John Harwood Pierce: Ranger of
the Plains

  Biography:     Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5     Part 6    
  Genealogy:     1st     2nd     3rd     4th     5th     6th     7th     8th    

Stella Mae Pierce Childhood Recollections
An Autobiographical Account

I was born in Oakland, California on May 12, 1918. My mother was Johanna (Jennie) Dorathea Pierce (born Schoofs). Mother was 35 years old at the time of my birth. My father was John Harwood Pierce, Minister of the Christian Church, Civil War veteran, Indian fighter, poet, lecturer, inventor, and editor. Father was 70 years old at the time of my birth, and Jennie was his fifth wife.

My earliest recollection is living with my mother in a rooming house in Oakland when I was two or three years old. I have described this place to Mother in detail, and she was amazed at my vivid memory at that early age. What implanted the picture of the place was the trauma I felt one day, waking from a nap, to find myself alone. I cried, as any child would do, but the sense of abandonment was so profound. I felt my mother had left me never to return, and the imprint of that entire house and, in particular, that front corner room, is etched in my memory. Of course Mother had only gone to the corner store and was soon back.

At that time, I believe my brother was living with my father. I'm not sure, for Mother would never speak of the past. If questioned, she would become upset and say she did not want to talk about it--so I never persisted. Shortly thereafter, Mother and I went to Hawaii where, I believe, my father and brother were already living. I understand we lived there about two years. But I do not know if we lived together or not. I have no recollection of the four of us ever living together as a family at any time.

I have only one recollection of Hawaii. One day I wandered from home through back yards, where I saw an Hawaiian family standing around a table in the back yard, eating two-finger poi. They offered me some...I ate it, and reacted to flavor--something like soured cream of wheat. I roamed through a Chinese-owned store, and observed--through a curtain of strings of seed-beads separating the front of the store from the back--the family eat rice with chopsticks, their deft manipulations as they held the bowl up to their lips. I walked on to the center of a large, quiet building, where I found a sandpile which delighted me. I played quietly for a while. Then pandemonium broke loose: bells rang and school children poured forth from all sides; one of the teachers took me home.

My next memory is when I was four years old. My father had me by the hand and was walking with me around the area adjacent to Sawtelle Soldiers Home in West Los Angeles, looking for a place for me to stay. We approached a house (this picture is so vivid!) that was a half-block from the business district, a grey duplex set back but a few feet from the street and surrounded by hard-packed earth--not one green plant growing anyplace. An unsmiling woman of severe countenance in black widow's weeds invited us in. She was Mrs. Mitchell, and I stayed with her for a while. Her house was as dark and cheerless as her sorrowing soul.

After staying with Mrs. Mitchell, I remember living with a pleasant widow, Mrs. Arnold. I also remember living with a couple named Powell, and others whose names I cannot remember. My father would come to make payment--that's all. I never remember him staying and talking or playing with me. I never saw my mother. I understand from later conversations with Mother that she was boarding with people (most likely she was in a sanitorium) while my bother Melvin was boarding with the Governor of the Sawtelle Soldiers Home. Melvin and I never discussed these years because he wouldn't talk about them. I've always been interested and curious, but would never press where I felt a sense of reluctance.

I never remember living with other children at this time. I was quite withdrawn and malnourished. I can remember that the school sent me someplace for weekly vitamin injections.

When I was six-and-a-half there came a time when my father could not find a place for me to stay. He was employed at that time by the L.A. Abassador Hotel as Santa Claus, and they advertised the Ambassador as the year-round home of Santa Claus. I remember my father's beautiful bejewled red velvet and real fur suit, which he wore only at Christmas time. Around the Ambassador, I remember he wore regular suits. He looked like Buffalo Bill Cody. He also had a buckskin Indian fighter suit and a complete Union Civil War uniform with saber, muzzle-loader and all. I stayed there with my father for some days--my father's room was just above the Coconut Grove and I would stay awake at night as long as Morpheus would let me, listening to the absolutely marvelous music of the orchestra. I've always been extremely fond of music.

One day, my father received a notice from the Ambassador management that his daughter could not spend one more day with Santa Claus! (You can imagine what it was doing to his image. I believe my father was to make himself available to the children in the Ambassador park and playground areas, to amuse them with stories and such. So began, once again, the repetitiion of the long-accustomed trek from door to door, church to church, in search of a place for me to stay.

