The Bourn Era

William Bowers Bourn & Sarah Chase Bourn

William Bowers Bourn Sr., founder of the family’s wealth and status in California, was born in Somerset, Massachusetts and moved from New York to San Francisco in 1850 to join his partner and father-in-law, Captain George Chase. Bourn Sr., a successful merchant, owned half interest in a cargo shipping business with Chase.

Shortly after his arrival in San Francisco, Bourn Sr. invested in other shipping businesses, mercantile trade, agriculture, the first gas light company and the Empire Minea hard rock gold mine in Grass Valley. He later bought control of the mine, that eventually became the chief source of the Bourn family’s wealth. The mine continued in operation for 106 years, despite the decline in gold mining in California. Bourn Sr. was also interim president and director of the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. He was known in the financial district of San Francisco as having Bourn luck. By today’s standards, William Bowers Bourn Sr. would be considered a very successful investment banker.

The first Bourn family home in San Francisco was at Third and Brannan Streets (the house no longer exists) and their second home was at 1105 Taylor Street. After their last child was born in 1868, Bourn Sr. gave his wife, Sarah Chase Bourn, a house and vineyard in St. Helena, known as Madroño. Following the accidental death of son Frank in San Francisco in 1872, the family spent most of their time at Madroño.


William Bowers Bourn II & Agnes Moody Bourn

William Bowers Bourn II was born in San Francisco on May 31, 1857 at his parents’ home on Third and Brannan Streets. He grew up in and around San Francisco, attending Bates School and the college of St. Augustine (an Episcopal military academy in Benicia). In 1874, at the age of 61, Bourn Sr. died suddenly from an accidental gunshot wound at the Taylor Street home. William’s mother, Sarah, took control of the family investments and in the following year young William went to England to attend Cambridge University and travel throughout Europe.

In 1878 a crisis occurred at the Empire Mine when the mine bottomed out at the 1200-foot level with all visible ore exhausted. Three well-known engineers declared the prospects grim. At age 21, William returned to California to take over the management of the Empire Mine as well as the vineyards at Madroño. William, with his cousin, George Starr (age 19), a mining engineer, commenced further exploration of the mine. At the 1700-foot level an even richer vein of gold was discovered two years later and Bourn’s continuing financial success was assured. Starr has been called a mining genius.

In 1881 William married Agnes Moody in New York. The Bourn and Moody families were friends.

In 1888-1889 Bourn built the great Greystone Winery in St. Helena, one of the largest stone wineries in the world. In 1890 Bourn became president of the San Francisco Gas Company, and in 1896 he and Agnes built a home at 2550 Webster Street on the hill above the company offices. They also built a summer home, the Empire Cottage, at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. Willis Polk, a longtime friend and hunting companion, was the architect for both houses.

In 1908 Bourn purchased the Spring Valley Water Company, which supplied water to the city of San Francisco, and became president of the company. Bourn, like his father, had become a very successful investment banker.


Building a Dream

After the great earthquake in 1906, wealthy San Francisco families moved to the Peninsula and built large expensive homes. From 1908, until the Bourns moved to Filoli in 1917, they rented Ski Farm (named after a man with the surname Poniatowski, but over time became known as Sky Farm) on the Crocker property, adjacent to Crystal Springs Lake in San Mateo. During this time, Bourn often took his family to Europe and while on an Atlantic crossing in 1906, his daughter Maud met Arthur Rose Vincent of Summerhill, Cloonlara in County Clare, Ireland.

Maud and Arthur Rose Vincent were married March 30, 1910, at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in San Mateo, followed by the wedding reception at Sky Farm. The couple spent two weeks of their honeymoon in California (part of it at the Empire Cottage), and then embarked on a three-month tour of Europe and Egypt. As an assistant judge for the British Foreign Office, Arthur was to be stationed in Zanzibar, however with the encouragement of Maud and the Bourns, he resigned his post during this time. In November 1910, Bourn purchased Muckross House and its surrounding 11,000 acres on the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry, Ireland for their daughter and new son-in-law. Bourn immediately began plans for developing the gardens at Muckross and continued to be involved in the property’s maintenance and upkeep. The Bourns were frequent visitors to Muckross and became enamored with the beautiful Irish country setting.

Because of its similarity to the country setting of Muckross, the Bourns wanted to have an estate built along Crystal Springs Lake, on land owned by the Spring Valley Water Company. Even though Bourn was the president of the company, a law forbade private ownership of the public domain property that supplied water to the city of San Francisco. So the Bourns commissioned their attorney to find land available for purchase as close as possible to the lake.

