Saturday, January 4, 2014

Catching Up With The Wilsons

Recently, I've been revisiting our research of the Farm House's history, and that of the people involved in it. We of course did our original research soon after purchasing the house, the fruits of which I set down in Volume 1 of the Farm House Journal.

Sadly, those fruits were small and malformed, because we were not allowed access to any source documents except the permit records. Other than that, all we got from any of the several local custodians of historical records was copies of research checklists completed by volunteers in the Eighties who were collecting the supporting evidence to justify the designation of Bungalow Heaven as a historical district. All they were looking for back then was enough information to qualify the house as a "contributing property," and all they really needed to prove that the Farm House contributed to the historical ambiance of the neighborhood was a photograph (of which we didn't even get a decent copy).
Can anyone identify that car? I at first thought it was an early-'60s Continental, but I can't seem to match up that grill.

We were stunned by this unwillingness to help us. The Keil-Wilson House, our Farm House, was a valuable, rare historical resource. It's one of the oldest extant residences in the city. Heck, it was here before the city. Very little had been done to the house since its inception. Entire rooms sat essentially unaltered from their original condition. Walking through the front door was like walking into 1885. We had naturally assumed that the local historical preservation community would share our enthusiasm.

We soon learned that historical interest hereabouts is mostly celebrity-driven: to be considered historically significant, a house has to have been associated with people considered historically significant. Neither Victorian businesswoman Jennie A. Keil nor the long-tenured Wilson family qualified in the eyes of the local cognoscenti.

Then again, they didn't give them much of a look. They knew of Anne, of course, and her long, long tenure here. They knew of her reclusive grandson Dick, who had left the happier part of himself in the Pacific theater during World War II. They even knew a bit about Anne's son Lucian: that he had lived here as a student in 1907.

This was apparently enough information for them to decide that the dramatis personae of the Keil-Wilson House included no one out of the ordinary. The Wilson name is attached to a great number of significant things in this city, but as they had not yet connected any of them to our particular branch of the Wilson family, they assumed that no such connection existed.

Happily, the proliferation of the Internet has since then largely democratized access to the relevant sources of information. And so, I have been able to unearth a substantial amount of information about many of the people who have called this house home before us. The following is what we know now.

* * *

The Farm House was built in 1885 on an acre of land on the corner of Illinois Street and Mentor Avenue. The builder was Mrs. Jennie A. Keil, who built the house as a rental property. There's not much more we know for certain at this point about Mrs. Keil, because there are conflicts regarding her records that can't be reconciled online. To get to the bottom of the matter would take some real legwork; for the time being, I'm afraid she must remain largely a mystery to us, a benign presence that got the ball rolling, then faded into the background.

Not so for Anne J. Wilson, the leading lady of the Farm House story in the twentieth century. Anne K. Johnston was born August 25, 1865 in Gloucester, Massachusetts to John S. and Fannie Field Johnston. Her name was listed as "Annie" on the birth record and on many subsequent records, so henceforth I will refer to her as Annie as well.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Annie hasn't made her entrance yet.

City directories from the late 1880s and the 1890s suggest that renters did live here, but it is impossible to know exactly who they were because there were apparently no assigned street numbers on this part of Mentor back then, so house locations were given relative to the nearest intersection. A typical address notation was "E s [for east side] Mentor near Illinois." If we consider all possible such listings (and there are only a few), it seems that a succession of carpenters lived here. The 1890 Census records were destroyed in a fire, so we don't have that information, and the house is not listed in the 1900 Census, so apparently no one was renting the house at that time. That may well have been when the indoor plumbing was being installed; that would be consistent with the vintage of the plumbing fixtures.

The Farm House's stretch of Mentor apparently got its numbers around 1900, and the first listing of its specific address is none other than Mrs. Annie J. Wilson, listed in the 1905 city directory as a renter. We don't know precisely when the Wilsons moved in, but we do know where they were in 1900: on a farm in Cucamonga.

