I was excited to research Fresno, California. I knew that my great-granduncle Fred Little and his wife Emma Harper Little had moved there sometime after 1904. As we drove south from Sacramento, the landscape shifted from pine trees to fields, many untended and left to weed. Other irrigated sandy-mush soils defined this great produce-growing land where fruits, nuts, and vegetables suck the water to parch their thirsts.
Fresno sits in the palm of an ancient lake bed in the San Joaquin Valley between the violet-shadowed Sierra Madre Mountains to the east and the southern Coastal Mountains to the west. Inside the heart of the Raisin City, we viewed red-tile-roofed suburbs surrounding a downtown area where, between 1910 and 1917, Wobblies made jungles (camps) near the train tracks. Still a mecca for the homeless, a tent-and-cardboard colony housed modern-day bindle stiffs. (See "Blanket Stiff" under Chasing Rabbits.)
A hub for fruit and vegetable pickers, canning and winery laborers, Mexicans, along with mostly Japanese immigrants, had provided much of the labor. Since 1903, three dollars for an eight-hour day had been labor organizations' rallying cry. While Japanese had organized to demand better wages, mostly illiterate Mexicans worked for not much more than a dollar a day. I wondered if this was why Frank Little had moved to Fresno. I knew that he had led a free speech fight there, but I needed to know how Fred and Emma fit into his story.
Before even checking-in to the hotel, we stopped at Fresno’s Superior Court archives to order some pertinent documents that I hoped would explain more about Fred and Emma. I was told to come back two days later to collect results, if any. I felt the first pangs of disappointment during my California research.
Still too early to check-in to the hotel, we drove past former addresses belonging to Fred and Emma, nine of them. I had evidence that Frank Little had lived with Emma and Fred at various times. Warehouses and newer multi-family houses occupied some of the sites, but two of the original houses still stood. With a surge of hope, I looked forward to following up in the Fresno County Courthouse for real estate records the next morning. At this point, I was unaware that Frank Little's drama had played out on the same courthouse grounds in 1910 and 1911.
Jane Little Botkin
The Panic of 1907 occurred in October and November after a series of runs on banks in various financial centers across the country. The runs were caused by the failure of a couple of major brokerage firms. Americans had had a growing sense of doom after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The devastation and cleanup had pulled gold out of the world's major money centers, creating a liquidity crunch by June 1907 and a general recession. Over a million immigrants, who had entered the US in 1907, found little work. Frank Little, like many miners at the time, lost his job in the fall as mining operators tried to keep afloat. A new generation of bindle stiffs, hoboes, began migrating across the country seeking any kind of work. Frank Little joined them, becoming a boxcar hobo-agitator. Robber barons such as J. D. Rockefeller continued to employ predatory practices to corner depressed industries, while a class of Americans became the new urban poor. Ironically, American financier J P Morgan saved the day.
Two days later, my friend Ceci, who lived in San Francisco, picked me up for our planned trip to Fresno, scene of California’s first free speech fight. Once again, I had an ambitious itinerary, and Ceci would be my helper. Our first stop was Stockton, California. Fred Little had died in Stockton State Hospital, now part of California State University, Stanislaus. We drove there first, disappointed to find that his dorm had been destroyed. Yet other buildings remained, and it was easy to picture the former building among the giant trees and manicured green lawns.
I needed to find Fred’s grave. I had contacted Stockton Rural Cemetery in advance for help locating his unmarked resting place. So an orange cone awaited us as we wove our way among marked graves. Grave 313, marked by a small flat, metal disk, had been uncovered for us. Nearby, my favorite flower, purple iris, flagged the location. I knew from Fred’s death certificate that the local hod carriers’ union had paid for his burial, but not a marker. Why not his family? I was baffled. Months later, I had my answer, and it was not pretty. Like Frank, Fred Little had lived a tragic life.
Post #21 cont'd
sneaking outside to eat an apple, and Melissa fed us microfilm. We plowed through page after page of the Herald and the Fresno Morning Republican. I couldn’t wait to begin reading our finds later that evening.
By six o’clock, we were finished and we were starved! We asked Melissa where we might find a nice restaurant nearby. At first she looked puzzled, but then she gave us addresses away from the downtown area in which we had researched. We had hoped to eat and return to our hotel rooms quickly.
We also asked the librarian and her staff for directions to the intersection of Mariposa and I streets, where Frank had soapboxed, been arrested, and later an unruly mob had broken out. Melissa told us that the intersection no longer existed and in fact, Mariposa Street had been incorporated into an open-area called Fulton Mall. After a brief pause, the librarian gave detailed directions to the historic site, now part of Free Speech Plaza in Fulton Mall.
Ceci and I left the library on Mariposa, on the east side of Courthouse Park. We drove around the courthouse grounds on Van Ness Street, passing where Occupy Fresno protestors had been earlier, and then turned north beyond the west side of Courthouse Park. To our right was Fulton Plaza, all buttoned up for the evening. If fact, we noticed that the entire downtown area had vacated. At 5 o’clock, all the city, county, and federal buildings had emptied. It was now 6:30 P. M. A venue for tourists and business people during the day, the mall was vacant except for an army of transients who had begun milling aimlessly, many with brown paper sacks around bottles, some mumbling senselessly, while others sat on benches under trees.
Ceci argued that there was no way she was getting out of the car, and neither was I. But I had come so far, and I had to see where Frank bravely soapboxed. I wanted to feel his presence, as silly as that sounds. With a sudden lurch and a few words under her breath, Ceci lunged the SUV over the curb onto the decorative pavers in Fulton Mall. With no store owners or tourists nearby, and no police to ticket us, we drove to the weathered, bronze marker on Free Speech Plaza.
A homeless man sitting on a bench calmly looked up at me when I unexpectedly let myself out of a car in front of him. He smiled and asked if I was having a good day. And I could honestly reply to him, that indeed as tired and hungry as I was, I was having a great day!
On our final day in Fresno, California, we took a survey of all physical locations that I had come across in my research. I wanted to drive the free-speech trail, so to speak. But picturing the events in my mind was difficult at times. With a great palette of civic resources, Fresno had reinvented itself, painting over the ugly 1910-1911 Free Speech Fight that had occurred in its historic district. The newer buildings that frame the heart of Free Speech Plaza on Fulton Mall today are mostly sterile modern city, county, and federal buildings.
Chinatown is one exception. Next to where my uncle Fred Little had soapboxed on the Tulare and F street corner was a Chinese gallery. Still, I had to look hard to visualize the event. The location was not far from Mariposa and I streets.
During the free speech fight, an unruly mob of about 300 vigilantes had attacked an IWW speaker at the corner of Mariposa and I, just as he climbed on top of his box. Then chaos broke out. The mob chased the Wobblies in the crowd as they ran to their tent headquarters outside town in a former vineyard north of Belmont Avenue near Palm street. The mob set the tent on fire, burning all the men’s earthly belongings while some of the IWWs ran for their lives in only their underwear. I had visited the intersection in Free Speech Plaza the evening before, but now I wanted to visualize the victims’ mad-dash journey back to their tent.
This location had changed too! Naturally Fresno had swallowed up its outlying rural areas. I diligently took photos as morning traffic whizzed past, marveling at the mob’s path from the plaza to Belmont and Palm streets. I was surprised to see a small field at the vineyard’s location, close to a residential area known as Belmont neighborhood. Fred and Emma had lived nearby, just close enough to smell smoke and watch the flames consume the large tent.
Our next stop was at Emma Harper Little’s grave. No, she was not buried next to Fred. Emma lies next to her son, Lawrence, in the IOOF Cemetery (today part of Mountain View Cemetery) in Fresno. A simple, flat steel-gray marker speaks the dates of her birth and death but no details of her extraordinary life. Still, Emma’s involvement within the industrial labor movement in Fresno has not gone unnoticed. In one publication, which was translated into a 2008 French edition, Emma’s story is included with those of other notable female labor organizers, including Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons, and Mother Jones.
Our final stop was back to Fresno’s superior court to see what documents had been retrieved. My request for criminal records was a bust. No surprise.
But my first request produced a treasure trove.
