A 16-year-old girl is stuck on a continent entirely new to her after the crew of the boat she is on abandons ship to search for gold. A tycoon 15 years her senior falls madly in love with her and sweeps her away to an isolated mansion in the countryside. Their child is beaten to death by a crazed maid. The tycoon dies, and the girl marries his younger brother in short order.
Are these the juicy plot turns of a cinematic melodrama? Nope. They’re the life stories of the couple credited with founding Hillsborough, William Davis Merry Howard and Agnes Poett Howard.
The two count among the many fascinating characters being celebrated this month as the town marks its centennial Thursday. In honor of the centennial, a Hillsborough family funded the renovation of the historic gatehouse to what was among the first gated communities in California; that gatehouse will now serve as a police substation.
Most of Hillsborough’s first American residents were, like the Howards, wealthy beyond imagination. In the Howards’ case, William Davis Merry Howard was an early merchant in California, and became exceedingly rich when the Gold Rush of 1849 brought people from all over the world to the state.
Agnes Poett had been living in Chile with her family and wound up in California only because the ship she was on, instead of going to England as planned, detoured to California to make some money by dropping off goods, recounted Joanne Garrison, who has written a book on the history of Burlingame and Hillsborough.
However, when they landed in San Francisco, the crew deserted, lured by the promise of gold in the hills, and Poett and her family were stuck. Almost as soon as she stepped off the boat, she caught the eye of widower William Howard, and within a month, they were married, Garrison said. They lived in San Francisco, but often traveled to their countryside home, which they called El Cerrito, located north of San Mateo Creek on a hill that is now in Hillsborough’s city limits.
In the years and decades after William Howard’s death, his Peninsula property was subdivided among family; later, some of that property would be sold to other tycoons who would hire some of the best architects in the world to build their mansions — some of which, such as the famous Carolands Chateau, are still standing. Much of the land was further subdivided, the occupants of which created the base of Hillsborough at its incorporation in 1910, Garrison said.
The town has never shed the reputation of being home to the rich and famous, a reputation stoked by visits from several presidents and land ownership by some of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest magnates.
“The founders of the town certainly were wealthy, but the town was greatly divided, and there are very few large parcels left,” Mayor Christine Krolik said. “Most of the people who live here were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth. People are here because they work hard and they have a commitment to education, not because people were handed everything in life.”
Celebrating 100 years
Hillsborough is marking a century of existence this month.
Thursday: Centennial celebration, 4-6 p.m. at Town Hall
There will be special speakers, the installation of a time capsule, and the dedication of the new Centennial Park at Town Hall. There will be an exhibit of old photos and memorabilia.
May 14: Historic home tour, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Five historic Hillsborough homes, three built in the 1890s, will be open for viewing.
May 31: Parade of the century, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
The parade will start at Town Hall and wind its way up Floribunda Avenue to the North School field, where it will culminate in a festival.