By Mark Gutglueck
(July 17) George Cooley and his son, George Mills Cooley, were two county supervisors who held office during the first half century of San Bernardino County’s existence.
George Cooley, the elder, was born in the Village of Eythorn, County of Kent, England, on December 21, 1831. Orphaned at a very young age, he was adopted by a wealthy English gentleman. While the promise of a substantial inheritance was dangled before the lad, who anticipated that one day he would share in his benefactor’s estate, ultimately he received no inheritance whatsoever. George Cooley then approached a prominent ship owner and “bound” himself as a sailor. He completed his apprenticeship honorably and put in his time at sea. While still a young man, he set about seeking his fortune in the New World and sailed on the American ship “Camillus of New York” from England to New Orleans. Sailing with him was a young woman from Charlton, Kent County, Ellen Toputt, who had been born on July 14, 1834. They were wed at sea on May 19, 1853, with the ship’s commander, Charles R. Day, performing the ceremony while the ship was eleven miles north of Monte Christo Island in the West Indies.
After arriving in New Orleans, the newlyweds traveled up the Mississippi by steamer to Keokuk, Iowa and then overland to Salt Lake City, having been converted to the Mormon faith. They settled in Keokuk for almost four years and their first child, Geogre Mills Cooley, was born on December 23, 1855 while they were in Salt Lake City.
George and Ellen Cooley grew disenchanted with Brigham Young’s dictates and the Mormon Church in general. With their year-old son, they enlisted in a party of other English immigrant families disaffected from the Mormon Church who departed the Utah territory for California. They arrived in San Bernardino on May 11, 1857. The Cooleys made a permanent settlement on an extensive farm about four miles south of San Bernardino on land then called Indian Knolls but now known as Cooley Ranch.
Cooley worked this land as a farmer, becoming exceptionally successful through hard work and perseverance.
George Cooley was elected as San Bernardino County’s Third District supervisor in 1882, taking office on January 8, 1883. On August 6, 1884, the county was re-divided from three districts to five and his district was reconfigured as the Fourth District. He was reelected in a special election held on November 18, 1884 and reelected again in 1886, holding office until January 5 1891. He was elected chairman of the board and served in that capacity from September 7, 1885 until January 5, 1891.
George Cooley took great pride in the construction of what was then the Hall of Records and the county courthouse. He devoted himself especially to the judicious and economically sensible utilization of public funds in those buildings’ construction, establishing himself as conscientious steward of the public trust.
Retiring from political life, George Cooley devoted the remainder of his days to the operation of his ranch, where he died on April 2, 1916, at the age of 85. He and Mrs. Cooley had sixteen children, of whom nine survived. him: George M., Frank L., Norman H., Charles C., E.M., Scott, Mrs. L. Thomasson, Mrs. Rose Chapline and Mrs. Helen Clyde. Also surviving him were 35 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. His only other relative in America was his brother John Cooley, of Oakland. By coincidence, the two brothers died within fifteen minutes of each other.
Two years after George Cooley left the board of supervisors, San Bernardino County as it was then underwent a significant change when Riverside County was formed, in so doing relieving San Bernardino County of 7,303 square miles of its southernmost land mass. Despite that change, San Bernardino County remained the largest county in the country at 20,105 square miles, larger than New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island, combined.
In 1896, George Cooley’s oldest son, George Mills Cooley, was elected Fifth District supervisor.
George Mills Cooley was born on December 23, 1855 in Salt Lake City. When he was only one-and-a-half years old, on May 11, 1857, he departed with his parents from the Utah Territory in an ox-drawn wagon train of ten other families.
Sometime after his family’s arrival in San Bernardino on May 11, 1857, his father established what would eventually become the Cooley Ranch on the south bank of the Santa Ana River in what is now Colton.
George grew up in a beautiful ranch home. By the time he reached manhood he had been educated by his father, studying at home.
One of his first independent acts as a young man was to rent with another enterprising youth of the area, Alfred Hunt, a thousand acres between San Bernardino and Redlands. They worked that property and with his share of the proceeds from that venture, George Mills Cooley took courses at Heald’s Business College in San Francisco. After college he entered the service of Ruffen and Bray’s Hardware Store in San Bernardino. He worked there from 1875 until 1885, eventually becoming the manager of that establishment. In 1885 he bought the firm which, to this day, is known as the Cooley Hardware Company. Historically, it is the oldest store in San Bernardino, having been originally established in 1854. With nothing but his skill and untarnished credit, Cooley expanded the store, which became one of the largest and most thoroughly stocked hardware stores in the state. In 1890 he competed with twenty-nine other pipe dealers in the western states to sell the city of San Bernardino a large quantity of pipe required for the city’s water system. His bid was accepted for the entire contract as it was from $4,000 to $14,000 lower than the competing bids. George M. Cooley also engaged in real estate development and erected six dwellings on the two acres he then owned at the corner of Sixth and D streets.
Cooley’s wife was the former Sarah Bessant, daughter of Isaac and Mary Ann Bessant, an English family who were with the same wagon train from Utah as were George and his parents in 1857. George and Sarah had three sons and a daughter, Dora, who became the wife of Ernest Martin, a former San Bernardino Postmaster.
After his election to the board of supervisors in 1896, he took office on January 4, 1897 and served until January 8, 1901. He was succeeded by John Clark of San Bernardino
Cooley’s most important and lasting contribution to the development of San Bernardino came though his quarter-century fight for equitable freight rates, and particularly against the back-haul charge which had given Los Angeles a cheaper rate on transcontinental shipments than San Bernardino. George Mills Cooley was the chairman of the Interior Counties Freight Rate Bureau and vice president of the Intermediate Rate Association, a national organization. He represented the state of California on this body and the executive officers continually sought his advice on freight rate questions. The elimination of back-haul freight charges was largely due to his long campaign, and this victory at once opened the way for San Bernardino to assume a position as a shipping center, a distinction it maintains until today. He had much to do with the establishment of various large enterprises in San Bernardino. He took an active part in civic affairs and figured in the management of a number of community organizations and companies.
Following his four-year term as county supervisor, George M. Cooley returned to the full-time management of his hardware store in the company of his brother, Frank L. Cooley, as vice-president. Three sons, Allan Grover Cooley, George Damon Cooley and Marshall Brooks Cooley, managed various departments.
In addition to his commercial interests, George Mills Cooley was a student of, and authority on, farming and agriculture. He derived some of his greatest pleasure in growing plants, a particular hobby having been potatoes. Like Luther Burbank, he was attracted into the fascinating field of developing and propagating new species and had some notable results to his credit. His trial grounds and the scene of his practical efforts as a grower was a sixty-four acre farm in the vicinity of Perris Hill between San Bernardino and Highland in what is now Del Rosa. On this ranch was an extensive orange grove, as well as groves of apricots, peach and olive trees, all under a high state of cultivation and with an ingenious irrigation system.
George M. Cooley was plagued by ill health toward the end of his life and he outlived his father by only seven years, dying on October 22, 1923. On that day, he was found on his ranch among the plants and trees he had long cultivated and cherished. He was survived by his wife, his daughter and three sons, two sisters and four brothers, E.M., Charles, Frank and Norman Cooley.
By Mark Gutglueck