The Liberty Bell Visits Stockton

Is Stockton a celebrity magnet? Maybe so. Perhaps you already know that the city has seen a stream of distinguished guests over the years, among them U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, and Herbert Hoover. But did you know that its list of noteworthy visitors also includes the Liberty Bell?

The Liberty Bell enroute to San Francisco, 1915.

The Liberty Bell enroute to San Francisco, 1915.

A couple months ago, I came across a postcard in the Museum's collections that featured a black and white photograph of the Liberty Bell sitting on a flatbed railroad car. Nearby stood a policeman. Gathered around were what seemed to be throngs of admiring people.

I couldn't believe my eyes. "You've gotta be kidding, " I muttered. "Did the Liberty Bell actually visit Stockton?" But there in the corner was supporting evidence in the form of the name of a well-known Stockton photographer. This strongly suggested San Joaquin County as the location.

It didn't take long to find other supporting evidence. Well-known local historian George Tinkham details the visit in his History of San Joaquin County (1923). According to him, the Liberty Bell arrived in Stockton on July 16, 1915, aboard a train of six coaches and a special "gondola car" enroute to San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Altogether, an estimated five million people saw it as it snaked across the North American continent from Philadelphia to California.

Word had spread by the time the bell got to Stockton. Long before its expected arrival, writes Tinkham, "the track of the depot was jammed with a crowd of at least 20,000 people and the late comers could not get within a half of a block of the car" (page 223).

"As soon as the train stopped," he continues, "Miss Loraine Klack, the president of the Native Daughters, stepped aboard the open car and placed a wreath of laurel on the bell, she making a few appropriate remarks." Altogether, the ceremony lasted half an hour. Afterward, writes Tinkham, "the special [train] sped on to the Exposition grounds" in San Francisco (ibid.).

Don't expect the Liberty Bell to return anytime soon. One major reason is its fragility due to its famous crack. Even if it did, I doubt it would attract the same level of attention. Nowadays, we just don't seem to get as excited about such national icons.

But I can still dream. Wouldn't it be special to own a selfie with the Liberty Bell in the background, sitting on a railroad car among thousands of onlookers?

Historic Water Rights

Hardly a week goes by that I don't hear from somebody in San Joaquin County looking for historic documentation—photographs, maps, and other documentation—to bolster their claim for water rights. I am not an attorney, and I won't presume to offer legal advice, either for myself or for the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum. I asked Mia S. Brown, a local attorney with experience in water law, to share insights into this issue.

Here is her response:

On May 27, the State Water Resources Control Board mailed notices to water users within the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watershed, announcing a water shortage and informing users that they must immediately stop diverting water if they possess a "Post-1914 appropriative water right."

A "Post-1914 appropriative water right" is a water right established after the year 1914, and permitted or licensed by the State Water Resources Control Board. All affected Post-1914 appropriative water right holders must file an online certification form within seven (7) days of receipt of the notice. Failure to comply with the notice can result in severe civil penalties.

As of May 27, "Pre-1914" appropriative water right holders and riparian right holders are not subject to restriction, but it is likely that additional restrictions will be announced. Should you need assistance in determining which type of water right you have, or should you need assistance completing the Certification, please contact a local water law attorney.

At Mia's invitation, Rebekah Burr-Siegel, the executive director of the San Joaquin County Bar Association, has provided a map of local groundwater areas, with a list of attorneys who represent land owners in each. Both can be viewed by clicking here.

Museum Holds Annual MY CAMP

Each June, the San Joaquin County Historical Museum holds an educational and recreational program, called Museum Youth Camp (MY CAMP), for students—campers—from ages six through ten.


Organized, planned, prepared, and directed by Museum Educational Director, the stunning, amazing, and multi-talented Robin Wood, the camp provides learning activities, challenges, and opportunities for the students. It also offers a whole lot of fun.

On some days during math and science week, museum docents volunteer to present specific lessons or activities. This year, Pat Neu and Barbara Nash explored various math ideas and experiences; Kathy Grant presented a very informative lesson about honeybees; and I offered concepts regarding the building of structures.

