There are certainly plenty of ways to describe the Great Coronavirus Experience. “Unprecedented” springs to mind. There’s also Stressful. Lonely. Depressing. Ugh.
But flip that “half-empty” glass around and the times we’re living through are also pretty darn exciting: Medical advances at super-nova speed. Heart-warming fits, too – neighbors looking out for neighbors, strangers helping strangers. And how about inspiring – legions of doctors, nurses, truck drivers, cashiers and cops, working around the clock to keep us safe, fed, and healthy.
I don’t know about you, but thinking that way makes my glass feel pretty darn full.
It’s certainly a time in our lives we’ll never forget. We truly are “living through history.”
Unexpected as this has been, it’s a teach-able moment for all of us. It’s also a teach-able moment for those who’ll come after us. That means your memoir is a great vehicle to share not only experiences, but lessons, too.
What can you share to help the next generation – and the next – understand what living through this unprecedented time has been like? What have you learned? And even more important, what advice can you give them about how to cope?
Here are three Writing Prompts to get you started:
1. What little thing that you can’t enjoy right now do you miss the most? Maybe it’s going out to breakfast with your spouse. Maybe it’s telling jokes with the guys at work, now that everyone’s not working. Or perhaps it’s hugging a grandchild (okay, that’s a big thing, actually!)
2. What have you learned from not having those things? Maybe you’ve realized it wasn’t actually going out to breakfast that you miss; it’s sitting there holding hands. Maybe it’s not the jokes at work that were so important, it was the sense of camaraderie. Did you discover anything surprising by having those simple things disappear?
3.And now the million-dollar question: What’s helping you to cope, and might help others someday? Do you remind yourself “this too shall pass”? Does it help to turn off the TV and immerse yourself in a silly novel? What work-arounds and substitutes have you found? (Scrambling an egg at home and putting a flower on the dining table to recreate “breakfast out”? Skyping with a grandchild? Emailing jokes to the guys at work?)
What’s been the greatest source of help and support for you in these trying times? And who’s helped “fill your glass” and brought a smile to your face?
There you go — your Memoir Tips for the month!
Here’s to lifting spirits and sharing YOUR wisdom!
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Even from the street, this little bungalow at 990 N. Minnesota St. in Carson City looks like it was built with love. It’s called the Adams House. And today, it is the home of KNVC Radio. But just who was Adams? And what’s the house’s story?
Thanks to Sandie LaNae, I got to visit the Adams House and hear the story. Turns out whole lot of life has passed through these doors. And a little bit of death, too. Here’s the tale!
Turns out this century-old home wasn’t the first house on this property. Mining engineer John S. Phillips once had a farm house here. (Just imagine this residential section of Carson City, dotted with small farms!)
Phillips died after a tragic mining accident in 1909. By 1915, his widow had become so destitute she was forced to put their young children in the Orphan’s Home. She arranged to have the farmhouse itself moved to Mina, Nevada. And in May, 1922, she sold the now-empty town lot to DeWitt Adams, for a bit more than the back taxes.
Born in South Carolina in 1885, DeWitt had worked his way west when he was 13. About 1916, he married Carson City native Meta Anderson. At the time he purchased the property in 1922, DeWitt was working in a local hardware store. He and Meta would eventually have a total of six children: Jasper, Maurice, Margaret, Walter, Arthur (who died as an infant), and Robert.
With five kids and a wife, Adams wasted no time creating a home. Between 1922 and 1923, he built the present bungalow, largely with his own hands. Plans for the house may have been ordered from a catalog, or perhaps they were taken from a magazine of the day. Either way, it’s true Craftsman-era styling through and through, with features including built-in cabinets lovingly made by Adams himself. The family was in a hurry to enjoy their new home; they moved in even before it was totally finished. The house would remain in the Adams family for the next 75 years.
The Depression years were soon upon them. For extra spending money, DeWitt grew an extensive fruit and vegetable garden out back, and the family raised fryer chickens and sold eggs. “Seed money” from the sales was carefully tucked away in a small tin box, hidden in the warming-oven of the old kitchen woodstove. City water hadn’t yet arrived, so water for household use and the garden came from seven artesian wells right there on the property.
