The story of the Ainsley California connection comes down to the story of one enterprising man, John Colpitts Ainsley, and the love and support of his family in Bilsdale and his remarkable American wife Alcinda.
John's grandfather Joseph was born at Low Crosset farm in 1790 and it was he who broke free from the farming mould. In 1841 he had become a linen draper in Stokesley, previously having lived in Kirby Moorside where John's father, Richard, was born in 1825.1 2
In 1851 Richard was a grocer and tea dealer in Stokesley and ten years later he and his father Joseph were living almost next door to each other in Stokesley - Richard now simply a grocer, Joseph 70 and retired.1
John was born in Stokesley in 1860, but this restless family moved again, this time to West Hartlepool, while John was still a boy. 1
At this time West Hartlepool was thriving.3 The railways had been developed in the 1830s specifically to link the Durham coalfields with West Hartlepool and to develop the town as an exporter of coal via a new port. The West Hartlepool Harbour and Dock opened on 1st June 1847 and by 1871 Richard had taken advantage of the boom and become a coal agent in West Hartlepool. Many new businesses also flourished, supporting the trade in coal, not least timber merchants which would be the business John's elder brother Frederick would enter - at 19 in 1871 he was already a timber merchant's clerk.1
The mood of the times must have fired John's imagination: he was living in an enterprising family in exciting times, and he must have felt that his early employment was just not what he wanted from life. He was an office boy at age 10, so already out of school, later a draper's shopman. From 1882 he was learning farming for a while with W.C. Ainsley's grandfather James at Kirby Sigston.2 Then came the big leap - in 1884 he emigrated to work on a farm in Ohio, with his maternal uncle William Fortune.4
The ship's passenger list for the Alaska, sailing to New York on the 5th May 1884, includes a John C. Ainsley aged 23, travelling alone in a second class cabin.5 This has to be John Colpitts. Two years later he arrived in Campbell. At this time he was working as a farm hand, but soon had saved enough to buy his own land.
He was intent on solving the problem of canning fruit to preserve it for travel over long distances, probably already with the aim of exporting to England, where such products would be almost unheard of. Starting with experiments on a domestic stove he perfected the process and began his own company J.C. Ainsley Packing Company to develop it as a commercially viable operation.
In 1889 he appears on the passenger list for the Etruria, returning from England, his occupation being given as "farmer".5 Maybe this was the trip back home, after he'd cracked the canning process, to discuss the business with his family. By 1891 he was producing 1000 cases a year.6 He went into business with his brother Thomas George who took care of the marketing of the fruit in the UK.2
The first canned fruit was exported to England - older members of my family and other Ainsley branches vividly remember receiving the canned fruit as gifts. In a letter from his sister Alice in 1933 she says:
You ask about the peaches we have hadxx – we have found them delicious they are Harry’s and the two boys’ [presumably Ian & Harry, their two sons] favourite but today we had pears for dinner and Harry said “These pears are good I think they are my favourites!!” but when the peaches come round I know he will say “they are my favourites” We very often have your fruit at supper on Sunday evenings when Fred [their eldest brother] is in & he does enjoy it. He is quite amusing when we have fruit salad. I ask him which kind he likes best and he says “he likes it all it is splendid”
John's company is credited as the first to market fruit salad.
The 1900 census (taken in June) has him living in Santa Clara Township in California, with his wife Alice M. and their two children Ernest G, aged 3, born 1896, and Dorothy aged four months. Though his wife is listed as Alice in both the 1900 and 1910 census, she was actually Alcinda Shelly or, according to US census records, Alsinda Shelly, born in Kansas to William and Mary Shelly who in turn came from Ohio.7
He was a very benevolent employer providing a kindergarten, childcare, a nurse and a low cost lunch for his workers. He also built cottages for them. By 1929 the plant was producing around 300,000 cases of canned fruit a year and employed about 750 men and women - the largest employer in Campbell.6
The company prospered and John became a wealthy man. He bought more land and expanded operations in the early decades of the twentieth century. His wife Alcinda sounds also to have been a remarkable person. She was the Ainsley Company book-keeper4 until the birth of their son (Ernest) Gordon. She loved to drive and drove thousands of miles on trips with John in later years.8
In 1925 they built themselves a beautiful home, designed by John in a style based on the traditional English thatched cottage, though the roof is shingled to mimic thatch. We visited this house in 2010 and found it to be a very comfortable family home. It has spacious living and sleeping rooms, including a lovely sunny breakfast room, splendid bathrooms and a number of very modern features such as telephones, central heating delivered by warm air through metal grilles in the walls at floor level, electric lighting and appliances such as a refrigerator and a fabulous cooker.
The Ainsleys had a "live-in" maid - her room is pleasant enough but the laundry shute from the floors above dumps the dirty clothes directly into a closet in her room so she'd be constantly aware of work to do.
John's study is particularly cosy, with a copper canopied fireplace, armchairs and wood panelling. A newspaper laid over the arm of his chair makes it look as if he's just popped out into the garden for a moment.
There are lots of photographs around the house of the Ainsley family, including one of John and Alcinda on camels in front of the pyramids in Egypt in 1928.
Apparently in 1928 Alcinda was looking to begin a new interest: raising fowls! In a letter from England John's sister Alice remarks:
...I have forgotten to ask if he [son Ian] knows anything about White Cornish Fowls I scarcely think he has any personal knowledge of them for I haven't ever heard him mention them among the varieties the Winchesters have but I will [?] & ask him in my next letter; they sound as they would be very profitable table birds & Allie will get a great amount of pleasure out of raising (?) them, & will be most successful I am sure.8
In 1933 John and Alcinda took a long driving tour visiting both Death Valley and the Hoover Dam, which was under construction at the time. He wrote of his travels from the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley to his sister Alice and in her reply she says:
We were most interested to hear about the work being done on the “Hoover Dam” it is nice to hear of 3 shifts of work being done when we have so many thousands unemployed – will you and Allie go back & see it when it is completed? (5 years hence)8
Alcinda drove all the way!
John died in 1937 and it is hard not to imagine that Alcinda missed him terribly. She died just a couple of years later.
The Ainsley House is now open to the public, having been very kindly donated by John and Alcinda's grand-daughters Geraldine Lloyd Hicks and Georgene Lloyd Bowen, daughters of Dorothy Ainsley. Originally the house sat at the corner of the Ainsley orchards but was moved in 1990. I would urge visitors to watch the short film at the house - it is excellent and shows the house being moved, very slowly, to its new location. Many pieces of furniture are original and even plants from the garden, including lots of roses, were moved to the new location. We had an excellent tour, with a very knowledgable guide, which we can highly recommend.