'Retired' Tractor Entrepreneur Changes Tracks

San Leandro Historical Society Time Capsule: Daniel Best was not only a successful industrialist but a curious, inventive man willing to experiment.


Last month, Fred Reicker's three-part series in Patch detailed the story of Daniel Best and his son C. L. Best, whose San Leandro tractor company merged with Holt to create Inc. This article follows up with Daniel's "retirement" years and some personal stories showing the lighter side of this inventive man with a humorous outlook on life.

In 1908, when retired from running Best Agricultural Works, life expectancy in the United States for a man was about 48.4 years. Seventy-year-old Daniel apparently did not feel like someone teetering on the brink of his grave. By 1911, he had bought a corner of downtown San Leandro, torn down old buildings, and completed construction of a bank building and a theatre, thereby starting two new, successful businesses.

San Leandro State Bank

The Best Building boasted a mat-glazed terra cotta exterior, an eight-foot arcade supported by sixteen-foot pillars, French glass windows, Alaskan marble for the wainscoting, steel-plate ceilings in the store rooms (for fire safety), and skylights in the upstairs hallways and offices.

Best arranged for the grand opening of the San Leandro State Bank in his new building to include music from the Boys Club Band and Roses’ Orchestra, floral decorations, and dancing in the storerooms. By the first week, the bank’s commercial deposits were greater than the total amount of the capital stock and the surplus fund.

The building has housed several banks over the years.  Today CitiBank is in the Best Building.

Next time you are at the corner of Estudillo Avenue and East 14th Street, look for Daniel Best’s building, with his name above the corner entry and a “B” in the decorative element over every window.

The Best Theatre

Once the bank was completed, Daniel expanded his “business block” with a theatre built next door to the bank on East 14th Street. The Best Theatre featured vaudeville shows and silent films and held political rallies and local benefits.

The price of admission varied depending on the movie, but normally the cost was fifteen cents for reserved seats, ten cents for adults, and five cents for children. When Queen Elizabeth starring Sarah Bernhardt came to the theater, the admission price shot up to twenty cents for adults and ten cents for children.

Actor Lloyd Bridges, famous for his role in the Sea Hunt television series and for work in dozens of films and on the stage, was born in San Leandro while his father was manager of the Best Theatre.  

Daniel’s daughter Bessie remembered going to the theater with her dad, who went up to the ticket office and bought tickets.  “I said, ‘Daddy, you don’t have to pay.  You own this thing.’ And he said, ‘How do you expect ‘em to pay the bills!’”

The “Nine-Days Wonder” Automobile

According to some sources, in 1898 Daniel built the first car in Alameda County.  In his own words:

I remember when automobiles first came into vogue. . . Well, I was smitten with the automobile fever, and accordingly set about to construct one.  I tell you, that machine was a work of art—in my opinion. Solid rubber tires of a size capable of carrying ten passengers, a lot more in emergency, and with all the grace of a mud scow, it was a nine-days’ wonder here.  I ran it eleven years. I constructed a second machine, a two-passenger, and later gave it to my son.  He in turn traded it for a piano.  I think the piano man was cheated.  I have often thought if I had stayed with automobile manufacturing, I could have out-Forded Ford.  Perhaps.

The car was powered by a seven-horse-power, vapor-electric water-cooled gasoline engine of two opposed cylinders. It was able to attain a top speed of 20 miles per hour, or 18 miles per hour with a load of eight passengers. 

Wit and Curiosity until the End

Curious and inventive his entire life, Daniel had 41 patents to his name by the time he died in 1926. Here is a quote from his daughter Bessie again, this time about a project he was working on shortly before his death:

My father was working on something very wonderful—he was eighty-six when he passed away. He was in excellent health—it was pneumonia that got him. He was working on an engine that would use the power of the exhaust. He was working on this engine and he had kind of a lot of dry wit.  So he was going to have this demonstrated in what they call the Foundry.  That was in San Leandro. And he started it up and the power was so strong that the engine blew up and shot through the roof and knocked him down, and he just took it very casually, and oop! That was it.

Curious, inventive, willing to experiment and make mistakes, and with a sense of humor—Daniel Best, San Leandro pioneer, typifies something fundamental in the American spirit.


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anthony June 02, 2012 at 02:04 AM
Thank you. The earlier series had me wondering about the Best Bank, but had little luck on the net finding much of it's history. Usually check the time when going by, and was wondering about what appear to be a second set of hands on the clock. (lighter and thinner behind the main set) Was it just a bad day for my eyes ? [ For those that enjoy technical drawings like myself, courtesy of Daniel ... http://www.google.com/?tbm=pts&hl=en#q=daniel+best&hl=en&tbm=pts&ei=-GvJT8KOEMry2QXdzfTZCw&start=0&sa=N&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.,cf.osb&fp=67c41fc068f230d2&biw=1280&bih=657
Tom Abate (Editor) June 02, 2012 at 04:49 PM
Thanks for your comment. I love Cynthia's articles from the Historical Society.


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