The Thing About Unca’ Jerry.


Garrison Keillor used to tell stories about the bachelor farmers up in Minnesota. He did it in the News from Lake Wobegon segment of his radio show. I particularly liked that part because I’m familiar with the type. My uncles and for a time my brother Jerry filled the role in my family.

Gerald George “Jerry” Shannon. Family Photo©

Actually there were lots of uncles. No two were the same. There was uncle Ray, Ray Clarence Long was his entire name. He was a dyed in the wool gen-u-wine cowboy. Can’t have a better uncle than that. I mean, how many kids are blessed with one of those. He rode, roped, forked hay, milked cows, always a squirt for the kitties and the occasional nephew. Consider that once a chicken waddled into their old kitchen, hopped up on the table and laid and egg. My aunt Mariel calmly shooed the…

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…or stumbled onto history

Written by Michael Shannon

“The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” William Faulkner said that. He had every reason to believe it. Considered America’s premier Southern writer, he came by his craft honestly. He sat at the kitchen table and listened to his family talk. A common American theme for many of us.

Faulkner’s grandfather served in the same 2nd Mississippi regiment as my great-great grandfather and though that isn’t a connection cemented by DNA, it counts in our family.

Faulkner brought a fierce intelligence to his work. He was a keen observer of the life around him.

I suppose I could be accused of looking in the rear view mirror, after all life is made stable by what we know and learn about the past. The black and white past of pictures. There is another past though.

Old photographs and illustrations in long forgotten newspaper and magazines are always in black and white. People almost never smile. That can be because they had to sit very still for cameras whose exposure time was so long or perhaps they simply had bad teeth. My own grandfather had all his teeth pulled by the barber when he was in his thirties, so that could be true. He didn’t smile for the camera until he had those nice, shiny false teeth. After that he made up for all those frowns. Anyway, who really knows.

So much of our communal history is in black and white. Great-grandma Shannon’s picture portrait was so stern and scowling that no one in the family wanted to hang it. Was she really like that? My father always called her the meanest woman in the world. Was it her or was it the photograph?

Catherine Shannon and my uncle Jackie, Pismo Beach,1919. The meanest woman in the world. Shannon Family photo.

A recent development, the advent of colorized film has shone an entirely different light on those old, staid, ash colored pictures. Somehow the simple act of broadening the color pallet has made them seem much more real; interesting and alive.

Picture this. A colorized film shot around 1905 in New York city is posted on You Tube, shots of the line of pushcarts lined up along Hester street. The fishmonger, butcher, apple peddler and a cart with a hand cranked sewing machine for those in need of timely clothing repair are all there. Derby’s, hardboiled, everywhere. Soft felt hats on the poorer working man, women in shirtwaists and long floor length skirts; nearly every one with an apron. We take a ride on the elevated train as it crosses the Brooklyn Bridge. The train passes the Hippodrome which took up an entire block between 43rd and 44th streets along 6th avenue where entertainment included entire circuses, musical revues, Harry Houdini’s disappearing elephant act and vaudeville shows. Silent movies such as Neptune’s Daughter (1914) were shown before packed houses.

Harry Houdini and the disappearing elephant, Hippodrome, New York.

In what was meant to be a typical sidewalk scene the camera remains rooted while foot traffic passes up and down the broad walk. In the background the clip clop of shod horses, the metallic grinding of iron wheels, in the distance the clanging of a brass trolley bell announcing its coming. Typical people coming and going, a newspaper stand aligned along the curb in the middle background. A stout matron lumbers across the walk, her Merry Widow hat topped by a long ostrich plume, seemingly indifferent to anyone nearby; a young man in an early spring boater skipped out of her way the way a sailboat flees from an ocean liner intent on it’s destination. In the way people do, no one smiles or takes any direct notice of the camera. None of my business; places to go, things to do.

In the distance a pair of young people walk towards the lens. By their clothes they could be dressed up for a stroll towards the Hippodrome or to Delmonico’s for lunch. He in fawn colored trousers, polished shoes with toe caps, a jaunty straw boater atop; dark blue coat, sky blue shirt with a starched collar and cravat as ties were called then. She wears a white skirt over her matching petticoat and a pink shirtwaist adorned with ribbons. all tied at the waist with a velvet ribbon. Her summer straw hat has a big black and white bow.

There is no doubt they are a couple. In a time when displays of public affection were frowned upon it is clear by how closely they walk, an occasional brush of the hand, a smiling glance aside says that this is love indeed. There is a certain sweetness on display.

They walk towards the lens oblivious to the goings on around them. Not paying attention she walks directly over a steam grate set in the sidewalk and ala Marilyn Monroe, it blows her skirt up waist high before she can get her hands out to hold it down. High button shoes and silk stockings on display, a man crossing the street casts a sly sidelong glance. The young man turns to help, his hands reaching out towards her but embarrassed enough not to touch. Flustered she pushes her skirt back down, takes a step and turns to look at the young man, he grins. Has he seen them before? Suddenly with a smile of pure delight, she throws back her head and laughs; out loud.

What a glimpse into the living past. Not some posed, rigid mysterious photograph that leaves you guessing it’s meaning, but a look at how people really were. Just like now. Just like today. Just like always.

If you can get past the speculation, the rigid historical writings and like this flash of truth from New York 1905, you can see a beautiful young couple whose lives are ahead of them. If you can do that, then you know history is not some dry and dusty photo album in grandma’s attic nor a textbook sitting on your desk, it’s alive and it lives. Every day.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.




Written by Michael Shannon

Annie Grey, the Kodak Girl, 1904. Fitz Hugh Studio portrait. 1904. Shannon Family Photo.

Know that life goes on in a never ending circle, never reaching an end. What we do today has been done before. Human nature abides.

I was once a teacher. I taught in high school classrooms at the dawn of the I-Phone. The experience was seminal. We saw a transformation in the way people communicate. Literally overnight my kids created a new dimension for sharing information.

History has many examples of these technical or social transformations, the radio, the telephone, television, etc. which we are familiar with. Others are very old. The earliest known writing was invented around 3400 B.C. in an area called Sumer near the Persian Gulf, todays modern Iraq. Because many of these changes happen outside personal experience they are not so obvious.

In 1954, my grandparents retired from the dairy business after 41 years of serving cattle. They were happy with that. For the first time in nearly their entire married life they didn’t have to get up at four am. It as like being released from a long prison sentence and it changed their lives.

To reward themselves they decided to build a new home. My grandmother Annie picked a plan from a home and garden plan book, they called Howard Sharps, a contractor whose father C C had built their barns and outbuildings and he came out to the house they had lived in for thirty years, sat down at the kitchen table and Annie put her finger on the house she wanted. Over coffee they talked about what she wanted, shook hands on it as they used to do, and the project was underway. No contract because you didn’t do that. It was a small town, after all Howards father had worked as an apprentice for Annie’s brother-in-law and my father and uncle had gone to school with his boys. I went to school with Howards kids. You could trust them.

The New House 1963 and The Old House, 1930. Family Photos

In due time the family pickups were loaded at the old house on El Campo Road and driven up the hill and unloaded at the new house. They kept my grandmothers piano, which you may have read about, my uncles roll top desk from the original Bank of Arroyo Grande, and the solid Maple bedroom set which they had brought down from Berkeley in 1918. The White treadle sewing machine which was their first purchase as a married couple in 1908 went in the guest bedroom where we slept as little boys when we stayed over and the mahogany rocker in which my grandmother had rocked her little boys, my dad and my uncle Jackie.

That was about it. The old family were not big savers. In those days things were used, repaired and taken up to the dump at the back of the ranch when they wore out. Besides, grandma wanted new things, a washer, a dryer, refrigerator; living room and dining room furniture and those floor length white gray draperies with the rose pattern. New, it had to be new. Do you blame them? They lived through a twenty year depression, two World Wars and it had been a hard life.

I was just nine when they moved and I don’t remember much about the old house my great-grandpa Shannon built in 1920, where they lived all those years, but I do remember the new one. It was so different than the farmhouse we grew up in which was more than eighty years old. It didn’t smell like an old house. It smelled fresh, the walls were clean, it had new wallpaper and my grandma had Mae Ketchum, her old friend come once a week to clean it. My dad always said they drank more coffee than any cleaning he could see, but they had known each other since they were girls before the turn of the century so who’s to blame them.

I’ve always been a snoopy kind of guy. I want to know whats behind everything; what make it tick, what does it look like? You might be like that too. In the new guest bathroom grandma had a long row of floor to ceiling cabinets. She kept her linens there. Taking a hand towel out one day when I was washing up before lunch, I was hauling hay for my uncle Jack in the summer when I was thirteen and anyone who has done that knows how filthy dirty you get. Unloading the hay truck in the barn where it’s hotter than the dickens is not a labor of love. So, as I pulled the towel out I saw for the first time the three shoe boxes she kept in the back of the cabinet.

Curious, I pulled one out and removed the lid. Inside were stacks of very old photographs. Some printed on stiff cardboard, bearing the stamp of the photo studios where the family used to go when the it was only way to be photographed. You had to go down to Stonehart’s studio in Santa Maria or the Gainsborough studio or Fitz Hough’s in San Luis Obispo. It was a train ride on the old Pacific Coast Railway either way. Dressed in your best clothes, they would pose you against a backdrop where you had to sit very still while the film was exposed. It’s why you see so few candid photographs from that time. So serious. Or so it seemed.

We have a red velvet covered photo album full of these portraits, none I believe taken after 1900. Every one is a studio portrait. Serious, sober looking people dressed in their best. Sadly we only know the names of two. Below is one. I takes some serious imagination to breath any real life into them.

Mister John Corbit. Prominent Arroyo Grande Resident. Born Ireland 1846, Died Arroyo Grande 1893, Studio Portrait. About 1888.

Of course, they were no more serious than we are today. My grandfather and his boys used to tease my grandmother unmercifully, just to see her laugh. They lived lives just like ours, full of humor strife and sadness, it just doesn’t show in those old pictures. When I was young I thought, gee, they were so serious back then, not like now. Of course I was wrong. I just needed to look deeper into those boxes.

That didn’t happen though. It took another forty years, the passing of my grandparents, father and mother before those old boxes showed up again. In 1999, my uncle Jack living by himself on his cattle ranch up in Creston fell and cracked his head against the fireplace. He lay on the floor with a very nasty head wound, bleeding and just semi-conscious. A neighbor who used to come around to visit and check on him, found him, called the family and the ambulance. He’d spent his whole life chasing cows and he finally just wore out. He was ninety.

The ranch needed to be rented so cleaning up was a necessity. Uncle Jack was never one for maintenance so it turned out to be a big job. The boxes of photos turned up though. He must have taken them when he and my dad sold the Arroyo Grande Ranch and he bought the new one on Huer Huero creek.

I’ve been through them time and again. The sad thing is that almost none of the old photos has a caption or any information written on them. It’s been an adventure just trying to figure out who’s who. I wouldn’t say it’s been a chore; more like a treasure hunt. There are studio photos, pictures in old autograph books, school pictures and stacks of candid pictures taken when my grandmother Annie was a girl living in her uncle’s big house, Farview, with it’s panorama of the entire valley from it’s place on top of the hill.

