I Was There...
Memories of Frank Tucker, a self-made Westerner
The following letter was written by Francis William Tucker (1857-1935) on July 25, 1930, to his niece Mrs. William H. Seiple of Denver, Colorado. In the letter, Tucker recounts his overland journey from Wisconsin to Iowa to Oregon; and his migration to Washington and finally the San Francisco Bay Area. The section presented here tells of fortunes gained and lost in real estate speculation in the frontier town of Baden, present-day South San Francisco. The tale is a common one for the "self-made man" of the late 19th century. Tucker's firsthand account of the Panic of 1893 makes real the effect of financial disaster in his century and ours. Grammar and spelling mistakes appear in the original.
Grand Avenue in South San Francisco, 1893.
Photo: South San Francisco Public Library
Grand Avenue in South San Francisco, early 1900s.
Photo: South San Francisco Public Library
"The life of the wanderer, does it pay or does it not? There is many differ on this question. There is much to gain as well to lose. To stay in one place you have but 1 chance, and that is the commencement of life. To stay in one place, stay with your first calling, let it be farming or any thing you may choose. But suppose you fail in your first calling, then what? Your first chance has failed and you are lost. You have grown old and your opportunities are shut off by the young that has grown up while you are growing old. And that leaves you to pick up a new calling and fail. If you are a wanderer you learn tricks and trades and become a thief and a robber, which is called business. You must rob your neighbor or they will rob you...
In all coming years, as I set alone, my mind is not at rest. I glance back and read the trail of those years that has gone. Like a mighty river can no more return I could not be contented. As the sun would disappear in the West it seemed to create a longing in my heart to follow. And so I did. I went to Boise City, Idaho, and there I hired with a company to go to the Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon...
From there I went to Portland, Oregon. There I bought 3 lots, and built a room house. Sold that, making clear profit of $1000, and built 2 more and sold them making a profit on each $800, total $1600. Then I continued. My next move was to Aberdeen Wash., and engaged in the same business and done well. With a nice bank account, I left for Aberdeen, Wash., on account of bad winters, too much rain. Going to San Francisco, Cal. After looking around for a week I went to a little town that was booming close to San Francisco, by the name of Baden. And there I went to work at the carpenter work. As I and my wife parted in Portland and she chose the family doctor instead of me, and then and there we divided the blanket. She took 1 little girl and I the other. Cora was the baby, so she took Cora, and I took Laura. With a broken heart, it seemed more than I could stand to think of losing my dear black-eyed baby that was the apple of my eye. My heart was filled with overflowing sorrow. More than I could stand. After deeding her some very valuable property for the support and her education, I took my dear little one in my arms and snuggling her to my breast, I started on a ocean voyage. With that little one that I had saved from the family wreck, and landed in San Francisco, Cal. A new world to start life all over anew. I dried the tears from my eyes, and drove the sorrow from my aching heart, got down on my knees and asked God help in my struggle for the right. And God granted me every thing I asked him for.
I went to Palo Alto, Stanford University, and placed my dear with a family of 3, 1 old maid and mother & dad. So she had her school and good training music, singing lesson, my sorrow and grief ended so.
I went to that town of Baden and it was a sure frontier town if there ever was one. Saloons, gambling, cow boys, dancing and a plenty of gunmen. I am here to tell you I was among strangers. I knew no one nor no one knew me. I was a long way from being broke, although no one knew it. I possessed 1 pair of overalls and a jumper, 2 hand saws, 1 hammer, and 1 little 6 x 8 tent. My hat had the top half torn of it. My face was not clean nor shaven. I secured work the next day and got my boss to go good for my week's board and borrowed $5. And you see I was sitting pretty, and I went to work and said nothing, only watched the game. If any of the boys said beer was on hand for my drink, and I was free with my $5 as long as it lasted, making myself a good sport with the boys. I never would gamble, because I was always broke. I always had .25c for beer or a smoke. After a little while I made the acquaintance of a painter that had a little shop that he kept the paint in. So I said to him let’s put up a little room on 1 end to sleep in. So we did, and the roof was just a few old boards. We had plenty straw and I did not have any use for my tent, so it would make a good cover, and I had then a plan to make me a workbench for odd jobs that I could pick up.
And I got along fine. I was to get $4.00 a day. On Saturday, the boss paid me off at 5.00 a day. I asked him about it and the answer was yes he knew it. Well I paid him the 5 and my meal ticket and bought another 1. The foreman told me to be sure and come back on Monday. Yes, I was there. So things went on fine. I slept fine and the town sure was booming, and I was saving as I could be. As always I was broke most of the time. It would not be so well if those tuff had any idea that you had any money on you. So the painter and I had picked up a set of horseshoes to pitch quoits with. In the meantime I had picked up a list of town lots and a few corners. But had not bought any because I was broke. One Sunday Jack and I was pitching horseshoes, and here was a mighty fine looking man walked over to us and said to us, "Well boys, who is the winner?" Jack answered it was a tie, and I asked him to throw off his coat and come in with us. It was agreed, and then we played for the beer. As it happened, I was the one that had to pay. It happened our new friend was a fine hand at the game. We went over to the corner, got our drink and went back. Well, he put it all over Jack and me. Well, we played all the afternoon. I got funny and wanted to know who he was and where he was from. I took a liking to him because he would speak plain and was full of fun, and Jack and I had him go over to dinner with us. So I asked if he was thinking of coming to the town. Yes was the answer, so I got busy and made him a price of a corner and 3 lots, making him 150 ft front at $39.00, and he told me to fasten them for him, and he handed me $25. Oh boy there was a start, and I was to have 5 percent. I went to the party and paid down the 25.00 and laid off to meet the boy. True to his word, the deal was made, and at once up went a bank on the corner, and stores, and a big apartment house over head. He was the headman for the Merriam Cammet [Cement] Co. of Chicago and they was to take over a great track of land and plot it for a town site, and at once the bee commenced to buzz in my bonnet. [c1890] I was just waiting for some thing like that to start, as I kept my self in the background. And I was looked on as just a carpenter, working all the time, and lived with the painter over in the shop.
I created many friends among the men that I worked with. Never said any thing about my self. No one knew me, nor cared for me. I was alone among strangers. Was very careful not to offend, but treated every one with respect that I came in contact with. Never dressed up. Always kept my place as a common workingman. Made it a ruling to use good language, no matter where I might be.
This man's name was F.M Persinger, and my name was F.W. Tucker. Mr. Persinger and Mr. Tucker become the closest of friends. Not by the puff dress and my callings, but the language that I used he saw at once that there was something behind it all. Mr. Persinger told me that he took a liking to me from the start. After the building was up and the bank had its doors for business, I ordered $1,000 to be sent to the new bank of South San Francisco as a checking account to the credit of Francis W. Tucker, from the McDonald Bank of San Francisco. And when that money was received on the Wells Fargo & Co. the next morning, I was across the street at the paint shop, with my old friend painter. I was the largest depositor and did not seem to think I was any different. Well, Mr. F.M. Persinger was living over the bank, and called his wife down in the bank, showing her the money that was received for me. And he and the Mrs. could hardly believe it. It was a complete surprise to all that knew me. And the old Wells Fargo & Co. man did not know what to say because I had fixed doors and put up shelves for his office. And the news soon spread and I was surprised to receive the many shake hands. By time I would feel embarrassed. There was a desk for a notary public for the bank of which I accepted. Also was placed in charge as head of the real estate. Business was good. The bank prospered. Deposits increased each day. I was increasing and swelling my bank accounts. My Daughter had grown to become a beautiful young lady, accomplished in her studies and music, and I once more was a proud father.
But there seemed to be a gathering ghost storm rising all over the land. A strange turn of fate revealed its self. The country went in to a slump. Business stopped. Banks closed their doors, and a panic followed. The McDonald Bank of San Francisco failed and busted our bank.  We was lost and broke. In the meantime, I had branched out a little and bought a block of land, subdivided it, and had 30 lots to commence life anew. Fixed up a little real estate office in Palo Alto Stanford's University Cal. and started selling lots at $300.00 each. I soon was on my feet. Happy once more, with a few hundred dollars in the bank of San Jose, Cal.
I picked up my paper one morning and in big head lines the Bank of San Jose closed its doors, and 2 women commit suicide by shooting, 2 others jumped over the cliff in to the ocean at Santa Cruz, and I went spinning down the road to destruction. My heart was broken and so my pocket was empty. Only $75 dollars in my desk. Times was hard. No way to turn. All avenues was closed. Nothing for me. What to do? I did not know. I soon got hungry, and I was looking for something to do, and was a tramp, sleeping in different barns as night over took me. I got down to just a 1.5 cent piece, and in a little grocery I bought a loaf of bread and set by a little ditch. Soaked my bread in the water and eat it. That was my day's ration. I was tired and hungry. I had forgotten that I ever had a home. I was too proud to beg, so 1 day there was 2 tramps lying under a tree by the side of the road. I went over to them and lay down with them, and in silence I said the Lords Prayer. I looked them and could see no difference as we lay on the ground 3 of us. In our talk, one of them said he used to have a home, a wife, and a baby, and said no more. I had nothing to say, so I wandered back to San Jose, and with the help of a man that I knew when I was in business, picked me up and took me to the Russ House in San Jose, paid for my meals and a room.
Inside of a week I went to work as a porter for $15.00 a month and stayed there for 2 years. Then went back to the carpenter work, but never could get another hold on my line of real estate. I never could gather enough to start at a day's wages. So drifting down the river of time I have become an old man of 74 years. My hair is white. I try hard to hold myself together. Living in my dearest daughter’s home trying to make the best of life, holding on to that thread of life, which will soon break. And in my, lonely hours, with pleasure I recall all of those days gone, never to return.
Just like a mighty river, rolling on from day to day, men and vessels cast up on it, lost and passed away. Then do your best for one another, making, life a pleasant dream. Help a poor and weary brother, pulling hard against the stream. Yes, my dear loved ones are gone to that home that waits for us all. In those silent hours of night I dream of some one of the family, will come to me, and it seems real. Then in my waking it is only a dream. Yes, God only knows how I would love to have someone that I could look upon as a friend, to cheer me in my last days, of which grow shorter day by day. It is sad to say, but true. I must watch the setting of the sun alone...
With love and many best wishes as your loving
the old Scout
Whose race is near run. Then I will pick up the trail and follow those that has gone ahead of me."
--Reprinted with permission of Karen M. Weiss and the Tucker family by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.