Mill Street, Grass Valley

From the threshold of Bennetts Bootery

By William Wetherall

Grass Valley "The Quartz Crowned Empress of the Sierras" from 1870 to 1970
Mill Street shops 1861 directory | 1886 directory | 1910 directory | 1965 directory
Downtown denizens Bennetts | Brewer | Frederick | Heyman | Ingram | Lobecker | Nellie | Sirago | Tinloy | Weissbein | Williams
Jacob Heyman's buried records Excavating the sand in the attic of 140 Mill Street
Letters from suppliers Eat Lung Sam Kee | Quong Chung Lung | Quong Eat Chung | Quong Hung Gee
Letters from customers Mrs. Briggs | Thomas C. Moran | Mary Scott | Mrs. Wellington | Mrs. Williamson
Innocence lost Showing the flag | Landlord tenants | Profit margins | Brown paper bags | Hot toddies

Grass Valley

"The Quartz Crowned Empress of the Sierras" from 1870 to 1970

I was born in San Francisco in March 1941, raised in 4 different houses, and educated in 4 different schools, until one morning, in May 1955, my dad piled the family into our car and drove up highways 40, 49, and 174 to our 5th and last house on Grandview Terrace near Union Hill on the outskirts of Grass Valley.

My brother is a year and a half younger and was a year behind me in school. Before moving to Grass Valley, we were both attending A.P. Gianinni Junior High school in the Sunset District, I in the 8th grade, he in the 7th. We walked a few blocks to school on concrete sidewalks. In Grass Valley, we walked through the woods to Union Hill Elementary School.

On top of the demotion, we found ourselves sitting in the same classroom, taught by the same teacher. The room was in the auditorum, which was right off the kitchen and had probably once doubled as a cafeteria. But then it was a classroom. I sat with the 8th-grade students on the right. My brother sat with the 7th-grade students across the aisle. We faced the stage and the teacher divided his attention between us. While I would immediately graduate and go on to the junior high school in Nevada City, my brother would stay at Union Hill for another year.

Bennetts Bootery

By the fall of 1955, barely half a year after moving to Grass Valley, I was working as a clerk at Bennetts Bootery at 140 Mill Street. Only then did I truly begin to learn about the "facts of life" in the broadest sense of this expression. Mill Street provided me with my first relatively unprotected induction into the world of adult society. In other words, I grew up, socially, on Mill Street.

Bennetts Bootery styled itself a family shoe store and haberdashery. I had to look up the word in a dictionary. It means a haberdasher's shop. And a haberdasher, in Americanese, is generally a person who sells "men's furnishings, such as hats, shirts, neckties, and gloves". We also sold men's Levis, and men's slacks, jackets, sweaters, belts, hats, and cufflinks and tie clips, and basic styles of men's, women's, and children's socks. We had a small supply of shoe polish, laces, and insoles, as well as foot powder. Our main commodities, however, were men's, women's, and children's shoes and boots.

The main attraction of the store for kids, and for adults who had never seen one at a penny arcade, was a fluoroscope or "floor-o-scope" as it sounded to me -- an x-ray pedoscope that was used to fit shoes. States began banning such machines in the late 1950s. As I recall, Bennetts Bootery stopped using its fluoroscope sometime in the early 1960s.

The store -- but not the building -- was owned by Howard Bennetts, the youngest son of its original owner, Joseph Bennetts, a naturalized English immigrant, who was a bootmaker. Howard walked to work from his home on 220 Richardson Street, usually through Alpha Hardware on 204 East Main Street. At times, when on other business, he drove his white Cadillac, which he parked in front of the store, but never for very long. I rode in it a couple of times. It floated and slushed along, practically bumpless and noiseless compared to my dad's 6-cylinder, stick-shift, simple-suspension, radio-only, otherwise no-frills Chevy.

Howard did most of the desk work and left the management of stock and sales to Frank Frederick, his son-in-law. Frank and his wife Beatrice and their children lived within eyesight of the Wetherall home on Grandview Terrace. Shortly after we moved up he hired me to paint his fence and babysit his daughters, Valarie and Rebecca. Bea was then expecting their third child.

That fall Frank screeched his blue Ford station wagon to a halt in front of our home, stuck his head out the window, and asked me if I'd like to work at the shoe store. What would I be doing? I asked. Everything, he said, from washing windows to selling shoes. I immediately said yes.

I clerked at the store every Saturday, and a few days a week after school, and everyday during seasonal vacations like Christmas and Easter, when in the 9th grade at Nevada Union Junior High School in Nevada City in 1955-1956, and until graduating from Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley in 1959.

