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VIPS in California during the 1800s



Stephen Massett

San Francisco's first entertainer, Stephen C. Massett, was the true Bohemian type. He was an artist, with an equal capacity for work and diversion, whose ruling principle was, "If your pocket is light make your heart light to match it; if your coat is torn, laugh while you you patch it."

Massett was a "red-faced little Englishman" with a wealth of copper-colored curls, a heavy mustache and goatee, a face full and mobile, with the nose of the philosopher and the eyes of the dreamer. He was poet-actor, song and dance artist, composer, essayist, lawyer, auctioneer, notary public, and "wandering minstrel in many lands." He was best known to San Francisco as "Jeems Pipes of Pipesville," his nom de plume as a writer of humorous prose. It pleased Mr. Massett, after his characteristic vein of humor, to call Pipesville a "ranch," but in reality it was "a little house not much larger than a full-sized Saratoga trunk" in a bog near the "bridge" on Mission Street.

Massett came to this country by sailing vessel from England in 1837. He articled himself in Buffalo, as a law student, where to "an occasional line of Blackstone, a half-page of Kent, or a speech of Charles Phillips," he devoured Shakespeare, "learning 'Richard III' by heart, a portion of "Othello," and a scene from 'Macbeth'." Finally concluding that his chances of becoming distinguished at the bar were slim, and not being able to penetrate at all into the mysteries of Coke, Kent, or Blackstone, he drifted. He eked out an existence in countinghouse and theater, as clerk, bookkeeper, salesman, wandering minstrels, from New York to Boston, to Charleston, back again to New York, to the Mediterranean, to Malta, Constantinople, and returned once more to New York, there to remain four years as clerk in the law firm of Brady & Maurice.

It was while he was living in Charleston, Massett confesses, that "happening to fall in love with a large pair of dark eyes, I gave vent to my feelings in the words and music of a song—my maiden effort—'When the Moon on the Lake is Beaming'."

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama.
Across the Isthmus to the California Gold Fields

A victim of the gold fever, Massett set sail by schooner for San Francisco in January, 1849. He was eight days crossing the Isthmus by muleback, jolt, bump, jolt, across streams and hills, into bogs and holes and out again. Then, for thirty days, he was becalmed on the Pacific, in dreadful heat, and with malignant fever among the passengers. The horror seemed never-ending. The ship was ninety-eight days making its way from Panama to the Golden Gate.

This awful journey, this need for some less perilous mode of travel, later inspired Massett to compose the stirring music of "Clear the Way," for a poem by Charles Mackay. More than any other one thing, it is said, "Clear the Way" helped to create public sentiment in favor of a transcontinental railroad.

CLEAR THE WAY;
OR, SONG OF THE WAGON ROAD

Words by Charles Mackay; Music by Stephen C. Massett
(Composed for and dedicated to the
Pioneers of the Great Pacific Railroad)
(The first stanza)


Men of thought, be up and stirring, night an day;
Sow the seed, withdraw the curtain,
Clear the way!
Men of action, aid and cheer, as ye may;
There's a found about to stream,
There's a light about to beam,
There's a warmth about to glow
There's a flower about to blow
There's a midnight blackness changing into gray,
Men of thought, and men of action,
Clear the way!

Stephen C. Massett Clear the Way.

On the morning of the ninety-ninth day after his departure from Panama, Massett set foot on the shore of San Francisco, then a city of tents and wooden shanties. The first man he met was Colonel J. D. Stevenson, whom he had known slightly in New York. Stevenson, who had been in command of the California regiment of volunteers which left New York for the Mexican war in 1846, had on several occasions visited the law offices of Brady & Maurice, where Massett was employed.

The Colonel was now a "land commissioner," though he could never quite live down his military past; he still habitually wore a closely buttoned frock coat and military fatigue cap . . . The Colonel, learning that Massett had no definite object in coming to California, but was just drifting about, suggested that he come the next day to his office. "You are just the young man for me," he said. "You of course understand drawing deeds, mortgages, et cetera; in fact the general routine of a lawyer's office. I have just purchased a tract of land—am going to build a new city—a second New York, sir! I call it, sir, 'New York of the Pacific,' sir! I'll make you Alcade, sir! Notary Public, sir! . . . The next day, Massett, after breakfast with the Colonel, went to his office, a wooden shanty, with a door that opened with a rusty old latch, and just behind the door a wooden bunk. Here, at high tide, the water came up to the doorsill, so that, as Massett later used to say, "I had to wade up to my middle to get into my crib." (The office was on Montgomery, between Washington and Jackson streets, with a sign announcing J.D. Stevenson's Land Office and Agency of Lots in New York of the Pacific.) . . .

Massett, however, was not long to be left undisturbed over any "arduous task" in the real estate office on Montgomery Street. It soon became noised about that the red faced little Englishman with the shock of copper-colored curly hair was a whole company in himself . . . a clamor for a show arose that nearly swept Massett off his feet, and soon the announcement of the opening show, on June 22d, set the town agog with excitement.

ON MONDAY, A CONCERT WILL BE GIVEN
at the
COURT HOUSE, PORTSMOUTH SQUARE
BY MR. STEPHEN C. MASSETT
Composer of "When the Moon on the Lake is Beaming" and other Popular Ballads

Neither money nor pains were spared to make the evening a success. A piano—the only one in the state—was lent for the occasion by Mr. E. Harrison, Collector of the Port; it was moved from his office to the courthouse across Portsmouth Square, at a cost of sixteen dollars. This act was typical of the generosity of spirit that was to mark all the activities of San Francisco in the years to come. Massett fared not nearly so well in other sections of the country.

