Born in San Francisco, James Donovan came to Santa Clara following the 1906 earthquake at the age of nine and resided in this house the rest of his life. Orphaned young, he started hauling baggage from the railroad depot using a few dogs pulling a cart. Later, as a young man he earned enough money to buy a horse and progressed to weed plowing for the town and watering the trees lining the unpaved streets. Less than 5 ft. tall, he got the nickname "Cowboy Jim" from working as a cowhand on valley ranches. For decades, Jim was a familiar figure around Santa Clara dressed in cowboy attire, marching in all the town parades using his horse and wagon or goat cart to give children rides around the neighborhood.
Calling the city council meetings "the best entertainment in town," Cowboy Jim faithfully attended them for over 36 years. In September 1967, on his 70th birthday, the council declared "Cowboy Jim Donovan Day" in ceremonies held at a council meeting.