Saturday, May 5, 2007

Through the eyes of Young Arthur Pillsbury

The excitement started to shimmer even before we got out of school – though Uncle never waited until school was actually over to have Aunt Aetheline send us up on the train. As soon as we had finished the necessary assignments we were free for the summer. He always said that we would learn more at the Studio, anyway, and he was certainly right.

I should explain that Uncle is actually my father. He initially became my father because of tragic circumstances. My parents, Dr. Ernest Sargent Pillsbury and Sylvia Florence Ball Pillsbury, were killed in an automobile accident while we were on our way to Santa Barbara in 1911. I was the least injured of the three children.

Uncle adopted us six weeks later, having spirited us away from the trust company, which had seized the estate and wanted to seize us, too. Before this Uncle was my godfather and my father’s younger brother and only sibling. I was named for him and we celebrated our birthdays at the same time.

That is how he became my father. I was only six then so the memories of my other father faded, as determined as Uncle was that they stay with me. We kids always went to Yosemite Valley on the earliest train in those early years; to join Uncle who had gone up to open the Studio much earlier. Usually it was one of Aunt AEtheline’s brothers, Uncle George or Uncle Jesse who put us on board. These were not real uncles, of course. Aunt Aetheline was Uncle’s wife but had refused to adopt us. That suited us kids, actually. Uncle was more than enough. He was always busy doing something but that never got in the way of talking and understanding. He never raised his voice and his words carried smiles and encouragement when we needed them.

Once on the train we would settle in to watch the landscape roll by, changing to the Yosemite Rail Road at Merced. When we changed trains it was like we were already there. Central Valley was hot and dusty. Sometimes I wondered about the people who, living so close to the Valley, never visited. Not seeing Yosemite is a terrible thing. But getting there was not easy, even then.

The Yosemite Valley Rail Road was carrying tourists to El Portal in 1906, that same year as the Great Earthquake.

Railroad Station at El Portal

Before that it took several days to get into the Valley by stagecoach

Until cars were permitted the last leg of the journey from El Portal was by horse-drawn coach, though sometimes we walked.

From Merced the grade went up steadily until the train gave a great sigh and stopped in a cloud of heat and smoke in El Portal. In those early years, before cars were going into the Valley, most people spent the night there at the El Portal Hotel. Uncle had taken pictures soon after it opened showing its amenities and if we had time we liked to stop there and have lunch in the restaurant or visit the shops.

Then we headed out, up the dusty road. I always looked up when we passed through the Arch. Uncle had taken some panoramas there and he had gone along to lug the equipment and help out. That was a Sunday Time. More about that later.

My heart always gave a lurch when we reached that point into the Valley when I first saw El Capitan. (El Capitan) It was a first homecoming. I had listened to the legends while Uncle read them to me – before I was reading them aloud myself beside the campfire in the evenings. I thought it really looked like an old woman throwing down her long hair, getting ready to take out her comb and smooth out the tangles. Uncle smiled at that.

The road ran along the side of the Valley, close to the wall until it curved just after the Ship Stone. The Ship Stone was a small mountain that cut into the grassy meadow behind the Village. I spent time there.

As we made the turn we saw the Masonic Hall on the right, beginning the clutter of tents and buildings that were scattered through the trees and boulders. There was a stable and other outbuildings, too, but the Masonic Hall figured in some significant chapters of the family history, so I always smiled when I saw it.

The Studio was on the left, at the corner of the roads, the one coming from El Portal and the other coming up from what we then called the Lower Village.

The Village is in sight

Around 1914 Uncle built a gazebo out from the Studio that could hold an awning in the summer so that tourists would have a nice place to write letters and postcards. We showed movies there, too.

The Studio, our home and place of business, spread out through the trees and boulders surrounding the Chapel as a small compound. When Uncle had bought it with the proceeds from the photographs he had taken of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire in 1906 he had fulfilled a life long dream to justify spending time in the Valley. The studio was called The Studio of the Three Arrows then. We kids called it that from time to time because we liked the Indian sound of the words.

Life in Yosemite was a very different thing from our lives in Berkeley.

In Yosemite we worked hard, or course. The family did not believe in idleness. I learned early to sell post cards, develop photos, keep accounts, and finally to turn my hand to anything that needed doing. Eventually I was happily allowed to do the artwork for some of the items we sold in the studio. I always felt a flush of pleasure when I saw someone look at a card that carried my work.

After Uncle built the first machine to mass produce photo post cards it was also my responsibility to run that. Thinking up new things to make was a fun family activities.

Into the Valley

We slept and lived in a herd of tents laid out towards the wall of the Valley and around the Chapel. Mine was decorated in plaid and my sister’s in a pinecone print. I kept special things there on my dressing table. Tents were always tidy, as anything else was entirely unacceptable and drew a sad look from Uncle. On the floor of my tent I laid my rug. My mother had bought it for me when I was very small and I could not remember a time when it had not been there beside my bed. It had bold reds and a subtle blue, bounded with a cream background and beige lines. It was good wool, and smelled faintly of its origins when damp. Our tents were not often wet, however. They had good sturdy wooden floors.