Annie came up to live in Arroyo Grande when she was just eight. That was 1893. Soon after she must have asked for a Kodak. For the next few years until she graduated from college she took stacks of photos of her friends and family. I still have the old camera and actually used it when I was a kid. I Finally stopped when Kodak no longer made film for it. I kept it though.

Patrick Moore’s Farview House with nearly all of Arroyo Grande in attendance. 1890. Shannon Family Photo.

By far the most significant event in the history of amateur photography was the introduction of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888. Invented and marketed by George Eastman, a former bank clerk from Rochester, New York. The Kodak was a simple box camera that came loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. When the roll was finished, the entire machine was sent back to the factory in Rochester, where it was reloaded and returned to the customer while the first roll was being processed. The Kodak was made possible by technical advances in the development of roll film and small, fixed-focus cameras. Eastman’s real genius lay in his marketing strategy though. By simplifying the apparatus and even processing the film for the consumer, he made photography accessible to millions of casual amateurs with no particular professional training to make their own photographs. To underscore the ease of the Kodak system, Eastman launched an advertising campaign featuring women and children operating the camera, and coined the memorable slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Within a few years of the Kodak’s introduction, snapshot photography became a national craze. Various forms of the word “Kodak” entered common American speech and amateur “camera fiends” formed clubs and by 1898, just ten years after the first Kodak was introduced, one photography journal estimated that over 1.5 million roll-film cameras had reached the hands of amateur shutterbugs.

The great majority of early snapshots were made for personal reasons: to commemorate important events weddings, graduations, parades; to document travels and to record parties, picnics, or simple family get-togethers; to capture the appearance of children, pets, cars, and houses.The earliest Kodak photographs were printed in a circular form, but later models produced a rectangular image, usually printed small enough to be held in the palm of the hand. These are what I have.

My grandmother and her friends, 1903. Kodak circular print. From top. Hattie , Myrtle, Annie, Maggie, Mamie and Tootsie at bottom. The original is just palm sized, about the size of an egg. Shannon Family Photo.

That little camera was a turning point in her life. She recorded all of those things. She documented for me a period of her life when she was young, just a girl really. Her friends and family shown in a way not possible before the little camera. She kept it up until she married in 1908 and then she slowed down. By the 1920’s she was finished. I suppose life got in the way. She was a dairyman’s wife, raising two boys and other than occasional shots of her growing children she did little after those years.

Playing dress-up at Farview, Annie Shannon, Tootsie Lierly. 1900. Shannon Family Photo.

Like the cell phone today, the hand held, owner operated camera shed a new light on the history of her time. Before the Kodak you had the stereopticon with its two identical images that gave you the illusion of three dimension and There were postcards of far off places. Paintings and drawings illustrated the time and place. Stiff, formal and unforgiving, the visual history of the time left much to the imagination.

Annie with Uncle Pat Moore and Molly “O”. Shannon Family Photo.

Suddenly pictures of everyday life were possible. Grandmas little photo albums laid her life as a young woman, smart, playful, full of the gaiety of life before the gates to grown up opened.

A Day at the Beach, Harrie Tyler and Annie Shannon 1898, Pismo Beach, California. Shannon Family Photo.

Cellphones, Tik-Tok, Instagram, SnapChat, it’s all been done before. Society becomes more inclusive and at the same time less focused. Did the Kodak let me see a little ways into my grandmothers life? It sure did. Did it erase some imagination. It did that too. But look how much history the Kodak gave us.

At the beach in Pismo on a Sunday double date. Left to right, Annie Gray, Margaret “Maggie” Phoenix and Archie “Arch” Harloe. Taken at the foot of Main Street in 1904. Photo: Jack Shannon. Shannon Family Photo.

A note on the last photo, Both couples ultimately married. Annie Grey married Jack Shannon, they were my grandparents and Maggie Phoenix married Arch Harloe. Maggie taught school for forty years and has an elementary school named for her. Margaret Harloe Elementary School in Arroyo Grande, California.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

The night they drove old Dixie down. Written by Michael Shannon

“They’s hardly a family lived in this country for two centuries didn’t have a boy who served in the War Between the States as it’s called, particularly here in the south.” Marvelous Marv Huff, Hillsville, Virginia, my friend.

Now you can get yourself elected and say all you want about that horrible war, it’s a free county after all, but likely you don’t have the slightest idea why those boys went off.

We had a bunch in our family, both sides too. Eight. The 23rd New Jersey volunteers, 116th Pennsylvania, Company E, Virginia 27th Infantry Regiment, 4th North Carolina regiment and the 2nd Mississippi which fought in nearly every battle in the east.

Corporal Henry Dean Polhemus, 23rd Regiment New Jersey Volunteers. Army of the Potomac.19 years old, 1862. Shannon Family photo ©*

In the south, the vast majority of soldiers were from what used to be called subsistence farms. A farm that supported a single family. Most southern soldiers did not own slaves, they couldn’t afford them nor were they needed to work smallholdings.

The average Confederate soldier did not own other men and never thought to. That required far more money and capital and, for that matter, need than the average southerner had in the first place. Not all southerners were in favor of slavery and many objected it on moral principles, in the second place. In light of the journals and letters of those that lived it there were as many opinions as there were writers. In fact, only about three percent of all southerners owned any slaves at all; and while the majority of southerners of all classes did at least tacitly support slavery as an institution, they probably would not have been willing to fight and die for it as a single idea or to preserve it as a permanent state of affairs. What they feared more was the freedom of millions of slaves, who they saw as their inferiors. They also regarded slavery as a way of life in the society they and their parents and their parents before them, had been born into. Millions of black slaves had been born into it and accepted their bonded role in the world as a painful but quite natural reality. Abolition of slavery was for most Americans, including and especially southerners, especially slaves, an abstract idea, almost unimaginable.

The seeds of the conflict were sown in 1797 when the constitution was written. The impossible task of balancing power in the government between the less populated southern states and the larger populations in the north, when representation was predicated on population as it still is set in motion an inevitable confrontation between the cotton, rice and tobacco growers, which formed a monolithic economy and the growing, diversified industrial north. An economist will teach you that all wars are fought over economics, or to put it simply, money. Money leads to power and power starts wars.

Barely any education or none at all didn’t lead to introspection for the young man volunteering to go fight. Didn’t then, doesn’t now.

What many of the Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting for was to defend what they believed to be their Constitutional Right to secede from the Union of the United States. This question had been born during the Constitutional Convention eighty years previous; it had been argued and debated, often violently, on the floor of the Congress; compromises had been reached, but agreement on the question remained elusive. From the beginning, those southern leaders who were involved in the framing of the Republic contended that no federalist or centralized government should have powers to impose laws or other regulations on the states without the individual permission and will of the states.

If you think that idea has changed you’re not paying attention. The states of the confederacy, because of their absolute belief in states rights. Agreed on practically nothing. History in high school did not teach me that some states didn’t send soldiers to fight with Lee, but kept them home to defend the state itself. Railroads made no effort to have their rolling stock and rails match at the border. Trains had to be unload and reloaded every time they crossed from Georgia to Tennessee or into South Carolina. Jefferson Davis could not force any state to co-operate with the central government. He could suggest but the governors could and did ignore him.

On a more fundamental level, though, the average Confederate soldier enlisted, fought, and often died or suffered in battle because of an innate loyalty to his home, community or town. He was often pressured into volunteering by family, or by friends, and often joined up and fought to support friends and family, terrified more of shirking his duty or of coming home in disgrace than of dying in battle. For the most part, the average soldier was minimally educated, minimally literate, generally devout, and committed to his hearth and home first, to his state second, and to the federal government and flag, if at all, third. Most had never ventured more than a few hours’ travel from the place where he was born. Outsiders of any kind were viewed with a suspicious eye. They felt they were taking a stand to protect their own freedom; they also believed that God was on their side, because they firmly believed they had the moral high ground.

You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it

Besides, where are your men and tools of war to contend? The North can make a steam engine, a locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth living right at your side.

You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”
William T. Sherman, superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy (now Louisiana State University) 1860.

After the war, General Ulysses S. Grant was to write:

“. . . No foe fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought . . .”

Put those two together, and you pretty much have it.

“Meanwhile, perhaps no soldier in either army gave a better answer — one more readily understandable to his fellow soldiers, at any rate—than a ragged Virginia private, pounced on by the Northerners during a Confederate retreat.

Lean as wolves, photographer unknown. National Archives.

“What are you fighting for anyhow?” his captors asked, looking at him. They were genuinely puzzled, for he obviously owned no slaves and seemingly could have little interest in States Rights or even Independence.

“’I’m fighting because you’re down here,’ he said.” That’s the answer a Southerner would give you as to “why are you are fighting?” if you were a Northerner, he would say: to you “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” He was being invaded and he thought … to defend his home.

An unnamed citizen of Frederick, Maryland noted watching the regiments march north toward Sharpsburg in September of 1862. “I have never seen a mass of such filthy strong-smelling men. Three in a room would make it unbearable, and when marching in column along the street the smell from them was most offensive… The filth that pervades them is most remarkable… They have no uniforms, but are all well armed and equipped, and have become so inured to hardships that they care but little for any of the comforts of civilization… They are the roughest looking set of creatures I ever saw, their features, hair and clothing matted with dirt and filth, and the scratching they kept up gave warrant of vermin in abundance.” Another observer described the Confederates simply as “a lean and hungry set of wolves.”

They would inflict terrible casualties on the union army. With less than half their numbers, Lee’s regiments fought the union to a draw. They were hard and they knew it, they wore there toughness as a badge of honor. Boys can endure under the worst circumstances. Pride does that.

“Lean and hungry as wolves.” Confederates captured at Gettysburg, 1863. Matthew Brady photo.

As the civil war stumbled to it’s forgone conclusion in the spring of 1865 only one of my eight ancestors who enlisted in 1861 remained with the army. One had his enlistment expire, one was sent home for being only fifteen and four had been killed in battle. Sadly the three of the four were the brothers Hooper from Iredell County, North Carolina. Private Nelson Hooper, married with a pregnant wife was shot at Malvern Hill. He died in Richmond two days later. In his last letter home written in the hospital he said how he hated the war and just wanted to go home.

The country settled nothing. The politics are still alive. Human Bondage is gone but not in the least forgotten in this country. The war created devastated families and a world of widows. A family hangs by a thread, for Nelson Hooper’s daughter, born after his death in Virginia, was my great-grandmother.

James Martin Cayce, Company C, Calhouns Rifles, 2nd Mississippi Regiment. 1861, Army of Northern Virginia. Shannon Family Photo ©*

Sergeant James M. Cayce who served with the 2nd Mississippi Regiment and who was present at 1st Manassas, Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, Cold Harbor, Malvern Hill at which two of the Hooper brothers were killed. He was at South Mountain, 2nd Mannassas and Sharpsburg, the single deadliest day in American Military history.

