For years I was one of the many shoppers who frequented Chuck’s Produce Stand on Sunnyvale Saratoga Road. Attracted by the geometric arrays of just-picked fruits and vegetables, I also “feasted on” the ambience of an open-air produce stand with a corrugated-metal roof, bordering a seven-acre field where much of the produce was grown . . . right in the heart of Sunnyvale! ’Twas a little bit of country in the city!
I usually parked near the entrance to the stand, beside one of the persimmon trees, spectacular in autumn. When my shopping was completed, I followed the half circle driveway that edged a charming Queen Anne-style cottage from yesteryear, the home of Dolly Stowell. Dolly’s son, Lyn Stowell operated the produce stand, first opened in 1945.
After Dolly passed away in 1999, the family sold the property, citing demanding hours and thrice-weekly 2:00 AM trips to the South San Francisco Produce Market (not all of the produce could be grown on Stowell land). The stand itself, chicken coops, a tractor house, and water tank tower were dismantled and replaced by thirty-three homes where the produce once grew. Luckily for those of us who enjoy a connection to the past, the house and barn were saved. According to Dolly’s wishes, the buildings were included in the 1975 County Historical Heritage Inventory and has landmark status. The house and the old barn, moved from its original location near the fields, are currently owned by a private citizen.
The Stowell house was built in 1890 by carpenter John Hazelton for the original owner, F.C. Fry. A “fashionable” architectural style dating from 1880 to 1910, the Queen Anne was first introduced to the United States by England at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. In the years that followed, the Queen Anne became one of the most desired housing styles in our country.
Although they varied widely in design and size, Queen Anne houses embodied many common features: wood construction, bay windows, stained glass, shaped shingles, decorated eaves and porches, and gables, towers, and turrets. The Stowell house, located at 901 Sunnyvale Saratoga Road (named Mountain View Saratoga Road until 1920), is a one- and-one-half story farmhouse, a cottage version of the Queen Anne style.
Dolly Stowell’s father-in-law, Charles L. Stowell, and his wife, Minnie Spalding Stowell, bought the house and 25 acres of surrounding land in 1899, after moving from Iowa to Sunnyvale (then called Encinal). Minnie’s brother, Charles Spalding, who already lived in the area, went into business with Charles Stowell and together they played a prominent role in developing many of Sunnyvale’s commercial buildings in the 100 block of Murphy Avenue.
In 1908, Stowell and Spalding built Sunnyvale’s first large office building, the S&S (Stowell and Spalding) Building on the corner of Murphy and Washington avenues. Stowell Hall, located inside the S&S, became the town’s first social hall, a gathering place for the local Grange, the city council and other groups. Over time, the building also housed grocery stores, drugstores, doctors’ offices, Fewings Department Store, and Kirkish Western Wear. Today, Dishdash restaurant, the Bean Scene, and Wilson’s Spa occupy the former S&S building.
Stowell and Spalding purchased the Sunnyvale Land Co. from W.E. Crossman, Sunnyvale’s first developer, in 1915. Later, Stowell bought out Spalding and operated Stowell’s Realty on his own. Mr. Stowell also aided in the building and financing of Sunnyvale’s 1917 post office at 127 Washington Avenue. From notes (author unknown) gathered by longtime SHS member Ann Hines for the museum archives, the new post office was described as follows: “a fine, new post office . . . one the town may well be proud of. Charles L. Stowell should be given due credit for the pains and expense he has been to in giving us this fine piece of architecture.”
Very active in community affairs, Stowell was named chairman of the committee to establish a high school in Sunnyvale. With a total of 35 students, Fremont High School opened its doors in 1923. According to historical records written by Dolly Stowell in 1973, Charles L. Stowell found his “gold” in Sunnyvale. When holding a handful of beautiful dried apricots grown on his land, he often said, “This is California gold.”
Charles L. and Minnie Stowell raised four children in the Queen Anne cottage. Over time, changes were made: a kitchen was added in the 1920s, high ceilings in the parlor were lowered, and during the Depression, a sleeping porch was converted to an office. But the most intriguing change of all was the 1923 addition of an indoor, solar- heated, rectangle-shaped swimming pool, approximately 40’ X 25’ in size, and five feet deep. A porch roof extension covered the pool, and walls were added to enclose it; four dressing rooms were built along one wall. Water from an outdoor well, heated by the sun as it traveled through a network of galvanized pipes, warmed the pool. According to Lyn Stowell, grandson of Charles L., an indoor, solar- heated pool in 1923 was quite ingenious and well ahead of its time.
One of Charles L. and Minnie’s sons served as Sunnyvale’s mayor in 1937. Another son, Charles Chester Stowell, an orchardist who owned 30 acres of cherry, prune, and apricot trees, married Dolly Williams. Dolly had moved to Sunnyvale from Iowa in 1925 at the age of nine, after her father answered a newspaper ad placed by Joshua Hendy Iron Works for experienced machinists; he was offered a free train trip as an incentive for employment. Dolly attended McKinley School and Fremont High School.
When the elder Stowells moved to a home on Frances Street, Charles Chester and Dolly moved into the Queen Anne cottage where they raised their family. Dolly helped to maintain the farmland, which was gradually reduced to seven acres in size. Eventually, Charles Lyndall (Lyn) Stowell, son of Charles Chester and Dolly, expanded an already existing produce stand, Chuck’s Produce.
Through the years Dolly Stowell was a strong supporter of preserving Sunnyvale’s history and the Sunnyvale Historical Society. After discovering decades-old family negatives inside the Stowell house, she documented the family history, donating invaluable photos and family records to the museum’s archives. At her passing in 1999, one hundred years of Stowell family life in the Queen Anne cottage came to a close.
A “fun” fact: The sons of museum director Laura Babcock worked at Chuck’s Produce in the late 1980s when they were in high school. They remember elderly Dolly Stowell carefully sorting strawberries (which she personally disliked) to be certain the customers received only the best of the harvest.
Written by Linda Kubitz
Seavey, Kent L. IMAGES: Sunnyvale’s Heritage Resources. Sunnyvale, CA. 1988 Sunnyvale Collage II, Volume 2: Dolly Williams Stowell; Charlie L. Stowell. “Dolly Stowell.” Sunnyvale Historical Society Newsletter. 4/99: pg. 3
Blake, Deidre. “Urban Growth.” Sunnyvale Sun. 5/19/93.
Alaimo, Michelle. “Farming Family’s Roots Run Deep.” Sunnyvale Sun. 7/ 95 Scott, Sam. “Last Harvest.” Sunnyvale Sun. 12/1/99
Sunnyvale Historical Society archives