San Francisco History

In the Days of the Romping Mission Bears

by Walter J. Thompson

It may seem incongruous to associate facts, words and ideas more or less of a rough and tumble order relating to doings in beardom with the soft, mellow haze that doting time casts over the old Mission Dolores in our memory like a softly breathed benediction of Father Junipero himself, or like filmy-grandma’s lace upon the coronet of a June bride.

Verily though such things were, and there is yet a goodly muster roll of Mission boys who, besides recalling the time when every Mission lad had a fifty-vara lot to play baseball in and St. Mary’s College was many miles in the open country, also retain nebulous memories of the merry doings of those community cuts ups, the Mission bears, as they were discussed in the family circle.

It was in 1853 and 1854 that the bears began to make themselves a paramount issue in Mission affairs. Prior to those years, while it was generally known that the blue Canada range in San Mateo county was the old homestead to innumerable black bears, and that where Daly City now stands was the spot where many an ursine convention was held, it was certain that Mr. Ursus didn’t seem to care whether there was a Mission Dolores on the other side of the hills or not.

Many a member of the ursine family had been lassoed and trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, hauled over the ridge lashed to a bull-hide trundle bed to the arena near the old church where he was booked for a “lay on, MacDuff affair with El Toro the Terror, late of the Contra Costa hills. It is not improbable that family pride caused Bruin to show his disapproval of these intercounty contests by holding aloof from the scene of their enactment.

In all probability, though, the increase in the dwellers in the Mission had much to do with bear immigration. Formerly the soft winds carried over into San Mateo county only the perfume of the Mission roses and wild flowers that nodded their heads in the golden sunshine, for all of which the bears did not give a whack. But now the wafting were odorous with the taint of frying bacon and roasting meat, and this caused every ursine snout to be uplifted in delighted surprise and aroused an ambition to follow the scent. They did, and looking down upon the Mission Dolores, it seemed to them as fair as a “garden of the Lord.” Then the procession over the skyline began.

It was the belief of the old Mission families that all the bears came over the ridge. This belief was based on the authority of an aged member of one of those families whose habit it was to pass the twilight years of his life in sitting on the wooden steps of his adobe home on Sixteenth street and watching the sunset shadows play on the hilltops. As the last golden ray sank to slumber on the other side of the range and the evening foreclosed a blanket mortgage on the shadows, the old man would say in his soft Castilian:

“Another bear in the Mission tomorrow. I saw him tip his tail against the sky as he came over the hilltop.”

And the old man was usually right about the appearance of the bear.

But, knowing something of the ways of bears and their deep-rooted antipathy to steep hillsides, I believe that many a lazy loafer of the tribe found his way into the Mission by means of the low-lying flats and willow-protected level of the creek route.

The Mission bears were called a “hard crowd.” They were not exactly a dangerous menace. They were not bloodthirsty; they were simply pesty, and became a general nuisance. In following the bacon-tainted trail they dodged around corners of houses and back yards and bumped against kitchen doors in the dusk of evening and during all hours of the night until early dawn. During the day the Mission was apparently as free of bears as it is today. They were all snoozing in some Bummers Hotel in the willows and chaparral that stretched southward and eastward from Mission street. Evening strolls under the soft Mission moon began to fade in popularity with the young people. Children had to be watched that they did not stray into the brush, and in going to church the folks like Tam O’Shantor glowered around with prudent care lest Bruin “Catch them unaware.”

The bears were indefatigable in their romping, and for steadfastness of purpose had a big batting average over that unidentified young hero who charged the Alpine fastnesses with his Excelsior banner. As buttinskies the Mission bears butted around at the most unexpected times, and in the most extraordinary and often amusing manner. Many are the encounters that have been recorded. They belong to the Bruinology of the Mission, however, and will bear retelling to a later generation.

Great care had to be taken in seeing that doors were well fastened, for the bears were as expert as trained burglars in finding ways of sneaking into houses. An open door was an invitation no bear would overlook, as the good fathers of the Mission Dolores Church learned to their confusion one morning in 1854.