Meta passed away in June, 1930 at just 38 years old, from complications of childbirth. DeWitt finished raising their children alone, and never remarried. In later life, he left his job at the hardware store and worked for the state buildings and grounds department, retiring in 1956. He passed away in 1969, at the age of 84.
Even today, traces of the family’s life are still visible. The small front entryway once doubled as Meta’s sewing room. To the left is their living room, separated from the dining room by built-in bookshelves crafted by DeWitt himself. The old stained-wood wainscoting and rough plaster still remain, and the original milk glass light fixtures are suspended from the ceiling.
The dining room features a built-in china cabinet, also crafted by DeWitt himself. Although the old potbelly stove is gone, now, it was a central feature when the house was new, keeping the family warm as they sat around the dinner table.
Wood floors are featured throughout much the house, though Mrs. Adams likely accented them with colorful rugs. One warm example of a well-worn old rug remains in today’s radio studio (originally DeWitt and Meta’s bedroom). Old-fashioned linoleum in the kitchen and two children’s bedrooms gave those wood floors a durable, practical finish. The four boys shared a single bedroom adjacent to their parents. Daughter Margaret – the only girl – got her own bedroom at the back of the house.
The kitchen once featured a large wood-burning stove (the same one where the “seed money” got stashed), and a big freestanding sink. The home’s single bathroom – though included in the original plans – wasn’t functional until the late 1920s when an artesian well was dug to supply it with water.
At the rear of the house, a cold storage room was added in the 1930s, constructed of thick stone blocks originally hewn at the Nevada prison quarry. It features a sawdust-filled ceiling for insulation, and vents at floor level that could be opened or closed to regulate the inside temperature. A rear entryway and breakfast room were added about the same time.
Daughter Margaret never married. She stayed home and cared for her father in his waning years, and continued to live in the house until her own death in 1997.
The Adams house was purchased after Margaret’s death by Carson-Tahoe Hospital, which initially planned to raze it for additional parking. Thanks to efforts by preservation-minded community members, however, the Hospital Board was convinced to save the building.
Today it’s a living reminder of life in Carson City just a century ago – and the beauty that loving hands can build.
Many thanks to Sandie LaNae for the kind visit to the Adams House and the information for this story! Connect with her through her website, www.sandiespsychicstones.com.
So many folks are thinking of starting a garden this year, I thought our planting guide might be helpful. As you’ll see, these dates are ranges rather than hard-and-fast. But it’ll give you a rough idea of when to plant what if you’re here in our part of the Sierra!
Rick couldn’t wait to get started this year, so he planted our tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse a day or so earlier than our “April 1 to 15” window — but you’ll be right on time if you’re thinking of starting things now!
Here’s what the inside of our greenhouse looks like. Yeah, that’s a lot of tomatoes and peppers! And this isn’t all. There’s more pots on the opposite side of the greenhouse.
We’re at 5,500 feet on the Eastern Slope of the Sierra, so these dates are for our Zone 6 climate. That means we can expect our last frost between June 1-10 — the legendary “Mother’s Day Snow” is alive and well, here! But wherever you are, I hope this list will give you some ideas for your own garden this year.
Rick’s Garden Calendar:
Mar. 14 – 31 – Plant onions in the garden.
Mar. 15 – 21 – The “week when everything changes”! Makes total sense, as March 21st is the Spring Equinox. Pansies can be planted any time between now and mid-May.
Mar. 25 – First leaves typically appear on our aspen trees.
Mar. 15 – 31 – Time to clean out flower beds. Lawns will be mostly green by now, and ornamental willow trees will have a “green haze” at the top.
Mar. 22 – 30 – Start flower seeds in the greenhouse: bachelor button, coreopsis; snapdragon; marigolds; Chinese forget-me-nots; bluebells; larkspur.
Mar. 20 – April 20 – Keep an eye on the asparagus! You’ll be able to harvest fresh shoots now.
End of March – Expect lots of wind, even some snow flurries.
April 1 – Lilacs have nearly-open buds and the first green leaves will begin to appear on the aspens. The entire month of April tends to be cold, windy, rainy, cloudy, and it may even snow 2-3 times. In between those episodes, however, it will be sunnier (if still cold). Trees are starting to come out.
April 1 – 15 – Plant tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse.
April 21 – 26 – The weather is gorgeous, but unpredictable! End-of-April snowstorms are still possible.
