Thomas Samuel (T.S.) Hawkins: A highly interesting and busy life

Thanks to the efforts of T.S. Hawkins' great-great grandson and New York Times’ best-selling author, Dave Eggers, the story of one of San Benito County's founding fathers is now more accessible
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In the Spring of 1904, Thomas Samuel (T.S.) Hawkins of Hollister sat down at his granddaughter Hazel’s grave site and wrote a poem expressing the grief and sorrow that still weighed so heavily on his heart after her loss. The poem of six stanzas begins, “They told me when you went away/That time would kindly soothe my grief,/That fleeting days and passing years/And changing scenes would bring relief/.” It concludes, “That all the world is desolate,/My aching heart is empty yet,/And whatsoever may me betide,/I cannot, if I would forget.

Preserving Hazel’s memory became his passion, and he later stated, his greatest achievement—a remarkable assertion from a man whose humble beginnings in Missouri contrasted sharply with the gilded headed cane he once received for simultaneously serving as the president for four San Benito County companies.

For more than 100 years, the details of Hawkins’ life story has mainly been known to his descendants. In 1913, Hawkins privately had published his autobiography, “Some Recollections of a Busy Life.” Three hundred copies were distributed among family and friends. 

The book’s release garnered local headlines. “Interesting Memories of Busy Life Written by T.S. Hawkins,” read the front page of the Hollister Free Lance on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 1913. The article described the book as, “a highly interesting account…of 160 pages, with a heavy red cloth cover, and deckled with gilded edges at one end.” 

Generations of Hawkins’ kin have thumbed through pages of the heirloom, but now, thanks to the efforts of his great-great grandson and New York Times’ best-selling author, Dave Eggers, Hawkins’ story is now more accessible.

Eggers, the author of such books as, “A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius” and “What is the What?,” recently re-issued 2,000 copies of the Hawkins’ work through his publishing company, McSweeney’s. 

On the evening of Dec.9, Eggers concluded his day-long visit to Hollister by speaking to a standing-room-only crowd assembled at the San Benito Historical Society Museum on Fifth Street in Hollister. Some who attended were there to see their favorite author, while others came for a history lesson. None left disappointed.

When explaining the reason for the book’s second act, Eggers stated to the crowd it was “time to get the real story (of Hollister) out again,” a reference to apparel company Abercrombie and Fitch's use of the town’s name for the marketing campaign for its Hollister Co. line.

Eggers explained that above the mantle of his childhood home in Chicago was Hawkins’ rifle—the shot of which, Hawkins’ writes in “Some Recollections of Busy Life,” was more often used as a fireplace igniter than for sport. Eggers was 17 years old when he first encountered his “great-great granddaddy’s” story, adding that Hawkins’ life lifted from the page, becoming “much more concrete and vivid” for the teen.

In addition, reading the words penned by a distant relative made writing as career more of an option for the future acclaimed author.

T.S. Hawkins’ life began on a Missouri farm in March of 1836. Idyllic and short on amenities, his youth consisted of shearing sheep for clothing, taking the family’s corn to the miller’s stone, and “tending the gap”—opening and closing interlocking sections of fence during the harvesting season that allowed for wagons to pass through, while making sure livestock didn’t follow.

Attending school broke up the monotony for the young Missourian, who by his account couldn’t recall a time when he “could not pick out words in the weekly newspaper.”

In 1852, Hawkins left his family and traveled to Cynthiana, KY, where he lived with his paternal grandfather and attended an academy. For a teen who never ventured far from home, the trip to the Bluegrass State was both scary and exhilarating. And aboard a steamship he watched the ebb and flow of life along the Mississippi River. 

For three years, Hawkins was a student of the Harrison Academy, according to the Harrison County Historical Society of Cynthiana. During his time there, he delved into Latin and English grammar and literature, studying for hours and reading voraciously. He took up boxing, too. But more out of necessity than as an extra-curricular activity.

As the new kid on campus, he was picked on by an older classmate, until finally the two brawled. Hawkins lost the first and second match. But in a theme repeated throughout, “Some Recollections of a Busy Life,” Hawkins never lacked for grit in any of his endeavors. His schoolmates gave him some pointers and he practiced. By the third match, the Missouri teen prevailed. “I reached the point of his chin,” Hawkins wrote of his nemesis, “and he was down for good.”