Our corner of the Village was a hub of activity. The Degnan’s store and house where there and in the summer I used to go over and help so they would let me lick the blades of the ice cream maker. They kept cows in the Valley and made ice cream from fresh cream every single day.

Sentinel Hotel

That last leg into t he Valley was filled with refreshed memories and eagerness. From the moment I left El Portal I began to plan what I would do the moment I arrived. . I was always torn. I wanted to do several things simultaneously. I wanted to put up my tent, make my bed and just lie down and listen to the sounds. I wanted to run through the meadow. I wanted to go listen to the sound of the waterfalls and look up to the cliffs overhead. They made me feel happy and settled in. I wanted to go look and see what new post cards Uncle had come up with before we got there. And I wanted to see about that ice cream. It was a wonderful moment.
From there the roads joined and turned to the left and the Village laid out on both sides. I always took a long look down the road to glimpse the Sentinel Hotel at the far end.

The Village had been there since Uncle was a small boy. He and my father had gone to Yosemite for the first time in 1895, the same year that Susan B. Anthony visited Yosemite for the last time on a tour of California. Dr. Grandma had been delighted to see her again when she spoke in San Francisco. The work of women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Blackwell inspired a generation of women to break down the barriers to a full participation in the life of America. When Dr. Grandma talked about those years I could see what she must have looked like when she was young.

I remember her sitting up in her chair, eyes on fire, glazed with tears, talking about those women. They were heroes whose lives inspired us. Dr. Grandma seemed older than Earth and absolutely unbreakable to me when I was small. I knew that she was sad that the work, so diligently carried out, was still unfinished.

The family had been at Stanford the last time Dr. Grandma saw Susan B. Dr. Grandma was running a hospital and Father and Uncle were working and studying. Uncle has started a photography & bicycling store there, right outside Stanford. Dr. Grandma thought that was better than his running the illicit darkroom in the unfinished rafters of Encinas Hall. That was when he built the first motorcycle in California. He said it burned his privates a little but was worth the trouble. (Link to bring in sound (inject audio from A.C’s autobiography))
The first year you could bring automobiles into the Valley was 1914. For some reason the Park Superintendent thought concessionaires should pay extra for taking pictures of cars. Uncle thought that was ridiculous, but he was always respectfully amused by authorities of all kinds and thanked the Powers that Be that it had not occurred to them to charge for something else, too.

Uncle kept up a pretty constant correspondence with the Park People and sometimes read particularly pompous missives aloud.

Paying for the Privilage of Posing

Here I am with my sister, Grace, and my brother Ernest Sargent, Jr. having our picture taken with a pioneering car, and with its occupants.

After I settled in my first destination when I had time, because we were all expected to work, was a tour up the road, past the Sentinel Hotel, to the Bridge. There, I would hang over and take a long look at Half Dome; refilling my eyes with memories of the times we had climbed up the back carrying photographic equipment.

I always stopped to look at the enormous book that they kept there on a stand. Everyone who visited Yosemite signed into the book, and I enjoyed very carefully turning the pages to see who was ‘in town.’

The Village had grown up from the Sentinel Hotel, stretching south, ending at our corner. Visiting the Hotel was a part of my summer remembering program. It was a very busy place with the coming and going of tourists and the sounds of doors closing. It was an old building and Uncle said it was never built to last, really. It sagged here and there, even when I was small.

Cedar and Oak Cottages

The Hotel had enlarged its capacity by sprinkling cabins throughout the woods. One, the Cedar Cottage, was built around a wonderful big cedar tree with a cozy hearth and happy, intimate atmosphere. The others looked more like the Hotel’s main facility, across the road. Those were the Rock Cottage and an Oak Cottage, each with its own personality. Tourist kids, intimidated at first by the bigness of the Valley sat on boulders and watched the coming and going of wagons and automobiles.

Uncle did not drink or smoke, having come from a White Feather Family, but I watched those alcoholically inclined make their way to the Cosmopolitan and New Saloons to sample the wares and take long soaking baths, that being the specialty of the Cosmopolitan. We washed and showered in our camp bathing tent, which was chilly fun.

Across from us, on the opposite side of the Y, was the Grocery Store. Here we bought provisions to be made up by our cook, who handled the domestic part of the household.
Every summer our Studio was populated by a happy bunch of girls and young women from Berkeley and Stanford, who tinted pictures and enjoyed Yosemite. Some produced amazing work and sold photos they bought from Uncle on their own.

Up the road in the Village, between the Studio and the Cottages of the Hotel, lay residences and the Degnan Restaurant. Most of the ice cream was served up to tourists there.