The Star-News


Tales from the boarding room

Sat, Jun 23 2012 12:00 PM Posted By: Susan Walter

My husband and I have a few rentals that have provided us with income and drama. In February one of our units caught fire. It reminded me of the boarding house article below, which I will designate Boarding House Story #1:

About 1:30 yesterday morning a two-story frame building owned by J. M. Davidson, at Chula Vista near the big water-tank, caught fire and was burned to the ground. The place had been used as a boarding-house up to last Saturday, when it was closed for lack of patronage. ... Davis (sic) managed the house just one month and was absent at Soda Springs when the fire took place. It is, therefore, not known how much furniture was left in the building. The place was insured…  (San Diego Union June 30, 1888 8:1-2.)

Follow up articles printed the next two weeks indicated the fire had been set by a fire bug. 
A resident of the building stated to the authorities he’d heard trespassers for several nights, and that the night of the fire he found the rear door to the structure open.

“There was no light and no fire in the house during the night and there was hardly any possibility of a fire starting unless it was kindled by someone,” he stated. (This seems a curiously leading comment — remember, at this time live flames were used for light, cooking and heat; house fires were not uncommon.)  At any rate, the resident claimed he was asleep at the time the fire occurred, and escaped safely.

The articles noted that Davidson apparently had “enemies who was unaware of the insurance he held on the place [and] fired the building,” insinuating that the arson was committed by Davidson’s spiteful enemies, who did not know that he would benefit from the insurance settlement. Subsequently the Atlas Assurance Company of London arrived to “ascertain the losses and inquire into the circumstances of the burning.”

Now, when the arson occurred, Davidson was out of town. It is interesting to me that a large building like that would have caught fire at this particular time.

The early to mid period of the 1880s is called the Boom of the ’80s, but by the late 1880s the boom had gone bust. Note in the clipping above that the boarding house “was closed for lack of patronage.” Note also he only owned it for one month.  And further note that this fire occurred during Davidson’s planned absence.

Now Davidson was a canny man of business. I may be doing him a huge disservice, but was it possible that Davidson might have thought the insurance was more valuable than the structure? Could this arson have been planned in more ways than one?  I don’t know, but I wonder just what Davidson thought when he returned and found an old building that was not producing income cleared from his property, as well as the likelihood of a large insurance settlement. 

Draw your own conclusions.

Now, briefly back to my and my husband’s rentals as an introduction for Boarding House Story #2. 
This is another boarding house item that caught my attention, this one advertised several times in the Otay Press (July 4, 1889):

Mrs. J. A. Wise’s Private Boarding and Lodging House at Otay City is Now Open. Board per week, $5.00. Single meals, 25 Cts. Single Bed, 50 Cts. Room and Board by the Week, $6.00 to $7.00. Furnished Rooms per Week, $4.00.  Unfurnished per week, $2.00.  White Lady Cook.

Note the “white lady cook” phrase which in the ad was emphasized by large type and linear accents. This was during a period in California of a growing dislike for the Chinese. 
Mrs. Wise made it clear only white hands touched the food her boarding house residents ate. In spite of this she didn’t make a longtime success of the project because, like Davidson above, she opened her establishment during the bust of the late ’80s.

And, lastly, here is Boarding House Story #3. In the 1900 census in National City, there is a unique boarding house that caught my attention, but I’ve not had time to research it in depth. The adults were Jerome B. who worked as a plasterer and his wife Alice C. Westgate. Jerome, age 57, and Alice, age 45, had been married six years and Alice, according to the enumerator, had had no children.

But in their household were six children ranging in age from infants to 15 listed as adopted sons or daughters; and then there are four more children listed as boarders.

So, what was this? A boarding school for orphans? These children were born in seven different states, and many of their parents’ origins were listed as “unknown.” I want to delve into this story in greater depth. I find it a most intriguing boarding house indeed.


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