Gardnerville’s Coolest Building (Part 1)

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.

Frank Yparraguirre with his trademark smile. Perry’s Dry Goods sold Western wear, ranch clothing, and of course men’s hats. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society).

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!

Francisco (Frank Sr.) and Marie Yparraguirre at their Sweetwater Ranch (Ancestry.com).

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.

Frank Yparraguirre holds forth inside his well-stocked dry goods store. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society).

“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!

Love Carson Valley history? Check out our new book — 33 forgotten tales about people, buildings, buried treasure and more!

The Forgotten Story Behind the Lebec Hotel: Thomas O’Brien

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!

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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.

Bakersfield oil derrick during the boom. (Dustman collection.)

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.

Thomas O’Brien’s “Louvre” (Bar, Cafe and Billiards) in Bakersfield, at the corner of 19th and K Streets.

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.

Thomas O’Brien, left, with son Thomas E. At right is Bakesfield City Marshal Bert Tibbet with son Harry. (Circa 1913).

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.

The adobe Hotel Lebec (left portion) with attached lunch room. (Dustman collection)

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.

Sunday chicken dinners were a “thing” at O’Brien’s roadside stop in Lebec. (1913 Oct 31 Bakersfield Californian ad).

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.

Andrew Kingsbury, a retired motorman from L.A. and local “character,” is shown crossing the street in front of O’Brien’s store. Visible in the distance are the grill and lunchroom, 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.

Advertisement for the Hotel Durant, May 8, 1921.

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.

A 1923 postcard of Curry’s Lebec Lodge (Dustman collection)

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.

Lots in Lebec were selling for $150 to $375 in 1924. (June 12, 1924 Bakersfield Californian)

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.”

Hotel Lebec (Dustman collection)

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.

The rock Lebec Coffee Shop complex. (Dustman collection).

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.

Travelers on the Ridge Route in the ’20s. (Dustman collection).
The Ridge Route. (Dustman collection).

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.

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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.

Thomas O’Brien’s family in happier days. At far left is Thomas O’Brien’s mother, Mary; his wife Cowee is lower right, seated on a rock. (Circa 1918.)

From Tragedy to Inspiration: How Writing a Memoir Can Be Healing

Q&A With Author Jodi Graber Pratt:

Imagine being just a few yards away from the World Trade Center the morning of September 11, 2001. Hearing the first of two planes fly directly over your head. Running for your life as pieces of concrete and other building materials rained down around you.

Author Jodi Graber Pratt takes you there, in her new memoir: In Its Shadow: A 9/11 Memoir.  It’s anguishing to feel it yourself, through Jodi’s clear prose. But it’s also a surprisingly hopeful book. Because from her own struggles to make sense of such a life-altering experience, Jodi  asks us to think about what we as a country can learn from the 9/11 tragedy — and how we can build on America’s most positive traits and values.

Jodi kindly agreed to share her memoir-writing journey with other would-be memoir writers here! Hope it’s fuel for your fire — to encourage you to finish your own memoir!

Jodi Graber Pratt’s new book, In Its Shadow: A 9/11 Memoir, on Amazon.com books (Associates link).

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1.      What was process you went through to write a book about your experiences? Did you start journaling about the experience right away? 

Actually, I didn’t intend to write a book initially. It wasn’t until a couple of years after 9/11 that I started writing about it, as therapy to help me reclaim full-function of my brain. At first, it was just random flashes that I tried to capture, which helped me start to process the experience. Over the course of several years, they evolved into a journal. Then the journal became an example of my writing style for a writing seminar instructor, who encouraged me to develop it into a book for publication.

2.      What hurdles did you face in writing your book, and how did you overcome them? Was the experience itself something that was hard to write about, at first? What kept you from quitting when it got hard?

Initially, trying to allow the memories to come to the surface was difficult; I had been beating them down so viciously for the first two years, they were shy in exposing themselves again. And I didn’t have a regular writing schedule; career and personal obligations did not allow for much uninterrupted quiet time. That’s partly the reason it took so long to get to the journal stage; it was often months between quality writing sessions.

But writing comes naturally to me; when asked to communicate, I’d rather write than talk. That’s not to say the perfect words fall in precisely the right order as soon as my fingers touch the keypad; I usually find myself writing and rewriting many drafts before I’m satisfied to share a draft with anyone, even for a first review. But I enjoy the process, so I never felt like quitting. Nevertheless, I often felt very frustrated that I couldn’t write faster. I was anxious to get to that stage where I started feeling good about it.

3.      Did you have a specific reader in mind for your book? Are you taking any specific marketing steps to reach your readers that could be helpful for other writers to think about? 

I didn’t have a specific audience in mind at first; it was just for me, to help me – finally! – process what I had witnessed and come to terms with it. Once it had become a journal and I decided I was going to share it with friends and family, I wanted it to be as accurate and honest as I could possibly make it. I wanted the reader to be able to feel like they had been in my shoes, experiencing it first-hand. I was pleased when some of my beta-reader comments included, “Your experience is now indelibly linked with mine,” “I was right there with you,” and “It had me in tears but I couldn’t stop reading.” That told me I had found the right words.

Since this is my first writing effort, I’m only now developing my author’s platform,” which I’m learning is extremely important. As a more introverted person, my approach leans heavily on written opportunities (e.g., blogging, trying to reach influential people for reviews that can be “flaunted” for PR purposes, applying to award programs (with fingers crossed), trying to place op-ed pieces, doing book giveaways). And reaching out to my state and federal public servants is definitely on my short list for marketing purposes. I hope to help to contribute to the effort to raise awareness of the importance of voting mindfully, looking for ethical, wise and capable candidates who understand and value our founding ideals and will model how to fulfill them, both domestically and nationally. And, of course, make it a priority to cast your own vote, no matter what the polls are saying.

4.      You’ve said that you hope your book contributes to a discussion of ways to “nourish both prosperity and morality for all.” How is your book a vehicle for that?

In recent decades, I believe we have returned to old, aristocratic economic models, where only a small fraction of the population enjoys great wealth and the benefits that come with it. At the same time, less and less of our combined profits “trickle down” to the hundreds of millions of people whose efforts – while individually small – together keep this country among the most creative, productive and successful in the world.

Our founders have left so us much information to learn from. On this issue, my favorite (so far) is Benjamin Franklin, born into a poor family (15th of 17 children from his father) in the early 1700s. He had to work hard to become successful. And when he felt he had earned “enough,”  he turned his excess resources to encouraging and enabling others, and investing his time and money in improving America socially and politically. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he held himself accountable for his mistakes and took responsibility for them (e.g., recognizing and providing for an illegitimate child). Sharing generously from his bounty made him no less able to enjoy the comforts of life until his death.

That’s a great model for American Capitalism. I believe our most privileged citizens should be expected to share a portion of their bounty with society. Each generation needs to be responsible to prepare for the next, always nurturing and encouraging talent no matter where in society it exists, giving it wide berth to fully develop for the benefit of all society.

5.      What do you hope readers will take away from your book the most?

No matter how “civilized” and past barbarism we think we are, the veil between peace and disaster is razor-thin. The only thing protecting us is the vigilance, dedication, intelligence, wisdom and vision of our leaders. When our government loses its focus on its most important function – to keep America safe and at peace, within itself and with all other nations – the “American Experiment” (i.e., our democratic system) fails.

We choose our leaders through our votes and our voices. We are responsible to select the best, brightest, most wise, most disciplined and most ethical individuals among us to represent and serve us, and we must hold them accountable to honor our trust in them.

6.      What advice can you give other memoir writers? What helped you that might be surprising, for example?

Naps. Learn the value of taking naps. When I’ve been struggling with particularly challenging section for a while that I just can’t seem to get a handle on, I take a nap. When I wake up, a clear direction usually pops into my mind. I think it has something to do with releasing the “creative” part of our brains from the filtering of the “logical” part of our brains,which happens through sleep. This book represents a huge number of naps!

So there you go! Hope Jodi’s kind words encourage you to finish your own memoir! 

Check out Jodi Graber Pratt’s website at www.InItsShadow.com. And find her inspiring new release on Amazon.com books (Amazon Associates link).

Lexington: The Long-Lost Treasure Of A Long-Lost Town

It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, 1886 – December 3rd, to be exact. “Colonel” Alonzo Winfield Scott Smith was out exploring the back country of eastern Ventura County, near the confluence of Piru and Lockwood Creeks.