May runs 40 to 70 degrees. Lawns will be green!
May 7 – 14 – Leaves start appearing on the grapevines.
May 25 – The “perfect flower week,” when our columbine and other flowers are at their showy peak.
May 31 – Count on our annual “Memorial Day Snow” sometime near the end of May.
June 21 – Summer Solstice.
July 8 – 23 – Time to begin saving columbine, lupine, and other flower seeds for next year.
July 8 – Freeze basil and cilantro.
July 12 – Aug 15 – Pick currants.
July 27 – Aug 18 – First tomatoes are ready for eating! And pick the peaches!
Aug. 6 – Trim dead blooms from columbine and giant lupine, leaving only the still-green leaves.
Aug. 15 – Nights are getting cooler.
Aug. 15 – 31 – Time to put up tomatoes. Save seeds from dried snow pea pods.
Late Aug – Sept 10 – Pick grapes; finish up last of the tomatoes. Apples will be looking tempting but it’s still too early for Jonathan and Gala varieties to be fully ripe.
Sept 9 – Aspens are beginning to turn; the sun is just starting to come up at 6:30 a.m.
Sept 21 – Fall Equinox.
Sept 23 – It’s getting cold enough to start a fire. Time to finish gathering the last of the seeds and begin thinking about next year’s garden.
I’m not normally a baker. But ohhh, these muffins! Something really good did come out of being stuck at home, trying to use up what’s in our freezer!
This recipe started out using canned pumpkin as the base. Then a light bulb went off. We’ve got all this frozen fruit put away! How about using up some of that great fruit from our garden?!
There’s no oil and no white sugar, just dates and stevia for sweetness. And instead of white flour (which is in sort supply these days), it uses whole wheat flour, almond flour and oats. Luckily, we already had all these alternatives on hand.
Preheat oven to 360 degrees. Grease two muffin tins and set them aside.
Measure 3/4 cup of uncooked dry oats into blender and whirr on high until it becomes a fine flour. Add the oat flour to a large metal bowl.
To your now-empty blender, add:
1 c. almond milk
1 Tb. chia seed
12 dates (I always cut them in half just to check for any overlooked pits!)
Blend well, the add the milk/date mix to the metal bowl. Also add:
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. almond flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 Tb. stevia
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 c. walnut pieces
Final step: add approx. 2 cups of pureed fruit. (Measure the fruit before puree-ing in the blender). This is a great use for frozen peaches! Just defrost slightly and then pop them in the blender. If you don’t have frozen fruit, you can substitute one (1) 15-oz can of plain pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling). Or use 1-3/4 c. unsweetened applesauce.
Tip: I add a handful of frozen blackberries to the batter, straight from the freezer. That lets them retain a bit of their shape and taste.
Mix well, and spoon into muffin tins. Bake for 35 minutes, until top edges are browned.
First, of course, came early game trails and Indian footpaths. When the Spaniards arrived, their carreta roads made use of those same rough tracks. They’d follow the route of today’s Temple Street north through what we now call Hollywood to reach Cahuenga Pass. Then it was onward to San Fernando, crossing the foothills at Newhall and up San Francisquito Canyon before veering east to Elizabeth Lake. Eventually the rude track emerged from the mountains at Quail Lake and Gormon Station, then dropped down Canada de Las Uvas (Grapevine Canyon) to reach the plains of San Joaquin Valley.
For Episcopal bishop William L. Kip, who undertook that journey to tend souls at Fort Tejon in 1855, it was a four-day ordeal by mule-drawn wagon. By 1858 the speedy Butterfield Overland stage reportedly was able to cut the time from L.A. to Tejon to a speedy 32-1/2 hours, though passengers would have arrived considerably jostled by the experience.
The road itself remained a twisty dirt path well past 1900. Early Gorman settler Mary Ralphs described the trip by horse-drawn buggy from Gorman to Bakersfield as a day-and-a-half journey. In the opposite direction, to L.A., the trip took two days plus, broken up by layovers at Lake Elizabeth and Newhall. And the difficulties weren’t limited to just the hours and the dirt and the bumping. No, that old road also required fording a creek close to sixty times, according to Bakersfield historian Lawrence Weill.
But that was the old wagon days. And then came the automobile!
