Surprises on the Trail of Dusty Old Records

What comes to your mind when you hear the words historic county records? Darkened warehouses? Moldering paper? Dusty shelves? How about stories of tragedy, courage, and compassion?

Old records filled with surprises.

Old records filled with surprises.

Since the middle of January, I've had the honor to work with three current or former students from the University of the Pacific taking an inventory of historic San Joaquin County records. Yesterday, while working with one of my colleagues in downtown Stockton, I came across a large leather-bound volume that bore the title Separate Property of Married Women.

I'm still at a loss to explain fully why this volume exists. Why focus on married women? What about married men? Is this simply one more example of the sexism I often see embedded in other historic documents?

Maybe. However, the stories I found inside suggest something a bit more nuanced.

Take, for example, the case of Theresa Grace Wriston, the wife of Charles Ransom Wriston. In May 1914, Mrs. Wriston applied to the court for permission to run a boarding house in her own name. According to the records, her husband had "wholly failed" over the past two years "by reason of his habitual intemperance and dissipation" to support Mrs. Wriston and their two young daughters, aged four and twelve.

Divorce wasn't an option, at least not in May 1914. According to the records, Mrs. Wriston still hoped at that point that her husband—described in the application as "strong" and "able-bodied"—would "again become a useful member of society."

Did he reform himself? We'll probably never know. However, we do know that the judge approved Mrs. Wriston's application. She proceeded to buy a boarding facility in her own name on North Hunter Street, in Stockton, with capital furnished by her brothers. Soon afterward, she reopened it as the Boston House.

Did Mrs. Wriston succeed? The volume doesn't say. Nor does it reveal whether she and her husband ever ended their marriage. The story ends suddenly, leaving a string of unanswered questions.

Separate Property of Women doesn't promise to tie up all the loose ends. Instead, it teases us with intriguing glimpses. In the case of Mrs. Wriston, it parts the curtains slightly for a brief look into the life of a gutsy and determined woman, and it allows us to witness her navigating the legal system of her time—effectively—to protect herself and support her children.

Never judge a book by its cover, I've been told. Who could have ever have predicted that dusty old records would contain such nuggets?

Museum Offers Workshop on Writing Memoirs

One well-known family from American history.

One well-known family from American history.

Isn't it nice to be remembered? Isn't it even nicer to be remembered for the reasons you want to be remembered? How about your children, their children, and their children's children? Will they recall anything about you other than your name and a few faded pictures?

Next month, the San Joaquin County Historical Society Museum will conduct a workshop designed for people who want their descendants to remember them. It is titled "Letters to My Grandkids: A Personal Memoir Workshop," and it will take place at the Museum from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. each Thursday of March.

Here are the subjects for each week:

March 6

  • Why learning about family history is important.
  • How to prepare a short letter or story.
  • Suggestions for topics, and assignment.

March 13

  • Refresher on paragraph and story construction.
  • How to embellish your legacy letters with art.
  • Questions and discussion of problems encountered.
  • Share work in progress.

March 20

  • Relating personal stories to national and world history.
  • Questions and discussion of work in progress.
  • Additional prompts for ideas.
  • Share work in progress.

March 27

  • Resources available for publishing of memoirs and personal history.
  • Questions and discussion of work in progress.
  • Share completed work.
  • Evaluation of workshop.

The cost for participation will be ten dollars for members of the San Joaquin County Historical Society, and fifteen dollars (plus parking at Micke Grove Park) for nonmembers. For additional information, contact Robin Wood at the Museum (209) 331–2055 or (209) 953–3460.

Exhibit of Historic Postcards to Open at Museum

One of the most fascinating but little-known treasures of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum may be its collection of historic postcards. The scenes they depict range from the mundane to the bizarre. Starting the first week of March, visitors can catch glimpses into this rich collection of local resources when the Museum opens an exhibit based on its own holdings.

Historic insights  welcomed: postcard of now-forgotten Delta Crest Nursery, Borden Highway, Stockton. (ca. 1928).