And some might say it was a Christmas miracle: Voilà! Smith stumbled across a “lost” gold mine. Or maybe it was a silver mine. Maybe it was both.

In any event, as Col. Smith gleefully told the tale, this “lost” (now found) mine had been dug by the Spanish padres. The mine’s entrance (he said) was cleverly concealed, hidden by cottonwoods deliberately planted to hide the tunnel’s mouth. Bolstering the seriousness of his discovery (so he claimed) were remnants of an old mining smelter. And for those who might still be dubious, Smith turned up a “silver brick” – or, as later stories would describe it, a one-pound “ancient Jesuit silver spike.” (Spikes made out silver? Well, who knows. Perhaps silver spikes were a “thing” back then.)

The Piru Mining District, where Smith claimed to have made these astonishing discoveries, had long been the focus of “lost mine” tales. There were indeed rumors, even before Smith, that the Spanish padres once mined there. Assorted tales were spun about an elderly Native American named Tecuya who’d worked in the mine for the padres and supposedly spilled pieces of the tale – despite a vow of secrecy and a deadly curse on anyone who shared the mine’s location. Some described ingots stacked up like cordwood. An unnamed prospector once arrived at Fort Tejon (it was said) with a “sack” full of gold. How could you not love such fables?!

The townsite of Lexington was west of I-5 and south of Frazier Park, in eastern Ventura County, at Lockwood Flat (circled, center left). (Sec15, T7N, Range 19W). The survey for the townsite commenced at the nearby section corner and ambitiously encompassed 560 acres.

Long before Col. Smith put in his appearance, traces of placer gold actually had been found in the Piru Creek area. Some sources even claimed gold was found at Piru 11 years earlier than John Marshall’s famous mill-race discovery! In 1871, a good 15 years before Smith wandered out there, a heap of ore at Piru was thought to include both silver and gold – though a later investigation debunked the report. Apparently there was enough substance to the rumors of placer gold, however, that a four-mile ditch was completed in May, 1876 to bring water to would-be Piru miners.

A 4-mile ditch brought water to the Piru placer miners in 1876. (Los Angeles Herald, May 25, 1876.)

And then Col. Smith arrived on the scene in the winter of 1886. Some described Col. Smith as “affable”; the Kern County Echo (perhaps a bit more honestly) called him a “queer character.” But Smith was just the type you’d expect to be intrigued by “lost mine” tales.

“[T]horoughly conversant with the mines of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado,” as one newspaper put it, Smith claimed he hade 14 years of mining experience under his belt. His previous mining travels reportedly had taken him as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico, Chile, and Peru. In addition to whatever mining chops he may have accrued, Smith may also have picked up tips for a mining scam or two. As recently as June, 1886 (less than six months before his miraculous mine “discovery” at Piru), A.W. Smith “of Campo” was exhibiting a sample of ore from a newly-discovered mine in San Diego – one which Smith’s buddy enthusiastically claimed “will astonish the unbelievers.”

Following the happy December discovery of his latest “lost” mine at Piru, Smith rushed to file five mining claims. These included the Exchange; the Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”); and the Matchless (according to Smith, the “mother lead of the world”). News of the find traveled quickly. By February 7, 1887, there were already 150 men in camp. Soon, Santa Maria surveyor J.V. Jesse was busily engaged in laying out an entire town there at Lockwood Flat, to be known as “Lexington.”

Thanks to the surveyor’s work, some 148 blocks were created – on paper, at least. Each block measured 300 x 162 feet, and included 24 individual building lots, each 25 x 75 feet. Newly-arriving miners could secure a town lot for $10 — or $15 for a more desireable corner lot.

That probably sounded pretty appealing, at the time. The new townsite of Lexington was a “wild and beautiful” place and, except for its remoteness, offered a good spot to build. The ground here was nearly level. And the waters of the creek were conveniently just 50 feet away. A few log cabins were thrown up. Other miners took up residence in tents or simply slept out under the stars.

The Town of Lexington, all 148 blocks of it. Surveyor J.V. Jesse owned a 1/12th interest in the town, and DeMoss Bowers, son of a Ventura newspaper publisher, was part-owner in another 1/12th.

Early newspaper reports helped fan the initial mining excitement. Ventura’s Free Press reported enthusiastically on March 17 that the Exchange claim was “bigger than the Comstock and possibly as rich.” Perhaps not surprisingly, DeMoss Bowers, son of the Free Press‘s publisher, was a part-owner in the Lexington townsite.

By late March, a log store was under construction, and a restaurant and boarding house were being planned. By mid-April, hoisting machinery had been purchased for the Esperanza, and a 50-stamp mill and a sawmill were predicted soon. A small arrastra was built of upright logs and a crossbeam, driven by mule-power. “Well-known mining expert” R.B. Harper purchased the Esperanza, and was said to be in negotiations to acquire a second mine as well. Soon even more miners had heard the exciting news. “The camp is becoming lively, and prospectors are arriving every day,” noted the Mining & Scientific Press in early April.

Snow prevented wagon travel, but the walking route to the new town was “good if you want to tackle it.” (Mining & Scientific Press, April 2, 1887).

The Brown claim boasted a 75-foot tunnel and a 68-foot shaft. The Golconda, a 30-foot vein of silver and gold, had its own tunnel stretching 150 feet. The General Lee, Double Standard, Smith & Grover, Exchange, and Matchless were also making progress. A miner named Newton Nunn claimed to have located a quartz vein three feet thick, and rich in free gold. And those were just the hardrock claims.

Men engaged in placer mining were said to be pulling out $5 per day per man. Nuggets worth from $5 to $100 reportedly had been found.

For those eager to join the rush to Lexington, the trip from Ventura took three days by wagon. Directions were helpfully provided by the newspaper, as follows:

        Take the stage road and turn off three or four miles this side of Newhall, up the San Francisquito canyon, to Elizabeth Lake; thence to Gorman’s Station; thence to John F. Cuddy’s, and ten miles farther to Lexington.]

Or, if you preferred to arrive by “trail” (which presumably meant on foot or astride a horse or mule), you could take the Matilija Trail to “Mart[in] Beekman’s, and the next day to Lexington by [way of] Samuel Snedden’s.”

By early April a new wagon road had been opened from Gorman’s Station to Lexington. But even that route was only “passably fair” at first. Wagons remained impractical through the early spring as long as snow lay on the ground. But walking was still possible.

With the snow finally melted, things at Lexington became livelier than ever by May, 1887. Enough would-be miners had arrived that formal miners’ meeting was called for May 8th. A newspaper correspondent was living on site (presumably DeMoss Bowers, whose father published the Ventura Free Press). A post office was said to be planned.

Eager for publicity, promoters shipped off a sample of ore in early July to the offices of the L.A. Times for inspection.

But by summer’s end, 1887, interest in Lexington’s mines was waning. Well, all except for DeMoss Bowers. Still a believer in the mines’ potential, Bowers purchased the Carbonate Prince, Carbonate Queen, Carbonate King, and Matchless claims plus a mill site and five acres of land from Alonzo Smith on September 24, 1887, for real money: $12,500. About this same time, Smith had “just concluded negotiations” with an English syndicate to sell the Exchange claim for a whopping $60,000.

The L.A. Herald reported that Col. Smith had sold his “famous” Exchange mine for $60,000. (September 30, 1887).

On October 6, two weeks after the sale to the ever-hopeful Bowers, the L.A. Times reported: “Lexington is dead; not a man in it.” Even the usual “bar-room mining” had ceased.

The trouble? The news column put it down to “that pile of rock brought down to Los Angeles.” The “rich sample” they’d sent to the Times apparently wasn’t quite so rich, after all. And before long, the town of Lexington itself had disappeared.

So what became of Col. Smith? Well, he didn’t hang around long, either. By October, 1887, Smith had left the wilds of Ventura County and was snugly ensconced in the far more comfortable digs of the St. Charles Hotel in Los Angeles. Remember, he’d just raked in at least $12,500 – possibly $72,500 if his deal with the “English syndicate” actually went through. Either way, he was sitting pretty.

