San Francisco History

Out Where the "Shelly-Cocoas" Grew

by Walter J. Thompson

Just by way of a foreword, I would say that I spell it “shelly-cocoa” advisedly. I don’t admit it is correct. I could show how “shelly-coke” has the backing of authority of weight, but refrain, and maintain that the official orthographical architecture of the word is one of the secrets of boyhood that must be considered inviolate, no matter how old one grows. Wild horses shall not tear it from me. Boyhood’s trust and all that it implies is involved.

Also I remark that I am confirmed in the opinion that shelly-cocoas have ceased to exist, like the ichthyosaurus and other things with even worse names belonging to those dear old days before the Pleiades sisters were transformed into stars.

To the old boys of the old town it is not necessary to hold up a shelly-cocoa for identification purposes. We all remember what it looked like, and recall with thrills of joy and pride the days when the city was a kiddy, like ourselves in short pants and freckled with a magnificent profusion of vacant spaces on its thinly settled slopes, said spaces being the homes of the shelly-cocoa vines. They shared the soil with lupine bushes and stunted oaks, spreading in green patches six and seven feet in size. Every fellow’s home had a shelly-cocoa patch annex of varying size, according to location, and out beyond Van Ness avenue they could be measured off by the acre, until human habitations were not and King Shelly-Cocoa reigned monarch of all he surveyed.

The fruit of the shelly-cocoa vine could have been designed by kind Mother Nature for no other purpose than as an implement of amusement for youth even as marbles and pegtops. Was there anything more alluring to the eye of a boy than that light green sphere, covered with spines about half an inch long, ranging from an inch and a half to three inches in diameter, the spines, while not stiff or particularly sharp, being full of electricity, which only required contact with the human skin to complete a circuit of radiating thrills and spasms?

And what an exquisite soft, soapy and sticky lather was concealed within the bulb, with an odor which, if not exactly comparable with the spirit of fragrance wafting over the rose-strewn Vale of Cashmere, was markedly of a distinctive character. The shelly-cocoa served a double purpose. When acting in conjunction with a human chin or eye, it titillated the nerves with its electric thrills, and at the same time stirred the tissue of one’s olfactory organ to a frenzy of revolt against its atmospherical environment.

Shelly-cocoas and war whoops! They went together in the brave days of yore. The taint of war was in the air. Around the family table the battles of the Rebellion were discussed in detail, and the current literature of boydom told of little else but blood-curdling encounters between painted Indians with uncurbed ambitions, to acquire scalps of palefaces and scouts and trappers whose business in life was to roam around the boundless plains, staked and otherwise, and circumvent the cunning of the predatory savages and tear from their ruthless clutches certain comely damsels who had been nabbed while plucking wildflowers upon the prairie.

To the young San Franciscan this Indian warfare was most appealing, its methods of bang and batter and of direct attack and defense being more understandable than the maneuvering of troops in accordance with a military manual. Many and great were the battles fought on the hillsides where the shelly-cocoas grew, with the spiny bulbs as weapons. King Philip, of Pocanoket never displayed more cunning and daring in hurling big Wampanoags through the New England settlements, nor the redoubtable Captain Church more dexterity in chasing them, than did the hillside warriors in factional strife. Confined as it was to the northern side of the city, owing to the refusal of the shelly-cocoas to propagate in the red rock soil of the Mission, the warfare was between the settlers of the downtown district and the upland Indians. The line of demarcation was the ridge about the line of Jones street, but the street was not entirely cut through then. Along this frontier were numerous nifty lots sloping down from Washington to Pacific street. There the tide of war ebbed and flowed.

The downtown Pilgrim Fathers were in big majority, but the Wampanoags of the hills were the best fighters. They had a King Philip, too, in “Ducksy” McGinn, who was mighty in courage and strength. “Ducksy” would plan his campaigns with exceeding care. Preliminary to a planned conflict every shelly-cocoa patch for blocks around was denuded of its fruit, and arsenals would be established in certain secret spots. Then would the enemy be taunted into attack by certain well-understood methods of aggravation. When the Pilgrims charged up that hill the wily Wampanoags led them along their own trails, and soon would have the Pilgrims in a disastrous ambush. Every shelly-cocoa vine was bare and the air was clouded with the volleys which the Wampanoags sent in. The Pilgrims could not even follow the well-known Beadle movement, “and seeing the enemy approach, he hid behind a tree.” There were no trees. They could only run.

It was on the slope running up from Pacific street at Leavenworth to Washington that the famous battle of Shelly-cocoa hill took place. That memorable engagement was sprung as a surprise upon the Wampanoags while King Philip was absent, he having an hours’ overtime engagement with his teacher. Up and over the hill poured the Pilgrims loaded with shelly-cocoas and headed by Captain Church, mounted upon his father’s heavy-hoofed and formidable dray horse. Cavalry was a new element in the warfare and the Indians gave way in disorder. The enemy held the hillside and the shelly-cocoa patches. Dark was the outlook, when suddenly their feeble war whoops were reinforced by one which had a “Charge, Chester, Charge,” ring to it, and up came King Philip Ducksy, armed with an eight-foot fence rail which he swung around like the wing of a windmill. Right for the calvary he charged, and as Captain Church swept down upon him he dodged and then—whack came the formidable wing on the calvary’s flank. Whack followed whack, and then did the war steed of the doughty Captain place him in the role of John Gilpin as it tore its way toward home. King Philip sounded the advance and the Pilgrims lost no time in following their leader. Oh, the rout was awful! Great was the carnage amid the shrilling of the victors’ war whoops. Napoleon at the bridge of Lodi and Sheridan at Winchester’s fight faded into insignificance as in-the-nick-of-time battle heroes alongside of the resourceful and brave Ducksy.

