Enjoy our Guest Author Series featuring a new, bi-monthly article written by historians, authors and poets on topics related to local history and/or museum collections. Stay informed on new research and new stories associated with our museum!
This March we are fortunate to welcome Part 2 of an article written by famed Lake Tahoe historian and author Carol Van Etten. Read about Carol's research on Matt Green, one of the "most important figures in Lake Tahoe history."
In honor of March and Women's History month we have a poem written by Ethel Joslin Vernon the "Poetess of the Sierras" 1890-1964. Ethel and her husband C.W. Vernon made a huge impact on North Lake Tahoe history. Lean more about Ethel and her participation in the TC Women's Club among many other involvements at the museum this summer.
The Man from Ogdensburg
When last we parted company with Tahoe Contractor Matt Green, it was the autumn of 1911 and his crew of 50 men had just completed construction of a dozen buildings on his new property in Lake Forest.
Among the structures in Green’s building plan was a 42’ x 200’ shoreline warehouse in which he intended to provide storage for Tahoe’s growing fleet of boats. As the only such facility anywhere on the Lake, the warehouse was full. Green may even have been allowed the thought that perhaps with the rents from this marine storage venture he and his new bride Theil Duffee could enjoy their first winter together in Sacramento, far from the storms of Tahoe.
However, Mother Nature hadn’t yet weighed in on Green’s plans. As luck would have it, the skies of November turned gloomy, and before the winter of 1910-1911 got properly underway, it had delivered catastrophe to many central Sierra structures, including Matt Green’s brand new one in Lake Forest containing 32 customer boats. As it turned out, Green kept a crew of 50 men busy all winter moving the snow, repairing the warehouse building and then repairing its unlucky inventory of boats, and the red ink flowed.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Green’s accomplishments in his first dozen years in the region was that so much of it was accomplished as a pedestrian. At the time, commercial transportation in the area was only available on a seasonal basis, with LTR&TCo train service running from early- or mid-May through early- to mid-October and the Steamer TAHOE adhering to this same schedule. Green must have had a sturdy constitution and legs like iron bands, for even as the crow flies Truckee and Lake Forest are more than ten miles apart, and the actual hike, which probably followed the route of present-day Hwy 267 over Brockway Summit or through the Truckee River Canyon, was nearly twice that distance each way, and over varied terrain that was frequently blanketed by snow. Even in that day, Green’s travel by shank’s mare was not a commonplace, for periodic mentions of his comings and goings on foot or showshoes were noted in the Truckee paper, (as were those of Nick Flick, a year-round resident of Carnelian Bay and another tireless traveler on the “webs.”)
In 1913, on the property “found” for him by a group of San Franciscans in order to forestall his plans to develop their west shore neighborhood commercially, Green launched his Lake Forest subdivision, Tahoe Island Park. That summer another of his crews was simultaneously at work a little farther north along the Lakeshore, completing the Tahoe Vista Hotel for another group of Tahoe promoters.
During the winter of 1913-1914 Green’s Foreman Duell was finishing a new wing on the C. Frederick Kohl estate at Idlewild, near Eagle Rock, while Green was kept busy supervising his other building projects, both in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Truckee-Tahoe region. As the summer of 1915 began, he was headquartered in Truckee, where he had contracted to build Sierra Tavern on the Stoll corner. A clipping from the Truckee Republican describing the project notes that Green is “of Tahoe City,” though he was well known in the railroad town and was increasingly contracting for work there.
On July 8, 1915, Green bought a Reo in Reno, a purchase that undoubtedly helped convey the impression of financial comfort to his real estate customers and the world in general, though privately it may have had just the opposite effect. Prior to the development of Tahoe Island Park he had walked and snow-shoed to and from his Lake Forest venture from Truckee numerous times, and so perhaps he was better able to appreciate the luxury a car afforded than most. More important, if he were to achieve his dreams, he could no longer depend on his legs for transportation. To be a car owner was the cost of doing business in the hinterlands.
Cars were at this time still a rarity in the Sierra, but the Reo agent, quoted in the Evening Gazette soon thereafter, understood Green’s needs perfectly:
As a car owner, Green now had the mobility to regularly visit the sites of his wide spread business and construction activities. In the summer of 1915 he was running two crews, one building Sierra Tavern in Truckee and the other throwing up summer cabins for new lot owners in Tahoe Island Park, Unit 1.