The year 1892 found Smith in Utah, working as manager for a mining company and doing what he did best: rounding up investors. And by November, 1894 he was in Reno, touting a “rich ore discovery” in a “new district” south of Eureka.

But there the trail of Col. Alonzo Winfield Scott Smith goes cold. Someone named “Al.” Smith passed away  in January, 1898 and was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery at Fresno. But so far we’ve found nothing that would confirm this was our Col. Smith.

The “Lost Padres” mine itself dropped out of sight again. For a while, at least.

Then in January, 1915, a Bakersfield paper reported two gentlemen had shown up in town with an “old Spanish map” pointing the way to an old silver mine located somewhere in the San Emigdio district. Wrapped first in silk and then buckskin, encased in a tin, and finally snugged into a protective cover of rawhide, the tantalizing map bore the date 1828. The two gents claimed it once belonged to a great-grandmother – and of course it was for sale.

The world is never short on willing believers. So this “ancient” map was purchased by three hopeful Bakersfield treasure-hunters for $500 – and that was pretty much the end of that fool’s errand.

And now, before you dismiss the legend of the Lost Padres Mine as total bunkum, consider this: In May 1976, a writer for the Mountain Enterprise newspaper claimed she personally had seen a tarnished silver ingot, presented for her inspection “a few years ago” by a stranger named Ben Clark. A metal detecting buff, Clark claimed the bar was just one of 29 silver ingots he’d found in a hollow tree near – yes, Lockwood Flat, the former site of Lexington. Stamped on each bar was the image of a lamb carrying a banner – said to be the mark of an asistencia (extension) of the San Emigdio Mission.

So, who knows. Perhaps the good padres really did once have a silver mine in Piru. Maybe, just maybe, Col. Alonzo Smith was onto something.

Could the indentation in the center of this photo be evidence of an early mine? (R. Dustman photo, July 1994)

 

The road up Alamo Mountain leading out of the Piru Creek area (Dustman photo, July 1994).

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Mrs. Pitts’ Maternity Home

This year, a modest house on Centerville Lane will celebrate its 100th birthday (or so the assessment records say). And ironically, the word “birthday” holds a very special meaning for this old home. Think 159 of them . . . .

Options for pregnant mothers were limited in Gardnerville during the World War II years. You could have your baby the old-fashioned way, at home. But if you opted instead for a high-speed run to reach the hospital in Reno or Carson City, you took your chances on getting there in time.

After a few “hair-raising experiences” involving babies delivered by the side of the road, local doctor Ernest Hand figured there had to be a better way. He prevailed upon Mrs. Frieda Pitts to open a maternity home right here in Gardnerville in 1943.

That plan sounded great to Frieda Pitts. A widow, Mrs. Pitts had lost her husband, William, to kidney disease in March, 1940. Never mind that she had no formal training as a nurse. Or that the “maternity home” facility would consist of just two beds in her own house here on Centerville Lane – a home that initially had no indoor bathroom and no furnace.

Mrs. Frieda Pitts, circa 1950. (Photo courtesy ofDouglas County Historical Society).

Mrs. Pitts devoted her living room and a bedroom to the cause. Neighbor Lizzie Etherton assisted with laundry, courtesy of her wringer washer. And Dr. Hand taught Frieda all about labor, delivery, and maternity care.

And that’s how, you might say, Mrs. Pitts’ Maternity Home was born. When it opened in March, 1943, the facility was a welcome addition for Valley mothers indeed. Over the next eleven years, some 159 babies would enter the world there. Dr. Hand was just a phone call away.

Sometimes mothers would come to stay with Mrs. Pitts before the baby arrived. But “generally you would go to Mrs. Pitts when your contractions started,” a long-time Valley resident recalled. “You’d leave home with your little satchel and then you would stay there at Mrs. Pitts’s for eleven days. They wanted to make sure the baby had a good start. So that was considered the proper length of time to see if the baby did well and if you did well. And they kept you in bed for those eleven days. You didn’t get up and run around.”

Mrs. Pitts not only cooked meals for her patients, she also changed diapers, prepared formula, and cared for the babies at night so their mothers got a good night’s sleep.

Pitts Maternity Home became so popular that Frieda added an addition to her house in September, 1944. It must not have been a large one, however; as late as July, 1952, the facility offered only two beds. In a pinch, however, it was able to accommodate a small “baby boom.” The largest: five babies in a single week.

Image courtesy of TheGraphicsFairy.com.

Babies of all sizes made their debut at Mrs. Pitts’ home. One of the smallest, a 4-pound daughter, was born to Mr. and Mrs. Andres Ortiz in 1948. For tiny preemies like this one, Mrs. Pitts created a make-shift incubator that was lined with flannel and heated with hot water bottles. At the other end of the spectrum, one baby boy tipped the scales at 10 pounds, 4 ounces! At least one set of twins was delivered at Mrs. Pitts’ home. And one impatient baby didn’t even make it in the front door, instead making its debut at her front gate! But of all those 159 children born at Mrs. Pitts’ home, not a single baby was lost.

The Record-Courier once noted that the names of those who gave birth at Mrs. Pitts’ home “reads quite a lot like the old Carson Valley telephone book.” But it wasn’t just Valley children born here. A few mothers came from Markleeville. And even a few moms-to-be who were just “passing through” availed themselves of Mrs. Pitts’ kind services.

So, who was Frieda Pitts, the kindly soul who tended to all these moms and babies? Well, she was oldest of the eight children of Fritz and Marie Sarman, born October 22, 1906. The Sarman family owned the “Ladies Best” flour mill south of Gardnerville, and Frieda was raised there. Frieda’s siblings included brothers Edwin and John; and sisters Mabel Marie (Mrs. James Perry) of Smith Valley, Mrs. Aldon Arigoni of Reno, and Edna Araujo.

Frieda Sarman (soon to be Pitts) is seated in the front row, third from left. This is the Freshman Class at Douglas High School in 1922. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society).

Frieda married William Pitts in 1925, when she was fresh out of high school. He was 39 at the time; she was just 18.

Despite her lack of formal nursing training, Mrs. Pitts became a fine  nurse, midwife, and caregiver. When Douglas County began registering all the registered and practical nurses in Douglas County in 1956 for “civil defense and disaster planning” purposes, Mrs. Pitts was the one they put in charge of the nursing registration effort.

But in 1954, state regulations changed. Hospital births began to be required, essentially putting Mrs. Pitts out of business. But she never stopped caring for others. Various younger siblings and nephews from Smith Valley lived with her over the years so they could attend Douglas High School. Dr. Hand’s granddaughter, Debbie Lambert, lived with Frieda for a while. She cared for her father when he became ill, and her mother eventually came to live in the house with her. Frieda was also in great demand as a local babysitter. Locals still remember the fine homemade bread and cookies she would bake.

Frieda Pitts died in 1991, and is buried at Garden Cemetery in Gardnerville. Although she never had any children of her own, she always said she felt a special kinship with every one of those 159 babies she helped bring into the world.

 

Jonas Winchester’s Wild, Crazy, Adventurous Life – Part 2

So, how did Jonas Winchester get to California?

Ah, that’s a story in itself!  (And if you missed  Part 1 of Winchester’s wild and crazy story, here’s where to read it!)

The eighth of 13 children, Jonas Winchester entered the world on November 19, 1810 in Marcellus, New York. At roughly age 16 he was apprenticed to Adolphus Fletcher, printer of the Jamestown Journal, a local weekly paper.

But by the time he was 18, Winchester determined to set off for adventure. He made his way to New York City, where he arrived (as he later put it) “a stranger, without friends, acquaintances, or recommendation of any kind.” He was sure a better life awaited him. “Destiny calls and I must follow,” he wrote to his mother in September, 1829.

Despite his lack of connections in the City and with only 2-1/2 years of apprenticeship under his belt, Winchester managed to land a job as a compositor for two  New York City newspapers. But the pay proved meager. Wages for compositors were so low, in fact, that in September, 1830 Winchester moved back home to Western New York, where he took a job with the Fredonia Censor.

Horace Greeley, Winchester’s printing partner (for a short time).

