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San Leandro Historical Society Column: The Webber House

The Webber House is the answer to yesterday's Then and Now question. Mary Hortense Webber was a pioneer who ran a hotel and boarding house for almost half a century in San Leandro.

Pioneer Mary Webber and the Webber House

Today, Marymount Villa on the southeast corner of Clarke and Davis Streets is home to seniors, but from the 1850s until well into the 20th century, residents of all ages lived in a building known for most of its existence as the Webber House. 

The Webber House was built around 1857 by C. B. Tool, the same contractor who built the Alameda County Courthouse across the street. It was a saloon and hotel catering to those coming from the far corners of Alameda County to the courthouse and to some county employees who boarded at the hotel. In its early years, it was the Tool Building, then the Beatty Hotel, but by 1862, Charles Webber owned it and called it the Webber House. For almost half a century, it was owned and operated by his widow Mary Webber. Her management of the property is a reminder that, although it was unusual for women to own and operate businesses in the 19th century, there were many strong and independent pioneers who did just that.

The Story of Mary Webber

Mary Hortense Lyman was born in Albany, New York in 1832. She married Tomlinson Hawkins around 1850. The young couple headed to California soon after, probably joining a wagon train to cross the plains in 1853. They settled in a pretty little valley east of San Leandro, a valley now covered by the . They had three daughters by the time tragedy struck in 1862.

The passions aroused by the enslavement of African Americans, the secession of the southern states, and the Civil War were not confined to the battlefields of the east. In California, some men joined the military and served throughout the war in the western states; others made their way back east to join regiments. Tomlinson Hawkins was determined to join a Union regiment of his native state, Ohio. 

He started his journey back east in 1862, boarding the steamer Golden Gate to carry him to the Isthmus of Panama. The steamer caught fire off the coast of Mazatlan. Strong surf, a powerful undertow, and a stormy sea prevented almost 200 of the ship’s 242 passengers and 96 crew from reaching the shore, and Tomlinson Hawkins was one of the missing. 

Married and Widowed Again 

Mary and her daughters moved to Davis Street, where she rented a house from Charles W. Webber and started a boarding house. In 1863, she and Mr. Webber married. Her granddaughter writes, “I believe that Mary Hortense was deeply in love with Mr. Webber.  Judging from the few times I heard her talk of him, he must have been a kindly man who helped her settle with her little girls into the house on Davis Street that he rented to her…” 

Mary was pregnant with a son when Mr. Webber suddenly passed away in 1864. Mary was once again a widow, now with four children.

By 1865, Mary and the children had moved to the Webber House hotel. Mary converted the saloon into a sitting room, and took over the operation of the boarding house and hotel. She would manage it for almost a half a century.

The Webber House Survives the 1868 Earthquake – But Not Intact

Early in the morning of October 21, 1868, a massive earthquake at the southern end of the Hayward Fault caused major damage throughout the area. In San Leandro, a county clerk was killed when the county courthouse collapsed.

Mrs. Webber’s boarding house, like the courthouse across the street, was built of brick. When the earthquake struck, Mary’s daughter Sara, who was fourteen years old at the time, felt something propel her forward as she was passing from the kitchen into the back garden, and she saw the entire back wall collapse to the ground.

But no one in the house was injured. The front walls held up, probably because the wide wooden veranda along two sides of the front of the building gave support to the brick walls.

Other Memories from the Webber House

Catherine McCoy Retallick, the granddaughter of Mrs. Webber, wrote a short family history called “The Webbers and McCoys”, published in the San Leandro Recollections. The McCoy family alternated living in Santa Barbara and San Leandro, often spending months and years with “dear grandmother Webber”.

Catherine remembers wandering over to Miss Nellie Sturdevant’s kindergarten, where she was given colored paper to weave into a mat. The Sturdevants occupied the home at 384 West Estudillo (the site of today’s ), just down Clarke Street from the Webber House. 

Catherine also remembers a third grade teacher who “frightened her to death” at San Leandro Grammar School. She was reputed to strap you if you missed three spelling words. But Catherine’s kindly second grade teacher, Miss O’Donnell, was so beloved that some of her students didn’t want to be promoted because it would mean leaving her class.

Catherine believes her grandmother Mrs. Webber gave up keeping boarders around 1890 because of difficulty walking.  Other sources say Mrs. Webber operated the hotel until she died in 1915. Either way, Mrs. Webber should be remembered as a San Leandro pioneer who contributed her skills and management to the development of early San Leandro.

If you would like to read more about the Webbers and the musical McCoys, check out "San Leandro Recollections", Volume 2, from the San Leandro Library.

Don't miss the free San Leandro Historical Society Open House at the Little Brown Church on Saturday, August 11 from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.  Visit www.sanleandrohistory.org for more information.

Pat Davis August 02, 2012 at 07:27 PM
What an interesting account of early San Leandro. I have "A Garden Grows in Eden" and the 1964 St. Leanders Centennial history but had never heard the story of Mrs. Webber et. all. Thank you for sharing it. How fortunate that someone had the forsight to make it available.
Cindy Simons August 02, 2012 at 09:42 PM
Pat, you may be interested in other San Leandro Historical Society columns on Patch, such as the ones about William Heath Davis and Anthony Chabot. I'm glad you enjoyed Mrs. Webber's story.

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