The Passing of an Oak

by david on 21 March 2020

Cover of “The Passing of an Oak.” Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1905, workers in Monterey, California cut down a dead oak tree and tossed it into Monterey Bay. Perhaps they did not know that it was the most famous tree in the city’s history.

Three centuries before, on 3 December 1602, the expedition of Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno landed at the mouth of a creek in Monterey Bay. Vizcaíno’s mission was to locate safe harbors that the Spanish galleons could use on their voyages back from the Philippines, and this bay looked superb. The expedition’s chronicler, a Carmelite friar named Antonio de la Ascensión, celebrated Mass under the limbs of a large oak tree that stood near the creek. In his report, Vizcaíno noted the tree as an excellent landmark for future Spanish explorers.

Title page of “The Passing of an Oak”

Despite Vizcaíno’s glowing report, many decades would pass before the next expedition to Monterey, that of Gaspar de Portolá in 1769. Spain was now anxious to establish outposts in California before the empires of Russia and England could do the same. After many hardships, Portolá arrived overland on 24 May 1770. Junípero Serra sailed into Monterey Bay the following week, on 3 June 1770, and said Mass under Vizcaíno’s oak tree.

The oak tree was damaged by lightning in 1840 but remained otherwise healthy until 1903, when workmen repairing a culvert accidentally introduced salt water to the roots. The tree died the next year. (Our book’s foreword instead blames the tree’s illness on damage from engraving beetles, which are a type of bark beetle.) Let us charitably assume that those who cut down the tree in 1905 and unceremoniously threw it into the bay were ignorant of what the tree meant to the city.

Foreword of “The Passing of an Oak”

Fortunately, Ramón Mestres, the pastor of Monterey’s Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, heard what had happened and had the tree pulled from the water. With financial assistance from civic leader and philanthropist Harry Ashland Greene, the remains of the trunk were preserved with creosote and erected behind the cathedral. Greene also commissioned local craftsmen to make several chairs out of its branches, two of which he donated to the local parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West. One of the chairs was exhibited along with other Monterey products at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The oak trunk remained on display at the Cathedral, along with a marble plaque, for many years until it deteriorated beyond repair. Several fragments of the tree are now preserved in local museums.

Page 1 of “The Passing of an Oak”

At this point, enter James A. Murray (1840-1921), a wealthy entrepreneur. According to his biographer Bill Farley, Murray was a “western iconoclast, a pioneering and dominating spirit, more comfortable in saloons than board rooms, who fought for wealth and mother country to his last breath.” Murray had made his first fortune in the mines of Montana, and proceeded to make further fortunes with investments across the United States. He established a second home in Monterey in 1904, and quickly took a keen interest in local history. Murray owned one of the three paintings by Léon Trousset depicting Junípero Serra’s first Mass beneath the famous oak tree. In 1908, to commemorate the lost tree, Murray commissioned sculptor Douglas Tilden to carve a tall granite Celtic cross with bas-relief portraits of Serra and Mission Carmel. The cross was erected near the original site of the tree and is now California Historical Landmark #128. (The Celtic design was a nod to Murray’s homeland of Ireland, where he feverishly supported the expulsion of the British and creation of an independent Irish republic.)

In 1949, the California Centennials Commission unveiled another historical marker a few yards away from the granite cross, this one commemorating Portolá’s founding of the Monterey Presidio in 1770.

The Vizcaíno-Serra Oak, late 1800s. At some point a plain wooden cross was set in the ground, bearing the date of Serra’s landing. Several different postcards were printed with views similar to this.

With all that as backstory, let us turn to today’s book, The Passing of an Oak. In 1909, Mary Murray, James’s wife, commissioned Paul Elder & Company to publish Mary Spence’s short poem about the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak. It is an elegant but slim volume: just seven stanzas of poetry, one stanza per page, in simple blue paper wraps. Remarkably, only twelve copies were printed, an almost comically small press run. Elder’s books were typeset by hand, and this was a lot of trouble to go to for just twelve copies. Surely it took longer to set the type than to print the twelve copies! If Mrs. Murray felt so strongly about printing Mrs. Sullivan’s poem and honoring her husband’s philanthropy, why did she print so few?

