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Local historian’s dream of South Bay artists’ exhibition about to come true

Originally published in the Rose Garden Resident, February 24, 2005, by Mary Gottschalk

Leonard McKay’s seemingly impossible dream is coming true. In March, the 32 watercolors and oil paintings by 20th century Silicon Valley artists collected by the 83 year-old historian and Shasta Hanchett Park resident will go on public display for the first time at History Park, San Jose.

“It’s exactly what I wanted and I never thought it would happen,” says McKay, who has been an inveterate collector since his student days at Santa Clara University.

Starting in the 1960s, McKay focused much of his energies on collecting artists from Santa Clara County and nearby.

It’s an eclectic collection that includes some very well known artists, such as A. D. M. Cooper and Andrew P. Hill, as well as artists who are virtually unknown, such as the twin McCracken sisters who took up painting in the 1960s.

McKay’s collection and the building it will be housed in at History Park are intertwined.

A San Jose native who grew up in Los Gatos – “it wasn’t a Yuppie town like it is now; there were working people there,” he says – McKay’s father, Leonard McKay Sr., took a bus back and forth to the print shop in downtown San Jose that he founded with his mother, Bessie C. Smith and his stepfather, Clifford Smith, in 1919.

After serving with the U.S. Army First Infantry Division in Germany after the Battle of the Bulge, McKay returned to San Jose and completed his degree in accounting and advertising at the University of Santa Clara.

Three days after graduation, he joined Pan American Airways and spent the next seven years in the Pacific Basin.

“I worked in Honolulu, Japan, Guam and Hong Kong. I had an office in downtown Hong Kong when China was falling to the communists. The Nationalists were with Chang Kai-Chek. Some high-ranking Nationalists were going up the stairs behind my office to a restaurant in the Hong Kong Hotel when some communist sympathizers shot them from the street through my office windows,” says McKay, recalling how he dived under his desk.

When McKay returned to San Jose in 1953, he continued with Pan Am in San Francisco.

“I drove the Bayshore Freeway one day and said, ‘That’s it.’ It was all stop signs and wasn’t a freeway,” he says.

McKay’s father was ill at the time, so he returned to the family business. After his father’s death, he bought his grandmother’s interest in Smith McKay Printing Co. in 1956.

In 1983 McKay sold the business to his son David, who operated in until his death in October 2004. McKay and his daughters then closed the business.

After selling the printing business, McKay operated Memorabilia of San Jose, specializing in post cards and old books dealing with Santa Clara County. He also worked closely with Clyde Arbuckle on his definitive History of San Jose, published in 1986.

House of art
Coincidentally, in its early years Smith & McKay was next door to the Pasetta House, then located at 196 W. St. James at Terraine Street.

It was there during the early years of the 20th century that Anna and Mateo Pasetta raised nine children. The were prominent in the fruit drying business.

Some two decades ago, one of their grandchildren was driving by the old home and saw it was about to be demolished.

“He didn’t want to see it destroyed, so he offered to buy it,” says Arlene Pasetta Nobriga, who lives in the Newhall Neighborhood. “He offered to buy it and they told him he could have it. So he had it moved out to the park and it was designed as an art gallery.”

The house, though, sat empty and unrestored, until the same grandson underwrote its restoration.

“He doesn’t want his name out there,” Nobriga says, explaining why he wishes to remain anonymous. “We’re a very private family, but our parents grew up there. He figured it was a good way to preserve the family name.”

While the donor was a student at Santa Clara University, he got to know McKay and his late wife Naomi.

He did some printing business with McKay and at one point, the two talked about turning the house into an art gallery. They have remained friends over the years.

He is also the one who purchased the art collection that will be on load for at least a year for display inside the Pasetta House in History Park.

At McKay’s request, it will be called the Leonard and David McKay Gallery.

“I thought he should be remembered,” McKay says of his late son. “He was recognized as one of the finest printers on the West Coast and he did some beautiful work.”

Parting with the collection was not easy, but McKay had long cherished the hope that someone would buy the collection and display it for the public to see. He had pieces of it on display at his shop, but there wasn’t sufficient space to display it all.

There are stories behind each piece, and historian that he is, McKay loves to share them.

Painting of big trees
One of the most impressive pieces in the collection is Hill’s painting of a giant redwood at what is now Big Basin Park.

Hill founded the Sempervirens Club environmentalist group and it his photography and painting is credited as having helped save Big Basin.

An early ally was the McPherson family in Santa Cruz and several members of the family will be on hand, along with the members of the Pasetta family for the dedication on March 6.

McKay has spoken to Bruce McPherson, the former state senator and newly appointed Secretary of State, and is hoping he will attend the exhibition opening.

