San Francisco History

With the Picnic Throngs of Other Days

by Walter J. Thompson

Now when the gay picnic season is booming and calls to the woodland the young and the old, it would seem to an appropriate time for casting a retrospective eye over the horizon of memory and dwelling upon the comparative delights of picnics that were and picnics that are. San Franciscans were ever prone to picnicking. This proneness began in the early days and found vent through the establishment of gardens, places equipped with winding paths, shaded nooks, hospitable-looking arbors with rustic benches and tables, a dancing floor and a bevy of other attractions which flourished like a green bay tree on Saturdays, Sunday and holidays, when every one gave himself up to the past time pursuits. Our Golden Gate Park of today is but a huge composite replica of all the small parks that once dotted the town.

The old arena in the Mission Dolores where bear met bull in many a battle royal was the pioneer amusement park. But it had little of the picnic atmosphere, and the gringo did not take kindly to the brutality of the sport.

The merry picnic days arrived with the establishment of Russ and Hubbard Gardens, Hayes Park, and the City Gardens. The City Gardens was a romantic resort with its hills and hollows, its oak trees and its arm of the creek attachment at the lower end with the swan-like rowboats. It began at the corner of Folsom and Thirteenth streets and straggled out in picturesque fashion.

There were the cozy nooks for family luncheon parties and the pavilion for Terpsichorean trippings, and there gymnasts gyrated and jugglers hocus-pocused the admiring throngs and the human fly walked upside down on the ceiling. Every one went to the City Gardens until one R. B. Woodward happened along and established his soon-to-be-famous resort on Mission street just beyond the turn at Ridley street, now Duboce avenue.

Woodward was a Barnum of the West, and I think old timers will agree that as an amusement caterer he could sit in the front pew with the wizard of the tented field. Woodward’s Gardens was a rare combination of pleasure-producing paraphernalia and merry-making machinery. It had the old-time novelties and an abundance of new ones. Saturdays and Sundays were the big days, and May 1, when the school children of the city were specially invited, was the bumper day.

Would anyone desire to forget those sunny May mornings when one was up with the lark and was primped and pressed into the gladdest of glad robes; the mingling with the mad world of humanity, balloon cars, bob-tailed cars and two-horse cars (out for the occasion), the whole forming a crazy quilt of colorful segments; or the struggle, the pushing, the hauling at the gate until one was popped, panting and triumphant, on to the asphalt walk in front of the museum faced with the pair of gigantic tusks that were the pride of some mastodon 10,000 years ago?

Can one forget the furious onslaught upon the rotary boat, the justy pulls at the oars as the craft swirled round and round, the splashing and the screaming? No craft that ever skimmed the blue Caribbean under the Jolly Roger of Morgan or Black Beard ever saw such doings as were enacted aboard Woodward’s dreadnaught?

Who could forget the shoving, crowding, the laughter in the “keep to the right” tunnel under Fourteenth street, and the new world of wonders that was unfurled in the extensive amphitheater where, at the very entrance, was a little kiosk where popcorn, peanuts, soda water and other palate-tickling products were dispensed by a red-faced youth who had a habit of dropping bits of change on the wooden grating at his feet and gathering them in at night when cleaning up?

Who would forget the long row of cages inhabited by aristocrats of the jungle, field and mountain, supported in luxury in their tenements where they strutted with lordly air and tried to carry off in haughty fashion all the dignity attached to the high-sounding family name on the doorplate fixed to each apartment? Here were ursus ferox and ursus Americanus (just plain, ordinary grizzly and black bears) at the head, and at the other end felis concolor, a sneaking cougar, and vulpus Virginianus, a wiry little gray fox, with thief written over every line of his peaked mug.

Near by was the bear pit, into which “Fat” Brown toppled one day to the consternation and positive embarrassment of the bears, who did not recover their nerve until “Fat” was fished out with a long pole with hook attached. Across the way was the Happy Family, where, by standing too near the bars, Sister Susy lost her hat and back hair to a simian hoodlum of the family, the members of which showed anything but agreeable manners at feeding time.

Beyond was the domain where resided the mangy camels, the dingy zebras, meek-eyed llamas and animals of that ilk. In the corner by the car barn was the windmill which August Buisley used to bump as he soared aloft as a trailer to his big hot-air balloon.

Who would forget the mammoth pavilion and the roller skating under the direction of “George” (his other name belongs to the ages), the little chap in a blue uniform with brass buttons and a rakishly set cap, who was the personification of the poetry of motion on roller skates, and who, with his port admiral airs and the familiar way in which he hobnobbed with the awe-inspiring 6-foot-3 Woodward, was generally looked upon as a full partner in the business, with perhaps a mortgage upon Woodward’s share?

But the picnic season blossomed into full bloom when San Franciscans took to trekking through adjacent counties and finding there many pretty and enticing pleasure pastures. Then picnics by water and rail became popular. San Franciscans, being all neighbors in those days, had many organizations formed for social enjoyment and other genial purposes. There were the Elites, the Golden City Minstrels, the Montgomery and Wolfe Tone Guards, and scores of others. They fathered the picnic abroad idea.

Then the announcement of a picnic went through the community even as the fiery cross once circulated among old Scotia’s beetling crags and heathery vales. The clans marshaled from the cliffs of North Beach, the sand hills of the Western Addition and the flats of the Mission. They came down to the water front in family platoons and converging from Market street to the foot of Pacific, where the ferries used to do business.

Take the Smith family as a typical emblem. There in the van loomed up Papa Smith and Uncle Zeke Smith, togged out in long linen dusters and coarse straw hats that flopped like wilted poppies. Between them they lugged the 6x4x4 family clothes basket choked to the bulging brim with variegated fodder.

