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May 19, 2020

In the Library: Uncovering History, A Motorcycle Diary

We want to give you a glimpse into the world of the CHS researcher.

Every year hundreds of people—students, academics, writers, filmmakers, genealogists, historians and people simply interested in history—come to the North Baker Research Library at the California Historical Society looking for answers to their questions. They know that somewhere in the CHS vaults there may be a letter or a photograph that contains the information they are seeking, or a clue that will lead them to a new and perhaps different path.

Each week we will post a piece from a different writer about their experience—what they were seeking and, in particular, what they discovered. Without them, and without the thousands of manuscripts, photographs, maps, books, periodicals, and ephemera that make up the CHS collection, how many California histories would remain hidden, out of sight, and perhaps out of mind?  We collect history so that each generation can examine and learn from these valuable primary sources.

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In the Library: Uncovering History, A Motorcycle Diary

Intro

I was first introduced to Gary Kurutz by CHS’s former Manuscripts Archivist, Marie Silva. At that time, I was in awe of his knowledge about nearly every aspect of California’s history, from pre-colonization through the Spanish and Mexican periods, and on through American statehood. Now, after having had the pleasure of knowing him for a number of years and watching him in action at the Rare Book School, I am equally in awe of his generosity and kindness, his intense love of books, and his willingness to share all that he knows about California and the West.

Gary, and his wonderful wife, KD, are regulars in the research library and I am thrilled that he is writing about an item that was actually acquired in his role as director of the California Historical Society Library. The clothbound book, just one of hundreds of diaries, logbooks, and journals in the California Historical Society collection, documents in detail a motorcyclist’s journeys around the Bay Area.

– Frances Kaplan, Reference Librarian at California Historical Society

“Roaring Around the San Francisco Bay Area on a Fickle Motorcycle Named “Goat” as Recorded in the 1909–1911 Manuscript Logbook of Walter Brooks” by Gary F. Kurutz

Cover, Log book of the Belgian F.N. four cylinder motorcycle Goat owned by Walter Brooks, 1909 Mar. 14-1911 July 9; MS 3041

One of the most unusual manuscripts found in the California Historical Society Library’s great treasure trove of handwritten documents is the “Log Book of the Belgian F.N. Four Cylinder Motorcycle ‘Goat’ owned by Walter Brooks.” The logbook also includes a photograph of his motorbike and illustrations of its engine and other details. What makes this so exciting is that there are many handwritten journals and diaries generated by the pioneers documenting overland journeys and sea voyages and even firsthand accounts by motorists narrating their trips in Model T’s, and other early motorcars, but a handwritten logbook of adventures on a motorbike is a true rarity. Brooks, who lived at 1717 Sutter Street in San Francisco’s lower Pacific Heights, purchased his motorcycle on June 26, 1907 and gave it the curious name of “Goat.” However, in his logbook he simply referred to his mechanical mount as “F.N.” As shown by his entries, Brooks rode “F. N.” for pleasure taking twenty-seven day or weekend trips roaring around the Bay Area. One can only imagine what his neighbors and others thought as they would see and hear him whiz by on city streets and country roads clutching the handlebars and squeezing the metal frame with his legs.

Log book of the Belgian F.N. four cylinder motorcycle Goat owned by Walter Brooks, 1909 Mar. 14-1911 July 9; MS 3041

