Caroline Hoxett had a
she really wanted to conceal from the public.
In a recent e-mail, Gilroy history buff Connie Rogers suggested
I tell Hoxett’s fascinating story in this column. She recommended I
feature the Gilroy pioneer in the second part of a March-long
series celebrating historic South Valley ladies during
Women’s History Month.
Caroline Hoxett had a “profound secret” she really wanted to conceal from the public.
In a recent e-mail, Gilroy history buff Connie Rogers suggested I tell Hoxett’s fascinating story in this column. She recommended I feature the Gilroy pioneer in the second part of a March-long series celebrating historic South Valley ladies during “Women’s History Month.” After Rogers related Hoxett’s impact on this region, I knew I must reveal this amazing woman’s secret.
Born Caroline Amelia Brooks in Painesville, Ohio, in September 1840, she married Samuel Osbourne and in 1859, and the newlyweds journeyed by mule across the Isthmus of Panama to a promising future in California. Imagine what a honeymoon the 18-year-old bride endured. She braved tropical heat and mosquitos and vine-tangled jungle trails. That adventure shows what a dauntless character Caroline possessed.
The couple settled in Placerville, a California mining town where Samuel worked digging gold. Caroline gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Ada. Soon after the newborn arrived, Samuel died in a mining accident. The young widow met a handsome young baker named Thomas Hoxett. They married, and in 1868, moved to the fledgling city of Gilroy which was establishing itself along the railroad line.
On Monterey Street, Thomas set up the town’s first bakery. He also began investing in the stock market and real estate. Over the years, his hard work and prudent financial choices built a family fortune.
During that Victorian era, Caroline became a social and civic leader in Gilroy. She established a club for local women to improve the community through various public projects. She was also active in the Rebekahs, the women’s branch of the International Order of Odd Fellows fraternal order. She served as an officer in Gilroy’s Unity Rebekahs Lodge No. 24.
During the 1890s, members elected her as President of the California Rebekahs Assembly.
This role let her make her greatest contribution to Gilroy. The region needed a home to care for young orphans. Caroline suggested that Gilroy – with its “fresh air, sunshine and good schools” – might make an excellent location. And to sweeten the deal, the now widowed socialite donated 13 acres of land and money to construct the orphanage.
Workers completed the building in 1897. Located on I.O.O.F. and Forest streets, it became known as the Odd Fellows Orphans Home.
Caroline also gave generously when it came to building Gilroy’s first library. At the turn of the century, steel baron Andrew Carnegie generously contributed money to communities to build free public libraries. His foundation offered Gilroy a grant of $10,000. But the city fathers felt hesitant about taking his money. Elected officials feared the gift might be a Carnegie trick.
The town’s councilmembers argued about the issue. Finally, Caroline grew tired of all the bickering and announced she’d donate her tennis court property at the corner of Fifth and Church streets in Gilroy for Mr. Carnegie’s library. Her firm proclamation ended the discussion.
The library became a reality in 1910. Replaced in 1975 by a more modern building at Gilroy’s Civic Center, the former Carnegie Library presently serves as the Gilroy History Museum.
Now we come to Caroline Hoxett’s secret. It deals with another Gilroy civic landmark – what’s now called Old City Hall located at the corner of Monterey and Sixth streets in the downtown district. The strikingly decorative building was completed in 1906. But many citizens felt it lacked one crucial architectural ingredient. It required a town clock set in the cupola capping the building’s bell tower.
Gilroy’s Mayor George Dunlap informed city council members a four-dial clock would cost $700. He suggested a “subscription” be taken up to collect that large amount. Pioneer rancher Henry Miller kicked in $100. Dunlap gave $50 and someone else provided another $50. But then, for many years, the clock project languished for lack of funds.
In 1913, however, an anonymous person supplied the rest of the money to purchase a Seth Thomas Tower clock. After its installation, Gilroy City Hall’s new mechanism became the boast of the South Valley. Its four faces showed the time to all four directions.
But the puzzle persisted. Who was the secretive benefactor?
An article in Gilroy’s local paper The Advocate revealed the answer to this riddle:
“The handsome town clock installed this week in the tower of the city hall has excited the admiration of our citizens. The name of the donor was to be kept a profound secret, but it has become generally known that Mrs. Caroline A. Hoxett is the town’s fairy god-mother … Nothing could be more useful to the city for years to come than this handsome clock which will mark the passing of the hours.”
The following year, on August 15, 1914, the adventurous Caroline retraced her original honeymoon journey across the Isthmus of Panama. But this time it wasn’t by mule. She was on board the S.S. Ancon, the first passenger ship to voyage across the Panama Canal.
Before she died, Caroline Hoxett provided one final civic service to South Valley. At 12,000-square-feet, the original orphanage she established had grown far too small. The 1906 earthquake also caused local people concern about the wooden-structure’s safety. In 1919, nervous officials considered moving the orphanage to San Jose.
Caroline would have none of that. She campaigned to keep the orphanage in Gilroy away from the “polluted air, crime and poor schools” up north. She also donated money to build a beautiful new 45,000-square-foot orphanage designed by noted architect William Weeks and completed in 1921. Its 18-inch steel-reinforced concrete walls made it safe from fires and tremors.
Although it’s no longer an orphanage, Caroline’s legacy building still serves as headquarters for the Rebekahs Children’s Service caring for South Valley youngsters. Her good work continues with this organization.
Hoxett died in her Fifth Street Gilroy home in June 1927 of a brain hemorrhage. But her presence can still be found throughout the city. Her charitable achievements testify how one individual’s benevolence continues on in the lives of others.