History detective tells SDHC gala of her adventures

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Joellyn Zollman

SAN DIEGO – If you think of a history researcher as someone who spends nearly every waking hour poring over old manuscripts, you haven’t met Joellyn Zollman, Ph.D

She’s the curator of the “Celebrate San Diego! The history & Heritage of San Diego’s Jewish Community” exhibit which is being presented through next spring at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.  Her special love is chasing down artifacts, and on Saturday night, she regaled 350 attendees of the Center’s gala dinner with tales about an artifact that she finally located and about another one that continues to elude her.

A tiny book, which is kept closed in a display case to prevent the intact binding from breaking, is the diary that 17-year-old Victoria Jacobs kept from 1856 to 1857.

“The diary is a rare and remarkable treasure as it recounts a unique perspective—that of an adolescent Jewish woman’s view of life in southern California in the period just after statehood,” Zollman told the gala dinner crowd at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Aventine in La Jolla.  “I decided to go on a mission to find the diary.”

Zollman said she knew that the diary had been in a private collection in the 1970s when an annotated version of it had been published, “but no one knew what happened to it since, as that collector had passed away. So I put my historical sleuthing skills to work, and much to my delight and everyone’s surprise, I tracked the diary down.  I found it in Tucson in a private collection.  We were very lucky that the owner agreed to loan it to the show…”

Isaac Artenstein

Victoria is portrayed in a video, To The Ends of the Earth, made for the exhibition  by documentary film maker Isaac Artenstein.  Because the diary cannot be displayed with its pages open to read, what Victoria had to say is dramatized in the video by actress Sarah Price-Keating, who has some historical bragging rights of her own.  Her grandfather was Sol Price, the San Diego attorney who founded Fedmart and the Price Club, the latter of which has since merged into Costco.

But the story about Victoria Jacobs didn’t end with the video.  Zollman subsequently was invited to give a talk about the exhibition at Temple Beth El in Riverside, located near the intersection of Central Avenue and Victoria Avenue.

“Coincidence?  No.  Riverside as many of you know is located next door to San Bernardino,” Zollman reported.  “Victoria, her husband (Maurice Franklin), and their young son Abraham left San Diego and moved to San Bernardino in 1859. Why San Bernardino?  Because Victoria already had family there – family who had moved there because they believed San Bernardino was destined to become the commercial center of southern California.  They were wrong.  Sadly Victoria died there in childbirth in 1861 at the age of 23.

“Now her brother-in-law who served in the county government at the time of her death convinced the council to name a street in her honor.  Victoria Avenue, named for Victoria Jacobs Franklin,  still today is a major road between San Diego and Riverside.”

Victoria is buried in San Bernardino’s Home of Eternity, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Southern California.  “When I arrived at the cemetery, I was not prepared for what I found there,” Zollman confided.  “First it was in a truly terrible part of town and second, it was surrounded by a 12-foot tall fence with a locked gate.  I was surprised and disappointed because I had never before come across a Jewish cemetery that was locked during the day and I was wearing entirely the wrong outfit for breaking and entering.  Still I had come so far, and there was no caretaker to be found, no cemetery office, not even a phone number to call if you wanted to visit a grave.  So, I started to climb the fence, in heels… and then, I thought this is insane and dangerous and possibly also illegal.  So, I got back into my car and drove home.”

The cemetery today is administered by Congregation Emanu-El of nearby Redlands, California.  Zollman says when she returns to the area, “I’m calling ahead… and also packing sneakers.”

The artifact that so far has gotten away is what Zollman described as an example of San Diego’s first Jewish settler and entrepreneur, Louis Rose’s “most fantastic failure – the seaweed mattress.”

“In 1859,” Zollman continued, “Rose began to manufacture seaweed mattresses in San Diego.  This was a pretty genius idea in that it used a readily available local resource—seaweed—to make a household object that everyone needs: a mattress.  The January 29th 1859 edition of the San Diego Herald praised these ‘floating whale lairs’ as superior in quality and predicted their unqualified success.  They were not an unqualified success.  Why? As far as I can tell, they were crunchy and they smelled.  These mattresses must have been truly awful, because if you think about it, standards for mattresses in the 19th century were pretty low and San Diego’s pioneers were notoriously tough.  For goodness sake, Louis Rose ate his own belt when food ran so low in his wagon train. So to say that these mattresses didn’t meet minimum standards of acceptable furniture on the frontier is really quite a devastating review.

“You cannot imagine how much I wanted one of those seaweed mattresses for the exhibit.  I wanted to display a seaweed mattress for a couple of reasons: the seaweed mattress is a perfect tangible blend of region and innovation; the seaweed mattress shows that the process of innovation includes both success and failures; the seaweed mattress is a fascinating and fun example of the pioneer spirit, and one of my core beliefs as a historian is that whenever possible, history should be fascinating and fun.”

Stan and Laurel Schwartz of the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego

Zollman heard from Stan Schwartz, the current president of the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego, that during its recent renovation the Cosmopolitan Hotel (formerly the Bandini House), located in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, had found a seaweed mattress.

“I decided to go on a mission to find it. I called the Cosmopolitan Hotel,” Zollman said.  “I went to the Cosmopolitan Hotel in person, I emailed no fewer than a dozen historians and curators and educators and registrars and rangers at Old Town State Park – and I could not find anyone who knew anything about the seaweed mattress.”

Unable to find her prize, Zollman compromised by putting into the exhibit a contemporary seaweed door mat, “because, as it turns out, Rose’s idea was just ahead of its time.  Seaweed processing has advanced and a quick internet search will show you that you can buy all sorts of household products made of seaweed today.”

To laughter, Zollman “deputized” the attendees of the dinner “to be on the lookout” for the seaweed mattress whenever they visit Old Town San Diego.  “Keep your eyes and noses open for the mysterious missing seaweed mattress,” she urged.

“So many of the objects that represent our past, especially the everyday objects, are discarded or disappeared.  Even when they are saved, they can end up in private collections or even in public collections that lack the resources to properly catalogue them.  Knowing this allows you to appreciate how especially sweet the victory feels when you actually do track down an object—which was the case, for this exhibit, with the diary of Victoria Jacobs.”

Dan Cohen of KFMB-TV with Lisa Culver, development director of the San Diego History Center

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and his wife Catherine

In addition to Zollman’s talk, other highlights of the San Diego History Center’s gala dinner, emceed by morning anchor Dan Cohen of KFMB-TV, included a proclamation from Mayor Kevin Faulconer declaring June 10, 2017 “Jewish community day in San Diego;” the showing of a rough cut of Artenstein’s documentary, in which numerous San Diego Jews were interviewed;  and the introduction by event chair Debby Cushman Parrish of Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler, who was in attendance.

Tom Fetter, the chair of the History Center’s board of directors, described the gala as the “biggest and best event that the History Center has ever had.”

 

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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