Nine o’clock the next morning, Ceci and I appeared on the 4th floor of the Fresno County Courthouse. I was exhausted after spending a night in a room next to the hotel’s air conditioner compressor. Yet fueled with minimal rest and a small breakfast, I intended to tackle real estate records. Who was I kidding? Most Wobblies owned no property—they were rolling stones, propelled by the availability of work and lust for change. Fred and Emma had moved many times, but from house to house, not so much city to city. I had to make certain of their economic situation. Owning a home would have been a major accomplishment after the Panic of 1907.
We were pleased that we could begin by searching indexes online. Our enthusiasm waned quickly. Warrantors and warrantees blurred before our eyes, but none with the name Little. After a couple of hours, we quit. Fred Little never owned a home. Future research would explain why.
We next visited the superior court to look for criminal records. I knew that both my uncles had been arrested in Fresno in 1910, and Fred had another arrest in 1918. Again we had to leave our information with a clerk. Like so many municipalities and counties that were trying to streamline records, ancient hard copy cases had either been destroyed, or in one case, entire files sent to Ancestry.com. I had lucked out with Spokane criminal records and had Frank’s file. But Fresno’s criminal record or records (since there were multiple arrests) for both Frank and Fred were now nonexistent. More frustration awaited me. Fred’s 1918 arrest had been federal. His record, if it even existed, was in Los Angeles.
Before traveling to California, I had contacted Melissa Scroggins of the Fresno County Library on Mariposa Street. Melissa had completed research for me in advance that helped streamline our own research. She had provided information about the Mariposa Hotel, where both Fred and Emma had worked, as well as pertinent information regarding the old Fresno jail. Both buildings had been razed, like so many other historic buildings in Fresno’s historic district. Now Ceci and I needed to research newspapers in the library. I typically use online newspaper subscriptions, my favorite being Genealogybank.com. Sitting next to my computer, coffee cup at hand, and reading old documents is a pleasurable pastime for me. Still not all newspapers have been digitized, including the Fresno Herald, so Ceci and I spent the next six hours soothing fussy microfilm readers while our own irritabilities grew.
We took photos of all articles regarding Fresno’s free speech fight beginning in 1910 and ending in March 1911. I learned that there were three waves to this fight, and the city had been captivated by the IWW, for better or worse. Splashed across front pages were stories about Frank, and even Fred, and how Fresno city authorities combatted the invasion of Wobblies who had joined in the historic free speech fight. We
never stopped for lunch for fear we would lose our machines, and our stomachs began to growl. We each took turns
And so my quest continued to retrace my uncle Frank Little’s journeys, trying to visualize his life, reasons for his life’s decisions, and answers to who he really was. But before heading to California, I explored events in Spokane, Washington, which led to his becoming an experienced soapboxer, able to handle the consequences of civil dissent.
After employment agencies colluded with logging companies to cheat laborers, the IWW had gone to Spokane to protest. For example, purportedly three thousand men were hired through employment sharks for one camp during the 1909 winter, to maintain a force of just fifty men. As soon as a man had worked long enough to pay the agency’s fee, hospital dollar, and poll tax, he was discharged. Riots broke out on Spokane’s streets and, pressured by the employment agencies, the city passed an ordinance prohibiting the holding of public meetings on streets, sidewalks, or alleys within the fire limits (or city limits). Frank had been arrested while soapboxing and thrown into the old Franklin School jail annex after the county jail had filled up. His treatment, and others’, was horrendous. For a story on this incident, click here. Spokane was Frank’s second free speech fight in the company of a famous Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Afterwards, he returned to California where my uncle Fred lived with Emma Harper Little.
I flew into Sacramento, stopped briefly at my hotel on J Street, and then proceeded to the California State Library on N. Street. I was reminded that in 1918 a group of Wobblies, who had been held nearby in a decrepit Sacramento County Jail and who had existed on foul and meager rations, walked to their trial in the old Sacramento Superior Courthouse. They ultimately received punishments of between five and twenty years for speaking out against the war or associating with Frank Little and others. Almost a hundred years later, I walked near their path, past Capitol Mall Park, arriving at the library where I immediately began research in the California History Room. A fabulous newspaper collection awaited me.