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Walter Cottle Lester dies at 88; farmer held out as Silicon Valley grew

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Though he lived in a region known worldwide for hyper-enthusiastic, round-the-clock innovating, Walter Cottle Lester wasn't a big fan of change.

As Silicon Valley's subdivisions and office buildings surged around the farm his family had started more than a century before, he refused to sell. Reclusive and soft-spoken, he turned down potential earnings as high as $500 million. Instead, he arranged to donate his spread, the last big farm in the city of San Jose and one of the last in the sprawling Silicon Valley, for public use as a historic park.

Most of his 287 acres will remain in agriculture.

Lester died Jan. 31 in the farmhouse where he, his mother, his sister and several aunts and uncles were born. He was 88 and had been in declining health for several months, said his friend Frank Giordano.

Lester never married and had no children. His sister Edith, blind and deaf, also never married and lived with him until her death in 1999. The two communicated by arranging alphabet blocks set in a wooden frame.

Born July 7, 1925, Lester was the son of Henry Walter Lester and Ethel Edith Cottle, both members of pioneering farm families in an area known for its bounty of fruits and vegetables. The "Valley of Heart's Delight", as it was called, supplied one-third of the world's prunes, as well as a cornucopia of tomatoes, grains, onions, carrots, cherries and walnuts.

Lester's father was a big prune grower but also kept his land planted in barley and hay. Cattle grazed his pastures.

In 1944, Lester, who was kept out of military service by a heart murmur, became his father's full partner in the farm. It was the same year the farmhouse got electricity, he later recalled.

Even as the world beyond the farm changed dramatically, change on the farm came slowly.

In the 1950s, San Jose boomed. With gung-ho city manager A.P. "Dutch" Hamann directing his so-called "panzer division" of bureaucrats through numerous annexation deals, San Jose grew from 17 to 137 square miles over two decades. Land values soared; in the Santa Clara Valley, some 60,000 acres went out of production and farmers, as the old ag joke goes, headed for La Jolla to raise martinis.

But not the Lesters.

When IBM was scouting out sites for its California research facility in the 1950s, the family was adamant about keeping its land out of the company's grasp.

In a 2007 oral history interview, Lester recalled his parents hearing about IBM's interest in a particular parcel and declaring, "No, we don't want that thing up against this place here."

"And so the orchard wasn't available," Lester told researchers for the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation. "It wasn't for sale. They didn't get it and that was it."

After his parents died, Lester was just as obstinate.

"Any developer was his enemy as far as he was concerned," said Susanne Wilson, a former Santa Clara County supervisor whose district included Lester's farm.

Lester was leery of politicians and wary of government.

Wilson said an odd coincidence helped her build his trust: She was a farm girl from Gonzales, Texas, a town that in 1836 sent reinforcements to the besieged Alamo in San Antonio. One of those doomed men was George Washington Cottle, a Texas hero who may have been related to Lester's mother.

On a trip to Texas, Wilson took a photo of Cottle's name on an Alamo monument and later presented it to Lester.

However, such gestures went only so far.

Regardless of proposed legal safeguards, Lester feared that officials would find a way to sell his farm for development after he was gone. He also thought relatives would accuse him of coercing his sister, the farm's co-owner, into the transfer, Wilson said.

"He would almost get to the point of signing something and find a reason not to do it," Wilson said

After Edith Lester died without a will, her brother inherited her half of the property and suddenly faced estate taxes of roughly $100 million, his former attorney, Dave Cortese, told The Times.

"A team of professionals at the time were telling him to sell half his property to subdividers to pay the taxes," said Cortese, who is now a Santa Clara County supervisor. "But he wasn't satisfied. He wanted the ranch he grew up on to be preserved — not half of it."

In a complicated, years-long process facilitated by Rusty Areias a farmer and former legislator who was then state parks director, the tax bill was whittled to about $5 million in return for Lester's donation.

"As reclusive as Walter was, he agreed to meet face to face with Rusty right in his house," Cortese said. "They started talking about well production, and, next thing you know, Rusty said he'd earmark enough from a parks bond to pay the tax bill."

Finalized in 2004, the transfer calls for joint ownership of the property by the state and the county, with the county running a visitor's center, farm exhibits, trails, and picnic areas after paying construction costs of $26 million. More than half the land, which still grows fruits and grains, will be leased for agricultural production.

The groundbreaking at Martial Cottle Park was on Aug. 9, 2013.

Martial Cottle was the son of Edward Cottle, who arrived from Missouri in 1854 on a wagon train with 600 head of cattle. He settled in the Santa Clara Valley and 10 years later bought land that spanned what is now the park.

"It's part of history here," Walter Cottle Lester, Edward's great-grandson and Martial's grandson, told the San Jose Mercury News in a rare interview in 2013. "I was born here. I've spent my entire life here. It would be nice for kids in future generations to know what it was like before it all changed."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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