Historic insights welcomed: postcard of now-forgotten Delta Crest Nursery, Borden Highway, Stockton. (ca. 1928).

Today, postcard collecting is the third most popular hobby in the world. Postcards capture moments that remind us of places, people, and events. Sometimes they are the only existing images of buildings and locations that are long forgotten.

The U.S. Postal Service issued the first pre-stamped postcard in 1873. This was the only postcard at that time that could be sent in the mail. In 1898, the U.S. Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, which gave private companies permission to produce postcards. Congress required these cards to include the printed words "Private Mailing Card" on the back. Blank areas on the front were reserved for writing messages; addresses went on the back.

Postcards with divided backs were introduced in 1907. From then on, senders could use the back for both the address and the message. At the same time, "real photo" postcards appeared. These changes increased the popularity of postcards, which purchasers started to save in picture albums.

Until 1915, German printers dominated the postcard industry, However, when World War I broke out production moved to the United States. The new wave of postcards had a white border to save ink and detailed picture descriptions on the back.

From 1930 until 1944, cotton paper was used to print postcards, thus giving them the look of linen cloth. In 1939, Union Oil Company introduced the first photochrome postcards. The images on the front of these closely resembled real photographs and are the kind we purchase today.

A Call for Images of the Calaveras River

Volunteers from Stockton's Friends of the Lower Calaveras River and professionals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with videographers from NarrativeLab of Portland, Oregon, are working on a video documentary of the removal of barriers along the Calaveras River to fish that migrate between fresh and salt water.

Recent photograph of the Calaveras River.

Recent photograph of the Calaveras River.

The participants have already searched the holdings of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, the Haggin Museum, the University of the Pacific, and the Bank of Stockton for related photographs and drawings.

If you know of any images not found in those archives, or if you own any you would be willing to deposit in an appropriate local repository or have scanned for digital access, please send a message to the following address:

Subjects of particular interest include:

  • The Calaveras River before damming and development.
  • Early development along the Lower Calaveras River (Highway 49 to Stockton).
  • Fish and fishing activity along the Calaveras River.
  • Images of Native American activity along the Calaveras River.
  • Major flood events involving the Calaveras River.

Genealogy Seminar Scheduled for Stockton

How could local genealogists be so fortunate? One month ago, I posted a notice in this blog about an upcoming genealogy workshop in Seaside, California. (See post for January 3, 2014.) Recently, I learned about another genealogy seminar coming up in Stockton.

Burns Tower, University of the Pacific.

Burns Tower, University of the Pacific.

This all-day seminar will occur on Saturday, February 22, 2014, in the Biological Sciences Building, 3312 North Kingston Way, Stockton, on the campus of the University of the Pacific. It will start at 8:30 a.m. and last until 3:00 p.m.

The organizing force behind this event is the San Joaquin County Genealogical Society, with sponsorships from the California State Genealogical Alliance and the Jacoby Center for Public Service and Civic Leadership, at the University of the Pacific.

The seminar will feature four sessions:

1. "Family Stories: Genealogy Beyond Just the Dates." Presenter: Linda Serna, member of the research team for "Genealogy Roadshow," and Vice President of Programs for the Orange County Genealogical Society.

2. "Fun Tools to Help Genealogists Work Smarter." Presenter: Tim Cox, a resident of San Francisco and Education and Events Coordinator for the California Genealogical Society.

3. "Researching Your Mexican Ancestors." Presenter: Letty Rodella, President of the Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research.

4. "Reconstructing Family Information When You Start with Almost Nothing—A Case Study." Presenter: Janice Sellers, member of the Oakland, California FamilySearch Library, and editor of The Galitzianer, a quarterly newsletter focused on Jewish research; The Baobab Tree, journal of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California; and ZichronNote, journal of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.

The seminar is free, though registration is required at the following site:

For additional information, contact Sheri Fenley at

Trivial Pursuit: The San Joaquin County Edition

One of the Museum's staff members has been working forever on a project that has taken her through every single issue of the San Joaquin Historian, the Society's historic periodical, ever since its creation in 1963. And she's done it several times. Last week, I suggested half-seriously that she knew enough to put together the authoritative San Joaquin County edition of Trivial Pursuit.

