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masthead of the Rec and Park Departments newsletter 1953

While taking a course in San Francisco History at the University of San Francisco, D. Don Christianson became intrigued by the romance and legends that surround the city’s world-famous Sigmund Stern Grove. After considerable research he produced an excellent article on the Grove’s history. The following story is a synthesis of Mr. Christianson’s article with another written by Dan Frishman of the San Francisco Examiner.

From a cow pasture. to cantatas, from a roadhouse to Rigoletto is the history of Sigmund Stern Grove in brief. Before the Forty-Niners cast their shadow across the chronicle of California, the area was part of the pioneer homestead of the Greene family. It wasn’t much then, a big gully torn out of the wasteland by the brook that still babbles there.

In 1847 one George M. Greene of the State of Maine was advised by a friend of the family who was employed in the Government Service of the excellent farming and cattle lands open to homesteaders in Northern California. Greene and his wife came across the plains from Maine and took up a homestead on land near what is now 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard.

Greene’s brothers took up all available land from the end of his grant, comprising 160 acres, to the Pacific Ocean. Later he increased his holdings to 185 acres. The property adjoining his on the west comprised 320 acres and was owned by his brother, Alfred Greene, Another brother, John Greene, owned the property on the east. It was on Alfred Greene’s property that one of the first homes in San Francisco was built. This portable home was brought all the way across the Continent from Maine.

Where Wild Cattle Once Roamed

The country in 1847 was in its virgin state. There was a great deal of underbrush where wild cattle, rabbits, and coyotes roamed. Ducks were plentiful on the large, spring-fed lake (Pine Lake) which then extended into the heart of the property, but which is considerably smaller.

In the home of Alfred Greene was born the son of the original pioneer, George M. Greene. The son was named after his father.

The gold fever came in 1850 and affected the farming life and production of the early settlers, but only for a few years. The elder George Greene was not only a farmer but a miner, and he caught the fever. He continued intermittently as a prospector all his life. He also was one of the first oil men in California, commencing his activities in 1865.

In about 1871 young George Greene conceived the idea of planting their property with eucalyptus trees. The first eucalyptus seeds had been sent here from Australia by Bishop William Taylor. Greene’s father consented to this plan, and George carried it out, Later he further developed their land by planting "Holland grass" on the sand dunes to prevent their shifting with the wind.

A Legal Battle Was Won
In the early 60’s there was a grant of land known as the Rancho Laguna de la Merced in San Mateo County extending to what is now Daly City. This land, which was an original grant, was secured by one David Mahoney. His henchmen, prominent lawyers, R. L. Lloyd, H. E. Highton, and Sol A. Sharp, suggested that the grant be moved farther north to more desirable property. George Greene defeated them in the courts, and they appealed to Washington. Greene engaged prominent lawyers, Patterson and Snow, to defend his case before the United States Supreme Court. The Greenes lost their case and the land was open, which made the Greenes squatters.

Mahoney hired “red shirts” to drive the Greenes and other settlers from the property. The U. S. Marshal came to the Greenes and read the ruling whereby the land would have to be relinquished. The Greenes refused the order and hired a lawyer, Mastick, to secure an injunction.

In the meantime a fort was built on the land. The fort consisted of a fourteen-foot shed which was lined with metal. George Greene, Sr., George Greene, Jr., Leo Greene, and a Canadian who had been with Custer on the plains held the fort. To use Greene’s own words, "We were advised to shoot low, in the stomach, for it would take two men to carry them away."

The Greenes remained holding the fort for three months until a Special Act of Congress in 1887 was passed granting them the land.

In 1892 George M. Greene, Jr. conceived the idea of building a public hotel.

Trocadero Was “Spot” Of Its Time
It was called the “Trocadero” and it was the "spot" of its time, the rendezvous of the elite. Cabins were built around the hotel, and they were rented out to those who came there to spend week-ends. Many an old Spanish barbecue was held there. Many a spark of jealousy over a beautiful senorita was fanned into flames, and the bullets of one such may still be seen in the front door and hall stairs. The first man to live in the Trocadero was C.A. Hooper, a millionaire lumberman and donor of the Hooper Institute to the University of California. Then in 1903 Adolph Spreckels took it over for a short time. When he gave it up it was leased to Hiram Cook.

It was under Cook, prize fight referee and man-about-town, that the Trocadero reached the zenith of its glory. It was in great order then. The area had a deer park, a beer garden, an open-air dancing pavilion, a lake for rowing, and the finest trout farm in California.

Such noted characters as Dr. Frederick Cook, explorer of the North Pole Region, and David S. Terry (of duel fame) have lived on the property. The Trocadero Inn was Abe Ruef’s hideout when the Ruef-Schmitz machine was smashed after the 1906 fire.