Infused with a new sense of freedom, Brooks loved to explore the Bay Area riding his “car on two wheels” down the Peninsula to Redwood City; across the Bay through Oakland to San Jose, or northward by ferry to Sausalito to enjoy the delights of Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties including the Russian River country. He described in detail road conditions, scenery, other motorcyclists, and where he stopped for lunch or an occasional beer. The left-hand side of his log book included space to note distances traveled, expenses, towns passed through, and reasons for stopping. His first recorded outing took place on March 14, 1909, when he crossed San Francisco Bay by ferry and then motored from Oakland eastward to Dublin or Dublin Corner as he called it. His total expenses for the day amounted to sixty cents which included the ferry trip, gas, lunch in Lafayette, and beer in Dublin. One of his most ambitious outings started at dawn on July 2, 1911, with the goal of visiting Mt. Hamilton and the Lick Observatory with its famous telescope. The motorcyclist scrawled into his logbook a detailed three-page account writing, “At Smith’s Creek [San Mateo County] I had a beer and went on the final seven miles with its 265 turns many of them true hairpin turns and began to see scattered rock along the road that had been shaken down by the earthquake of the day before.” An exhausted Brooks made it to the observatory at 11:35 a.m. and met with Alvin Clark, a staff member who showed him the damage to the delicate astronomical instruments caused by the seismic event. From there, he spun down the mountain and reached San Jose by 4:00 where he had a late lunch. Experiencing enough excitement, he hopped on “F. N.” and made it back home to Sutter Street at 7:52 p.m., finishing an adventure of 155 miles.

March 14, 1909 entry, Log book of the Belgian F.N. four cylinder motorcycle Goat owned by Walter Brooks; MS 3041

 

Expense account, Log book of the Belgian F.N. four cylinder motorcycle Goat owned by Walter Brooks, MS 3041

However, the joy of these adrenalin pumping sightseeing trips did have a downside. Virtually every entry features some sort of mechanical problem as his 363cc air-cooled inline four-cylinder marvel frequently broke down or balked at having to climb into the bucolic foothills near San Jose which required the very patient Brooks to use “a good deal of leg work” to reach his destination. Even the comparatively mild slope of Sutter Street forced him to walk his beloved but frustrating motorbike home. Fortunately, as well documented in the logbook, Brooks possessed instinctive mechanical skills and patience with “F. N.”, and managed to make it back home having to stay overnight in a hotel only once. It seemed, too, that “F. N.” had an unquenchable thirst for motor oil. Other times, he had to stop and clean spark plugs, adjust the carburetor, or repair a flat tire. At one point, on a trip to Half Moon Bay, he had to be towed by a buggy. Occasionally, too, he noted that some of the turns were dangerous when a horse-drawn wagon or a flivver (Model T Ford) made for close calls or near smash ups. A couple of times, the more appropriately named “Goat” bounced him off of the “compound spring saddle” of his Belgian.

His last entry was made on July 9, 1911, recording a trip with a friend to San Andreas Lake and its dam near Millbrae and San Bruno in San Mateo County. His buddy owned a more reliable and speedier Indian motorcycle. True to form, Brooks encountered much trouble as they returned back to San Francisco, writing: “I had trouble with the carburetor and had to make two tries at a grade but we got back all right and I guess this was about the last long ride I took on the old F. N. as I sold it shortly after this.” Nonetheless, his odometer recorded that he had put 6,205 miles on “F. N.” and it gave him many pleasurable days of adventure bounding over the roads and trails of the San Francisco Bay Area.

[Photograph of “Goat”], Log book of the Belgian F.N. four cylinder motorcycle Goat owned by Walter Brooks; MS 3041
 

About the author

Gary Kurutz is a former Library Director of the North Baker Research Library at the California Historical Society. He has held positions as Head Librarian at the Sutro Library and Bibliographer of Western Americana at the Huntington Library, and served as Director of the Special Collections Branch of the California State Library in Sacramento from 1980 through 2017. In 2018 he was awarded the Hubert Howe Bancroft award from the Friends of the Bancroft Library for his “significant achievements in support of historical research and scholarship.” Gary has published extensively as the author, editor, or contributor to dozens of articles and books on California history, including The California Gold Rush: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets Covering the Years 1848-1853, and California Calls You: The Art of Promoting the Golden State (with KD Kurutz). He is currently working on a bibliography of the Yukon Territory and the Klondike Gold Rush and continues to instill his love of books through classes at the California Rare Book School.