 1850. Mr. Langford, on behalf of his own immediate party, and Dr. Harris, on behalf of those whom he represented, went to the mountains of Nevada, Amador, Mariposa and other regions where there were supposed to be prospects for quartz mining. Having reached and examined the cliff quartz district of Mariposa, and being satisfied that prospects for quartz mining were not of the best, they returned to their friends, and it was decided to put their machinery in warehouse and go to the placer mines. Their expensive machinery was stored in a building near the present site of the San Francisco post office, until such time as the industry should grow to their preconceived ideas. There it was afterward destroyed in one of the fires which swept that city. Accompanied by a couple of negro boys whom they had brought along from Tennessee, the little party of gold seekers proceeded to Douglas’ Diggings, where they arrived about the 15th of May. They were soon at work, and met with rich success from the start, which continued all the time they remained in that vicinity. In August a party of miners from the Merced river came along, and told of the great wealth to be found there, but which they were unable to garner, having not the funds necessary to accomplish the turning of the river. They had the funds, and concluded to go to the Merced. They did so, turned the river near Horse Shoe Bend, according to program, but found nothing worth trying for after all. After their failure in that enterprise, the party separated, Mr. Shepherd going back to his newspaper at Nashville, Tennessee, and Mr. Newhall going to San Francisco, where he embarked in the auction business, and set about laying the foundation for his future great fortune. Mr. Langford went to Big Oak to continue mining, and met with such success there in that direction, that in October he was able to open a mercantile establishment at Gerota, in partnership with George W. Bracken, with a stock of goods worth $24,000.
Mr. Langford’s wounds, received on the 3d of February, 1851, in an encounter with the Indians, caused him to be laid up for five months, and he closed out his mercantile business. In company with Mr. Bracken he settled a ranch in a valley between Horse Shoe Bend and Don Pedro’s Bar. They bought horses and cattle, had an extensive range, and kept a public house and store. They also ran teams between their place and Stockton, where they bought goods.
In the fall of 1851, while still retaining his ranch, he and Dr. Harris, with several others, bought out a quartz mine owned by a man named Bostick, at Nashville, on the North Fork of the Cosumnes river, and built a twenty-stamp mill. He was interested in this for about a year. In the fall of 1851 Mr. Langford, his partner Bracken and Addison Beatty located a ranch in San Joaquin County, where the former now resides. Mr. Langford bought out his partners, and when it was surveyed he entered it with State warrants. This land was at that time covered with a dense growth of timber, and shortly after he located on the place he built a saw-mill on the river about a mile and a half below his present residence, with a view of cutting the timber into lumber and floating it down the river. He operated the mill a couple of years, cutting up the oak timber in the immediate neighborhood, and then, finding it impractible to float the lumber as planned, he sold the machinery to Judge Terry, and used it in putting up a grist-mill for him at Clements. For this mill Mr. Langford built the first engine ever made in Stockton. He let the contract for building it to Burdsall, of Stockton, but when he came around sixty days later to see what progress had been made, he found it had not been touched, as Burdsall had no workmen who could build an engine. He then took off his own coat, got out the patterns, and superintended the whole job, doing most of the work himself. Their engine is still able to do good work, though built in the pioneer days, and is in McGee’s mill, at Clements, which has never used any other power.
After locating on his large San Joaquin ranch, Mr. Langford set about improving it in an intelligent manner, and devoted most of his time to agriculture. He had not, however, lost his taste for mining, and in 1859, when the excitement of the Washoe discoveries in Nevada was in its incipiency, he went to that new camp in company with Louis Sloss, being among the first to locate there. He became interested in Gould & Curry, Choler, Choler-Potosi and Hearst & Meredith mines, and had the foundation laid for immense wealth; but being unfavorably impressed by the apparently wild-cat nature of most of the mining schemes then on foot at Virginia City, he decided to leave, and returned to California. While there, however, he was elected one of the six judges, and was one of those who decided the title to the savage grounds.
In 1863, he went out of sheep raising, in which he had been theretofore heavily engaged, and, going to Mexico, obtained control of some valuable mining interests there. The French invasion under Maximilian, however, so disarranged affairs in our neighboring republic that no enterprise could be successfully prosecuted, and he returned to his home in this county to resume charge of his ranch interests. For a time also, he operated the Canada mine, in Amador County, and still has some very valuable mining property, notably in Arizona.
