B. N. Bugbee: Raisin King

grapesA colorful and, perhaps, the most notable member of the Hampden Mining & Trading Company was Benjamin Norton Bugbee.  Born in Stafford, Connecticut, B. N. Bugbee was descended from a grandfather who fought in the Revolutionary War and a father who fought in the War of 1812.  He began his working life on the road as a salesman, but when he heard of the opportunities for fortune in the California gold fields, he returned to his family in Springfield, Massachusetts and prepared to make the journey westward.  With the Hampden Mining & Trading Company, he sailed to Port Isabel, Texas, but when the company dissolved in Mexico, he crossed Mexico to Mazatlan on the Pacific coast and boarded a French ship, the Olympia, and sailed for San Francisco, landing on June 12, 1849, beating Asa Clark’s group to the gold fields by about a month.

Bugbee worked the north fork of the American River periodically over the next few years, before becoming a trader.  He returned east to Connecticut in 1851 and remained until May of 1852.  Then, he journeyed a second time to California where he entered the hotel business, initially in San Francisco, then outside Sacramento.  He next established a furniture factory and store, but suffered heavy losses in the fires and floods which frequently devastated Sacramento, convincing him to try his hand at ranching.

He purchased a ranch on the American River, sixteen miles from Sacramento, and his crops brought a high price at the camps.  He delivered his products to market by a team of oxen.  It is said that he would frequently fall asleep on the way home and his team would stop in the middle of the trail, patiently waiting for him to awaken and recommence the homeward journey.

Bugbey (he changed the spelling) was considered a leader in his community, which grew into the town of Folsom, California.  He filled the position of constable for five years and was credited with ridding the area of a lawless element.  He was subsequently elected sheriff of Sacramento County. 

At the outbreak of the Civil War, he intended to follow in the footsteps of his military forbears and join his brothers and cousins in the Union Army, but the Governor convinced him he was needed at home in his position of sheriff.  He fulfilled his duties on the home front, returning to Folsom from Sacramento each weekend, until he retired in 1864.

It was in Folsom, however, that B. N. Bugbey saw his greatest success.  He had established vineyards years before, and during the Civil War his pioneering efforts came to fruition.  His grapes won awards and medals and he produced a popular wine.  However, his claim to fame was introducing raisins to America.

There is a legend that tells of a heat wave one year, which caused California grapes to wither on the vine.  This enterprising vintner saw the potential for the dried fruit and crated some for sale to the public.  Raisins caught on immediately.  Whether the legend is true or apocryphal, we do know that by 1863, B. N. Bugbey was marketing raisins in Sacramento.  In 1865, his Natoma Vineyards produced 10,000 gallons of wine, 1000 gallons of brandy, and 25,000 pounds of raisins.  His success was even celebrated in song; “Bugbey’s Champagne Waltz” was penned by someone with the moniker Hugo L. Yanke’.

In 1867, the Pittsfield (MA) Sun called him the “most extensive cultivator of the grape in California” and claimed he was the “first man that ever made a box of raisins, in this country.”  It re-ran copy from a Folsom, California newspaper:

“A few miles from this place is a quarter section of land, that a few years since was covered with chaparral, hilly, rocky, and wild. To-day sixty acres of it contains one of the best, and most productive vineyards in this State. — It is known as the Natoma vineyard, owned and cultivated by B. N. Bugbey.  Besides making fifteen thousand gallons of wine, three thousand gallons of brandy, fifteen hundred boxes of raisins have been put up and are be­ing daily brought into town by the wagon load. The raisins are being put up in boxes of the ordinary size, manufactured at the vineyard, and are made from the variety of grape known as Fiber Zagosf, the vine a native of Hungary, a grape equal in every respect to the celebrated grape from which the Malaga raisins are made.  Bugbey’s raisins have taken the premium over all others in this State, and he is, in fact, the only man in this State or the United States, engaged in putting up raisins for the trade and the purpose of commerce, and is the pioneer in the business.”

What happened to Bugbey’s operation is not entirely clear, but certainly something went amiss.  In 1877, he filed for bankruptcy.  One source says, “He has met many difficulties and obstacles, his buildings at three different times been destroyed by fire, and on one occasion, his loss amounted to over one hundred and forty-six thousand dollars!”  There were competing land claims and lawsuits, one of which went to the California Supreme Court.  In September, the San Francisco Bulletin ran the following item:

“B. N. Bugbey, Ex-Sheriff of Sacramento county, shot Constable Kimble at Folsom on Saturday night while the latter was attempting to arrest him, wounding him only slightly in the head.  Bugbey then fired two more shots at the constable, but they did not take effect.  The constable then knocked him down with his pistol, ironed him and lodged him in jail.  Bugbey had been on a protracted spree, and was so violent when taken before Justice Anderson for bail that he had to be recommitted to jail till to-day.”

In 1879, B. N. Bugbey was living in Sacramento, engaged in the real estate business.  In December of that year, he married Julia Wible, a native of Illinois, who was 27 years his junior.  They were recorded in the 1880 census in the town of Granite, in Sacramento County.  His occupation was given as “fruit grower.”  The following year, he was appointed to a position in the county sheriff’s office.

Bugbey was elected tax collector in 1898 in a race that featured fourteen candidates for the position.  He was still serving in that capacity in 1900 when the census taker recorded him living in Sacramento with his wife, Julia.  A decade later, 82 year-old “Benjamin N. Bugby” was still living in Sacramento and was employed as a “book agent.”  His death in 1914, at age 87, brought to a close the life of one of the interesting characters of the Gold Rush.

“A Volume of Memoirs and Genealogy of Representative Citizens of Northern California”, Chicago: Standard Genealogical Publishing Co., 1901, as reproduced online at: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com

New York Herald, 28 January 1849

Pittsfield Sun, 14 February 1867

San Francisco Bulletin, 3 October 1863; 21 February 1867; 22 February 1867; 1 March 1877; 4 September 1877; 29 December 1879; 15 February 1883.



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