The Oaks, or Merritt Manor, Tulare, California
Many years ago I chanced to pick up a volume of condensed books a relative had left lying around, leafed through it casually and started reading the novel ‘Whitewater’, published in 1969 by Paul Horgan. Now what intrigued me was neither the title nor the author’s name, but the latter’s account in the introduction of how he can come to write the book. While traveling a remote highway through the seemingly endless flat expanse of the Texas panhandle, he had seen a roadsign for a town which was only distantly visible as tiny specks of buildings on the far horizon. He kept on driving, but began wondering about the town, about its citizens and their lives and histories. From those wonderings his book began. And the novel that took shape was not merely about the town itself, but about the previous life many of its residents had once lived in a different but nearby town now vanished beneath the deep waters of a reservoir. What fascinated me was the dual idea: that a whole town with a complex of relationships could have existed and then vanished, and that the lives once lived there could still profoundly influence the lives of those who had survived its destruction, but now in very different circumstances indeed.
A similar thought comes over me whenever I see photos of houses which once existed and had long histories, but then vanished for one reason or other and live on only in memory and in pictures. One such house which fascinates me was originally called The Oaks and had been built on 32 acres toward the end of the 19th century in the tiny hamlet of Tulare, toward the southern end of California’s great Central Valley. The builder and first owner was P.J.S. Montgomery, manager of the vast Paige and Morton Ranch west of town, but it eventually attracted the attention of Hulett C. Merritt, born 1872, a Pasadena investment banker, owner along with John D. Rockefeller of the Lake Superior Consolidated Iron Mines, known as the Merritt-Rockefeller Syndicate, and one of the ten principal owners of U.S. Steel, among many other things. Merritt had palatial homes in Pasadena and Santa Barbara, but he also had large agricultural holdings in the Tulare area, then a peaceful and relatively unpopulated region of the state with pristine air, unpolluted resources and some of the richest alluvial farmland in the world. Merritt acquired The Oaks in 1920, and it was kept always in perfect readiness to receive him and his family, whenever they came to spend a few weeks or months in their chosen rural retreat. Merritt died in 1956, and three years later the house, long a source of mystery and interest to locals, was opened for public viewing for the first time. Shortly after, having been neglected by Merritt in his declining years and after his death, the house was razed to make way for a 32 acre tract of houses known as Merritt Manor, like the mansion. Some of my childhood friends lived in houses built on the spot, and the groves of rare imported trees which remained from the early days were like magical forests to us, unlike anything else in town.
When I look at pictures of Merritt Manor, and think of some of the homes which exist today on the spot where its white columns once soared gracefully into the sky, I find myself wondering many things. Whose present living room, with all its 21st century activities, was formerly the exact site of Merritt Manor’s wide front verandah, and what conversations were held there long ago? Which Merritt family memory lay ill or dying in an upstairs bedroom whose space is now occupied by rooms packed to the ceiling with digital gadgets and examples of the latest in wireless technology? Who now microwaves nearly instantaneous dinners in a space where Merritt’s armies of servants once took entire days to laboriously turn out buttermilk biscuits, wild pheasant pies and complicated cakes from scratch? But perhaps most intriguing of all: what events happened at Merritt Manor, and what words were once spoken, which have had rippling effects down through the years so that, in undiscoverable ways, they still profoundly influence the lives of people who live in that town today? In what ways have I myself been influenced, living now in a very different part of the state?
A few years ago I reread Horgan’s novel. And I found it a very enjoyable experience. But what has given me most to think about is Horgan’s introduction to that book, how he came to write it, and how a tiny town, glimpsed from afar by someone passing rapidly by on a remote highway on a seemingly uneventful day, can give rise to so many speculations about life. Perhaps just about any book has the power to do that, to help us to think new and absorbing thoughts, if we will only let it.