Friday, July 28, 2023

Legend of the "Laggin' Dragon"

Although few know as much, Mather Field's most legendary, if not anxious, sendoff came on July 28, 1945, after a B-29 called the Laggin’ Dragon arrived at the Sacramento airbase. Piloted by Air Commander Edward M. Costello and co-pilot Harry B. Davis, it was the last of 15 custom-built “Silverplate” B-29s, designed to carry robust loads. The Laggin’ Dragon sat on Mather’s flight line under a veil of high security which was made much cloack/dagger by a crew of odd handlers who wore olive-drab uniforms sans insignia. Much to the horror of Mather’s ground crews, who insisted on a standard multipoint inspection for every plane prior to takeoff, the strangers demanded haste. The plane was only 50-feet up when a powerful airstream pushed open a hatch containing the plane’s life raft, which then wrapped itself around the right control elevator on the plane’s tail. Costello and Davis immediately fought to stabilize the ship as its nose abruptly dropped. At 300 feet, the pilots finally wriggled the raft loose, but “large areas of the elevator fabric had been torn off, and more pieces were being furled off into the wind.” It was at this point that a laser-focused Costello contemplated either crash-landing or seeking enough altitude for a chance bailout of the crew. He also knew that whatever the plane carried was important enough to avoid crashing.  Even so, the rest of the crew assumed the crash posture. At the last moment, however, and at the shock of a control tower crew that had all but convinced itself that crash landing was imminent, Costello conjured a moment of brilliance and brought the B-29 down for a perfect landing. Muscle, guile and training may have won the day, but the crew also benefitted from the plane’s new reversible propellers, which helped steady it upon landing. As nerves settled, Mather crews replaced the shredded elevator with that of another B-29 and the Laggin’ Dragon flew off to its final destination, Tinian island. Barely known to the plane’s crew and not at all to any of Mather’s personnel was that the Laggin’ Dragon carried the disassembled and coreless “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that, in 10 short days, would be dropped on Hiroshima.

Michael Amrine, The Great Decision of the Atomic Bomb, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959), 195-196.

National Air and Space Museum

2023 Sacramento Archives Crawl Poster!

So, look what just dropped. From the ace graphic designer, the 2023 Sacramento Archives Crawl poster is live! Our 13th year and the beautiful posterage keeps coming...

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Farm to Fork Brewers Before There Was a Thing Called Farm to Fork

Before the very recent wave of Farm to Fork madness, Davis's Sudwerk - since 1989 - has been a Farm to Fork engine, producing some of the most exquisite German-style lagers in the world. They have also become a terrific supporter of the Sacramento Archives Crawl. Thanks to our friends in Davis, behold what you can win by simply crawling into Central Library on October 7, 2023, between 10 am and 4 pm and entering what has become one of the best stocked raffles going: A Sudwerk t-shirt, hat, $30 gift certificate, 2 sweet koozies, and a 4-pack of Sudwerk's 2023 California State Fair Silver medal-winning Overgrowth West Coast Double India Pale Ale (ID for proof of age required for all beer-related winners).


We're grateful for Sudwerk's (and all of our other sponsors') commitment to the promotion of archival research, education, history, and community in the Capital Region. No myth or folklore here. Just the genuine legend...Sudwerk:


Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Legend of North Sacramento's Dueling Tree

The duel was a scourge in nineteenth-century California. Perhaps it had something to do with the number of disputed gold claims throughout the state and the passions attached; perhaps it was the paucity of, and competition for, the hand of a women as, according to the 1850 Census, 93 percent of California's population was male while the remaining 7 percent was female. There's also the factor of cultural importation. Historian William Secrest attributes the prevalence of dueling in California to the large number of Southerners who jumped into the Gold Rush. Whatever the factor, between 1850 and 1860, no other state could match the number of fatal duels to have taken place in California, in spite of the fact that the code duello had been expressly outlawed in the state's Constitution.

That brings us to the legend of the dueling tree, which was purported to be a preferred spot for dueling in Sacramento during the 1850s. Set in the small (now extinct) village of Oak Grove, near present-day North Sacramento, was the so-called dueling tree, a towering valley oak that oversaw one of California's most notorious duels.

It was August 2, 1852, and the parties were California State Senator James W. Denver and Alta newspaper editor Edward Gilbert. As the story goes, Gilbert wrote satirical marks about Denver in a column, Denver didn't like it and the result was a duel.