One of the earliest motorized journeys along the old wagon road – gleefully reported by the Bakersfield Californian in April, 1903 – was that of adventurers T.E. Baker and F. Hughes, who accomplished their 150-mile drive from L.A. to “Kern City” in 31 hours’ driving time – miraculously, “without one single breakdown.” A heavier-footed motorist with the inauspicious name of Jackson Graves ventured over the same primitive dirt road in the summer of 1911, spanning the distance from Saugus to Bakersfield in a mere 12 hours.
By then, the motoring public had become a large enough lobbying group that even the government began to take notice. When a three-person California Highway Commission was formed in 1911 (a branch of the Department of Engineering), one of their primary missions was creation of an auto-worthy road between Los Angeles and the fertile, oil-rich San Joaquin Valley — preferably by a more direct route than the long, leisurely, easterly jog of the old wagon road.
Surveys for just such a new highway were ordered on January 25, 1912 and actual surveying began the following September, led by engineer W. Lewis Clark. For the next eighteen months, with mules carrying their equipment, the survey party hacked and chopped their way through some of the most survey-inhospitable landscape imaginable.
“[C]linging to the precipitate walls of canyons where no pack mule could keep his feet, across ravines and along the crests of the mountains, the surveyors fixed their stakes, and, link by link, laid the lines along which this mighty highway should run,” as a 1916 California Highway Bulletin later enthused.
Once that preliminary survey was completed, a few months of wrangling followed over the best route. And, of course, real money was needed to actually build the new road.
Luckily, series of state road bonds had already been issued, beginning in 1909 with enabling legislation for an $18 million bond issue (which became effective on December 31, 1910 after voters approved). Despite bearing favorable interest rates of four and five percent, those bonds found few at first. They “have not been readily salable,” a newspaper column confessed in February, 1913.
That hurdle was finally surmounted by assuring bond purchasers that road construction would begin in the county with the most bond purchases. Voila! L.A. financiers quickly snapped up some $270,000 worth of bonds. Work on the new Tejon route was finally ready to begin!
A second bond measure, passed by the Legislature in 1915 and quickly ratified by the voters, kicked in December 31, 1916, adding another $15 million to the state’s road-building coffers. And a third bond issue was approved at a special election July 1, 1919 – authorizing a whopping $40 million more. Yes, the new automobile-owning public was all for better roads!
Grading for what was initially termed the Tejon Route (soon more popularly dubbed the “Ridge Route”) began on Sept 22, 1914. A second stage of the grading contract was let that December. And just a year later, once the fills had been given a few weeks to settle, the new roadway was finally “thrown open to travel” in October, 1915.
Where once there had been only mountains and sage, depressions and gullies, a neatly-graded, freshly-oiled roadway now opened its arms to eager travelers. The brand new road became “instantly popular with the motoring public.” Total length: 30 miles. Total width: 24-feet of graded road bed. Cost for grading: $450,000.
In place of grades once as monumental as 20 percent, the new Ridge Route touted much gentle slopes said to be no greater than six percent. That benign figure, however, may have been measured only by the eye of a friendly beholder rather than by instrument. In real life, a few grades still reached a fairly steep seven percent. But even those were a big improvement over the old wagon route.
The new oil-graded Ridge Route was indeed an engineering marvel. And the feat was accomplished almost exclusively by manpower and mule-drawn Fresno scrapers. A steam-shovel and dynamite were used only on a single especially difficult cut (known as the “Big Cut” or “Culebra Cut”). And that particular undertaking moved an astonishing million cubic yards of earth and rock.
As the road left the mountains on the north, engineers nixed the notion of simply paving over the original old wagon track down Grapevine Canyon. For one thing, that early wagon road included onerous 20% grades. Simple observation also convinced them that leaving the roadway in the belly of the canyon would mean constant erosion from spring rains and snow runoff.
Instead, the road-builders decided to loop the new roadway across the hillsides in a series of gentle bends that moderated the drop and weren’t as prone to erosion. The result was a series of sweeping, swooping curves across the foothills of Grapevine Canyon. They made for many accidents. But also for many dramatic photos.
With its much-welcomed opening in 1915, the newly-graded Ridge Route now cut 24 miles off the distance between LA and Bakersfield compared to the old Bouquet Canyon route – and saved more than twice that versus the Tehachapi road.