But the lure of the big city hadn’t left him. He returned to New York City again in the Spring of 1832.  And in 1833, Winchester eventually landed a publishing job with Horace Greeley, likely due to his friendship with Frank Story, Greeley’s partner. Winchester had a certain “larger than life” aura about him, and perhaps a certain amount of moxie helped win him the position. Somewhere in his youth Jonas gained the nickname “General” Winchester, a military honorific with “no foundation in fact,” as his descendants would later admit. (It may have been a bit of a family joke; brother Herman went by “Colonel.” And the oldest brother in the family dubbed himself “Patriarch.”)

Horace Greeley himself was a relative newcomer to New York City, too, having arrived in late 1831. By the time Winchester became an associate, Greeley had already launched and lost the short-lived Morning Post – a publication which cratered within three short weeks of its January 1, 1833 debut. A few months later another tragedy struck Greeley — his original business partner (and Winchester’s friend), Francis V. Story, drowned suddenly in July 1833.

Story’s death presented a fortuitous opening for Winchester, who stepped in to become Greeley’s partner. In March, 1834, Greeley and Winchester launched a new publication called the New Yorker — a “large, fair, and cheap weekly folio” based on Ann Street, New York, dedicated to literature with a sprinkling of news. Greeley handled the newspaper’s editing, while Winchester did what he did best — promotion — taking charge of the profitable “jobbing business” (contract printing). Before long Winchester would solidify his fortunes by marrying Story’s sister, Susan — the wedding taking place on Winchester’s own 25th birthday, November 19, 1835.

Although launched with only a dozen subscribers, the New Yorker’s circulation eventually reached 9,000. But it never became a rip-roaring financial success. Instead, it took “a terrible struggle on the part of its proprietors to keep it alive.” Greeley and Winchester eventually dissolved their partnership in September, 1836. Winchester carried on “job printing” on his own, then tried to make a profit by reprint literature from abroad. But he got himself deep into debt (thanks to what one observer called his “careless and venturesome way”), and about 1844 was forced to declare bankruptcy. The timing couldn’t have been worse for a new family man;  Winchester and his wife, Susan, now had two children: Frank S. Winchester, born in 1840, and Julia, born 1844.

Eager for a new start, Winchester was bitten by the “gold bug” when glittering tales of California gold began circulating in late 1848. It was a chance to redeem his fortunes!

News of the California gold strike at Sutter’s Mill was all over the newspapers in New York. Reports circulated that some $2 million in gold dust was already sitting in San Francisco, just waiting for transportation to the East. Despite stories of earlier “disturbances” in the mining districts, the New York Tribune assured its readers that “excellent order [now] prevails.” As for tales about “thousands starving,” those rumors were simply “greatly exaggerated,” the press reassuringly reported.

This advertisement for passage to California by way of Valparaiso, aboard the “fast ship” Tarolinta, ran in the December 19, 1848 issue of the Evening Post.

Winchester learned of a three-masted “half-clipper” ship leaving New York and headed for California. She was called the Tarolinta, Indian for “floating rose,” owned by the Griswold Brothers of New York and captained by William P. Cave. With a capacity of 549 tons and a crew of 27 (some 20 of them African-American), the Tarolinta expected to carry both a lucrative load of cargo and roughly a hundred passengers to the gold fields. Winchester was determined to be among them, and quickly booked passage.

The Tarolinta was initially scheduled to depart from New York harbor on December 28, 1848. But not enough passengers signed up at first, so the date was postponed until January 9, 1849 in hopes of recruiting additional passengers. Then arrangements for additional freight to be delivered to South America caused the date to be pushed off yet again, to January 13. You can only imagine Jonas Winchester tapping his toes in frustration.

Ads and handbills like this one lured passengers aboard “elegant” ships, promising “a very quick trip may be relied upon.” .

The morning of the 13th of January, 1849, dawned clear and cold. A huge snowstorm had dumped as much as three feet of snow on the streets of New York. Passengers were instructed to board promptly at the pier at the foot of Wall Street. And finally the Tarolinta pushed off.

Champagne was passed around as the ship was guided out of the harbor by pilot boats. She was heavily laden indeed. Freight was lashed into tall piles on deck, and included barrels of provisions, small boats, and “house frames.” Total passengers came to 125 – more than originally planned.

Winchester was among the passengers happy to turn his face toward California. He still owed thousands of dollars to his creditors. But he left behind his wife and two children.

This departure notice in the newspaper singled out Winchester and several other prominent passengers for recognition the day after the Tarolinta’s departure. His creditors may not have been pleased.

Ads for passage on the Tarolinta had promised travelers “superior accommodations.” In fact, however, space was minimal and the food less than ideal. One passenger reported a dozen men were sharing a 22-1/2 x 7-1/2 foot “stateroom” that was “nearly filled up with our trunks, chests, and other baggage,” leaving meager sleeping spots just three feet apart.

Passengers, of course, eagerly discussed their possible prospects in the California goldfields. At least 15 separate mining “companies” were organized aboard the ship, each with a name and its own distinctive pennant. Jonas Winchester was no doubt one of the founding members of the ten-person “Leyon Winchester & Co.”

Fellow printers James B. Devoe and Daniel Norcross of Philadelphia (later manager of the San Francisco New Age) were also included among the passengers. Others included an “accomplished Oriental scholar” named Caleb Lyon, and Dr. J.C. Tucker, whose diary of the journey would eventually be published.

A physician named Dr. Nelson whiled away the hours at sea by conducting “experiments on the porosity of glass” — a misguided effort to see if submerging a hermetically-sealed glass tube to 89 fathoms would cause water to penetrate the glass itself. (Not surprisingly, the answer was no. But Dr. Nelson nevertheless shared his “experiment” with the world in an issue of Scientific American.)

The Tarolinta was a three-masted ship that may have looked something like this.

The Tarolinta reached Rio in February, 1849, a happy milestone for the passengers as the stop offered fruit and “lots of mint juleps, and porter-house beef steaks.”  These were quite a treat indeed after the shipboard fare. One passenger filed a report from Rio describing typical shipboard fare as a “curious concoction of mouldy bread and frozen potatoes, boiled down in salt water” and “apple fritters, about two inches thick, eighteen inches around, and weighing four pounds and a half each.”

As they continued on around the Horn, passengers aboard the Tarolinta endured stormy weather, extreme cold, poor fare, and personality clashes. Perhaps predictably, disputes arose over food rations, hammock space, bathing water, petty thievery, and other matters. Some led to fisticuffs.

By and large, Captain Cave tried not to intervene. When two passengers got involved in a brawl on the poop deck, the Captain merely told them to move their dispute down to the quarterdeck so neither would fall overboard. But when eager passengers began trying to chop up barrel staves to make tent stakes in preparation for their anticipated mining adventures, the captain finally asserted his authority and stopped them. Barrel staves were a precious cargo.

Some would later say Cave was a “cold, ruthless and stubborn man, whose odious character would become clear to all as the voyage unfolded.” Others called him “big and blustering.” More likely he was just overwhelmed by trying to corral such a large group of eager, unruly passengers.

After 174 days, the Tarolinta finally sailed into San Francisco harbor on June 29, 1849 (July 6, 1849, according to other sources), much to the relief of all aboard, the captain no doubt included. But there they found the dock space completely occupied. They were forced to drop anchor in the harbor and hire rowboats to get their parties and goods ashore. And goods there were, a-plenty! Operators of the “Russian Store” at San Francisco soon advertised the arrival of assorted silk shawls, handkerchiefs, ladies’ fancy cravats, ribbons, plaid silk, buck gloves, silk scarves, plus a “superior assortment of cigars,” all courtesy of the Tarolinta.

Stepping on shore that summer of 1849 put Jonas Winchester among the very first eager members of the California Gold Rush. He and his associates briefly tried their hand at mining on the North Fork of the American River. They purchased steam-powered equipment, and built dams and even roads. But the fall rains washed all of their hard work away.

By the winter of 1849 Winchester turned back to what he knew best, securing a post as editor and part-owner of the Pacific News – one of the first San Francisco newspapers.  In May, 1850, Winchester also took over the appointment of H.H. Robinson, California’s first State Printer. The government printing contract offered plenty of steady work, but payment by the State was issued in semi-worthless warrants, making it difficult for Winchester to meet his obligations. He resigned the post in March, 1851.

The Pacific News folded in 1851, the victim of several fires. But Winchester was still intrigued by mining, and convinced that “greater things were in store for him.” He moved to Grass Valley, where it’s said he built the first sawmill and quartz mill in the vicinity, and acquired interests in mining companies.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Winchester’s wife, Susan, was suffering from consumption (tuberculosis). Winchester’s California mines had failed to produce the great returns he’d hoped for. So Winchester decided to return to New York.

