Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Almost-Forgotten Man: 1880s Memories from Yolo County, California

Most of the items I find at estate sales are pretty "pedestrian" -- things that almost anyone who lived during the middle of the 20th century would have saved and left behind.

But sometimes I come across unique items from an earlier time.  Such was the case at a recent estate sale, where someone had saved some family papers that show us little snapshots of life in rural and urban Northern California in the late 19th century.

The first item was a ledger, or "cash book" as it was labeled by the previous owner.  The book is a journal -- leather-bound, with gilt decorations.  

The owner, a Mr. E.L. Booth of Dunnigan, California, covered the book with a piece of heavy paper and wrote on the front:

Front of Cash Book
1878 to 18__
E.L. Booth

A quick perusal of Ancestry.com told me that this was Edward L. Booth, born in Illinois in 1861.  At first I thought it was odd that he never filled in the end date for this record of his expenses.  Later I learned there was a reason why.

Inside the Cash Book were two hand-written copies of an "indenture" document dated September 1, 1880.  They are written on large, lined pieces of paper and show that Charles and Edward Booth had a farming arrangement with a local land owner.  They worked the land and, in return, the land owner would receive a percentage of the crops.

Two pages later, the document concluded:

So Edward and Charles were farmers.  Edward used the leather-bound book with the handmade dust jacket to detail his business and personal transactions -- money spent and received.

The Cash Book shows activity from 1878 to 1887, in rural northern California -- mostly the area around Sacramento.  The notations provide an interesting snapshot of life more than 100 years ago.

Edward Booth also recorded his expenditures when he traveled outside of the small town of Dunnigan, about 40 miles from Sacramento:

Sacramento Sept. 3-5
Coat (7.00), Bible (1.50), Box collars (.65)  $8.65
China boxes (1.35), Book for Ross (.60)         1.95

Edward had an older sister named Phebe and brothers named Charles and Rossiter (Ross).  The book shows that he often bought them gifts.
Later in 1882, Edward spent the week of October 19-26 in the city of San Francisco.  It must have been quite an adventure for a 21-year-old farmer.  He noted that his railroad fare was $8.20.   While he was in The City, he saw the sights and bought a lot of presents:
Bracelets, Breast pin  $13.75
Writing desk for Ross  3.00
Scrap book for Chas.  1.50
Harmonica, Ross  1.50
Theatrical  1.90
Author's Carnival  .70
Golden Gate Park & Cliff House  .40
Woodward's Garden  .30
Museum  .50
Sea Shells for Ma & Phebe  1.50
Basket  .75
Maple Sugar, Candy and C. Nut (coconut?)  1.45
Street Car fare  .10
Collars & socks  .45
Salmon  .25

I looked at several websites, to see if I could find out what was going on in San Francisco while young Mr. Booth was there.  The San Francisco Museum website notes:  October 20, 1882: There was a very sharp earthquake shock that woke people up this morning.  (Edward didn't mention it in his ledger.)

The website SanFrancisco.com tells us that Golden Gate Park was almost new when Edward visited:

In the decade after the Gold Rush, the people of San Francisco began to wonder about the possibility of a grand public park in their West Coast city. In a matter of six months, engineer William Hammond Hall developed a design for Golden Gate Park and with the crucial help of his assistant, John McLaren (later world-class park's dedicated superintendent for almost 70 years), started the process of leveling the wind-swept, ocean-sprayed sand dunes that covered the current area of Golden Gate Park.
By 1879, only nine years after the initial plan and design, Golden Gate Park had already transformed from barren beach to abundant forest with more than 155,000 trees on 1,000 acres of land....

The Cliff House Edward mentioned was the original building, according to the National Park Service website:

After the Gold Rush, San Francisco's population exploded and the city's downtown area got very crowded with new buildings and neighborhoods. Real estate developers, eager to make more money, saw Lands End and its unparalleled beauty as a new place to develop. They constructed the Cliff House in 1863 as a fashionable resort for the wealthy. The modest one-story wood-frame structure was skillfully situated on top of the cliff overlooking Seal Rocks, providing breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific Coast line.

During the mid-19th century, trekking out to Lands End was expensive and took several hours by horseback. To help people travel to this faraway place, a private company constructed a brand new road called Point Lobos Avenue. Eventually, a horse-drawn stagecoach made the trip every Sunday from downtown San Francisco out to Lands End. Because only wealthy citizens could afford to travel all the way out to the remote resort, the Cliff House was considered a very exclusive place. For many years, the guest register bore the names of three U.S. presidents as well as prominent San Fran¬cisco families such as the Hearsts, the Stanfords and the Crockers. However, by the late1870s the Cliff House had declined in popularity. In an effort to attract new customers, the managers offered gambling and alcohol and as a result, the resort became shabby and unrespectable.

In 1881, Adolph Sutro, the self-made millionaire, philanthropist, and later mayor of San Francisco, bought the Cliff House from the original owners. He had plans to re-establish the restaurant as a wholesome, family-friendly venue and for next few years, he remodeled rooms, hired new management and lured families back to the restaurant. Sutro also began construction on a railroad that would transport more people to this seaside attraction. Unfortunately, a very tragic event happened on Christmas Day, 1894 when fire destroyed the original wood-frame Cliff House.

Woodward's Gardens are not there anymore, according to SanFranciscoMemories.com:

Woodward’s Gardens was an attraction from San Francisco’s past that has been mostly forgotten. It was a combination of zoo, museum and amusement park in a beautiful garden setting. During its years of operation (1866-1891), thousands of people came to the gardens to enjoy the surroundings and learn more about their world.

In 1885, Edward took his mother to see the State Fair in Sacramento:

It appears that Edward Booth was a generous and honest young man.  He bought gifts for his family members; he gave money to his church.  In December 1885, he noted, he bought a Christmas card for a Miss "Abbie R."  The ledger also shows that Edward and his family members -- including his sister Phebe -- often loaned one another money over the years, and it appears that Edward paid it back.

Towards the end of his ledger entries, though, Edward was not doing well financially.  The inscription under "Debits" in January 1887 reads, "Well, I am Broke."  

In February 1887, under "Credits," he noted that he sold some feed sacks and had cash on hand again.

Then in March 1887, the journal entries stop abruptly.  

The rest of the ledger is empty.  I wondered why, so I went back online and did some additional research on Edward L. Booth of Dunnigan, California.

Edward died March 17, 1887, at age 25.  He's buried in the cemetery in the tiny town of College City, California, along with his father, who passed away in 1881, and his mother, who died in 1898.

I looked through the other items I found at the estate sale, to see if I could piece together any other information about Edward Booth.  I was able to deduce from the names and addresses on some old letters and envelopes that the estate contained items from Edward's little brother Rossiter Booth's family. 

But since there were several hundred other buyers at the estate sale, I thought the chances of my having unknowingly purchased anything else of Edward's were pretty small.

Late this afternoon, however, I looked in the bottom of a small cardboard box I'd brought home from the estate sale. Someone had used it to store a few post-World War II Christmas cards and assorted scraps of paper.  

At the bottom of the box was a plain white envelope, unsealed, with one word written faintly in pencil on the front:


Inside, was one of Edward L. Booth's calling cards.

Someone in his family saved this small reminder of their brother, who "went home" so early in his life.  But their gesture was not in vain; this token of their love is now on the Internet.  And now we can all remember him.

There's only one thing to do with old documents that show small slices of life, more than 125 years ago.  I'm sending them to the Yolo County Historical Museum in Woodland, California, for their collection.  


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