Looking Back: The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Ralph Pearce's grandfather William "Frank" Pearce with his horse on Pomeroy Avenue, Santa Clara in the early 1900s. Pearce family album.
Image My grandfather Wm. "Frank" Pearce with his horse on Pomeroy Avenue, Santa Clara in the early 1900s. Pearce family album.

A Family of Storytellers

I remember the day that my mother excitedly woke me up to see snow falling in our small yard on Singletary Avenue in San Jose. The date was January 21, 1962, and I was two years, four months old. From my earliest days, my parents began sharing family stories, most of which took place here in the Valley. I often sat on a stool in the kitchen and listened to my dad tell these stories while washing the dishes after dinner. He told about his grandfather who'd hang garments on a stick for the Yankees to shoot at during the Siege of Vicksburg; about his father cutting his foot with an axe when he was twelve and still having the scar in old age; and about himself growing up poor in San Jose and losing his mother at seven years old. I loved these stories and could never get enough.

The Ranch

My dad's father, Frank Pearce, had moved to San Jose with his family from Texas in 1905. They soon purchased a prune ranch on the west side of Pomeroy Avenue in Santa Clara not far from the El Camino. Life was going well until his wife Alice passed away shortly after giving birth in 1913. Two years later, Granddad sold the ranch. It was later learned that he'd sold it to my mother's grandfather. By 1916, Granddad had remarried and by 1918 owned the Angelus Hotel on North First Street. Returning WWI soldiers were allowed to sleep on the interior staircase to the second story lobby while waiting for vacancies. By 1920, Granddad and his second wife Louie moved to Red Bluff and divorced sometime after that. For much of the 1920s, Granddad worked as a hired hand, following the crops throughout California with his son Cline.

The Depression Years

By the early 1930s, Granddad was back in San Jose. He partnered with a man named Phil Hickok, a draftsman for Anderson-Barngrover on West Julian Street. Grandad located a ranch for Hickok to purchase off Fortini Road. While working the ranch, he met and eventually married my father's mother, Leslie. Leslie was twenty years his junior and had spent much of her adult life drifting from town to town, often finding work as a waitress or housemaid. My father's half-sister Margaret travelled with her, and once mentioned that when they first came to San Jose in 1934, they spent their last .35 at the Oriental Cafe on San Fernando Street. Now in her late 30s, Granddad would be her fourth husband (and she his third wife). A couple of years later in 1937, my father was born. With Leslie about to turn forty and Granddad sixty-two, the last thing they were expecting or prepared for during these Depression years was a child.

My Father

The Pearce family got along as best they could, though in April 1944 my dad's mother succumbed to breast cancer. My dad was seven and his father was sixty-nine. Grandad's savings were mostly depleted, and in the days before Social Security, his income existed of odd jobs and Welfare assistance. Growing up on a very modest income, my father took great care of his few possessions and learned well the value of a dollar.

After graduating from San Jose High School, my dad took a job as a drugstore clerk, acquired a two-year degree in electronics from San Jose City College (where he met my mother), joined the Naval Air Reserve, and eventually began work in the electronics industry. My parents saved their money for a few years, and then purchased a home together prior to their marriage in 1958. In a few short years, my father had gone from living on Welfare in an old apartment to being gainfully employed and raising a family in his own home.

Return to the Ranch

My Granddad Pearce lived to see my birth and my first birthday, but not much longer than that. He still lived in the old apartment downtown and would occasionally take the short bus ride down to our house off The Alameda. He also enjoyed dropping in at various downtown hangouts. One of his usual spots was Carroll and Bishop's, a popular cigar store that had a newsstand and lunch counter. Granddad got along fairly well and then on a fine spring day in April of 1961, he collapsed and died while mowing a lawn. It was his wish that the end would come quickly, and it did. He was eighty-five years old.

A year or so after his passing, my dad discovered that the old prune ranch still stood on Pomeroy Avenue. My dad, mother, and I drove out to visit the site just prior to its being demolished for development. I remember the visit as a two-year-old, and its importance was conveyed upon me at the time. It's interesting that both my dad's and mother's families had owned the property and that their union, brought about by pure chance, would bring the families together once again.

My 100th Blog Post

It was the stories that my parents would tell and the visits to places like the old ranch that began to stir my curiosity and interest from a young age. With writing projects outside of work, I was hesitant to take over the Looking Back blog series in 2013 (which was initiated by our intern Mark Robertson). Being allowed to write about any California history topic made all the difference though, and I soon found myself "looking forward" to Looking Back. My thanks go to those who have enjoyed and responded to these posts throughout the years.

Top 5 Most Popular Posts

Looking Back blog posts have generated well over 100,000 page views. Here are the Top 5 most popular posts so far: