History that’s news to me

By Michael Raffety


I recently attended the 90th birthday party for Gloria Smith, the widow of Tom Smith. Tom, of course, was known as the man who owned half of Placerville. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration but it is not far from the truth.

Attorney Mike Petersen, who was Tom’s nephew, told some good stories about working for Tom at the grocery store when he was a teenager. Tom Smith had bought Tom Raley’s original Drive-In Grocery Store. He said Tom could fix anything in the store except the freezer. Tom had enticed him over from Cash Mercantile, where the owner had been looking forward to having Mike’s picture in the Mountain Democrat after going to the Scout Jamboree. Cash Merc at that time sold Scout uniforms.

After the grocery store Tom started the Shell station on Main and Spring streets right across the street from another gas station or two. At that time Main Street was Highway 50. Tom was able to compete by offering repair services, figuring people driving back from Tahoe might need repairs by the time they got to Placerville. He offered repairs seven days a week.

When I came to town in 1978 Cash Merc was still on Main Street. Ron Baily with his British accent was ad manager and the late Bob Vivian, whom I called the ghost of Main Street, had the Cash Merc account and all the other downtown plums, including Dillinger’s Furniture and the Datsun dealership in the Sacramento Street building the architecture firm occupied until it built its own digs on Pacific Street. He glided around town and was rarely seen in the office, hence the “Ghost” nickname.

The Vreeken family owned the Shell Station and it was the only gas station on Main Street. It wasn’t until Tom’s memorial service that I learned he had started the station. For a couple of decades through two more owners past the Vreekens the Shell Station kept its repair service open seven days a week just like Tom did back in the beginning. I used that shop quite a bit, getting my car smogged and getting repairs to my son’s and daughter’s cars or my old Toyota pickup on Sundays.

Vreeken’s daughter did some freelance work for us and their son, under a pseudonym, covered the Board of Supervisors with me as he was the news anchor for KAHI radio in Auburn.

The repair shop closed during the Highway 50 Improvement Project and hasn’t reopened since.

Tom and Gloria’s son, Kirk, and I started talking about the old Herrick Building (and Hangman’s Tree Bar). When I first came to town I rented a house on Reservoir Street from Tom. It didn’t have a refrigerator, so I used an ice chest. I kept a block of ice in it that I picked up at Lucky’s on Broadway or Safeway here in what is now the Mountain Democrat office. Then I would walk down to the P&M Market, the last downtown market, to get pork chops or steaks from their butcher counter. One of the partners of the P&M, Gene Baraque, had the biggest collection of historical Placerville postcards. Whenever I shopped there I would take the time to admire one of his postcards that he would show me.

More people remember that building as Zoe’s, a lunch and dinner place. But Kirk Smith told me it was the post office before the post office was built in the 1930s where the DA’s Office is now. The downtown post office was a social gathering place as people showed up to get the mail from their boxes. Many old-time Placervillians still keep their postal boxes, including the Mountain Democrat, even though we get mail delivery at our door.

Just for the record, fancy names for phone prefixes, such as the 1962 song by Gladys Horton and the Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” with lyrics “you can call me any ol’ time…”, had been long gone by the time I came to Placerville. Just for fun I looked through our morgue of bound copies and discovered the following factoids. In the 1920s local phone numbers were only two digits, with a few three-digits numbers. In the 1950s they grew to four digits. In the 1960s they grew to five digits and prefix names were added. The most common ones were NA in the Placerville area, which according to Ma Bell’s approved list of prefixes would be National, for 62. East of town, meaning Camino, the prefix was NI, which would be Niagara for 64. My guess is Georgetown was Edgewood for 33.

Gloria Smith comes from the Kirk family, hence Kirk Smith’s first name. Her grandparents, William and Annie Kirk were pretty avant-garde. William Kirk published the Daily Republican, later acquired by the Mountain Democrat. He also “much later in life,” according to Kirk’s postcard history on the back of the birthday invitation, was on the board of directors of the Mountain Democrat. That would be, I’m guessing, when Clarence Barker bought the Mountain Democrat in 1921 after the death of owner Mollie Carpenter. Barker raised money in the community to buy that paper, thus the corporate board, at least till some time later when he was able to buy back the stock.

William Kirk also brought the first automobiles to the county with a Ford Agency. To help sell the cars he drove one of the Tin Lizzies up the steps of the new Courthouse with his daughter Gertrude in the passenger seat. He used that photo “to prove to suspicious potential buyers that this newfangled thing would go anyplace a horse could go.” He later sold the first chain saws in the county.

His wife Annie “brought a gender discrimination lawsuit in 1878 against a dentist who refused to treat her because she was wearing bicycle bloomers.”

Their daughter Gertrude “was the first woman to register to vote in El Dorado County, owned the Dodge Agency founded by her father and was recruited by the WYCA to aid U.S. soldiers in France during WWI, working in the army motor pool as a woman who could both repair and drive cars.” There is a photo of her in Paris standing next to Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing.

That’s quite a family history and they’ve got the original bloomers and the WYCA uniform to prove it.

This bit of new history came to me via my mom’s subscription to Smithsonian magazine. I don’t usually read it before dropping it off at my mother’s apartment, but this month I was riveted by an article called “Unmasking Thomas Jefferson” by Henry Wiencek.

Whereas George Washington gathered up enough money to emancipate his slaves, Thomas Jefferson went in another direction, despite giving lip service to slavery as “execrable commerce … this assemblage of horrors.” The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence’s stirring words “all men are created equal” by 1790 stopped talking about eradicating slavery.

According to the author, Jefferson “in his lifetime owned more than 600 slaves. At any one time about 100 slaves lived on the mountain; the highest population, in 1817, was 140.”

He wrote to Washington that he could count on making 4 percent annually through births. Monticello’s kitchen was underneath, accessed through a tunnel. Dirty dishes were placed in shelves that revolved around and were removed out of sight of guests and replaced with clean dishes, which were revolved back around. Empty wine bottles were placed in a small cabinet next to the fireplace. Via a dumb-waiter the empties were replaced by new wine bottles.

The household staff had the best jobs, even if they provided service via a tunnel. Harder working were young boys who turned iron rods into nails, their efficiency assured through whippings. Jefferson said he made $2,000 a year by selling nails, a pretty tidy sum in the 18th century. His biggest competition was prisoners — not much different from slaves.

Jefferson trained his slaves for a variety of specialized trades to assure his income. But the real shocker is that he monetized his slaves. In other words he took out a loan on their value — mortgaged them. So when he died they weren’t emancipated, but sold off to retire the debt.

Jefferson did free “a handful of slaves” in his will upon his death in 1826, but that didn’t prevent families being broken up. One of them spent 10 years working as a blacksmith to buy back his wife and children, apparently only succeeding in getting his wife. The article sure puts a different light on the gentleman farmer of Monticello.


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