During the summers of 1959, 1961, and 1962 I worked at San Francisco Naval Shipyards, at Hunters Point in San Francisco. But I worked at the shoe store during my four semesters at Sierra College in Auburn from 1959 to 1961. I also worked the Christmas holidays while attending the University of California in 1962-1963. I even worked a few days during Christmas leave from the U.S. Army in 1963, and a few days during the Christmas season after mustering out of the Army in the fall of 1966, the year after Howard died and Frank was having difficulties filling the managerial gap.

Early jobs

My father moved up to Nevada County from the city to become Harold Berliner's law partner in Nevada City. That summer I worked at Berliner and McGinnis in Nevada City, around the corner from their office. Harold was an attorney but his truer calling was printing. I had helped one of my neighbors in San Francisco in his father's basement print shop. And I had been taking print shop at A.P. Giannini Junior High School at the time we moved to Grass Valley.

My father may have told me at the time that his father had been a printer. But I have no memories of hearing him talk about his family until much later in my life.

In any event, I was hoping to get some printer's ink on my fingers. Berliner and McGinnis, however, wanted only cheap hands to stuff envelops with Catholic Christmas cards, box the cards, and seal the boxes in cellophane for shipping to retailers that fall.

I hadn't heard of Charley Chaplin, and wouldn't see Modern Times until I was in college. But there I was, in the summer of 1955, slaving away on a production line for 50 cents an hour if that, and feeling very much like a cog in a machine by the end of the day.

I averaged less money per hour raking leaves, mowing lawns, and weeding, and also pulling poison oak, for a couple of neighbors. For several years, I did most of the yardwork for the Barngrovers, a retired Navy admiral and his ceramicist wife, who lived in the big house across the street from our home.

The outdoor work was more fun, though, and I learned more, especially from Mrs. Barngrover, who on more than one occasion would mildly scold me -- when some of the weeds I pulled were flowers, and some of the flowers I left were weeds. The Barngrovers had the first color TV on the terrace at a time when the Wetherall family had only a radio. One of the fringe benefits of doing their yardwork was an occasionally chance to watch a program.

My father and television

My father was opposed to the influence he feared a TV in the house would have on his children. Some of my friends in San Francisco had TVs, and now and then I watched Hopalong Cassidy, which all the kids were talking about, but which I found very boring. I preferred radio heroes like Tom Mix and Straight Arrow.

By the time we moved to Grass Valley in 1955, more families were buying a TV. And in high school, I used my growing interest in electronics as an excuse to buy an old TV, which I put in the room I shared with my brother. But I watched very little TV when growing up.

My father deigned to buy a TV, a black-and-white set, only after all three of us had left home, sometime in the mid 1960s. He bought it on the pretext of wanting to watch football games, but he and my mother immediately became addicted to certain dramas and sitcoms.

After moving his office to his home in 2000, he habitually watched news reports at regular intervals throughout the day. He never understood my mom's addiction to Days, and couldn't understand why she didn't share his enthusiasm for political talk shows.

After her death in 2003, he talked mainly with the rightwing pundits on the TV monitor. By then he was not only hard of hearing, but was constantly misplacing his hearing aids, which he hated. And so he simply cranked up the volume. And he'd sit there -- or sometimes stand -- and rail against George W. Bush and his cronies, and Fox News commentators, as though they were sitting in the room with him.

My dad had been a debater in high school, college, and law school, and he couldn't resist a political argument. The husband of one of our relatives was an opinionated Republican. They'd start going at it the moment they were in earshot of each other. When they were in the same room, it was impossible to talk about anything else. Joe would say, Are you listening Bill? My dad would say, I'm listening, Joe. And Joe would say, How can you listen with your mouth open?

In the city I had worked for a neighborhood drugstore from age 12 until we moved, which was shortly after I turned 14. My job was to deliver prescriptions and toiletries on my bicycle for Parkview Pharmacy at 2600 Judah Street on the northwest corner of the intersection of Judah and 31st Avenue in the Sunset District. The store was only three blocks from our home on 33rd Avenue between Lawton and Kirkham. The pharmacist's name was Meyer M. Segal. I called him "Doctor Segal" because that's what I heard others call him. I figured a man who wore a white coat and, like a true chemist, prepared some of the drugs he dispensed with a mortar and pestle, must be a doctor.

I got a dime for addresses within a few blocks of the drug store. Anything east of 19th Avenue, west of Sunset Boulevard, or south of Noriega got me a quarter. I got 50 cents for longer rides, and once got a dollar for a delivery to the Richmond District north of Golden Gate Park, though I knew shortcuts through the park that made it more like a half-dollar ride.

