The Rev. William Taylor had a problem, a big one. He needed a four- to five-bedroom house for his family. Wooden frame houses were renting for $400 a month. He had $750, not even enough for two months.
Taylor, a Methodist Episcopal preacher, had arrived in San Francisco on September 21, 1849, with his wife and 3-month-old daughter. He also had brought a dismantled frame wooden church.
Before he got off the ship, a brother of another passenger got onboard and warned him he couldn't make a living preaching in San Francisco. The man said that there had been a preacher, but he couldn't make it pay so he became a gambler. Gamblers were the aristocracy of the land, he said, and it was the most profitable business a man could follow. He also said that the one church in the city had been converted into a jail.
Taylor went ashore the next day and climbed up a hill where he saw a city of tents. There were a few adobes, but no brick buildings, and the city already had 20,000 inhabitants.
Taylor preached a sermon on his first Sunday in San Francisco in a rough board shanty with a blue tent cover. On his second Sunday, the subject of where to house the preacher came up. A hat was passed around. Only $27 was gathered.
Members of the congregation suggested that since the Church Missionary Society sent him, it would surely pay for his upkeep.
"The Missionary Society never had and never could support a man at California rates ... my rent for a year would be about $5,000. ... Moreover, the Society is in debt and I never expected to draw on them for a dollar in California," Taylor told them. He later related this story in the book "California Life," published in 1860.
"I said to my brethren that if nothing better opened I would take my ax and wedge and go to the Redwoods 15 miles distant across the bay and get out lumber for a house and build it myself."
And so he did. But it wasn't easy. He landed at San Antonio (Oakland). From there he walked "five miles up a mountain carrying blankets, provisions and tools." Then he found out he didn't have the skill to turn a redwood tree into boards for a house.
On Sunday, he preached under the shade of a redwood tree to 25 woodsmen. It was the first Protestant sermon in the Oakland area.
Then he set to work with his ax and made 3,000 shingles, which he traded for enough lumber to make a two-story house, 16-by-26 feet. He did have to pay $25 to ship the lumber to the city. He bought pre-made doors for $11 each and windows for $1 apiece.
He hired a couple of carpenters at $12 a day to help him build, and in the middle of the project they raised their price to $16. So he finished the house himself.
Taylor stayed in California for seven years then went back to the East Coast. He wrote several books, traveled the world and in 1892 came back to the West, where he stayed until he died in 1902 in Palo Alto.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org.