Susan died in Brooklyn in February, 1855, at just 43 years of age.  Sometime after 1855 Jonas wed widow Margaret Bartholomew Brown in New York. Margaret was a supporter of women’s suffrage and an associate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But apparently that marriage did not last. In April, 1869, Winchester married a third time, wedding Laura Karner. Their first child, Ernest, was born in 1870 but died in infancy.

Advertisement for Winchester’s “Hypophosphite,” in 1887.

Winchester had launched a patent medicine business, “Winchester’s Hypophosphites” — proudly putting his own signature on the label. The endeavor helped him make ends meet, bringing in an estimated $3,000 per year. But he was still eager to try his hand at mining.

In the 1860s he acquired the Globe Gold & Silver Mining Co. and other mining interests in Monitor Canyon, in Alpine County. As early as 1867, Alpine locals were receiving letters saying Winchester intended to come out “next season.” And come out he finally did, moving to Monitor with wife Laura in 1871. They would have two children who were born there at Monitor.

So that’s how Jonas Winchester wound up in Alpine County. And that’s where our story picked up last time! (Here’s the link again, if you missed Part 1 of Jonas Winchester’s amazing story.)

Call it serendipity. But as luck would have it, Winchester’s 209th birthday was November 19th — just about the time this story came out in our 2019 newsletter. We hope you’ll light a candle to celebrate the birthday of the wild, wonderful, adventurous life of Jonas Winchester! What a life he had.

Happy birthday to Jonas Winchester on November 19th!

The Wild, Crazy, Adventurous Life of Jonas Winchester (Part 1)

Jonas Winchester was one of a kind . . . .

The year was 1871. Hope was in the air, in the tiny mining town of Monitor, California. “General” Jonas Winchester and his wife had recently arrived from back East. And word was that the Globe Gold & Silver Mine was finally going to be pushed in earnest.

The title of “General” appears to have been self-applied. Jonas had no military experience (at least none that we’ve been able to find). In addition to that confident title he also adopted an equally confident motto: “Push things.” And promote he did! Advertising flyers screamed about the Globe Mine’s prospects — its ores, they said, were “believed to be incalculable in quantity.” And best of all, they could supposedly be worked cheaply. Winchester assured investors he had “invested all his own fortune in the business,” and intended “to reside permanently at Monitor.”

But despite such bravado, things actually weren’t going terribly well for the Globe. It did have a mill, but the ore was yielding just $10 a ton. Its workmen being unpaid, both mill and mine were soon shut down. In April, 1871, Winchester candidly acknowledged to a fellow miner that there had been “too much coyoteing” going on. A family feud may have been part of the problem; Winchester  complained bitterly about the “treachery” of a brother. The Globe’s mill had also barely escaped a devastating fire, he said, and there was a “need for re-organization of its finances.” Prospects were looking gloomy indeed.

A little glorifying never hurts a mine’s image. Here, an ornamented cement front adorns the tunnel opening of the Globe. That’s Winchester himself in the white coat, posing atop the steps.

By July, however, the mood had switched from gloomy to gleeful. A rich copper vein had just been struck in the Globe, and there was “every indication of a mammoth copper ledge” just ahead. Early assays produced up to $75 in copper and $20 in silver, and ore as rich as 36% copper was said to have been found in the deeper levels. That summer, Winchester also had one more cause for celebration: his third wife, Laura, presented him with a son on August 10, 1871, born there in Monitor.

Continuing the work on the mine, of course, required a continued influx of capital. Winchester put his best literary skills to work in an 1872 prospectus, teasing investors with fabulous statistics. Capitalization of the company was now a rich $650,000. Progress thus far included a 5.5  x 6.5-foot double-tracked tunnel, “nearly” 1,500 feet long (a shameless exaggeration, as later facts showed). Rail had been extended conveniently from the mine to an adjacent 45’ x 60’ mill, which was almost ready to work the ore. “When finished,” the mill should be able to crush 40 tons of ore a day. A 30-horsepower engine and boiler had already been purchased, and 500 cords of wood were on hand. Hoisting works had been erected, and the company’s claims crossed “some half dozen or more veins.” The promised return to those willing to invest? “25% per annum in gold.” How could you go wrong?!

By fall, the Globe again found itself unable to pay its bills. But Winchester’s glowing advertising evidently did the trick. Frank Winchester (a son by Jonas’s first marriage) arrived in Monitor in October with enough cash in hand to pay off the debts of the Globe. And, as an added sign of confidence, Frank signed a contract to extend the tunnel another 100 feet. Frank quickly departed for the East again, but his father, “General” Winchester, remained behind at Monitor as mine superintendent.

Winchester may have been a terrific mine promoter, but he’d apparently had little experience running a silver mine before. What he lacked in practical know-how, however, he made up for with sheer bravado. And on top of his naturally boisterous personality, Winchester was a firm believer in Spiritualism. He firmly believed that he had been personally chosen by the “Ancients” to run the Globe, and that the spirits would guide him to make the mine a success.

1867 advertisement for a “world-renowned Astrologer and Somnambulistic Clairvoyant” named Madame Remington.

Spiritualism was a quasi-religious movement that depended on mediums to communicate messages from the spirit world to convey wisdom to the living. Seances and “table-rapping” sessions were in great vogue in the 1860s and ’70s. Even newspapers in such remote outposts as Silver Mountain and Monitor carried advertisements like those of “Madame Remington” and “Madame E.F. Thornton,” promising to send readers a picture of the “very features of the person you are to marry” — for a mere 50 cents, remitted to the medium by mail.

Winchester, a firm believer in Spiritualism, was convinced that a band of “Ancients” could speak to him through mediums. The leader of this spiritual band was supposedly an Atlantean named Yermah, while Yermah’s wife was the towering six-foot “Queen” Azelia. Winchester went so far as to name his newborn son Yermah, and a subsequent daughter, born in September, 1873, after the spirit Queen.

Jonas Winchester and his wife Laura on the front porch of their home in Monitor, about 1871. Laura is probably holding son Yermah, named after the “Chief” of the spirit band.

Winchester wasn’t alone as a devotee of Spiritualism in early Monitor. Fellow resident O.F. Thornton (no relation to the clairvoyant) corresponded regularly with both psychics and fellow Spiritualists, including one William H. Sterling. “The Spirit World is on our side, and they will take care to bring us success at the right time,” Sterling assured Thornton in one letter in September 1871. Meanwhile, Spiritualism may also have had a practical application. Sterling confided to Thornton that he was using “Spiritual topics” to persuade an investor to sink money into Thornton’s Good Hope mine.

The opportunity for profit from this connection with the “Ancients” was not lost on Winchester, either. In early 1871, he reached out to acquire rights to a set of “spirit pictures” drawn by a pair of San Francisco mediums while in a trance. There was profit potential in selling the images, he was convinced.

Despite the helpful advice of the “Ancients,” Winchester’s stewardship of the Globe was roundly criticized. One aggrieved investor concluded that Winchester’s “reckless and incompetent manner of doing business would prevent forever any success, no matter how rich or extensive the mine should prove.” Winchester was simply a “reckless spendthrift,” he added, notwithstanding supposed selection “by the Ancients as the only man in the world” for the job.

The main street of Monitor, about 1871. This is one of the photos Winchester had made to promote his mining endeavors.

Winchester did manage to push the Globe’s tunnel some 1,000 feet into the mountain, with several side-drifts. A steam furnace and boiler were installed in a separate building at the mouth of the tunnel, and the steam conducted in insulated pipes to an engine and pump located in an underground chamber. Marketing genius that he was, Winchester also had a series of beautifully-detailed photographs taken of the mine and surrounding settlement to help induce investors to continue to float the operation.

Despite the massive work done on the mine, the Globe’s stout 4” Cornish pump eventually proved unable to keep up with water flowing in. The boiler’s steam capacity also proved insufficient to work the pump and the hoist. By the end of 1873, work at the Globe was abandoned. As one mining report concluded, the mine’s sad history had been one of “difficulties, delays, expenses, and disappointments.”

