By STEPHEN VAN WORMER
Researcher and Writer
In 1884, George Wetherbee, an enterprising businessman from San Francisco, opened a beehive box factory, and planing mill in downtown San Diego. Unlike more successful entrepreneurs such as Alonzo Horton, John D. Spreckels, or George Marston, whose influences on the development of San Diego are well remembered, his record is one of dismal failure. A victim of the economic boom and bust of the late 1880s, Wetherbee operated only five short years. The experience of George Wetherbee and his ill-fated planing mill, however, is as much a part of the history of San Diego as are the ventures of more successful businessmen who contributed to the city’s future.
Before coming to San Diego, George Wetherbee led an active and industrious life. Born on December 7, 1837, in Westminister, Massachusetts, he had been forced to earn his own living from the time he was nine years old, due to the death of his father. In 1854, he moved to Boston and entered the planing mill business. Just a few years later, on the eve of the Civil War, he married Angelina Barney. They eventually had four children. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Wetherbee enlisted in the First Massachusetts Infantry where he served as a musician.1 After the war he returned to Boston until 1869, when he moved to San Francisco. In San Francisco he worked for the California Planing Mills and the Mare Island Naval Yard until 1874, when he opened his own planing mill and beehive manufacturing business.2
The manufacture of beehives would become the major focus of George Wetherbee’s business, and eventually take him to San Diego. By 1880, San Diego County had become an important honey producing region and a major market for bee keeping materials. Honey production, introduced to San Diego in 1869, grew into one of the principal industries of the county in less than a decade. In 1875, there were ten thousand hives in the region. Five years later the number had doubled.3 Such a rapid expansion of the industry greatly increased the demand for beehives. The San Diego beemen purchased their supplies from Sacramento until the San Diego Planing Mills began local production in 1874, turning out eight thousand hives the first year. The need increased so rapidly, however, that the local mills could not meet the demand, and the beemen of San Diego County continued to import many of their materials from manufacurers in other cities, including George Wetherbee.4
By 1876, Wetherbee actively solicited the San Diego hive market with an ad in the San Diego Union which stated that “George M. Wetherbee” of “211 and 213 Mission Street, San Francisco, manufactures and keeps constantly on hand the Harbison Hives and materials. . . . All work warranted superior and delivered free of charge to San Diego. . . .”5 His San Diego County business evidently prospered, for by 1883, he had expressed an interest in moving his mill to the area. In the meantime, the mill’s line of products expanded to include packing cases, and orange, lemon, lime, and apple boxes.6
In the summer of 1884 he moved his business to San Diego, purchasing property in August of that year on the northeast corner of “G” and Arctic Streets.7 By the end of September construction of the planing mill had begun.8 The work progressed rapidly, and on November 19, an advertisement in the San Diego Union noted that the “Planing Mill and Beehive Manufactory” of George Wetherbee would open the next day.
The services provided by the new mill included circular sawing, band sawing, reworking boards or planks, planing timbers, running rustic, sticking moulding, general shaping and jobbing, mill work for carriage makers, and the manufacture of beehives, section boxes, packing cases, cases and cans for extracting honey, and fruit and bread boxes.9
The planing mill enjoyed a prosperous opening. By December 3, orders had been filled and sent to Monterey, Arizona, and Australia. Disaster, however, brought the promising activity of the first few weeks to a sudden end. On December 12, 1884 a fire burned the factory to the ground, destroying most of the machinery.10 Immediately, Wetherbee began to rebuild.11 On January 13, the San Diego Union announced that the brick foundation had been reconstructed and by the middle of March the mill had reopened.12
The business apparently flourished, for that spring George Wetherbee expanded his line of products and services. In May he installed machinery that would manufacture five-gallon cans for storing honey. In addition, his advertisements in the newspaper listed the construction of counters, show cases, house finishing, and office refitting as services provided by the mill.13
By 1886, the business seemed to be thriving. The San Diego directory for that year gave the following complimentary description of the mill:
If there is a businessman in San Diego who is entitled to credit for enterprise and untiring energy, it is Mr. George M. Wetherbee, the owner and proprietor of the immense planing mill at the corner of G and Arctic Streets. . . . The present structure consists of a corrugated iron building, 56 by 90 feet, with an addition of wood 56 by 98 feet. . . . It is thoroughly equipped with both machinery and experts to run it, to do all kinds of turning, sawing, planing, shaping, rustic and scroll sawing, and for the manufacture of moulding and house finishing of every style and description. . . . A particular feature of the business is the manufacture of beehives, section boxes, packing cases, cans and cases and boxes of every description, while the manufacture of honey and water tanks, screen doors, and windows is made a specialty. A full line of machinery has been added to the factory for that purpose. . .14
In addition to the success of his business, George Wetherbee enjoyed the admiration of the community. The people of San Diego respected the triumphant manner in which he overcame the disastrous fire, and admired the concern he expressed for his neighbors and workmen. Twice the San Diego Union announced that the planing mill whistle had been silenced in consideration for a sick neighbor. His benevolence toward his neighbors equalled his sense of fairness to his employees. Even though the decade of the 1880s was dominated by the attitudes of Social Darwinism, which looked down upon any attempt at labor reform, George Wetherbee adopted the nine-hour day for his workmen. For this act, the carpenters union presented him with a gold-headed cane on Christmas Day, 1886.15
This apparent prosperity covered an eroding financial foundation, however, which would soon crumble. George Wetherbee had made the mistake of letting a number of unpaid bills accumulate. By 1886 he owed money to several individuals and businesses in San Francisco and San Diego. Some of the debts went back as far as 1884.
