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Photo illustration by E. Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

In Search of Arbuckle

By Eric A. Carlson

"San Jose--Do You Know the Way?" --San Jose motto

I RECALL THE SHOCK of first laying eyes on Clyde Arbuckle's monumental magnum opus, History of San Jose. It's a big book. And, as I had been searching for anything on the history of San Jose and finding naught, it was an unexpected big book.
I had set out innocently enough, a naïf youth in search of the past. At Walden's or Barnes & Noble (these were primitive days before Amazon.com) I was sure to find tome after dusty tome on the subject of San Jose--the 11th largest city in America. Wrong. In each store I was conducted to Regional History shelves where I found 17,834 books on San Francisco, four books on the Gold Rush, and zero books on San Jose. Zero.

Fortunately, kind strangers pointed me in the direction of The Fallon (curse his name) House gift shop, Kelly Park Historical Museum, Memorabilia of San Jose (Leonard McKay's shop of wonders, specializing in book repair) and the California Room in the San Jose Library. I became acquainted with the gods of San Jose history: Ralph Rambo, Patricia Loomis, Harry Farrell, Jack Douglass, Linda Larson, Marjorie Pierce ... and Clyde Arbuckle--as Zeus.

Clyde Arbuckle (1903-1998) had an unfair advantage with regards to San Jose history, as he was around for most of it. And he possessed a nearly photographic memory. That is a combination that comes in handy when writing 535 pages on the subject. You cannot pick up a book about San Jose's history that does not have a credit to Clyde somewhere between the covers.

And yes, San Jose does have a history. Unsavory at times, quirky throughout. An incident in 1933 put San Jose on the map for all the wrong reasons. Two bounders were hung from tree branches in St. James Park--the last public lynching in the United States. The culprits had chosen the most popular man in San Jose to kidnap and murder-- Brooke Hart. This would not bode well for their health upon being apprehended and placed in a San Jose hoosegow.

San Jose's motto in the State Capitol at Sacramento used to be: "Only 45 minutes from San Francisco." A slight sense of inferiority engendered by living in the shadow of fancy-pants San Francisco. Despite that, San Joseans have always dreamed large; still do. In 1881, an electric light tower was constructed over the intersection of Market and Santa Clara--237 feet, counting flagpole. (Paris would later steal this idea for their Eiffel Tower.) The purpose was to light up downtown San Jose. It did not. Drunks emerging from downtown gin-joints felt compelled to climb it. And farmers complained that the glow was interfering with their chickens' egg production. This is the kind of story that should not be lost in time. And why San Jose needs as many historians as possible. There is just too much funny stuff going on. Even as we speak.

I was sitting in the small Arbuckle kitchen as Jim Arbuckle conjured up a gourmet dinner. (Clyde and Helen Arbuckle first moved into this Willow Glen residence in 1939.) The French bread was kicking Jim in the butt. A plastic wrapper had melted over the top, and Jim was using a cheese-grater to scrape the burnt plastic off into a garbage can. "I don't think this plastic is toxic," he assured me. The nontoxic bread was delicious, as was the Fricot des Mariniers.

San Jose's Xanadulike plans for a new City Hall are fitting, from a historical perspective. The first City Hall, on Market Street, resembled a castle. The second was built on Plaza Park (across from the Fairmont) and resembled a Brobdingnagian gingerbread house. The jail was on the first floor, allowing criminal elements to verbally accost San Joseans as they went about their downtown shopping. Downtown shopping? What a concept.

All this and more can be found in Clyde Arbuckle's History of San Jose.

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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