The Hoo-Hoo Response to the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
The International Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo is one of the country’s oldest industrial fraternal organizations. Formed in 1892 at a train station in rural Arkansas almost as a lark (and possibly while under the influence of alcohol), the idea of a fraternal organization for the timber and lumber industries founded on the ideals of fellowship and goodwill quickly caught on. Soon chapters could be found all over the United States.
While it’s easy to not take the organization seriously in part because the founders adopted their nomenclature from Lewis Carroll’s poem "The Hunting of the Snark," and they do know how to have a good time, the Hoo-Hoos of today are little different from members a century ago: they are folks who care deeply about their industry and each other. Early proof of that fraternal bond quickly emerged in the days following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Shortly after the earthquake hit on the morning of April 18, 1906, the news flashed around the country of the catastrophe via telegraph. The earthquake had done its share of damage, but the fires that erupted in the aftermath laid waste to significant portions of the city. Lumber yards and wood products businesses were particularly vulnerable to the fires, of course. Communication in and out of the area was spotty and slow. In Nashville, where the Hoo-Hoo organization was then headquartered, in the Office of Supreme Scrivenoter (Editor) J. H. Baird, they anxiously awaited word from San Francisco. Fortunately for us, Baird sifted through and preserved a good portion of the correspondence in an article published in the May 1906 issue of the organization’s newsletter The Bulletin.
On April 24, Vicegerent Frank Trower in San Francisco telegrammed: “Disaster by earthquake and fire too awful for description has prostrated San Francisco and many interior towns. Three hundred thousand people homeless and destitute. Immediate help sorely needed. Many Hoo-Hoo lost business and homes—everything except their grit. This is the time for brothers to show true spirit of fraternity by temporary relief. Will you help us? Wire me at 1238 Filbert Street, Oakland.” Along with many other businessmen Trower had relocated to Oakland because he had lost his lumber business in the fire that followed the earthquake.On April 30, a lengthy letter dated on April 25 from Trower to Baird read in part:
“Dear Brother Baird: I am confiscating a few moments’ time to write you regarding conditions here one week after the great earthquake and fire. The experiences and emotions of a lifetime have been crowded into that short week. It is very hard to realize that the beloved San Francisco of former times we shall know no more. Today she is still a splendid city—splendid in her ruins….
Now a few words as to our local Hoo-Hoo and how they have fared. I wired you on the 20th saying that many of our Hoo-Hoo had their business and homes ruined, and asked if our Order would not give them temporary assistance. So far I have not had an answer to this message. I have met several of our members in this situation and there are doubtless many more. It is difficult for us just now to find each other, but I am advertising in the local papers, giving my new address and asking all Hoo-Hoo needing temporary assistance to call on me. What we want is to help our members to help themselves. I am sure that most of them will later repay any relief given now. We do not want charity, but only a little help for the time being, until we can get on our feet. I feel this is the time for our brothers to show a true fraternal spirit. You may be sure any help extended us will be carefully handled, and if there is any balance remaining it will be returned to you for the Imminent Distress Fund or for such other use as the Supreme Nine may decide to make of it.”
Baird received another letter from Trower on May 1:
“Many of our members have suffered heavy financial losses. You can easily understand this when I tell you that about one-half of the lumber yards in San Francisco are gone, all of the hotel district, about one-half of the planing mills and practically all of the sawmill and machinery supply houses…. Brother Baird, it would warm the cockles of your heart to see how our people have accepted their fearful losses without a whimper. Our boys out here are pure grit, and the women, God bless them, are pure gold, and they are all standing by the city, working cheerfully to put it once again in its imperial position.”
Other Hoo-Hoos were writing Baird as well, and so he published those letters in this same article. Arthur White wrote to convey his experiences the day of the earthquake, which makes for a very riveting letter. But I wanted to share this little tidbit. The next time you’re having a tough day at work, you might want to remember this. Recall that the quake hit at 5:18 in the morning. That afternoon, White wrote, “Premature births began. I was told that in one lumber yard in the south end of town forty-two children were born before Friday morning. I did not see this but I have every reason to believe it.”
In the days immediately following the disaster, Trower and the others initially didn’t know that cities and people around the country were organizing relief efforts. In another letter to Baird he wrote: “I think our members here never realized before the strong bond of fraternity between us and our brethren in other parts of the country. We have had many expressions of sympathy and good cheer, and your prompt offer of financial assistance impressed upon us profoundly the fact that while ours is not a benefit order, yet we will not allow any member to be in imminent distress without coming to his aid.”
Trower formed a Hoo-Hoo relief committee to do several things, including securing employment for members. Naturally, there were nine members of the committee. In this time of crisis, being part of the organization brought some solace to Trower and the others in the Bay Area. After a bit of time had passed, maybe just a few weeks or so, he wrote Baird again, saying:
“Please send me the latest handbook and such supplements as may be out, as I have no list of our members here. Our faithful old Hoo-Hoo trunk with all the apparatus and the Sacred Black Cat is no more. They did their duty well. Peace to their ashes. Will you kindly send me the new supply of Hoo-Hoo material of all kinds as soon as convenient? I am anxious to hold another concatenation in the near future, either in the San Joaquin Valley, probably at Fresno, or in the San Francisco Bay section. Another good, old time initiation will make us feel at home again.”
I’ll give Scrivenoter Baird the last word on this. At the end of the article, he wrote:
“All of the foregoing is but a meager outline of conditions in San Francisco, but it serves to show that Hoo-Hoo is far from an order devoted merely to promoting what is known as ‘a good time’ on the part of its members. The returns from the call sent out for aid are still coming in, and the hundreds of letters received at this office are truly an inspiration, proving that the Order does truly typify the universal brotherhood of men.”
I recently spoke at the annual Hoo-Hoo international convention and in my talk I shared the above with the members. This year's gathering was held in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco. While at the convention, though, I heard echoes of 1906 because a small quake had hit the region just a few weeks before. Some members couldn't attend because they were dealing with earthquake damage, or they were contending with wildfires that were threatening their homes. In addition to discussing the impacts of these natural disasters, conversations and commiseration could be heard about the challenges many of these business owners face in a volatile lumber market. I also saw many displays of friendship and fraternity that transcended international boundaries—the Aussies and Kiwis had been coming for years, judging by the camaraderie between them and the Americans and Canadians. While there, I was fortunate enough to witness the inauguration of their first woman Grand Snark of the Universe, Mary Beth Moynihan, who was clearly beloved and respected. The "universal brotherhood of men" will now be led by a woman. In short, I can attest that nearly 110 years later, the Hoo-Hoos continue to inspire and that the feelings of goodwill and fellowship are strong.
Read a first-person account of the recovery efforts launched by the U.S. Forest Service in the aftermath of the earthquake in the 2006 issue of Forest History Today in Pamela Connor's "A First-hand Report Concerning the Fire and Earthquake Situation in San Francisco, 1906" and see photos of the city after the fires in our digital online exhibit "Redwood in the San Francisco Fire."