Most deliveries were dimers, but a dime was big money for a 12-year-old kid. And the exhilaration of being paid for doing something l liked -- biking around the avenues -- made a dime seem bigger. I also got tips, many of the keep-the-change type, some of which I would boast about for days.

Another benefit was the freedom to read anything on the magazine rack, which introduced me to the world of pulp that continues to fascinate me. I read in the back room, though, so as not to encourage kids who came to the store to buy candy that it was okay to sit on the floor and read the comic books, much less peek at the true-crime and adventure magazines, some of which had pin-ups and other risque content that worried mothers, including mine.

When living in the city, I dreamed of a newspaper route. The closest I got to delivering papers was to substitute now and then for the older boy in the neighborhood whose father, an SFPD cop, had the print shop in his garage. He also had a workshop with a table saw and a lathe and a wall of tools, with which he made all manner of things. And he loaded his own bullets with powders and slugs he mixed and molded himself.

Selective Service

The shoe store, though, was my first real job in the sense that it involved legal formalities on a par with those of the adult world. Never mind that I was only 14 years old. As soon as I turned 15, Howard required me to register with the local Selective Service Board in order to obtain a Social Security Card so he could pay the Social Security Insurance that Federal law required him to pay.

My starting wage was 75 cents an hour. A few months later Howard increased it to a dollar, and by the time I graduated from high school in 1959 I was making $1.50. The California minimum wage was $0.75 in 1957, $1.00 in 1963, and $1.25 in 1964. By the mid 1960s, the last time I worked at the shoe store, I was making a respectable $1.75 cents an hour.

The perks at the shoe store were significant for me, as I began buying my own clothes, at least those that people could see. I continued to let my mother keep me in underwear and gym socks, which she bought at J.C. Penney at 115 Mill Street, where Mrs. Phelan, the mother of John Phelan, one of the best friends, worked. I would later call her Ardith, but in those days children did not address adults by their first name.

I bought all of my shoes and boots, and my Levis and most of my shirts, sweaters, and jackets, at the shoe store. Frank usually gave me 30 percent off but at times sold me things for cost, which usually meant about half the retail price.

I also got 10 to 20 percent discounts at Vic Breuer's across the street, and at Bennetts and Steel down Mill toward Main on the same side as the shoe store. Bennetts and Steel, though a rival, was family, and Breuer's was a friendly rival. Our stocks were different, but we all carried Levis, and sent each other customers for sizes we didn't have, and for styles and brands of things we didn't carry.

Even then, some of my clothes cost more than they would have if I didn't have my own money, or wasn't so bent on controlling my wardrobe, and had left everything to my mother. But you couldn't, then, buy Levis at Penneys. And the first thing I learned after moving to Grass Valley, at Union Hill Elementary School, was that real guys wore Levis. You bought them to fit, washed them to make them fit tighter, and washed them as little as possible until they rotted at the crotch or fell off, which ever came first.

The shoe store job came with a number of intangible benefits as well. One was the camaraderie of classmates and schoolmates who patronized the store, and their parents. This included of course close friends whose homes I would visit and families I would get to know as a matter of course. But more more significantly, it extended to people I'd see in classes or in the halls who I had little reason to talk to much less hang out with.

Other intangible benefits included the insights I got into merchandising -- buying, pricing, displaying, and selling -- and then dumping things that didn't sell at huge discounts. It somewhat shocked me to learn that a typical mark-up was 100 percent. But this made total sense when I realized that you could knock off 33 percent and still make 33 percent. I wonder how many customers think this way when they shop for bargains.

The most important intangible benefit for me, however, and the subject of the rest of this article, was the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the adult world, which wasn't taught in classrooms, and couldn't be learned from television, movies, or even most books.

Mill Street shops

I have often imagined having a set of panoramic photographs of the stretch of Mill Street between Main and Neal, consisting of photographs of each side of Mill taken every year from the same vantage points. You could simulate this with images of maps of Mill Sreet showing the lots, their numbers, and the names of the shops. Or you could list the shops along each side, for each year, in a spread sheet, which is what I've done.

The problem is getting the information. Even if I was residing in Grass Valley, rather than in Japan, I'd have to spend hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours sifting through all available official records and other documents, and still recover only a fraction of confirmable identifications of what shops were located where for each year, or even for every five years.

Here I've adopted the laziest way to generate a minimum impression of changes by using lists of businesses published in city directories, or in the case of some directories, complete lists of addresses and occupants by street. Having no access to local libraries which might have copies of older directories, I have limited my lists to the handful of directories that have been scanned and made available on-line.

