.San Jose’s Apple Forefather, Henry C. Skinner

Henry C. Skinner’s apple seeds that grew into San Jose history

Deep in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, a sidewalk plaque on a tiny side street teaches me about seeds. Then I travel. And get curious. And learn.

In 1849, Henry C. Skinner brought apple seeds across the country and settled in San Jose, just off Coyote Creek, where he planted 13 of the seeds. Of the two that actually grew, one became a sour apple, while the other became a Skinner’s Seedling. Several years later, the initial round of fruit, 32 apples, was exhibited at the county fair. The Skinner’s Seedling, which still exists today, was the first commercially viable apple developed in California in the late 19th century, and Skinner was one of San Jose’s pioneer orchardists. 

The plaque, near what’s now 20th and Roosevelt, reveals the story, but I doubt many from outside the neighborhood look at it very often, maybe because it was just dedicated a couple years ago. 

Brown with gold lettering, and encased in concrete atop a parking strip of bricks and dazzling foliage, the plaque was dedicated by two fine organizations: the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County and the notorious Mountain Charlie Chapter of E Clampus Vitus, aka The Clampers. The Pioneers were established in 1875. The Clampers can be understood as either a men’s drinking club disguised as a historical organization or a historical organization disguised as a men’s drinking club.

Skinner himself was a man of many talents. His acquaintances called him a “Gold Rush da Vinci.” Like Honest Abe, he wore a beard but no mustache. Originally from New York, Skinner spent much of his cross-country journey with the same folks who eventually explored Death Valley.

Once in San Jose, Skinner helped start the public school system and became one of the town’s first school commissioners. He was also a judge. But he went down in history for apples more than anything. He died in 1877 and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

As always, the columnist should never limit his neighborhood exploration to physical markers. As one journeys, he investigates more resources and raises more ghosts to augment the experience. 

Heading east, for example, Julian Street passes by Coyote Creek and San Jose High School before turning into McKee Road, where any curious traveler will then research the McKee family, who lorded over a 15-acre spread on the east side of the creek. The spread was only there because Joseph Olcott McKee sold off the ship that he and his late father operated, often sailing out of Alviso. In fact, when the state capital was moved from San Jose to Vallejo, it was the McKees who loaded up all the boxes of records on their ship and transferred them up north. Then, in 1853, McKee Road was established and named after the family, with Skinner among the ranchers who signed the petition.

Today, though, one can still reap some backwater inspiration just wandering around. San Jose High, of course, used to be at Seventh and San Fernando, right across from where Peanuts Deluxe Café is now. The current campus allows one to slither down 24th Street along the school’s eastern flank and then segue off into various leftover pieces of St. James and St. John that used to go all the way through to downtown. Old neighborhoods provide a gorgeous sense of historical continuity, or discontinuity, that one will never get from exploring tract-house subdivisions.

Then, over on Santa Clara Street, one can raise the architectural ghosts of Roosevelt Junior High, San Jose’s first junior high school, which opened in 1926 at 20th and Santa Clara, pretty much where the community center is now. Designed by W. H. Weeks, the school was a grandiose ornate structure replete with austere porticos and corridors. Before the San Jose Civic Auditorium was built, the hall at Roosevelt Junior High was San Jose’s primary space for national touring acts. 

A few blocks down, one still finds 1047 E. Santa Clara, where beat generation troublemaker Neal Cassady hosted Kerouac and Ginsberg numerous times, a place deserving of its own plaque, although the story might be too complicated for the more genteel historians. Nevertheless, the ghosts do indeed stalk grimly.

Yes, this is what travel is all about. Seeds. Learning. Curiosity. Try it sometime. 

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