James Lick


May 17, 2022

James Lick (August 25, 1796 – October 1, 1876) was an American piano builder, real estate magnate, landscape gardener, and philanthropist. Lick started his career as a piano builder in New York. After a year he emigrated to South America, where he built up a small fortune with his piano workshop over a period of 27 years. At 51, he returned to the United States and settled in California. He invested his money in real estate that rose in value as a result of the California gold rush that made him the richest man in California. He transferred the management of his real estate to an agent and withdrew to his lands to devote himself to horticulture. Lick passed away at the age of 80. He bequeathed his fortune largely to charitable, patriotic, and scientific projects. The most important of these was the establishment of an observatory called the Lick Observatory.


Early years, 1796-1818

James Lick was born the eldest of seven children to John Lick and Sarah Long. His father was born in Norristown as Johannes Lück. He had settled as a cabinetmaker in Stumpstown, later Fredericksburg, where he Americanized his name to John Lick. In addition to his carpentry workshop, he also ran a farm. Young James Lick grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, an area of ​​Pennsylvania where the majority of the population were descendants of German-speaking immigrants. In that area, in addition to English, German was also used as the official language. James Lick learned to speak both languages ​​fluently. He had to help out at a young age on his parents' farm, where he had to tackle all the usual activities. He did this with pleasure and inherited a love for horticulture from his mother. James was strongly influenced in his youth by his grandfather Wilhelm Lück. He had come to Pennsylvania as an immigrant from Westphalia in 1765. He had fought in the American Revolutionary War under General George Washington. Wilhelm often told his grandson about the hardships he had endured while encamped in Valley Forge. He also passed on his admiration for Thomas Paine to James, the author of the pamphlet Common Sense, which justified the struggle for independence morally and politically. Lick was apprenticed to his father at thirteen. His carpentry workshop was a tough one, in which James's pieces were rejected until they were flawless. John Lick not only trained his son in the technical skills of furniture making, but also taught him how to use the artistic possibilities of the craft. When Lick was 21 years old, his girlfriend Barbara Snaveley was found to be pregnant. Lick asked her father, a miller, for permission to marry her. The latter refused, saying that Lick would not get his daughter's hand until he owned a mill as big and expensive as his own. To which Lick replied that he would one day own a mill, compared to which Snaveley's mill would resemble a pigsty. In June 1818 Barbara gave birth to a son, whom she named John Henry Lick. Lick got to see neither mother nor child.

Piano builder, 1819-1848

In early 1819, Lick left his native village and moved into the country in search of work. After working in different cities with varying degrees of success, he arrived in Baltimore after six months where he was apprenticed to a piano builder. A year later he moved to New York and opened his own piano workshop there. In 1821 he noticed that most of the pianos he built were being exported to South America. He decided to move to Buenos Aires to build a life there with his knowledge and skills.


Lick set sail from New York in August 1821. The journey went via the African west coast, where a cargo of