The Ridge Route was, they said, southern California’s magnum opus in mountain highway construction. And the scenery was magnificent. As the S.F. Chronicle enthused in 1916, the new road traverses “the wildest of southern California mountain country, a section previously known to only a few ranchers and oil companies.”
A contemporary California Highway Bulletin offered a similarly glowing description:
“Enraptured by the panoramic beauty of the scenery at every dip and turn of the road, the traveler is lulled into happy forgetfulness of the fact that but a few brief seasons since where he now rides in cushioned and upholstered luxury, mountain goats and coyotes monopolized the solitudes of these perpendicular canyon walls and mountain ledges.”
Magnificent views there might have been. But a driver’s attention really needed to be glued to the roadway. Estimates varied of the number of twists and turns in the new route. One viewer counted a total 697 turns, which taken together represented a dizzying 110 complete circles. Written on the back of the an early postcard was another motorist’s own computation: “1200 turns in 20 miles”!
Many were the stomachs that didn’t appreciate all that twisting and turning.
Something had to give. And within a very few years, it did.
(Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Story of the Ridge Route!)
New beginnings? We’ve all had them. In fact, life is always starting anew, it seems. And not just when we’re young!
Maybe you recently retired – and a whole new vista has opened up: Time to travel. Time to sew or read. Time to just explore what you can do and who you might be without the confines of a job.
And think back: Going off to college, or clocking in that first day of a new job. The birth of a child. Getting married and jumping off into a whole new life as a couple. Or how about a big move? To a new town, a new place, or a new house. Yes, those were all fresh starts, too!
Take a minute to remember all new beginnings you’ve had your life. (You’ll probably find it’s a long list!) Who were you, back then? What were you excited about as you started something new? What fears did you have? Did things turn out as you expected? Or did the river of “real life” sweep you off to somewhere totally unexpected?
This month, I wanted to share three fun writing prompts
to get you thinking (and hopefully writing) about your own fresh starts in life!
Remember a time when you found yourself in a new physical space. What did you do to embrace this change? What steps did you take to get comfortable and make this fresh place yours? How did you personalize your dorm room or your first apartment? Did you plant anything special in the yard at your first home? What did you hang on the wall at a new job? Did you bring a special mug to work or add a favorite picture to your desk?
Now think about the ways you have personalized your space at home right now – things that make you feel especially good to look at; things that remind you of what you love and who you are. Maybe it’s plants or family photos. Maybe it’s an antique that used to belonged to someone special. Perhaps it’s a favorite pen or coffee cup for your desk. Or simply shells you picked up on the beach. What do those things say about you? How do they reflect what you care about?
Finally, share what you’ve learned from the transitions and “new beginnings” in your life. Maybe you found that taking things slow made the transition much more manageable. Or perhaps you adored the adventure of jumping in with both feet and figuring things out as you went. What would you tell a child or a grandchild who was fearful of starting something new? And what stories are you eager to share about one of your most memorable new beginnings?
There you go! Your Memoir prompts for this month!
Hope you’ve enjoyed them. Please drop me a line on Facebook
and keep me posted on how your memoir is going!
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The sign on the outside used to read “Perry’s Dry Goods.” And locals today still smile when they remember Frank Perry, a short, wiry Basque known for his charming mustache and his wide range of Western wear.
But Perry, as it turns out, wasn’t actually his real name. At birth it was Yparraguirre. “Perry” was just shorter. And much easier to spell.
Even today, the tall, narrow building that once housed Perry’s Dry Goods (1448 Highway 395) still draws your eye. That high, false wooden front stretches an imposing two stories in the air — yet from the side it’s so narrow it seems half the building went missing.
In the rear, that towering front slumps down to merge with a squat, unassuming cottage. (Looks like nothing important back there, right? Spoiler alert: Its history may be even cooler than the front!)
The history of this quirky edifice — arguably Gardnerville’s coolest building — is also the story of Frank Yparraguirre (aka Perry), of course. And before him, Ole Haugner, the shopkeeper who occupied it in earlier days. Together, these two early residents peddled wares within these walls — day after day, year after year — for nearly a century.