The first indication of trouble appeared as an innocent line printed in the San Diego Union just two weeks before he had been honored by the carpenters union, which stated: “George M. Wetherbee and D. C. Hall filed a certificate of copartnership with the county clerk yesterday.” David C. Hall paid $10,000 for a half interest in the mill.16 Undoubtedly, Wetherbee sold Hall part ownership of the mill because he needed capital. It is not known if David Hall was informed of the unsound financial situation upon which the business rested at the time of this transaction. It was a fact, however, of which he soon became painfully aware.
In March of 1886, two of Wetherbee’s unsatisfied creditors began to take action. The S. H. Harman Lumber Company of San Francisco filed the first suit, for $561.60, on goods that had been delivered to the planing mill on February 24,1884.17 A second lawsuit followed before the end of the month, filed by the San Diego Lumber Company, which claimed $1,321.79, plus court costs, for merchandise delivered between May 1, 1885 and March 14, 1886.18 As a result of the two lawsuits, the Court declared George M. Wetherbee and David C. Hall to be insolvent debtors on March 17, 1887, and directed the sheriff to take possession of the property of both men.19
Upon declaration of insolvency, the remaining creditors to whom Wetherbee owed money began to file claims. In all, Wetherbee and Hall owed a debt of $9,500. In addition to the S. H. Harman and San Diego lumber companies, the creditors included Klauber and Levi of San Diego, The History Company of San Francisco, The Russ Lumber Company of San Diego, and several individuals.20 One can imagine the dismay of David Hall who, having entered the business only four months earlier, found that for $10,000 he had purchased half of George Wetherbee’s debts.
By the end of April the two partners made satisfactory arrangements with their creditors and the mill was back in operation.21 Hall, however, quit the business. On May 24,1887, he sold his half of the mill back to Wetherbee for $5,500.22 Time would prove this decision to be a wise one, for George Wetherbee would be forced to close the mill in just three short years.
Both the unsound business practices of Wetherbee, and a fluctuating economy led to his financial decline. In the spring of 1887, San Diego, and all of Southern California, found themselves in the midst of an economic boom which, up until that time, had been unparalleled in the history of the region. By luck, George Wetherbee had moved to San Diego on the eve of this boom and founded his business in its rising tide.
The boom of the 1880s first made itself felt in San Diego in 1885, when Eastern land speculators began to buy up San Diego County land. The interest in San Diego lands had been stimulated by the anticipation of a railroad connection between San Diego and the Santa Fe line at Barstow. In November 1885, just nine months after the Wetherbee Mill had been rebuilt, the new line opened. Suddenly the growth of San Diego accelerated. In 1886, the population of the city jumped from 7,500 to 12,000. This population growth naturally resulted in a surge of construction, and 1886 saw the completion of 913 buildings.23 During 1887, the number of new buildings erected in the city rose to 1,760.24
Land speculation, however, not construction, provided the real stimulus to the economic boom. A land investment fever had seized San Diego by the spring of 1887, and would become another factor in the decline of George Wetherbee.25 Undoubtedly caught up in the speculation excitement, he made several real estate investments during this period. They, however, proved to be regrettable, for between 1887 and 1890, Wetherbee became involved in no less than eleven lawsuits. Several were for defaulting on debts or mortgages.26
By the end of 1887, the flush times of the economic boom had almost run their course. The economy would soon take a drastic turn. For any business not sitting on firm financial ground, the result would be fatal. The Wetherbee Planing Mill, whose financial stability had always been shaky, and whose growth had depended largely upon the surge in construction of the previous two years, could not hope to survive.
Suddenly, in the late spring of 1888, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Construction of new buildings fell off sharply, and by the end of the year only 319 new structures had been completed in the city.27 For George Wetherbee financial disaster also threatened from another direction. In the late 1880s the bee industry in the county began to decline.28 Wetherbee, therefore, after originally basing his future on the honey industry, only to be caught up in an unexpected construction boom, saw both of his markets collapsing.