Moreover, I have focused on Bennetts Bootery and the other places that figure most in my personal story. While most of the other places are also on Mill Street, some are on Neal and Main, which bracket the two blocks of Mill that most people associate with downtown Grass Valley. I am also mainly concerned with the century spanning 1870 and 1970, which arguably represents the "pre-tourist" era of Grass Valley -- i.e., the period beginning in 1870 when the sort of fire-resistant buildings which survive today began to be built, up to the start of the recognition of the need to remake downtown Grass Valley into something that the new-fangled freeway offramp shopping centers couldn't offer.


The decade or so I worked at the shoe store, 1955-1966, accounts for only about 6 percent of the roughly 165 years or so that have passed in the history of Mill Street as of this writing in 2015, and only 10 percent of the 1870-1970 era. It corresponds to the first decade after the effective closure of the Emprie Star Mine during the labor disputes in the spring of 1956, the year after I moved to Grass Valley from San Francisco. But 165 years -- two centuries, let's call it -- is the blink of an eye in the human history of what we know as California, such as we can construct it from archaeological studies.

We are little more than
grains of sand in
the hour glass of time

The most important lesson of even this short a history, however, is that the lives of those who witnessed the rise and fall of the gold industry -- and of the edifaces, cultures, and civilizations we identify with the gold rush and the gold economy -- were short. The brevity of their existence is a reminder of the brevity of our own existence. We ourselves, like all our ancestors and all our descedants, are little more than grains of sand in the hour glass of time, in a universe whose end is as unknowable as its orgin remains mysterious.

Hōjōki (L), an essay on the impermanence of existence, written in 1212 by Kamo no Chōmei ( c1155-1216), begins like this (my translation).

The flow of the river is ceaseless, and it is never the water that it was before. Bubbles that float on the stagnant pool vanish and form, and there are no examples in which any have long remained. People and dwellings in the world are also like this.

In the exquisite capital, the houses of the people, noble, humble, aligning their ridges, rivaling over their tiles, appear to be things that do not disappear over the generations; but when we inquire whether this is true, homes that existed in antiquity are rare. Last year some burned down and this year others were built. Or large homes crumble and become small homes. the people who reside in them are the same as this. the places may not change, and the people may be numerous, but the people I saw long ago now number only one or two among twenty or thirty. The fate of people in which some die in the morning while others are born in the evening, but resembles the foam on the water. We know not where from people who are born and die come, or to where they depart. Nor do we know for whom we torment our hearts over our temporary abodes, or what about them pleases our eyes. The situation in which the owner and the dwelling rival over their impermanence is, as it were, not unlike that of the dew on the morning glories. The dew may fall and the flowers remain. But though they remain, they wither in the morning sun. Or the flower may fade and the dew still not vanish. But though it does not vanish, there are no cases in which any awaits the evening.

If alive today, Kamo no Chōmei might calculate that a few molecules of water in the flow the Yuba river, observed from any vantage point on any of its forks or tributary creeks, had been in the flow a millennium or two ago. By pure chance, some molecules circulate through the seas and atmosphere back to the Sierras.

At this time, as you read this, you are breathing a few molecules of nitrogen or oxygen that passed through the lungs of history's famous and infamous, monarchs and philosophers, farmers, soldiers, robbers and whores, who lived at the dawn of the ancient civilizations that gave birth to our own civilizations.

If alive today, Kamo no Chōmei would also cite Mill Street in Grass Valley -- or any street in any community any where in the world -- as a perfect example of how people and their dwellings vie with one another over their longevities. Grass Valley, like Kyōto or any town you name, has been at the mercy of the same universal forces of impermanence.

Hōjōki or "square-foot chronicles" refers to the journal Kamo no Chōmei wrote while living in a ten-foot-square hut along the Kamo river, which flows through Kyōto, the most beautiful of Japan's ancient capitals, which American bombers were ordered to spare during the Pacific War. His opening statement gives the impression that buildings generally last longer than their builders and occupants. But he was observising the conditions of a mature town that, at the start of the 13th century, was already two or three times as old as Grass Valley is today at the start of the 21st century.

Upstart towns, like Grass Valley and Nevada City in the middle of the 19th century, were destroyed by fires several times within the life spans of their earliest residents. In all eras and places, fire has been the number-one fear of all communities built mainly of closely-spaced wooden structures. Only when local Nevada County governments became better organized, imposed better fire-prevention standards on new construction, and established more efficient volunteer and professional fire-fighting capabilities, did buildings on their commercial streets begin to out-live their designers and tenants.