Father Carroll, a priest beloved by his flock and all who knew him, presided over the affairs of the church at the time. On this morning, he, with his assistants, entered the sacred edifice in the gray dawn to make preparations for holding the earliest mass. Suddenly in the dim light they beheld a big black object moving up the main aisle toward the altar. It was a good-sized bear that had entered by the front door, and on sighting the priest and his companions it snarled savagely and threw itself against the altar rail.

The father and his party retired with all possible haste compatible with dignity, and left bruin master of the situation. The church was immediately the center of attraction in the neighborhood. Many and varied were the schemes proposed to get rid of the unwelcome tenant. The most practical suggestion seemed to be made by a red-eyed roysterer from the Nightingale, a well-known roadhouse at the corner of Sixteenth and Mission streets.

“Git in there with a gun, somebody, and take a pot shot at him!” he cried in stentorian tones.

But Father Carroll vowed his church should not be desecrated and calmly gave orders that the front door should be left open for the beast to come out when it got hungry.

All day a small crowd lingered at a safe distance from the church waiting to see the bear make his exit. But two days passed and still the bear held the fort. During that time some of the bolder spirits spurred up courage enough to peep into the edifice, and, according to these chaps, the bear was leading anything but a lazy life within. At one peep it was reported as doing a waddle along one of the rafters; at another it had reached the choir loft and was inspecting it with serious thoroughness. Again it was reported as circulating around the altar in a grossly irreverent manner.

From these statements it began to look, and even Father Carroll admitted it, that desperate measures would have to be resorted to. This feeling was intensified when a wiseacre who posed as a Sir Oracle on bears said emphatically the animal was seeking a place to hibernate and that it would stow itself away for a three months nap. However, the bear made a liar out of him the next morning by poking his head out of the doorway, giving a suspicious look to the right and the left, and then legging it around the cemetery and through the chaparral in the direction of Twin Peaks.

Father Carroll was among those who saw him and he laughingly observed that he was glad to get his church back again.

To the north of the church along the line of Dolores street, and originally connected with the sacred edifice by a long row of adobes, stood the old Mansion House. In the days of the bears it was the regular resort of visitors to the Mission, whose numerous saddlehorses hitched to the rail by the veranda looked like a cavalry halt while their thirsty riders refreshed themselves with milk punches, for which the house had a reputation under the proprietorship of Bob Ridley and Charley Stewart. In the early days a vehicle was rarely seen there, as, owing to the absence of roads and the abundance of sand, the vicinity could hardly be reached except on horseback. Later, however, when the busses were running the Mansion House was their headquarters until early in the sixties. The impresarios of the bull and bear contests also made their headquarters there.

Several stirring bear adventures were staged at the Mansion House. There strolled in one morning before the place was all astir an inquisitive black bear that got his head entangled in some way in a bucket of wild honey that it had tipped from a shelf. It went off in a blind scramble across Dolores street, the bucket dripping honey in showers. It was hard to say which was the wildest, the honey or the bear. Behind the bear came the enraged Bob Ridley waving a hoe. In its mad flight the bear took a large chunk of adobe out of the southwest corner of the De Haro homestead and then disappeared in the chaparral. All day long the wanderings of Bruin in the wilderness was apparent to all by the dense cloud of flies that hovered over the bear’s line of march.

Here, too, started the great bear scare for which the black bears were not responsible. It was a grizzly day and the entire Mission was in a hubbub, even the black bears themselves.

Lola Montez was in town—that wildhawk of an Irish girl who had danced her way through the pocketbooks of scores of victims in many a clime between Bantry Bay and the Golden Gate—Lola Montez, she of the “rolling black eye,” who arrived in San Francisco with a dozen trunks of gay attire, a casket of jewels worth $30,000, and the wizardry of her “Spider Dance” that soon charmed all sorts of personal property out of ardent and generous admirers.