After examining pictures of famous tall structures such as the Great Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, a Gothic cathedral, and the Petronius Towers, each camper built an individual structure with straws and tape. Incredibly, only one boy built guns and other weapons.

The campers then formed teams, each of which tried to build the highest and most stable structure it could from newspaper and masking tape. All groups starting rolling the paper for added strength and constructing a base.

One group built a double connected tower; another put together a series of pyramids that faced different directions; a third constructed a series of alternating cubes and pyramids with some bracing; and the final group made a series of braced cubes topped by a pyramid.

The unique approach the final group used was to wrap the entire structure with single sheets of paper, which added extra strength and stability. That group's building was the highest by about four inches.

Three college-aged assistants helped out. Even the perky and peppy Ms Wood joined in.

I had thought the kids would become bored with the project after a while, but they worked happily and diligently until "cleanup" time, trying to squeeze a few more inches onto the top with antennae and flagpoles (which did not actually count toward total height).

A fun learning time was had by all.

The Frontier Thesis and San Joaquin County

How would you describe the American character? For many of us, the description would include words like individuality, ruggedness, informality, and initiative. We might even see an image of John Wayne riding high in the saddle, six-shooter at his side, enemies cowering in fear.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)

Frederick Jackson Turner didn't know Wayne, but he may have had someone similar in mind when he authored one of the most famous scholarly papers in American history, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893). A professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard, Turner depicted the essence of the American character as rugged individualism, and he saw it shaped through interaction between waves of settlers and the raw, untamed wilderness.

Turner envisioned an evolutionary process. In his view, the savagery of the frontier forced America's pioneers to rely on their own individual strength and resources. It also weeded out those who didn't. As Americans pushed westward, they abandoned useless European institutions and ideas and brought into existence new ideas and a new form of democratic government that reflected their experience.

Does the historical experience of San Joaquin County support Turner's Frontier Thesis? I don't think so, and one of the major reasons I don't is the career of Charles Weber.

If anybody typified the pioneer spirit in San Joaquin County, it may have been Weber. Weber was no stranger to individualism, but he didn't do it all on his own. Weber traveled west as part of a group (the Bidwell-Bartleson Party), learned firsthand about California as an employee of John Sutter, and acquired Rancho Campo de los Franceses, the foundation of his fortune, in partnership with Guillermo Gulnac.

In 1850, Weber married Helen Murphy, daughter of Martin Murphy, an early settler in the Santa Clara Valley. The marriage expanded Weber's social network. Around the same time, he converted to Catholicism, the religion of his new wife, which cemented his connections with another, even more extensive community, religious in nature, with roots deep in California soil.

As Weber aged, he found himself part of a growing social network that helped him define himself and through which he could influence and be influenced by others&#46

The marriage also did something else: It marked the beginning of a lifelong alliance in which, according to the Weber Library, both partners, Charles and Helen, retained interest in the world of Western culture and ideas—not only within the United States, but also in Europe.

So if the Frontier Thesis doesn't "fit" in San Joaquin County, how can its history be explained? At this point, I'm not entirely certain. However, I suspect that any plausible explanation needs to take into account a more expansive understanding of human interaction than Turner offered, as well as the intellectual world of San Joaquin County's early settlers, glimpses of which can be seen in the Weber Library.

The Weber Family Library

Imagine yourself caught up in the excitement of California's Gold Rush. Now imagine yourself boarding a ship on the East Coast, sailing to San Francisco, and heading out to the Southern Mines after stopping in Stockton for supplies. Thousands of other gold seekers from throughout the world join you, hoping to make a quick fortune then head back to civilization.

Cosette, from original French edition of Les Miserables (1862).

Cosette, from original French edition of Les Miserables (1862).

Culture—good literature, art, and music—are not high priorities. In fact, you probably couldn't care less—at least, according to popular stereotypes of the Forty Niners. But how accurate are those stereotypes? Was early California soon after the Gold Rush actually a cultural wasteland?

