Fremont and Cora Older House, Saratoga. April 10, 2011

Presented by a historian John Ralston

Welcome to the second meeting of the Los Altos Hills Historical Society for the year 2011. I'm happy to see so many of you making the drive up to the Fremont Older house.

I will tell you about the house and property, but first I'd like to briefly discuss the careers of the builders, Fremont and Cora Older. Fremont Older arrived in San Francisco from his native Wisconsin aged 17 in 1873. A printer who aspired to be an editor, he got a break in 1880 when he met a man who was establishing a newspaper in Redwood City. Older had been married in Redwood City and has living descendants, but the marriage ended in divorce, and Older never mentioned. Older's reputation for unusually incisive reporting that went beyond the surface of events and personalities grew, and he returned to San Francisco in 1884 to take a reporter's job on the Alta California. In 1893, now on the staff of the morning Call, he was sent to Sacramento to review a play performed by students from Syracuse University, New York State. In the cast was the exceptionally attractive 18-year-old Cora Baggerly. Somehow Fremont Older proposed to Cora, and they were married just about a month later. By 1895 he was city editor at the Call. When a conflict between the owners resulted in one owner, a Canadian-born lawyer named Robert A. Crothers, buying part ownership in the old evening Bulletin, Older was offered the job of managing editor by Crothers. The Bulletin was a moribund wreck, but Older, through a combination of talent, energy, and inspiration turned it around to where it had the largest circulation of any evening newspaper west of Chicago. Cora was a valuable contributor to the Bulletin's success, and was a published author about California and San Francisco for almost 60 years.

In early 1906 Older and his progressive allies instituted San Francisco's graft prosecution, which attracted national and international attention. Older convinced a prosecution lawyer, Hiram Johnson, to run for governor in 1910. Johnson subsequently entered the United States Senate and served from 1917 until 1945, the longest of any California senator in history. The graft prosecution effectively ended in 1909 with the election of an unsympathetic District Attorney. Only Abraham Ruef, the city boss who pled guilty to extortion, went to jail, which caused Older to believe that convicting a single individual without reforming the system was not enough. Older went to San Quentin, apologized to Ruef for much of what he, Older, had done, and printed Ruef's memoirs in the Bulletin as a way to get him paroled. Older went public with his reasons for advocating Ruef's release. It is this capacity for personal growth that makes Older, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable personalities this country has ever produced. Ruef stayed in prison until 1915, however. Older became an advocate for prison and prisoner reform.

In spring 1912 Older had driven with friends to Saratoga, about forty miles south of San Francisco, to see the house that James Phelan was building in the hills above town. It was and is a beautiful villa in Spanish-style - what else? - and as the sun set behind Santa Clara Valley and they watched the blossoms glow and the shadows deepen, they were carried away. Helen Todd, a New York social worker, exclaimed "Oh, isn't this divinely beautiful? Why can't we club together and buy a piece of land near here? We could organize a club, build a clubhouse and live in little bungalows around it. When we want to meet, we can have dinner together at the clubhouse." Ms. Todd rattled on, naming liberal friends who would comprise the group, picturing an Elysian life in the hills. Older was annoyed. He and Cora had been living in hotels for nearly twenty years and he was in a rut. Cora's passion for horticulture, however, had been suppressed with nowhere to grow things. But every time Fremont or Cora or both saw Helen Todd she opened the conversation with getting a piece of land, and finally Older was won over.

Where to locate their Utopia? Older spoke to Phelan, and Phelan apparently asked San Franciscan Charlie Fay, who had found Phelan's property. A few days later Fay telephoned that he had found a fruit ranch above Cupertino not far from Phelan's place, owned by an elderly German named William Pfeffer who was ready to sell and retire. The property comprised one hundred and sixty acres, planted with prunes and apricots, and yielded a net yearly income of $1,800. It seemed just what Helen Todd had suggested; Pfeffer's farmhouse could be converted into a clubhouse. As Cora and the others climbed the hills and roamed the oak forests, Fremont was busy measuring the flow of water from the gulches above into a tank by the farmhouse porch. It amounted to about thirty-six hundred gallons a day, enough to start until they could dig wells.

The Olders had an option on the property. Pfeffer was asking $11,000, or $69 an acre. One of the proposed partners was Charles Erskine Scott Wood, husband of the poet Sara Bard Field and a successful lawyer who had retired to devote himself to poetry. Older wrote to Wood discussing their planned community and how to finance it. The members could come in on as small a basis as one acre, at cost price, with the understanding that they will have to pay pro rata for the expenses - the building, the clubhouse - which will be for all of them. Older arranged with a mutual bank to place a mortgage on the property for $5,500, which left $5,500 to pay by July, 1912. Older personally paid $500 down and could stand $2,250 more. Helen Todd had promised $1,000, making $3,750. Older would have to ask Wood for $1,750, and arrange with the others later.