Ad for Stephen Massett from Daily Alta California, February 1852."I had a melodeon in those days," relates Massett, "as pianos were difficult to obtain, upon which I accompanied myself in my songs. Now this has not a very lively effect upon the performance, or the audience—the music emitted therefrom being a sort of cross between the accordion and a barrel organ. At the same time I have to keep the wind up by a perpetual movement of the right foot on the pedal. If for a second I miss, the bellows indignantly resigns its office. The machine gives a feeble and dying squeak, and I am left to the tender mercy of my audience.

"It was during a very pathetic rendering of the opening song, 'When the Moon on the Lake is Beaming,' that this fatal casualty happened, and to add to the miserable state of my feelings—which I trust will be fully appreciated by the reader—I was requested to 'dry up' by someone in the pit. "Now, whether this suggestion had anything to do with the hydraulic nature of the ballad in question, I know not, but considering it was only the commencement of a two hours' performance, I think my situation deserved some sympathy."

Massett modestly called his performance a "concert," and conducted the entire evenings' entertainment single-handed with such marked success that the more skeptical among the audience disputed earnestly whether he was in reality, as purported, one man, or a whole troupe.

Varying fortunes and his habit of drifting about found Massett acting as auctioneer at Sacramento, and again, as a "wandering minstrel," touring the mining and agricultural towns of northern California and Oregon. Of that tour, he recounts a pleasant evening spent at Grass Valley with Lola Montez in her "picturesque little villa guarded by a large-sized bear, sundry dogs, parrots, cats, etc."

His permanent abiding place, however, for many years was his beloved so-called ranch of Pipesville. It became famed the country over as the "poet's corner," the rendezvous of Bohemians like himself, whose art was greater than their recompense, yet who never failed to match their light pockets with still lighter hearts."

December 22, 1849, Placer Times
Sacramento City

Written for the Placer Times.
BY STEPHEN C. MASSETT.

Oh! lady, take these buds and flowers
And twine them in thy nut-brown hair,
And I will weave for thee a wreath
Richer than any queen could wear.
For thou shouldst have a coronet
Not glittering with costly gem;
The primrose and the violet
Shall be thy queenly diadem!

The jessamine bank shall be thy throne,
The hawthorn blossomings for thee
Shall breathe their fragrance, while the song
Of nightingale and humming bee
Shall be thy music, and the shade
Of leafy bower aud myrtle green
Shall yield for thee a sanctuary
Where thou shalt dwell in peace serene.

Then lady take these buds and flowers
And twine them in thy nut-brown hair,
And I will weave a fragrant wreath
Richer than any queen could wear.
For offerings of gold and gems, Lady, I would not bring to thee;
But weave a wreath whose blossomings
May bloom in immortality!

Mortality among Actors. —

In looking over the newspapers from the States for the last few months, we could not help being struck with the great mortality which has occurred in the theatrical profession. It is rarely the case among any particular class that such a proportion of deaths occur in so short a space of time. Most of those whose demise we have noticed have been comedians of long standing in the profession and acquired some celebrity both at home and abroad. We have seen all of them in different parts of the United States, frequently delighting audiences and administering to the pleasure of persons of all tastes. Many of our readers have experienced pleasure in witnessing their personations. Who has not laughed at the clever yankee personations of Dan Marble, as celebrated for his witty stories off the stage as on, and Yankee Hill, too; both have strutted their brief hour and are now gone to be seen no more. We can now recollect the names of a number of others. Rose Telbin, an extremely clever New York actress. Mrs. Charles, formerly Mrs. Tom Hamblin, Jim Crow Rice, Charles Green, personater of 'old men,' George Mossop, an Irish comedian, husband of the celebrated Mrs. H. Hunt, Richard Russel, a low comedian of merit of the South and West, Mr. W. Wharam. light comedian. All these and more have appeared for the last time in the drama of life. Death, that grim 'call-boy' has summoned them from the mimic stage forever. — Alta Cal.

~ ~ ~ ~

Mr. Stephen Massett Biographical Sketch

Words of the songs, ballads, &c., : "Jeems Pipes, of Pipesville."
With opinions. California, Oregon, Australia . . . [1858]

Artists at Continent's End

The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875-1907Artists at the Continent's Edge: Monterey Peninsula.

Scott A. Shields
Few regions rival the magnificence of California's Monterey Peninsula. This beauty, together with a mild climate, rich history, and simplicity of lifestyle, encouraged the development of one of the nation's foremost art colonies. From 1875 to the first years of the twentieth century, artists were drawn to the towns of Monterey, Pacific Grove, and then Carmel. Artists at Continent's End is the first in-depth examination of the importance of the Monterey Peninsula, which during this period came to epitomize California art. Beautifully illustrated with a wealth of images, including many never before published, this book tells the fascinating story of eight principal protagonists--Jules Tavernier, William Keith, Charles Rollo Peters, Arthur Mathews, Evelyn McCormick, Francis McComas, Gottardo Piazzoni, and photographer Arnold Genthe--and a host of secondary players who together established an enduring artistic legacy.

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Music and Politics in San Francisco.California artists and studies.
Music and Politics in San Francisco
From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War

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James Burnley

California Ranchos by Rosinsky.
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Books about The California Gold Rush.
Gold in California
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Deborah E. Solon

Millionaires.California History.
The Big Spenders:
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Lucius Beebe

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Shanghaiing Days:
The Thrilling Account of 19th Century Hell-Ships, Bucko Mates and Masters, and Dangerous Ports-Of-Call from San Francisco

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Imperial San Francisco DeYoungs, Hearsts.California stories.
Imperial San Francisco:
Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

(California Studies in
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Kindly California stories.

Maritime History: Rare and Collectible Books