The Lester farm

Walter Cottle Lester died Jan. 31 in the farmhouse where he, his mother and sister and several aunts and uncles were born. (Nhat Meyer, San Jose Mercury News / February 14, 2011)

Though he lived in a region known worldwide for hyper-enthusiastic, round-the-clock innovating, Walter Cottle Lester wasn't a big fan of change.

As Silicon Valley's subdivisions and office buildings surged around the farm his family had started more than a century before, he refused to sell. Reclusive and soft-spoken, he turned down potential earnings as high as $500 million. Instead, he arranged to donate his spread, the last big farm in the city of San Jose and one of the last in the sprawling Silicon Valley, for public use as a historic park.

Most of his 287 acres will remain in agriculture.

Lester died Jan. 31 in the farmhouse where he, his mother, his sister and several aunts and uncles were born. He was 88 and had been in declining health for several months, said his friend Frank Giordano.

Lester never married and had no children. His sister Edith, blind and deaf, also never married and lived with him until her death in 1999. The two communicated by arranging alphabet blocks set in a wooden frame.

Born July 7, 1925, Lester was the son of Henry Walter Lester and Ethel Edith Cottle, both members of pioneering farm families in an area known for its bounty of fruits and vegetables. The "Valley of Heart's Delight", as it was called, supplied one-third of the world's prunes, as well as a cornucopia of tomatoes, grains, onions, carrots, cherries and walnuts.

Lester's father was a big prune grower but also kept his land planted in barley and hay. Cattle grazed his pastures.

In 1944, Lester, who was kept out of military service by a heart murmur, became his father's full partner in the farm. It was the same year the farmhouse got electricity, he later recalled.

Even as the world beyond the farm changed dramatically, change on the farm came slowly.

In the 1950s, San Jose boomed. With gung-ho city manager A.P. "Dutch" Hamann directing his so-called "panzer division" of bureaucrats through numerous annexation deals, San Jose grew from 17 to 137 square miles over two decades. Land values soared; in the Santa Clara Valley, some 60,000 acres went out of production and farmers, as the old ag joke goes, headed for La Jolla to raise martinis.

But not the Lesters.

When IBM was scouting out sites for its California research facility in the 1950s, the family was adamant about keeping its land out of the company's grasp.

In a 2007 oral history interview, Lester recalled his parents hearing about IBM's interest in a particular parcel and declaring, "No, we don't want that thing up against this place here."

"And so the orchard wasn't available," Lester told researchers for the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation. "It wasn't for sale. They didn't get it and that was it."

After his parents died, Lester was just as obstinate.

"Any developer was his enemy as far as he was concerned," said Susanne Wilson, a former Santa Clara County supervisor whose district included Lester's farm.

Lester was leery of politicians and wary of government.

Wilson said an odd coincidence helped her build his trust: She was a farm girl from Gonzales, Texas, a town that in 1836 sent reinforcements to the besieged Alamo in San Antonio. One of those doomed men was George Washington Cottle, a Texas hero who may have been related to Lester's mother.

On a trip to Texas, Wilson took a photo of Cottle's name on an Alamo monument and later presented it to Lester.

However, such gestures went only so far.