Menlo Park is noted as the residence of a large number of San Francisco's most wealthy businessmen and gentlemen of leisure. It is a bower of beauty in the heart of umbrageous groves, made still more lovely and attractive by flowers of every hue and a generous abundance of ornamental shrubs and trailing vines. It goes without saying that all that the genius of the architect can devise has been done to make the country residences equal in beauty with their surroundings.
Fair Oaks' renown radiated all the way to Europe. The San Mateo County Historical Association's journal La Peninsula reports that travelers from England or France felt at home in Fair Oaks, for they saw the familiar chateaux and "country seats," and bordering them, the little villages that provided necessary services.
They were California's version of the Victorian era, and they proclaimed to the wide world that here on the Pacific Coast was being developed a brand new center of financial power. The owners of this new wealth were, naturally, not without feelings of pride, some of them perhaps in their own self-importance, but also in the promising greatness of the American West which they were helping to build. The industrial East was producing its financial giants and the Golden West must not fail to match, if not out-do, their splendor.
And this urge was not confined to the great and wealthy. Every true Westerner could point with possessive pride to the mansions on Nob Hill and to the great country places down the Peninsula, especially the biggest ones. More than the display of gingerbread architecture or the beauty of formal gardens, the very hugeness of buildings and the vastness of the acreages made Western pulses beat faster.
Excerpt from Chapter 4
In 1852, young James Clair Flood, a wheelwright by trade, opened a livery stable and wagon-repair place in San Francisco. Soon, he became close friends with a nearby merchant, William Shoney O'Brien, who owned a marine supplies store. Business in the depression-ridden 1850s was so bad that neither shop did well, so the two men decided to form a partnership and go into a business that depended less on the vagaries of the economy: a saloon.
The Auction Lunch opened in 1857 at the corner of Pacific and Stockton Streets. James' wife, Mary Emma, served a fine stew and other Irish comfort foods at the bar and grill, and the place became a Barbary Coast favorite.
Flood and O'Brien prospered. Flood served drinks and chatted with everyone who entered the Auction Lunch, learning their business styles and prospects. O'Brien, stood outdoors in a top hat and morning coat congenially talking to passersby and inviting them into the establishment. Throughout the day, Flood and O'Brien asked patrons about their business dealings, receiving advice on how to survive in the volatile economy.
Such advice became even more valuable when, as luck would have it, the Mining Exchange opened offices in a building only a few yards west of the new saloon. Flood and O'Brien now had direct access to "the West's leading men, financiers, organizers and market operators of the daymen such as D.O. Mills, E. J. (Lucky) Baldwin, William C. Ralston, Horace Greeley, William Sharon, George Hearst and others," according to one historian. With tips culled from the boisterous conversations of these men relaxing over food and drink, Flood and O'Brien soon began trading silver stocks. In 1867, they set up a brokerage.
Silver mining was a mercurial, excitingand often futilebusiness, but Flood was well suited to taking advantage of its ups and downs. Historian Oscar Lewis points out that behind Flood's calm demeanor was a "shrewd and calculating mind, a volatile temper, and a driving ambition to rise in the world." He regarded the Auction Lunch as a means to an end, and sold the saloon as soon as his silver stocks began to pay off. He and O'Brien quickly proved that they were able to make money when other investors were losing their shirts.
Excerpt from Chapter 8
The elegant residence at 98 Alejandra, long known as the Watkins/Cartan house, is one of the oldest homes in Atherton. It has survived two earthquakes, two moves, and has graced the cover of Enduring Heritage, an architectural history of the peninsula published by the Junior League. Many believe that its sturdiness attests to the skill of ship's carpenters who may have built it. We are not sure to whom we should give credit for its beauty.
The story of the house begins in Annapolis, Maryland in 1808 with the birth of James Thomas Watkins. The son of a sea captain who was lost at sea at the age of 25, Watkins himself went to sea when he was 12. Who would have guessed then that his celebrated life would eventually be described in a New York Times obituary?
His rise follows the pattern of so many of the early settlers of this landstarting young with little education and through some combination of intelligence, hard work and luck, achieving goals that seem almost impossible. Watkins' early life was filled with adventures. Sailing for a time in the service of an unnamed South American republic, he was wounded in a battle with a Spanish ship, then captured and exchanged. Later in the East Indies, he encountered pirates and behaved with such gallantry that British officers presented him with a handsome sword. His competence was so respected in naval circles that he became the captain of his own ship at age 21. He first rounded the Horn in 1832 on a ship that carried cattle hides to New England, and he returned to the west coast with manufactured goods.
Sometime in the 1830s, Watkins married Ellen Merriken of Arundel County, Maryland. Assigned to captain China clippers plying the Pacific from 1839 on, Watkins was often accompanied by his petite wife. Eventually they bought a home in South Park in San Francisco, a fashionable place to live in the days after the Gold Rush.
There they socialized with the Athertons and the Ralstons and enjoyed participating in literary circles with such notables as Bret Harte, Sam Clemens and Ambrose Biercean interesting development for a boy who went to sea at 12.
Excerpt from Chapter 19
Inventor Leon F. Douglass created visual effects and other improvements for motion pictures that delighted audiences during the Roaring Twenties and Depression thirties. He tested many of his groundbreaking ideas in the extensive laboratory he built in the basement of his mansion that is now part of the Menlo School campus in Atherton. Douglass, who had himself overcome extreme poverty, did not let small obstacles stop him in his research. Take the incident of the octopus in the swimming pool.
Wanting to try his new method for filming underwater scenes, Douglass first asked his longtime gardener Amadeo Gado to install a glass section in one wall of the raised swimming pool at the front of his property, where Menlo School's graduation ceremonies presently take place. Douglass then sent Gado to Monterey to pick up the large octopus destined to be the main character in his new short film. Unfortunately, the octopus died en route. Douglass, undeterred, asked Gado to keep the animal in cold storage at a local butcher shop. Finally, filming was about to begin. But what to do with the lifeless star? Douglass had Gado use fishing wire to strap its tentacles to the arms and legs of his teenaged daughter Florence, and she gamely battled the beast for many minutes while Douglass filmed the sequence from his foxhole. She "was thrashing around like she was in a life-and-death struggle," says grandson Earl Douglass, Jr. with a laugh.
Apparently, her performance was convincing. The next day, local newspapers carried photos of Florence's encounter with the beast, wildly proclaiming that the Douglass' daughters had been attacked by a giant octopus off the coast of Hawaii. Shaking his head, Douglass sent Amadeo Gado to buy up all the local newspapers and so squelch the untruths.
The legend of the octopus never quite died, however. Some years later, a Northern California newspaper published a rather tame photo of Florence swimming in the pool with a seal, but could not resist including the following alarming caption:
It wasn't so pleasant two years ago, though, when Florence missed tortuous death in Florida waters. She was grabbed by a giant octopus, was being squeezed to the fatal point when other divers went to her rescue. Despite her injuries, she was happy, because her father got a prized photograph.
To put it mildly, life for all the Douglasses was never dull. Indeed, through his early phonograph and motion picture inventions, Leon Douglass brought the drama and hope of great voices and fine performances to millions of people struggling through the tumultuous early years of the twentieth century.