Helen Todd's plans never materialized. No one, Wood and Field included, volunteered to join a colony, and Helen Todd went back east. The Olders were left with one big mortgage, partially paid by a gift from Cora's mother, and one big hope, the eighteen hundred dollars annual income from fruit growing. That of course would need laborers, and Older began searching the ranks of paroled or soon-to-be-paroled convicts among those he had met at San Quentin. By giving them work on his ranch Older would be solving the twin problems of giving criminals a new start and making his property pay. Cora had also purchased an adjoining fifty-four acres, with hay fields and live oaks, and planned to convert the hay fields to a walnut orchard. They needed a foreman. At San Quentin Older had become friendly with "Old Charlie" Dorsey, a prisoner seventy-one years old but erect and strong. In the 1870's Charlie and his partner had robbed a stage in Nevada County, but it turned out badly when Charlie's partner shot and killed a passenger who tried to wrestle back the money. Charlie went to a small Indiana town, and apparently renouncing his criminal past, bought a lumberyard and prospered. But at some point his former partner committed another crime or possibly several, and told his cellmate about Charlie. The cellmate, hoping to get a reward or maybe clemency, told police, and Charlie was arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to San Quentin.

When Older met Charlie he had been in San Quentin for twenty-nine years. The warden told Older he considered Charlie a fine character, and wished he could get him paroled. Charlie's parole required the signatures of the Nevada County District Attorney among others, and feeling in the county against Charlie still ran high, but Older got the signatures and just before Christmas, 1911, Governor Johnson paroled Charlie as a sort of Christmas present.

Cora would remain in San Francisco temporarily while Fremont took up residence at the ranch and commuted. In San Francisco he bought a team of horses and a wagon and motored to Cupertino, leaving Charlie to drive the wagon down. By nightfall there was no sign of Charlie, and Older was worried that he was lost. About four o'clock the next day Charlie arrived. The horses were barely able to walk, their heads hanging to the ground. The previous day they had gotten only to Redwood City and Charlie had had to stop over. Older had been swindled, but he was so anxious to get started making that annual eighteen hundred dollars that he overlooked it. Pfeffer's family would occupy the farmhouse until after the harvest. Older had a portable house shipped from San Francisco by train. After thirty-six hours rest the horses were able to haul the house up the road. It had a hardwood floor, canvas walls, isinglass windows and three rooms with burlap partitions. Charlie's bed and the kitchen stove were at one end, Older's bedroom was at the other, and a common room was in between. Older and Charlie were both dead tired, but Charlie cooked dinner for them. "It was the worst meal I ever ate," Older remembered, but they devoured it, tidied up, and went to sleep.

Cora would need convincing. When Fremont saw her the next day in San Francisco he asked her to bring friends down for "Sunday luncheon." He would prepare it himself, which gave him just three days to learn something about cooking. Bulletin writer Bessie Beatty gave him a recipe for biscuits and probably other things. On Saturday Charlie improvised a dining room table with saw horses and boards, and Older drove to San Jose to buy a tablecloth, dishes, rolling pin, coffee pot, leg of lamb, canned soup, potatoes, cauliflower, and canned fruit. They also needed furniture. When Older had finished shopping his car was so piled with chairs, mattresses, bedding and other supplies that a crowd gathered to watch him drive off.

Sunday morning Older and Charlie laid the table. Older banked the leg of lamb with potatoes and put it the oven, then started on the biscuit recipe. Charlie was staggered: "Do you know how to make biscuits?" His opinion of Older rose. Older gave Charlie instructions on putting the biscuits in the oven, and drove down to meet Cora and her friends at the train station. When they got back to the portable house Cora looked through the window and said "This isn't half bad."

As they went in Charlie drew the pan of biscuits out of the oven and held it up proudly. "Who made these?" asked Cora. "He did," said Charlie. The lunch was a great success.

