San Benito History

BL Longform: The 19th-century Gilmore Colony collapses at the farm

On their own, former slaves and workers move to Hollister to restart their lives.
Lena Gilmore 1903 report card. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Lena Gilmore 1903 report card. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Scott Gilmore's signatures on a report card. Gilmore died that year, with his wife signing the rest of the entries. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Scott Gilmore's signatures on a report card. Gilmore died that year, with his wife signing the rest of the entries. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Lena Gilmore promoted to San Benito High School. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Lena Gilmore promoted to San Benito High School. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Wood chopping receipt from Scott Gilmore. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Wood chopping receipt from Scott Gilmore. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Free Lance subscription receipt. Scott Gilmore. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Free Lance subscription receipt. Scott Gilmore. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Antonia Martin with photo of Scott Gilmore. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Antonia Martin with photo of Scott Gilmore. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Scott Gilmore's grave. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Scott Gilmore's grave. Photo by Robert Eliason.

BL Longform articles are designed for a more leisurely reading experience. You can print BenitoLink articles by clicking on the printer icon at the top of each article. This is the last of a three-part series on the rise and fall of the Gilmore colony. Read the first article here and the second article here

 

Daniel Gilmore came to the Cienega Valley from Arkansas in 1888. He purchased Blackberry Farm, filling it with families his father held as slaves, promising them better lives than they had as sharecroppers back home, hoping to be as successful as the neighboring vineyards and orchards.

By 1895, his funds had dried up after achieving little success. Gilmore left for Santa Cruz and was never able to recover financially, with costly legal actions following him for the rest of his life. He died in Los Angeles on June 2, 1912, leaving only $100 each to his sons, in today’s money about $2,500 apiece. 

The loss of Gilmore as an employer left the colony workers without homes or work. A few of them, including Robert and Mary Washington and Charlie Parker, stayed in the Cienega Valley to work the fields. (Parker died in 1892 and the Washingtons moved to the Bay Area in 1905). The rest gravitated down to the city of Hollister to make their lives there.

A search of the assessor’s records from 1895 through 1900 at the San Benito Historical Society does not show any of the Gilmores owning property in town. Available census records indicate they rented homes in a five-block area from South Street, extending to East Street.

The census records also give us hints as to the types of jobs available to the colony members. There were few opportunities open to them and, for the most part, they took on farm work and unskilled labor jobs.  

Eliza Dickson was a cook. Joseph Parks was a drayman. John West was a teamster. Brothers Charlie and John McCloud became boot-blacks, or shoe shiners. Charlie’s wife, Nora, and Scott Gilmore’s wife, Drucilla, took in laundry. Lewis Cole was a day laborer. Scott’s son Cicero started as a day laborer and ended up a boot-black. Another son, Norman, became an auto mechanic.

Beyond census and assessor records, there is not much in the way of public information besides occasional obituaries.

“They lived quietly and modestly,” said Scott’s granddaughter and Hollister resident, Antonia Martin. “At that time, when you were Black and living in a whole town of white people, you stayed quiet and you stayed out of trouble. I can’t say there was anything remarkable about them except that they survived.”

The best record we have for any of the former slaves is that of Scott and his family. Scott was the first of the colony members invited to Hollister by Daniel. His letters and records were preserved by his family and are currently in the possession of Martin, who also did extensive research into her family’s history.

Scott Gilmore was a woodchopper and a gardener. He was offered minimal chances for advancement. He was self-taught but highly literate and maintained several active correspondences, particularly with L. H. Senter, a friend in Arkansas. He was active in his church and responsible for handling the weekly collections.

He helped organize the San Benito County chapter of the Afro-American Leagues of California and, serving as its president, attended the Afro-American League Congress in Los Angeles in 1896.

In that same year, he was contacted by the Republican National Committee, which asked for his help reaching “colored voters” in the upcoming presidential campaign which pitted William McKinley against William Jennings Bryan. 

Scott and his wife Drucilla had 11 children, of which six survived to adulthood: Cicero and Norman came with them from Arkansas; Lena, Gertrude, Louis, and Herman were born in Hollister. Lena became the first Black person born in the county on Oct. 22, 1889. 

