Ninety Years of Living, Nine Decades of Life in a Growing San Jose

By Leigh Weimers


If you want to know about the good life in Santa Clara Valley, talk with Dorothy Farrington.  More than most, she has been living it — from the good old days of the orchards at the turn of the century to the good new days of technology in the ‘90s — and doing it right.


Farrington, who celebrated her 90th birthday Friday, is a third-generation San Josean, proud of her heritage but happily living for today, and ready to talk about both with sly humor.


“I was raised on a ranch, 250 acres, between Latimer and Payne (avenues),” she begins.  


“The tram cars used to run all the way to Los Gatos, and our station was Moreland, about a mile and a half from our home.  We grew a little bit of everything — prunes, apricots, peaches, cherries.  My father would say that everything was fine, unless it rained during cherry season.  And it always rained during cherry season.”


It was a different valley then, rural and uncrowded.  “I grew up on the ranch by myself — no sisters, no brothers, no neighbors,” she continues.  “But you can do a lot of roaming on that amount of acreage.”  A young girl with a quick and curious mind, she found it easy to amuse herself.  “Absolutely.”


And, occasionally, there were other, non-rural, amusements.  “There used to be a nickelodeon on South Second Street, across from the Jose Theater,” she recalls.  “I remember when I was maybe 8 or 9 that my mother and grandmother and I went to see a movie there.  Unfortunately, it had Indians in it.  Sorry!  My grandmother (who had come across the Plains by wagon as a teen-age orphan) had a hissy fit.  She was terrified of Indians.  We all three had to get up and go,” Farrington chuckles.  “I was mad.”


Such trips to San Jose were a big deal for the Bogens — her maiden name — and other farm families of the day.  “Our main recreation — being out in the country, eight miles from the center of town — was Saturdays,” she says.  “My father would go to town, and my mother and I would meet him there later.  We usually left our car at Hale’s (department store), and then we’d walk uptown.  We knew almost everybody who passed.  We’d eat at Solari’s — the only French restaurant there was — and then we’d go to the Orpheum for the vaudeville.  I saw Sarah Bernhardt, Harry Lauder and other stars of the time.  And then we’d drive home in tandem.”


She also remembers “another big deal” — the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.  “It was the most beautiful fair I’ve ever seen, surpassing anything since.  We took an apartment on Lombard Street and stayed up there for a whole month.”  It obviously hadn’t rained much on the cherries that year.


Farrington’s formal education (“I was sent to a school my mother had gone to on Stockton Avenue, Washburn School, run by two aged sisters”) was interrupted when schools were closed by the flu epidemic of 1918.  “I got the flu first.  Then my mother and father took to their beds.  I remember tottering around, giving them my idea of invalid food.  They survived that.”


School Days


After the epidemic passed, Farrington’s mother and some friends rented two rooms above a drugstore in Campbell for a school there.  It had four pupils and Farrington graduated as valedictorian.


She was also getting an education on the road.  “My mother taught me to drive, starting when I was maybe 14,” she says.  “My father’s car was an EMF (nicknamed by the family, the Every Morning Fix’em).  We got on Saratoga Avenue in good shape, turned toward San Jose, and in the far distance there was a hay wagon — the only thing on the horizon.  My hands grew clammy.  My mother said, ‘Just be calm, and when you get there, go around it.’  I drove for blocks and blocks before we caught up with it.”


Farrington’s parents sent her to Castilleja Day School in Palo Alto.  “It was very traumatic, being taken off the dirt of a farm and being sent to a very elite, very sophisticated school,” she acknowledges.  I didn’t know about clothes or anything.  I was not popular.”  But she completed a second year there, and the family then departed for a year abroad — a grand tour of England, France, Germany and Italy.  “I nearly starved in England,” she notes.  “The food at that time was incredibly awful.  But I do remember landing in Italy — and how well we ate!”


On their return, her father insisted she prepare for work outside the farm (“That did not sit well with me, but there were no other prospects”) so she studied shorthand at San Jose Business College, and went to work for a judge.  It was an unsatisfactory experience for a woman of her intellect.  “He played golf every day, and there I was, looking out into space.”  She says she figured that “the thing to do would be to make my father so utterly miserable that he would have to send me to college.  So I devoted myself to the task, and that’s when I went to Stanford.”


She studied social science there (“If I had known then what I know now, I would have studied philosophy; it’s no good for a career, but it’s very interesting”), was wooed by engineering student Theo Farrington, a former grammar school classmate, and in 1930 was married — and went right into the Depression.


Hard Times


“No jobs,” she says.  “No money.  We lived with my father and mother-in-law, but that couldn’t go on so we built a house on the corner of Meridian (Avenue) and Dry Creek (Road).  It’s still there, but you can’t see it much behind the trees and shrubs, most of which I planted.”  Her husband worked at any job he could find, even growing potatoes for a time in a field on Stevens Creek Road (now Boulevard).  “The house cost us $400 for everything,” she recalls.  “When we’d run out of money, we’d just stop.”


The economy improved with the approach of World War II.  Her husband found full-time civil engineering work at Fort Ord, and they moved to Pacific Grove.  But after the war, health problems began to intrude on the relatively charmed life of Dorothy Farrington.  “For a while, I was the busiest nurse you ever saw,” she sighs, “taking care of my father and mother, and his father and mother . . .
“I look back on that now and wonder how I did all that,” she says.  But in the crisis of parents dying, she developed her strength and resourcefulness.  “I’d walk into the First National Bank and borrow $10,000 — the crop was the collateral.  Can you believe that?  Just run around one crisis after another.  If you survive, you’re a success.”


She was a success, skillfully managing the families’ land as the valley changed from agricultural to industrial.  Her husband died of a heart attack in 1961, and she continued on alone, directing an ever-growing array of investments and other ventures.

 

I’m kind of a crazy horse,” she acknowledges.  “At one stage, I had a house in Pacific Grove, an apartment in San Francisco, a big house in Tahoe, and I was living in this Victorian (the Farrington House).  Victorians are pretty to look at, but hell to live in.  My mother-in-law, before she died, told her son, ‘Please, don’t ever sell this house.’”  So, Dorothy Farrington set up a foundation to manage the house, and [to make it available] to the Junior League of San Jose as its headquarters — honoring her mother-in-law’s wish.


Changes


She stays mostly in San Jose now, in a gracious home not far from the one she and her husband built.  She marvels at the changes she’s seen (“My parents wouldn’t recognize San Jose;  I don’t recognize San Jose”).  She doesn’t get downtown much but she’s curious about the Sharks (“I like a certain amount of violence”).  And she grumbles at the baseball strike (“I’m just mad at everybody now”).


But not so mad that she lets it upset her good life in the valley she loves.  “I arise about 11 o’clock and have a Bloody Mary,” she says.  “Then I have my lunch and read mysteries (she likes P.D. James and Dick Francis) all afternoon.  Then I have my TV in the evening.  I love ‘Jeopardy!’  I’m in relatively good health, and I’m fortunate beyond belief.”  Still doing it right.

 

 

By Leigh Weimers
San Jose Mercury News
Originally published Sunday, March 26, 1995
Reprinted with permission of the San Jose Mercury News

 

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