A kid’s eye view of what Redwood City was like in 1899 

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One industry dominates, lots of building going on and the weather is great. A capsule summary of Redwood City today? No. It’s how grade school students described the town in 1899. 

A four-inch-thick binder containing the children’s work was found among documents left in the estate of the late local historian Nita Spangler, according to Ellen Crawford, President of the Historic Union Cemetery Association. Spangler was a leading figure in the fight to put the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places, which became a reality in 1983. 

“I’m not sure if the writings were essays, a contest, tests or just what,” said Crawford. One thing is for sure, however: The handwriting is very impressive. “Flowing script” would be an adequate description.  The papers overwhelmingly contain a brief history of Redwood City followed by remarks about employment, the weather and other subjects. They are very much alike, leading Crawford to conclude that a teacher assigned the writing topic to students.   

For example, ninth grader Stanley Rice wrote that during San Francisco’s early years, its homes were “made of redwood lumber which was largely obtained from the mountains” southwest of Redwood City. He goes on to note that in 1899 “Redwood City can boast of one of the largest tanneries, and it is claimed that the best leather is made here.” The tannery was Frank’s Tannery, the largest single employer in Redwood City, which had a population of about 2,000 in 1899. The number of residents would reach 2,400 in the census just 10 years later. 

It’s not known if the papers were graded, but Claire Murray certainly would have been a contender for an A, particularly for her clarity of both handwriting and expression of ideas. However, she had a bit of a problem with “there” and “their,” but so does Spellcheck. There is an air of the skeptic in this ninth grader’s work, unlike the others who boasted of Redwood City’s plusses, as if the writers got help from the chamber of commerce. 

Murray noted Redwood City’s advantages, particularly a fine school system that could boast of a “high school which is supported by many of the wealthiest families in the county.” She also mentioned the leading disadvantage – “its nearness to San Francisco, which takes the home trade away.”  She said the Southern Pacific railroad fare was very high, adding “what we want is an opposition company so as to cheapen the rates.” The big boosters included Hester Louie, who was impressed by the amount of building going on “all the time” in a city that had its “own water and lights for the street.”  Ninth grader Albert Michael must have done some homework, concluding that the mild climate was caused “by the mountains on the north and east which shelter it from the cold winds and the warm Japan stream which comes from the west.” 

Ninth grader Gertrude Hansen, possibly a member of the seafaring Hansen family famous in Redwood City’s pioneering days, wrote about lumber being hauled to boats waiting at what today would be the area near Courthouse Square. “It is said that as many as seventy oxen teams have been seen at this landing in one day,” he wrote. Eighth grader Arthur Thompson also mentioned the importance of the maritime industry, reporting that “as many as twenty sail and steam vessels were counted loading and unloading a variety of cargoes along the wharfs.” 

As noted earlier, the most important business in the city was Frank’s Tannery, which was located near what today is a shopping mall adjacent to U.S. 101 that, until recently, was home to Toys “R” Us.  “Many families depended on Frank’s Tannery to make sure they had food on their table and clothes on their back,” Redwood City historian and Realtor Cliff Keith wrote on the SF Bay Homes blog. Frank’s Tannery “was the structure everyone in town knew.” The tannery, which was nearly a mile long and had its own railroad as well as a fleet of schooners, closed in 1959. In 1968, fire roared through the old wooden buildings and what was left was condemned and demolished in 1970. 

 This story was originally published in the January print edition.