Winchester and his family finally shook the dust of Monitor from their feet in November, 1873, and moved west to San Francisco. He brought along his “well-magnetized desk” to their new abode (perhaps magnetism helped the spirits to focus). Soon he was hawking those “spirit pictures” he’d acquired in a new “Spirit Art Gallery.” Winchester managed to bring in about $6 a day from his gallery, at least for a time — enough to cover costs, though not enough to afford him a salary. Ever upbeat, he claimed to a friend he was simply happy to “re-enter upon civilized life.”

Yermah, “Chief of the Atlantians,” was supposedly the head of the Spirit Band. This is an example of the pencil-drawn “spirit paintings” reproduced in Winchester’s gallery.

Winchester’s  Spirit Gallery featured reproductions of pencil portraits of 28 of the “prehistoric and ancient spirits.” These included “Yermah” and other natives of Atlantis from 16,000 years ago, plus the “progenitors of the Mississippi mound builders, and the architects of the lost cities of Central America. In case you’d never heard of  Atlaneans, there was also Confucius, Gautama, Jesus, and Mother Mary. Included in the mix was a “Hindoo Necromancer and Alchemist” from 8,000 years ago who, by the way, had discovered the Elixer of Life. Not to be overlooked: a Magician priest from Ancient Ninevah, and another learned Egyptian from the time of Moses. Visitors to the Spirit Gallery could acquire a photographic reproduction of these sketches: just 50 cents for a card-size picture or $1 for a larger cabinet card. Such a deal.

A solicitation for subscribers penned by Winchester in 1874 promised that the “locked-up knowledge of prehistoric ages” would soon be opened, thanks to the “lost arts and occult powers” of the ancients communicated through “highly-developed” mediums. “Let a cordial welcome be given to these ancient spirits,” he wrote, who come “offering the priceless boon of knowledge.” The spirits were prepared to share “an outpouring of ancient lore which will bless mortals and point the way to an era of brotherhood which shall no longer be a dream of Utopia but a living reality.”

“Priceless” that ancient wisdom may have been. But the spirit pictures proved a commercial dud. In May, 1874, the local press in Monitor noted Winchester’s current “financial impecuniosity, resulting from his late adventure in the ‘spirit picture’ business.”

1875 advertisement for Winchester’s patent medicine.

Perhaps aware of the benefit of diversifying, Winchester had his finger in more than one entrepreneurial pie about this time. In addition to the spirit picture business, he also was engaged in selling a patent medicine, under the catchy title of Winchester’s HypophosphiteHis own signature was prominently featured on the label.

Winchester’s patent medicine was hardly a novel idea, but it made use of all the recognized ingredients for snake-oil-style success. As one tongue-in-cheek article advised readers in 1872, the “Recipe for Getting Rich” from a patent medicine was:

Get any simple stimulating compound or tonic, or take cheap whiskey and color it, adding any cheap stuff to give it a medicinal taste. Adopt any name you choose, the more nonsensical or mysterious the better. Get up fanciful bottles or boxes or labels. Look out that the package, contents included, don’t cost over 5 to 8 cents. Invent 50 to 100 or 1,000 wonderful cures wrought by your medicine, giving names in full, with residences, date etc., but be careful not to blunder into giving any real name of any person living in the same place. If you connect with your medicine a touching story about some old mythical person, or Indian, or South American, all the better.
This magazine advertisement ran the same month as Winchester’s death: February, 1887.

Eventually, Jonas Winchester took up “fruit-growing” near Columbia, California. And on February 3, 1887, the wild and crazy life of Jonas Winchester finally came to an end. He was 76 years old. His obituary described him — accurately — as energetic, warm-hearted, and a man of high intelligence. He was laid to rest in the Odd Fellows graveyard at Columbia, Tuolumne County, California.

As for Winchester’s family, his obituary reported that in keeping with Winchester’s own Spiritualist views, the family “rejoice in the assurance that the dear patriarch still watches over the loved of home, and will see that no evil attends their footsteps.”

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So, just how did Jonas Winchester manage to get to Monitor in the first place? Ah, that’s a wild and crazy story in itself! Tune in next time for the rest of Jonas Winchester’s amazing story!

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Copyright K. Dustman 2019

Stalking Perry Mason: Following the Footsteps of Erle Stanley Gardner in Ventura

What’s not to like about a lawyer who got kicked out of law school?! His best-selling Perry Mason novels aside, Erle Stanley Gardner would still be legendary for that un-lawyerly feat!

Erle Stanley Gardner with his signature pipe.

Born in 1889 in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner managed to stay enrolled at Valparaiso University’s law school for only a few short months. Legend has it that Gardner was sent packing after organizing an underground boxing match in which he himself became a pugilist. It probably didn’t help that Gardner also claimed to have slugged a professor.

Never mind his lack of a formal law degree. Gardner managed to get himself admitted to the California Bar by passing the test in 1911 at age 21. He’d spent three years working as a typist at a law firm in Oxnard, so perhaps that experience gave him sufficient insight into the mysteries of the profession.

The following year (1912), Gardner eloped with one of the secretaries at the firm, Natalie Talbert. A hasty wedding it may have been, but the marriage lasted — officially, at least — until Natalie’s death some 57 years later.

The former Ventura County Courthouse where Gardner practiced – now Ventura City Hall.

Gardner had his own law practice in Merced for a short time. Then in 1915 he was invited to join the trial law firm of Frank Orr in Ventura. He abandoned law briefly in 1917, working instead as a salesman. But by 1921 he was back doing trial work for the Ventura firm. He seemed to most love representing legal underdogs: “I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.

Meanwhile, Gardner was trying his hand at writing pulp fiction on the side. His typewriter clacked late into the night in the study over his garage. But would-be writers can identify with Gardner’s early tribulations. His initial efforts produced only a growing pile of rejection slips. Finally, in 1921, Gardner’s first short story appeared in print. Some claim it was “The Shrieking Skeleton.” Others say it was the equally-alliterative “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” a bit of pulp fiction that generated all of $15 bucks. (Gardner’s mother reportedly refused to read it.) But Gardner had found his true calling. Over the next decade, he would crank out an astonishing 600 short stories and novelettes in his spare time.

The Ventura Pier today.

A daughter was born in 1923. Gardner would soon happily begin teaching her to fish off the nearby Ventura Pier.

Things were apparently going well in his professional life, too. In 1926, Gardner’s law firm moved into offices in a newly-completed bank building at the corner of California and Main. Although Main Street itself was still unpaved, the building boasted the finest accoutrements, from sparkling chandeliers to the city’s very first elevator.

Gardner’s office was in this building at 21 California St., Ventura

The four-story office building was conveniently situated in the heart of downtown, with the Ventura Courthouse just a short walk up the hill. Gardner was able to enjoy some of the finer things that Ventura had to offer, including steak dinners at his favorite Pierpont Inn.

As Gardner’s publishing credits began to grow, his agent encouraged him to try his hand at book-length works. And there in his third-floor law office in 1932, Gardner would crank out the opening pages of what would become his first Perry Mason novel. Some say it took him a mere three days to finish his first draft.

Front door of Gardner’s office building.

The book, “The Case of the Velvet Claw,” debuted in 1933 and became an immediate success. Soon, Gardner was spending just two days a week as a lawyer. The rest of his time was devoted to writing. Before long, Gardner gave up law entirely and devoted himself to writing full-time.

Although he pounded out stories at first as a two-fingered typist, Gardner quickly figured out that he could produce far more by dictating. A chance encounter with Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn (where she worked as a hostess) led Gardner to offer Agnes a job as his secretary. The dictation system worked so well that he soon hired her two sisters as secretaries, too.

Gardner met his secretary, long-time companion and eventual wife Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn.

Some sources say Gardner set himself a goal of 4,000 words a night; others say his target was 10,000 words every three days. He regularly churned out some 100,000 words a month. That meant he could produce between three and six books a year — a track record that would make him any writer’s idol!

Gardner and first wife Natalie acquired a newly-built home on Foster Avenue about 1936. But Gardner himself didn’t live there long. Although they never formally divorced, the couple lived separately beginning about 1935. In 1937 Gardner purchased “Rancho del Paisano” in Temecula. It would be his home for the rest of his life.

Natalie passed away in 1968. A few months later, Gardner married his long-time secretary and companion, Agnes.  He was 79 years old. Gardner lived just two another years, passing away of cancer at his home in Temecula in 1970.