Richard Nixon: San Joaquin County favorite?

Richard Nixon: San Joaquin County favorite?

I might as well have invited her to pull out her toenails. Her reply was swift and firm: No way! I think I detected more than a hint of exhaustion in her voice. She may have actually rolled her eyes as she turned away.

But, come on, why not? Really. Why don't those of us with a passion for San Joaquin County and its history pool our talents and create our own special edition of Trivial Pursuit? I can't imagine a more entertaining way to build community and quicken aging synapses. The exercise might even be educational.

I'm willing to prime the pump with a few questions of my own. Here we go:

1. What was Tillie Lewis's unofficial title? a. Potato Queen; b. Tomato Queen; c. Delta Queen; d. Dairy Queen; e. Tillie who?

See how much fun this could be? Here are a couple more questions:

2. French Camp got its name from: a. French mercenaries; b. Canadian trappers; c. tasteless European art; c. a nearby POW facility.

3. Which presidential candidate won the popular vote in San Joaquin County during the election of 1860? a. Richard Nixon; b. John C. Breckinridge; c. Nobody; California wasn't part of the United States; d. Abraham Lincoln.

You get the idea. The possibilities are endless. I also like the idea of a wiki devoted to San Joaquin history. But I doubt that misguided entrepreneurs could resist the temptation to use it as a billboard for selling discounted Viagra.

What do you think? If a special edition of Trivial Pursuit charms you, send me some sample questions at the following address: I'll try to share them with our resident San Joaquin County history expert. Maybe she can be persuaded to look them over if we promise not to harm her toes.

More Help for Historic Researchers

I thrive on research. I never know what insights I might gain as I wander from book to book and document to document. But sometimes I don't want to wander. I just want an answer, and I don't want distractions: I want it now.

Government records housed at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

Government records housed at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

Enter the computer.

Over the past few weeks, the Museum has been the site of activities that promise to help streamline research in San Joaquin County's government records. The objective of those efforts is to digitize most of the County's deeds and to make major parts of them available over a computer at the recorder's office.

This is a significant event. In recent years, the County's collection of historic deeds have been scattered among a number of locations, the county museum being one of them. Some volumes might be found in the archives of the Museum, whereas others might be housed in downtown Stockton. The same goes for indexes: a researcher might need to travel miles to view volumes that should be sitting next to each other on a shelf.

Digitization of these records promises to bring about major changes. Not only will the project end up creating one centrally located digital repository, it will also enhance capabilities to search and view. In addition, it will save users time and money, reduce their levels of frustration, and enable them to manipulate data in ways previously impossible.

Meanwhile, preparation of the updated historic records inventory discussed in the previous blog promises to facilitate research in other county records.

The digitization project has only started. The person to thank for this turn of events is the San Joaquin County recorder/county clerk, Kenneth Blakemore, under whose direction the scanning has commenced.

Stay tuned for occasional updates.

Where Have All the Records Gone?

Let's say you want to find out how wide the right-of-way is for a road somewhere in San Joaquin County that was created in 1890. What historical sources would you consult? You're right if you said "the county supervisor's records." Where would you go to view them? You get bonus points if you said "the San Joaquin County Historical Museum."

San Joaquin County Courthouse, Stockton (ca. 1950).

San Joaquin County Courthouse, Stockton (ca. 1950).

Historical questions like this can often be answered easily. But others can be more challenging. Even if researchers know which county records to consult, they don't always know where to find them. At times, researchers don't even know whether the records still exist.

San Joaquin County and the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum have embarked on a joint project that promises to make research in the County's historic records easier. The goal is to locate all existing historic records generated by the San Joaquin County government since the 1850s. The results will be compiled in an inventory, which will be made accessible to the public.

The motivating force behind this project is the County's Historic Records Commission, recently reactivated after years of inactivity. The Commission, which was appointed by the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, consists of Supervisor Larry Ruhstahler, former Board of Supervisor clerk Lois Sahoun, and Bank of Stockton archivist William Maxwell.