Members of the McPherson family are in the Big Basin painting and McKay likes to point out that many people who view this particular painting comment on the fact that the three figures standing by the central tree have no facial features.

“Hill wanted the focus on the redwoods, he didn’t want faces,” McKay says. “Some people say he mustn’t have been a good artist if he couldn’t do faces, but in fact he was a good portrait painter.”

Pointing to other paintings, McKay talks about Dick Barrett, a prominent Mercury News columnist in the 1960s and 1970s, and the McCracken sisters, Vida and Venna. Of the eight McCracken paintings, six are watercolors, two are oils and all but one are Vida’s.

Some of the subjects of the paintings are instantly recognizable, including the Santa Clara Mission by Larry Burnham, Faber’s Bike Shop by Sara Anderson, the Alviso Train Station by Vida McCracken and the Golden Gate Park Conservatory by Robert Tower.

Each painting is a favorite in one way or another, but McKay admits that his very favorite is a view of the hills in San Luis Obispo in the spring by Anthony Quartuccio. “This was my favorite, I wanted to keep it,” he says.

The monetary value of the collection is difficult to estimate, McKay says, adding that he attended an auction in December with hopes of acquiring a painting of the Santa Clara Valley in bloom. The pre-sale estimate was $4,000 to $6,000 and McKay watched the piece sell for $45,000.

“Everything by Santa Clara Valley artists went over their estimates,” he says. “The prices of San Jose artists has gone up.”

“The significance of this collection is it’s a collection of artists that not necessarily lived here their whole lives, but they painted or did these works while they were living in the South Bay,” says Sarah Puckitt, curator for art and photography for History San Jose.

“Leonard has had the foresight to collect South Bay artists in a way that no other collector has done. It’s nice for us to be able to show and honor his collection. We’re very happy we’re getting to show it.”

McKay is pleased to see his dream realized, and now he has another one.

“There is a huge Andrew Hill painting that was given to the state by the people of San Jose and it was hanging in the legislature for more than 50 years,” McKay says of the 14-by-8-foot painting of a wagon train crossing the desert on the way to California. “Now it’s in a big box and the state Department of Parks and Recreation had it. The won’t give it back and they won’t do anything with it.

“I’d like to see it come back to San Jose.”

Eliza (Bessie) Catherine Layton McKay Smith: Co-founder of Smith & McKay Printing, 1919

Originally published in The Trailblazer (Quarterly Bulletin of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County), Volume 39, Number 3, September, 1998

Bessie Layton’s mother, Annelia Barter, born March 5, 1852, had emigrated overland at the age of one year with her parents, William and Catherine J. Coorad Barter from Mt. Vernon, Indiana. They came over the Oregon-California Trail, passing Lake Tahoe and arriving in Hangtown in September of 1853. Their wagon was made by Barter’s Blacksmith and Wagon Shop in Mt. Vernon, Indiana. Her father was a wagon maker and farmer who settled in Penryn, east of Roseville. Three years later, in 1856, Catherine Barter died of consumption in Steuarts Flat, Placer County and 4 year old Annelia was placed with a group of Catholic Sisters in Sacramento, although her father was Protestant.

Annelia married Leonard Layton when she was 15 on June 28, 1867, and at 16, had twin boys followed by the birth of eight other children, 10 in all, born between 1867 and 1894. Eliza Catherine Layton, born on June 24, 1877 was number 6. She was born at the ranch homesteaded by her father and his two older bachelor brothers in Clover Valley, just north of Rocklin, California. The Valley was 6 miles long and about half a mile wide and is now the Sunset Whitney Country Club development. The school was 4 miles away and Bessie, as she was called, was the one who rode the horse or drove the young Laytons in the wagons or buggy. In all of the early pictures of the family in wagon, buggy or car, Bessie was always in the driver’s seat.

During the hot Sacramento Valley summers, the family sometimes escaped to Santa Cruz for a few weeks to cool off. It was in Santa Cruz that Bessie met and at the age of 20 in 1897, married Neil McKay, a printer. Neil was from a family of printers who had come to Santa Cruz in 1878 from Michigan. Neil taught his young wife the art of typesetting, a job often done by women because of the patience and dexterity before the advent of the linotype machine. Leonard M. McKay, Sr. was born to this union on September 30, 1898, but the two were divorced in 1910 when the extended McKay family packed up to move to Yerrington, Nevada to publish and print the local newspaper in this copper mining town.