Given the political agendas that motivate the writing of national histories, "history" is not quite a science. But secular -- i.e., non-ideological -- history teaches that all civilizations are subject to the same forces of impermanence that determine the longevities of people and their homes and towns.

As you read this, our civilizations are at once vying and dying to make way for new civilizations that we can barely imagine. The future is as beyond our imagination today as the computer I am typing this on was to me when eagerly studying to be an electrical engineer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a member of the "Sputnik generation" at the height of the "Cold War" between the United States and the Soviet Union. The automobiles and radios and televisions and appliances that I took for granted in my youth were equally beyond the imagination of my grandparents when they were growing up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

All that history "predicts" -- which does not qualify it as a "science" -- is that all civilizations are born to die in order to make way for their successors. Mill Street today is not the Mill Street of my youth. Nor was the Mill Street of my youth the Mill Street of my employer's youth, much less of his father's youth.

Marketing "heritage"

Marketing Mill Street's "heritage" is tantamount to creating an illusion that seems real so long as we suspend our disbelief. Selling tourists Nevada City and Grass Valley requires that we not promote their "historical districts" as theme parks. Locals have to bait visitors, and hypnotize even themselves, to accept as somehow "authentic" the effects of the heavy make-up of restoration regulated by "historically correct" building codes.

We seduce others and ourselves to forget that modern utility lines are buried under the modern pavement, and to forget that the well-illuminated buildings would be dead without artificial respiration. Instead of publicizing truly realistic social history, we publish brochures and books that filter out much of the filth, grime, smells, noises, customs, and prejudices of the past, that we would not tolerate today. We sanitize, romanticize, and retouch the past with social and cultural sensibilities and fashions that did not exist then.

What ultimately links the present with the past, and even the future, is not, however, the artifacts or even the people who have created and treasured them -- but the awareness, then as now, that all communities need to build and maintain economies which provide their denizens with sufficient water, food, clothing, and shelter, and protection from natural and man-made calamities -- and, most importantely, reason to have hope in the future.

In other words -- the most vital thing we inherit from the past -- the essence of our continuation as a species -- is the human condition itself. The materiality of local heritage is secondary.

In yet other words -- while the people I am going to introduce here contributed to the life of Mill Street, Mill Street was merely a stage for the human dramas they brought to its street, sidewalks, and shops. The architecture, technology, and other trappings of their surroundings mattered less than their emotional states -- the pains and pleasures, the worries and reliefs, and the sorrows and joys that have been shared by all people, in all places and all times.


1861 directory



1886 directory



1910 directory



1965 directory



Downtown denizens

The following stories are about several families that migratead from different parts of the United States or from other countries, settled in Grass Valley, and crossed paths on Mill Street during the time I worked at Bennetts Bootery between 1955 and 1966. It is also the story of the buildings in which which some of their members worked.

The families whose members I had direct contact with while working at the shoe store were Bennetts, Brewer, Frederick, Ingram, Lobecker, Tinloy, Sergio, and Williams. I had contact with the Heyman family through the documents I found in the attic of the store. The Steel and Weissbein families are part of the history of the Bennetts family. I became acquainted with the Yun family, which is related to the Tinloy family, on account of the Yuns being part of a circle of friends with the Wetherall family.

The following Mill Street venues and families figure most prominently in these stories.

128 Mill Bennetts and Steel (Bennetts, Steel)
130 Mill The Unique (Tinloy)
140 Mill Bennetts Bootery (Bennetts, Frederick)
142 Mill Bunce's Place (Sergio)
144 Mill Bunce's Cafe
143 Mill Vic Brewer's (Brewer)
151 Mill The Union (Ingram)

Several other families and individuals also appear in these stories, including my closest school friends, and a few people I didn't know but were part of the lore.





















If you were to ask me today to describe her, I couldn't. I have images of her ambling along Mill Street in tennis shoes, hence she was known around town as Tennis Shoe Nellie. I have vague recollections of Frank calling her Nellie when greeting her -- "How's it going, Nellie!" -- when he spotted her around the store. I can't remember if she ever came into the store.

Frankly, I can't be absolutely certain that I'm not just recalling remnants of what today would be called an urban legend -- a story which I took at the time, being young and gullible, to be true. I have this notion -- possibly just an illusion -- that if you're from Grass Valley, and spent any time on Mill Street in the 1950s, you will know who I'm talking about, while latterday denizens and outsiders will look at me blankly.