So, read on for Frank Yparraguirre’s story. Part 2 will go back even further in time to share Haugner’s own tale. Along the way you’ll discover how this “coolest” building got its strange shape. And we’ll share two secrets about this quirky structure that almost nobody knows today!
Here’s the Backstory on Frank Perry:
Frank’s father (Francisco Yparraguirre) emigrated from Echalar, Spain at the tender age of 13, in 1876. He made his way to San Francisco, where an older brother already owned a hotel at the corner of Powell and Broadway (naturally enough, named the Yparraguirre Hotel).
Like so many young Basques, Frank Sr. found employment as a sheepherder. The succeeding years took him all over California and Nevada, from Six-Mile Canyon near Elko to Monitor Pass, California, tending sheep. Eventually about 1886, Frank and his brothers pooled their resources and purchased a section of land in the Sweetwaters. There, Frank served as proprietor of a 32-room hotel serving travelers on the road to Bodie and Aurora.
Finally secure enough to think about a family, Frank Sr. got married about 1901. And in 1903, Frank Jr. (yes, our Gardnerville “Perry”) was born at the family hotel in San Francisco.
In his early years, Frank Jr. grew up on his family’s ranch in the Sweetwaters, finally starting school in San Francisco belatedly at the age of ten. He proved to be a good student, however. He caught on quickly and graduated with his age-mates in 1921. For a time, he returned to work on the family ranch. But a pair of ranching accidents left him with a broken ankle and two broken clavicles. A recession and downturn in the sheep business also made the young man think, “Well, maybe I don’t belong on a ranch.”
Frank Jr. moved to Gardnerville about 1924. His first job was for Standard Oil Co.; then he did a seven-year stint with the Minden Merc. But finally, in August, 1939, he determined to leap into business for himself. He opened a small dry goods store in a rented building just south of the Corner Saloon (today’s Sharkey’s) — and “Perry’s” was born.
Here Fate stepped in to shuffle up the deck of Life. Ole Haugner, long-time proprietor of a shoe store just up the street, had just lost his wife in May, 1939. And that following March, 1940, Ole too gave up the ghost and, at the age of 85, followed his wife into the Great Beyond.
After more than forty years of service for Haugner’s shoe business, the tall, two-story building just up the street offered a perfect spot for the new Perry’s dry goods store. The location was well-known. And there’d be far more room for inventory.
Frank Yparraguirre cut a deal with the Haugner heirs, eventually purchasing the building in 1949. And that tall, two-story former shoe store location became what locals would know as Perry’s Dry Goods for some 49 years.
“Be “Be Practical! Give a Practical Gift!” was the caption for this Christmas ad for Perry’s Dry Goods in 1941, not long after he opened. (Record-Courier, December 12, 1941).
Cool as it was on the outside, Perry’s new dry goods building came with an even cooler history. There was the story of Ole Haugner himself, the enterprising Norwegian emigrant who arrived in Gardnerville in 1897 and spent more than 40 years making shoes right here.
And that unimpressive single-story cottage in the back? Well, here’s the first little-known “secret”: it reportedly was once the home of John Gardner (after whom the town of Gardnerville was named), and had been moved from the original Gardner Ranch to this location!
There’s way more to the story — but we’ll stop here for now. Stay tuned next time for more of the story of Haugner, Perry, and Gardnerville’s Coolest Building!
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He always carried a Colt .45 under that natty suit jacket. “Irish-stubborn” about business, he was filled with exuberance, too. Over the years he founded half-dozen saloons and gambling halls from Kingman to the Klondike. Yet he didn’t drink or gamble (or so, at least, his family said).
Meet Thomas O’Brien, little-known proprietor of the legendary Lebec Hotel from 1913 to 1931 – and an amazing rags-to-riches-to-rags story!
Born in Ashland, Kentucky in 1869, Tom O’Brien’s life got off to a rocky start. In 1884, his father drowned while fishing in the nearby Ohio River. Tom was fifteen at the time. And his mother now had five father-less children on her hands.
Tom, the eldest, struck out on his own. He found a job on a railroad, dutifully sending part of each paycheck home to help support his younger siblings. Some say he worked his way up to become the youngest engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad. Others say that was pure puffery; he simply ran a saloon “on the side” to bring in extra money.
However he made it, the money was good. O’Brien continued on west to Bakersfield, arriving about 1899 – just as the astonishing Kern River Oil Field was discovered.