This time we ended up in an office. I waited in an anteroom for my father. Shortly, a friendly woman took me into an office. The bumpy glass on the door that I could not see through fascinated me. Inside, she told me of a place she was going to take me where I would have lots of children to play with and swings, slides, etc. I questioned: did it have a green lawn I could play on? Yes, it had! I was ecstatic! I remember the ride in her Model T. It was joyful and animated. I was overwhelmed and perplexed when we arrived to find a huge brick building which, sure enough, had a beautiful green front lawn. Soon I was being ushered from one officious person to the next, bathed, inspected, checked, then ushered into a dormitory. At the first opportunity, I searched out the swings and slides. I had to wade through a crust of dust about three inches thick to get to them--nothing green in slight, only a tall, solid, unpainted, weathered fence surrounding huge dry dirt plots. A wire fence separated our play area from another clear dirt area. I looked over into this yard and up to voices I heard above. They were from young boys in their teens--behind bars. I learned I was in Juvenile Hall!

There was a pleasant lady that came each Sunday with a portable organ, and we sang songs that I came to love, and what's more, she brought cookies. At night, I remember the matron, Mrs. Radigan, hard as nails, and the song the girls used to sing:

"At ten o'clock in the morning,
Miss Radigan comes along,
With a piece of bread and butter,
That tastes like alcohol.
The cocoa tastes like turpentine,
The bread is mighty stale,
But that's the way they treat you
At Juvenile County Jail."

One day, we were all given intelligence tests. That was exciting fun. I enjoyed that. And I remember the buzzing of conversation at the breakfast table the next morning among a few of the older girls who had helped and bits of conversation I overheard which made me think I must have done quite well.

Then I was placed in a home in the 1900 block of 54th Street in L.A. with a rather cruel, strict woman named Mrs. Arnt. She had other children from "The Hall" in her care. I was so timid and withdrawn at that time that I was afraid to tell Mrs. Arnt that I couldn't stand the taste of the daily sandwich she made me of rye bread and peanut butter. I would just throw it in the trash when I got to school and sit by myself at noon time. One day, I was sent by the teacher to a school doctor to remove a fingernail from my infected right index finger. My third grade teacher (I was placed in the first grade at age five), Mrs. Wisebard, was sufficiently concerned to ask Mrs. Arnt if I could spend a few days with her so that her sister, a nurse, could take care of my finger. I learned of this when I gave Mrs. Arnt an envelope my teacher had asked me to give her. What a tongue-lashing I got! Why hadn't I told her about my finger...she could have pulled the nail out, etc.

Mrs. Arnt allowed me to stay a few days with Mrs. Wisebard. For the first time in my life, I was in a home with someone who really cared. She lived alone with her sister in a large clean white house. There were no children there, but there where many educational toys. I loved putting together the jig-saw puzzle of the United States. She had linen napkins and silver napkin rings. I'll never forget her kindness as long as I live!

One day, I was seated on the front steps at Mr. Arnt's; we were never allowed out of the yard. A neighbor boy came by on his bicycle. I remember thinking how handsome he was except for his crossed eyes. He stopped just long enough to say: "I heard your father died." I went into the house and asked Mrs. Arnt if this was true. It was! I was seven years and four months old.

During this period with Mrs. Arnt, I recall a short trip I made alone by streetcar to visit my mother, who was in a sanitarium. She had, I recall, two-and-a-half quarts of milk on a table by her bed. She explained that she was on a milk diet. We sat in the visiting room and played Nelly Bly and Parcheesi. I remember, too, that Mother visited me once while I was in Juvenile Hall. She brought me a bag of hard candies and we sat on a flight of stairs and talked.

I also remember that my brother Melvin, then 14 years old, came to visit me once at Mr. Arnt's. It was a happy day. He helped me to wash dishes. While washing the milk bottles, the suds came to the top and he shook the bottle and sang out: "Milk for sale! Milk for sale!" Mrs. Arnt came in and slapped him across the face for being so noisy. He indignantly talked back to her; he wasn't used to such treatment. I remembered being horrified by this all.

Some time after my father's death, Mother, Melvin and I began living in a tiny three-home house my father had bought some years back, and in which I had lived with a few of the people who had cared for me over the years.

I am not clear on the status of Mother's marriage. I know that she was unable to claim a pension as a Civil War veteran's widow. I know that my father had been married at least twice before according to documents in his handwriting. Also, I had heard talk among the neighbors about my mother not having been legally married. At least a few of them deigned to speak to her. And she was such a kindly, gentle, and quiet soul who would never cause anyone harm or speak ill of anyone. All her life, she left scraps out for the birds and stray animals. She was even loath to kill spiders, and often carried daddy-long-legs out of doors on a newspaper.

We lived on a meager allotment the County sent us. Mother was unable to work. She considered herself a semiinvalid. Mother spend most of her time sitting in a chair looking out the window. She was interested in occult religions, extraterrestrials, and other such strange things. Once a month or so, she would go to Los Angeles for the day to attend a lecture. Melvin didn't always live at home. He left two or three times, I believe, to live with friends. I'm not clear on this in my memory, but I do know that we never developed a close relationship as brother and sister. Melvin and I never went anyplace together or ever played together as children. Of course, he was 14 years old before I ever really knew him, and I was only seven.

Melvin had learned banjo while in Hawaii, and in his late teens, he found a job in a Saturday night dance band. He was a caddie at the golf links, and managed to earn necessary speding money for himself. Surely, the County check barely covered minimum necessities. These were Depression years. Melvin did little more than caddy for years.

Melvin married at 23, when he finally found a full-time job as an elevator boy. After that, he worked in a camera shop, were he learned enough about the business to eventually set up his own shop.

Both Melvin and I finished high school.

I married at 17, and began working at Kress five-and-dime; my husband was working on the WPA. Our goal was to save enough money to return to the Philippine Islands where his family lived. I looked forward with such eagerness to becoming a part of a real family. My mother took a job sewing on WPA the month I was married. However, that lasted but a few months. Mother wasn't strong enough, and she went back to the County Allotment.

When Charlie and I had been married 14 months, we had saved enough money to go to Manila. We left Mother and Melvin in Los Angeles and went off to the Philippines. The Second World War began shortly thereafter, and we were trapped in the Phillippines for the duration of the War, out of contact with everything and everyone for almost five years.

The chapter of my life in the Phillipines was full of vivid memories. Many of my most beautiful memories are from this period; but it was also a period of shock and pain, for war is always horrible! I had three children while I was in the Phillipines. I learned a new language, and adapted to a new culture. I was accepted and loved by my new family. Our small family survived the Japanese invasion, although my husband's father died at the hands of the Japanese. We were present when America took charge once again. I will let my husband tell this chapter of our lives. It is enough that I have brought you though my childhood, up to this point.

When we returned from the Phillipines after the close of the War, we found my mother in the same situation that we had left her in--a bit thinner and older--but with the same furnishings, the same pastime of gazing out the window for hours on end. The neighbors, who had rarely spoken to her over the years, had managed to help her repair her floor when it had rotted through. Mother was still interested in extraterrestrials and occult religions. She had few friends and seldom went anyplace.

We bought a house in Walteria, and a few years later we managed to find a house across the street from our own which Mother could buy. I made all the arrangements to sell Mother's house on Darlington Ave. and move her into the new house next to ours.

Thus began a new period for Mother, a new environment entirely, new friends and interests. She was still quiet and never spoke of the past. But she did become vitally interested in living in our family and was always happy to sew a hem or darn socks or hear of the children's many successes. She renewed her respect and regard for her family religion, Catholicism.

As long as she was living across the street from us in Walteria, I always prepared her evening meal and one of the children or I took it to her on a tray. Mother learned what the children loved to eat, things like applesauce, lemon custard, and navy bean soup; often she'd manage to send back these treats with the evening messenger.

I always checked with Mother whenever I went shopping, and often she would go with me. Mother often said that these years with us in Walteria where the happiest in her life.

Mother died of pneumonia at home with all her loved ones. At the time she was undergoing radiation treatments for terminal cancer. The pneumonia was a blessing. She passed quickly, from health to death, in matter of a few months; she was 83 years old. Mother is buried in Green Hills Memorial Park in San Pedro. Her grave is on the arm of a cross of trees. The trees look out over green hills with the Los Angeles harbor and Pacific Ocean in the background.

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Send all inquiries to the author, Barbara Case, at:  ~  Last Updated March 6, 2003