Rhoda Anne Williams and Walter Hinds Doty hadn’t been married too long when a mysterious visitor showed up in their driveway. Doty (1914-2002) was working as the foreman on a ranch outside Santa Barbara at the time. It must have been 1939 or 1940, recalls his daughter Sue Wolfe.
“One day Dad came back from riding the range all day to see a large black limousine, with a chauffeur sitting behind the wheel. He went inside and there was an elderly gentleman, in a suit, sleeping on the couch. My mom said ‘Meet my Grandfather Pickering.’ A short while later, the elderly gentleman woke up, got up, grunted, shook Dad’s hand, and left. That was the only time my Dad saw Grandfather Pickering.”
The event is proof that a Frederick Manthano Pickering (1862-1945) siting was rare, even for relatives. Pickering, who was about 77 at the time of his unannounced visit, apparently wanted to make sure that his grand daughter was in good hands. It’s not clear where he was when the couple married. It’s also unclear what kind of financial situation he was in late in life.
Hiring a limousine would indicate Fed, who sold Bay Area real estate for most of his professional career, still had some money. He owned homes on prestigious Broadway in San Francisco during his married life. But at the time of the impromptu visit he was living alone as a lodger at 1021 Spring Street in Pasa Robles, San Luis Obispo, California, according to the 1940 U.S. Census.
It looks like Fred spent most of his later years alone. He outlived his wife, Marie Gingras, by eight years and his younger daughter, Marie Rose, by five years. His eldest daughter, Rhoda Elizabeth, suffered from a lithium imbalance and spent most of her life in institutions.
Fred made his fortune buying and selling Northern California real estate after the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. According to family legend, he stood outside his home on Broadway, a section of town now known as “Billionaire’s Row,” and watched the city burn. Newspaper clips indicate that he sold in-town real estate early in life but specialized in agricultural land outside of town later. The 1940 census listed his occupation as real estate and fertilizer sales, though no income was declared for the previous year.
Fred suffered from senility late in life, according to grand daughter Rhoda Anne Williams (1884-1972), who passed on that bit of intelligence to her daughter Sue. In August 1936, months before his wife Marie died, Fred sued the Paso Robles Hot Springs Hotel and its manager, E.W. Santelman, for malicious prosecution and false arrest. He asked for $80,000, claiming that he had been arrested and jailed overnight on a complaint signed by Santelman. The hotel manager had charged that Pickering “absconded” without paying his hotel bill. According to Rhoda, he simply forgot to pay the bill.
Taking Stock of The Early Years
Born in 1862 in Portland, Maine, Fred was the youngest of four children. His father Manthano (1825-1864) died of lung fever two years after Fred was born, perhaps from complications brought on by his service in the Civil War. Before the war, the elder Pickering was a school master at Park Street Grammar School. Under his very efficient management, school standards steadily advanced. “As a thorough instructor and disciplinarian, he had no superior among our teachers,” according to a school history.
The Pickering line has been thoroughly documented by genealogists. The family goes back to one of the early boats arriving in New England. Fred was the 6th great-grandson of English emigrant John Pickering (1600-1669), who arrived in Strawberry Banks in what is now Portsmouth, New Hampshire as early as 1633.
Fred’s formal education ended with the third year of high school, which no doubt would have disappointed his father, had he survived. At about 21, Fred left by wagon train for San Francisco to make his fortune, telling his childhood sweetheart Marie that he would send for her. He did two years later. Marie took a ship down the Eastern seaboard, crossed the Panama Canal by mule, then took another ship up the coast to San Francisco. The couple was married on January 4, 1883 by Charles Dana Barr, Pastor of the First Congregational Church. Fred was 23. Marie was 21.
The couple’s first daughter, Rhoda Elizabeth, named after Fred’s mother, was born a year later. A second daughter, Marie Rose, arrived in 1886. The daughters enjoyed the services of personal valets growing up. Fred first worked as a secretary for the Howard Estate, a 6,500 track of land — six times the size of Golden Gate Park — in present-day San Mateo, Burlingame, and Hillsborough.
In 1907, he switched to Baldwin & Howell, a firm that developed many of the best San Francisco neighborhoods, including Westwood Park, Forest Hills, Presidio Terrace, Balboa Park, Richmond/Sunset, Forest Hill, West Portal, and St. Francis Wood. Pickering was “well known in San Francisco commercial circles,” according to the newspaper article announcing the move.