Five of the ancestors fought at Malvern Hill, during the seven days battles, two died there. That’s how closely held is our history.

The second Mississippi went in with the North Carolinians on the first day at Gettysburg, losing heavily at the Railroad Cut fight. Two days later, the nearly destroyed regiment went up Cemetery Hill against the Union right with Pickett’s Virginians. They anchored the Confederate left with the the other Mississippi regiments. They suffered horribly. Those that returned; those who walked and tumbled back down that hill were 91 officers and men, out of 492 which came down the Chambersburg Pike with Colonel Joe Davis on July 1st. Scarcely ten were unscathed. They were so proud that they walked backward so not to shame themselves by being shot in the back. Grandpa James Cayce was one.

Confederate prisoners Fort Delaware New York. National Archives.

A day later he was captured and sent to the Fort Delaware military prison in New York where his chance of survival was less than on the battlefield. Treatment of prisoners by both governments was terrible and some prisons in both the north and south had well deserved reputations for bad treatment, bad food and high death rates. Nevertheless Jim Cayce hung on and was paroled in a prisoner exchange in 1864. Paroled meant he was not to return to the army but of course he did just that.

He returned in time for the Battles in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Two battles, over the course of ten days that caused nearly sixty thousand casualties. Sixty thousand. Say it again, sixty thousand men and boys slaughtering each other for reasons that by this time in the war have ceased to have any real meaning to those in the middle of it. It had become just murder.

Confederate prisoners fort Douglas, 1863. National Archives.

I am tired and sick of this war. It’s glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have never fired a shot or heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance. War is hell.”

General William Tecumseh Sherman, Army of the United States.

At the end, in the final weeks of the war the remains of Lee’s starving army stumbled southwest trying to escape General Grant’s onrushing Yankee army. Barefoot, clad in rags, with nothing to eat, tens of dozens of soldiers simply walked away and headed home. With only about 24,000 soldiers under arms, Lee faced more than 114,000 under Grant. Hoping to catch up with a trainload of food parked at the railroad on the Danville Line. General Stoneman’s union cavalry had shut them off, pulling up the rails and burning the ties. They were cut off and falling back were attacked and heavily defeated at Sailors Creek. The Army of Virginia lost almost 9,000 killed, wounded and captured that day. Three days later on April 9th, 1865, it was all over.

They sat down in Wilbur McClean’s house, crowded into the parlor. Terms of surrender were agreed upon, Grant and Lee shook and it was over. Just like that.

My grandfather, Jim Cayce was one of only 18 Mississippians of the 2nd left to surrender. He hung on to the bitter end. As they paraded on the last day, no one hung their head. Beaten but not defeated.

Rolling the Regimental Flags for surrender, April 1865. Richard Norris Brooke painting, A McCook Craighead Collection.***

As one old soldier said, “Well, my great grandfather walked up to his 78-year old father who was behind a plow in the field and said, “Go on to the house, Daddy, I’ll finish the plowing.” I imagine that most others got back into their old lives in the same way.

There are no letters or journals stating what Jim Cayce thought about why he served. He had gone “To See the Elephant.” He saw it and he came home. Nearly seven hundred miles from home he began to walk. What he though we don’t know.

His must have been the same way it is today. Veterans come home. They say nothing. Combat is too horrible and when they say you wouldn’t understand, you won’t. Put it in a box in your head and close the lid.

2nd Mississippi Regiment reunion with General Robert E Lee. Sgt. James Cayce, 9th from left, back row. Shannon Family photo.

If you pay attention, you can see that they are still unbeaten. For what does a poor man have? He has his pride which he holds in a clenched fist. Would you make him give it up? What does that accomplish?

Since the end of the Civil War the former Confederate states have provided nearly half of our military, more than their share. The same sense of duty still sends them of to defend their country.

So why? Their home, their family, their neighbors families, their state and their friends. If you don’t believe these things are worth fighting for, you are not a Southerner.

Sometimes history can be boiled down until one single thing can represent the angst and the despair that the defeated must hold in their hearts. It’s not history, it’s personal. Always was, always will be.

Levon Helm said this better than any historian ever could; in a song. Listen to it. See what I mean.


*Front Piece, Itawamba County veterans of the 2nd Mississippi Regiment, reunion.

**I’ve written about his great-grandson Donald Polhemus in the series about the destroyer war in WWII. NAQT is the title.

***The captured and surrendered regimental flags were returned to the states after forty years in 1905. Some still remain in Northern museums.

The Ancestors:

James Martin Cayce, Company C, 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Guntown, Mississippi. Age at enlistment, 24. Married

Shadrick N. Cayce, Company K, 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Guntown, Mississippi. Age at enlistment, 15

William R Hall, Company E, Virginia 27th Infantry Regiment. Rockbridge, Virginia. Age at enlistment, 41, married w/ 7 children

Thaddeus Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA Seven Pines, VA 1862. Iredell, North Carolina. Age at enlistment, 18

McKamie Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA 1st Bull Run, VA 1861 Iredell, North Carolina, Age at enlistment, 16

Nelson P Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA Malvern Hill ,VA 1862. Iredell, North Carolina, Age at enlistment, 24. Married

Henry Dean Polhemus, 23rd New Jersey Volunteers. Age at enlistment, 18. Northhampton, New Jersey

David Shannon, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, KIA Petersburg, VA 1864. Lackawaxan, Pennsylvania. Age at Enlistment. 20

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



Uncle Jackies Radio

Written by Michael Shannon

Jackie made a radio. You might think that it was no big deal and perhaps it wasn’t. But when he told me about it I was pretty impressed. I was just a kid myself then. We didn’t have a television until I was eleven so I grew up very familiar with the radio. It lived in the kitchen where we spent most of our family time until television came along and broke apart family conversation and time spent together. Not just being in the same room but talking to each other, sharing and listening to my parents talk.

The thing about the radio is that, like books, you have to use your imagination to fill out the story. With TV its all done for you. No imagination necessary. What you see is what you get. Radio was better, way better.

But, I digress. If you know anything about the history of radio particularly the technical part, how it works and how it’s made your are ahead of the game. You don’t though, do you?

Prisoner of War made radio, Stalg Luft 17-B, WWII. The crystal radio set belonged to Sgt. James L. Cast, an American gunner whose plane was shot down during a bombing raid over Germany in April 1944. Hidden in a soap dish. If found, immediate execution.

Politicians are always complaining about how things used to be so much better in the olden days. As usual they are full of manure. They’ve, if they ever knew at all, what things were really like in the past. My dad nearly died from Rheumatic fever when he was a little boy. That would have been in 1922. My dear aunt Patsy was the first person in Los Angeles county to contract polio. She was married with two small children and pregnant. That was in 1957.

Consider that my uncle Jackie; born in 1909 he was at risk for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Strep throat, Chickenpox, Whooping cough (pertussis), Rotavirus, Tetanus, Influenza, Hepatitis B. Diarrhea killed thousands of children each year. Of course Old Yeller had to die, Hydrophobia was fatal. The plow horse could take a child’s head off with one kick. Mothers and babes died in childbirth all the time.

A trip to an old cemetery will show you how dangerous it was. Life in the first half of the twentieth century was a risky business.

The only thing I can think of that was good for kids like my dad and uncle was the lack of almost anything you might consider “Modern.” If they wanted a toy, they had to build it themselves. On the old ranch, both my father and his brother would point out to us, when we were growing up ourselves where they dug a cave or built a fort in an old Oak tree. Behind the house, built in ’23 were rows of home built cages where they kept the squirrels, raccoons, weasels, possums and any other creatures they could trap. They didn’t kill or eat them. They would take care of them for a while and let them go. It was a game. There was a big cage at the end of the row where they kept the screech owl they caught in the grain silo.

My dad said that in 1920 they had a hog, they named him Flu, that was right after the Spanish Flu which had killed an estimated 21 million people around the world. People were helpless against the virus so naming a pig after it was like a spit in the eye of fate. People used to do things like that. Dad used to lead Flu around with a rope. Flu carried a passenger; a goat who stood on his back. The three of them were friends as he told it.

Pleasures were simple then. An orange and a new pair of socks knitted by your aunt Sadie was what you got for Christmas. If that seems. well I don’t know what it seems but dad always said he was glad to get them.

So kids got by.

On Christmas 1920 the boys received a book from family friends, the Gavins. Printed in 1913, it was titled “The Boy Mechanic.” It was illustrated with 800 separate drawings and not a single photograph in the lot. Dad said it was the best gift he ever got until he met my mother 22 years later. He kept her and the book all of his life.

The Boy Mechanic, Shannon Family Treasure.

The book was essentially a book of instructions from which a boy could make nearly anything his little heart desired. It was a long list of how to’s. Build a boat, build a windmill, a bow and its arrows, a device for electroplating, a dog cart. How to build a dry cell battery, necessary because the ranch had no electricity, so if you wanted build a wireless set you needed the battery.

The book spells it all out. Uncle Jack built both. Like thousands of other kids across the country he worked his way through the book. He said that it was one of the best presents her ever got. That’s saying something for a man who lived to be 95.

Jackie Shannon, 1928. Shannon Family Photo. ©

As they were growing up in the late twenties, kids made things. With nothing to distract them they taught themselves the things that quite literally won WWII,

When have you ever seen a movie about life in a Nazi Stalag Luft camp where the American prisoners didn’t build a radio receiver in order to follow the BBC’s nightly broadcast? The commandants strictly forbade the practice in order to keep the prisoners ignorant of the wars progress. Do “The Great Escape,” “Stalag 17” and Hogan’s Hero’s, ring a bell? In a place where there was literally nothing to build a wireless, they did.

When Sherman tanks were being killed by the dozens in the hedgerows of France, A Tennessee hillbilly named Roberts, who during a discussion about how to overcome the bocage, as the built up hedges were known, said “Why don’t we weld on some saw teeth like and put them on the front ah the tank and cut right through them damned hedges?” A sergeant in the 2nd Armored Division’s 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Curtis G Culin thought it was a good idea. Some destroyed German hedgehogs dragged up from the beaches of Normandy were cut up and welded to the front of the tanks and they began busting right through the barriers.

When B-25 bombers were being used for ground support strafing in the Pacific, pilots complained about the lack of firepower in the nose. Grounds crewman didn’t put in a requisition or ask permission they simply installed six machine guns in the nose and the problem was solved.

My bosses in high school, Tom and Bill Baxter were both Navy aircraft mechanics in the Pacific. Bill told me stories about how they would cannibalize smashed planes, wrecked jeeps and any other scrap they could find to repair the F-4U Corsairs they worked on. He said woe to the pilot who left his plane to go into the headquarters building to deliver mail because when he came back out he was likely going to be missing some essential part. He said they would swarm the plane and strip out whatever they needed in just minutes.