The two met at the oak and Denver being the challenged party chose rifles. Stepping through the morning dew, they walked 40 paces and fired. Nothing happened. Then the next shot came. Denver was untouched and Gilbert died almost instantly. In the short term, Gilbert was buried in San Francisco. In the long term, Denver went on to be the Governor of Kansas, the namesake for a city in Colorado, and live a pretty comfortable life. But what about the tree?

This 1961 aerial image from the UCSB Framefinder is marked to show 
the approximate area of the dueling tree at 2121 Canterbury Road.

Same view of the general location of the dueling tree, but in 1937.

According to an article in the August 30, 1964, Sacramento Bee, the tree endured and was purportedly located in the backyard of Mrs. Myrtle Johnson at 2121 Canterbury Road, in the Woodlake neighborhood of North Sacramento. But is/was that the actual tree? Was there even a tree or was it a grove of trees? While we can only be sure that we can't know for sure, the rest is lost to the fogs of time.

Learn of legends like this and so much more at the 2023 Sacramento Archives Crawl, set to take place on October 7, 2023, from 10 am to 4 pm at the Center for Sacramento History, the Sacramento Public Library, the California State Archives, and the California History Section of the California State Library.

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Count and the Rancher's Daughter

Like so much of Joan Didion's non-fiction, it reads like the juiciest of lore, but it's real and very accurate. In "Notes of a Native Daughter" (found in Slouching Toward Bethlehem), the Sacramento born and bred Didion, shares the storybook tale of a Sacramento rancher's daughter who meets a European prince on a Grand Tour of the European continent. As she writes on page 186: 

I want to tell you a Sacramento story. A few miles out of town is a place, six or seven thousand acres, which belonged in the beginning to a rancher with one daughter. That daughter went abroad and married a title, and when she brought the title home to live on the ranch, her father built them a vast house - music rooms, conservatories, a ballroom. They needed a ballroom because they entertained: people from abroad, people from San Franisco, house parties that lasted weeks and involved special trains. They are long dead, of course, but their only son, aging and unmarried, still lives on the place. He does not live in the house, for the house is no longer there. Over the years it burned, room by room, wing by wing. Only the chimneys of the great house are still standing, and its heir lives in their shadow, lives by himself on the charred site, in a house trailer.

That is a story my generation knows; I doubt that the next will know it, the children of the aerospace engineers...

So, what's the real-life basis for Didion's story? The Sacramento Bee, Thompson and West's 1880 History of Sacramento County, the U.S. Census (via the library's subscription to Ancestry), and various secondary sources tell us that our rancher's daughter is Alice McCauley, daughter of Virginia-born and Confederate sympathizer John F. McCauley. The "title" was Italian-born Count Julio (also referred to as Guilio) Valensin. Alice and Julio were married in Italy in the early 1870s, but eventually came back to the Sacramento Valley. The geographic location of where the ranch would have been, is more than "a few miles out of town," 21-miles southeast of Sacramento proper to be exact, just south of the Consumnes River and east of Galt near the extinct villages of Arno and Hicksville.

Alice and Julio did, indeed, live a lavish lifestyle, full of big houses and massive parties, attended by the Hearsts and various other wealthy families of Gilded Age California. It's also said (actually the Sacramento Bee said it) that Julio won a duel with another suitor for the affections of Alice. On the way less romantic side, the Bee also tells us that Alice was charged with treason for singing "Dixie" in 1861 in a San Francisco hotel, just after the start of the American Civil War. The charges were dropped after the family fled to Europe to stump for the southern cause.

Sacramento County Map, J.C. Boyd, 1903

Julio died young at the age of 46 from a burst appendix, but Alice lived to see two world wars, the Great Depression, the birth of the automobile and advent of human flight, dying in 1949 at the age of 101. A year later, her grand mansion was felled by fire. The lone son of Alice and Julio was Pio Valensin, who was born in Italy and the sole heir to Alice's ranch. When Didion wrote about the Valensins, Pio was still the owner of a roughly 4,500-acre spread of prime ranch land and hardly destitute to where he had to live in a house trailer.

Valensin Ranch, circa 1875. Thompson and West.

In the mid-1990s, the Nature Conservancy paid the descendants of the Valensins $12 million for the ranch, converting it into a massive nature preserve.