Volney D. Moody, serial entrepreneur, left a mixed legacy in Alameda County

Daniella Thompson

Volney Moody operated the first sawmill in Oakland in the early 1850s. This photo was taken in the 1880s. (Oakland Public Library)

16 June 2008

In newspaper obituaries of the early 20th century, anyone who settled in the Bay Area before 1890 was called a pioneer. Few of these early residents could compete with the Moody family for the title of pioneers.

Originating in Rodman, NY, the Moodys moved to Michigan City, Indiana in 1834. Six years later, they came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they remained until news of the California Gold Rush spread through the land. In early 1849, Ransom Grover Moody (b. 1804) decided to take several wagonloads of dry goods to sell in Salt Lake City, a major hub on the Emigrant Trail.

On 28 March 1849, Moody, his wife Elmira, their daughter Charlotte, and four sons—George, Charles, Volney, and David—set out with seven wagons pulled by ox teams and loaded with merchandise, from hats to jewelry and shoes. They joined a wagon train that left Mineral Point, WI, crossing the Mississippi River at Dubuque and passing through Iowa City and Des Moines, where they joined the Mormon Trail.

By the time they left Kanesville (present-day Council Bluffs), Iowa on 29 May, their train numbered 40 wagons and had been named Badger Company. They crossed the Missouri the next day. At Fort Laramie, the Moodys and their relatives, the Skinners, separated from the rest of the train. Ransom’s son Volney marked their passage through Wyoming by carving his name and the date, 24 July 1849, on Independence Rock. They arrived in Salt Lake City on 14 August. Ransom Moody had accumulated a large cattle herd along the way, and it proved more difficult to sell than he had anticipated, requiring a layover of several months. Not until 10 November did the family join a wagon train out of Salt Lake, taking the grueling Southern Route to Los Angeles.

Independence Rock, Wyoming, where Volney Moody carved his name on 24 July 1849. (Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, Oregon, California, Mormon, Pioneer & Pony Express Trails)

The Moodys were one of the first parties to reach Southern California by this route. The Society of California Pioneers, whose members arrived in California before 1850, records the Moodys’ arrival date as 25 Dec. 1849, yet they did not reach Rancho San Bernardino until 8 Feb. 1850. Here they were the guests of the Lugo family, holders of the Mexican land grant, and rested for a while before continuing north to the pueblo of San Jose, where they settled.

Of Moody’s four sons, the most successful turned out to be Volney Delos Moody (1829–1901). Just 20 years old upon arrival in California, he did not tarry to demonstrate entrepreneurial skills, being among the first to enter the lumber business at Rancho de las Pulgas in San Mateo County. How he acquired logging rights is not clear, but he could very well have been squatting, like many other Forty-niners, on land that rightfully belonged to the family of Don Luís Argüello.

Within a year, Volney abandoned Las Pulgas and moved his lumbering operations to the San Antonio redwoods of East Oakland, acquiring the first steam sawmill built on the bank of Palo Seco Creek, at the head of Dimond Canyon. Again, he may have been squatting on Peralta lands. By 1860, the magnificent San Antonio redwood forest had been completely logged, but Moody was long out of the picture, having gone on to bigger enterprises.

Volney Delos Moody (San Francisco Call, 29 March 1901)

Moody’s biography in History of Alameda County, California (1883) relates that in 1853 he “sold out his stock, leased the mill and returned to Milwaukee. There he purchased a band of horses, and driving them before him across the plains he again returned to California.” Apparently Moody chose an easier route to the East than the one he had covered in 1849. A December 1852 ship’s passenger log lists V.D. Moody as a merchant arriving in New York from Nicaragua, indicating that he set out earlier than 1853, traveling by sea from San Francisco to New York on his way to Milwaukee.

In 1854, Moody was off to the East again, purchasing cattle in Wisconsin and carriages in Newark, NJ, and sending them ahead across the plains. Revisiting his birthplace in upstate New York, he married Adaline (“Addie”) Mary Wright and returned to California by way of the Isthmus of Panama, a sea route much the same as the one he traveled the previous year.

Volney and Addie settled in San Jose, where Volney’s father and brothers had become leading citizens. The same year, Ransom Moody (who would be elected president of the town’s Board of Trustees in 1857) built a flour mill on the banks of Coyote Creek, propelled by artesian well water. The business expanded rapidly, producing the then-famous “Lily White Flour.” When Ransom retired in the early 1860s, his sons Charles, Volney, and David took over the business. In 1863, Volney—the wealthiest of the three, dealing in lumber and cattle as well as in flour—was assessed $289.60 in federal tax on a valuation of $5,792.