Older and Old Charlie lived in the portable house through 1912, Cora coming down on weekends. For temporary electricity Older ran a wire from the battery of his car to a light bulb that they moved from place to place in the portable, and at night he read in bed by the light. In the morning a blue ribbon on the crank of his car reminded him to detach the wire, but one night the ribbon came off and as Older drove down the road he heard a clanking noise behind him. Turning round, he saw fifty feet of wire and the light bulb dragging in the mud. He tore off the wire in disgust and they used a coal oil lamp until PG&E agreed to run a line to the ranch if the neighbors would allow an easement. One of the neighbors held out until Older convinced him that electricity would increase the value of his property. PG&E ran a mile and a half of line up the canyon, and Older had lights installed not just in the portable but also in the farmhouse and a barn. All the switches were in the on position, and when the electrician thought everything was ready he connected a fuse, and the lights flashed on.

In preparation for Cora's permanent residence a storehouse had been converted into a cabin for Charlie and a room in the farmhouse was reserved for Katie, an experienced but temperamental cook whom Cora was bringing down from San Francisco to safeguard herself from Older's and Charlie's cooking. There was already another resident, Albert, a paroled ex-prisoner who had been a farmer like Charlie and helped with the ranch work. Early in 1913 Cora arrived, in the passenger seat of a furniture van that looked the size of a freight car, piled, Older remembered, with "all of their effects - clothing, rugs, bric-a-brac, works of art, odds and ends of furniture, all of the accumulation of our twenty years of married life." Getting that van up the road must have been quite a trick Fremont was content with their living arrangements, simple and close to the ground, and would have gone on living as they were, but within a week of her arrival Cora was planning a house to be constructed on the hill above the farm buildings and portable. A road up from the farm buildings was either enlarged or graded anew, and ended in the turnaround you see. The house is basically a single-floor structure, set into a hillside that drops off slightly to the north, allowing storage space and extra rooms below the main floor, with a cupola at the northwest corner that would be Cora's hideaway when she wrote. The floor plan is L-shaped, the long axis running north to south. The main entrance is a pair of French doors, facing east on the spacious porch. From the French doors one goes left to the dining room and kitchen; or right to a wing with bedrooms and bathrooms; or straight to another set of French doors opening onto a lawn enclosed on two sides by the house.

Cora planted gardens compatible with the house and with California gardens. At the southwest corner of the lawn is a barbecue, above which rises a path among lupines, clematis, irises, and various herbs. Along the south elevation a low-rising stone staircase was added, with a pergola with wisteria. Ascending the staircase, one goes right to enter the house via the porch or goes straight on to the back lawn. Other plantings were added, possibly beginning late 1913. Retaining walls and walkways were added, inlaid with stones and shards of pottery the Olders collected on their trips, and with common pieces of glass; one walkway glows with bright blue pieces of bottles of Phillips' Milk of Magnesia. Everywhere stone benches were set into garden walls, welcoming one to relax, sit, and talk.

What strikes me about the house at Woodhills is how contemporary, airy, and livable it is. There is nothing of a dusty museum piece; it was comfortable then and now. The Olders' books fill the shelves today, a portrait of Cora hangs in the living room, and it feels as though Fremont and Cora might walk in any moment.

The identity of the architect or architects was unclear, at least until recently. Was the design original with Cora, or was she influenced by reading about or visiting some other house? A house in Burlingame, California, pictured in The Bulletin for Saturday, June 12, 1912, strongly suggests the house at Woodhills. Two authorities say that the fenestration and use of beams suggest the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright and/or Julia Morgan. Ms. Sara Boutelle, author of a definitive work on Morgan, said the Woodhills house was a "carbon copy" of a Morgan house on Washington Street in San Francisco, but I have not been able to verify the association. The Washington Street house has been demolished, and when Morgan closed her office in 1951 she had her files burned. A report by Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in 1977 concluded that the architect was Frederick D. Wolfe or Charles McCall. Both designed houses in the Santa Clara Valley and Cora mentioned both in her diaries. As Wolfe was senior partner in the construction firm of (Frank) Wolfe and (Frank's son Carl) Wolfe, which built the house, he is the likeliest candidate.

Water supply for the house, gardens, and orchards was a major problem. Like other city dwellers the Olders had never given water a thought in San Francisco. They turned a faucet handle and there it was. Water in unsettled hills is another matter. Older consulted a local authority named Palmer, who suggested a well where two gulches converged. The well was dug, Older had a pump installed, water was forced up to a ten thousand gallon tank eighty feet behind the new house, and Older got a thrill out of seeing the well water gush into the tank and tank water fill the bathtub. He didn't realize that the well water was only temporary seepage from the hills and that a relatively dry winter would doom their supply. The next summer, 1914, they installed a small dam far up the creeks and although one morning Older measured the flow at 2600 gallons in twenty-four hours, a workman told him that in the afternoon it would be less. Sure enough it was down by 600 gallons. When Older wrote to the agricultural department at the University of California, Berkeley, asking why, he was told that large trees such as oaks could draw that amount daily in a dry spell. The only hope was a really deep well. Palmer drilled several spots until he found an artesian formation that would supply enough water for orchards, the lawn, roses, and a pool Cora was planning.