Scott and Drucilla took obvious pride in Lena. She was an exceptional student and they kept all of her report cards as well as the certificate she got when she was admitted to San Benito High School on April 1, 1905. 

“All of their children went to school,” Martin said. “They went as long as they could, which for some was at least to the eighth grade. They did well in school, and the records at the school district show that they were usually top of the class, sometimes the top of the county.”

Some of the children would have attended the Vineyard School on Cienega Road before moving down to Hollister in 1895. Some accounts credit Daniel with building the school in that year, but county records indicate that the school was founded in 1891 and built on the Carl Palmtag property, not Daniel’s.

On Feb. 13, 1901, Scott died from injuries he suffered when his horse cart tipped over. By that time, the colony in Hollister was slowly collapsing as the second generation of Gilmores moved away, in search of greater opportunities.

“People move to where there is work,” said Martin. “They went to San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley. I have a lot of relatives in those cities.”

Lena moved to Alameda, where in 1909 she married Fred LaSelve, a Pullman porter out of Oakland. They lived in Alameda with their two daughters, Hazel and Esther. LaSelve died on Oct. 18, 1918, a victim of the flu epidemic. Lena returned to Hollister, where she gave birth to their son on June 21, 1919. She named him Fred, after his father. 

While this third generation was being born, the last of the first generation were dying. Joseph Parks, one of the first of the colony members to arrive in Hollister, died in a house fire in 1921 at 102 years of age. The newspaper headline of the 1930 obituary for Cora McCloud read, “Last Member of Hollister Negro Colony is Dead.” The article mentioned that only a few descendants of the McCloud, Gilmore, Cole, Washington, and Bruce families remained in Hollister, as the others “drifted away to other towns to make new homes.”

Over 40 of the Gilmore Colony members are buried in an area of the Odd Fellows cemetery called Sherman’s Lot, at 600 Buena Vista Road in Hollister. Originally the plot was outside the fence of the cemetery. It has since been enclosed, though its location in a far corner of the grounds makes it segregated from the white interments.

Fred LaSalve devoted long hours to tending the plot and replacing the worn headstones.  He is buried there now, with military honors, as is WWI veteran Lewis Gilmore, and WWII veteran Harold Cole. 

Julia Cole was 105 when she came from Arkansas to Hollister at Daniel Gilmore’s request. She died a year later and was buried at Blackberry Farm, only to be reinterred at Sherman’s Lot when Daniel lost the land.

Scott and Elizabeth are there, along with their children Cicero, Lena, Lewis and Norman. Scott’s father, Civil War veteran Thomas, and his stepfather, Joseph, are buried on either side of Mary Parks, the woman both men married. 

This plot and these stones are the only physical evidence that the Gilmore Colony ever existed, as the story itself fades into memory.

“I have always been interested in this story,” Antonia Martin said. “There are little pockets of people who know about it, but not that many anymore. Did coming here make lives better or just different? What happened here? How did it work? What was it about? It is a history worth trying to save.”

 

Occupants of Sherman’s Lot
(compiled by Antonia Martin)

 

Rufus Adams

Betty Blackwell

William Brown

Edward Bruce

Eliza Bruce

James Bruce

Elena Caines

Corrina Chaddick

Harold Cole

Julia Cole

Laura Ann Cole

Lewis Cole

Roxie Cole

Warren Cole

Howard Cooper

Surrellda Cooper

Peter Jennins Cottrell

John Dixon

Charles Gibson

Agnes Gilmore

Anna Mae Gilmore

Cicero Gilmore

Drucilla Gilmore

Lewis Gilmore

Nora Gilmore

Norman Otto Gilmore

Ruth Anges Gilmore

Scott Gilmore

Thomas Gilmore

Carroll Hamilton

Lena Gilmore Jennings

James Jennings

Nora Jennings

Fred LaSelve

Charles McCloud

John McCloud

Norah McCloud

Mary Jane Morris

Charles Parks

Ida Parks

Joseph Parks

Mary Gilmore Parks

Rose Pyatt

Ella Silva

Martha Washington

Hazel Watkins

John West

Martha West

John West

Bessie Williamson

 

 

 

 

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.