In 1915 Bourn purchased 1,800 acres at the southern end of Crystal Springs Lake from E. A. Husing of San Mateo. The property fronted a line which is today Cañada Road and extended west to the top of the mountain ridge along Skyline Boulevard. The Bourn family retained 715 acres of this land from the easternmost creek to the top of the mountain for their estate, and sold the remaining acreage to the Spring Valley Water Company. Cañada Road at that time ran through the estate’s property, so the Bourns obtained permission to move the road to the east of the property where it is today.

Mr. Bourn chose the name Filoli for their country estate from the first two letters of the words: FIGHT – LOVE – LIVE. The origin and meaning of the name was a mystery that tantalized their friends for a long time. It was their fancy that it remain so, but Bourn’s right-hand man, Sam Eastman, president of the Spring Valley Water Company, finally found the solution. FI – LO – LI, Fight, Love, Live. To fight for a just cause; to love your fellow man; to live a good life was a credo that Bourn believed in.

Willis Polk was asked to be the architect of the country estate. The construction of the house began in 1915 and the Bourns took occupancy in the fall of 1917 before the House was completed. Mr. Bourn always referred to this as a home for Mrs. Bourn.

In August of 1921 William Bourn had a severe stroke while at the Empire Mine. In October, 1922 he had another paralyzing stroke, also at the Empire Mine, and from this time on he was confined to a wheelchair. Bourn was a proud man and disliked having anyone see him in a wheelchair, so the gardeners were instructed to stay out of his sight when he was wheeled through the Filoli garden. He enjoyed being taken to the High Place at the top of the Yew Allée where he would have the best view of Crystal Springs Lake. A series of nature trails were developed on the property to the south, which Mr. Bourn frequented. They still exist today.

In 1922 Mrs. Bourn founded the Hillsborough Garden Club, which became a member of the Garden Club of America in 1929. She often held an open house for her friends for tea any afternoon they wished to join her at Filoli. Tea was served in the Reception Room or Drawing Room during cool weather and on the Dining Room Terrace in warm weather.

In 1924 Bourn built a Spanish style house designed by George Washington Smith in Pebble Beach on the 17-Mile Drive for his daughter Maud Vincent. Asilo de la Estrella was the name given to that house. Smith is best known for his work in Santa Barbara where he designed several Spanish revival style buildings.

On February 12, 1929, following an Atlantic crossing en route to California with her two children to visit her ailing father, Maud Vincent died in New York City of pneumonia. Her body was brought across country by train to Filoli and she was buried in a cemetery created on top of a small knoll to the west overlooking the House and valley. At the time the gravesite was chosen, the view to the lake was clear and the hillside was bare of the many oaks and madrones that cover it today.

After the death of his daughter, Mr. Bourn gradually retired from the business world. The Empire Mine was sold to the Newmont Mining Corporation, and a year later the Spring Valley Water Company was sold to the City of San Francisco.

In 1932, finding the management and expense of the Muckross estate too difficult and too expensive, the Bourns and their son-in-law, Arthur Vincent, presented Muckross House and the surrounding 11,000 acres of land to the Irish Nation as a memorial to Maud Bourn Vincent. The estate became the first national park in Ireland. Visited by thousands of tourists each year, the house and surrounding gardens are known as the Bourn-Vincent Memorial Park and the estate is known as the Killarney National Park.

Mrs. Bourn was taken ill in 1932 with diabetes and was confined to her bedroom at the north end of the house. Parties and balls, hosted by Mr. Bourn’s sisters, continued to be held at Filoli for the Bourns’ friends, even though neither Bourn attended.

November 24, 1933 was the last dinner party given by the Bourns at Filoli. The Drunks Dinner was to celebrate the repeal of the 18th Amendment, with Mr. Bourn’s sister, Ida, acting as hostess. The Bourns remained in their rooms upstairs.

Mrs. Bourn died at Filoli on January 3, 1936 at the age of 75 and six months later, on July 5, William Bowers Bourn II died at Filoli at age 79. Both Agnes and William Bourn were buried in the cemetery on the knoll overlooking the House and valley, with Maud and their infant son, whose grave had been moved to the site. In 1981, their granddaughter Elizabeth Rose was buried in the family plot. The Bourn family still owns the five-acre burial plot. A copy of a Celtic cross at Muckross Abbey stands on the knoll with the words Fight, Live and Live carved on its base. The first live was undoubtedly a mistake.