By now in his early 30s, O’Brien recognized opportunity when he saw it. With his younger brother, he invested in Elk Hills oil leases. He also opened a saloon known as “The Louvre” at 18th and K Streets, which became known for its paintings, stuffed animals, and “Orchestrion.” And oh yes, prize-fights.
Now awash in cash, O’Brien apparently financed a saloon in the booming Klondike, too.
About 1906, he tried his hand at a slightly different venture, opening the “Empire” vaudeville theater in Bakersfield. Although he didn’t know it at the time, that theater enterprise would eventually bring him a wife — in the form of Cowee Erskine, an opera singer who performed there for a time with Al Jolson.
O’Brien and Cowee Erskine were married at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in February, 1911. Son Thomas Erskine O’Brien arrived that December.
But the high-energy O’Brien wasn’t ready to stop there. In 1913 he purchased 11,500 acres in Lebec. This remote outpost included a thick-walled adobe home and a crude store. The early dirt Ridge Route which ran by its front door wasn’t even oiled yet.
O’Brien quickly tacked on a large dining room and added 25 small cabins in the rear. And voila: the “Hotel Lebec” was open for the traveling public. Wife Cowee was said to be not thrilled when O’Brien insisted in moving there with their two-year-old son.
Situated some 82 miles from Los Angeles and 42 miles away from Bakersfield, the site wasn’t exactly convenient to anything – hence the need for a hotel, he reasoned. O’Brien touted local hunting and fishing opportunities, and claimed to offer “every service.” To attract tourists, he advertised Sunday chicken dinners. He also ran cattle on his large ranch nearby.
By 1915 the Ridge Route had finally been oiled, and in 1919, it had been sturdily paved in concrete. The traveling public could reach O’Brien’s mountaintop resort much more easily. And soon he was working on even bigger ideas, adding a general store, lunch room and garage.
Even that wasn’t enough dreaming for the high-spirited O’Brien, however. By spring of 1920, there were reports of a planned “Class A” hotel. Thanks to financing provided by the Durant family, it was to be called the Hotel Durant. (Russell “Cliff” Durant was nominally involved, but the deep pocket actually belonged to his father, auto magnate W.C. Durant.) Thomas O’Brien, of course, was a partner in the new hotel venture.
A blazing headline in the Bakersfield Morning Echo of October, 1920 noted an astonishing $200,000 price tag for the “fireproof” hotel project. A giant barbecue was held for the laying of the cornerstone that November. The hotel’s split-wing design was said to be the creation of Maury I. Diggs, a brilliant but scandal-dogged San Francisco architect who would later design the Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields racetracks.
O’Brien, as always, spun magnificent plans. There would be an “aviation field,” a man-made lake for fishing and boating, a golf course, and of course hunting in the nearby hills – creating a “mountain resort with its own amusements.”
The design for the hotel included 80 guest rooms, plus a ballroom and billiard room. Drapes were sky-blue. There was a “modern” electric plant, plus steam heat. And oh yes, telephones in every room. Out back were 24 separate bungalows, each with cooking facilities.
The hotel opened with a bang. But by the following year, 1922, trouble was already brewing. The national Teapot Dome scandal wiped out O’Brien’s oil interests. And his hotel partnership with “Cliff” Durant quickly fell apart.
In October, 1922, Durant’s hotel interest was bought out by Foster Curry, of Yosemite fame. Curry also purchased the store, restaurant and garage from O’Brien. The hotel was now “Curry’s Lebec Lodge.”
But a year later, a fresh disaster appeared. This time it was a devastating fire, which on November 4, 1923 wiped out the garage, store, restaurant, and several cabins. Some say the flames broke out in the restaurant; others say it was a grease fire that started in the shop. Either way, O’Brien is rumored to have blamed Curry for not preventing it. The only lucky part of the whole ordeal: the hotel itself managed to escape unscathed.
By the following June (1924) O’Brien and Curry were duking out their differences in court. O’Brien claimed Curry owed him $150,000 worth of payments on O’Brien’s mortgage. Curry claimed O’Brien had induced him to undertake the mortgage by fraud.