A European veteran who worked for my dad after the war was some kind of creative mechanical genius. I realized when I was older that many of the tools and machine we had were crafted by him. Once he went to our little airport , bought a Lycoming engine which had been removed from a wrecked aircraft and brought it home, He made it run, mounted it on a welded steel frame bolted to the back of a Caterpillar tractor and dad used it as a wind machine on our fall tomatoes. He invented a device which could top four rows of celery at one time saving labor in harvesting, no more hand work, no more hacked fingers. One winter he bolted three foot length of 4 x 4 lumber to the tracks of a Cat so it could be driven through flooded and muddy fields. It worked so well that other farmers wanted to rent it.

He had come out to California during the depression from Missouri on the back of a Ford flatbed with his parents, brothers and sisters. A 1700 mile trip riding up high on piled mattresses and furniture. It was a marvelous thing to watch him work. I didn’t know until I was nearly in high school that he could neither read nor write. He’d use a length of wood, a stick actually, to measure with.

This was in the days when you could ring Bert Cattoir at his garage on Bridge Street and describe the sound your cars engine was making and he could tell you what was wrong with it and how to fix it.

It strikes me that an entire generation of kids grew up learning the art of Make-Do. They went off in 1941 and won the greatest war in history. Many came home and used the GI Bill to go to college. It was the most consequential explosion of invention ever seen.

Those folks never questioned the value of an education. If you were their kid you had better do well in school. My parents would have never, ever questioned a teacher or the curriculum. They understood that school was to teach you to think; to analyze, to build a foundation on which you could build a life. They weren’t wrong either. From the early fifties until the seventies, schools produced the people who sent us to the moon. For a while in our history, education of that sort took on a value not seen since.

I think that The Boy Mechanic and books like it were the reason. Today it’s still in print. You can get one for your kids. Better yet turn off the TV and the I-Phone, send them outside and lock the screen door. My mom did.

Colin Patrick Shannon, Ben Hodges. Shannon Family Photo ©

Kids will find a shovel and dig a hole, they will take two sticks a nail and hammer together an airplane. Let them use their imaginations.

Cover: Learn by doing. Miss Hollands 8th graders, Branch Grade School 1956. Gene Terra, Ruben Cavanillas, Don Talley and Billy Gularte. Shannon Family photo.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



The Cow Counties

The Cow Counties

Chapter One

Written By Michael Shannon and Minerva “Libby” Dana

After gold was discovered, the drive to progress and the action in the new state of California moved to the north. San Francisco and Sacramento grew at an astonishing rate driving the population from around twenty-three thousand statewide to one hundred fifteen thousand in less than a year.

The history of California’s counties began when the “Treaty of Peace,” the vow of Friendship, and set border limits between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic was signed on Feb. 2, 1848. The treaty ended the Mexican War and placed California under jurisdiction of the United States. Better known as the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it was named after the city, near Mexico City, where it was signed. Treaty copies were subsequently exchanged and ratified in the Mexican city of Queretaro on May 30, 1848, and the treaty was proclaimed by President James K. Polk on July 4, 1848.

Californias first constitutional convention established a committee, chaired by General Mariano Vallejo, that considered the creation of California’s first counties. On Jan. 4, 1850, the committee recommended the formation of 18 counties. They were Benicia, Butte, Fremont, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Monterey, Mount Diablo, Oro, Redding, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Sutter.

For most of the Californios the transfer of government from Mexico to the United States would be an unmitigated disaster. Representation in the new government for Californio landowners, most of whom spoke no english, effectively neutralized their political influence. In time this would lead to the destruction of the great Ranchos. Rancheros were forced to prove that the land they owned was really theirs. The application of American property laws, administered through American courts and lawyers was decidedly one sided. Years of litigation and the high cost of lawyers all of whom were Americans advocating in American courts eventually either bankrupted the Rancheros who were then forced to sell off their land or who simply had their titles stripped away and seized by the state.

The rancheros who were American or British better understood the legal process and most of them eventually prevailed though at a financially high cost.

In the central, coastal Counties the Dana, Branch, Price, Hartnell, Sparks and the Den brothers all were granted clear title but only after a period averaging seven years.

For two decades after the beginning of the gold rush these counties were derisively referred to as the “Cow Counties.” The coastal counties were effectively cut off from the the northern and southern regions of the state. The sparse population was relatively static. Most imported goods had to come by sea to the few landing such as Cave Landing in San Luis County or Santa Barbara’s harbor.

A Californio Vaquero, Granger 1852

The southern counties had no gold. What they did have was cattle. Perhaps as many as a half million by 1850 grazed the pastures of the great ranchos. They were the basis of a financial system based on trade for there was no monetary system of note until the Americans came. Dry cow hides were loaded for Boston and ports east where the were used in the manufacturer of many kinds of leather goods. In return the Rancheros received manufactured good they could not make themselves. Sparsely settled, California had no distribution system and few craftsmen. They relied on imported goods from America, China and South America.

A rancheros family might dine on fine china from Asia, wear silks and satins and read the finest books from Spain but they had no gold. The Branch family of the Santa Manuels Rancho walked on carpets from Persia. Everything had to be traded for. Separated by miles and miles of rough dirt tracks, they made the best life they could. The Ranchos were located in mostly uninhabited areas and covered vast acreages. The isolated Ranchero’s were happy to welcome travelers along the El Camino Real and Fiestas would be organized at the drop of a sombrero. Californios were famous for their hospitality and their open handedness. In the first two decades of the Rancho system, the haciendas were splendid places to visit and many young men riding the trail found their brides while visiting. By the time of the gold rush there were cousins scattered all over coastal California. They weren’t snobbish either. Many rancheros were former Mexican soldiers, or Indian Vaqueros.

Casa Dana, Nipomo Rancho.

Cattle were first driven into California with the the first Spanish missionaries in the late 1700’s. Milk and cheese were produced at the all Franciscan Missions. The hides were used for shoes, clothes and dozens of other needs. The Mission fathers used the native population as labor teaching them the necessary skills to maintain the vast mission holdings. The friars did their utmost to destroy native culture, replacing it with their own ideas of civilization. Thousands of native men were trained as riders in order to control the herds of cattle because it wasn’t possible to fence all mission lands.

In between 1834 and 1836, the Mexican government confiscated California mission properties and exiled the Franciscan friars. The missions were secularized–broken up and their property sold or given away to private citizens. Secularization was supposed to return the land to the Indians. It did not. The “Neophytes” were left to their own devices.

In San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, far removed from anywhere, the year 1828 saw the first land grants. Within a few years the owners of these Ranchos took up residence. The beautifully named ranches began to appear. The Arroyo Grande, Santa Manuela, Corral de Piedra, the Rancho Nipomo, sibilant, liquid names that rolled easily off the tongue.

During the next two decades the Hacienda system was established. Homes, service buildings, bunkhouses, and corrals were put up and gradually the ranchos grew into a self supporting system which provided employment to the thousands of trained “novices” abandoned after the missions were closed. The native “Indios” intermarried with Mexican “Soldados” from the presidios and the native Californio was born. Added were the adventurers who came from all over the world. New Yorker, Francis, “Don Francisco” Branch who came overland from St. Louis with the Wolfskill party of fur trappers or Captain William Dana who came by sea from Boston. Both men ended up in Santa Barbara where they opened stores and traded in goods from around the world. Don Francisco, besides running his store, continued in the fur trade, killing and skinning Otters and seals then selling the pelts to the Russians at Fort Ross in Northern California.

Rancho Santa Manuela, circa 1860.

Ambitious and determined to make their homes in California they both married girls from prominent Santa Barbara families. Converting to Catholicism they became Mexican citizens. This qualified them as permanent residents with all the privileges and rights that came with it, including land ownership.

By the beginning of the gold rush the ranchos along the coast were firmly established operations. Each one ran cattle herds numbering in the tens of thousands. Ranging over the verdant green hills, the Vaqueros, by now a singular breed of man, flamboyant in their dress and manner, said to never walk if they could ride, courteous to women, deadly when insulted and intensely loyal to their masters worked the ranches. They preceded the American cowboy by four decades.

Take a break from this reading and listen to Dave Stamey’s Vaquero Song. cut and paste this link to Google. Dave Stamey was born and raised on Captain Dana’s Nipomo Rancho and come by his gift honestly:

Tales of Vaqueros roping Grizzly bears with their hand braided lassos are legion and undoubtedly true. It is said that the best of them could rope a chicken on the fly. If that’s not true it ought to be.

Vaqueros lassoing a Grizzly, James Walker 1877

Near the house I grew up in are the remains of the pits used to capture Grizzlies on the Santa Manuela Rancho of Don Francisco Branch. His home was on a hill just a mile from our house. Tales of the rancho life were everywhere as many of his descendants still lived in the Arroyo Grande Valley.

In 1848 the Rancheros in the Cow Counties began gathering huge herds of the free roaming longhorn cattle in preparation for driving them up the state to the mines to sell for beef. The cattle, heretofore used almost exclusively for their hides suddenly had taken a new and potentially very lucrative value.

Great difficulties of terrain prohibited driving them north. The Cuesta, just above the pueblo of San Luis Obispo was impassable for great herds of wild, not semi—wild, but truly wild, cattle.

The Tulare Indians who had plagued Don Francisco’s Santa Manuela and Arroyo Grande Ranches, came over to the coast from the southern Jacquin valley through the Pozo, crossing the Pine Ridge and into the upper valley in order to steal horses and cattle was also not a good trail for droving.

Instead the combined herds were trailed up the Cuyama river bed until entering the Cuyama valley on the Old Chimeneas Ranch. From there the broad valley in the springtime provided enough grass to feed a moving herd. Herds from the Cuyama Rancho of Don Cesario Lataillade joined them there. Once over the ridge of the Elk Hills above todays Maricopa they crossed the valley and then turned north toward the mines.

These trail drives were just as perilous as any across Texas would be some twenty years later. Though not as wide as the Arkansas or the Red rivers the Texas herds had to cross, the Tule, the Kern, Kings, Kaweah. and Merced. If the herds trailed north up the east side of the valley into gold country they were confronted by the Tuolumne, Stanislaus, Calaveras, Mokelumne, Consumnes and the big nasty American river. All of them were exceedingly dangerous to cross with cattle and horses in the late spring when the drives took place. Vast amounts of water from snowmelt ran far across the valley before ending in Buena Vista lake or Tule lake. If the herds turned north towards Stockton, moving along the west bank of the San Joaquin River the had the shorter drive but had to sell to middlemen at Stockton for less profit.

California Vaqueros, painting by James Walker, 1875.

Some of the tribes in the valley were still dangerous and had reason to be. Since the first Spanish explorer, Gabriel Moraga had made his way to the valley in 1800, the local Miwok, Paiute and Yokuts bands had been decimated by disease and killing. Taking cattle and horses for their people was practiced constantly. Rustling was very common and in the days of single shot muzzle loaders, hard to defend against.

By the 1850’s banditry had become a scourge. Immigrants of bad intent had arrived from the east coast and Australia and for a few years made San Francisco and the gold country very dangerous for a man with anything of value. Life was very cheap. In the days before photographs that could be used to identify the badman he had to be pointed out by a witness. Better to leave no witnesses. Hanging the bad man, if he was caught was a common solution. Rustlers, horse thieves, killers, claim jumpers and a host of other crimes met short thrift at the end of a rope. Hangtown in Placer county came by its name honestly.

