Thursday, April 28, 2016

Strange Travels from Schenectady, Part 2: Walking from Schenectady to San Francisco

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

If doctors told you that outdoor life could help your children who are having health issues, would you take that to mean walking from Schenectady to San Francisco?  That is what the Fenton Family of Schenectady set out to do.  Physicians told Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Fenton that their son Gilbert, 18, and two of their other children considered to be in failing health would benefit from spending time outside.  The family decided that the warm air of the Pacific Coast would be the best place for their children and began to plan their trip.

The Fenton Family as they set off on their trip to San Francisco. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
The nine members of the family left city life behind and set off on their cross country adventure to follow the Sunset Trail to San Francisco on May 1st, 1913.  They planned to walk across the state to Buffalo and follow the southern shore of Lake Erie to Chicago.  From there they would head south on the Sunset, or Santa Fe route.  They expected to reach Kansas City by fall and spend the winter there.  In the spring, they would set off again to La Junta Colorado then south to Las Vegas and Phoenix before heading west to Los Angeles and finally north to San Francisco.  Mr. Fenton estimated that they would average 15 to 20 miles a day and the trip could take up to two years.

The trip would be made in a typical Prairie Schooner or “Watson Wagon” pulled by a single horse until reaching Buffalo. There, they would supplant the horse with a team.  The schooner was six feet wide and ten feet long.  Under the wagon was a suspended wooden box containing the tools needed for the trip.  They carried two tents for sleeping, a cooking stove and provisions enough to carry them from one city to the next.  The family dressed in the western ranch style of the day.  The Fentons had postcards made of themselves with their wagon and depended on the sale of the cards for their livelihood along the way. One of these postcards can be found in the Wayne Tucker postcard collection.  On both sides of the wagon were signs reading “The Fenton Family. Walking from Schenectady NY to San Francisco California May 1st, 1913. We are dependent on the sale of post cards and books for our living.”

Article/advertisement of Taniac, a cure-all.
Gilbert Fenton Is quoted in the article saying
"Off and on for eight years I have been
bothered with rheumatism...Taniac gave
me very good relief." Courtesy of Old
Fulton NY Postcards.

The family consisted of Reuben and Lottie Fenton and their children: Henry, 23; Edgar, 20; Gilbert, 18; Ruth, 15; Helen, 8; Sidney, 7 and Marguerite, 5. They also had a dog that went along for the journey.  According to the rules of the family, the menfolk would walk all the way but Mrs. Fenton and the children could ride “according to their pleasure”.  At night, Mr. and Mrs. Fenton and they four youngest children would sleep in the wagon and the older boys would tent alongside. 

Did the family reach San Francisco?  We don’t know for sure but assume not.  There is a newspaper article from the Geneva Daily Times dated June 5, 1913 reporting the family reached Waterloo NY and were still traveling.  No other documentation can be found of them reaching another destination.  However, an article from the May 24, 1917 Schenectady Gazette has a still ailing Gilbert working at GE and promoting a product that helped his rheumatism and stomach.  Another article has family members attending Edgar’s 31st birthday party in Schenectady in 1924. Reuben, Lottie and their children Sidney and Margaret were living in Albany at the time of the 1920 census and he was working as a machinist at General Electric, a job he also held in 1910 according to that census.  Two members of the family did eventually move west.  The 1930 census finds Edgar and his wife, Irma, living in Detroit.  Gilbert and his wife, Tressa, lived with them as boarders and the two brothers both worked as machinists in an auto parts factory. 

Similar to the Fenton family were three young men who named themselves the Schaugh-naugh-ta-da Hiking Trio. They set out on a trip from Schenectady to Chicago on September 18, 1911. Much less is known about the trio than the Fenton family, but we do have a postcard of them taken before they set out on their journey.

Postcard of the Schaugh-naugh-ta-da hiking trio before they left from
Schenectady's City Hall on September 18, 1911. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.

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