Mother Minerva: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

Minerva Hartman lived in a residence made of three relief cottages moved from a 1906 earthquake refugee camp to the Daly City/Colma border. The State of California wanted the structure condemned to widen El Camino Real, and “Mother Minerva’s” campaign to defend her home, at times with a Colt pistol in her hand, was big news in 1927. We have three images on OpenSFHistory taken at the time, all courtesy of the Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt collection.

Minerva Hartman, 1927
“Mother Minerva” Hartman telling stories while her home was being moved. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).

Relief cottages or “refugee shacks” were constructed in camps organized in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. When the camps closed the following year, refugees removed thousands of these cottages to private property. Twenty years later, in 1927, the California Division of Highways (predecessor to today’s Caltrans) began widening El Camino Real where Daly City and an unincorporated part of Colma met. The engineers faced an obstructing ramshackle house made of three wooden relief cottages occupied by an elderly woman of unusual character.

Minerva Hartman said she was a 94-year-old nurse that had served in the U.S. Civil War, Spanish-American War, Indian Wars with General Custer, and even the Crimean War, befriending the world’s most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale. Known to locals as “Mother Minerva,” Hartman usually wore an old Army campaign hat with faded cords of blue, yellow, and red in recognition of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery of the U.S. Armed Forces. She raised an American flag on a pole outside her door every morning, and made her living telling fortunes to travelers.

The Division of Highways wanted to cut into the embankment onto which Minerva’s residence stood. The old lady refused to leave or have her house moved. Brandishing an antique revolver, Hartman vowed to defend her “fort” and made personal pleas to the War Department, the governor’s office, and the media. A compromise was reached and Hartman’s home stayed in place by shoring it up with stilts and building an exterior staircase down to the roadway.

Minerva's Fort, 1927
Hartman raising the flag at “Minerva’s Fort,” 1927. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).

The arrangement certainly wouldn’t comply with any modern building code. Hartman had a thirty-step climb to get to her front door, and her rickety “shacks on stilts” home hung two dozen feet above the roadside. Even if she lost some fortune-telling customers who didn’t want to make the climb, the indefatigable Mother Minerva became a folk hero and her house a local tourist attraction.

The end for Hartman and her home came ten years later. On March 25, 1937, an oil lamp tipped over in the bedroom. One of the responding volunteer firemen later reported the scene to a coroner’s jury: “…we responded to the call and went down to Minerva’s Fort and when we got there the house was a mass of flame. We boys all got together and did the best we could. We went through the remains of the shack and as we went we came across Mrs. Hartman’s body.”

Mother Minerva Hartman, reportedly 103 or 104 years old, had died of smoke inhalation before the flames reached her. Her body was interred at Olivet Memorial Park under the auspices of local veterans groups.

For sharing Minerva history we thank the late Rich Higgins at Caltrans, researcher Russell Brabec, and our friends at the History Guild of Daly City/Colma. Other sources: San Francisco Call-Bulletin, San Francisco News, and San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 1937, and Daly City Record, April 1 and April 8, 1937.

Minerva reading
Mother Minerva Hartman inside her home. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).

The San Franciscans: Gertrude Barnett

by Nicole Meldahl

Researching a local found in an OpenSFHistory image.

Gertrude Barnett, born and raised in San Francisco, was the daughter of a German immigrant named Mary. Just fourteen-years-old in 1906, Gertrude celebrated her graduation from John Swift Grammar School in an unusual fashion. A mere two months after San Francisco was devastated by a massive earthquake, it must have been difficult to find a building safe enough to accommodate a large event. So public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area staged a joint graduation ceremony for 1,700 students in Golden Gate Park. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 attendees heard addresses made by Mayor Eugene Schmitz and representatives from the United School District, and listened to music provided by the Golden Gate Park Band led by Paul Steindorff.

Gertrude Barnett atop Twin Peaks, c. 1920s
A snapshot labeled “Gertrude Barnett,” taken from Twin Peaks, c. 1920s. (Courtesy of a private collector).

In addition to Gertrude, mother Mary looked after three boys—Jess, Mark, and Irving—in the mysterious absence of a husband. The Barnetts were part of the “smart set,” with Gertrude appearing in the society section of the San Francisco Chronicle for receiving guests at a friend’s engagement party in December 1913.

As war broke out in Europe, Gertrude’s brother Jess preempted U.S. involvement by volunteering for the Canadian military. He was assigned to the 72nd Canadian Seaforth Highlanders, and, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, was the first San Franciscan to serve in France. Injured, he was twice sent to a military hospital in London to recover. Gertrude gave him the name and address of an old friend who had lived on Jersey Street at Vicksburg (just around the corner from the Barnett home on 24th Street and Vicksburg), but now lived in England. Jess dutifully looked up this friend, Yetta Sylvester, during his first convalescence, and, when he found himself injured and recovering a second time, he visited her daily. When Jess visited his mother Mary in the summer of 1918 he must have been smitten with Yetta, if not exhausted from war, because he returned to France on November 2—nine days before the cease of hostilities. A month later, he married Yetta.

Gertrude spent the war in San Francisco, living at 1450 Clay Street with her mother and two brothers, Mark and Irving. In 1923, around when our photograph was taken of Gertrude on top of Twin Peaks, she invented and patented a thoroughly modern teapot that looks quite similar to a handbag. She survived a depressed 1930s but seems to have weathered the 1940s a bit worse for the wear. Around 1944, Gertrude began exhibiting “nervous” symptoms under the care of a Dr. Leeds, and occasionally found herself in the hospital. Yet she pops up in the San Francisco Examiner during the second World War at events hosted by the Western Women’s Club and the Society for Sanity in Art which, hilariously, was an American artist’s society opposed to all forms of modern art.

Barnett's handbag tea pot patent.
Barnett’s handbag tea pot patent.

Gertrude remained unmarried and falls off our historical radar until 1959, when she’s struck by a vehicle while crossing the street. Represented by the law firm of Barnett & Robertson (perhaps of relation?), she sues the driver, William E. Keilig. She wins and Kelig is found at fault, but conflicting eyewitness testimony casts doubt on the severity of her injuries, and her claim that the accident had left her “nervous and emotionally upset” was undermined by medical records proving she had suffered from those symptoms for some time. Gertrude appeals the low award of $1,500, but it is upheld.

Gertrude’s road companion, George Hughes, atop Twin Peaks.
Gertrude’s road companion, George Hughes, atop Twin Peaks. (Courtesy of a private collector).

Nothing more is known about Gertrude or how she knows George Hughes, who surveys San Francisco beside her from atop Twin Peaks. Do you know more of her story? Email or send us a tip using the contact button on the display page of her photo.

• “Society Weddings and Engagements Take Place,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 21, 1913:
• 1920 Census:
• 1930 Census:
• “First S.F. Man To Face Enemy Brings Bride,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 1919:
• San Francisco Directory, 1940:
• Teapot patent:
• Barnett V. Keilig:
• “Public School Graduation in Park Will Be Unusual and Novel Scene,” San Francisco Call, June 1, 1906:
• “Navy Nurse Corps,” American Journal of Nursing, October 1942:
• Fang Family San Francisco Examiner Photo Archive, Finding Aid: