Sharp & Savvy: John J. Burke (1862 – 1952)
by David Mason
Mr. Burke was born in Picton, Ontario, Canada. In the early days of apprenticeships, young Mr. Burke went into the dry goods business until the age of 18, when he left Canada for Emporia, Kansas. It was here that he met Sherman Thacher [correction: Edward Thacher] who would remain a close friend for the rest of his life.
In 1887, the doctors in Kansas told Mr. Burke that he would most likely not live to see his 30th birthday; he was only 25 at the time. He immediately wrote to his friend, Mr. Thacher who by this time had settled in the beautiful valley of Ojai. Mr. Thacher urged him to come to the peaceful valley. He arrived here in the same year, never to returned to his adopted town of Emporia, Kansas.
As a member of the community, he contributed time, knowledge and his assets to the improvement of the Ojai Valley. He was responsible for the Ojai Power Company, which first illuminated the homes of the valley residents. He became one of the proprietors of the Ojai Valley House, which was the new name of the old Blumberg’s hotel, and advertised it as “a homelike place for families and pleasure-seekers, situated in the famous Ojai Valley”.
When a railroad to the valley was needed, it was Mr. Burke who worked hard until it became a reality.
In 1900, Mr. Burke organized the Ojai Improvement Company, which established the Foothills Hotel. Being one of the first realtors of the valley, he was responsible for the development of the early residences on Foothill Road.
He started the Ojai State Bank and served as cashier for many years and eventually became Vice President of the bank, which sold to Bank of Italy before becoming Bank of America.
He was the first to see the future in olives in this area and started the Ojai Olive Mill. He was an important person in the creation of the Gridley Water Company, which furnished the precious liquid to the valley.
He was responsible for the building of the theatre in town and headed up the drive to raise money for the purchase of land for Villanova School.
Mr. Burke attended the first Ojai Tennis Tournament club meeting where he was elected their secretary.
When Mr. Edward D. Libbey wanted to beautify the valley by building arcades, parks and hotels, it was Mr. Burke he called upon to gain the cooperation of the people living in the valley and financial help from the business community. He was one of the early presidents of the Ojai Civic Association, and an officer of the board of trustees of the local library.
Exactness and thoroughness had characterized all of his attainments, for he believed in doing well whatever he undertook and this undoubtedly was the keynotes of his success. His death came at the age of 90, and at the time he was referred to as: “The leading citizen of Ojai”.