One might expect a person in his position to become cautious in his business transactions, but he seems to have been unaffected in his attitude. He continued to invest in real estate, buying two lots in Pacific Beach in October 1888, and February 1889. 29
By April of 1889 he could no longer forestall the inevitable. On the twentieth of that month the Court ordered property that he owned in partnership with two other investors to be sold by the sheriff for failure to pay off a $300 mortgage.30 This was the beginning of his final decline. On January 31, 1890 George Wetherbee sold his planing mill to James Heriey of Chicago for $18,880.31 The San Diego Union announced the closing of the mill on February 7:
George M. Wetherbee expected last night to leave for San Francisco, probably to remain. Mr. Wetherbee has been engaged in the planing mill business for many years, and has made a specialty of manufacturing beehives. He has at different times met with some business misfortunes that have somewhat crippled an enterprise that was of great importance to the city. Recently owing to certain circumstances, he concluded to try San Francisco. He will remove that portion of his plant used in the manufacture of beehives and bee materials. The planing mill and real estate on Arctic Street have been purchased by a Chicago party. . . .32
So ended the brief existence of the Wetherbee Planing Mill. Its history is a reflection of the economic boom of the 1880s. A major portion of the mill’s business resulted from the construction boom of 1886 and 1887, and it might have survived the crash of 1888, had not George Wetherbee been caught up in the speculation excitement of the period. Unfortunately, when the markets for construction work and beehives disappeared simultaneously, he could not pay his outstanding debts and was forced to sell the mill. Wetherbee’s ill-fated venture, therefore, reflects the experiences of many who invested in the future of San Diego during the flush times of the late 1880s only to lose almost everything in the resulting economic crash.
1. Lewis Publishing Company, An Illustrated History of Southern California (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1890), pp. 348-349.
2. A. A. Bynon, “San Diego Illustrated,” The Golden Era, Vol. 38 (September, 1889), pp. 361-364.
3. Wallace W. Elliott, History of San Bernardino and San Diego Counties, California (San Francisco: Wallace W. Elliott and Company, 1883), p. 71.
4. The San Diego Union, July 15, 1875, 3:2; November 13, 1875, 3:2.
5. The San Diego Union, June 8, 1876, 1:3.
6. At the San Diego History Center Research Archives there are several letters written both to and from George Wetherbee in reference to shipping hives from San Francisco to San Diego County. See the E. W. Morse Letters, Letterbooks Nos. 5, 8, 9, and 15.
7. Arctic Street is now Kettner Boulevard. Jerry MacMullen, “His Name Is Gone,” The San Diego Union, February 7, 1960, E3:4-7. Wetherbee purchased lots “E” and “F” in block thirty-seven in August 1884, for $325.00. In October of the same year he purchased lot “D” of the same block for $230. On December 1, 1885, he leased lots “G” and “H” of the same block for a three year period in consideration of the sum of $360.00. This lease was renewed for one year beginning December 1,1888for$30.00 a month. Deed Book No. 47, p. 197, San Diego County Recorders Office. Deed Book No. 47, p. 428, San Diego County Recorders Office. Book of Leases No. 2, p. 34, San Diego County Recorders Office. The San Diego Union, August 19, 1884, 3:2.
8. The San Diego Union, October 23, 1884, 3:2.
9. The San Diego Union, November 19, 1884, 3:2. The San Diego Union stated that:
“(the mill) is equipped with twenty-one machines of approved makers, such as J. A. Fay and Company or Cincinnati, Ohio; Ashel Davis, of Lowell, Mass., Philip Goodridge, of Boston; and O’Bonny of San Francisco. Several of Mr. Wetherbee’s machines were manufactured by himself in San Francisco. . . . His establishment is driven by a forty horse power engine with a sixty horse boiler from the justly celebrated works of Joshua Hindy Machine Co. of San Francisco. The mammoth combination planer; being of a capacity of planing a piece of timber twenty inches square or planing a board one-eighth of an inch in thickness, and a capacity to surface one thousand feet of lumber in fifteen minutes, is truly a marvel of modern mechanism.
Mr. Wetherbee’s next important machine is what he calls a Rustic machine, which not only mines out rustic, but gutters, large round rollers, deck plank for vessels, and large mouldings of every description. . . . But most interesting of all the machines is the Exhaust Fan Blower, made by B. F. Sturtevant of Boston. This powerful fan draws by suction all the shavings, sawdust, splinters, knots, and dust from all machines attached to it through airtight pipes and deposits it in a close room, ten feet square, built near the furnace room and handy for the fireman’s shovel. This not only saves the labor of carrying the fuel to the fireman, but it keeps the room and floor clean and the air pure to breathe . . . The mill is ninety-one feet square, with a nine toot driveway around it. In addition to this there is a lot belonging to the mill property 50 X 100 feet which is to be used for lumber. …”
The San Diego Union, November 23, 1884, 3:2.