Driving for the sheer pleasure of it was part of Green’s rationale, too. Behind the wheel of his new Reo he could treat Theil to a trip to the 1915 Pan American Exposition then underway in San Francisco. In August 1915, with the Sierra Tavern project completed, they set off for the Fair, accompanied by their friends the O’Hanrahans. It was a grand tour of the sort to which Matt would regularly treat Theil throughout their married life.
As the 1916 summer season began, one of Green’s crews was building a mansion for a customer in far-flung Burlingame, with other crews attending to smaller projects scattered between the Bay and the Lake. Green got around, and every day, via the School of Hard Knocks, he was adding practical knowledge to his innate wisdom, and gaining the respect of those who knew him for being a man of his word. His calendar was full. At 43 he had achieved what most men would consider Success, and with his business interests well in hand, he and Theil’s lives settled into a routine. Every summer they could enjoy the pleasures of their cottage on the hill above the Tahoe Island Park beach and every winter they could travel as they pleased, exploring their country and Mexico to their hearts’ content. This clipping from a 1935 issue of the Tahoe Tattler gives an idea of the extent of their wanderings:
(1935-7/19 TTat Matt Green & Wife on Trip)
Evidence of Green’s stature in the Lake Tahoe community (for it was all one big community then) was his selection to serve on the governing Board of the Lake Tahoe Protective Association, a group of Tahoe lakefront property owners incorporated in 1905 and revived in 1918 in an effort to preserve Tahoe’s environment. The Association’s founding members read like a list of Tahoe (and Bay Area) nobility.
It was possibly at one of the LTPA’s several general membership meetings that Green made the acquaintance of Lora Small Moore, widow of Santa Barbara financier J. Hobart Moore and among the personalities chiefly responsible for giving Green his start. J.H. Moore’s death in July 1916 had left his widow with a generous estate that placed her among the wealthiest women in the world, and her business acumen, if not her sense of propriety, was in evidence almost immediately thereafter as she invested her newly-gained funds.
At two p.m. on January 29, 1917 Hobart’s will was probated, and later that same day Lora closed a pre-arranged deal with the Bliss-owned Carson & Tahoe Lumber & Fluming Company to purchase for an undisclosed sum 2576 acres on Lousy Point and the protected cove to its north. Her plans for the parcel, which she named Wychwood, were to create a rustic lakefront estate, and shortly thereafter she hired Matt Green, her next-door neighbor to the south and one of the only contractors at the Lake, to build it for her.
Green’s presence at Tahoe during the summer seasons of the century’s first decade (1901-1910) had given him the knowledge of the early arrival, when land was still sold by the quarter-section instead of the foot. Lack of competition was another of the spoils of the “early bird,” for since the very dawn of the 20th Century he had been a witness to the local scene, watching his potential clientele multiply as more and more people “discovered” Tahoe. He believed in the inevitability of the region’s growth and his dedication to playing a key role in the process was to him nothing more than betting on a sure thing. A generation later, subdivided into parcels, Green’s wide-scattered real estate holdings served him well, for in his retirement he was able to harvest the rewards of his ancient optimism, one parcel at a time.
As revealed in PT 1 of this history, Green lacked the skills of a carpenter. His talent lay in the ability to manage the activities of others, and so it was rather a crew of Green’s men that tended to the business of constructing Mrs. Moore’s dream at the south end of Carnelian Bay, while Green cultivated more dollared clients in need of alpine abodes. In mid-February 1919, with construction of Wychwood in the able hands of his foreman and jobs lined up well into the future, Green and Theil set out for several weeks’ vacation in the Los Angeles area.
As for Lora Small Moore, the reader will be more familiar with her name following the addition of “Knight” to its tail, for it was as Lora Moore Knight, recently-divorced spouse of St. Louis bond broker Harry French Knight, that she purchased a large parcel at the head of Emerald Bay on which she would build her second Tahoe residence.
A decade after the completion of Wychwood, Green and his crew of local artisans would be the ones selected to construct Mrs. Knight’s second Tahoe residence as well. Green’s securing of the Vikingsholm project had proved a key element in his future contracting success, as Emerald Bay was the undisputed marvel of the Lake and Mrs. Knight’s planned castle its crown jewel.