Prohibition Closed The Trocadero
The Trocadero flourished until the advent of prohibition. To use George M. Greene’s own words, “I closed because of prohibition due to the fact that I did not want a bootlegger situation there.”

In 1931 George Greene was still living in the Trocadero when he sold his land to Mrs. Sigmund Stern. Mrs. Stern, searching for a fitting memorial to her late husband – a living monument that would carry on their lives’ work in civic service – hit upon the idea of buying the property. She had discovered its possibilities during her long friendship with John McLaren, San Francisco’s late, beloved Park Superintendent.

She turned it over to the people of San Francisco as a recreation site, deeding it in perpetuity to the city with the express provision that it would forever be used only for recreational purposes.

For this it had obvious advantages – shelter from prevailing winds and fog, unspoiled nature in close proximity to the heart of an expanding city.

The Grove Is Nature’s Music Box
Some additional possibilities soon became apparent. It was Nature’s music box. The terrain, with the help of the accidental sounding board created by the tall eucalyptus massed down the slopes, provided unusual acoustics. William Gladstone Merchant was the architect consulted on the development of the area as a playground and open-air concert place. A pavilion was designed and built. The Trocadero was re-conditioned and today stands virtually unchanged from the days when it was the famous roadhouse. Even the hand-painted wash bowls have been retained to this day.

On June 4, 1932, the city gratefully accepted the gift and the childish trebles of a playground chorus gave the first test to a musical center that now ranks among the world’s finest.

From that day’s inaugural stemmed a steady growth of the city’s musical reputation. For the first time San Francisco, the cultural heart of the Pacific Coast, had an outdoor center to vie in service to the people with Chicago’s Ravinia Park, St. Louis’s Forest Park and Hollywood’s Bowl.

Over the years the city augmented various gifts by Mrs. Stern so that today the entire Stern Grove area with the adjoining Pine Lake land is comprised of some 63 acres bounded by Sloat Boulevard on the south, Wawona Street on the north, 19th Avenue on the east and 34th Avenue on the west.

Retreat For The Harried City Dweller
As a quiet retreat for the harried city dweller, as a playground fit for childish dreams “The Grove” slowly prospered. Ferns were brought in, rocks were obtained from Miraloma Park, a driveway was built, the stream was diverted in order to make more ground for concerts, stone walls were built, trails were cut, and Pine Lake was partially filled in.

In 1938 Mrs. Stern rallied a group of equally civic minded citizens to form the Sigmund Stern Grove Music Festival Committee. With that support and impetus, the idea of a full summer season of music events, free to all, burgeoned into full life.

At first, attendance of 1,000 persons at any single performance was considered sensational. These days, however, it is not unusual to see 15,000 gathered on a sunny day. Last year’s attendance at the series of 15 programs - the first of which, “Carnival,” is produced by the playground children of the Recreation and Park Department – exceeded 175,000.

For these thousands “Sunday at the Grove” is an eagerly awaited summer event. They come in social groups, in clubs, as families en masse and alone. And always there, are the children, romping madly until the show begins and then owl-eyed at the marvels.

Varied Musical Fare Is Offered
Before concert time, “The Grove” teems with a multitude of other activities. There are informal luncheons, birthday parties - even a game or two of bridge on the picnic tables scattered under the forest cover.

There is no attempt to stuff the theories of any particular musical sect down the listeners’ throats. Operas presented, usually complete, have run the scale of taste from Gilbert and Sullivan to Verdi. Ballets include the traditional and the experimental. Orchestral concerts impartially schedule worthwhile musical comedy hits next to major works of the immortals.

“The Grove” is more than a home for outdoor music spectacles, as any moderately adventurous concert-goer will find if he wanders into its tracery of pathways above the wide meadow.

Just plain hiking has its unique pleasures amid the files of eucalypti, on lush turf banked with fuchsia and evergreens.

There Are Activities For Everyone
For the more organized athletic pastimes, there are lawn bowling and croquet courts, golf putting greens, tennis courts, horseshoe pits. Mothers have a relaxing space of their own, from where they can keep a watchful eye on the well equipped children’s playground.

Sunny weather brings the picnickers, and there are plenty of barbecue pits for them. In bad weather, there is the Trocadero. It is in heavy demand the year around by clubs and social organizations for dinners, parties and dances.

But the Summer Music Festival is the biggest attraction and as one music critic put it — accurately if lightly — the programs “are the only ones given hereabouts that can smell as good as they sound, thanks to the action of sunlight on wet eucalyptus trees.”

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