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.

Bernal Heights Mourns Ralph Carney, Celebrated Musician and Former Neighbor

Ralph Carney in 2010. (Creative Commons photo by Ralph Carney)

Bernalwood is sad to share news that former Bernal neighbor Ralph Carney has died. He was 61.

A career musician whose primary instruments were the saxophone and clarinet, Carney’s many collaborations included work with the B-52s, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, The Waitresses, and Galaxie 500. More recently, he’d worked with the Kronos Quartet, St. Vincent, Sun Ra, and many others. A documentary about Carney’s career has been in the works for several years.

On Saturday Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, Ralph Carney’s nephew, posted this tribute on Twitter:

For many years Carney was also a resident of Bennington Street in Bernal Heights. He moved to Portland, Oregon in 2015, but family and many of his friends still live in Bernal.

Bernal Neighbor Ken Shelf shared these memories of his friendship with Ralph Carney:

I’m pretty broken up about Ralph. He lived on Bennington until about 2 years ago. At that point, he and his wife had separated and he moved to Portland with his partner. His wife and his daughter Hedda still are here in the neighborhood.

He was a real larger than life type of guy, but super modest and quiet. He really let his music tell his story. He was dedicated to music in its totality. He was known to play 5, 6 sometimes 7 gigs in a week. He played with a huge variety of musicians.

He had his own projects, and he played with some huge bands, like They Might Be Giants, Tom Waits, Jonathan Richman and the B-52’s, and he played with tons of smaller local bands, including my old band The Dont’s, for whom he provided horns and wind instruments on two albums, and played many gigs with us. He also played weddings, bar mitzvahs, Strolls on Cortland Avenue, and sat in with jazz combos, open mics, blues bands and pretty much whoever wanted to rock out.

There is a joke in the SF music scene that Ralph has played on about half the albums that have been released during his time living here. For me, just about every musician I know has a connection to Ralph, whether that means playing with him, or sharing a bill with him, or just talking shop.

Ralph always had a nice word for other musicians. He wasn’t at all about trying to compete. He also was a strong voice advocating for musicians to get paid fairly. On top of everything else, he was a madman on stage, frequently playing multiple instruments at once sometimes while lying down on his back and just totally freaking out. He never held back while performing, emptying the tank every time. It was incredibly inspiring playing music with him, because he made you feel like going totally crazy yourself, just to keep up with his energy.

I didn’t know him super well, but I was always psyched to stand on the corner and chat about life and music and life in Bernal. I was sad when he moved to Portland, though we still shared many text chats and stayed connected to each other. I have a new music project right now and in the back of my head I’d been excited to send him some tracks to collaborate on. It is such a total bummer that Ralph passed. I really loved Ralph, and I will miss him greatly.

There’s So Much Music at Charlie’s Cafe This Weekend

The City Buds at Charlie’s Cafe

Charlie’s Cafe on the corner of Folsom and Precita on the west end of Precita Park is a neighborhood institution. Yet apart from the cozy daytime vibe and tasty humus, Charlies’s has also become known as North Bernal’s premier site for live music.

This weekend, Charlie’s will be particularly musical, with acts performing on both Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

On Friday evening, Dec. 15 at 7:30, Charlie’s Cafe plays host to Maurice Tani and Mike Anderson:

Charlie’s Cafe is proud to have Maurice Tani and Mike Anderson return to our Friday Night music series.

Like all great songwriters/storytellers, Maurice uses humor, pathos, and metaphor (he loves that word!) to spin tales of sometimes heroic, sometimes conniving, seductive and/or hapless characters. Characters deep in the throes of urban/country angst, unrequited love, love affairs gone wrong—in a nutshell—country noir.

A master of clever lyrics and gorgeous melodies that make for ear-worms almost impossible to dismiss, Maurice’s warm powerful voice animates the songs into a kind of technicolor experience’. Doors 7pm Music 7:30pm $10

Then, on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 16 from noon to 2 pm, Charlie’s Cafe will play host to The City Buds:

Elisa M Welch and Jim McLaren are two East Coast transplants who arrived separately in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid 1980s. They met ten years ago on San Francisco’s vibrant singer-songwriter open-mic scene and have been making various kinds of trouble together ever since. They often perform with the garden-rock band, The Buds, delighting audiences of all ages and whipping up toddler moshpits at farmers markets all over the Bay Area.

Jim plays acoustic guitar and harmonica, and as a singer he’s known as a virtual encyclopedia of Dylan. He plays lots of other folk rock favorites, too, and he and his rock-solid rhythm guitar were a mainstay on the streets of North Beach for many years.

Elisa has a classical music degree, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of her playing. She used to play just about any instrument she could lay her hands on, but these days she has whittled it down to keyboard and pennywhistle, tho not at the same time. People always tell her she has an amazing voice, and she’s inclined to believe them.

Saturday Morning: Join the Party to Clean Up Precita Park

PrecitaParkcleanup

As you’ve probably noticed, Precita Park is one of the most charming and vibrant parks in all of San Francisco.

It’s a beautiful place, in no small part because of all the hard work Neighbor Demece Garepis puts into it under the auspices of Precita Valley Neighbors, the volunteer group she  leads, in collaboration with the dedicated staff at the City’s Rec and Parks Department.

Tomorrow morning, Saturday, Dec. 16 from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm, PVN is organizing a neighborly Precita Park cleanup, and it’s a great opportunity to give the park some of your love. Neighbor Demece says:

We’re having a Precita Park Clean-Up on Saturday morning, Dec. 16.

Meet your neighbors! Join us to prune and remove debris from our Monarch Butterfly Garden along the Children’s Playground. We’ll also sift sand in the Children’s Playground.

Just bring yourselves! Our Park Gardener and Volunteer Captain Ryan will lead the way! We will supply tools, conversation, and fun! Meet us at the big green Rec and Parks Dept. truck that will be in Precita Park.

Good Morning, Bernal Heights

Good morning, Bernal Heights! It’s a lovely almost-winter morning here, as verified by resident Bernal-watcher (and early-riser) Christopher Baker, who lives in Noe Valley.

The photo he shared with us this morning is rather gorgeous, so all Bernalese are encouraged to keep this image in mind as you make your way through the day.

Thank you, Christopher!

Fund Created to Help Bernal Neighbor After Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Bernal neighbors Fran Maffeo and Even Lammers, in a recent photograph

It’s been a little more than a week since Bernal neighbor Even Lammers died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his Moutrie Street home. In the meantime, Even’s surviving partner, Fran Maffeo, must now carry on without her companion of the last 40 years.

Neighbor Deborah used to live next door to Fran and Even, and she’s spreading the word about a crowdfunding campaign underway to help Fran navigate this difficult time. Deborah tells Bernalwood:

There’s now a Go Fund Me page for Fran Maffeo, the surviving victim of last week’s carbon monoxide poisoning on Moultrie.

Fran is a senior neighbor of ours with limited resources and no surviving family.

Fran and Even’s former next-door neighbor Jennifer set up the page “to pay for a simple service for Even and to ensure that Fran has a safe home to live in for her last years.”

Additional details are on the GoFundMe page; Bernal neighbors who are so inclined are encouraged to contribute to the effort.