Shelly-cocoas were not always in partnership with war whoops. Under the guidance of appreciative youth they were connected with other pursuits more or less useful as well as tending to the enhancement of good feeling among all classes and the growth of uplifting influences. For instance, there was the campaign of education to popularize shelly-cocoas with the grown-up folks. Every inducement was held out to make them take notice of the shelly-cocoa and look kindly upon it. Sister’s best young man hastening homeward from the usual Sunday night parlor seance would find his overcoat pockets freighted with juicy shelly-cocoas; pals fat and bald headed pal would, on leaving after the evening card game, slam his silk hat on hurriedly while a half dozen shelly-cocoas would rattle around inside it like dice in a box; ma on her busy baking days was reminded of the existence of shelly-cocoas by having one fly through the open window and snuggle down with the fruit in the pie she was building.

But failure croaked like a raven over this field of industry. Strange to say, the older folks could not understand why a shelly-cocoa was born. Such perverseness!

Then there were weird relations between policemen and shelly-cocoas. The spiny bulbs were the abomination of the knights of the star, some of whom even ascribed supernatural qualities to shelly-cocoas, others tried to figure out the tie of affinity between adolescence and the shelly-cocoa. There certainly was some mysterious influence which stirred shelly-cocoas to aggressive action when a policeman approached their haunts. Myriad cases have been reported of shelly-cocoas deliberately tearing themselves loose from their vines and lurking around corners and savagely assaulting a policeman as he turned it, or of leaping upon roofs just to tumble off again and swat a policeman in the neck. It was no use for a policeman to hold up some happy-hearted youth gayly tripping on his way to school, his face wreathed in smiles at the knowledge of how well he knew his lessons for the day. What did he know of the doing of erratic shelly-cocoas?

Attempts to introduce shelly-cocoas into the schools also failed owing to the narrow-mindedness and obduracy of teachers. There was a peaceful and a sentimental aspect to a shelly-cocoa’s existence, especially out in the districts where the wig-wams were few and far between and the tribes were not menaced by the strenuous struggles of the border. There the shelly-cocoa had other uses than as a weapon of war. Within the heart of the spiny bulb was an oval-shaped kernel which dried out hard in the sun like a gourd, it was susceptible of a high polish from canary yellow to a rich mahogany, and with copper and brass “Chinee” coins with square holes in the center made up the wampum of the tribes. These dried “shellies” could also be cut up into pretty designs such as baskets, rings or linked bracelets, and necklaces fit to adorn a South sea princess.

Perhaps you knew that pretty square block of birdcage houses, each set in a garden of roses, called Tuckertown, and which nestled on the slope which caught the slanting rays of the westward falling sun, beginning at Octavia and Washington streets. Perhaps you crossed that ridge like a warrior bold and true homeward-bound from school, and gave a whoop as you gazed admiringly upon the lupine and shelly-cocoa covered vista and saw the belle of Tuckertown swinging on the family gate, just as Dove Eye the Lodge Queen might have loitered around the opening of her chieftain daddy’s tepee.

Perhaps you hurled your Davies’ Bourdon and Swinton’s Outlines, bound by a strap, to the ground and kicked them gleefully all the way before you until you landed beside Dove Eye and threw a necklace of shelly-cocoa wampum over her shoulders.

Perhaps, I say.

The shelly-cocoa and the golden and purple lupine blossoms are gone forever from all the old hillsides, having given way to the homes of other dwellers who little reck of the romance of the reincarnated Pilgrim Fathers and the Wampanoags and the dimples of winsome Dove Eye that have long since turned to wrinkles. And I have heard these newcomers in Canaan denounce those slopes of dear old San Francisco as dreary, dismal districts where raw winds and damp fogs held high Walpurgian revels. But—

There once lived in the old town an obscure poet whose thoughts over dwelt in “June’s palace paved with gold,” but whose feet trod the halls of dingy lodging-houses and whose appetite was appeased in “three for a quarter” restaurants. He finally decided to become a prosperous plumber instead of remaining a poor poet. But before bartering his minstrel harp for a plumber’s pipe wrench he twanged off a lay called “Where Purple Lupine Grows,” in which he lauded the sand dunes, expressing his reverence for the blossom-bedecked hills because of the memory of the days when he wandered over them in company with bonny Dove Eye’s sister, who probably later became his bride and the mother of a line of plumbers, and closing:

To some gay gardens are more fair,
But eye cannot impart
Ideal of beauty—that is e’er
The Standard of the heart.

And the poet-plumber had a lead-pipe cinch on the sentimental situation.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 24 September 1916. 28.

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