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.