White men weren’t the only culprits either. Californios, Mexicans, the Chinese and natives were routinely dispossessed, robbed, shot, their women raped and so disdained by the immigrant American that in 1850, the first elected governor of the state, Peter Hardeman Burnett, a former Tennessean who himself had enslaved people, though he opposed calls to make California a slave state, ihe nstead pushed for the total exclusion of African-Americans in California. Burnett was also an open advocate of exterminating all California Indian tribes, a policy that continued with successive state governmental administrations for several decades, which offered $10.00 to $25.00 for evidence of dead Natives.

James Hardeman Burnett

Burnett also proposed limiting immigration of non-citizens and expulsion of people of Mexican descent. Though forced to resign after just a year by moneyed interests in the state who recognized that all this was bad for business.

As evildoers were captured or hung, some saw the writing on the wall and slipped south into the Cow Counties where the population was small across the vast area they encompassed. With small populations still centered around the old mission churches outlaws could and did dominate law enforcement. They could and did pack juries with their own kind. Saloons and bars were numerous and populated by rough men who had no visible means of support. White and Mexican bandidos were everywhere. So much so that the tracks between ranches and little towns were sprinkled with the bones of men who had been waylaid, robbed and killed for what they were carrying.

The notorious Jack Powers, Gambler, horse-thief and noted killer lived for a time in San Luis Obispo and was reliably said to have left numerous bodies along the Camino Real.

San Luis Obispo Pueblo 1864. California Historical Society.

Pio Linares, his sidekick and and second son of Vicente Linares who owned the Tinaquiac rancho in Santa Barbara county also operated out of San Luis Obispo until he was shot to death by a posse in what is now Laguna Lakes.

Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang also headquartered in San Luis Obispo. Numbering as much as twenty desperados it was a formidable group and not to be trifled with.

Salomon Pico, scion of the very prominent Pico family of old California worked from the Los Alamos Rancho. A educated landowner, handsome and dashing he is said to be the inspiration for El Zorro, “The fox so cunning and free.” In fact he was a stone cold killer and riding south from San Luis Obispo county was extremely dangerous journey for a man carrying a poke of gold received for the cattle he had sold to the forty-niners.

By night, Salomón Pico with his gang, worked the El Camino Real south of El Ranch Nipomo, ambushing men riding south from the gold fields. Many of these parties of two or three, were never heard of again after passing San Luis Obispo. In later years along the road between La Graciosa and Los Alamos numbers of human skeletons were found in the countryside with a bullet hole in the skull, accounting for the mysterious disappearances of so many. The victims were mostly Americans whom the Californios felt were enemies, and the crimes which the gang committed were never divulged by the locals, or if brought to trial, resulted in an acquittal because in this region the Californios were still in the majority and Pico was connected to its influential members. His uncle was once the Governor of California.

The gangs avoided conflicts with county officials, who in turn seemed to let the bandits alone. Protected by a local population who resented the intrusion of the Americans they were difficult to capture.

During the early gold rush there were no towns of note between Monterey, the old Mexican capitol and San Luis Obispo. Returning south up the Salinas valley, where pioneer writer Alfred Robinson noted that the wild country between that town and the Las Animas Rancho of Don Jose Mariano Castro (Gilroy) where one could be assured of hospitality, was so wild, the trail only as wide as a single horse and the stands of chaparral, willows and native grasses were as high as a mounted man’s head. To ride alone was to risk your life. Another days ride and a stop at Rancho Posa de los Ositos and Don Carlos Cayetano Espinoza at todays Greenfield then on to the Old Mission San Antonio. San Antonio mission itself was the scene of a brutal and Horrific series of murders.

As the gold rush was going on, a lot of precious metal was being shipped up and down the coast of California. William Reed along with his family bought the old mission and set up boarding house for travelers along the old Camino Real. He took payment for food and lodging in gold. The dust and nuggets were buried somewhere on the mission grounds for there was no other place of safekeeping.

The death of the Reed family, their employees and servants is an example of the dangers of living in the Cow Counties in what were later called the “Bloody Fifties.”*

A group of travelers who spent a night at Reed’s included a man named Joseph Peter Lynch who had deserted from General Kearney’s command at Fort Leavenworth, and Peter Raymond who was an escaped convict and murderer already, having committed murder in the gold rush town of Murphys. These two had killed and robbed two Americans who they had encountered while traveling south from the bay area. While at La Soledad Mission, they teamed up with two deserters, one named Peter Quinn, the other Peter Remer who had jumped ship from the British warship HMS Warren, docked in Monterey Bay. Lastly, there was Sam Bernard who was accompanied by a Native American boy known as John, who was fleeing the Soledad Mission. This group arrived at the San Antonio Mission on December 4th, 1848.

Mission San Antonio de Padua. Circa 1865. California Historical Society

The group left the next morning. Realizing that Reed must have more gold hidden at the mission, they soon returned. Reed denied the existence of the gold. One of the men, Sam Barnard, pretending to get more wood for the fire went outside, returned with an axe, and hacked Reed repeatedly. Mortally wounded and bleeding from horrific wounds he was dispatched by the Indian Boy John who stabbed Reed with a knife until he was dead. The group then went through the Mission murdering the rest of the occupants who ran screaming trying to get away from the killers. Antonia Reed, pregnant was brutally struck down. Four other children died. As many as eleven people were slaughtered, including Reed, his family, servants, and guests. The bodies were dragged to the old carpenter shop and thrown in a heap. They were all eventually discovered by a mail carrier named James Beckwourth. They were later buried in one large communal grave at Mission San Miguel.

Two nights after the killings, the group camped for the night at the Corral de Piedra rancho in the area of the Corralitos, in the Arroyo Grande valley, less than mile from the home of Don Francisco Branch and his family.

A 37 man vigilante group chased the men down at the crown of Ortega Hill, overlooking the present town of Summerland. Bernard was shot and killed, John the native boy ran into the ocean and drowned. Peter Quinn was wounded and captured; Joseph Lynch and Peter Remer were also captured, and later confessed their crimes. Joseph Lynch, Peter Remer and Peter Quinn were executed by firing squad, in Santa Barbara, on December 28, 1848, near the corner of De la Guerra and Chapala Streets. They were buried in the cemetery of Mission Santa Barbara.

For thirty years, beginning with the gold rush the Cow Counties were a very dangerous place. The only justice was vigilante. It took many, many years to rid them of the scourge of those evil men. When my own grandfather was a boy in the 1880’s, south San Luis Obispo county’s supervisorial district was still commonly referred to as the “Bloody Fourth.”

The following is an article written by my grandmothers classmate at Santa Maria High School in 1904 and published in the High School Revue. The author is Minerva Elizabeth “Libby” Dana, Granddaughter of Captain William Dana owner of the Nipomo Rancho in southern San Luis Obispo county. The story she relates takes place in 1856. William Dana Jr was her father Davids brother. Though just seventeen when she wrote this account she speaks as if she was a participant. It’s a family story of the best and truest kind.


Rancho Santa Manuela, Don Francisco Branch and most of his descendants are gone. Casa de Santa Manuela has long returned to the good adobe earth from which it was built but the family of Captain William Goodwin Dana still own the remnants of Rancho Nipomo and play a prominent role in the little town of Nipomo California, and yes, there are still cows in the hills of the Cow Counties.

Casa de Dana at sunset.

Looking much the way it did in 1856 the old adobe has been restored and is open as a museum. Visit when you can. The spirit of hospitality still abounds on El Rancho Nipomo.

Note: *Bloody Fifties they were. Uncounted people were murdered for their goods. The phrase “Dead men tell no tales” effectively describes the M O of the Desperados of the time.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.


Minerva Elizabeth “Libby” Dana was the granddaughter of Captain William Goodwin Dana. Her story was printed in the Santa Maria High School Review in 1904. She was a classmate of my grandmother who was born on the Punta de Laguna Rancho of Don Luis Arelanes near todays Oso Flaco in northern Santa Barbara and southern San Luis Obispo County. Though the Ranchos are gone my family still lives on the Santa Manuela and my grandparents lived on the Bolsa de Chamisal.


The Tea Cup

Chapter Four

Annies Story

The girls were exhausted after a long and stressful day. They didn’t take time for dinner but changed into their nightdresses, leaving their clothes scattered about their rooms, something my grandmother never did on a normal day.

Annie took the telegram and put in the top tray of her trunk. She was too tired to think. She said her last thought was of Jack, wondering where he was and when he might knock on the Meeks door. Her last sight of the city across the bay was the massive clouds of smoke, the fires making a dull reddish gold beneath the columns which seemed to reach the sky.

On Thursday morning everyone was up early Myrtle, Blanche and Annie were to return to Stiles Hall and serve breakfast for the thousands of refugees who were everywhere in Berkeley and Oakland.

Still in their nightdresses, they helped each other put their hair up. No woman in 1906 who was respectable would be caught dead with her hair down. Girls wore their down until they left girlhood behind when they were about fifteen or sixteen. Part of growing up. Girls to women, as a sign of the coming more serious time of life, put their hair up.

Annie Gray, 1906. Shannon Family. ©

The Gibson Girl pompadour was still the style. Every woman let their hair grow a long as possible, Annie’s reached her waist. The combing, ratting and rolling up of the hair into a bun at the top of the head then surrounding it with the rolls, all pinned up with hair pins. (The bobby pin was not invented until women started bobbing their hair after WWI). Sometimes for a more casual look a chignon was turned in the back and just the front was ratted and rolled.

Each girl dressed for work and an anticipated long day. First the chemise. The first of the undergarments made of soft cotton because it was next to the skin. Next Annie would slide into her corset or stays as they were beginning to be called. More flexible for the type of day ahead than the older whalebone corset, it was then fastened to the stocking tops with the three hanging garters for each leg. For this day her stockings were cotton instead of the usual silk. Around her waist she pulled up a petticoat which she tied at the rear. Over that the silk camisole* and finally a checked pattern housedress, likely with two pockets in the front. The dress was in two pieces, a bodice, fastened with both snaps and more hooks and eyes. Then a skirt buttoned at the waist and closed by snaps down the side. Topped off with a matching belt, tied in the back with a bow she was almost ready to go. Slipping into her low heeled button shoes she quickly pulled each button through an eye with her button hook.

Things moved more slowly in 1906 but to the people who lived then it was completely normal.

After breakfast the three young women walked down to Shattuck and took the streetcar up to Bancroft Way and then walked to campus, crossed the street and walked up to Stiles Hall where they would work, feeding the refugees and offering what comfort they could. The refugees were fed bean sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and whatever cheese and meats could be scrounged from neighborhood stores and gardens. Annie said that horse drawn wagons rolled up to Stiles Hall during the day loaded with what spring vegetables farmers were able to pick and not one ever asked for a dime in payment. Local people walked or rode to campus carrying blankets, quilts, pillows and clothes.

