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Peter J. Shields: remembering a long life

By From page A10 | November 07, 2012

In April, UC Davis celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Judge Peter J. Shields, the man called “the founding father” of what became the University of California, Davis.

Judge Shields was born April 4, 1862, on his family’s farm at Hangtown Crossing on the American River. (Today, Hangtown is part of Rancho Cordova.) Shields started practicing law at age 21. In 1899 he served as the secretary of the state board of agriculture. A year later he was elected a Superior Court judge.

For all of his accomplishments, perhaps his highest achievement was longevity. Judge Shields stayed on the bench for 49 years, retiring at age 87. He was an active cattle rancher and breeder to the end of his long life.

Peter Shields was 100 years old when he passed away on Sept. 28, 1962. This fall quarter marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

An interesting historical question is whether Shields would be remembered at all in Davis if he had not lived so long.

Because the main street in the heart of the campus is called Peter J. Shields Avenue, and because on his 100th birthday the university named the Shields Oak Grove for him, and because in 1972 the university named its main library the Peter J. Shields Library, the judge’s name will always be remembered here.

But what he actually did for UC Davis, to establish the campus, was small. Although he was not a legislator, he took credit for writing the bill (on behalf of the cattlemen’s lobby) in 1905 that called for the founding of a university farm.

Shields believed a research campus was needed to upgrade our state’s farming practices. Other states, he discovered, were ahead of California in ag sciences. But his 1905 bill was not a new idea or even the first written for the dairy industry.

The concept of a California school of agriculture had been around for years prior. It was considered back when Davis was represented in the Assembly by George Washington Pierce Jr. What set apart the 1905 effort was that the economy had improved in California and the state had the money necessary to develop a university farm.

In 1955, 50 years after the college’s establishment law was passed and signed by Gov. George Pardee, everyone who played a role in the founding of the campus at Davis, then known as Davisville, was dead. Everyone but Peter J. Shields.

So in that anniversary year, Judge Shields was held up as “the founder.” It was the same in 1958, when 96-year-old Judge Shields played the role of founder at the 50th anniversary of the start of classes in Davis.

Had Shields only lived 70 years, dying instead in 1932, it is likely his role in 1905 would be completely forgotten today. There would be no Peter J. Shields Avenue, no Shields Library and no Shields Oak Grove.

At his eponymous oak grove there is a bronze plaque, dated April 4, 1962, which is consecrated “in honor of recognition of his 100th birthday.”

The effusive inscription says, “This grove is dedicated to Peter J. Shields: founder of the Davis campus; patron of all agriculture; benefactor to students; eminent jurist; husbandman; admirer of trees; and friend to man.”

From 1943 to 1945, UC Davis was closed. But after World War II was won and the American GIs returned, the university began to grow rapidly.

Over the last 16 years of Shields’ life, UC Davis was born anew. The number of students, faculty and staff exploded. There were new buildings, new departments, even new colleges. In late 1959, the University of California at Davis finally became a general campus.

Thus, in 1962, when Judge Shields turned 100, UC Davis was full of recent arrivals. When they looked around to honor their forefathers, there was just one man standing: Peter J. Shields.

That is why the oak grove, the street and the library have his name attached.

The reason Davisville was selected in 1906 as the site of the university was because local residents — farmers, ranchers, business owners, hoteliers, saloon operators and professionals — banded together and worked tirelessly to promote their community as the ideal site.

No one in Davis did more or worked harder or longer than George Washington Pierce Jr. He was a farmer who was the first resident of the Central Valley to graduate from the University of California. He personally knew and lobbied UC President Wheeler and Gov. Pardee on behalf of Davisville.

Pierce, according to Judge Shields, made sure the language in the bill that described the qualities that the ideal site for the university farm needed, including an irrigation system, were qualities that Davisville and no other place had.

Yet post-WWII UC Davis has entirely ignored Pierce. There is no grove, no street, no library named for him There have been dozens of major buildings erected on campus in the past 50 years and not one bears his name.

As a final act of indignity, a modest dorm that had been named for GW and his son, Dixwell Pierce, was torn down earlier this year. There are no plans to christen any of the buildings now under construction for George Washington Pierce Jr.

Remembrance of Peter J. Shields lives on.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]

Rich Rifkin

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