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California Genealogy and History Archives

Sonoma County


Thomas Leslie Orr

There are few if any residents of Sonoma county more familiar with the growth and development of its vineyard and winery interests than is Thomas L. Orr. It is now over fifteen years since he turned his attention to this special branch of horticulture, and the years that have intervened have not only witnessed his own success in the growing and manufacture of the grape, but have witnessed his own success in the growing and manufacture of the grape, but have witnessed a stead advance in the allied industries throughout the length and breadth of Sonoma county, until this section of the state has become a recognized center in this line, no little credit for which belongs to Mr. Orr.

The earliest recollections of Thomas L. Orr are of a home in Scotland, where, in Sunnyside, Lanarkshire, he was born December 10, 1864. His parents, James and Jean (Pender) Orr, were also natives of Scotland, the father born in Buds Farm, Parish of Shotts, Lanarkshire, and the mother was born in Linlithgowshire, near Bathgate. Her father, John Pender, was the owner of a large wheat farm, besides which he dealt in grain at Leith, Scotland. The history of the Orr family in Scotland can be traced back more than three hundred years before the birth of Thomas L. Orr, when one of the name purchased a large estate from the Duchess of Hamilton, whose descendants in the Scottish line would now be the reigning family in Scotland. This estate has been divided up among the Orrs, Shotts Parish, and is still in possession of their descendants. James Orr was a tiller of the soil on a portion of this estate until he left the place to his brother and started an express line between Airdrie and Glasgow. He followed this business very successfully for twelve years, and when the railroad was completed he was placed in charge of the freight department of the Caledonian Railroad at Coatbridge, a place in those days which was the Pittsburg of that side of the Atlantic, famous for its blasting furnaces, coal and iron production. Subsequently he took up his residence in Sunnyside, a suburb of Coatbridge, and it was there that the birth of his son, Thomas L., occurred. As the result of an accident the father died at the comparatively early age of fifty-eight years, having been struck by a buffer in the freight years. The mother survived him about twenty years, passing away in the fall of 1905. Of the eight children born to this worthy couple four are still living. John and James are foremen in the locomotive works in the city of Glasgow; and Ellen, Mrs. McDowell, resides in Airdrie, Scotland.

Thomas L. Orr is next to the eldest of the four children now living. As a boy he was brought up in Sunnyside and received his education at Dundyvan Academy, Coatbridge, remaining there until he was thirteen years of age, when the death of his father made a sudden change in his plans and prospects. Being obliged at this early age to provide for his own maintenance, he went to work in the Glasgow Locomotive works, being apprenticed as a shop draughtsman, and after completing his trade he was placed in charge of all the draughtsmen that worked in his department of the works. The confinement and close application which the position of chief draughtsman involved soon made inroads on the health of the young man, and it was the condition of his health that attracted him to California in May of 1885. He first located in Los Angeles county, and the same month that he landed there he determined to make the state his permanent home. For a time he engaged in farming in Antelope valley, an experience that proved beneficial to his health, and subsequently he engaged in the real estate business between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1888 he opened a real-estate office at No. 112 Montgomery street, San Francisco, making a specialty of dealing in south side lands. However, in 1895 conditions had changed materially by the business stagnation of 1893, and after closing out his business he removed to Forestville, Sonoma county, where he founded and built the first winery in the village, which he later disposed of. In 1895 he also leased the Occidental winery, which was then unoccupied, and later on, as the business outlook warranted, he purchased it, including a fifteen-acre home set to vines and deciduous fruits, and a four-acre tract in town for extensions. From this small beginning he constantly added substantial improvements and adjoining land, until he now has fifty acres of vineyard and thirty acres of pasture four miles from Occidental, without doubt one of the finest vineyards in Sonoma county. Aside from what his own vineyard produces he buys about five hundred tons of grapes a year for his Occidental winery. In 1905 he branched out still further by the erection of the Green Valley winery at Graton, on the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Electric Railroad, which has since been incorporated as the West Coast Wine Company, of which he is president. In this plant is manufactured wine from twelve hundred tons of grapes annually, and at times he has on hand over five hundred thousand gallons of wine. In addition to the holdings already mentioned Mr. Orr also owns an eighty-acre tract of splendid grape land in the Los Guilicos valley, in the Kenwood district. One of the ambitions and dreams of T. L. Orr is that the people of the United States will become a wine-drinking people, habituated to the use of dry wines at lunch and dinner, believing that if this be attained, prohibition and total abstinence shall have become dead issues; it will be the one great step towards temperance.

In 1903 Mr. Orr made a visit to his old home in Scotland, spending a month with his mother. The trip was made by way of Chicago, in which city he formed the acquaintance of the lady who afterward became his wife. She was Miss Anna Comerford, a native of Chicago and a sister of the Hon. Frank Comerford, statesman, attorney and orator of that city. Their marriage occurred in Vallejo, Cal., in February, 1905, but the married life of the young people was destined to be brief. At her death in 1906 Mrs. Orr left one child, Marshall Comerford Orr, whose training and education takes all his time in Chicago. All that professional science and affectionate care could do was brought into service in the hope of restoring her health, but efforts proved fruitless, and surrounded by husband, mother, sister and brother, she passed away, calmed by her Christian faith.

Mr. Orr has not arrived at his present independence without much hard work, sacrifice and close application. He is endowed by nature with those qualities that make him well liked by his fellow men and business associates, and all rejoice in the prosperity which he enjoys. It is to such men as Thomas L. Orr that the wonderful development and growth of Sonoma county is due, and his example is worthy of emulation.

History of Sonoma County, California
Biographical Sketches of The Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development from the Early Days to the Present
History By: Tom Gregory
Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, California (1911)

Transcribed by Peggy Hooper 2011