It’s unknown whether Murray first saw Spence’s poem and decided to publish it, or Spence wrote the poem upon commission from Murray. In any case, Mary Murray and Mary Spence must have been acquainted, and were perhaps even good friends. As you will read below, poet Mary Spence married well, and was ensconced in Monterey’s upper-crust society. The Murrays often vacationed in Monterey before moving there, and were donors to the local arts scene.

The granite monument as first erected in 1908, near where the oak once stood.

Mary Spence was born Mary Teresa Sullivan in San Francisco in 1863. Her father was Irish immigrant “Big John” Sullivan (1824-1882), who was a member of the pioneer Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party of 1844, the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada during the expansion of the American West. He later was one of the five co-founders of the Hibernia Bank of San Francisco. Mary received a private education from a French governess, and later attended the College of Notre Dame in San Jose. In 1886 Mary married Rudolph B. Spence (1858-1913) of Monterey. Rudolph’s Scottish grandfather David Spence had married into Monterey’s Estrada clan, owners of the extensive Rancho Llano de Buena Vista, a large Mexican land grant in the Salinas valley. In due course Rudolph inherited a portion of the rancho. Mary did not pursue a literary career, content with occasional short poems, fables, parodies, and book reviews under different pen names. She died in San Francisco in 1920 and is buried next to her husband in the Monterey City Cemetery.

Close-up of the monument. Photo by Kevin Dayton, 2015.

The landscape where the oak once stood has been much altered since the late 1880s and does not resemble the period photographs shown here. The granite cross is located at the corner of Pacific St. and Artillery St. in Monterey (see annotated photograph below). There is no parking of any kind at that intersection, but turn right onto Artillery and then right again on Corporal Ewing and you will find a small parking lot. It’s also an easy walk from other historic buildings nearby, such as the Custom House (where the United States flag was first raised over California in 1846) and California’s first theater, at the corner of Pacific and Scott.

In 2015, a mural was unveiled along the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, depicting the oak as it was thought to look in Vizcaíno’s day. While the mural and the oak tree site are only about 50 yards apart as the crow flies, there is no direct way to get from one to the other: you must walk the long way around via Scott St.

The preserved remains of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak at the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo

Close-up of the plaque underneath the preserved oak tree

Map of the immediate vicinity. The landscape has been much altered since Serra’s day, when the shoreline was much closer to the oak tree.

One of the chairs made out of fragments of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak

2015 mural of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak alongside the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail.

Historical marker commemorating the founding of Monterey by Portolá on 3 June 1770, located a few yards south of the granite cross.

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In the Realms of Gold

by david on 1 January 2020

Cover of “In the Realms of Gold,” with artwork by Morgan Shepard

The final poet that Ella Sterling Cummins profiles in her curious but informative 1893 review of Californian writers, The Story of the Files, is a young Italian immigrant:

Among the volumes of verse published in California none have so pathetic [i.e. emotional] a history as those written by Lorenzo Sosso. Born in Italy, young Sosso came when but a child with his parents to California, and soon forgot his native language. But the spirit of genius burned on through years of poverty and menial labor. In intervals of work poems came crowding into his brain, almost faster than he could write them. Night study brought familiarity with classic myths and the meters of the poets. His savings of years published a volume before he was twenty years of age. It contained many ideas and graceful lines, but of this edition he did not sell a copy.

Cover of “In the Realms of Gold,” with artwork by Morgan Shepard

Cummins goes on to describe several more of Sosso’s failed publications, and then, worst of all, his employment at the Post Office: “here he became part of the machine, and has been so busily employed that in the time that has since elapsed he has written not one word. But he has evidently been thinking, and, when a few more years have passed over his head, may speak again.”

