George Edward Searle: Oral History

This is an excerpt from an interview with George Edward Searle, made in his home at 2733 Best Ave., Oakland, CA, on April 7, 1979. George was born at 35 Elsie Street in 1897. The interview was conducted by Dick Searle, his son.

Many thanks to Bob Searle, George's other son, for sharing his father's memories of the 1906 quake with Bernal History Project.

George: All set now?

Dick: Sure. Maybe you can tell me something about what your background is, Mom and Dad and stuff like that.

George: My mother landed in ... born in Pennsylvania years ago. Pretty close to this power plant.

D: Was that Berrick?

G: Yeah, Berrick. Not very far off. They came out here ... oh, about 1870 in California.

D: Well, uh what was the name of the family then?

G: Well the name was Stecker ... was his married name. My mother's maiden name was Mellick.

D: Oh, okay.

G: I never did see my grandpa. He died before I was born. My grandmother lived with us years ago in Bernal Heights.

D: In San Francisco?

G: Yes.

D: Well then, you did know too many of your relatives on your mother's side actually.

G: My mother's brother used to be out here. Lived on [inaudible] St. in San Francisco with his wife. ... I have a picture of him someplace.

D: Do you happen to know how your mother came out to California?

G: Well, they first started out landing in Kansas. Kind of a Depression. Grandfather sold his business back East — landed in Kansas for a while — stayed there for three years trying to be a farmer.

D: This in Kansas, then they moved out, oh roughly when did he move to San Francisco? 1880?

G: 1870 around there. But, uh, lived out there in 21st and Chardwell St ... Of course they lived in Bernal Heights later on. Mother was about 31 when she married.

D: OK. That is when she married, of course, your Dad.

G: Yeah. He came out from England about 1870.

D: Why did he leave England as an example?

G: He was working for his uncle back in the old country — sort of a carpenter — cabinet shop and whatnot. Wanted to get out on his own in a business of some kind. Came out here. He was about 18 — 20 around there. Landed out here in his 20s. ... Think he landed in Cleveland first for awhile. And then some pal of his, Johnny Prest, came out for awhile. Bought some property down in Alhambra.

D: I was wondering about your Dad when he came out here. There is nothing to the stories about having to leave England, or was that Ted Pinn or somebody that was involved in that sort of ...

G: Pinn ... He came out the same year we were in England. He landed in the Salvation Army. That's where we found him, in the Salvation Army.

D: Oh. Really?

G: We took him home with us, lived with us.

D: Now, when you say you found him at the Salvation Army ...

G: We weren't looking for him. We found out that's where ... he was single then. No place else to go.

D: I see. So you had ... you knew his relatives.

G: Yes. You see, his uncle was sort of a half brother to my father. Father was a ... see, was my father's father ... and mother passed on when father was born pretty near. Father got remarried again, see.

D: Uh huh.

G: That was ... they had a son too. Sort of a half brother, you call it. Something like you and Bob, I guess.

D: I gotcha there. So anyway, then, Pinn did move out here, and you found him in the Salvation Army.

G: Yes. We gave him a job ... Father had his own business: Searle and Hayman ... down at 14th and Harrison.

D: I see. And that was in 14th ... in Oakland?

G: No. Harrison in San Francisco. ... And we gave him a job as a carpenter. He worked there quite a while as a carpenter. Finally, he got tired of it and went into the insurance business: Metropolitan Insurance. ... That's where he retired from ... had heart troubles. He retired early.

D: Well ... that's one thing. What about the business of your Dad? Did you ever work with your Dad at the planing mill?

G; No. I was too young. You see he lost his business. It burnt down. The 1906 fire missed him. He made pretty good money for awhile. In 1909, tramps got in the yard. Slept in a pile of shavings. Smoking, I guess, set it on fire.

D: All right.

G: Couldn't get enough insurance those days. So he was on his own. Finally, took a place out at 19th and Guerrero St. He continued for a while.

D: So he started another planing mill or something like that?

G: Yeah. There was a planing mill there already. It was closed down. We took it over. We operated it for quite awhile. There was enough business for two partners.

D: Oh.

G: So my father stepped out. So he had a lot of bills. So he lost a lot of his property; quite a few flats in the Richmond District.

D: I'll be darned!

G: So he lost all that. Went into business bankruptcy.

D: What year might that be now, actually?

G: Let's see now ... that'd be ah ...

D: How old were you?

G: 19 ... I would be 16 or 17 then.

D: So that would make it 1913 or so then?

G: Yeah, so ... that's when I had to work.

D: Well now, how long did your dad live?

G: He was about 61 when he died ... yeah.

D: Uh huh. And how old were you at that time?

G: 20 years, I guess.

D: OK. So about 1917 or 1918 is when he died wasn't it?

G: Just after the war was over. ... He would never go to a hospital. In fact, he couldn't afford it, I guess, in those days.

D: I guess they didn't have the same kind of medical help such as that. Did he have a cabin up in Camp Meeker?

G: Well, that was my mother's place. I was about 11 years old then ... yeah.

D: He was doing pretty well at that time.

G: He made good money then. That was a year before the fire came along, burned him out.

D: What about 1906, the earthquake in San Francisco? What was your experience there?

G: Oh, my experience there? I lived in Bernal Heights at that time; one of the hills in San Francisco. What I remember first was waking up in bed. We had a big bookcase in the corner that was coming down ... boom!

D: Okay, you were in bed then when this happened.

G: Yeah, I was in bed. Another corner was a table, a round table, where the lamp was. That went "blunk" on the floor. And the brick chimney in the house twisted around, but stayed up.

D: It sort of rotated ... and went back ...

G: Rotated and stayed there. Right even with the edge of the roof; stayed up there. We could not make any fires in the house.

D: Yeah, I could understand that.

G: Got the old stove outside in the street, cook your meals there. Water, of course, water pipes were all broken down the main.

D: Where did you get your water then?

G: I'm trying to think now ... let's see ... we used to cart it someplace in buckets. There were a few wells around the hills. But the main source was Mission Street, there, the biggest main, that finally cooled down because it drained all the pipes. We had to cart it from somewhere really. I forget that.

D: Well, in Bernal Heights, that's where you were living, did you look down to see where the fire was that was going on?

G: I didn't do that until a week later, probably. I could see it from the hills; burning up here and there; start up. These fellows would get up in the morning and make breakfast, you know. The stovepipe was broken. There fire starts.

D: Oh.

G: The fire caused more damage than the quake, though. A lot of those buildings downtown were intact after the quake — the Call building and the rest of them — The Fairmont — The Old Palace Hotel — The Hearst Building.

D: But all of these, the fire got to them after that then.

G: After, the fire gutted them all out.

D: I had the impression that you delivered papers early in the morning at that time.

G: That was after the quake. That's a long time ago. I was about 16 then.

D: So you were about 9 years when they had the quake.

G: Yep.

D: As I recall, you mentioned about having to cook in the street. Did they use wood fires for cooking then?

G: Well, wood or coal; wood mostly. One of the neighbors would bring their stove out, prop it up in the street, and we would all use it. We didn't take our stove out; we took turns cooking the meals.

D: How were the people about that kind of situation? Pretty cooperative?

G: There was no panic. Just took it in stride. Although, there were a lot of cases where people were hoarding things. Go out and get in the bread line, you know. Keep going back and back. One fellow had a whole attic of canned goods.

D: I'll be darned.

G: I don't know where he got it from. He was down there all the time I guess. The Army came in pretty well. The Presidio bunch had things under control. Because you went downtown, they put you to work right away piling bricks up. My dad went down there once. After that, he stayed away for awhile.

D: Ha, ha ... kept the looters out by putting them to work. I'll be darned.

G: At that time they were piling bricks up.

D: Was this after the fire?

G: Quite a few weeks after the fire.

D: I see. Did they pay people for working on these things?

G: A lot of it was volunteer. First 3 or 4 days it was not organized properly. Of course, a lot of these boys in the army were overbearing too, you know: showing their authority, I suppose.

D: Well, what about food as a matter of interest?

G: Well, we had no shortage of food. I guess the Red Cross was around too. But it seemed a lot of foreign countries shipped things in. Japan was one of them.

D: Interesting.

G: But they had, uh, the ferryboats were still going across the Bay.

D: Well then, Oakland didn't have much as a problem, as I recall, as San Francisco did.

G: A few buildings shaken down. Santa Rosa was bad. They had some buildings go down here and there. But the fire didn't start, you see.But they saved Frisco. They had enough water with all the mains broke. Of course, around the ferry building, they got water from the bay. ... That saved the Ferry Building, eEbarcadero sides and a section down what used to be the old vegetable section where they had fruits and so forth — commission market — was it? They saved all that.

D: Was the firemen doing most of the fighting or was the army helping or everybody ...

G: Army didn't get into it for a day or so at first. Of course, the Presidio bunch did. They lived on the job, you might say. They had water in The Presidio a little bit. They had their own wells I guess. But the ordinary streets, Valencia Street, the old car tracks ...

D: Did you travel out of the city or around anything like that when you were there to see what it was like in other places?

G: No I didn't go anyplace. I stayed put. It was quite awhile before we got out watching anything.

D: What about like your Dad at that time? Had his planing mill I guess it was.

G: He went down there. It (the fire) missed the planing mill and went around across the street and up 14th St.

D: I'll be darned.

G: I don't know why it did. The wind changed I guess. They got a little water from someplace. I don't know what it was.

D: It must have knocked down everything down in his mill, I suppose.

G: I didn't shake much down. It did bother too much. He was operating a month or so later. So let's see ... cause it wasn't very high ... only one story. ... The engines and machines were all set on the ground floor and bolted down.

D: So they didn't go anyplace then.

G: Lumber piles, couldn't screw those things down.

D: What did he use in the planing mills for power?

G: Oh, steam engines. Steam boilers.

D: Where did they get their coal from up there?

G: We used wood. We used all the tailings and all the scrap stuff to burn.

D: And where did your wood come from really?

G: Oh, most of it was redwood from Northern California. Not too much pine in those days. It was all redwood it seemed to be.