Though his interests lie in many varied directions his main efforts have been in the direction of agriculture. It was on this account that he associated himself with other men of wealth and enterprise to place the necessary capital at the back of the efforts to make the combined harvester successful. Being one of the large wheat-growers, he experienced much difficulty in securing men when wanted to harvest his large crops, which satisfied him that the machinery in use must be radically improved if wheat-raising was to remain a paying industry. He entered enthusiastically into this task, which was accomplished through the agency of the Stockton Combined Harvester and Agricultural Works, and his thorough knowledge of machines proved a great assistance in producing the final and crowning success. He has been a director of the company since its organization.
In 1887, seeing that this locality must have other farm industry than that of raising wheat, in order to retain its prestige, he commenced giving his attention to fruit-growing; and he has pursued this subject with his usual intelligent tenacity until he how easily takes rank as the foremost man in this county in the encouragement of fruit culture. He induced some of the best fruit men in California to take hold on his land with the result that 2,000 acres are already in the best orchard trees, and all promising splendid success. Besides this, he has himself set out 320 acres of fruit, his orchard being pronounced one of the finest in the county. Its trees are peaches, apricots, prunes and almonds. His efforts in that direction will prove,--in fact, have already done so,--of great value to the community, for which he has heretofore done much. He established the Bank of Lodi, and is its president. He was also one of the prime movers and principal owners of the San Joaquin & Sierra Nevada Railroad, and still retains his interest in the road, which is now a part of the Southern Pacific system.
Mr. Langford has served four terms in the State Senate of California, having been first elected in 1879, and has made a splendid record in the halls of legislation. He has not tried there to build up a reputation by the common method of the introduction of new measures, having done so only when the interests of the State demanded them. But as a faithful watcher of the people’s interests he has been a constant thorn in the side of dishonest schemers and jobbers, who always count on his opposition to their measures. In his fight against monopolies he has not adopted the blind measures of reformers working for reputation, but has consistently held to the middle line of justice between the public and corporations, only attacking when this line has been deviated from. In committees he has been especially active, believing that there is where a man can best represent his constituents. Some of the battles which he has fought in defense of the rights of the people have become matters of State history, among which may be mentioned his leadership of the fight against the brush dam system. Another memorable contest in which his able leadership was well displayed was that in which he opposed the scheme to legalize the claims of those who had appropriated extensive water rights, thus robbing of water those who had a natural claim upon it. Men with vest holdings of desert lands had turned from its natural course the water of important streams, letting it out upon large stretches of sandy plain, while those who had improved small holdings lower down on these water courses, notably along Kern river, were thus deprived of the means of making a living, and despoiled of the means of making a living, and despoiled of that which was already theirs. A great lobby fund was behind the course of the land kings; but Senator Langford’s strenuous opposition to the scheme was one of the leading reasons for his ultimate defeat.
By securing for the San Joaquin District Agricultural Fair an appropriation of $3,000 per year, he materially assisted in promoting the prospects of that splendid institution. The people have not been unmindful of his efforts in their behalf, and the citizens of San Joaquin have but echoed the wishes of duty-loving people throughout the State by enthusiastically re-electing him to the seat in the Senate which he has honored.
He has taken a very active part in the Grange movement, and by his efforts secured the meeting of the National Grange in California in 1889.
While he has been more intimately associated with San Joaquin County than any other, he still has many interests and considerable property outside of it. Before the city of Fresno was built he went down to that region and located 24,000 acres of public land in that and adjoining counties. To his credit it may be said that he has put to use all his land and assisted largely in developing the country by his direct work and by example. His life, as well as being one replete with interest, has been one of constant work; indeed, so marked has been this characteristic that, although forty years have passed away since he opened a prosperous career in this State, he has never yet found time to visit the old scenes of his boyhood. To-day, having passed through all the trying scenes which have accomplished the progress of this beautiful State from the time it was a mere collection of mining camps until it has reached its present proud position in the bond of the American Union, he is yet in the prime of life, familiar with the State and its men, an active, aggressive man of ripe experience.
He was married in this county, in 1870, to Miss Catharine M. Kane, and has two sons, George and James, who are now being educated. He is a member of Woodbridge Lodge, No. 131, F. & A. M., of Stockton Chapter, No. 28, and of Stockton Commandery, No. 8. He is also associated with the Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias. He was one of the original incorporators of the Grangers’ Union, of Stockton.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
An Illustrated History of San Joaquin County, California, Pages 245-249. Lewis Pub. Co. Chicago, Illinois 1890.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.