I don't believe Nellie was homeless. Nor do I think of her as having been unkempt. I envision her only as being a character, a curiosity, an oddity -- someone who dressed differently, wore Keds instead of shoes -- "Keds" as in black-and-white "tennis shoes" or "gym shoes", more specifically "high-tops" -- something only kids wore, and mostly in gym class. Adults, though, did not walk down Mill Street in Keds, Converse, or their J.C. Penney pretenders. Most adults would not, then, have worn such shoes at home.

Anyway, no story of the Mill Street I knew would be complete without mention of Tennis Shoe Nellie.














Jacob Heyman's buried records

Excavating the sand in the attic of 140 Mill Street

A couple of years after starting to work at Bennetts Bootery, I heard that the building -- like some of the other older buildings on Mill Street -- had sand above the ceiling, supposedly to slow the spread of fire that might begin in the chimney or spread from the roofs of neighboring buildings. I asked Howard if I could see the attic. He said he'd been up there a couple of times, but there was nothing there but sand and some old records. I could go up if I wanted -- but be careful.

The front of the store that customers saw was fairly bright. Some of the woodwork was old, but it was solid and clean. Most of the newest stock was on shelves along the walls of the front section.

The office was further back, out of view of the front, and behind the office were the shelves where we kept older stock. The office, which centered on an old roll-top desk, was darker than the front and more cluttered. The shelves were also darker than the front and dustier.

Then came the backmost part of the building, separated by a door that we generally kept closed. It was the most poorly lit and truly dank and musty with the grime of the decades. It was full of older items, many of them relics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was a cellar which was also full of stuff. And at the very back, with a small window facing the alley between the backs of the buildings on Mill and Church streets, was the loo -- a tiny water closet that, if it hadn't been in the building, would have seemed like an outhouse with a flush toilet.

A door off the backmost room opened onto the alley. My memory is not entirely clear about the state of the alley in the late 1950s when I ventured into the attic. If I recall correctly, there were still some houses on the Church Street side where the big parking lot on the corner of Neal and Church is now. An alley ran from Neal, behind the backs of the Church street homes and backs of the Mill Street stores, to the ally that ran between Mill and Church. Part of Mill-Church alley still connects Mill with the parking lot.

Today, of course, the backs of the Mill Street buildings are exposed to the parking lot, and you can clearly see which buildings have flat roofs and which have attics. When I was working at the store, there was a long ladder that seemed to be there for use by Bunce's Place as well. It barely reached the small door at the back of the attic, but it was sturdy enough.

I opened the door -- I recall only a hasp without a lock -- and went in with a flashlight. The air reeked of cat urine and feces. I have no idea how the cats had gotten in, but I would imagine they walked. I don't recall seeing any, and the feces were dry and mostly decomposed in the sand. But clearly the entire attic had once been a cat box. They may have been seen as a way to control rafter rats, but I don't imagine they were intentional put there. I would guess they just came as part of the "natural fauna" of the human population that infested the country. The rats and cats had their own territories to stake and defend, their own stomachs to feed, and their own notions of what constituted a friend or foe, a pest or threat or a valuable resource.

Sticking out of the sand here and there were pieces of paper, mostly cancelled checks. Probing around with my fingers and hands, I found boxes of old checks and letters, and even a couple of ledgers buried in the sand. All were the records and paperwork of Jacob Heyman, who had run a dry goods and general merchandise store in the building in the 1870s and 1880s before Howard Bennetts father, a boot maker, started the bootery.

The building, when I was working there, was owned by the Ingrams. Every month Robert Ingram (1899-1988), or his son Peter Ingram (1926-1997), would come over from the Union across the street and pick up the rent. I witnessed this several times before I asked Frank what was going on and he explained the set up. At least once after than, Howard asked me to run the check across the street.

Howard at first had no interest in the stuff I found. And I have no recollection of him saying that he had mentioned my project to the Ingrams. But Howard had second thoughts about the ledgers -- or day books as they were also called -- and asked me to give them to him. Everything else I could keep.

The ledgers showed all the names of the customers who had purchased things on the cuff. We still did quite a bit of that when I was working at the store. We didn't keep a ledger, but just wrote out a credit slip, had the customer sign it, and gave the customer the carbon copy. Customers who habitually bought on credit would say "Put it on my tab." Occasionally someone failed to pay and couldn't be reached at the address they wrote on the tab. But generally we trusted people, and our trust was returned with continued business.

I don't know what happened to the ledgers -- one large, the other small. He may have shown them to Robert Ingram. If they survived, the would be in the possession of Valarie, Frank's oldest daughter and Howard's granddaughter, who later would live in the Bennetts home on Richardson. Or someone in the Ingram family may have them.

