New Year’s Postcard from 1909 Unlocks Decades of Bernal Family History

This postcard, from 1909, was mailed to an address in Bernal Heights

This article is by Vicky Walker from the fabulous Bernal Heights History Project.

In the fall, while working at the Vintage Paper Fair in Golden Gate Park, I took a break to rummage through a vendor’s 25-cent boxes. I always read the backs of the cards to look for San Francisco addresses, so I was delighted to find a Bernal-related card.

The image on the front was a New Year’s greeting from 1909, but the address on the back revealed that it had been sent to Mrs. M. J.  Hills at 15 Patton Street in Bernal Heights.


As it turns out, “Mrs. M. J. Hills” was Mercy Jane Watts Hills (1854-1918), the paternal grandmother of John Hills, with whom I have been corresponding for a few years now about Bernal, and whose family played an important role in the history of San Francisco.  Mercy’s husband, Charles E. Hills Sr. (1854-1947), was one of the four Hills boys who started a grocery store in San Francisco in the 1870s that eventually developed into the world-famous Hills Brothers Coffee.

Family lore has it that Charles bailed out his investment of $500 in the coffee company as he needed the money for family purposes, and he thought the business would go nowhere.

The Hills house at 15 Patton was built around 1892, according to water records.

The first owner was George D. Mayle, who ran a couple of coffee parlors in the city. Charles Hills, who later worked as a ship’s carpenter, and Mercy bought the single-story house in 1899 and that’s where they raised their children Fannie, Helen, Jennie, Charles, and George (1890-1967).

In recent years I’ve been corresponding with John Hills, who was one of George’s son. John kindly shared some family photographs.

Here’s Mercy, the recipient of the postcard, in a photo taken in the 1890s:

Mercy Jane Watts Hills in the 1890s. Photo courtesy of John Hills.

John says: “Looking stern in pictures in those days, as you know, was usual. My father always told me that Mercy was the loveliest woman: saintly, happy, secure, and pleasant, a Baptist and stern-looking notwithstanding.”

John’s father George Hills married Ellen I. Jones in November 1913; around that time he and his father added a second floor to the house on Patton Street, creating a flat at 15a for George’s new family.

John Hill’s parents, George (seen in the 1920s in the backyard of 15 Patton, wearing his leather work apron) and Ellen (photo taken in 1915). Photos courtesy John Hills.

George and Ellen had three sons. George Jr. was born in 1918, Jim was born in 1921, and John was born in 1922.  The Hillses always referred to the street as Patton Alley.

The Hills family on the front porch at 15 Patton St. during the 1920s. Photo courtesy of John Hills

John adds, “A point of interest and somewhat ironical: my father, George W. Hills Sr., not in a direct line of the three sibling coffee founders who accumulated truly great wealth from the bean, actually became an employee of Hills Bros for fifty years, from the age of 20 through 70 (1910-1960 approximately).”

“He worked primarily as a boxmaker and ultimately, as he became older, in a semi-retirement job as yard superintendent, checking cars and trucks in and out and generally providing some security for the parking/dispatch yard.”

George Hills, with a Hills Brothers delivery truck he drove in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of John Hills

John recalls an outhouse in the backyard – there was no indoor toilet for a time at least.

John Hills (left) and his brother Jim playing cowboys in the backyard at 15 Patton, circa 1930. Photo courtesy John Hills.

The Hills family moved away from 15 Patton in 1931, probably around the same time the Board of Supervisors ordered a public auction of the buildings at 5-15 Patton, 161-177 Highland, and 102-180 Appleton so the land could be used for “school purposes.” The city-owned land was instead used to build the Holly Courts public housing project, which was completed in 1940.

John thinks the house was moved round the corner to Highland Avenue, but it may have been demolished in the years since. (If anyone wants to help solve this Bernal mystery, we’d love to know for sure where 15 Patton ended up.)

I don’t know how I magically ended up with this post card, but I sent it on to John — after all, it’s technically a family heirloom. We both wonder where it’s been for the last 108 years.

12 thoughts on “New Year’s Postcard from 1909 Unlocks Decades of Bernal Family History

  1. That single, simple post card is a treasure. Thanks for posting this fascinating story. Some day, when I can get it together, I’ll try to post the story of the man who built my two-flat at 65-67 Coleridge in 1896. His name was John B. Divine, and a female family member named Delia Divine owned the adjacent lot up the hill at 42 Lundys Lane. For that reason, when he built a single family house for himself at that address in 1900, he was able to construct his sewer line (logically) going downhill and under my house out to meet the sewer line under Coleridge. That must have been common in those days, but needless to say, as properties were sold and divided, it has resulted in infrastructure problems, as well as legal ones, ever since.

    • Oh, that’s a wonderful memory! I remember my whole paper route in rural northern MN in the ’40s. I can still remember all the names, houses, and what kind of cars they drove. Of course, I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday. 🙂

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