SAN JOSE (AP) -- Walter Cottle Lester, a third-generation California farmer who stubbornly refused to sell his family's 237-acre ranch to developers even as Silicon Valley rose up around it and made the land worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has died at age 88.
Lester died of natural causes on Friday, a day before a 4-mile perimeter trail representing the first piece of a future park and agricultural preserve that will occupy his family homestead opened to the public, The San Jose Mercury News reported.
Lester deeded the land, which had been in his family since the 1860s and where fruit and grains still are grown, to Santa Clara County and the state starting a decade ago on the condition that it remain as open space forever.
At his request, the future Martial Cottle Park will be named for his maternal grandfather, who bequeathed the ranch to Lester's mother, who in turn passed it on to her son and his sister, who died 15 years ago.
Lester, who never married or had children, died in the same 140-year-old farmhouse where he was born. He was the last surviving member of the Cottle family and Silicon Valley's last big farm owner, the Mercury News reported.
He repeatedly turned down offers from developers eager to secure the prime south San Jose real estate and could have gotten as much as $500 million for the property, the newspaper said.
“People ask: Why didn't Walter sell and go buy an island? Well, his world was right here,” said David Giordano, who managed Lester's farming operation for the past two decades. “His duty in life, as he perceived it, was to preserve the ranch in its entirety.”
Current plans call for the park to include a visitor center that explores the area's agricultural past, picnic areas and parcels that can be leased for farming and the crops sold at local markets.
Former Santa Clara Supervisor Susanne Wilson, who worked with Lester to hammer out the preservation deal, said the project will be a tribute to his determination.
“He was just a crusty old farmer who had a dream, and he stuck with it. He was stubborn and crotchety, and a loner in many ways. He knew what he wanted,” Wilson said. “He wasn't about to relinquish one bit of that land. He was here first, and, by golly, he had rights.”