She didn’t know yet that cities and towns all over the country were loading trains with food, clothing and other essentials which, in some cases like Los Angeles, trains would arrive at the depots before the morning of the 19th.

Annie said the most important thing they had to deal with was the influx of refugees that flooded across the Bay. “Most of the people were in terrible condition,” she said, “They were in shock. it was the biggest peacetime evacuation in United States history at the time.” “There were lines of terrified people shuffling up towards the campus. Even at night you could hear them walking by the house.”

Doctor Meeks was using his automobile to pick people up at the wharf and drive them up to campus. There they were checked in, fed, given bedclothes and assigned somewhere to sleep. The tents from Mare Island had been erected at the stadium and were already filling.

In the days following the quake and fire, about 123,000 San Franciscans came to Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda County. They arrived by train, having traveled down the peninsula to San Jose where they were turned away by city government and police. Most returned to the trains and traveled up to the Oakland area.

Pass to San Francisco from San Jose. Private collection

Any kind of boat that would float transported those fleeing the destruction. The cross bay ferries and anything else that floated, including Chinese junks and Italian fishing boats were crossing back and forth.

As a load of people came down the gangplanks of the terribly overloaded ferries and then fire equipment and men from Oakland and Berkeley were loaded for San Francisco. Hundreds of men from Oakland boarded the return ferries to try and help the city.

She was told that some boatmen were charging fifty dollars or more to make the trip. Desperate people paid. She learned that one mans disaster is another mans opportunity. She was a kind woman and she said stories like that broke her heart. “It was a terrible cruelty,” she said.

Cross Bay Ferry Santa Clara, Bancroft Library.

She said that in Berkeley “People came together” Everyone who could help did. Nearly every resident opened their door to friends or strangers, and at the University of California, Berkeley, students gave up their sorority and fraternity houses to shelter the refugees. With twenty-one Fraternities and seven Sororities, they housed and fed hundreds of people.

Badly shaken by the quake and the flames that followed, exhausted San Franciscans straggled to safety after hours without food and water. My grandmother said it went on for days. Families with a child carrying nothing but a Teddy bear, still in their pajamas, some walking on bare feet. Dirty faces streaked with tears. Some still wore their nightclothes and clutched an odd assortment of personal belongings.

She saw a man walking in his long johns wearing a silk topper. She said grown women were in all kinds of undress but not one had neglected to put their hair up and pin on a hat.

At the time a town of 26,000, Berkeley took in 8,000 displaced San Franciscans in the first two days following the earthquake. At its peak, the city housed 15,000 refugees. Here it was that Oakland outdid herself. During the afternoon and night of the 18th thousands of refugees from San Francisco came to Oakland and the people of city fed them and found places for them to sleep. On the next day the plans for relief had been fully developed, so that no one who entered from the San Francisco was hungry or without a place to sleep. Hospital supplies, boiled potatoes, oranges, oats and clothing eventually began rolling into town from around the state and across the nation. All night long we could hear people shuffling on the sidewalk with packs on their backs, family treasures including clothing rescued from their homes, hopefully seeking shelter here. Tens of thousands of people had been shaken out of bed and now possessed nothing but what they could snatch before the fire reached them. Desperation cannot describe what we saw in their faces. Most lost everything.

People liked up for relief, Oakland City Hall 1906.

Annie told me that, “There was no thought of looking to the government for anything, They did what needed to be done, and they did not hesitate.”

The churches had people sleeping in pews, the Odd Fellows and Masons took in as many as they could. No one seemed to be concerned about who these people might be. Pickpockets, thieves, prostitutes, the poor and the rich were treated equally. Evil was temporarily suspended.

Annie said they fed Isaias W. Hellman, purported to be the richest man in the west and owner of the Wells Fargo Bank who stopped at Stiles for a bite to eat. His bank was to burn to the ground on the 18th. The Hellman family bought the old Dunsmuir estate that same year. Perhaps he didn’t want to return to the city very badly. He ate the bean sandwich though. It made her laugh. She said the high were brought low like everyone else.

Wells Fargo Bank Building 1906. Genthe Photo

There was something she wasn’t laughing about though. Where was Jack? She half expected him turn up at any moment. By this time she knew that the phone and telegraph lines were down indefinitely and there was no way to get a message across.

The Oakland tribune had loaned its presses to the three biggest papers in San Francisco, The Morning Call, The Examiner and the Chronicle. They published on Thursday the 19th scarcely 24 hours after the quake. With no distribution possible, the bundles were simply put out on the sidewalks for anyone to take. They carried the first written eyewitness accounts of the disaster.

When they could take a break from kitchen duty, Annie, Blanche and Myrtle along with the twins, Edith and Ethel who were volunteering at the lying-in hospital that had been set up in Hearst Hall sat together on the steps of Stiles Hall and scanned every word written. Heads together they read. Not a single word of good news was printed there.

Joint Newspaper morning of April 19, 1906. Shannon Family Trust.

All these girls were women of privilege. None were farm girls or daughters of laborers. They all came from wealthy or prominent families. Annie was raised by her very wealthy aunt and uncle and never lacked for anything. Her father was a farmer/rancher and owned oil wells in the Orcutt area of Santa Barbara county. Blanche’s father owned a Dry Goods and General Merchandise store in Santa Maria California. The two young women had known each other nearly all of their lives. The graduated in the same class of 1904 from Santa Maria High school.

Blanche’s family store, Her father is standing in the doorway hatless. South Broadway, Santa Maria California. SMVHS

Myrtle’s father owned a large dairy farm in Mission Valley, San Diego. The Hovey twins lived with their widowed mother in Berkeley and though not wealthy their mother worked as a senior bookkeeper for the Southern Pacific Railroad. They managed.

All this experience was new to them. Working in Hearst Hall, particularly the first few days when many refugees were coming in with burns, broken bones caused by fire and falling bricks or glass and expectant mothers giving birth was something entirely new. They were called earthquake babies and there were many.

At the end of the long day they looked across the bay and stood for a while watching the city burn. I was agonizing, they all knew people that lived there and had no idea how any of them had fared. The chances of seeing someone who knew the person you were worried about were slim. Thought the exodus from the city would amount to half its population of four hundred thousand there was little chance you might see someone who carried a note or had any information.

Santa Maria High School Class of 1904. Annie Gray right rear, Blanche Schwabacher sitting with glasses. Shannon Family.

Blanche and Annie decided to walk up Strawberry Creek to get a better look at the city. They climbed the hillside, found a level area and sat down on the blanket they carried. In the early evening they could see dozens of others intently watching as San Francisco went up in flames. The black , sulphur colored yellow and gray clouds shot through with the deep red and orange from the fire were lit from within, boiling twisting and flickering like the gates of Hades. Annie said she could close her eyes and still see them seventy years later. It was terrifying but they couldn’t look away, spellbound by the sheer horror of it. They could hear frequent booms which she said sounded like artillery. They didn’t know it was the sound of buildings across the city being dynamited for firebreaks. The Hearst Examiner which she had just read that morning was one of the big Market Street buildings brought down by the explosions. All on San Francisco’s newspaper row was lost.

The two friends leaned against each other, then embraced and began to cry. Where was Jack, where were the Craigs? Where was anyone they knew. Would they ever know?

*The family still has one of her pink silk camisoles, embroidered at the neck with handmade lace. We also have a the white pleated skirt from the same period and the ubiquitous button hook for her shoes. Most amazing of all, we still have the telegram which was framed and hung on the wall for decades.

To Be Continued….

Next Jack’s Story.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



The Tea Cup

Written By: Michael Shannon

Jack Shannon

You could not tell but it looked as if

The shore was lucky in being backed by a cliff,

The cliff being backed by continent:

It looked as if a night of dark intent

Was coming and not only a night, an age.

Robert Frost, “Once by the Pacific,” 1928

Jack paused at the entrance to Jones and looked right to see the Post Office building at Seventh and Mission. He told me that it was to be the site of one of the most courageous attempts to save a building during the fire. At that time of the morning though it didn’t seem damaged at all.

On Wednesday morning at a quarter past five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working-class ghetto, and in the factories, fires started. There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water-mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds’ twitching of the earth-crust. Jack London

He turned and looked down Market. In the distant he could just make out the tower of the Ferry building.

The mornings mist, the shaken dust and the first tendrils of smoke drifted in his vision. People were beginning to come up from the Mission and over from the residential areas of the Hayes Valley. Clouds of smoke were rising from somewhere down around Davis and Front streets and to his right flames were visible on Fremont. Already there were fires along Howard and what looked to be several down Sixth Street in the heart of the Slot.

At first it was mostly men walking up and down Market, staring at the destruction, brick and broken pediments, shattered glass, dead horses smashed and their wagons destroyed by falling Terra Cotta decorations fallen from the friezes of the big commercial building along both sides of the street. As he began walking down towards the bay he saw another dead man. On the corner of Market and Powell, a delivery driver and his horse were both half concealed under debris fallen from the facade of the largest office building in the west. Built by James Flood, one of theVirginia City Nevada’s Silver Kings. Primarily a stock manipulator who invested in Banks and real estate, much of his San Francisco holdings disappeared in the fire. A poor saloonkeeper who along with his business partner William O’Brian managed what was thought to be a hair brained scheme to corner stock in the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company, which became the richest silver mine in Nevada history, churning out, in it’s heyday, $1,500.000 every day seven days a week. His former mansion was the only one of the Nobs homes not to be completely destroyed. Gutted by the fire, it was sold and refurbished. Today it is the Pacific Union Club, a well known landmark in the city and on the register of the National Historic Trust.

Soon, as the murky sunlight revealed the heaps of broken brick people began arriving on the streets, throngs of the curious were coming downtown to see the spectacle. Jack said it looked like every man woman and child in the city was out in the streets. Survivors were transfixed by the destruction. They stood and watched, speechless. Jack said when they did talked it was in quiet, hushed tones as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was communal shock.

There was no real organization early on Wednesday just an occasional policeman seeming as bewildered as the rest of the crowd. Coming up market was a single horse drawn wagon with a cord of dead for a load. People moved aside but paid little attention to the macabre scene. They would get used to it in the coming days. No one had hired the wagon, the driver had just taken it upon himself to do something. Jack said the destruction, though mainly superficial, the crumbled state of Markets business district was simply overwhelming and hard to take in.

My grandfather began pushing through the crowds headed down toward the waterfront. He said most people at this stage just stood in small groups talking and wondering what was going to happen next. No one seemed to be planning anything, overcome with the enormity of what they saw. The destruction had barely begun.

He spoke with a policeman who had witnessed the quake standing by his call box and talking to a grocer at the eastern end of Washington Street. Washington is one of the longest streets in the city. It butts up to the Presidio in the west and then by fits and starts makes it’s way past parks, rises and falls over Nob, Russian and Pacific Heights where the rich swells live, passes through Chinatown and ends at the Embarcadero amongst the warehouses of the produce markets. The officer said, “The earth rose under me and I fell to my knees. It came down Washington in huge undulating waves. The entire street and all the great buildings on it rose and fell, rose and fell, an unstoppable wave of brick, stone, wood and cement. Both Washington and Davis streets split, the cobblestones dancing and water spurted out of everywhere. The buildings around me began to tumble and some fell, collapsing in heaps of brick and wood. I had to dodge flying bricks which shot from the surfaces of building nearby. It was pretty hot. The top of the building at Washington and Davis fell and killed a man.”