Detail of 1900 Census for Cucamonga, California, showing Archie Wilson and family.

Archibald Campbell Wilson was born in Wheeling, West Virginia on September 30, 1862 to a farming family. He was the oldest of four children, two boys and two girls. By 1880, at the age of 18, he was in Philadephia, at which time he obtained a passport. He and Annie were married in Boston on New Year's Day, 1887, and their first son John Encell was born in Philadelphia in May. The family had moved to Cucamonga, California by the time their second son Lucian H. was born in November 1888.

Annie's parents seem themselves to have come West at about the same time, because we find Annie's father in the 1890 voter register as a farmer living in Montecito, which is just east of the city of Santa Barbara. We don't find Annie's mother there, because women did not have the vote in 1890, but she was with her husband nonetheless.

Why would Annie's parents follow so closely on Archie and Annie's heels, yet settle so far to the north? It's certainly related to the fact that on the Boston marriage register, Archie is listed as a "ranchman" hailing from Santa Barbara, California. If the term confuses you, bear in mind that in California at the time orchardists were commonly called "fruit ranchers," I know this because my own maternal grandfather was a fruit rancher in Berryessa when my mother and uncle were children. Annie's parents in fact became lemon growers, and I'm betting that the younger couple were growing oranges in Cucamonga.

Archie and Annie had a third child who sadly had already passed by the time of the 1900 Census. Even more sadly, Archie himself passed later in 1900, according to John's 1921 passport application. Still, Archie did leave his family with a farm free and clear, and Annie was able to trade that farm for the Farm House, which by 1910 she owned, complete with a mortgage. By then, the lot had been whittled down to a third of an acre.

At the time of the 1910 Census, John had left the nest, but Lucian was still there. Also living at the Farm House at the time were two people listed as boarders: Denfield M. Morse, 19, and Agnes M. Daintree, 52, both single.

Where had John gone? To Stockton!

Detail of 1910 Census for Stockton, California, showing John E. Wilson and family.

Moreover, it appears that John had quite recently gotten married to a lady 13 years his senior (and a scant five years younger than his mother), Lena Parmelee Wilson née Morse, a widow with three children, all born in Connecticut: Denfield M., Althea N., and Walter N., ages 19, 17 and 15, respectively. John was working as a plastering contractor, and Lena was a Christian Science practitioner, one who prays for others of that faith in order to address health, financial or inter-personal concerns.

Wait—Denfield M. Morse? That name sounds familiar. . . oh, yes, he was listed as a boarder at the Farm House in the same census. Well, this is plausible; Stockton's census was taken on April 21, while Pasadena's was taken the 26th. Denfield could have moved in the interim, and thus been recorded in both places accurately.

Nevertheless, this matter reminds us to take census records with a grain of salt. They are at best a snapshot of the moment the information was taken, subject to honest error. People can appear in two places in a census, or in no place. Moreover, people of course will sometimes fib to the census taker in order to hide embarrassing or compromising situations from official notice. City directories are considerably less reliable than that. In fact, only documents that were completed and signed under penalty of perjury, or were notarized, can reasonably be taken more or less at face value. Ultimately, it's all just evidence, to be weighed and evaluated in its proper context.

In Denfield's case, to be sure, we have no reason to doubt that he did just happen to move down here between April 21 and April 26 of the year 1910. Still, it's quite a nifty trick to manage to get counted twice in the Census.

Why would Denfield want to be in Pasadena, and not in Stockton with his new family? Because he more or less grew up in Pasadena, as it turns out. His family moved here from Connecticut sometime after his youngest sibling was born in 1895 and before his natural father, Walter Nelson Morse, passed away in 1898 (when Denfield was seven years old). It's quite conceivable that the Morses moved out here in search of a more healthful climate for Walter; Pasadena was a popular destination for the convalescent until after World War II, when smog began its fifty-year reign of terror hereabouts.

