Juan Miguel Aguirre and Martina Labayen, Owners of the First Ostatu in the American West
Juan Miguel Aguirre was born on February 20, 1813 in Etxalar, Nafarroa. After serving on the losing side in the First Carlist War, Aguirre moved to Montevideo where he worked in the hide and tallow trade. Attracted by the news of gold that came from California, he and his wife, Martina Labayen booked passage in the Le Bon Père sailing ship. Six months later, on May 15, 1849, the couple arrived in San Francisco.i At least three other fellow Basques accompanied them in the trip: Juan Lasaga, Juan Garat and Florencio Eizaga.
Not many 49-ers decided to stay in San Francisco, but Aguirre did. He purchased a donkey, packed a wood barrel on each side of the pack animal and began transporting water from the Presidio area to the old downtown area of Dupont, Kearny and Clay Streets. He charged one dollar per bucket of water.ii As his business grew, Aguirre employed other Basque fellows to help him carry carts of water around the city. Juan Miguel Aguirre has been considered the forefather of San Francisco’s water system due to his clever water supply business.
When business took off, Aguirre began to invest in real estate. On the first piece of land, between what is now Grant Avenue and Ashburton Place.iii Juan Miguel built San Francisco’s first handball court at 2 Dupont Place. In 1866, the Aguirres began construction of the first Basque hotel in the city at 1312 Powell Street.iv Aguirre sent for his nephew Juan Miguel Arburua from Etxalar, Nafarroa to help him with the task. The 22-year-old set foot in San Francisco in June of 1866 and was immediately put to work by his uncle at a wage of $20 per month. The Aguirre Hotel was up and running within three months. In 1870, Martina sent for her niece Josefa Labayen from Areso, Nafarroa to help with general hotel duties. Juan Miguel Arburua and Josefa Labayen would end up getting married ten years later.
The Aguirre Hotel set the precedent for future Basque hotel operations. By 1870, besides offering lodging, the Aguirre Hotel served as an employment agency for Basque newcomers. A contemporary description suggests that the Aguirre’s place was the perfect employment agency, “There was a Basque hotel in the center of town, where California rancheros in need of help were sure to find quiet gentle men from the Pyrenees.”v
By the end of the century, Juan Miguel and Martina’s hotel had turned into the central gathering place for Basques residing in San Francisco, Alameda, Sonoma and San Jose counties. Later, it also became a vacation spot for Basques visiting from other parts of California or the West of the United States. The Aguirre Hotel continued to lodge and feed Basques for 40 more years until the 1906 San Francisco fire burned it to the ground. There are many factors that lead us to consider Juan Miguel and Martina Labayen Aguirre’s hotel to be the first Basque boardinghouse in the Western United States.
Echeverria, Jeronima (1999). Home Away from Home. A History of Basque Boardinghouses. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 68-69.
“Death Comes to Juan Miguel Aguirre…” San Francisco Call, September 2, 1897.
i Rockwell D. Hunt (1932). California and Californians, vol. 3. Lewia Publishing Company, Chicago, p.121.
ii Ibid.; and Arburua, Joseph. “Rancho Panocha de San Juan y los Carrizalitos”, manuscript, 1970, 16. Basque Studies Collection, -Jon Bilbao Library, University of Nevada, Reno, William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies.
iii Hunt, op. cit., 122.
iv Arburua, op. cit., 16-17.
v Anne B. Fisher (1945). The Salinas: Upside-Down River, Farrar and Rinehart, New York, 211. or.