Between academic terms, Hawkins returned home, where he became a teacher. The money he earned paid for his tuition.

In his last year in school, he considered pursuing a career in literature, writing poems that were often published by a newspaper in Louisville. Hawkins included a sample of his work in his autobiography not for literary criticism, but so that those in the family tree would have a better understanding of him. “I wish my children, grandchildren, and their descendants to know…every phase of my life and character,” he stated.

After completing his studies at the Harrison Academy, Hawkins returned to teaching in Missouri. Attracted to the school’s lucrative pay of $35 per month, he took over a class of unruly students. The honeymoon period with his pupils lasted about a week. Sensing a mutiny, Hawkins purposely provoked a confrontation with the ring-leader one day. Before the boy could react, Hawkins threw the student to the floor, pummeling him with a stick until the boy agreed to behave.

When the school year ended, Hawkins took another teaching position that paid $100 per month. The students at this school behaved well, however they spoke only German, hence the reason for the added pay. 

A master of language, Hawkins struggled at understanding and comprehending not only his students but the medical books that lined his bookshelves. He had decided to pursue a medical career, too, learning anatomy and physiology from stale tomes. Mentally and physically drained, Hawkins retired his teaching assignment and medical aspirations.

With a couple of hundred dollars, Hawkins returned to Missouri. He soon found a new pursuit—opening a country store. He built the store with the help of a local carpenter. The 19-year-old then procured much of his inventory on credit.

In 1858, he married his first wife, Catherine. She stayed with his parents while he tended the store, often sleeping there at night to prevent break-ins.

By 1860, Catherine’s health began declining. A doctor advised a milder climate, and so the Hawkins’ clan made plans to head west for California. Four covered wagons carried a group of twenty that included Hawkins, Catherine, their infant son, Thomas, as well as Hawkins’ parents, siblings, and the wagon’s drivers.

The 2,000-mile journey lasted six months. The caravan averaged about 20 miles per day. For much of the trip, Hawkins walked.

During the first week, Hawkins was injured when trying to prevent the wagon, carrying his young family, from tipping over. Apparently, he suffered a hematoma. In “Some Recollections of a Busy Life," he describes his treatment from a doctor whose medical training and experience was honed on battlefields of the U.S.-Mexican War.

“He was an army doctor,….and as were traveling…like soldiers, he would treat me as he would soldiers,” wrote Hawkins. The pressure was relieved after his vein was lanced, but the loss of blood left him weak. He convalesced in a wagon for a few days and slowly recovered.

Traveling along the open prairie was serene and the land plentiful, the livestock grazing on endless stretches of grass. Along the way, Hawkins encountered Native Americans displaced by the United States’ policy of Manifest Destiny. He was in awe of one tribe, but felt another was a band of thieves. Sensing trouble, the men of Hawkins’ party rotated as sentries form much of the trip’s duration. But, fortunately, nothing befell the travelers.

As the group moved farther west, it found scars on the prairie floor that told of a frenzied migration to California more than a decade earlier.

For a man who was raised to take only what one needed to survive, the scene spoke of gluttony and carelessness. “The stumps and half rotten logs told the tale of vandalism,” he said, especially when the axe wielder “knew that in the years to follow thousands…would…need the timber.”

The ascent and descent over the Rocky Mountains was uneventful, save for the majestic mountain sheep that outwitted the aptly named nimrods who tried in vain to snare the animals.

Arriving in Salt Lake City, the caravan was greeted by Mormons, who Hawkins observed with a degree of curiosity and humor. Witnessing polygamy for the first time, he said the men usually fared better than the women, as the former “looked fat and happy, while all the women looked tired and careworn.” But upon traveling past Brigham Young’s house, he had second thoughts.

Young was said to have more than 40 wives and nearly a hundred children. “Poor old man,” Hawkins wrote of the Mormon leader. “What a time he must have had, and just think of the dresses and hats…for so many women. Think of the shoes, socks, knickerbockers, and dresses for” his children, “no wonder the old man died.”