Many of the names were familiar to me as names of schoolmates. I especially remember Stewart and Foote. Howard most likely recognized many more, as they would have been contemporaries of his father's generation. As sociological history, they were records about who bought what, when, and for how much. Today computers compile such data on everyone who purchases anything with a credit or point card.


The most interesting materials were letters from Chinese wholesalers in San Francisco demanding payment of bills from Heyman at the end of the year so they could clear their books by New Years. It is not clear from the letters whether the New Years was on the solar or the lunar calender. The letters are very colorful in that they are written in non-native English and often excellent calligraphy. Most of the invoices are for shoes.

Other letters are from local people, including male and female customers and a school marm. Most of these letters reveal personal and family conflicts -- rivalries, money problems, charges of immorality, spousal secrets -- the sort of things that would generally not have been publicized -- grist for the gossip mill -- but reminders, today, how little the human condition has changed despite newer technologies and life styles.


I have transcribed all the letters as faithfully as I am able to decipher their sometimes, to me, illegible writing. The grammar is sometimes peculiar to the individual or the times, and some of the spellings are also idiosyncratic. English teachers would find many "mistakes" and not a few editors would argue that they should "corrected". But I am of the school that tolerates all linguistic variations as part of the historical record -- evidence that the language is as living and as complicated as its speakers and writers.


I vacillated as to whether to fictionalize personal names or let them stand as received. With apologies to readers who may recognize their ancestors, I have let them stand. Enough time has passed that I feel it doesn't matter that the letters addressed to Jacob Heyman as private correspondence have fallen into the hands of a third party who finds them worth disclosing as written. Of course I will honor the request of any descendant who would prefer that the identity of their ancestor be disguised.





Eat Lung Sam Kee



Quong Chung Lung



Quong Eat Chung



Quong Hung Gee






Mrs. Briggs



Thomas C. Moran



Mary Scott



Mrs. Wellington



Mrs. Williamson



Innocence lost

Children learn about the adult world from the moment they are born, but parents and teachers are inclined to protect them from frontal exposure to adult society. Even after becoming adults, some people continue to encounter fig leafs, or having lifted a fig leaf or two, prefer to leave them there. For what is a fig leaf for if not to hide something we really don't want to see or show?

Adulthood is not truly immanent until puberty, when anatomical and physiological changes accelerate an awareness that coming of age is both reachable and inevitable. From my employers and other adults whose paths I crossed while clerking at the shoe store, I learned more about life than I would from my teachers at school, or from my parents, both of which -- in hindsignt -- were inclined to protect me from knowledge of the real world.

Who knows what my parents actually knew about the larger world. As I got to know them better, later in my life and theirs, I was always amazed to discover how much they knew that I didn't know they knew, and not few things I had no inkling of. And now that they're gone, I suspect they took a lot of wisdom with them that I will never have.

Empire Star Mine

We lived at the top of Silver Way on the corner of Silver Way and Copper Avenue, immediately up the hill from where Silver Way takes off from Colfax Avenue. Right across the highway at the bottom of hill were some tailings and headframes of the Empire Mine. The fathers of several of my classmates at Union Hill in 1955, and at Nevada Union Junior High School in 1955-1956, worked at the mine. The ground shook practically every afternoon from blasting at the ends of shifts.

One of our neighbors was Leslie Bechaud, who lived at the corner of Copper Drive where it dog legs between Silver Way and Gold Drive (as present-day Gold Hill Drive was more appropriately called). Bechaud was a minerologist with the Newmont Exploration Laboratory. The lab was part of the Newmount Mining Corporation, which owned the Empire. He was from California and had gone to school at Cal in Berkeley.

The Bechauds had been living in Grass Valley for only three years when we moved up in the spring of 1955. That summer, through his connections, the Wetheralls swam in the pool at the bottom of the cascading garden behind the Bourn mansion.

Bourn mansion

The Bourn mansion or "cottage" was built in 1897-1898 by the architect Willis Jefferson Polk (1867-1924) with waste rock from the Empire Mine, for its first owner, William Bowers Bourn II (1857-1936). Bourn had reaquired the mine in 1896 after once selling it in 1887. His father bought it in 1869 but died in 1874, and his mother looked after the estate until Bourn, who had been studying at Cambridge, returned to California to assume control in 1878. Bourn sold the mine to the Newmont Mining Corporation in 1929. Newmont also purchased the North Star Mine, hence the Empire-Star Mines Company moniker.

The Empire Star Mines Company was merged into Newmont Mining Corporation, which owned the compny, in 1957, the year the mine was formally closed. The State of California, Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), bought most of the Empire property in 1974. Newmont retained mineral rights and a few acres of the property from which it could re-open the mine.