In the immediate rear sailed Mamma Smith and Aunt Jeanette, and, perhaps, Grandma Smith with traces of the bloom and dew of three days’ labor in the kitchen on their brows, and next to them, in charming confusion, came the sweet primroses of the Smith garden, in number according to the bounty of a divine Providence, all in airy, tumble-where-you-please outfits, the elder ones burdened with a coil of Manila rope for a swing or game of Copenhagen.

And then, when that panorama of light and life folded itself aboard the steamer with a bewildering picturesqueness of detail!

The young couples pre-empted all available deckroom, chatting, eating, singing and dancing. The married men rattled like the Old Guard at Waterloo around the pyramid of lunch baskets on the lower deck and mammas and aunts and grandmas ranged themselves along the rails and with uplifted arms and cheery voices encouraged to heroic efforts the corps of dockhands who stood with long-handled boathooks rescuing flaxen-haired Mamies and freckle-faced Johnnies from watery graves.

To add to the exhilarating harmony of the festive scene, blithesome-hearted Edgars, and Jimmies were perched on the smokestack thoughtfully feeding the fires below with nut shells, enterprising Tommies and Sammies were playing seesaw on the walking-beam, and glad-faced Willies and Harrys were of their own violation taking tobogganing lessons on the sloping paddle-boxes, or educating themselves in shiplore by attempting to cast loose a boat from the davits.

But these inspiring incidents formed but a small part of the day’s delights when the crowd reached one of the many garden spots across the bay. Those were genuine picnic parks in the summers that have faded. Real trees, real creeks, real wild flowers and square miles of room. Over yon in Alameda were two ideal places: Fassking’s Gardens and the Schuetzen Park. The big Sunday-school picnics dallied there, and blithely did they chase the blissful hours swinging in umbrageous nooks, playing Copenhagen on the grassy slopes, gathering armloads of ferns and blossoms from the mead, and, when the lunch cloths were spread, unselfishly sharing their sandwiches and ice cream with the sociable ants and amiable caterpillars.

Then there was Laurel Grove up San Rafael way—a veritable forest of Arden. In speaking of it fond recollection recalls the dear old Contra Costa. Ah, there was a natural picnic-boat if ever there was one—a clear, upper deck from stem to stern for the dancing parties, an Eiffel Tower of guy wires and pipes for the gymnastically inclined adolescents, and a double-pivoted lower deck for the commissary stores. And can one ever forget the roomy, open cattle cars that played rocking horse from the landing place at San Quentin point to the picnic grounds? What blessings on the kindly thoughtfulness of the railroad company were wafted by the zephyrs afar as one teetered along! What sunset-on-the-Yang-tse-Kiang complexions the girls picked up on those rides in the spring sunshine! Saucelito (that’s the way it was spelled then), too, was a picnic Eden. Only a few vine-empowered cots nestled picturesquely on the hillside, and the fragrant foliage kissed the wavelets on the beach. A Sausalito picnic was justly famous for its hilarious adventures afloat and ashore. A gallant craft, the Princess, made the run from Meiggs wharf, and the company owning her was a regular Santa Claus to its patrons. Her master was a big-hearted son of Neptune, who sprung himself in every joint to give his patrons a good time. Often in going over he took them outside the Heads and around Seal Rocks and a mile or so in the north of Lime Point, steaming sideways all the time. These kindly acts caused envious owners of rival boats to spread lying reports that the Princess was Robert Fulton’s original model and had no rudder.

On the return trip, which was always by starlight, the genial master mariner jarred up against Arch rock to see if any castaways were clinging to it, and later in a sportive way nosed into Alcatraz and blew a whistle just to wake up Uncle Sam’s sleeping sentinels, so he facetiously put it.

Nor should Badger’s Park, over in Brooklyn, back of Oakland, be denied a mention. It was a circus maximus for sport. Who does not know of the catalogue of happenings “Way Over in Badger’s Park,” as sung by Charlie Reed of minstrel fame? Belmont was another distant Aidenn.

Concerning the present-day picnic I am not going to commit myself. But I cannot resist quoting an old-time San Franciscan whom I encountered once returning from a picnic. Said he:

“The modern picnic is a sham. Miss Violet Smythe in sporty awning stripes, with headgear to match and stepladder shoes, with her latest fancy in roller-top shirt and pie-plate straw, sallies out, and other Angelinas and Gladys, and their particular fancies are in line, too. Before starting out for the day’s pleasure, in accordance with the new twentieth century spirit which declares that people are not supposed to be born until they are 18, and must consider themselves dead at and after 30, they have jammed the old folks into the refrigerator, and either turned the dear little primroses out into the street or locked them up in the cellar to wilt until their return.

“They seem to enjoy putting in the day consorting with a few wobbly, worm-eaten swings, a dilapidated dancing pavilion with a floor like a nutmeg grater, a whanay, tin-pan hand and a horde of pirates in booths, dealing out death disguised as refreshments which bear as much resemblance to the health grub of the old clothes basket as Dead sea apples to juicy navel oranges. On their homecoming they thaw out the old folks and pass the primroses the dance programme as a reward of merit.”

Let us hope that this hyperbolic outburst is but the figment of a confirmed pessimist’s fancy. Otherwise—

Ill fares the land where the blessed picnic season is given over to giddy, unchaperoned young persons to disport themselves as they please while parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts languish in cold storage and the family primroses are turned loose in the streets or forced to droop in damp cellars.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 9 July 1916. 28.

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