This is the sixth in an ongoing series of stories about notable women from San Benito County history. The women were honored in 2015 for their contributions to the county by the San Benito County Women's Fund at its "Legacy of Women" event held at the Paicines Ranch.
It is sad to start this story with the plain truth that though Viola “Kate” Dunne gave massively to several communities, to meaningful causes and to friends, there is little or nothing written about her as a person. True to the time period, her sense of humor, her favorite foods, the things she was known for were not mentioned in any of the articles about her life.
Born in 1860, Viola Katherine Lowery of San Jose married James Francis Dunne of Hollister in 1883. Though she visited frequently, “Kate” preferred living in the comparatively more urban setting of San Jose and the peninsula just to the north.
It was her husband, James Dunne, who seemed to fascinate the media and attracted a lot of print. He was described in a Pinnacle Newspaper article written in 1993 as “part rancher, by birth, and part urbanite, by choice." It appeared that he fully enjoyed both lifestyles and moved freely from one social group to the other. For a period, he kept a suite of rooms at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, but he continued to spend time on his family ranch during the busy seasons.
James had inherited portions of El Rancho Ausaymas y San Felipe in the northern part of San Benito County and the San Lorenzo (now called the El Topo Ranch) to the south. The Ausaymas y San Felipe was the original land grant of Francisco Perez Pacheco. It was originally more than 35,000 acres in what is now Santa Clara and San Benito counties.
When it came into James Dunne’s possession, the ranch was more than 25,000 acres starting from the outskirts of Gilroy near Highway 152 and continuing along both sides of Pacheco Pass. Throughout his life, Dunne had a real fondness for working side by side with the vaqueros still on the ranch.
In 1906-07, Kate and James Dunne built a very grand “Colonial Virginian,” two-story home called Casa del Rancho. The Gilroy Advocate gave a lengthy report on a party celebrating its completion describing an orchestra playing on the veranda and Mrs. Dunne "in her Parisian gown and necklace of diamonds and amethysts".
Later, the Dunnes decided to remove the whole second floor to ensure that the ground floor would survive an earthquake. This home still stands on San Felipe Road between Pacheco Pass and Shore Road.
During their 42 years of marriage, the couple traveled around the world several times. The Dunnes had no children but James enjoyed collecting the latest in cars and appreciated fine thoroughbred horses.
James is associated with the four-way intersection of San Felipe and Shore Roads called “Dunne Corner.” According to the 1977 book, East of the Gabilans by Marjorie Pierce, the intersection was at one time called “Chase’s Corner” for the bar at that location. In a 1993 Pinnacle article written by Greg Grewell, it was told that Dunne was there so frequently and dependably, “the location became known as Dunneville because, if James couldn’t be found at the ranch, he could be found there.” Today, Dunneville Restaurant and Market are on the same spot.
After returning from a European voyage in 1925, James became ill and died. In June of that year, Kate placed an ad to sell the ranch. She wrote, “The most beautiful ranch in the state — 20-room residence- guest cottage, superintendent’s cottage, chauffeur’s cottage, ample garage with or without Pierce Arrow cars — a thoroughly equipped ranch in every detail — ready to step in on June 1, 1925.” The ranch was sold to James O’Connell Sr. that same year.
In 1941, Kate purchased the old Sacred Heart land in Hollister and donated it to the city, with the plan to create Dunne Park in her husband’s name.
The original Sacred Heart Church was moved off the site to where it stands today on the current Sacred Heart Parish School campus at Fifth and College streets. She also created for the community a major park for the neighborhoods near downtown Hollister. Atop a gently sloping hill, she had the Dunne Clubhouse built, which is still available for public use today.
For San Benito County, Dunne Park is one of the few gifts from the Dunne family’s great wealth that remained in the county. It is hard to imagine what the full estate could have done for San Benito County, especially if you look at the estate in today's dollars. Still, we are fortunate to have the enjoyment of her gift. There have been some improvements made to Dunne Park over the years — including the recent re-surfacing of the tennis courts — though the clubhouse appears to be ready for more. It currently has a beautiful rose garden, the courts, barbecue pits and a children’s playground.
According to the Hollister Advance, upon her death on April 22, 1930, Kate Dunne gifted to a long list of recipients. All gifts were given in the name of her husband, James, unless noted otherwise.
- James F. Dunne Scholarship $200,000
- Homeopathic Foundation for Sick Children $100,000 (Viola)
- James F Dunne Park in Hollister $75,000 (Yahoo Answers says that would be $1,125,000 today. Inflation Calculator says $1,077,369)
- Order of the Carmelites, San Francisco $40,000
- San Francisco Childrens’ Hospital $20,000
- San Jose Veterans Memorial Building (Remainder of Trust)
- California Women’s Hospital, SF $20,000
- Sisters of the Holy Family, SF $20,000
- Protestant Orphanage, SF $20,000
- Roman Catholic Orphanage, SF $20,000
- San Francisco Old Ladies Home $20,000
- Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, SF $20,000
- Associated Charities, SF $20,000
- Wheeler Hospital, Gilroy $10,000
- Sisters of Charity, Hollister $10,000
- San Jose Day Nursery $5,000
- Gifts to 28 individuals starting at $20,000 and below
NOTE: One of our readers, William McCarey sent a note with an "Inflation Calculator" . It allows you to get an accurate idea of what her gifting would look like today. Yahoo Answers approximated it to be 15 times the original amount.
Preliminary research provided for the Women's Fund event was done by Sharlene Van Rooy of the San Benito County Historical Society and Redbeard Communications Marketing and Advertising. Special thanks to Van Rooy for her help with additional research and access to the Historical Museum. Historic photos were provided by the San Benito County Historical Society. Other photos are by Leslie David.
The Legacy of Women will be an ongoing series on BenitoLink. The stories are written and owned by Leslie David.