The family was prominent in social circles as well. Society pages regularly covered parties, speeches, and weddings at their 2750 Broadway home. According to an August 1910 story in the San Francisco Call, Pickering was an early owner of an automobile. “M. Pickering’s electric brougham is done in a serviceable shade of blue, a color Miss Rhoda Pickering often wears,” it reported.
Other newspaper reports provide clues into Fred’s business dealings. Pickering was involved in the development of Stockton, California. While at Baldwin & Howell in August 1912, he donated 20 acres of land with several choice oaks and a chain of lakes to build a park north of Monte Diablo Avenue and west of West Street. The park was part of an effort to build a five-mile boulevard west from Fremont Street, along the north bank of the Stockton channel.
Pickering helped organize the California Land Show in 1917, a $2 million event that showcased miniature farms, apple orchards, olives, citrus, vineyards, and rice fields. He was chairman of the livestock committee. The Land Show included displays for wines, pottery, and marbles. The idea was to highlight the region’s industrial might, too. “Pumping and irrigation plants, streetcar lines, and turning machinery in operation are promised,” according to one newspaper article.
Pickering’s by-line showed up periodically in the Pacific Rural Press during his last 25 years. In a January 1921 article he wrote with surprise about the great economic strides of the region around Gustine, a small town 29 miles west of Merced, where only 5,000 people live today. He reported that 45 acres of alfalfa farmland had been sold there for $1,000 acre, and the The Carnation Milk Co. was building a $250,000 plant. Pickering wrote that as the “oldest living inhabitant of Gustine” he couldn’t help but feel surprise and wonder at the big investments.
“Long ago, I asked the Southern Pacific to put in a switch at Gustine to accommodate our neighbors and ourselves….I know that a great deal of this added wealth and prosperity of the dairy men is largely due to our ceaseless efforts to better their condition.”
If Fred had a charitable side, he was also was a litigious soul. He sued the city and county in 1908 to recover $10,255 in taxes paid under protest, and he filed a complaint on the mayor in 1910. It’s not clear how the dispute was resolved.
The biggest question surrounding Pickering is what happened to his money. When Marie died in 1937, much of what the couple owned — the house and its furnishings were in her name — was sold at auction by Butterfields. Nancy Peterson, research director at the California Genealogical Society, went through the Gingras probate package, all 14 pages. It contains a long list of descriptions of Oriental rugs, artwork, books, furniture and porcelain.
“This was all Marie’s separate property — rather unusual unless Frederick had decided to transfer joint holdings to her thinking he would die first. The inventory also consisted of extensive stock holdings, some of which was worthless, and the house they lived in [they had moved to 2714 Broadway]; the latter sold for about $38,000. The only item of interest in these 14 pages was a ‘Holy Bible dated 1806.’
“Marie’s will specified that after expenses were paid, everything was to be sold, including the house. Except for $1000 to be given to her maid, Catherine Donovan, and one piece of artwork to be given to her son-in-law Julius Kruttschnitt, all proceeds were to go to Frederic — nothing to to her two daughters, Marie and Rhoda, who had already been provided for.
“The San Francisco Bank was the executor, which isn’t surprising since she owed that bank and the Bank of California each about $25,000. Recall that this was in the midst of the Great Depression. After paying claims, all that was left for Frederic was about $100,000 and somewhere around $10,000 in stock. The entire estate was initially valued at $84,520; from the inventory I would have thought it much more.”
So, it looks as though Fred lost his house and half his fortune when his wife died. It’s not clear where he moved lived after the house was sold. But by early 1945, he had taken up residence in the Lawry Convalescent Home. He died there on December 9 from heart failure due to bronchitis/pneumonia. Most family photos show him smoking a cigar.
Seven years after Pickering died, another strange man showed up at the Doty household. Stanford-educated Rhoda Anne Williams, who was the conservator of her mother’s will, received a letter from a man who stated that he knew of a bank account left by Fred Pickering and to contact him.
“Dad contacted him and he came out to the house,” Sue Wolfe remembers. “I think every finger had a ring on it. I think that he was going to charge them 20 percent to get the money. I don’t know how much money was involved but I know that Meany’s Dad said that the money should go to Rhoda’s care.”