Jack said that as the police came up Market they herded the crowd along and away from the fires. He walked for a bit with another officer who had witnessed the earthquake from the middle of the street in front of his station near Chinatown. He told Jack that he though he was gone when the Phelan building lurched out over the street, every windows shattering spraying across the width of O’Farrell and Market. It hung for a long moment then creaked back onto its foundations with a horrifying screech of steel and concrete. The tallest building in the city, just across the street, built with Claus Spreckels sugar fortune and home to one of San Francisco newspapers, The Morning Call, which had once employed a writer by the name of Samuel Clemens, the Call had lurched first south then north with a massive groan and cracking. The Oberon building shuddered then its entire front gave way crashing into O’Farrell in a choking cloud of dust.

Claus Spreckels Morning Call building on Market taken from Sutter St, 1903. Photo SFPL history Center.

The next was almost on top of them . The fires in the Mission district and South of the Slot were beginning to merge as one. He said that just on the edge of awareness he could hear the crackling and snapping as the flames licked away at the wooden buildings that made up the combined residential and wholesale district just a block or two below Market Street. He turned down Fourth just past the huge Emporium building with its big display windows blown out and scattered nearly all the way across the street. He wanted to get a closer look, worried that the way to the ferries could be blocked by the crowds on Market.

The fire department was woefully underprepared for what was coming. With eighty stations scattered around the city, none in Chinatown though, it could only field thirty-eight steam pumpers. The Insurance underwriters had noted the steamers, at best, could only muster 70% of their rated capacity. The seven hundred fire fighters were woefully undertrained and the ladder trucks didn’t have the capacity to go above the second story of any building. The chief was well aware that the city had burned to the ground six time in its fifty-eight year history and according to the insurance companies report San Francisco had violated all underwriting traditions and precedents by not burning up.

As he turned down Mission Street, he saw that at the corner of Third and Mission a four story wooden rooming house had completely collapsed. It was no more than a splintered heap of shattered wood and even from a block away he could hear the screams and cries of the people trapped inside. There was a crowd of men and women scrambling over the wreckage clawing at the debris with bare hands trying to pull out the trapped and injured. He said he ran down and joined them. They could hear the cries for help deep in the pile as they frantically pushed and pulled at the broken building dragging the injured and the dead out and carrying them out to the street. A man pulled from the wreckage told them there were many dozens of people underneath. He said the quake caught most of them still asleep with no chance to get out.

Jack looked down Mission towards the waterfront and said he could see the fire streaming up from Fremont and First. The Steamer Engine from Company 38 was making a hasty retreat in his direction, dragging their hose and looking for the next hydrant. The fire was moving fast as they hooked up at the corner, dragging the hose over to defend the wreckage. A hose man took his wrench and turned the valve on the hydrant. Nothing happened, he didn’t look surprised but quickly turned it off then on again. Nothing.

All over the city Firemen were finding that the water system was shattered. Forty-four inch cast iron mains had been snapped like straws. In places water was pouring from the streets as the cisterns emptied. Nearly all the high pressure mains were out of service. Desperate crews took to opening manhole covers and pumping raw sewage to try and stop the fires. At the waterfront hoses were coupled in long strings and the pumpers used salt water from the bay. My grandfather said he saw other more lighthearted outcomes. In some residential areas children were playing in the pools of water draining from the fire department’s system.

Still early in the morning and thousands of people milling about the streets, some watchers on rooftops and still other crowds visible up on the sides of Nob Hill. Jack began to worry that the ferries might stop so he turned and began to hurry down Market. Not far ahead he saw the fires had joined and the area of lower Market Street were a wall of flame. To his right the fire was greedily consuming all the area south of the slot. The ramshackle hotels and apartments buildings which hadn’t collapsed were going up like tissue paper. At the southern corner of Third and Market a Fire department steam pumper appears, the exhausted horses stained with soot and lathered being led by a fireman and the pumper itself being pulled along by a half-dozen volunteers. The fire so vast and dangerous that the only possible thing to do was to save the machine. Jack grabbed on with the rest pulling the rig around the corner and a ways up Market until the found a hydrant. While a man turned the valve and they hooked up hose a fireman told him that down on Steuart Street a pumper had been hooked to a fireboat and hose run along the street toward the fire and they thought they might be able to save the ferry landings. He also said that Jack couldn’t get down there because the fire was a hurricane and there was no way around it. The police and the army were pushing people up from the waterfront and away from the advancing inferno.

Jack didn’t have to be told to get moving, streams of people who had gone down Market to see the destruction were now hurrying back up away from what had become one enormous inferno, consuming everything in its path.

It was barely eight o’clock in the morning…..

To be continued:

Next, Annies story.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.




Written by Michael Shannon

Working on the railroad all the live long day.

It was a bet between two railroad builders. Charles Crocker, one of the so called Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad and Wily, rapacious Doctor Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific Railroad, wryly captioned “Uncle Pete” by the men who built it.

Charles Crocker was only 47 at the time of the great race, Thomas Durant was 49. Still young men.

As the roads closed in on the designated place where they were to meet at Promontory Point in Utah. In a fit of excess pride, Durant ordered his construction bosses, the Casement brothers, Dan and Jack to lay as much track in a day as they could.

Tough as nails and given to dressing like a Cossack, Jack Casement worked his men hard. The crews lived in 20 cars, including dormitories, kitchen, dining car and an arsenal car containing a thousand loaded rifles. They moved west accompanied by a mobile town that could be put up and torn down in a day. Called “Hell On Wheels” its only purpose was to supply the largely Irish workforce with all the requisite vices.

Track crews worked seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day. They were paid a dollar for each days work. Much of the money went to the pockets of the thimblerigs, gamblers, bartenders and the ubiquitous “laundresses” that followed the road.

On the 24th the Union Pacific broke all records by laying six miles of track. Charles Crocker and his Chinese “pets” were invited to match that. The “Pets” was a derogatory term applied by other Central Pacific men to the Immigrant Chinese. Refugees from China during and after the Taeping revolution the Chinese had proven to be steady and hard working. Personal cleanliness and with a diet of vegetables and rice they were free of disease, did not drink and worked as steady as a metronome. By the time the Central Pacific hit Utah, they employed between ten thousand and fourteen thousand men, nine of every ten, Chinese.

Crocker beat it by a mile. Then the Union Pacific Casement brothers came back with seven and a half miles, working from three in the morning until almost midnight. But the Central Pacific was not to be beaten.

A $10,000.00 bet, $2,200,000.00 in todays currency, between two men with giant egos hanging in the balance, Crocker and his crews timed the final go so the other road wouldn’t have time to challenge whatever they did. Crocker and Durant epitomized the robber barons of the nineteenth century. Big risk, big reward.

After a day of careful planning, work began on the morning of April 29th, 1869. They were ready to go. A continuous line of five trains loaded with rails, spikes, fishplates, bolts and nuts were backed up to the end of track. Wagons loaded with water, hand tools and stacked high with ties were driven in and parked alongside the prepared roadbed. Thousands of men took their places and at exactly 7:00 o’clock a locomotive engineer carefully following the minute hand of his open pocket watch reached up and yanked the whistle cord sending up a piercing shriek of live steam and the great day was kicked off.

A train of sixteen cars loaded with iron rail and materials for two miles of track was pushed up to the front. Men climbed on top and threw off the fish plates and kegs of bolts and spikes. Others punched side stakes out of the right and left alternate cars. The rails were then rolled off and in eight minutes the sixteen ears were cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army. The flat cars were then flipped off the track and the locomotive was then pulled back out of the way and another train of rails brought into position.

As soon as the material train was gone, small iron hand cars were put on the tracks. Each had a crew of six Chinese working under white bosses. Sixteen rails were loaded on each car, together with a keg of bolts, a keg of spikes, and a bundle of fish plates. Two horses with riders were attached to the car in tandem by a long rope. As soon as the car was loaded and the crew on top, the horses were off on the jump. One side of the roadway was kept clear for the horses racing ahead with the material cars. On a down-grade horses were detached and the car went flying along with one of the crew acting as a brakeman. The horses ran alongside and, when a level was reached, the nearest rider hooked on again. The first car out from the material dump only had to a short distance, while the last cars had to go perhaps two miles.

At the same time empty cars were returning on the single track, all of them at full speed. As a full car came closer, the crew on the empty car jumped off and lifted their car from the rails, while the loaded car went past without slacking speed. There was no halt in the continuous stream of materials to the front.

When the loaded car neared the rail-head, its gang stepped off and another gang jumped on with picks. They broke open the kegs and cut the fastenings on the fish plates. The keg of bolts was thrown to one side to men who filled their buckets and distributed the bolts. Other men distributed the fish plates. The spikes were poured out over the rails on the car and as the rails were pulled off the spikes dropped through the floorless car and distributed themselves.

At this point the picked crew of Irish rail handlers, working under Track Foreman H. H. Minkler and Gang Foreman George Coley, came into the picture. A single horse pulled the car up to rail-head, where it was blocked by a wooden-framed iron track gauge. Four men worked on each side of the track. Two men seized the forward end of the rail with their tongs while the two rear men slipped the rail to the side of the car so it rested on iron rollers. The two forward men trotted ahead the length of the rail, thirty feet, the rear men dropping the rail in place, where it was bolted and spiked by the track gang. The car was then pulled forward to the next track gauge and the procedure repeated.

The track went forward at the rate of almost a mile an hour. A correspondent for The Alta Califonian , a San Francisco newspaper, timed the track layers. He wrote: “I timed the movement twice and found the speed to be as follows: The first time 240 feet of rail was laid in one minute and twenty seconds; the second time 240 feet was laid in one minute and fifteen seconds. This is about as fast as a leisurely walk and as fast as the early ox teams used to travel over the plains.”

The rail handlers were only eight of several hundred men at the front, everyone of whom was an important cog in the smooth-working machinery. Ahead were three “pioneers,” the most advanced men, who, with shovel and by hand, butted the ties to a rope line measured from the track-center spikes set by the surveyors. About half the regulation number of ties were placed at first to insure having sufficient for the ten miles.

Just behind the rail layers came the spikers, bolters, and those who distributed the materials. The brawny Spike Men swung once to set the spike then one-two and she was done. A steady pace, three notes on the steel spike and on to the next one.Then came the gang that surfaced the track by raising the ends of the ties and shoveling enough ballast to hold them firm. Immediately following was a surveyor who sighted the line of the rails and, by motion of his hands, directed the track straighteners. Then the tampers, 400 strong, with shovels and tamping bars.

When a halt was called for the midday meal, six miles of track had been laid and the men were confident they would reach their goal. A number of Union Pacific officers had lunch with Stanford, Crocker, and others of the Central Pacific. They were ready to extend congratulations. “Victory” was the name given the spot where lunch was taken. The station is now called Rozel.