But even as Green continued to expand his contracting horizons, the pull of other business interests was producing new demands on his time and talents. In 1919 he purchased the Truckee Water Works, a transaction that seemed as much prompted by the goal of providing the municipality with a reliable source of water as by any personal gain that might accrue from ownership. Through the years of the 1920s Green’s sense of public betterment was demonstrated numerous times by such business decisions. In May 1920 the Truckee Republican reported that a modern garage was being erected in Truckee by one of Green’s crews, this project undertaken not for profit but to satisfy an urgent community need.
During the same period, Green’s interest and belief in the Tahoe Tavern remained strong, and his vow of one day becoming its owner was unwavering. When the world economy fell on its face in October 1929, the doughty entrepreneur must have heaved a sigh, realizing that his dream of ownership, while it was brought nearer by the hotel’s struggles, was at least for the moment a rather dubious honor.
These circumstances persisted for the two seasons that followed, and in the spring of 1932 Tavern General Manager John T. “Jack” Matthews, whose optimistic vision of a two-season hotel operation had been proven excessively optimistic for conditions, abandoned the Tavern, becoming Cal-Neva’s new General Manager.
Since April 1932 Matt Green had been the familiar presence behind the syndicate that held financial control of the Tavern. It would be another dozen years before he achieved outright ownership of the hotel, but meanwhile he felt no need of the personal glory he might have enjoyed as head of the its Board of Directors. It was rather that in the Board’s frantic effort to right its financial ship, its members turned to him, confident that if the quagmire caused by years of reckless management and international Depression could be fixed, it was Green who could fix it.
It was at this moment that one of Green’s greatest strengths, the ability to choose able underlings and then stand back, came into play again. As a Fixer, his canny dependence on appointed underlings was his genius, for he offered his employees the freedom to act with a self-confidence that served interests greater than just their own. His philosophy was implemented less than a year after he achieved control over the Tavern’s future. During the first year following the hotel’s financial collapse, Green served as its onsite Manager, learning the workings of the organization first-hand. In the spring of 1933, he delegated responsibility for the hotel’s daily operation to Walter Rounsevel, a capable hotel man of long standing who in subsequent years assumed the hotel’s lease and guided its destiny through the end of World War II.
In 1944, with the War concluded, Green was at last ready to part company with his lifelong obsession. He had sustained his hotel for the Duration, and now it was someone else’s turn. By this time Green was, after all, about to mark his 60thbirthday, and perhaps he had begun to acknowledge the concept of retirement. He had realized his dream, but it was the dream of another day. The War had changed things, and the fact of his advancing age was also among his realizations.
On June 27, 1944 the Tavern opened for its final season under the control of Matt Green. D-Day had come at last, and in the winding-down of the conflict he had been busy taking advantage of the inflation in local real estate prices to unload some of his long-held parcels of land in the Tahoe City area. In May 1946 Green sold his dream to the partnership of Lawrence Curtola and Louis Navone for $400,000 and became a more-or-less permanent resident of Sacramento.
Green’s sale of the Tahoe Tavern did not mean the end of his career as a hostler, for though he disposed of his Tahoe holdings, he was simultaneously acquiring several hotels in Sacramento. In January 1947 he bought the Clayton Hotel, situated at the corner of Seventh and “L” streets, followed by the 100-room, five-story Marshall Hotel and the 115-room, seven-story California Hotel. Over the next five years the appreciation of these properties was considerable, and several years later Green was able to sell the Clayton and the Marshall at tidy profits, funding a comfortable lifestyle during his final decade of life and freedom from care for Theil for the remainder of her years.
Matt Green died October 28, 1958 in Riverside, California, having survived 85 years and lived to see many of his dreams realized. Many of the years had been rugged, but as many had proved restful, and the utter calm on his face in this portrait suggests that he went to his rewards without a single regret.
Carol Van Etten
Carol is a published author and notable Lake Tahoe historian who's work has been featured in a number of publications
Author: Ethel Joslin Vernon
Ethel Joslin Vernon circa 1930's
I know the lake whose waves in music murmur
Upon a forest-bordered shore;
I know a wood where shadows densely gather
When day is o'er
There is a place where pine boughs sway and whisper
And fragrance fills the soft moonlight
And there a silver silver stream goes laughing, singing,
All through the night.
There are dim trails that wind away and vanish
In lands no man-made dwellings mars,
Where distant, snow-clad peaks their calm white faces
Lift to the stars.
There's quiet peace, and music of wood voices,
Where Nature smiles and God is nigh-
Where every pine with dauntless faith is pointing
Straight to the sky.