The reality seems to have been more complicated.

Recently, volunteer archivist Gail Erwin has been compiling a catalog of the library owned by Stockton founder Charles M. Weber and his family. The library dates from the 1850s and extends into the last days of the nineteenth century. It seems to have been extensive. Gail is not yet finished, but it's safe to say at this point that Weber and his family were widely read.

So far, Gail has identified four major categories: religion, philosophy, literature, and history. Representative historical works include Flavius Josephus's Works, Buffon's Natural History, William Still, The Underground Railroad Records (1872), and Giuseppe Garibaldi's Life (1859). Among other works are classics like Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the Works of William Shakespeare, and Daniel Defoe's Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Also present is poetry by William Wordsworth and a number of lesser poets.

The reading interests of the Weber family were not limited to the English language. True to Weber's own heritage, the library includes books written in German. In addition, it contains English-French and English-Latin dictionaries and, among other volumes, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862), as originally published in French.

I don't doubt for a moment that, taken as a whole, California's Forty Niners and those who followed soon after were a rough-and-tumble lot. The group undoubtedly had more than its share of ruffians, riffraff, and adventurers. But the evidence tells me that we err if we imagine the entire group arriving in California as blank cultural and intellectual sheets.

True, not everybody had the income or time to behave like the Webers. But I suspect that enough settlers arrived with appreciation for culture and its institutions to plant seeds that eventually transformed the nature of life on the California frontier.

How that happened and the meaning of the process will be explored in another post.

Remarkable Women of Stockton

I grew up among strong, capable women. Deep in the Great Depression, before I was born, one of my grandmothers set up two businesses (that's right, TWO) in the San Francisco Bay Area to put food on the table after my grandfather took ill. Grandma J, a tiny Danish immigrant, ended up doing quite well for herself, thank you.

Tomato Queen Tillie Lewis (1901-1977)

Tomato Queen Tillie Lewis (1901-1977)

My other grandmother was just as tough. When Grandpa N lost his job at UPS, Grandma found creative ways to feed and clothe not only her own four children, but also an aging father and a very troubled younger brother. As the children left home, she moved into the workforce, transporting heavy equipment to Navy ships in San Francisco Bay during World War II, driving a school bus, and working in a school cafeteria.

I might also mention that she raced motorcycles as a youth … but that's another story.

Not everybody has grown up with such role models. So sometimes we need reminders of the accomplishments that strong, capable women have made throughout history.

Enter Remarkable Women of Stockton. In this delightful and engaging little book, former journalist and retired local librarian Mary Jo Gohlke reminds us about the contributions that twenty of Stockton's most notable women have made to their community, state, and the world.

Gohlke's cast of characters includes such well-known local figures as Julia Weber, Harriet Chalmers Adams, and Tillie Lewis. Slightly less famous but equally intriguing are Inez Budd, the eccentric wife of the only California governor from Stockton; Sarah Gillis, the owner-manager of a successful steamship line; and Elizabeth Humbarger, an outspoken supporter of educational opportunities for interned Japanese-Americans during World War II.

My personal favorite is Gohlke's brief biography of Margaret Smyth. Smyth bore the distinction of being not only an early female graduate from what became the Stanford University Medical School, but also, eventually, the superintendent of Stockton State Hospital.

Gohlke's historical scope ranges from the Gold Rush to the early years of the twenty-first century. Some of her subjects are remembered mainly because of roles they assumed by virtue of birth or marriage. More often they gained distinction by leveraging their own aptitudes or skills to make their marks against significant odds.

Remarkable Women of Stockton sparkles with lively prose. I recommend it highly. It can be purchased online directly from the publisher, History Press, or from or Barnes and Noble.

Time and Travel

I've been on vacation. My wife and I recently visited Europe. We spent a week in the United Kingdom and another in Switzerland. Our main attraction was Zurich, where our daughter attends graduate school.

Flying kites at Stonehenge.

Flying kites at Stonehenge.

Historic sites ran a close second, however, as they often do with historians like me. My longsuffering, nonhistorian wife took it in stride. The only time she balked was at Stonehenge. Not to worry. She reached into her backpack, pulled out a kite, and hoisted it into the air.

I wonder what other tourists thought. I wonder what the builders of Stonehenge would have thought. For all I know, they might have flown kites of their own.

Do you ever wonder about the past? Do you ever try to imagine what life was like for our parents, their parents, and their parents parents? If you do, you're part of a small and shrinking minority.

In a recent New York Times column, author Timothy Egan laments widespread lack of interest in history. Study after study bolsters his case. Egan mentions an exchange he had with celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Burns claims that students nowadays often find "civics"—which tends to encompass history—boring or too demanding. As a result, many schools have either played down history or drastically reduced the rigor with which it's taught.

I appreciate Egan's point, but let's not indict American education in broad strokes. And let's not focus on education alone. A lot of influences are at play. Whatever the reason, though, lack of interest has diminished our understanding of the past and made life more tenuous.

How so? Those vacant stares I get when I mention the Civil War, World War I, and the Korean Conflict expose more than ignorance. They also point to frightening possibilities of repeating costly mistakes that claimed millions of lives in the past.

Equally troubling is our loss of certain crucial points of reference. Does it really make sense to compare the latest policy decision out of Washington, D.C., to Hitler or slavery? Do those who make such comparisons truly understand the untold human cost that both inflicted on the world?

Ignorance or sketchy understanding of the past invites manipulation, as Egan reminds his readers. Small wonder that one of the first things totalitarian governments try to control is institutional memory.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea: We do better as individuals and a society when we remember the past, warts and all.

So how do we get there? History needs to be interesting. History as a discipline has roots in storytelling, and those who deal with the past need to remember those origins. All the better if the stories are vivid, concrete, and three-dimensional.

One of the best ways I can imagine of sparking positive feelings about study of the past is the hands-on approach taken here at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. I invite you to check out our Web site and explore the many programs the Museum offers for young people. These include Valley Days, Pioneer School Days, and From Farm to Fork.

Each is led by trained, dedicated, and passionate docents, many of them retired teachers gifted with the ability to engage students.

I can't guarantee that the attention of those students won't flag if they ever attend Stonehenge. Packing a kite might actually be a good idea. But I can assure you that those who attend one of the Museum's programs will go home with newfound appreciation of the past.

New Exhibition to Open at Museum

Popular songs about the State of California, from the Gold Rush through the vaudeville era, are celebrated in the new exhibition Singing the Golden State, which opens on April 6 at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. The exhibition spotlights graphically striking sheet-music covers published from 1849 through the 1930s.

Music that celebrates California.

Music that celebrates California.

"In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, publishers understood that potential sheet-music buyers judged pieces of music—like books—by their covers," says James M. Keller, curator of the exhibit. These images were sometimes by notable illustrators and artists.

In Singing the Golden State, the subject is California—its history, its geography, its people. The exhibit includes sheet music organized by such topics as the Gold Rush, fairs and exhibitions, commerce and advertising, clubs and organizations, sports and amusements, children, minorities, transportation, and a tour of the Golden State. There is a section on the state song, "I Love You, California," composed in 1913.

Until the 1930s, when the dissemination of popular music shifted to radio, sheet music served as a form of media. "If something happened," says Keller, "there's a fair chance someone wrote a song about it." The examples on display include sheet music for several songs relating to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and the "California Flood Mazurka," memorializing the great 1862 flood in the Central Valley, the largest in California's recorded history.

Singing the Golden State is a traveling exhibition from Exhibit Envoy, The Society of California Pioneers' Sherman Music Collection, and The James M. Keller Collection, curated by James Keller. It will be at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum through June 1, 2014. The Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Exhibit Envoy provides traveling exhibitions and professional services to museums in California. For more information, please visit

Why Save Old Records?

Old government records are on my mind. Yesterday, I worked in downtown Stockton with one of members of the San Joaquin County Historic Records Inventory Project. So far, the team has inventoried about fifteen hundred items, bound volumes that range in size from small to enormous. We still have a long way to go before we're finished.

Books of deeds at the Museum.

Books of deeds at the Museum.

I couldn't helping asking myself how I would justify going to this trouble.

Several answers came to my mind, and there are probably others. One of the most obvious is hard to explain: We—or lots of us, at least—just like old "stuff." I suppose old objects allow us to touch the past. I see this impulse related to the acquisition of antique furniture, machinery, and clothing. The possibility of making money—witness Antiques Roadshow—seems to solidify this impulse.

Another justification speaks to identity, the need to understand our origins, not only at the personal level but also among groups and nations. I've lost track of the number of patrons who've visited the archives at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum in search of tiny bits of genealogical data: a birth date, the name of a long-lost grandparent, or when a couple married. Those pieces may be small, but they are very important for genealogists. In many cases, they can't be found anywhere else except government records.

Much the same can be said for history as a formal discipline. At times, government records buttress major interpretations that deal with significant issues. Sometimes, they're crucial for the never-ending quest to understand human thought and behavior. The hope, according to the familiar truism, is that the process of grappling with weighty historical issues will help us avoid making mistakes that marred the decisions of our forebears.

One of the most compelling justifications for this project, though, is the practical value of the records. Today, all sorts of legal decisions hinge on historical evidence. Attorneys, administrators, judges, elected officials, and a host of others depend on reliable records to arrive at just and fair decisions. Think about it: contracts, property rights, child custody, rights of way, and real estate title all rest on reliable historic records. Those of us who live in and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta need not be reminded that claims to water rights also depend on historic documentation.

So is it worth the effort? It doesn't bother me at all to serve as a guide for antiquarians, genealogists, historians, and a host of professionals that turn to such records to avoid endless disputes and untold grief.

Theresa and Charles Wriston: Chapter Two

Who would have ever thought? Last week's post, which involved Charles Wriston, his wife, Theresa, and their two children, triggered a lot of feedback. The responses tended to fall into two categories.

The California Constitution of 1849, written at Colton Hall, Monterey, granted women trailblazing rights.

The California Constitution of 1849, written at Colton Hall, Monterey, granted women trailblazing rights.

The first filled in missing biographical details. Thanks to one of Charles's blood relatives, I know now that he lived to the ripe old age of ninety. Men characterized by "habitual intemperance and dissipation" usually don't live that long—sometimes they do, but not usually. It looks as though Charles mended his ways.

As for Theresa, according to another reader—someone who seems well-versed with an array of genealogical resources—she and her husband continued living together at the Boston House at least until 1925. They evidently continued in that relationship at other addresses in Stockton from around 1930 until at least 1940.

The children's fate is unknown.

The feedback that intrigued me the most came from my good friend, Norm, who worked at the appellate level of the California State court system until his retirement a few years ago. Theresa's legal situation triggered memories of his that reach back to his days in law school. Norm steered me in a direction that eventually led me to an article titled "California's Sole Traders," written by attorney and genealogist Judy G. Russell.

Russell reminds readers that women in nineteenth-century American lacked full equality with men. However, California and a few other states provided a legal framework that enabled them to run businesses on their own, with property rights of their own, protection against debts incurred by their husbands, and access to the courts.

Here's the relevant wording from legislation that dates from April 1852: "Married women shall have the right to carry on and transact business under their own name, and on their own account, by complying with the regulations prescribed in this act."

Which regulations? Well, a woman in search of status as "sole trader" needed to publish her intention several weeks in the newspaper, satisfy the court that she didn't intend to defraud her husband's creditors, and swear that she was setting up her business with her own money to support herself and her children. All of which Theresa, who clearly labeled herself as an aspiring "sole trader," did to the satisfaction of the court.

Whether or not the law of April 1852 amounts to "affirmative action," as Russell suggests, can be debated. But it can be safely stated that, whatever else it tells us, the Wriston's case demonstrates how progressive California's laws were at that time.

Russell's article can be read here.