It took six years for the Olders to concede it, but the painful truth was that while the ranch at Woodhills would give employment to ex-convicts such as Charlie, it would never earn them the eighteen hundred dollars annually it had earned Pfeffer. Pfeffer had been on the land for forty-four years and was an experienced farmer with family, while Older had long since left the life and was full-time newspaper editor. Cora had even less experience with farming. The Olders made a last major attempt at profitable farming during a food shortage in World War I. The ranch having produced a big crop of prunes, which were scarce, they hired pickers to harvest and pack, but as several tons of prunes lay on the ground there was a sudden downpour, six inches of rain fell, and the crop was ruined.

Not only were there no profits, there were big losses, putting quite a strain on the Olders' finances. Finally realizing that as farmers they were "hopeless failures," they leased the orchards to experienced farmers who could give the land the attention it needed. Presumably the rental income offset the mortgage payments. Once they put the farming experiment behind them, however, the Olders were able to use their property wisely. Cora became a noted rose-grower and one of the directors of the annual San Jose Rose Festival. For Fremont, the house at Woodhills was a relief after a demanding day's work in San Francisco. Rising around 5:00 a.m., he would drive down to a station, later named "Fremont Station," take the train to the Southern Pacific Depot at Third and Townsend Streets, and take a cab to work, about an hour and a half in all. Leaving late afternoon, he would be back at Woodhills for dinner with Cora. If the weather were agreeable, which it usually is in Santa Clara County, the Olders read and relaxed on the large front porch or by the back lawn. They expanded their library with history, biography, journalism, and philosophy, French philosophers in particular, Voltaire and Montaigne. Not bad for a Wisconsin farm boy! They entertained with weekend barbecues, and swimming parties after Cora added the pool and adobe pool house in 1927. Their guest book is a Who's Who of American arts, letters, and politics: Clarence Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Carl Sandburg, Emma Goldman (before she was deported as an anarchist), first Stanford University President David Starr Jordan and other academics, and a slew of officeholders and journalists. Bulletin staffer Robert L. Duffus remembered "No one of any importance - or so it seemed to me in those days - passed through San Francisco without being detoured to the Older Ranch."

Older invited Bulletin staff members down on weekends to know them away from the work environment. The visits contributed to the intense loyalty Older inspired at work. The Olders had dogs, three or four at once. Older would write about them in his column as if they were family members. Woodhills was the best thing the Olders ever did personally. What the house's construction cost and when it was paid off is unclear, but considering everything today - the historical associations; the design; the gardens; and the location - the property's value is immense.

In July, 1916, San Francisco was shocked when a terrorist bomb exploded during a parade for Preparedness, that is, possible American involvement in the Great War in Europe. Two obscure labor figures, Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, were arrested along with several of their associates, and charged with the bombing. Billings was tried first, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mooney was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang at San Quentin. Older had believed Mooney guilty until he was shown letters from the chief prosecution witness indicating that the witness had lied. He printed the letters in the Bulletin, which led to the Billings-Mooney case becoming one of the biggest scandals in American legal history. The Bulletin's owners however caved into pressure from San Francisco's business community, threatening to fire Older if he did not drop the case. Older was in a terrible position: Mooney would hang if he gave in, but if he persisted he might lose his job, and this house. He was unexpectedly rescued by William Randolph Hearst, who had been trying to hire him away from the Bulletin for years, and in 1918 offered him the editorship of the rival afternoon newspaper Call with an invitation to bring the Mooney case with him.

For the last 17 years of his life, until he died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car in March, 1935, Older persisted in trying to free Tom Mooney and Warren Billings. Mooney was pardoned by Governor Culbert Olson in January, 1939 , in an emotional ceremony to which Cora was driven by 25-year-old Alan Cranston, who was inspired by Older to go into journalism himself. Billings was paroled later that year and was pardoned by Governor Edmund Brown in 1961. Cranston, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 and served until 1993, longer than any senator from California except Hiram Johnson. Cora continued to entertain and write, and was published. In 1965, aged 90, she fell and broke her hip, and went to a retirement home where she died in 1968. The house fell into disrepair. When the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MPROSD) acquired the property in the 1970s it planned to demolish the house, but Mort and Elaine Levine volunteered to restore it, which they did at considerable effort and expense. Thanks to the Levines, it remains a unique monument to its builders in this beautiful setting.








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