As stated above Wetherbee leased the steam engine from the Joshua Hindy Machine Works of San Francisco. The lease was for a period of ten months beginning on October 4, 1884, for the sum of $1,382.20. When the period of the lease ended, Wetherbee had an option to buy the engine for $500. Below is listed the equipment included in the lease. Question marks indicate where the original handwriting was illegible: One ten inch by fourteen inch engine, one forty-two inch diameter boiler sixteen feet long, one ten inch by four inch engine cut off, one fly wheel five feet in diameter, one heater and pickup, one governor and throttle, one cylinder oiler, one set oil cups, two cylinder cups, one set of three foot foundation bolts, one extension pipe, one back plate and sand (?), one driver (?) and safety valve, one beehiving and thirty foot stack, one fire front and grates, one set of anchor rods, a set of guy rods for the stack, one blow pipe, one blow cock, one stop cock, a check valve, a combination steam gauge and cock, one glass gauge, one two-and-a-half inch by sixteen foot shaft, a two-and-a-half foot by two inch coupling, four two-and-a-half inch hangers, two two-and-a-half inch collars, three two inch by sixteen feet shaft lengths, two two inch couplings, eight two inch hangers, one pair of two-and-a-half by sixteen inch flanges, one twelve inch split do (sic), and thirteen bolts. Book of Leases No. 1, pp. 205-208, San Diego County Recorders Office.
10. The San Diego Union, December 7, 1884, 3:2; December 13, 1884, 3:2.
11. The San Diego Union, January 1, 1885, 3:2. In order to replace the machinery lost in the fire, Wetherbee leased equipment from H. P. Gregory and Company of San Francisco. The transaction consisted of a series of three leases made between January and March 1885. The machinery included one twenty four inch by sixteen feet Greywood Combination Planer, one J. A. Fay and Company twenty four inch Centennial Planer, one J. A. Fay and Company Number Two Scroll Saw, one H. P. Gregory and Company Number Four Shaped (sic), and a fifth machine. Unfortunately, the recording of the last machine was so illegible that it could not be read. Book of Leases No. 1, pp. 198-202, San Diego County Recorders Office.
12. The San Diego Union, March 11, 1885, 3:2.
13. The San Diego Union, March 11, 1885, 2:2; May 20, 1885, 3:2; June 16, 1885, 3:2.
14. Bynon, A. A., San Diego City and County Directory, 1886-1887 (Los Angeles: Express Printing Company), pp. 59, 61-62. In 1887, the mill had forty employees. The equipment included thirteen circular saw benches, four small saws, two turning lathes, two stickers, three “tenong machs,” and three “planers etc.” Sanborn Map and Publishing Company, (Map of) San Diego California (New York: Sanborn Map and Publishing Company Limited, 1887), p. 14.
15. The San Diego Union, July 23, 1885, 3:2; February 2, 1886, 3:1; December 28, 1886, 3:1.
16. The San Diego Union, December 9, 1886, 3:2. Deed Book No. 47, p. 1, San Diego County Recorders Office.
17. The San Diego Union, March 15, 1887, 5:4. The Records of The Superior Court of The State of California, County of San Diego, hereinafter cited as San Diego County Superior Court Records, Case No. 1122, Reel No. OCC 19.
18. San Diego County Superior Court Records, Case No. 1124, No. OCC 19.
19. The San Diego Union, March 19, 1887, 3:2; 5:3. San Diego County Superior Court Records, Case No. 1128, No. OCC 19.
20. San Diego County Superior Court Records, Case No. 1128, Reel No. OCC 19.
21. The San Diego Union, April 22, 1887, 4:1.
22. Deed Book No. 82, p. 482, San Diego County Recorders Office.
23. The San Diego Union, January 1, 1887, 2:1-2.
24. The San Diego Union, January 1, 1888, 16:5.
25. James M. Guinn, A History of California, and an Extended History of its Southern Coast Counties, Vol. I (Los Angeles Historic Records Company, 1907), p. 202.
26. Index to General Suits, Book No. 1, p. 536. San Diego County Superior Court.
27. The San Diego Union, January 1, 1889, 5:1; 6:2.
28. Lewis Publishing Company, An Illustrated History of California, p. 98.
29. Deed Book No. 138, p. 279, San Diego County Recorders Office. Deed Book No. 143, p. 314, San Diego County Recorders Office.
30. San Diego County Superior Court Records, Case No. 3071, Reel No. OCC 43. Deed Book No. 160, p. 194, San Diego County Recorders Office.
31. Deed Book No. 157, pp. 488-489, San Diego County Recorders Office.
32. The San Diego Union, February 7, 1890, 1:6.
THE PHOTOGRAPH is from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.