Leaving Mormon country, the party crossed into the Nevada desert and entered Carson City. From here, it traversed over the Sierra into California. Hawkins and Catherine traveled on horseback during this leg of the trip. A grizzly encounter near Lake Tahoe and the lack of free pasture land marked the group’s arrival to the West. All had arrived safely, a sign to Hawkins that providence was on their side.

Hawkins and his family reached their destination on Sept., 13, 1860. He, his wife, and child stayed in Mountain View near his sister-in-law, while his parents continued to Gilroy. Never idle, Hawkins decided to become a farmer. Tilling soil in the Bay Area was quite different than being a plow boy in Missouri. Never short on determination, Hawkins was willing to learn and succeed. “If one has the brains and perseverance, he wrote, “he can overcome all obstacles.”

Spending his savings on the new endeavor, Hawkins purchased provisions for his home on credit. He counted his pristine credit record “among the assets towards whatever success” he achieved in life. Finding an opportunity to dispense with financial advice, the future banker added, “Credit is an absolute necessity, but never be used to excess.”

Catherine’s health problems resurfaced, so Hawkins decided to relocate to Gilroy. Tragedy struck in December 1861, as Hawkins’ wife never fully recovered. Hawkins described his heartbreak in “Some Recollections of a Busy Life:” “Only those who have lost the companion of their young manhood can know the utter darkness that can come…that the world has come to an end, so far as one’s life is concerned.”

Leaving his infant son with his parents, Hawkins purchased some land and tried farming his way out of grief. But the winter rains flooded his home and fields. True to form, Hawkins persevered. Harvesting hay and grain, he slowly prospered. A new love entered his life, too. 

In 1863, he married Emma Day, who eventually bore him three more sons and one daughter.

Within a few years, Hawkins’ financial situation began to improve, too. 

“In 1867, he rented a thousand acres of land at San Felipe and from this time on Dame Fortune began to smile on him,” the Free Lance reported in the piece on his book’s released in 1913.

Hawkins’ footprint on what would become San Benito County had begun.

The next year Hawkins and 49 other farmers formed the San Justo Homestead Association. The organization pooled their money together and purchased 21,000 acres from Col. W.W. Hollister, who owned a portion of a former Spanish land grant called San Justo.

The purchase price was $400,000, a quarter of which was paid by the association. Each member then received an equal parcel, while agreeing to set aside 100 acres for a future town site. As blocks and streets were delineated, so, too, were lots of various sizes.

Hawkins was called upon to serve as the organization’s secretary and manager, overseeing the selling of the town’s lots from which the remainder of the association’s balance to Hollister would be financed. Over time, he developed a personal relationship with Hollister. “One of the noblest men I ever knew,” Hawkins’ wrote of Hollister.

The adoration was cemented in the town’s name that Hawkins helped to build. 

Realizing that constructing a city required an infrastructure to generate and sustain growth, Hawkins and others established the Bank of Hollister, and a water and gas company. As Hollister became the “Hay Capital of World,” Hawkins purchased a warehouse along a stretch of railway, where tons of feed could be stored awaiting transport. The Hollister Warehouse Company solidified his stake in four San Benito Companies.

Hawkins spent time in the political arena, too, lobbying the California state legislature and local residents to vote in favor of establishing San Benito County. “After a hard fight…and struggle,” he explained, the county was formed in February 1874 with Hollister as its seat.

Hawkins managed to find a little leisure time, traveling east and visiting the places of his youth and some of the nation’s largest cities, including New York and Washington, D.C.

The picturesque scenery of his childhood was marred by the Civil War, as burned-out homes and countless gravestones blackened the land. 

The trip to Cynthiana lifted his spirits, for he discovered that many former classmates had become successful businessmen, congressmen, judges, and doctors. “I don’t think I have ever known or heard of so many men out of a class of one hundred who rose to some prominence in life,” he wrote.

On his return home aboard a train, he reflected on the journey that brought him west in 1860. Rail lines crisscrossed the land once stamped with wagon ruts. Cities sprang from territory once claimed by Native Americans. The United States was slowly shedding the yoke of an agricultural economy and becoming an industrial powerhouse—a new age had dawned and Hawkins was living it.

