John Leslie Davie (June 24, 1850–February 2, 1934) was Oakland’s 30th (1895–1897) and 36th (1915–1931) mayor. Being elected 5 times, often by large margins, he remains Oakland’s longest-serving and most popular mayor.
Davie was born on June 24, 1850, in Saratoga County, New York, where he grew up near the Carpentier family which had produced Oakland’s first mayor. As a teenager he worked on the nearby Erie Canal as a mule driver, and was studying law in Chicago when the Great Chicago Fire uprooted him and caused him to travel west, stopping in Nevada to work as a ranch hand, before landing in San Francisco in 1876. Among the many callings heeded by the exuberant Davie during his varied life was that of opera singer in San Francisco, as well as actor, inventor, butcher and rancher.
In the late 1880s, he moved to Oakland, where he opened a hay, coal, and feed business at 970 Washington Street. He also opened a bookstore next door, where he enjoyed the company of the city’s literati including Ina Coolbrith, Joaquin Miller, a young Jack London, Rev. John Knox McLean, and others.
He conducted a “David and Goliath” struggle with the Central Pacific Railroad over their throttle hold on the Oakland waterfront, first when he constructed a wharf to serve his business and then when he introduced ferry service which was the only competition to the railroad’s, and, after earning a law degree and arguing his case all the way to the Supreme Court, he was able to claim at least partial victories over the reviled Southern Pacific.
In 1895 Davie ran for the mayor’s office as a Populist, as he had two years earlier in his defeat to Pardee, but this time he drew 4,543 votes to 3,861 for J. Nelson, the “fusion” nominee of the Citizens’ Municipal League, the Democrats, and the Republicans. This was to be his first of two terms as Mayor of Oakland. His pledge to disallow any tax rate above $1 was the downfall of his administration, as all city services suffered, and finally Davie was expelled from the Populist party. He ran for re-election as an Independent and champion of the small taxpayers, and narrowly lost to W.R. Thomas.
Davie returned to the Mayor’s office, ultimately becoming the longest-serving mayor, when he won the May 1915 election with 24,949 votes to Frank W. Bilger’s 17,861. He easily defeated a recall vote in December 1917, with 23,081 votes cast in his favor and 9,164 against. He won the April 1919 election with similar ease, gaining over 50% of the vote cast in a seven-man race, and likewise won the 1923 election with just over 50% of the votes in a four-man race. Finally, he won the 1927 election by a much narrower margin, with 29,318 votes to Frank Colbourn’s 23,386.
Davie presided over an unorthodox commissioner form of municipal government, in which fifteen commissioners, including the mayor, each headed different city agencies and also acted as the legislative body. Charges that this system fed large-scale “cronyism” tempered his popularity with the voters.
He ran and lost several times between holding office as mayor in the 1890s and again starting in 1915.
In response to a protest by commissioner Harry Edwards, Davie said, "I had four years of your stuff while you were in the majority. Now take your medicine. Don't be a piker." 6
Davie married Ada E. Biddolph (Davie) (June, 1858–February 12, 1892) in 1880, and they had 3 sons: Frank M. Davie (March 17, 1884–July 14, 1935), William Davie (February 5, 1887–April 5, 1973), and Fred Victor Davie (April 5, 1889–September 2, 1943). Ada kept flowers and was particularly proud of her carnations. When fresh carnations weren’t available for her husband’s lapel, Ada would fashion one out of wax. They lived on a “small ranch at what is now 33rd and West Streets – ten acres, good house, barn, and outhouses.” 4 Note that the address of this property was originally 2158 West Street, as shown in early Husted's directories, until the street numbering was changed. Note also that the 1902 Sanborn map for the area implied that the Davies' property was significantly smaller than ten acres.
In 1892, Ada died while pregnant with twins, leaving John the single father of 3 young boys. He credits the women of the Order of the Eastern Star (a women’s auxiliary of the Masons) for helping him through this difficult period.
In later years, while still mayor, Davie lived at the Bauer Hotel Apartments at 1770 Broadway, but in 1931 at the age of 80 he retired to the Hotel Oakland, where he would still “hold court” in the lobby with his trademark red carnation and dapper clothes, and walk to his frequent rowing trips on Lake Merritt. He died on February 2, 1934.
Davie authored the only autobiography (to date) written by an Oakland mayor, His Honor, the Buckaroo, which was first serialized by the Oakland Post-Enquirer and later reprinted in book form. As the title suggests, it is filled with hokum, but he did actually accomplish many things and live an eventful life.
Among the numerous civic accomplishments during the Davie years were the creation of EBMUD and the Port of Oakland, the opening of natural history and fine arts museums (including the Snow Museum), the building of Skyline Boulevard by city prisoners, construction of the Posey Tube, construction in 1927 of the Oakland International Airport, major improvements to the harbor and Lake Merritt, and more. In his autobiography he relates a number of things he wished he’d been able to accomplish, including turning Lake Merritt into an actual fresh water lake (!) via dams and pumps.
Links and References
- List of Mayors of Oakland, California on Wikipedia
- ”ALL WORKING TOGETHER.” San Francisco Call: December 8, 1895
- ”OAKLAND NEWS: Candidates for Office Are Busy.” San Francisco Chronicle: March 5, 1893
- His Honor, the Buckaroo by John L. Davie
- Image(s) used by permission of the UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library
- Protest on Shift Made by Edwards Oakland Tribune March 21, 1922