Facts & Fancies: A Unique Historical Newsletter
By Dewey Livingston
In a fortunate turn of events in the family, the east side of Mt. Tamalpais became my backyard when I was a teenager. Schoolwork suffered as I wandered all the trails and explored much of the terrain away from the trails. The mountain was practically vacant in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but occasionally I would run across older people, physically fit and sociable, hiking with an old rucksack and perhaps a carved stick. Combined with my interest in the old places marked on my trusty old-edition Harry Freese map, these elder mountain wanderers piqued my interest in the history of the mountain.
More than a decade later, when I was researching my first local history article (on the subject of the cabins and old road under Alpine Lake), I was given some sage advice from MMWD historian Bob Lethbridge: “You gotta meet Fred Sandrock!”
Dial the Larkspur number, on came a friendly voice: “Hello there!” Thus began a decades-long association and friendship with the inimitable Fred Sandrock, one of those hardy and talkative old hikers. And with that came an education in the history of “Auld Tam” as he called it.
Fred was a retired high school history and social sciences teacher: 36 years at Lincoln High in the Sunset District of San Francisco. A native of the City, Fred first climbed Mt. Tam as a Boy Scout around 1934 when he was 12. His father was Superintendent of Room Service at the Palace Hotel; Karl Sandrock personally served President Warren G. Harding his meals, Fred once revealed in one of his many letters (he was a big user of the U. S. Mail). Mt. Tamalpais was Fred’s escape and love, and he met many of the real old-timers of the mountain during his many years hiking there. Fred and Kay moved with their kids to Larkspur in 1969, allowing him unlimited access to the mountain.
Fred Sandrock’s legacy is his unfailing work in collecting and recording the history of Mt. Tamalpais, and his work is enshrined in his unforgettable newsletter, “Facts & Fancies,” published from 1984 into the 2000s. It was the brainchild and creative work of Fred’s but he was always generous in acknowledging his accomplices who provided information, illustrations and enthusiasm. Let’s step back a bit and explore the origins of that fanciful bulletin of facts — one with a lot of humor, news and trivia thrown in.
In 1980 Lincoln Fairley, a passionate Bay sailor with a Harvard PhD., teamed with Fred and some others to create the Mt. Tamalpais History Project. Born in 1903, Linc was a career union man of the Harry Bridges era — he was the longtime research director for the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union — but in contrast a sophisticated and genteel man. How Fred and Linc met I don’t recall (probably on the mountain), but they became a team in their passion for Mt. Tamalpais and its history.
The Mt. Tamalpais History Project served to collect, preserve and share the history of our landmark mountain, and “to call attention to events of interest relating to Mt. Tamalpais.” Charter members included Tamalpais historians Nancy Skinner, Ben Schmidt and Ted Wurm, botanist John Thomas Howell, author Dorothy Whitnah, educator-author John Douglas Forbes, firefighter Pete Martin, Geologist Salem Rice, and the Project’s longtime treasurer, Inge Erlandson.
In 1984, the MTHP published its first newsletter, a simple typed affair. Then, Fred Sandrock took over. With issue #4 in 1985 he named it “Facts & Fancies,” which became a much-loved and story-filled newsletter, one that is of great research value. San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist and Sausalito historian Phil Frank called Facts & Fancies “a little jewel.” Fred carefully typed the text, photocopied documents, and pasted it all up in the old way, for printing and stapling at a nearby print shop. Its arrival in the mailbox, in a white envelope generously marked with Fred’s favorite rubber stamps, was a happy day.
Fred Sandrock was especially interested in maps and the history of the dozens of trails and place names found all over the mountain. Who built the Benstein Trail, and who was Benstein anyway? Where was the Ziesche cabin, and who was he? Fred also was long fascinated with botany, especially the mountain’s trees, and his newsletter featured much about the natural history of the area. He mentored many younger Tam aficionados, including author-historian Barry Spitz, filmmaker-hiker Cris Chater, photographer-historian Brad Rippe, and myself. Chater, who created the popular documentary “Steaming Up Tamalpais,” recently recalled how Fred “was incredibly helpful with my film.”