Yet another investor now arrived for the game of musical chairs: Jack Wooley, a saloon owner from Oakland, acquired Curry’s interest as part of a settlement agreement with Curry in December, 1924. The name of the hotel would be changed once again, back to “Hotel Lebec.”
One year after the fire, and mere days after the Curry lawsuit was settled, a third disaster struck: O’Brien’s wife Cowee was killed December 21, 1924 while on a Christmas shopping expedition with two lady friends from Lebec. According to the family, the driver of the big touring car was unable to brake in time at a railroad crossing. The car went into a skid and struck a ditch; Cowee was thrown out and landed on the tracks. She died instantly.
Somehow, Thomas O’Brien persevered. He rebuilt the burned-down buildings, this time a rock structure known for years as the Lebec Coffee Shop. Included were a bar, post office, store, and a Richfield gas station/garage.
Despite the many tragedies that O’Brien endured, the ‘20s were good years financially for the hotel. Movies were being made in the nearby hills, with cast and crew from Los Angeles putting up at the hotel. It’s said that movie stars would sometimes sneak away from Los Angeles, too, for a quiet weekend rendezvous.
Prohibition – lasting from January 1920 until he end of 1933 – may have been good for hotel business, too. Just before the new dry laws went into effect, Tom O’Brien is said to have sent a truck all the way to San Francisco to to pick up a huge supply of liquor from a brother-in-law. Forty cases of that liquor disappeared in August, 1925, however, when purported “government agents” arrived at the hotel and “held up” partner Wooley.
New partner Wooley had had enough; he sold his interest in the hotel that same week to O’Brien for about $50,000.
Two years after losing Cowee, O’Brien married Gemma Ann Martina on Christmas Day, 1926. Son Thomas E. was sent off to a private school in Carpinteria – riding over the mountains on horseback with a cowboy, to get there!
O’Brien was able to find a new buyer for his hotel and adjacent land in November, 1927 – this time for the mind-boggling sum of $400,000. The purchaser was an L.A. corporation known as Sales Development Company. Things were looking rosy again.
And then, the Great Depression hit.
O’Brien was unable to make his payments on a debt to Richfield Oil. Meanwhile Richfield was in financial turmoil of its own, with a president/general manager indicted for embezzlement. The company called in O’Brien’s note.
The O’Brien family was forced to leave Lebec in 1931. Son Thomas E.’s final poignant glimpse was captured in a photo he snapped from the back window of the car, showing his pet horse “Dick” grazing on the pasture in front of the hotel.
O’Brien and his family settled in a grand old Victorian house at 2028 – 17th Street, Bakersfield. He hadn’t quite lost everything; son Thomas E. remembered a Steinway grand piano that adorned the formal front room. Family members helped Thomas to purchase a restaurant on the west side of Chester, between 18th and 19th. But perhaps his heart was no longer in it. The restaurant venture didn’t last too long. By 1933 O’Brien had been forced to declare bankruptcy.
As for the Lebec Hotel, it changed hands multiple times in the years after O’Brien had left. In 1936, the hotel, coffee shop and 2,000 acres were sold for just $79,000. In 1938 the hotel changed hands again, this time for $100,000. In 1948, it was sold for $190,000, then $300,000 in 1955.
The Lebec Hotel closed its doors for good in March, 1969. Now empty, the once-grand hotel became an attractive nuisance with uninvited visitors starting warming fires. It was finally burned to the ground by then-owner Tejon Ranch on April 27, 1971.
And what became of the O’Briens? Well, the exuberant, tenacious Thomas O’Brien died of a stroke at 1117 “H” Street, Bakersfield on March 14, 1942 at age 73. He is buried at Bakersfield’s Union Cemetery.
“He was stubborn. Perhaps if he’d been a bit more humble, he might have made out better,” his grandson would later say. “He died without a cent in his pockets.”
And son Thomas E., the little boy in the photograph? He became a welder, helping to build Liberty Ships at Terminal Island during W.W. II. Like his mother Cowee, he loved to sing. In later years, he joined barbershop choruses. He especially loved singing “vintage” arrangements like the ones he had heard as a child at the old Lebec Hotel.
Family information for this story was provided in June, 1993 by grandson Michael O’Brien (son of Thomas E.) and cousins Buzz and Jean Laird. Michael O’Brien died on April 2, 1998 just five years after I had the privilege of interviewing him.