That same year, Lorenzo Sosso married Emma Henley, and by 1895 they two children, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he took a job in “the machine” to support his family. As Cummins surmised, Sosso had indeed been thinking, though it took a decade to achieve results. in 1902 Elder & Shepard published Sosso’s In the Realms of Gold, a 171-page volume containing 114 poems written between 1891 and 1901. The dedication, to his wife Emma, would touch the heart of any romantic:

Cover of “In the Realms of Gold,” with artwork by Morgan Shepard

To her whose faith is still secure
Through all incertitudes of life,
The many days of joy, the few
Joyless, since she is joy thereof;
To her, the purest of the pure,
To her, the truest of the true,
The mother wedded in the wife,
I dedicate this book with love.

Paul Elder published a fair amount of original literature and poetry, but almost all of it was of poor quality, and Sosso is no exception: his verses are not memorable. There are some sparks that exhort the reader to a greater good, such as in his poem “The Socialist”:

While I hear the wailing
Of the wronged and weak
Sadly unavailing
Are the words you speak:
Where there is oppression
Manhood must resist;
Therefore this confession—
I’m a Socialist!

Every back we lighten
Of its burdens sore,
Every home we brighten
Helps us more and more:
O the millions living
Toiling in the night!
O the task of giving
To such millions light!

Cover of “In the Realms of Gold,” with artwork by Morgan Shepard

Sadly, Sosso’s wife Emma died in 1914, at the age of 53. Sosso never remarried, and died in Marin County on 2 November 1967 at the age of 98.

In the Realms of Gold was issued in a limited edition of 500 copies, printed on non-watermarked laid paper by the Murdock Press. The cover artwork is not signed but is undoubtedly by Morgan Shepard, who probably also designed the tomoye on the title page. The frontispiece, a single leaf on coated stock, is a signed portrait of Sosso. On the title page, Elder is still calling himself “D. P. Elder.” There is no colophon.

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After the War — What?

18 June 2019

What is there to talk about except the one thing we are all thinking about–the war? … I profoundly believe that if the world is to be saved at all, it is to be saved by putting into practise some things which have long been called impractical. The world has been wrecked on the hard […]

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The President’s War Message

11 November 2018

On hundred years ago today, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, France and Germany signed armistice documents in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne, France, bringing the First World War to an end. Paul Elder & Company published two short books in connection with the War. The first […]

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Drawing Room Plays

12 August 2018

Some works deserve to be forgotten, and Grace Luce Irwin’s Drawing Room Plays (1903) is one of these. Grace Adelaide Luce (1877-1914) grew up in San Diego, and after two years at Stanford University she moved to San Francisco. There she met and married Wallace Irwin, author of Paul Elder’s perhaps best-selling book, Love Sonnets of a […]

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The Boers and the Uitlanders

5 July 2018

Why did Elder & Shepard publish a book about a guerilla war in southern Africa? In 1901 the southern tip of Africa was immersed in a conflict known as the Boer War. The belligerents were the Boers, pastoral farmers who were descendants of the original 17th- and 18th-century Cape Dutch settlers, and the British Empire. […]

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The Abbey Classics

12 January 2018

Paul Elder’s Abbey Classics series comes complete with a little mystery: how many titles were there? Like the Panel Books, Paul Elder contracted The Abbey Classics from another printer, this one presumably in New York City. Publicity for the first two Abbey Classics volumes appeared in August 1907, and for the next two in November. In his “Thoughts For Your Friends” catalog […]

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Happy Holidays from paulelder.org

17 December 2017
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The Panel Books

6 December 2017

The following item appeared in the 7 Sep 1907 edition of The Publishers’ Weekly (an American book-trade journal), page 551 Paul Elder & Company, in connection with Sisley’s, of London, are about to publish a handy volume series of standard works under the general title of The Panel Books. Twenty titles will be ready in September. Sisley’s had issued The Panel Books in the […]

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Impression Classics

30 November 2017

Book series that gather and reprint public domain fiction have a long history. Perhaps the earliest series was Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill, founded by British publisher John Bell in 1777. Later British series included Routledge’s Railway Library (1848–99) and the Everyman’s Library (1906-). A well-known American example is the Modern Library (1925-70). Book series were a familiar sight at any […]

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