My first date

When the mine closed the Bechauds moved away -- but not before I dated their daughter, Susan, at a chaperoned event which required that she have an escort. She was one of the 12 girls, and I was one of the 9 boys, in the 8th grade class that graduated from Union Hill in June 1955 a month after we moved up.

Susan asked me because, as classmates and neighbors, we had become friends. But I also suspect she asked me because (1) like her, I lived in suburban Grandview Terrace, rather than in rural Union Hill or Cedar Ridge, (2) my father, like hers, was not a miner, lumberjack, barber, or store clerk, (3) like her, I was a newcomer from the city, (4) I was a month younger than she was, and (5) I wasn't as smart.

Susan and I had little in common. She had all the makings of a debutante. I was a shy pimply boy who didn't know how to dance. Looking back, that single date with her -- we lost contact with her family after they moved -- was my first but not last taste of local classism. I would not have a real date until my junior year in high school, when I began to learn how to dance. Now and then, as now, the Bechaud name crosses the threshold of my memory. And I wonder where Susan is and hope life has treated her well. We were both young and I don't think either of us quite understood all the fuss that our parents made about us that evening, about which I remember absolutely nothing.

Wetherall-Deluca gang hits Bourn Mansion

The Bourn mansion was not then an "attraction" in a state park. Its grandeur, however, attracted attention. Basically, though, it was someone's home, as my sister Mary Ellen, and Nancy Deluca, the daughter of the family that moved into the Bechaud place, discovered.

The girls decided to visit the mansion and rang the bell at the massive gate. When no one responded, they opened the gate and made their way to the front door. Again there was no respone, and the door was unlocked. They had the impression that whoever lived there was away, so they went in and made themselves at home.

They turned on the lights, rescued some ice cream from the refrigerator, and were eating it in the living room -- while my sister played the grand piano and Nancy sang -- when the front door opened and in came the caretakers, suitcases in hand, returning from a short vacation.

Of course this story never made the police blotter. It never even made the dinner table. I didn't hear it until a few years ago when my sister, in one of her more reflective moments, told it to me and our brother and his wife.

The back woods

I was a friend of Nancy's older brother Art, later an acquaintance of her first big crush, and I myself once casually dated her. On account of the time I spent at the Deluca house or on its sprawling grounds when visiting the Delucas, I knew the Bechaud place, as I still call it today, almost as well as I knew my own family home. It was later the home of the chief engineer at the Tahoe National Forest, where I worked a few summers as a surveyor. I regarded it then, and still consider it, the nicest lot on the terrace, tucked as it is into the corner of Copper Avenue, up against the woods and a ravine.

The back of the Bechaud property butted up against the woods on the Union Hill side of Grandview Terrace. We walked trough the woods to school or to play at Union Hill. The trails we used passed a couple of delapidated cabins and an occasional sink hole before cutting through or "traversing" (we didn't know the meaning of "tresspassing") people's back yards to get to school. The woods are now part of the Empire Mine State Park. One of the trails still passes close to the Bechaud property.

When we moved up, the woods were open and wild. It was a playground for me and my nextdoor neighbor John Shadburne. There were few fences. We could walk all the way to the Idaho Maryland mill ponds at the juncture of Union Hill Road (now called East Bennett Road) and Greenhorn Road with the Brunswick Road. We could even walk to Cedar Ridge, with no obstructions.

If you heard the reports of firearms echoing from the woods, it may have been John and I firing his .22 or .410 at logs, squirrels, or pigeons. I can't remember us ever hitting anything except trees and limbs. Or it may have been Frank Frederick putting a dog to sleep. We rarely saw another human being. There were no postings of hazards or dangers. We didn't worry about poison oak, mountain lions, or bears.

The woods were also a playground for my brother Jerry and some of his school friends, including Donald Duncan, who lived in Union Hill in one of the cottages whose backyards we passed through when walking through the woods to school. One day, a couple of years after we had moved up, someone called the fire department to put out a blaze that had spread from one of the abandoned cabins. Guess who started it while fussing off with the matches they used to light cigarettes.

I can't remember whether this incident made the police blotter. Even if it did, the names of the boys would not have been mentioned. But it definately became a family matter. Don later became a police officer. My brother, who nearly flunked out of Nevada Union High School because he preferred to go fishing than study, went on to Humbolt State College and the University of Washington. As I write this he is still working as an ichthyologist for the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu.


Showing the flag



Landlord tenants



Profit margins



Brown paper bags



Hot toddies