Denfield next appears on our radar in 1917, when he registered for the World War I draft. By then, he'd moved back up to Stockton and gotten himself married. He lived there in wedded bliss for the rest of his days.

His stepfather John was still in Stockton at the time of his own WW I draft registration, but by 1920 he and Lena had moved to San Francisco, at which time he was working for the Public School Protective League. On a 1921 passport application, he indicated that he had been in Europe and Panama in 1918 and 1919. The locations and dates seem to suggest he actually served in the military (or perhaps the Merchant Marine), especially considering that otherwise he'd already have had to carry a passport. In the application, he specified an intention to travel to Mexico on personal business.

At the time of the passport application, he and Lena were living in San Francisco, renting a row house at 1367 Seventh Avenue, just a few blocks from Golden Gate Park, and in a city directory for that year he's listed as working for the firm of Wilson & Williams. Is he one of the named principals, or is that just a coincidence? I can't say, because I have no supporting evidence. I don't know who Williams might be, and I can find no other mention of this firm.

In any event, in the 1923 city directory no employment details are listed for John, and the 1925 directory shows him working at a garage. The couple must have been doing all right, however, because now he is listed as the homeowner at the same location. The 1926 directory has him working as a clerk, and in the 1927 directory he's a "sec" at "Sven Philip & Co".

Meanwhile, Annie has bought a house a few doors up the street! She is listed as a homeowner in both the 1926 and 1927 San Francisco city directories at 1375 Seventh Avenue, and indeed for these years she is not listed in the Pasadena city directory. In fact, the reverse directory for Pasadena shows the Farm House as vacant.

Both these houses still stand. Here's a recent picture, from Google Maps:

Annie's place is on the left; John and Lena's, on the right.

Real estate records indicate that 1375 is now a 2-unit place, and 1367 a 6-unit. I wonder whether they were subdivided when the Wilsons lived there? If they had been, you'd think there would be unit numbers in the addresses. Either way, Annie was certainly close by.

Annie had made forays from the Farm House before. In 1913, she was listed as a resident at her mother's farm in Santa Barbara (Fannie had apparently moved from the Montecito farm in the interim). That time, however, Annie was still listed here as well, so it appears that it was simply an extended visit.

Annie's San Francisco sojourn was far more substantial. I find it curious that she actually purchased a home up there, retaining the Farm House without securing a tenant for it or even having someone house-sit. The situation defies a simple explanation, but it seems to me that Annie's move was quite unplanned, as if she had been reacting to a sudden need for her presence with no idea of how long it would be needed.

In any event, the 1928 city directories show Annie back in Pasadena, and by the 1930 Census John has joined her, working then as a clerk at a tile factory. Meanwhile, Lena has remained at the same address in San Francisco, and will remain there, working as a Christian Science Practitioner, until her passing in 1944.

John apparently never returned to her. While he doesn't show up for us again until the 1940 Census (working as a distributor of advertising circulars), we know he was here in 1935, because that Census asked that question. Also in residence here in 1940 (but not in 1935) was John's niece Helen.

The great surprise of the 1940 Census is that Annie is nowhere to be found. She's not listed as being in residence here, and John himself is listed as head of household—and, by inference, the owner (which he was not).

If Annie was truly not living here at the time of the 1940 Census, her absence was merely temporary. Perhaps she was visiting a relative, or maybe she was in the hospital or convalescing somewhere. Consider that she was 75 in 1940. Finding Annie absent at the time of his visit, the census taker naturally assigned head-of-household status to the oldest resident.

In any event, I can't find Annie listed at any other address in the 1940 Census, and she's back here at least by 1943, when her name is on the permit for re-shingling the roof of the rear porch. She was then 78, a good long life already behind her—but she wasn't done yet, not by a long shot.

Next: We catch up with Annie's other son, Lucian.

Queen of the Wood, niece of the Wily Forest Cat.