By Mark Gutglueck
James Russell is a remarkable San Bernardino County historical figure on several accounts. Foremost, he is credited with being at the forefront, at the turn of the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth Century, in the early application of emerging automotive technology to facilitate transportation in the far flung San Bernardino County jurisdiction, which covers more than 20,000 square miles. That accomplishment was carried out while he was a captain of private sector mercantilism. During his remarkably short, four month tenure as a public official, he fought indefatigably to remove the burden of maintaining the county’s mountain roads from the county’s taxpayers. Despite his status in the community and the level of respect accorded him, he was on occasion truculent, and acquired a reputation for being quarrelsome with regard to certain public issues. This is reflected in the consideration that despite having held elective office, he was never actually elected.
Born on February 5, 1873 in Adams County, Iowa, James Russell was the son of James S. and Rachel Binkley Russell. While he was yet an infant, his parents moved the family to Centralia, Washington, where his father taught school and farmed in that area until his death at age 99, the last Civil War veteran in the State of Washington.
James’ mother died while he was quite young and his farther remarried. At about the age of 14, James left home, partly because of incompatibility with his stepmother, and he came to San Bernardino. He worked for a time as a driver of lumber teams in the San Bernardino Mountains, a stint as a fireman for the Santa Fe Railroad and other colorful occupational ventures. Deciding to finish his schooling, he completed the required high school courses in two years.
Shortly thereafter, three of his brothers, William, Lowell and Marion, and his twin sister, Belle, came to Southern California. James and William entered into a partnership and opened a grocery and general merchandise store at 1023 West Third Street, near the Santa Fe Depot.
James Russell and Sarah R. Culberson, daughter of Stephen Robert and Mary Estelle (Downer) Culbertson, were married at her home on June 30, 1901. Sarah Culbertson Russell was born near Edgar, Nebraska, in 1882, and came to California with her parents in about 1891. James and Sarah had one son, George Vernon Russell, born July 4, 1905. He became a prominent architect in Los Angeles in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
A pioneer automobile enthusiast, James Russell had initiated the use of motor vehicles for delivery service throughout the San Bernardino area in the very early 1900s. At one time he had a “stable” of twelve such vehicles plus several personal cars of various sorts.
The Russells maintained a home at 101 South Mount Vernon Avenue. They later moved to 799 E Street.
In about 1912, William T. Russell moved to Highland, leaving the store to James to manage exclusively. The name was changed from Russell Brothers to Russell’s Department Store, and later became just a fashionable men’s clothing store at 1073 West Third Street, almost next door to the original store. James Russell, active for years in the affairs of the First Congregational Church and his Masonic Lodge, was both well known and highly respected in San Bernardino.
Russell was an avid fisherman, and he was particularly fond of trout fishing. In time he became known as an expert in this regard. His fishing companions ranged from the pastor of his Congregational Church, the Reverend Henry Mowbray, to James. J. Jeffries, the world heavyweight champion. In those days, any Big Bear Lake Rainbow Trout under a pound and a half was returned to the water for maturity.
During World War I, being over the military age limit, Mr. Russell volunteered for overseas service with the YMCA and spent some time at Stanford in the YMCA training unit. The war came to a close before he was assigned to an overseas post.
In the August 1924 primary for supervisor, Russell challenged Albert G. Kendall, the highly popular incumbent Fifth District county supervisor who had held the position since December 1918. Russell was defeated, receiving 1,435 votes to Kendall’s 3,174.
On June 1, 1926, Kendall, who was the chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, died suddenly. Several men were suggested to fill the void. Of those, James Russell was appointed on July 3, 1926 by Governor Friend W. Richardson to fill the remaining few months of the late Mr. Kendall’s term as Fifth District supervisor. Although Russell had frequently been active in the politics of San Bernardino, he had never before held a political office. In his statement regarding his appointment and plans to seek election in the forthcoming 1926 primary, Russell declared, “Whether I run or not, I am going to do all in my power to have all major roads leading to the mountains in this county taken over by the State Highway Commission Those roads are no longer a local concern and the people should be relieved of the burden of taxation caused by the expense and upkeep due to outside traffic.”
Largely because of disagreements with other board members on matters of policy, rather than compromise his beliefs and convictions, Russell did not run for reelection to fill the position to which he had been appointed and left his office of four months on November 22, 1926. He was succeeded as Fifth District Supervisor by John Anderson, Jr.
In 1927, Mr. and Mrs. Russell had an impressive new home constructed at Baseline and Sterling Avenue.
Mr. Russell’s business was severely affected by the October 1929 Stock Market Crash and subsequent national depression. On August 25, 1932, he sold the clothing store and the following day, sold his interests in the Royal Arms Apartments, the Roseland Apartments and the Vista Apartments, in which he had previously invested.
He and his wife sold their home in October 1932. He salvaged enough from those sales and the failure of the San Bernardino National Bank to buy a small resort business in Pine Valley, in San Diego County. This, along with his activities as the village postmaster and as a realtor, plus frequent trips to the modest family home in Encinitas, kept him busy for some years. After his retirement from Pine Valley at about age 77, he and Mrs. Russell moved to Encinitas, where Sarah Russell died in 1956, and where, on September 11, 1958, he was fatally injured in an automobile accident in San Diego County at the age of 85.
By Mark Gutglueck