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Local History Lesson: 04/15/2020

Eliza Hood, a woman ahead of her time

Eliza Hood

Eliza Hood was far ahead of her time. Long before the famous “Paris Wine Tasting of 1976,” which demonstrated that California wines were on par with the French, her wines and brandies were being shipped to France and hailed as equal to the best of Europe. An extraordinary woman whose life ranged over half the globe, she spent most of it at Los Guilicos Ranch, across from present-day Oakmont, at the base of Hood Mountain.

Eliza's parents, James and Amelia Shaw, emigrated from England to Australia in 1840 with her two brothers, who were just one and two years old. Eliza was born the following year, in Port Phillip, now a suburb of Melbourne. While she was still a toddler, the young family sailed to Valparaiso, Chile, which was in desperate need of workers to rebuild after a catastrophic fire destroyed the city.

Around the same time, William Hood also arrived in Valparaiso. Hood was a Scottish carpenter whose wanderlust had already taken him to London and New Zealand. He and James probably worked together on the city's reconstruction. William became friends with James and his whole family.

After saving enough to buy a ship in Peru, William departed, accompanied by Eliza's eight-year-old brother, the younger James Shaw. On the way, bandits attacked them and made off with the money for the ship. Giving up William's plan, they boarded a sailing vessel bound for California. Soon after they arrived, Hood made a trip to Rancho Los Guilicos, which the Mexican government had deeded to American sea captain John Wilson. Climbing the peak which would later carry his name, Hood fell in love with the valley below, with its groves of oaks, creeks, and expanses of marsh, and vowed to return one day and make that beauty his own.

Back in San Francisco, Hood went to work as a carpenter and started saving. His timing was perfect-in the booming Gold Rush city that also burned frequently, carpenters were in high demand. By 1851, he had enough to buy 18,000-acre Rancho Los Guilicos with a partner, who quickly signed over his half over to Eliza's mother (the circumstances are unclear), who was now in California. That fall, when Eliza turned 10, she was living with her family in the town of Sonoma (her father was out of the picture).

Eliza moved out to the ranch the following year. At that time, the community at Los Guilicos consisted of nearly 100 people, including William's widowed sister-in-law and her four daughters. The eldest, Mary, was 11, the same age as Eliza. Eliza's world at Los Guilicos also included 88 men, women and children of all ages recorded as “Indians” in the 1852 California census. Many worked on the ranch, herding cattle and sheep.

On Christmas Eve 1855, William and Eliza were married. He was 37 and she was just 14 years old. The math is uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, but he seems to have treated Eliza well: within a few months he accompanied her and his niece Mary all the way to a “finishing school” in his home town of St. Andrews Scotland. The return journey probably took a full year.

While Eliza was gone, Hood set his native workers to making bricks and building a home for his bride. Did he keep it a secret? We don't know. Either way it must have been stunning for her to return after two or three years and discover the wedding present he had built in her absence. She was just 18 years old.

While Eliza was gone, Hood planted a vineyard and started a winery. Besides livestock, the ranch also produced grain and fruit. But when most of his herds died during a long drought in the 1860s, Hood was forced to sell the majority of his land to pay off debts. Later events suggest that Eliza was already involved in managing the ranch and these turns of fortune must have weighed on her as well. A happier occasion came when her schoolmate, Mary Hood, married Eliza's brother James in 1872.

Five years later a severe frost destroyed the Hoods' grapes. William was now 60 and in decline. Eliza rose to the challenge, taking over vineyard management and securing loans which saved the business. She also succeeded in being declared a “sole trader” by the court, which was required for a woman to run a business in those days.

By 1881, when she was 40, it was said of Eliza that: “Amongst the winemakers of California, none have made a higher reputation for practical knowledge of the business and a skillful direction of a large estate, than the lady who is equally at home in the crushing and fermenting room of her winery as in the drawing room of her own house.”

Next she started shipping wines to Europe and the East Coast. Her brandy was said to rival famous French brands like Henessey and Martell. In 1885 she was declared the owner of Los Guilicos - this was probably due William's mental decline rather than a dispute. By the late 1880s Eliza's vineyard covered 225 acres and boasted a dozen varieties of grapes. She was producing 140,000 gallons of wine a year, the most of any single vineyard in California.

Then phylloxera struck. By 1893 more than half of her vines were no longer bearing. Eliza experimented with flooding the soil and using chemical treatments, but neither panned out. The only thing left was to mortgage the ranch and replant with resistant vines. Though she gave it her all, it was not enough.

William Lyman described a visit in 1895: “William Hood was an old man…much older than his wife who now managed everything. Mrs. Hood was a handsome woman, tall and vigorous, in her fifties, with a warmhearted and outgoing disposition. The Hoods had no children, but there were numerous relatives and dependents in the household… The net was closing over Los Guilicos Rancho and I remember hearing Mrs. Hood telling my father about it… [her] mortgage was now due, and she had no way of paying it off. She spoke with great emotion, and it impressed me deeply.”

Having lost the ranch, Eliza moved to San Francisco and began operating a boarding house. William was institutionalized and died in 1903. When the 1906 earthquake struck, it destroyed Eliza's boarding house, which was also her home. These tragedies in the years before she died in 1914 must have been hard on her. Hopefully she found solace in reflecting on the extraordinary life she'd lived. As the San Francisco Merchant wrote, she had proven that “Ladies are not a whit behind the Lords of Creation in their success as viticulturists.”

Eliza's recognition has faded with time, but perhaps Hood Mountain can serve to remind us. Rising above Eliza's old ranch, the peak is traditionally said to have been named after William. But there's plenty of reasons why Eliza, who was accomplished and well known in her own right, and faced great challenges with grace and courage, should share that honor.


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