All-told, Gardner authored nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring the quintessential sleuth, Perry Mason. His books have been translated into 71 languages, making him the most-translated American author. Despite this incredible record, Gardner claimed “no natural aptitude” as a writer. He was simply a “good plotter,” he once said — and oh yes, “one hell of a good salesman.” His goal was to offer his readers “sheer fun.” And readers loved it.

The historic plaque on Gardner’s former office building at 21 California St., Ventura.

Today, modern-day Perry Mason fans can still follow in Erle Stanley Gardner’s footsteps on a visit to Ventura. A bronze plaque flags the downtown building on California Street where Gardner had his third-floor law office — and drafted his first Perry Mason tale. The Courthouse just up the hill (now Ventura’s City Hall) is where Gardner, as a real-life lawyer, once argued tenaciously on behalf of his clients. The Ventura pier where Gardner taught his daughter to fish has since been rebuilt, but still juts out proudly into the Pacific. The Pierpont Inn, where Gardner tucked into delicious steak dinners and where he met Agnes Jean Bethell, remains an iconic Ventura attraction.

The former Gardner home at 4240 Foster Ave, Ventura, listed by eXp Realty.

And you’re really eager to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, you can even purchase Gardner’s former home at 2420 Foster Avenue. It’s two stories, 2,770 square feet, with a killer view overlooking town. And it’s on sale right now for just $1.79 million.

 

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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For further reading about Erle Stanley Gardner:

IMDb biography of Gardner

Kingston Pierce blog

“Thrilling Detective” blog 

L.A. Times story by Jane Hulse (1/11/1996) 

L.A. Times story by Gary Gorman (9/23/1990) 

Wikitree

Wikipedia

And the eXp Realty listing for 2420 Foster Ave

There’s More to the Lillian Virgin Finnegan Story!

Sure, you’ve probably heard of Lillian Virgin Finnegan — one of the founders of the famous Genoa Candy Dance! But here are a few things you probably haven’t heard about this hometown Genoa gal.

Lillian was born in Genoa on October 6, 1878, to parents Daniel W. Virgin and the former Mary Raycraft. Older brother William had arrived in 1871, and sister Ellen in 1873. So when Lillian put in an appearance five years later, she was the “baby” of the Virgin family.

Wedding photo of Judge Virgin and his wife, Mary. (Picture of the original framed photo, at Mormon Station State Park.)

Lillian’s father was known to just about everyone as “Judge” Virgin. But here’s a tidbit of history I didn’t know: the good Judge wasn’t actually a judge for most of his long legal career! Sure, he served as the first elected judge in Douglas County, from 1865-66. But the vast majority of his career was actually spent as District Attorney. Virgin served in that capacity in Nevada’s Territorial days (from June 2, 1863 until Statehood arrived in 1864); and went on to serve an amazing eleven non-continuous two-year terms as D.A. beginning in 1874 and ending in 1910. (And by the way, Judge Virgin was no quitter; he actually sought re-election to the post of D.A. four more times after 1910, losing each time to F.E. Brockliss.)

As an attorney, Virgin had a hand in some of the most prominent legal battles of his day. Remember the famous 1870s water-rights case in which Henry Van Sickle sued J.W. Haines over the water rights to Daggett Creek? Representing Haines in that epic battle was none other than Daniel Virgin, whose vigorous defense propelled Haines to victory in 1872 before the Nevada Supreme Court, based on the doctrine of riparian rights. (It would be a short-lived precedent, however, quickly reversed in favor of the “doctrine of prior appropriation.”)

Advertisement for Virgin’s law practice in Carson Valley News, May 15, 1875.

Lillian grew up in Genoa’s Pink House, purchased by her father from merchant J.R. Johnson in April, 1884, when Lillian was about five years old. Johnson himself hadn’t built the Pink House (at least most of it); the central two-story portion is thought to have been built back in 1855 by Martin Gaige for John Reese, near Reese’s grist mill on Mill Street. (Judge Hyde himself is said to have met assembled Genoans in this same house when he arrived to organize the first local government!)

In 1870, Johnson purchased the former Reese house and had it moved to its current location on Genoa Lane. And Johnson, it’s said, was also the one who first had the house adorned with its signature “pink” paint. And finally, in 1884, Judge Virgin bought the Pink House from Johnson.

Judge Virgin’s purchase of the Pink House was noted in the paper in 1884. (Genoa Weekly Courier, April 4, 1884).
The Pink House, purchased by the Virgins in 1884. (Dustman photo).

Prior to acquiring the Pink House, Judge Virgin and his family had been living in a sturdy brick house on Main Street that Virgin had owned since March, 1869 (the very same brick house, by the way, that had formerly been owned by the ultra-unlucky Lucky Bill Thorington). We don’t know exactly why the Virgins decided to move in 1884. But we can hazard a good guess! One gigantic hint: the Avalanche in the winter of 1882 had swept away two houses located just above the Virgins’ brick home, depositing a pile of rubble and debris in their back yard. That likely unnerved Mary Virgin just a tad, and might have helped prompt the family’s search for new quarters.

According to local legend, Lillian and her aunt, Jane Raycraft Campbell, were the original brain-storming pair who came up with the concept for the fundraising Candy Dance in 1919. But it turns out the truth may be a bit more nuanced.

Some say Genoa already enjoyed a traditional fall Harvest Dance every year — locally known as a “Thrashers Ball.” At least one local claimed the initial idea for a fundraising dance was the brainchild of the “Hot Stove League,” a group of local men who passed the time at the General Store. Still others say that Lillian herself had the idea, inspired by a dance she attended on a cruise ship, where silver trays of candy were passed around among the dancers.

However the idea for the dance originated, locally-made candy was indeed a treat at Lillian and Jane’s initial fundraising dance in 1919 — though it was not the advertised focus of the event. But after Lillian and Jane began treating guests to tasty treats crafted by the local ladies of the town, it didn’t take long for the name “Candy Dance” to emerge. Genoa historian Billie Rightmire believes the name was officially bestowed sometime about 1923.

Nobody ever talks much about Lillian’s husband, Louis Serratt Finnegan. They were married in 1907, when Lillian was 28 years old and Louis Finnegan a good twenty years older. Finnegan is sometimes described as a wealthy miner from Goldfield and Tonopah. But as his obituary put it, he actually “made and lost several fortunes” over his lifetime. Louis and his bride settled down in Genoa for a few years, then made their home in Southern Nevada for a few years more, before eventually returning home to Lillian’s beloved Genoa. In later life Louis gravitated to Texas, where he was said to be “engaged in the contracting business” as a mining middleman.

Lillian’s mother, Mary Virgin, passed away in 1918. Judge Virgin was getting on in years, and Lillian returned to live at the Pink House to care for him. Then in 1926, Lillian’s husband Louis died suddenly in Texas. Her father, Judge Virgin, passed away two years later, in 1928, at the age of 93. Lillian herself lived another decade. Too ill to attend one last Candy Dance in 1937, she passed away in February, 1938 at just 59 years of age. Lillian, her parents, and her husband all are buried in the Virgin family plot at the Genoa Cemetery.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of that first special Candy Dance in 1919. And oh, Lillian would have loved the Centennial attention for the event she helped to start so many years ago! 

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DON’T MISS THIS FUN NEW BOOK!
     Genoa Historian Billie Rightmire has just written “Genoa Candy Dance: The First 100 Years (1919-2019).” You can find the book at Candy Dance this year (Sept 28 and 29, 2019), or look for the book at local merchants in Genoa!

Cafe Zack: A Foodie Find & A Hero’s Tale

It was the last day of our Ventura vacation when we wandered into Cafe Zack for lunch. You won’t find it jostling its culinary competition among the bright lights of downtown. Instead, Zack’s welcomes guests more quietly from a charming bungalow closer to midtown. A fairy-tale garden cascades beside the front steps, a tiny hint of the magic that awaited us inside.

Someone has a great eye for colors, shapes, and textures in this cascading planter — a warm welcome to Cafe Zack’s.

We’d settled in at a table by the window and were checking out the menu when our energetic host appeared. “Welcome to Cafe Zack,” he beamed. “I’m Hector Gomez, the owner. Try the passion fruit iced tea. It’s very good.” It was like a thousand-volt jolt of lightning had just entered the room.