Bessie Layton McKay took her young son, Leonard to San Francisco where she continued to work in the printing trade in a job shop. When he got old enough, Leonard, too, learned the printing trade and while a young teen-ager, he caught his left hand in a die cutting printing press, cutting off his left thumb and a portion of his third finger. He graduated from high school by attending night school while working days. When World War I came along, he was ineligible for military service because of his missing fingers, so he went to work for an oil pumping company in Gustine. He saved a considerable amount of money which was the capital used to start Smith & McKay Printing Company in 1919.

Meanwhile, Bessie met Clifford Smith, a promoter and fast talker. He became one of the three partners in the Smith & McKay Printing Company, Clifford Smith, Bessie Smith and Leonard McKay. Few partnerships are successful and a three way is nearly impossible. Although it was Leonard McKay’s money that bought the used equipment of the Slovian newspaper, Sokol, in San Jose, he was never consulted regarding business decisions.

In 1924, the name became Smith and Smith as Clifford was bent on becoming the largest and dominant printer in San Jose. To this end, he added many pieces of equipment, all purchased with bank loans. In 1928 he took all of the company cash and left town with another woman, leaving large debts and mortgaged equipment which was soon reclaimed by the banks. When the stock market crashed in 1929, it was dubious whether the business could survive. Bessie surrendered her large house off the fashionable Alameda at 782 Morris Street because she could not make the payments and moved into a room built for her inside the printshop on St. John Street. She lived there throughout the early 1930’s. Leonard McKay, Sr. lived with his wife and family at 175 Loma Alta Avenue, Los Gatos where they had moved for Leonard, Junior’s health, as he was an asthmatic child, not expected to live to adulthood. St. John Street was very near several historic events in San Jose including the disastrous Court House Fire just 100 yards away in 1931 and the infamous lynching in St. James Park in 1933.

Bessie continued to be a prominent figure in San Jose as she was elected President of the Business and Professional Women’ Association, Matron of the Fraternity, later Jarman Chaper of Eastern Star, and she continued to ride a horse in the Sheriff’s Posse of the many Fiesta de las Roses Parades.

The Depression era was an especially difficult time for a woman to run a business since much was done of the barter system. When the company printed the daily menus for the American Grill, it was expected that you would eat out your bill. Printing was done for Andy Saso of the Fox Theatre chain in exchange for movie tickets. Bessie, with Leonard at her side, survived, neither making as much as their workers. She had favorite customers who fell into three groupings: the petty gamblers were most common and prominent. They needed raffle and lottery tickets printed, were not fussy about quality, didn’t want receipts and paid in cash.

The second group were the Catholic Priests, particularly the Jesuits from the University of Santa Clara and Bellarmine and St. Mary’s Church. Bessie held them in high regard because of their intelligence and high moral qualities. In 1929, Smith Printing printed the program for the Passion Play which was the start of a major account that saved the business.

The third group were the construction men in the valley starting with Earl Heple and after his death, Lou Jones Construction, Elmo Pardini, L.C. Pardini, Rosendin Electric and many others. A smaller portion of the business was book printing. Some of them still survive today such as the 1933 History of San Jose by McMurry/James, many books of poems and some science fiction works.

When World War II came along, it was a terrific struggle to continue business, as all of the young men left for the service and many of the women were employed in defense industries. Supplies were very difficult to obtain and new machinery was impossible. One way or another, the company kept the old equipment going and kept printing, doing defense contract work for Permanente Cement, Pittsburgh Steel and others.

Once the war was over, there was a period of limited expansion, as young men returned seeking employment. Smith Printing had always done letterpress printing (printing directly from the type) but improvements after the war included the advent of lithography, using thin aluminum plates. The early process left much to be desired and nearly broke the business again.

Leonard McKay, Jr. returned from the European theater of war with one year of college to finish. While completing his education, he worked full time at the printing company, while his father’s health faded. Leonard, Dr. did not want him to go into the printing business as he felt there was more work than reward in it. Upon graduation, he went to work with Pan American Airways in the passenger traffic department and asked for foreign assignment which took him to San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Guam. The Orient was in chaos with Communism running rampant and after nearly seven years with the airline, he resigned in 1953 and retuned to San Jose. In 1954, Leonard Senior died but the “Boss” remained – Bessie Smith at age 77.

Two years later, in 1956, Leonard, Jr. and his grandmother Bessie agreed to return the name of the company to its original Smith and McKay Printing Co. He would buy the business from her and she retired in 1956 at age 79, going to live with a younger sister in Washington state until her death in 1962 at 85. She is buried in the Los Gatos Cemetery.

Bessie Smith, Pioneer Printer and Proprietor of Smith and McKay Printing Company and Smith and Smith for a total of 37 years, 1919-1956, was respected for her honest dealings and quality printing. She survived 85 years through much of California’s history, leaving her indelible imprint on the local scene.