Sara Elizabeth Brown Rankin:

Martinez Matriarch

By Phyllis Butcher Wainwright


Editor’s Note: This is the third of a series on the Rankin/Butcher/Wainwright family’s 130 year history in Martinez.

We owe it to Rankin granddaughter Phyllis Butcher Wainwright who lived the bulk of her 94 years in Martinez and in between major contributions of her own to public life here, took the time to record the history of two generations of her ancestors in the community.  As with the 2009-10 series on the Griffin family’s 142 years of continuous residence in Alhambra Valley, we owe the preservation of local family history to the dedication of an older member who took the time to record the family information and the family stories.  Both Thomas and Alice Griffin were Irish immigrants by way of Australia.  James and Sara Rankin were the archetype emigrants to California – James who left Scotland as a young man to find his fortune in America ending up in California and Sara whose Pennsylvania family roots went back to 1738 and who took the opportunity of a spare railroad ticket to come west to visit her brother and find love..  (Harriett Burt)

Because of my cousin’s desire to join the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) and had to prove that she was eligible, I do have a genealogical graph of my grandmother’s early family.  In 1738 Hans Jacob Ziegenfuss and his wife Analies Fenstermacher Ziegenfuss set sail from Rhenish Palatinate for Pennsylvania.  This later became Germany and because the Siegenfuss-Festermacher families were German Calvinists, they were forced to flee the country.  The government of Pennsylvania (a British colony) at this time was sending out leaflets in German offering a haven and land to these people.  Hans and Analies arrived in Pennsylvania with seven children.  Their eldest, Andrew, enlisted August 2, 1775 with the Springfield Township Militia.  Andrew married Mary Reichard and they had seven children.  One was named George, born in 1779, who married Susanna Nulf, daughter of Capt.  George Nulf who served in the Continental Army.  Susanna and George had eleven children, the youngest of whom was Delilah Matilda who married an Englishman, Thomas Brown, born in 1817.  They had eleven children the youngest being Sara Elizabeth, born in 1853.

The family lived in Schuykill Haven in Pottsville County.  This is where much coal had been discovered.  One of my grandmother’s brothers, Samuel Brown decided to go to California to see the coal mines that had just been discovered at the base of Mt. Diablo.  He was six years older than Sara.  He found the little mining villages – Somersville, Nortonville and Stewartsville—sadly lacking in many of the amenities that he had had in Schuykill.  He had been a Mason in Pennsylvania so immediately persuaded some of the miners to form a Masonic Lodge.  He built a hotel and became the justice of the peace.  Apparently he never did start digging in the mines.  He did meet a young Scotsman who had come to seek his fortune.  His name was James Rankin.  He had also9 come from a coal mining area in Lanarkshire, Scotland.  Samuel sent a railroad ticket back to Pennsylvania for his brother Thomas to use to come to California.  Thomas apparently did not want to come, so his young sister, Sara, persuaded him to let her use it.  Unbeknownst to Samuel, Sara arrived in Martinez in 1877.  Samuel had expected to meet his brother so was quite surprised to see his sister step from the train.

He brought her to his hotel in Nortonville.  It was here she met James Rankin and in July of 1879 they married in San Francisco.  In May, 1880 they had their first child, Janet, born in Nortonville.  The following year James was born.  The small cottage in which they were living was too tiny for even two babies, and as Sara was expecting another child, they moved to a larger home in Somersville.  James had become very active in fraternal organizations, in the mining business, and in his grocery stores in Pacheco and Nortonville.  Some of the people of these areas thought they should have more representation in county government, so they urged him to run for sheriff.  He did and that necessitated the family to move to Martinez, the county seat.  Sara, with three small children, was not anxious to move and to leave her brother, but she evidently was very courageous and accepted the inevitable.  They moved to a small house on the corner of Pine and Ward Streets.  It was here that two more children were born, Nell and Sam.  They had to find a larger home.  James friend Bruce Porter was moving his family to San Francisco so offered the Rankins their home.  Miss Miriam Porter remained with them until her marriage to W.  S.  Tinning.  Then the Rankins moved to their final home in Martinez.  As there were two more babies to come, they enlarged this home to 20 rooms.  It was here that Miriam, Allen, Lester and Dorothy were born.  Miriam was named for Sara’s friend, Miriam Porter. 

Sara was left alone with the children for many weeks at a time as James was anxious to purchase more land in Martinez, near Pittsburg and San Francisco.  From the tax receipts that Sara kept I have discovered that he owned all of lot 142 in Martinez, lots 1 and 2 in block 337, 3 acres in block 142 and lots 12 and 13 of that same block.  He purchased 181 acres near the railroad tracks and what are now Alhambra, Castro and Berellessa Streets.  He had purchased all the property owned by the McAvoy family, about 640 acres for $7600 in gold coin.  He purchased lots 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 on Main Street.