After lunch the work went on, but not so rapidly. The ascending grade on the west slope of Promontory Mountain was more difficult than the section covered during the morning and there were many curves. Considerable time was lost in bending rails, which was done by placing the rail on two blocks and forcing it into the desired curve by blows of heavy sledge hammers.

When the forward march was halted at 7 o’clock, ten miles and 56 feet of new track had been added to the Central Pacific. Jim Campbell, boarding boss and later superintendent of the division, jumped into a locomotive and ran it back over the new line at a clip of 40 miles an hour just to prove that the job had been well done.

If the roadway had been perfectly level and straight, these men could have laid fifteen miles of track. The task had involved bringing up and putting into position 25,800 ties, 3520 rails averaging 560 pounds each, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material making a total of 4,462,000 pounds.

From the first “pioneer” to the last tamper, about two miles long, there was a line of men advancing a mile an hour; iron cars with their load of rails and humans dashed up and down the newly-laid track; foremen on horseback were galloping back and forth. Keeping pace with the track layers was the telegraph construction party. Alongside the moving force, teams were hauling tool and water wagons. Chinamen with pails dangling from poles balanced over their shoulders were moving among the men with water and tea.

Farther back, locomotives were waiting with their cars of materials. All five train loads were used on that day. When one section was completed, the next material train was moved up as far as possible on the new track and materials for another two miles unloaded. In the rear of all this was the boarding house train and quarters of officers, a long line of wood houses built on flat cars, looking like a small town stretched out. In the valley below, continuous trains of wagons and mounted work shops moved along in parallel lines. It could only be compared to the advance of an army, which it was.

The men who did it have vanished from history. Only the tracklayers whose names were listed on the time book of the foreman George Coley exist. Their names, civil war veterans from both armies, Immigrants and working men from the teeming ghettos of Five Points and Hells Kitchen and Baltimore’s Pigtown are listed. The all-Irish crew of Conley, Kennedy, McNamara, Daley, Kelleen, Joyce, Carton, Egan, Elliott, Thom and Sullivan. Coley also noted that each man was given four days pay.

Crockers pets the Chinese might have been but the Paddy’s got the plum jobs. No Chinaman ever hogged a locomotive and no Irishman hung from a basket to clear the Cape Horn turn above Auburn for blasting.

It was the greatest public works project ever built in our country. It also began a period in which the railroad took on and reshaped America and changed American thinking. The luxury passenger express hurtling past small town depots, the slow freight trains chugging through industrial zones, the commuter locals shuttling between suburban stations and urban terminals heralded the forces of modernization and touched millions with the romance of the rails. The allure of the railroad and the metropolitan corridor that evolved around it lasted until the ascendancy of the automobile, when the railroad suddenly vanished from national attention.

Durant never paid up. Just like the robber baron he was.

In the middle of the twentieth century I could lie in my bed on our farm in the upper Arroyo Grande valley, snuggled down under a layer of blankets, my breath vaporizing on these cold winter nights and hear the whistle of the trains as they approached the many grade crossings over the farms. I heard it like millions of boys and girls and just like them I dreamed of the places I might go someday when I grew up. That high register moan called to us.

The bass notes of the big brass steam whistle carried for mile up our valley. I came through the night with a promise. We all heard it clearly.

Daddy would open the passenger door of his pickup truck and his little boys would climb up. We did it for two reasons, we loved him, loved to be with him and always looked forward to any adventure he might take us on. Every trip in that old truck was an adventure when you were twelve.

He would pull off the road just to watch the trains go by. Parked next to the tracks in Oceano we would stand by the rails and wave to the engineers. We were lucky to see the Southern Pacific’s gorgeous Coast Daylight passenger train in its black, orange and gold livery, the silver drivers whipping around, the locomotive wheels a blur, rhythmic gouts of white smoke whipped to shreds by the speed of the train. Buy a ticket in Our Lady of Angels and step of in Saint Francisco, cities with beautiful sibilant, soft names that drifted across the ear. The last days of steam soon to be replaced by the humming diesel electric, mundane, humdrum and just work-a-day.

Wonderful but, oh, the freights. Mile long trains trudging along carrying our vegetables from here to there. Dad’s celery bound for New York’s markets, Oliver’s Bell Peppers bound for Canada and POVE’s lettuce to Chicago and Atlanta. The beauty of the freights wasn’t in the look, they carried all the cachet of the men working the freight depot, chambray shirts, overhauls, sturdy shoes, hard hands long past looking at the train logos and wondering.

This was for us. Rolling by, boxcars emblazoned with the names and nicknames of all the railroads criss crossing America. The Grand Trunk, The Nickel Plate, The Katy, The Rebel Route and our own Frisco. As we tried to count the cars we saw the Feather River Route, The Wabash, Northern Pacific’s Main Street, the Texas and New Orleans, Tennessee Central and the Lackawanna. The old Susie-Q, The Possum Trot, The Yelllow Dog, The Blue Streak, The Rock Island and the Kansa City Southern. The Zephyr, Grand Trunk, the big suitcase, The Milwaukee Road and the Slim Princess.

There were stories from my grandparents about our little narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway which used to chug its leisurely way from Port Harford to Los Olivos down in Santa Barbara county. High-Ballin it was not. Thirty miles an hour was breezin’ for her.

Daughter of wealth and privilege, my grandmother would take the surrey down to the depot in Arroyo Grande with her friends and board for San Luis Obispo just to do a little shopping. During her high school days in Santa Maria she rode down on Monday and returned Friday evening. My grandfather to be, not born to wealth or privilege would pedal his bicycle over the dirt highway to meet her there. I don’t think we ever rode with my dad to the old dump on highway 227 without hearing that story.

Annie Shannon, center, Oceano Depot, boarding for the University at Berkeley, September, 1904.

Our little narrow gauge served communities from Los Alamos down in Santa Barbara county and up to San Luis Obispo and west to the harbor at Port Harford. It hauled sugar beets, rock from the quarries, oil, cattle, farm products and the people who lived here. It was so in tune with life in the Cow Counties of western central California that my grandmother could walk down the hill from her house and the train would pull to a stop so she could get on for the ride to San Luis to go shopping. Just like a bus.

As kids we didn’t understand just what the PC meant to them at the turn of the century. Every type of freight needed in San Luis Obispo county came by sea. There were few exceptions. Steam and sailing ships docked and unloaded goods directly onto the train cars which fed businesses all over the county. Milk, butter, cream from the dairies, wheat, vegetables, and fruit were hauled down to the harbor and sped of to San Fransisco and Los Angeles. County baseball teams rode the train to the port and traveled overnight to play games in Los Angeles. Redwood from Cambria’s now long gone forest was shipped up north to build homes. Crude oil from the Kettleman Hills came by pipeline to Port Harford where it was loaded onto steam tankers headed for Richmond and Martinez in San Francisco’s east bay to be refined. The Pacific Coast was a literal lifeline for the isolated central coast until the coming of the Southern Pacific in 1904.

As the story goes, when the last of the tracks were pulled up in 1939 and shipped as scrap to Japan, the Imperial Japanese warlords would ship them right back in 1941, or so my dad said anyway.

No more boxcars. Instead, big fifty-three foot containers emblazoned with names like Costco (China), Maersk (Denmark), Evergreen (Taiwan), Hapag-LLoyd (Germany) and OOCL (Hong Kong). It’s different.

Not even the sound that generated the Hobo term “Rattler”, the clickety- clack of the trucks wheels rolling over the bolted joints on the tracks. The rhythm of the rails provided the inspiration for a thousand tunes that wrote the history of our country from the freedom trains rolling north from the Jim Crow south, headed up north to Kansas City and Chicago and all point in between or the fruit and grain pickers moving west for the apple harvest in Washington state or bean pickers in our own little town of Nipomo, California. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo, Bob Dylan and all those guitar pickin’ boys from Texas wrote it all down and put it to music. The rhythm of the rails.

Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, The Doobie brothers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Cat Stevens, Tom Waits; it’s as if you don’t have a train song in your play list you lack. For generations trains were part of the heartbeat of this country.

The rails, they’re all welded joints now and silent. No one writes about Amtrak.

Most of the old roads are gone. There are only four major railroads left now and only one slow freight graces our community with its presence today. It doesn’t even stop here anymore. The trucks killed it. There are no more of those esoteric names we loved as kids; all gone now and little kids look to something else to fire their imaginations

Cover Photo: New York Central and Hudson Valley RR, Locomotive 999, the first to pull a train at one hundred miles an hour. She did a mile in 32 seconds in 1883 for a recorded speed of 112.5 mph. Sporting 86 inch drivers her record stood for 21 years. She pulled the elite Empire Express on the Hudson River route for 16 years. She was retired in 1962 and now is of display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



Mister Cuddle Wuddle.*

Written by Michael Shannon

Wishing cannot make something true of course but it can form a vivid picture in the mind. “Consider if you will….”

A long table set in a second story apartment in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, France. The walls are hung with painting set so close together they create a mural of and by complete unknowns. The door to the apartment, before you turn the latch and open is plastered with strange drawings glued so close together that some are almost completely hidden by the newer.

The unheated apartment is full of life. Men and women bump and jostle. Everyone is talking, everyone is smoking. They flirt, they drink, argue and yet all are friends. The little Spaniard who made the drawings, the Beetle Browed American writer and war veteran glares at his fellows as is his wont, The poets Joyce and Eliot nodding and leaning into each other as they argued, passionate and critical. Having just arrived, arm in arm, the Cubist and the Impressionist made their hellos to the composer and his wife Linda Lee. Cole nodded in return, his fingers drumming a rhythm only he could hear. Sitting on the couch, the delicately handsome F. Scott held court with Ezra the poet, Sinclair the ever self- revealing, Sherwood proud of his self-education, a tweedy bunch of writers discussing some esoteric tenet of their craft.

The hostess leaning back on her sofa, seemingly rooted, part of its form, solid, immutable, surveying the room. her birdlike companion, her lover, Alice with her hair so short, her soulful eyes hung above a noble, knife edged nose, hovered just behind. Gertrude glares at the portrait the little Spaniard had painted. It looked nothing like her, not a mirror image but, as the painter said,

“Never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it.”

“The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas” and “The Alice B Toklas Cookbook,” bookends for an extraordinary life.

Years will pass, decades. The guests will scattered to the four winds. Their commonality will always be connected to that room. That so many gifted souls could be connected to one person….

“She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice—deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices. Alice B. Toklas

Charlie Chaplin who knew her created a cinematic representation of her famous phrase, “a rose is a rose is a rose.” He gave her a nod in his 1952 film Limelight, in a scene where the protagonist says, “the meaning of anything is merely other words for the same thing. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose. That’s not bad. It should be quoted.”

Happy Birthday Gertrude Stein, thanks for everything, Mike.

*Mister Cuddle Wuddle was Alice B. Toklas’ pet name for Gertrude Stein.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.