The project updates another inventory of local civil records published in 1989 by a previous incarnation of the County's Historic Records Commission. A close reading of that document indicates that many of the resources it lists have changed location over the past quarter century and that many others were overlooked.

The project welcomes insights, sent to the project coordinator at the following address, about the location of previously overlooked historic county records:

Genealogy Made Easier

Some of the most tenacious people I know are genealogists. I have the honor of working with genealogists all the time here at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. Piecing together tiny bits of biographical data from hundreds of different sources can be rewarding. However, I also know from personal experience that it takes lots of time and calls for a lot of patience.

Genealogical paydirt: marriage license from 1874.

Genealogical paydirt: marriage license from 1874.

Genealogical research might be getting a little easier. Last week, the Museum received an announcement for the Thirty-third Annual Ancestor Roundup Genealogical Seminar, conducted by the Commodore Sloat Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. The event takes place at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1024 Noche Buena at Plumas Avenue, Seaside, California, on Saturday, January 25, 2014, and runs from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The seminar will include more thirty classes. Those who attend can learn more about newspaper research, state and national archives, cemetery records, DNA, genealogy software, and lineage societies. They can also gain new insights into Portuguese, Irish, and Mexican research.

The keynote speaker for the day will be Ralph F. Severson, the director of the Oakland FamilySearch Library. Severson will also teach three classes: "Using Family Search and Family Tree Optimally," "Why Mormons Do Genealogy," and "Azores/Portugal Research."

For additional information, phone Serita Sue Woodburn at (831) 899-2121, or e-mail her at

Stockton’s Stillborn Aircraft Industry

I like to travel on airplanes. But my attitude would change if I discovered they had a nasty habit of falling apart in midair. In-flight disintegration would surely be a public relations nightmare for any airline or airplane manufacturer and probably shatter the confidence of customers. So it was with efforts during the 1930s to build the Capelis Safety Aeroplane in Stockton.

The Capelis Safety Aeroplane XC-12 (ca. 1938).

The Capelis Safety Aeroplane XC-12 (ca. 1938).

Last week, the San Joaquin County Historical Museum received a small collection of historic material related to the Oranges Brothers Airport, in Stockton, the site of which is currently occupied with houses. Among the contents was a prospectus to raise twenty-five thousand dollars for construction of a factory and hangers, as well two six-passenger airplanes.

The founders had big plans: "Several sizes of airplanes from two to fifty passengers are now being designed," reads the prospectus, "construction of which will begin immediately after the Company is completely established in Stockton." Small planes would be sold to "individual fliers at a nominal cost," and large ones placed with "new proposed transcontinental and transoceanic airlines."

The Capelis was the brainchild of Socrates H. Capelis, later modified by University of California professor John E. Younger. Both men valued safety. The only Capelis ever built, the twelve-passenger XC-12, incorporated such revolutionary features as safety glass, retractable landing gear, and gas tanks that could be dropped in an emergency. Plans called for monocoque construction, "the most rigid of all types," entirely of aluminum, and a cockpit "so designed that the pilot has perfect visibility."

Despite its many innovations, the Capelis XC-12 had a fatal shortcoming: Much of the skin was attached with screws, rather than rivets. The screws vibrated, worked their way loose, and frequently needed tightening. (Pilot to terrified passengers: "Don't mind that attendant inching her way across the wing, she's only securing that panel flapping in the wind.") In 1938, authorities grounded the Capelis XC-12 over safety concerns. Moviemaker RKO Pictures bought it the following year for use as a prop.

Memory of the Capelis Safety Aeroplane faded quickly. In 1943, RKO Pictures apparently scrapped the XC-12 after using it in five movies. The most famous of these was Five Came Back (1939), a melodrama whose positive reviews of Lucille Ball's performance helped launch her career as an A-grade actress.

Stockton's fledgling aircraft industry never recovered after the death of the Capelis, for reasons still needing to be explored.