From abut 1887 to 1901 when he died he went each year to Baden Baden in Germany for the baths.  He did not feel well but was evidently determined to keep living.  Sara was always at home with the children. 

James Rankin died in January of 1901.  From what I have found she was left with a lot of deeds to land, stocks and bonds and eight children.  As she was very anxious that her children have a good education she participated in the Martinez schools.  In 1898, she and James sent their eldest daughter, Janet, to Mills College in Oakland.  Sara had Jim and Sara who were finishing high school and the rest in grammar school.

By 1901, with the death of her husband in January, she was faced with her first large decision, which was to sell James Rankin’s interest in the Contra Costa Gazette, which he and J.  M.  Stow had purchased.  She sold it to the managing editor, G.  E.  Milnes.

Now she had the ranch to manage.  At the time of James’death they had a Chinese cook, a nurse for the children and five helpers for the ranch chores.  The ranch was more or less self-supporting.  It had 44 English walnut trees, 400 olive trees, 130 full bearing orange trees, 25 bearing almond

trees, six acres of grapes, 25 acres of cherries, peaches, plums, pears, apples, apricots, prunes and quinces.  There was a well-kept 20 room home, a barn and an outhouse, four tanks for rain water, an excellent spring that provided the house with water and a rock quarry.  There was good pasture land for the few horses and cattle they had.

Janet came home from Mills College and immediately secured a job in the bank where her father had been president.  In fact she and Frank Jones started together.  It was unheard of (in 1901) for a woman to work, but she was determined and got the job of sweeping out the building.  She eventually advanced to assistant cashier and Frank became cashier.  My mother would tell of John Muir coming into the Bank of Martinez when she had advanced to assistant cashier.  Because of her friendship with Wanda, he always had her open his safe deposit box.  He was a bit eccentric apparently about money as he kept a checking account but no savings account.  He kept gold coins in his box and liked to come into the bank and look at them.  He was writing books at this time (first decade of the 20th century) and not doing as much traveling.  He autographed some of his books for my mother.

By this time Sara was trying to negotiate the buying and selling of the ships her husband had invested in the Allen shipping company.  He along with W.  S.  Tinning, G.  B.  Hutchinson, and Charles Allen were the board of directors of this company.  With James Rankin’s death, Sara took his place on the board.  She apparently took her responsibility seriously and kept records that I have found of the ports in which the ships were and their destinations.  There were 20 ships and when the directors decided to accept anoffer for one of them, the Billings, she wrote to them her disagreement.

The offer was for $100,000 and she thought they should hold out for more.  Apparently the men met without her at the board meetings, but she received their agendas and made her thoughts known.  She did win this one and they received another offer for the ship = $150,000.  She had inherited 186 shares of the Allen Shipping Company and was one of the largest shareholders so her vote counted for quite a bit. 

Her home life and her inherited investments in property kept her busy in Martinez.  After the fire in Martinez (1904), she had the (Bank of Martinez) building re-built on the corner of Main and Ferry Streets.  She also had many taxes to pay on her property.  The 640 acres in McAvoy were now producing wheat so she was about breaking even with that.

As her three youngest children were approaching high school age, she decided to move to San Francisco and live in the home that James Rankin had purchased in the Diamond Heights area in 1889.  It had been rented until now.  She rented her home on the Rankin Ranch (now Rankin Park and environs) to Arthur Honnegger and his large family.  She had her two sons, Allen and Lester, enrolled in Lick High School and Dorothy in Miss Burke’s.  Her eldest daughter, Janet, my mother, went to live with her friend Eileen Wittenmeyer on Arreba Street (the mansion still stands).  Allen and Lester wanted to enroll in UC Berkeley when they finished high school so she rented a home near the campus so they could enroll.  Dorothy, still in school, was enrolled in the Anna Head School.  In the meantime, back at the ranch, a fire broke out and demolished the home.  She remained in Berkeley until 1934, at the time of her death.  She never lost her sense of humor, her keen business sense, and her willingness to take a chance.  In

fact, her last chance was taken on her granddaughter.  She was anxious that I have an education so she had me live with her in Berkeley while I went to U.  C.  It was the end of my first semester that she died.

In 1898 Sara Rankin became the president of the Martinez Educational Association with Mrs.  L.  M.  Lasell (Sarah) who was the daughter of prominent county citizen Randolph Wight.  Mrs.  Thomas McMahon was secretary.  Her uncle was Charles Wight whose son was Ralph Wight who practiced law here.



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