Arriving back in Hollister, Hawkins ventured into more business opportunities, accumulating a degree of wealth that was perhaps unrivaled in Hollister, an irony considering that while growing up, money was absent from the Hawkins’ household, where goods were bartered and not bought.

But Hawkins’ success was overshadowed by a personal loss from which he never fully recovered.

In 1902, his granddaughter, Hazel Hawkins, died of appendicitis, casting a long, dark shadow over the home that she and her parents shared with her grandparents, T.S. and his wife. Hazel had become Hawkins’ constant companion and her death devastated him.

The poem written at her grave site two years later encapsulated his feelings, and apparently exposed a side of him hidden from the public. 

“Close association of T.S. Hawkins, the practical banker, have found on more occasions than one, that the hard headed business man is eminently human,” the Free Lance reported on Sept. 23, 1913. Adding that the poem written to Hazel, which appeared in the article, “serves to reveal a kindly and affectionate nature and a deep love for his family.”

One member of the community was so moved by Hawkins’ heartfelt prose that he wrote a poem in hopes of alleviating the man’s grief. “An Answer to Mr. T.S. Hawkins” by Reverend E.S. Farrand appeared on Page 2 of the newspaper on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 1913.

In rhythmic religious tone and meter, the pastor explains that Hazel now rests besides God in Heaven, “safe from all that harms.” And her short life and passing were all part of a divine plan. And one day, Farrand writes, Hawkins will be reunited with his beloved granddaughter, but until then he must wait to “meet her there.” 

Leaving the cemetery that day in 1904, Hawkins committed himself to building a hospital in her memory. Plans were drawn and no expense was spared on what would become Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital.

On Nov. 23, 1907 a dedication ceremony for the hospital’s opening was held on its front steps. The air was moist and the sky clear, signaling an end to a week of rain. The crowd quieted as Hawkins began to speak. “The great work of my life,” he said of the state-of-art medical facility.

He then spoke of the building’s inspiration.

“For a few short years she was given us to be the joy and sunshine of our home” he said of Hazel (her radiant spirit had earned her the nickname, “Little Sunshine”). “And all her little life she went about doing good—carrying the sunshine of her presence to little girls who were sick, helping the poor, as far as she could,” he added.

Hawkins was 78 years old when “Some Recollections of a Busy Life” was published. In the book’s introduction, he stated that the general public may not find it interesting, but he hoped that his descendants may find it of some value.

At the conclusion of his presentation at the San Benito County Historical Society Museum on Dec. 9, author Dave Eggers explained that not only does he believe that his great-great grandfather’s autobiography is a priceless piece of his family’s history, but it serves as example to others to record and document their own family’s stories and experiences. “Put something down on paper,” he urged the crowd of fans and history buffs.

Skip Lord, a native of Hollister and a Hawkins’ descendant who was in attendance, praised Eggers’ zeal in re-issuing T.S. Hawkins’ book. “Dave’s really interested in this,” he said. Adding, “he (Dave) doesn’t want” Hawkins’ story finding its way “into a corner in a cardboard box.”

At the end of “Recollections of a Busy Life” is T.S. Hawkins’ personal motto. It speaks of love for family and friends, and the need to use one’s life for good. “I love it,” Eggers said of the credo. “It’s a good model for anyone.”

And because of Eggers, people outside the family circle can now read it.

To purchase a copy of T.S. Hawkins' re-printed autobiography, "Recollections of a Busy Life," click here.

San Benito Historical Society
498 Fifth Street
Hollister, CA 95023
Phone: (831) 635-0335
www.sbchistoricalsociety.org

Research Room–498 Fifth St.
Open on second Monday each month
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
info@sbchistoricalsociety.org

Wapple House Museum–498 Fifth St.
Open by appointment
Phone: (831) 635-0335

Historic Park–8300 Airline Highway
Open daily: Dawn to dusk
donpidd@svn.net

 

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Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. I’m embarking on my 19th year at San Benito High School, where I teach world history and Mexican-American history. In addition, I'm moonlighting as a freelance journalist for BenitoLink. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.