Most of the communities within Napa County were intentionally planned by their respective visionaries. The motivations of these individuals varied from financial gain to philanthropic homesteading. In 1855, Englishman Henry Still’s generosity initiated the establishment of the community now known as St. Helena.
It all began with Still purchasing 100 acres of the former Rancho Carne Humana from the estate of the late Edward Bale in 1853. That same year, Still constructed the first building in the future town of St. Helena. In that building, Still established and operated his general merchandise store.
Initially, the vicinity surrounding the general store was sparsely settled. To remedy that situation, in 1855, Still announced he would donate parcels of land to anyone who would construct and establish businesses on the lots surrounding his store.
Still’s offer was a calculated risk. He hoped those who accepted the offer would develop a vested interest in the success and growth of the community as their businesses also needed that expansion to survive financially. Still believed most of these entrepreneurial individuals would become residents of the budding village.
The Englishman was correct in his thinking and his risk paid off. As his town became more successful, others moved to the area to work and live. This in turn created an increased demand, and willingness to pay, for residential lots.
An early St. Helena resident, identified only as Mrs. G. Ely, wrote in a letter dated Sept. 30, 1859, “Property is rising rapidly; lots ranging now from $200 to $500 without improvement. Some ten to twelve new houses are now in course of erection, and contracts for several more being made.”
She continued, “We purchased a lot 150- by 150-feet for $120, and had a small cottage built, which, when finished, will cost us about $300. I have a neat little parlor front, and a bedroom and kitchen back, the house being in the form of the letter ‘T’.’ Mr. Ely uses the parlor of an office also, as there is not even one single room for hire in the village.”
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Mrs. Ely’s letter also included a description of the businesses in St. Helena. There were three dry goods stores. One of them had a daily average of $800 to $1,000 in sales. She remarked, “This establishment employs three clerks and even with these you must sometimes wait a half hour for attention.”
“There is also a saddle shop, two blacksmith, one wagon-wright, one shoemaker, two carpenter shops, two fruit and confectionery, one tailor, one hotel and livery stable, two doctor’s offices, one lawyer, a large, fine town hall, a neat church and alas! two grog-shops (bars).”
The only other negative comment Mrs. Ely had about the young community had to do with its school. “Their Public School is a poor one, and the leading men say I can have it in the Spring if I wish; as they attribute the whole fault to the teacher.”
As young as St. Helena was as a community, it already had a number of faiths and benevolent organizations. However, it had only one church building. But it was used by the various religious groups who held separate services and conducted their Sabbath day schools within that one building. Mrs. Ely wrote of specific groups related to her husband’s activities. “Mr. Ely instituted a Temple of Honor for the Sons of Temperance.” He also established the St. Helena Odd Fellows lodge.
Sometime between 1855 and Mrs. Ely’s 1859 letter, Still named his town. One story claims he was passing by a group of men playing horse-shoes one evening when one of those men asked Still when he was planning to name the town. After an extensive discussion, a James Booker suggested naming their town after the beautiful mountain in their direct view, Mt. St. Helena.
The second version of the naming of Still’s town is described in C.A. Menefee’s 1873 book. “The infant town was christened St. Helena, from the name given to the Division of Sons of Temperance established there about this time.”
In her letter, Mrs. Ely voiced the pride of the community as well as their hopes for St. Helena’s future. “It bids fair, to become soon, quite a large place, probably the largest in the county, as it is much more advantageously situated, from the fact that it is more central...I am sure it cannot be excelled in the state by any inland town.”