Purchasing records from the San Francisco Board of Education dating from 1909 to 1917 were recently uncovered after being carefully hidden for over thirty years in a San Bruno residence. Five ledgers measuring about 18 by 12 inches were saved from destruction in the late 1970s by a history- conscious employee of the San Francisco Unified School District and reposited in a secret room beneath his home.
The ledgers were originally shown to me in the early 1980s by the father of a high school friend of mine named Theresa Hall. Theresa’s father had saved them from the trash in the course of his work as a mover for the school district.
At the time, my father owned a stationery store and I thought that the ledgers, still something we sold at the time, would make a great window display. But Theresa’s dad was very protective of his collection, going so far as to tell his daughter to “never let David have the ledgers.”
Fast-forward thirty-plus years.
Theresa’s father dies suddenly, and she faces the monumental task of emptying his storage rooms. Our collector had worked for the San Francisco Unified School District starting in the late 1970s, a time when things were changing in the city. His job took him to various locations, and when he came across discarded materials that he liked, he would bring them home and squirrel them away. He didn’t want things he felt had meaning to be lost. The result was a San Bruno basement full of papers, photos, and furniture.
Theresa called me about the ledgers, which no one which no one had seen since her father had shown them to me decades before. “They must be here somewhere,” she said. “He would not have given them away.”
We didn’t actually know what the large ledgers contained, but in curiosity, we searched, room after room, pile after pile, cabinet after cabinet, box after box, and came up empty. Yes, there were old school clocks, oak student chairs, a 1930 class panorama of the San Francisco Janitors Engineers School (which has been donated to the San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library), but we couldn’t find the ledgers.
Then Theresa’s mother said, “Well, you know, there is a secret room.” [Here's where a movie cues suspense music: "Dum, dum, dum!"]
Theresa’s father had been an artist, and a collector, and some might say a hoarder of sorts. He had an eye toward historyand maybe just a touch of paranoia. Of course he had a secret room.
After pulling away boxes and furniture, we exposed the basement’s back wall by removing stained glass artwork and hanging clothes. Once we had everything clear, we discovered the “wall,” complete with 2×4 studs, was actually a door that swung outward on hinges. Within, another door opened the opposite direction.
Inside, we saw more of what we had gone through earlier: stacks of boxes, rolls of carpet, scrap wood. Emptying the room took some time, but along the way we came across two remarkable artifacts, one with a distinctly west side focus: a large silk banner for the Laguna Honda School’s Parent Teacher Association, circa 1915, and another banner for Garfield Primary School on Telegraph Hill, which was presented to the school in 1912 by the Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West.
Finally, at the back of the secret room, we found what we were originally looking for, the ledgers, wrapped in plastic for protection and stacked on top of a 1920 Western Electric portable audiometer (a large walnut box that looks as if it might be filled with pirate booty.)
“We found the treasure!”
And a treasure they are. The five large ledgers document from 1909 to 1917 the bills paid by the then Board of Education to individual suppliers of goods.
Actual itemized invoices are pasted in, detailing school supplies, construction material for the building of Polytechnic High School, groceries, books, coal, fuel oil, water consumption, teamster bills, car fare for employees, and a host of other costs, including the 1909 vaccination of 1,250 school children by the College of Physicians and Surgeons at a cost of 10c per child.
What happens next to the treasure trove? The San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library already has a lot of the school district’s historical records, and seems a likely new home.
Also likely is that these books and assorted artifacts, hidden for years, would have been lost forever if it were not for one man and his secret room.