Lincoln Fairley had been working on a definitive history of Mt. Tam, and in 1987 published the excellent Mt. Tamalpais: A History, still today the textbook of the mountain’s heritage. The book appeared on Marin County’s nonfiction bestseller list 30 times. Fairley died in 1989 — he had been looking forward to attending a MTHP hike to Camp Tucker only days away — and his old friend Fred wrote, “I’ll always remember your friendly serenity, your keen intelligence, and your humanitarian interest in all around you.” Only three months earlier, Fred had written to Linc, “We can look forward with pride to our tenth year, THANKS TO YOU!” At the time of his death, MTHP had 109 members, and continued to grow, for a while at least.
Let’s look over some of the memorable issues of Facts & Fancies. One recurring theme was the quest for the location of the Ziesche cabin. Edward Ziesche had built the cabin near the creek bearing his name between 1880 and 1890, and had been demolished in 1935. One of the Project’s most active members, Nancy Skinner, led the charge in a couple of articles that told of their failure to find it. Not until Phil Frank took up his metal detector — water district rules be damned — and located the spot four years later, producing one of his skillful and playful illustrations to recreate the scene.
Articles detailed the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle on the mountain, the background of the Mountain Play, descriptions of hikes and explorations of yore, the Mill Valley & Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway, and dozens of obscure historical tidbits. Beginning in 1987 Fred started a series on place names of the mountain, and once spent a couple of pages debating the validity of the moniker “Sleeping Maiden” given to Tam.
Fred and Linc were especially interested in the East Peak visitor registers (1880–1888), working to restore the damaged volumes (even bullet holes!). The registers had been in private hands for almost a century, and Lincoln Fairley opened delicate negotiations with the family who, after six years of cajoling, eventually relented on the promise that the registers would be restored and donated to the Mill Valley Library’s Lucretia Little History Room. Another register dating from the 1930s on West Peak was also a subject of interest.
Fred Sandrock’s deep interest in the trees of the mountain led to a number of articles, such as one noting the discovery of the largest Sargent cypress trees in the world. He often featured Alice Eastwood’s work, and titled an article “Invaders from Point Reyes — The Bishops are Coming!” about a rare grove of bishop pines east of the San Andreas Fault.
The MTHP hosted members’ history hikes, led by Fred and other members to “little known areas of historical intrigue.” Fred loved to point out landmarks like what he named “Romulus and Remus,” a pair of huge Douglas firs on the north side of the mountain, and had a special place in his heart for the majestic flowering dogwood on Cataract Creek. Fred’s longtime friend Brad Rippe recalled how Fred took to watering that dogwood tree. “He was so afraid of getting caught by the ranger, carrying buckets of water out of the creek!” Brad also remembers hiking with Fred as he engaged in a serious competition with longtime MMWD employee Jim Vitek over who knew more about the mountain’s history!
Fred led and documented (in Facts & Fancies) the MTHP’s project to open up the old Arturo Trail, which had connected the north and south sides of the mountain but had been closed off for operations of the Air Force base on West Peak. He wrote, “On the chaparral side of the Mountain lies the Alice Eastwood [trail]. It, like the Arturo & Rip Van Winkle, has been asleep too long…. Our talent scouts have found it rich in botanical & geological marvels. What was will be again!” Fred proudly led a members’ hike inaugurating the renewed trail.
By the early 2000s, Fred’s health began to fail and his friends pitched in with producing Facts & Fancies. Fred Sandrock died in 2004, leaving the Mt. Tamalpais History Project bereft of its major force and personality. Carl Nolte of the Chronicle wrote of Fred in an obituary, “the real passion of his life was his affection for Mount Tamalpais, a peak he first climbed 70 years ago when he was a Boy Scout.” Following Fred’s death, the history project continued bravely, but everyone was busy and it eventually disbanded. Its primary legacy is Facts & Fancies, a delightful and insightful journal of everything Tam. And anyone who knew Fred can still hear his friendly voice calling across a ridge: “Hello there!”