The man must have been in his late 80s. He hung out by himself
nibbling from the appetizer table at a Portola Valley house party.
He looked like an interesting character, kind of quirky. I
introduced myself. He told me his name was Bill. Our conversation
meandered to President Lincoln’s political faux pas dealing with a
crisis at San Jose’s New Almaden Quicksilver Mines during the Civil
The man must have been in his late 80s. He hung out by himself nibbling from the appetizer table at a Portola Valley house party. He looked like an interesting character, kind of quirky. I introduced myself. He told me his name was Bill. Our conversation meandered to President Lincoln’s political faux pas dealing with a crisis at San Jose’s New Almaden Quicksilver Mines during the Civil War.
Bill seemed to know everything about Lincoln and Old West history. I asked him what he had done as a career. He told me he’d owned a magazine. On a hunch, I asked him to tell me his last name. “Lane,” he said.
“Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed, realizing who I was talking to. “You’re Bill Lane. You’re a publishing legend.”
No doubt, you’ve seen Lane’s publication in the supermarket checkout aisle. You might even subscribe to it. Sunset Magazine is a lifestyle publication for the western United States. Every issue is full of recipes, travel articles, gardening tips, and architecture and home decor ideas. But under Lane’s leadership, it’s been much more than just another monthly how-to journal. Sunset shaped American politics and the environmental movement.
Sunset magazine got its start in 1898 as a periodical published by the Southern Pacific Railroad to promote tourism. It was named after the Sunset Limited, a passenger train that ran between New Orleans and Los Angeles. The Southern Pacific was the largest single owner of California and Nevada land at that time, and its officials hoped that people inspired by the magazine to journey west might buy property in the region.
Over two decades, Sunset magazine evolved from a corporate marketing rag into a nationally prestigious journal. Writers included Sinclair Lewis, Jack London (who wrote articles in exchange for railroad travel), and Dashiell Hammett.
In the 1920s, Sunset magazine faced a steep decline in circulation and profits. It was purchased by Lawrence W. Lane, who had worked as an advertising executive for Better Homes and Gardens. Lane re-focused Sunset as a lifestyle magazine for west coast residents interested in gardening, cooking, and travel. Sunset helped shape the architecture of America by a series of essays in the 1930s advocating the western ranch house design. It also was the first magazine to target specific regions of its circulation areas, letting it provide readers with gardening advice better suited for their climate and soil zones. Lane made the magazine profitable.
After World War II, Sunset promoted itself as “The Magazine of Western Living.” With Lawrence’s son Bill stepping up to the editorial helm, the magazine also championed the protection of the environment as well as preservation of the history of the west. Sunset’s more environmentally-active articles advocated the protection of the Mojave Desert and the Tongass National Forest. A 1969 issue called for the ban of the pesticide DDT which was decimating the bird population.
Sunset magazine under the Southern Pacific Railroad as well as the Lane family’s leadership significantly helped shape the culture of the west coast. Before Sunset, people in the east thought of California as the wild west – a murderous frontier lacking a civilized culture. After Sunset promoted the beauty in the Golden State, people who traveled here by train discovered the wonders of the west for themselves – and found out California culture had sophistication.
Sunset also promoted California during the state’s population explosion after World War II, a time when former American military personnel brought their families to the promised land on the far edge of the continent.
A big part of Sunset’s impact came from the dynamic vision Bill Lane provided the region through his magazine. He saw the incredible potential of the American west, and zealously promoted that potential through the articles and art he placed in the pages of Sunset.
Lane died last summer at the age of 90. Politically during his life, he’d been a moderate Republican. At that Portola Valley party a couple of years ago, he told me he was a conservative in the old-fashioned sense of that word – the President Theodore Roosevelt sense. He believed in the moral importance of conserving the natural world for the generations that will follow us. We’re obliged to leave as a legacy to future generations a world where people can enjoy the high quality of life that we’ve enjoyed.
America needs more political conservatives like Bill Lane – men and women who will shield our environment from the abuses of greed and stupidity. America’s high quality of life was built from the natural resources our nation is blessed with – the legacy of our land, our oceans, and our atmosphere. We need conservative leaders like Lane dedicated to preserving those resources for the benefit of all. Failing that duty, we will face the sunset of our national promise.