He was known as “Honest Ben” and the “father of the Senate” in Sacramento in the late 1800s. But in Lodi, the kind-looking, bearded Benjamin F. Langford was known as the honorable gentleman who championed the tree fruit industry and helped establish a local bank and railroad.
Once a machine worker and miner, Langford carved a large ranch out of the brush land along the Mokelumne River and eventually rose to become Lodi’s early statesman and one of the area’s most influential men.
Langford was born on Dec. 27, 1829, in Smith County, Tenn., about 30 miles form Nashville. He was raised there with his six sisters and attended local schools.
When his formal education was completed, Langford learned the millwright trade from Ephraim Whitmore, a mill builder and contractor in Maryland. Langford learned quickly and was soon managing other, much older workers. He learned pattern-making and became a superintendent of a foundry in St. Louis.
Langford returned to Nashville and started a foundry business of his own with a partner. They did the majority of the work to build the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad.
Then gold was discovered in California.
With two friends, H.M. Newhall and J.G. Shepherd, Langford decided to go west. In his foundry, Langford manufactured some machinery they would need to mine the hard quartz rock they expected. With that preparation work done, they set out in early 1850 for New Orleans. They took a ship, landed in Panama and crossed the Isthmus with their mining machinery on mules. On the Pacific coast side, they boarded the ship Columbus, and arrived in San Francisco on May 5, 1850.
Langford and the others decided their best bet was to try placer mining and delay their bid to mine the harder quartz rock. So they put their machinery in storage in San Francisco. In the end, this machinery was never used, and it was destroyed in one of many fires that swept through San Francisco during the early years.
Langford and his friends went to Douglas Diggings and found gold. After two months there, they moved on to the Merced River, where they failed. Langford’s two friends quit mining, but Langford continued mining in Big Oak. By October 1850, he made enough money to open a general merchandise store in Tuolumne County. His partner was George Bracken.
In February 1851, Langford suffered injuries in an encounter with American Indians. While recovering he was forced to close his shop. With Bracken, he then settled a ranch between Horse Shoe Bend and Don Pedro’s Bar. They bought cattle and horses, opened a public house and operated teams hauling goods between Stockton and their place.
By the fall of 1851, Langford finally turned his interests to the Valley and San Joaquin County. He settled on newly surveyed land in Elliott Township along the north bank of the Mokelumne River. The wild, untouched land was covered in oak trees and was located northwest of David J. Staples’ budding settlement of Staples Ferry, today’s Lockeford. Langford’s land was located north of the river near Tretheway Road, known then as Upper Sacramento Road and the main road linking Staples Ferry with Sacramento.
Langford built a sawmill along the river. He cut wood on his land and operated the sawmill for a couple of years. He intended to float the lumber downriver, but found that enterprise impractical. He sold his machinery and built an engine for Judge Terry, who started a grist mill in Clements to process wheat, which was the big crop in the region.
While Langford began developing his land for agricultural uses, he planted huge fields of wheat and was notably involved in sheep raising. In 1860 he paid $1,500 for a ram named “Napoleon” that was exhibited at fairs in Paris and Sacramento.
Langford, however, still had a taste for mining. In 1859, he went to Nevada and was profitably engaged in mining interests in the Virginia City area. He was elected one of six judges there. In three years, however, Langford left Nevada and pursued other mining interests in Mexico. Before long, he left that venture and decided to focus mainly on agriculture on his ranch in San Joaquin County.
In 1870, at the age of 41, Langford married Catherine M. Kane of Woodbridge. They had two sons, George and James.
By 1879, Langford had helped improve designs of wheat harvesting equipment and owned 3,000 acres in San Joaquin County and 8,000 acres in Fresno and Tulare counties, according to Thompson & West’s History of San Joaquin County. He also was affiliated with a number of social organizations including the Woodbridge and Stockton chapters of the Masonic Lodge, the Odd Fellows and the Knights of Pythias. He helped found the Grangers’ Union of Stockton.
In 1879, when Lodi was barely 10 years old, Langford was first elected to the State Senate. A Democrat and popular in the area, Langford was re-elected term after term and ended up serving as state senator for the next 21 years until 1900.
“The Senator has probably served more years in the Senate at Sacramento than any other living man in California,” stated the Oct. 8, 1895 San Francisco Call newspaper.
He was known as a “strong partisan but a careful legislator,” according to the Sacramento Daily Union. The San Francisco Call said “his rule is to be very careful in voting to appropriate public money.”
While in office, however, Langford did manage to secure $3,000 per year in state money to support the San Joaquin District Agricultural Fair.
In the 1880s while serving in the state government, Langford continued to lead locally. Beginning in 1882, he was a prime mover and backer of the San Joaquin & Sierra Nevada Railroad, which connected the Delta to Lodi and Valley Springs by rail.
In 1887, Langford became a front-runner in the farming effort to switch from wheat to the more profitable fruit crops. He planted 320 acres of fruit trees growing peaches, apricots, almonds and plums. That year, land in the “Langford Colony” was advertised for sale, and advertisements boasted the land would yield $100 in profit per acre from the fruit trees.
In 1888, Langford launched the original Bank of Lodi. He was the bank’s first president.
In 1900, Langford retired from the state senate at the age of 70.
On Sept. 26, 1904, Langford died at his home. He was 74. Sadly, two days after his death the San Francisco Call newspaper reported that apparently Langford’s vast fortune was no more and he died “a poor man.”
Although it was “known his holdings were considerably reduced” the news of his financial standing was “received with surprise,” stated the San Francisco Call.
Vintage Lodi is a local history column that appears the first and third Saturday of the month.