Among other assets, she acquired two young grizzly bears, which went about with her in charge of a man. One day the lively Lola took in the Mission, and while the danseuse and her party were enjoying themselves the man took the bears up to the Mansion House and, staking them outside, went in to revel with his pals, the impresarios of the bull arena. While the revelry was going on the bears gained their liberty and started to do the Mission for themselves. For two hours they maintained a successful reign of terror, scaring the women and children into fits and causing all doors and windows to be barricaded. Finally their mischievous doings reached Lola’s ears, and, with her flinty temper flashing sparks, she sought the delinquent manager of the bears. She strode into the Mansion House bar, riding whip in hand, and opened on him with tigerish fury. The language she used is said to have rolled the whiskey on the shelves, and she informed him that if those bears were not at the Nightingale within an hour she would cut his eyes out with her whip. The bears were caught on Mission street near Fifteenth while trying to get into the house of John Wilson, the old circus man.

The Nightingale was the scene of a bear circus not long after this affair and Bill Shear, the proprietor, got the turn of his life. A poker party was in session one evening in one of the rooms off the main bar, and Shear was just opening a healthy jackpot when the shuffle of steps was heard in the bar.

“Be there in a minute!” shouted Shear.

More shuffling and the clatter of an overturned chair.

“Blast ye, quit throwing the furniture around!” roared Bill.

Crash followed crash as bottles began to hit the floor. Visions of the jackpot vanished in the flame of Bill’s anger and he dashed into the bar and came face to face with a large black bear reared on its hind legs busily playing ninepins with the bottles on the bar stand. Bill Shear reached for his pistol and would have complicated things by opening fire, but “Reddy” Larrabee, wiry little gambler, nervily scooped up a shovelful of red hot coals from the big grate and tossed them into the bear’s face. The curtain of fire was effective. Whimpering with pain, Bruin dropped to all fours and dashed into the street. Then there arose from without a series of yells of “Help! Help!” that drowned the bear’s cries.

It was “Doc” Aylewood returning from a case of sickness at the Castro home. There he was with streaming coattails and shouting frantically as he dashed toward Mission creek, with the singed bear only a few feet in his rear. He was later picked up suffering with a broken leg.

Then there was the moonlight ride of the bowlegged vaquero who was caught up on Dolores street by a bear running between his legs, probably taking them for a triumphal arch, and carrying him into the willow jungle so far that he wandered around for two days until he found a trail leading homeward.

In the gloaming of one fair summer day, a great white way was made on the planked Mission road from Fifteenth to Sixteenth by Andrew Jackson Butler, brother of General Ben F. of Civil War, and later greenback, fame. Andrew J., who once owned a downtown cafe on Clay street just above Kearny, but at this time maintained a store on the southwest corner of Fifteenth and Mission roadway.

Butler had been putting an Alaskan landscape scene on his store walls with the aid of a big brush and a tub of whitewash, and was casting admiring glances at his handiwork when he was bumped from the rear. The start that Butler gave when he saw a bear standing behind him upset the studio furniture and ten gallons of Alaskan landscape was dropped from the scaffold over bear and man. Then began the usual Marathon when man and bear met. Up Mission road Butler led the drive. The Nightingale crowd saw that strip of animated Arctic scenery flash past Sixteenth street and, with a gasp, watched it vanish in the willows.

Some hours later Butler reappeared, looking like a snow image that had been playing hail fellow well met with an avalanche, and told a thrilling story of having strangled the bear in a death grapple in the chaparral, an announcement which Jim Denniston, who ran The Hermitage at Fifteenth and Dolores, greeted with:

“Show me that whitewashed carcass.”

“[He's upset] cause I didn’t take my parade past his shop,” retorted A. Jackson B.

Such were a few of the happenings of the bear days of the Mission.

The old Pueblo with its adobes has faded away. But I maintain that within the shadow of the ghost of the old church when the sun is on the wane one can still feel the mystic influence of the benign atmosphere, though no angelus drones out its drowsy rhythmical tone to enhance the thrall. In dreamy fancy one can again see the old Spaniard sitting on his doorstep in the twilight, watching the purple fringed hilltops, and with him can see the Mission bears dimple the skyline with the tips of their tails as they cross the ridge, jocose and debonair and as full of the ardor of adventure as Don Quixote and as keen as scent as a Leather-stocking on the bacon-tainted trail over which they travel, caring not one-half what the next adventure be, whether it is a one-round go with a bucket of wild honey, a fight to the finish with a tub of whitewash, or the keeping of a moonlight engagement on the Pueblo plaza with a bowlegged vaquero.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 16 July 1916. 28.

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