Hector is clearly passionate about his restaurant. And he’s equally passionate about pleasing guests. Looking for something vegan? He’ll pop in the back and chat with the chef, just for you. Trying to avoid gluten? No worries; they’ll happily make your dish gluten-free.

It didn’t take us long to realize that both Hector and his cafe were totally extraordinary. The food, for one thing, was amazing. The bread was fresh; the passion fruit tea as refreshing as promised.

Refreshing passion fruit tea was a great pairing with delicate tomato soup. And oh, that fresh basil!

The tomato soup when it arrived (laden with glorious chunks of bread) was delicately-seasoned and sprinkled with fresh licorice-basil ribbons on top. Our tostada salad came piled high with grilled fresh vegetables and rested on a baked (not deep-fried, thank you) whole wheat tortilla. Yumm.

Grilled vegetable salad.

But the real treat was getting to meet Hector. When he told us he was approaching his 19th anniversary as owner of Cafe Zack, we asked where he’d come from and how he’d happened to buy this special place. So he pulled up a chair and told us.

Turns out his story is worthy of a Horatio Alger novel — a real-life fairy tale come true. The saga (and it is a saga) of how Hector became the Cafe Zack’s proud owner is a testament to both his willingness to leap and never giving up. We asked if anyone had ever written a story about him. Hector just shook his head slightly at the odd question, as if what he’s done is nothing special.

No, it’s definitely special. It’s hero’s journey worth celebrating, an ode to hard work, a message of inspiration. We’re tickled to be able to pass the wonderful story of Hector and Cafe Zack along to you.

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Hector’s arrival in the world was a tad, well, inconvenient. He was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to a mother who wasn’t married and an airline-executive father who was — to someone else.

When he was eleven months old, Hector’s mother went off to seek work in the States, leaving him in the arms of his grandmother. “I first met my mom ten years later, when I was eleven,” he says with a shrug. There’s no trace of animosity as he describes his parents. “They had their own lives.”

Grandmother Elia was good to him. But counting Hector, her household numbered eleven people, spanning four generations, all in one tiny house. And out of those eleven, Elia was the only breadwinner. She worked as a maid for a local family in a private residence.

By the age of 8 or 9, Hector began walking a mile after school every day to the home where Elia worked, to help his grandmother. “I would sweep floors, I learned to clean pools,” he says with a shrug. And when her usual workday was over, Elia sometimes would walk the neighborhood, knocking on doors to ask if there were clothes she could wash or iron to bring in extra money. Hector would help his grandmother carry two big metal wash buckets loaded with laundry down to the river, a mile and a half from their home. Elia would beat the clothes on rocks there to scrub them clean.

One day when he was 12, Hector announced he was going to find a job. “I want to help you,” he told his grandmother firmly. He requested permission to serve as a greeter at a local restaurant, opening taxi doors for arriving guests and offering a hand to help ladies out of the cab. “I made that my little business,” Hector smiles. “I wasn’t on the restaurant’s payroll, but sometimes guests would tip me.” A few months later, he moved up to a job as a dishwasher. He was 13 years old.

At 14, Hector begged a manager at another local hotel for a job as a busboy. The man quibbled about his age and tried twice to turn him away. “Don’t pay me,” Hector pleaded. “I just want to learn.” The man relented, and Hector spent the next year and a half as an unpaid “busboy for the busboys,” pulling silverware and cleaning ash trays. “I worked hard. Really hard,” he says. “And I did it for no pay.” There’s a far-away look in his eye, as if he’s remembering. “Sometimes I made a little in tips from the busboys. But there were also days when there were no tips at all. I’d come home cussing.”

Those were the nights his grandmother would console him. “Just remember, mijo, you are there to learn,” she told him. “Someday it will pay off. One day you’ll have your own restaurant.”

Hector finally got a real job as a busboy when he was 16. He looked up to some of the waiters at the restaurant (“my favorites”), who “dressed so beautifully and smelled so nice.” Some waiters spent half of every year working in the States, returning to Mexico to spend the other half working at the resort. Hector yearned to follow their example. He made up his mind he was going to go to the Bay area to find work when he turned 18. He spoke no English.

The following year, fortified with $100 and a backpack, Hector flew to Tijuana and eventually found his way to a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco. But once the bus reached Ventura, Hector saw the beautiful ocean passing by on his left. “I wanted to check it out!” he says. He got off the bus and walked down Thompson Boulevard — his steps taking him past the restaurant he would someday own. It was like Fate was calling him.

Those first two nights in Ventura Hector slept in empty cardboard box near the railroad tracks. Then Fate stepped in one more time. Buying lunch the next day at a burrito stand, Hector met a man named Frederico who hailed from his home state of Jalisco. That chance meeting would shape his life.

Frederico offered to let Hector to stay at his home. “There were 29 guys there already in a four-room house; with me, it would be 30,” Hector says. But it was better than a cardboard box. Frederico’s friends at the house shared a rumor that the Elephant Bar might need a busboy. Hector applied for the job and, as he puts it, “the rest is history!” But a single job didn’t bring in enough, so Hector soon picked up a second job as well. He did room service, worked as a busboy, learned to cook, and eventually became a server for various local restaurants.

Meanwhile, his roommate Frederico had a job as a cook at the restaurant Hector had walked past on his first day in town — yes, the very same one that’s now known today as Zack’s. Hector stopped by one day to say hi, and the owners asked if he wanted to be a server. “I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time,” Hector grins. “They handed me a menu and a wine list, and that was it!” And oh yes, he kept his two other jobs, too.

Hector worked for the restaurant owners for seven years, eventually picking up both lunch and dinner shifts. That meant 14-hour days, but it also meant he was able to ditch his side jobs. In 1993 he met Frederico’s sister, Suzie, who’d arrived with her parents from Mexico. Eight months later they were married. Things were on the up-swing. The restaurant owners treated him like a son. Hector had even been talking with them about purchasing the restaurant someday.

Then in 1998, he returned from a short vacation to devastating news. The restaurant had lost its lease. Instead of offering the business to Hector without the security of a solid lease, the owner had decided to sell it instead — to the landlord’s niece.

It was a tough blow. Hector swallowed his disappointment and continued to work at the restaurant, for the new owner. It was a difficult transition, and despite her enthusiasm, the new owner struggled to make a go of it. “She was young and inexperienced,” Hector says kindly. “It wasn’t for her.” Eleven months later, on November 1, 2000, Hector was able to purchase the restaurant himself. Astonishingly, he’d saved enough over the years to pay for it in cash.

Cafe Zack’s the vibe is upscale with a foodie flair. Fresh flowers; linen tablecloths; and an imaginative menu.

“One of my best memories,” he tells us, “is when I called up my Grandma and told her I’m going to buy this place. I’ll never forget — we both cried on the phone together. She told me, ‘Remember when you used to bitch about working for no pay, and I told you that you would own your own business someday?’”

Today Hector is a U.S. citizen. He has three children, who’ll be 21, 17 and 13 this fall. He tells his oldest son to stay in school: “Life is not easy, mijo.” Grandmother Elia passed away nine years ago, but she was able to visit several times and see the restaurant. Hector has purchased a 4-plex, where his wife’s brothers and others in the extended family now live. Three family members help him in the restaurant. Still a workaholic, Hector describes the restaurant as “my life.” But he proudly adds that he never misses special occasions with his family.

Hector is a living example of the power of gratitude. “God gave me this –” he pauses to find just the right word — “this gift. I’ve always had lots of energy. I’ve been doing double shifts for the last 25 years. I’m just really thankful for all the people who helped me along the way.”

The irrepressible Hector Gomez, in one of his rare moments sitting still.

Between the great food and Hector’s outgoing personality, Cafe Zack has built a devoted following. Most of its customers are locals, a statistic Hector shares with pride. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the restaurant are repeat customers, not tourists,” he emphasizes. “We know them by name; they come to my home. They know my kids. We are like family.”

It’s easy to see why. As we leave, Hector offers us each a hug. It’s warm. It’s sincere. We may have walked into Zack’s Cafe as strangers. But we leave as friends.

Here’s Where To Find It Yourself:

Cafe Zack

1096 Thompson Blvd

Ventura CA 93001

(805) 643-9445

www.cafezack.com