The Bigger Picture . . . with Marty Cheek: Churchill’s California wanderings in 1929 took him through Morgan Hill
Published in the June 21 – July 4, 2017 of Morgan Hill Life
By Marty Cheek
Sometimes as I stroll through downtown Morgan Hill, I wonder about the millions of travelers who during the decades have happened to come down Monterey Road and passed through the South Valley on their way to whatever destination their journey might take them. Those who paid a brief passing visit through our city include famous people — writers, explorers, scientists, movie star celebrities and politicians.
Among the more notable, I recently learned to my immense pleasure, was a forward-looking man who stands as a hero of history: Mr. Winston Churchill. The legendary statesman passed through Morgan Hill Sept. 12, 1929.
I recently learned from a 2008 documentary the details of the trip to California Churchill made at the start of his “Wilderness Years.” Camera footage of his visit was shown in “Chasing Churchill,” a film that follows the travels of the man during his amazing life. It is a personal tour made by his granddaughter, Celia Sandys, who retraces his route from South Africa, Morocco, Cuba, Egypt, France, and the United States, his “other country.” Churchill’s mother was an American, a fact that no doubt contributed to the close affection he held for our nation.
After his political career came to a temporary close when he was ousted out of office in May 1929, Churchill took a 10-year sabbatical from governing. The British public considered the man out of touch with the state of the world and misguided on his views of the future.
He spent time with his family at his Chartwell home in Kent and made his living writing books and newspaper articles. A book promotion tour took him to Canada. From there, he continued along the West Coast of the United States. He wrote about his experiences and comments in a series of 12 essays titled “What I Saw and Heard in America,” published in The Daily Telegraph in December 1929.
The Golden State impressed him immensely. He enjoyed the ride along the Redwood Highway and made a comment about the “motels,” camps of cabins placed along the road where “the carefree wanderers upon wheels gather round great fires singing or listening to the ubiquitous wireless music.” In San Francisco, he found himself at the top of the tallest skyscraper, the Pacific Telephone Building. “Dizzy depths yawn beneath the window-sills,” he wrote. “The Chairman of the Telephone Company has invited me to have ten minutes’ talk with my wife in England. I take up the instrument. My wife speaks to me across one ocean and one continent — one of each. We hear each other as easily as if we were in the same room … Why say the age of miracles is past? It is just beginning.”
No doubt Churchill would be impressed with today’s Internet and mobile communications.
The night of Sept. 11, he found himself at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton east of San Jose. He sat on a ladder and peered through the world’s largest telescope at Saturn 800 million miles away. “A perfectly modeled globe, instinct with rotundity, with a clear-cut life buoy around its middle, all glowing with serene radiance,” he wrote about the planet.
After the tour of the solar system, Churchill traveled to Burlingame and stayed as a guest at the William Crocker mansion. The next morning, he and his entourage boarded motorcars and traveled El Camino Real, passing through Santa Clara Valley on their way to a Pebble Beach resort on Monterey Bay. He described it so: “South of San Francisco we entered the latitude and vegetation of North Africa. The houses became increasingly Mauresque (Moorish), the soil more sandy, and water — except, of course, for drinking purposes — scarce.” It was the late summer when our hills turn a copper color and compared with the redwood forests to the north the area seemed arid. I wonder what Churchill might have thought of the small towns of Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy. Perhaps he found them quaint communities of California’s ranching industry. His California adventure continued with a stay at William Randolph Hearst’s “castle” at San Simeon, meeting celebrities and dignitaries. Then a stop at Barstow and on to Hollywood.
A month after his visit to California, Wall Street crashed. Europeans faced economic devastation, leading to the rise of German fascism. Ten years later, Churchill became England’s wartime prime minister and saved civilization. I’d like to imagine that during those days in the London War Rooms with the world facing an uncertain future, the great man now and then fondly recalled pleasant memories of his adventures on a California drive.