Volney sold out his share in the mill in 1866, moving to San Francisco with Addie and their three children. Charles and David ran the company until 1887, when it was sold to the Central Milling Company, which in turn was absorbed into the Sperry Flour Company in 1892.

In San Francisco, Volney turned into a dry-goods merchant. The 1870 census listed Volney and Addie with daughters Nellie, 11, and Jessie, 8. Their 15-year-old son William was living with neighbors of David Moody’s in San Jose, where he was attending school. In 1874, the Moody moved to Oakland, where Volney “conceived the idea of starting a bank [...] with a few ‘good men and true’.”

Oakland Daily Evening Tribune, 7 April 1877

In May 1875, Moody and his associates reorganized the Alameda County Savings and Loan Association—founded the previous year—as the First National Gold Bank of Oakland. In March 1880, after the U.S. government resumed payment in greenbacks, the bank became known as the First National Bank of Oakland. Moody was the bank’s president from 1876 to 1891.

After leaving the First National Bank, Moody was instrumental in organizing the Home Savings Bank, serving as its president for the first four years. The name was later changed to Central Bank. Later in the 1890s, Moody participated in the establishment of the State Savings Bank and was its vice-president at the time of his death.

But banking was only one of Moody’s many enterprises. In 1880, he joined with a group of worthies including Francis K. Shattuck to form the Oakland Home Insurance Company, of which Moody’s son-in-law, William F. Blood, was secretary and treasurer (Blood had married Nellie Moody in 1877).

New York Times, 30 August 1883

A few years later, with another group of capitalists, Moody founded the California Cotton Mills, with facilities in East Oakland. For a long time this was the only cotton factory in California. It manufactured sewing, seine, sail, and wrapping twines; carpets; horse blankets; sail cloth; rope; cotton batting; and candle wicking. Seamless bags, made of cotton or jute, were its specialty product.

Twine works at the California Cotton Mills, 1890s (Oakland Public Library)

In 1890, the California Cotton Mills employed 190 workers, including 85 women, 65 men, 20 girls, and 20 boys, who put in 60 hours a week and earned from 50 cents to $3.50 per 10-hour day. These wages were considerably higher, and the work day one to three hours shorter, than in other states. An official state report published in 1891 described the working conditions at the California Cotton Mills:

A visitor to the mill cannot fail to be struck with the order and cleanliness to be seen in every department. There are separate water-closets for the sexes, and commodious, well arranged toilet and cloak rooms for the women. The machinery, belting, etc., are under the floor of the work-rooms, so there is no danger of the employees running risk of loss of life or limb by coming into contact with them. In consequence of the considerate manner in which the employees, especially the women and girls, are treated, a better class of help is obtained than would be the case otherwise. The hoodlum element is happily absent.

Along with F.K. Shattuck, Moody was also involved in the establishment of electric street railways in Oakland.

In December 1887, Moody was elected to a Board of Fifteen Freeholders whose task it was to prepare a city charter for Oakland. In the summer of 1889, when a flood in Johnstown, PA, killed 2,209 people, he acted as treasurer for the citizens of Oakland, contributing $5,000 to the governor’s relief fund.

In addition to being a banker, Moody extended private loans to many people, from family members to unrelated businessmen. One of these, in the amount of $4,000, was made to John Hinkel, namesake of the north Berkeley park, who before moving to Berkeley and becoming a major property owner here was a building contractor in San Francisco. Hinkel defaulted on his various loans, claiming insolvency. Moody, elected as the assignee of Hinkel’s creditors, filed an objection on grounds of fraud. In 1883, Hinkel sued Moody, charging that as the assignee, the latter waived his rights as creditor. Moody appealed, and the court found for him, concluding that “the Insolvent Statute of 1852 was not intended for the benefit of fraudulent insolvent debtors.”

Shortly after moving his family to Oakland in 1874, Moody built a house at 564 14th Street at Clay (the site is now surrounded by government high-rises). By 1884, the three Moody children had grown to adulthood, and the marriage with Addie had fallen apart. The reasons for the divorce were never divulged, but about the same time, Moody met Mrs. Mary Robinson, a widowed schoolteacher in Alameda and the mother of two teenaged daughters.

The divorce settlement took place out of court, and the decree was granted in San Benito Country, far away from prying eyes. In exchange for complete secrecy, Addie was given half of the Moody estate, reputed at that time to be worth about $180,000. Within the year, Volney married Mary Robinson. Knowledge of this marriage was kept within the family. In an age when married women were called by their husband’s name, few of Moody’s friends and associates realized that the Mrs. Moody they met was not the first one to hold that position.

It was this second marriage that would eventually bring Volney Delos Moody to Berkeley.

Part 2  Part 3

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 19 June 2008.


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