The San Franciscans: Norma Ball Norwood

by Nicole Meldahl

San Francisco has a unique ability to create characters. This is a city that revels in its lore, and its people are often the makers of their own myths. What we do as historians is try to sort fact and fiction, but sometimes the fictions people create for themselves are as true as any truth. The line between what’s real and what’s remembered becomes irrelevant as the repetition of telling makes information more “factual” the more frequently it is told.

Enter Norma Ball Norwood.

Norma Norwood and dog posed on Corona Heights, circa 1925.Norma Norwood and dog posed on Corona Heights, circa 1925. (wnp26.1256.jpg; Norma Ball Norwood collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

I was first introduced to Norma after we digitized her wonderfully vibrant photo album. Here was a San Francisco family filled with life: group portraits outside of the Ball home in Corona Heights; Norma with pets, and friends, and her beau (who became her husband); photos of the Norwood family in the Richmond and Sunset; picnics at Ocean Beach, fun at Fleishhacker Pool, and games at Kezar Stadium tempered by a photo of a man (possibly her father) wearing a influenza-fighting facemask during the first World War. And most of these gems are captioned—an archivist-historian’s dream! Then I discovered that Norma Ball Norwood’s truth is truly one to behold.

Kostia, Alex, Norma Ball, & Boris at Fleishhacker Pool, circa 1928.Kostia, Alex, Norma Ball, & Boris at Fleishhacker Pool, circa 1928. (wnp26.1237.jpg; Norma Ball Norwood collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

Norma Ball Norwood left us with one of the most San Franciscan obituaries I have ever read. For starters, it opens with a Herb Caen quote about the 1906 earthquake and fire. This earth-shattering event in local history burned the home of her parents, Christina (Maschmann) and Lester Ball, to the ground. They sought refuge in tents like so many other San Franciscans, and it was here that Norma’s tale begins. She remembered, “My father said it was cold in the tent, and they had to snuggle to keep warm. And what happens when you snuggle? You have a baby.” That’s right: Norma Ball Norwood was conceived in an earthquake refugee tent in Golden Gate Park.

As the obituary continues, the tales feel increasingly taller. Norma’s mother, a native of Germany, named her daughter after a favorite cow. The family lived on States Street near Levant, and Norma accidentally started a fire that burned all the grass off of Rocky Hill (now known as Corona Heights). Her parents owned a saloon, and Norma, who took dancing lessons from the age of six until she graduated from grammar school, would pirouette and dance acrobatically as sailors and longshoremen threw pennies and nickels in praise at the stage; she often called herself a saloon dancer with pride. When she wasn’t entertaining bar patrons, she was under the watchful eyes of prostitutes that worked beneath the saloon.

Here is where the historian in me took pause, wanting to verify these truths, and I did find some. A June 1906 article that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times refers to Lester Ball as a “San Francisco saloon man” arrested for fraud in San Jose. The Balls did own saloons all over the city—the Hamburg Saloon at 416 Kearny (destroyed in 1906), others at 807 Howard street, 106 Oak Street, 791 Folsom Street, and 421 Drumm Street, and more. And while I can’t prove that prostitutes babysat her, Lester Ball’s 421 Drumm Street saloon was located near a Scandinavian Sailor’s Home, which gives credence to her Shirley Temple-tale.

Native Daughters of the Golden West Castro Drill team, in costume, with swords, holding a loving cup at California's Diamond Jubilee at Grove and Larkin Streets, September 1925.Native Daughters of the Golden West Castro Drill team, in costume, with swords, holding a loving cup at California’s Diamond Jubilee at Grove and Larkin Streets, September 1925. Norma on right. (wnp26.1254.jpg; Norma Ball Norwood collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

Apparently Lester Ball the San Francisco saloon man traded up, and, according to a June 1917 advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle, began selling saloons as well as delicatessens and restaurants with the Eureka Investment Company. He was an enterprising businessman but still an “old-fashioned dad” that didn’t believe his daughter needed high school, sending Norma to business school instead. Wanting your daughter to have a practical education seems more avant-garde than old fashioned to me. Regardless, it paid off. Norma began working as a legal secretary at the age of 14, later serving as president of the San Francisco Legal Association in 1964—a fact we were able to verify. She retired at the age of 84 only because she outlived all the attorneys for which she worked. That’s what her obituary says.

As she aged, she looked more and more like her mother. Norma married Jack Norwood and started a family, moving to a Sunset special on the west side with their son, Robert. Her brother, Stanley, also settled in the Outside Lands with his wife, Doris, and their daughters, Claire and Elinore, and the 1930s and 1940s show their kids living a more modern childhood than the bucolic Ball upbringing in Corona Heights. Norma would live independently on Judah Street until her death in 2007 (just two months shy of 100 years old), and in that time she became a 9th and Irving regular. Norma was asked about the secret to her longevity in 2005, and her response was priceless: “I have a drink every day… What’s the other thing? I say sex.”

Norma Norwood, children and brother posed in front of 14 Museum Way, with Roosevelt Way houses in background, February 20, 1938.Norma Norwood, children and brother posed in front of 14 Museum Way, with Roosevelt Way houses in background, February 20, 1938. (wnp26.1260.jpg; Norma Ball Norwood collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

In 2006, as the city celebrated the 100th anniversary of the earthquake and fire, Gavin Newsom asked Norma, an honorary “earthquake baby,” how she felt. “Cold,” she said, “But I’ve got Gavin Newsom to warm me up.” If you look at photos from the event, you’ll see Norma elegantly composed in an electric blue hat and Gavin Newsom beaming with laughter. “Did they take good care of you?” She replied, “Can’t you tell?!”1

History work is tricky because the memories we get to keep are not equal to those we lose. Was Norma Norwood’s obituary 100% factual? Probably not. But San Francisco has always been a place where you can be exactly what you want, and Norma’s legacy on OpenSFHistory and in print speaks to the duality of truth and the largess of a city that accommodates all kinds of people. Ultimately, we are each our own Creator and what we say about ourselves, how we explain the truth that is and the truth we want to be, is just as important as the historical record.

With this in mind, perhaps the San Franciscans are the ones that give this city character and not the other way around. Perhaps, it’s ok for history to be a marginally inflated story…as long as we acknowledge the difference between what was and what we wanted to be. I want to be more like Norma Norwood.


See all images from the Norma Ball Norwood Collection on OpenSFHistory


1. John M. Glionna and Lee Romney, “SF Rises Early to Mark 1906 Quake,” Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2006.

Tillmany’s Ride: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

In March, we took a closer look at a 1926 incident in which a California Street cable car lost its brakes on a hill and collided with a truck and another cable car. Any collision or accident involving transit vehicles weighing thousands of pounds must be a scary experience. But in one Richmond District accident 71 years ago this week, there was a passenger thrilled to be onboard.

MUNI 31-line streetcar #976 in collision with 21-line streetcar #116 on July 24, 1947.MUNI 31-line streetcar #976 in collision with 21-line streetcar #116 at 8th Avenue and Balboa Street on July 24, 1947. (wnp67.0515.jpg; Jack Tillmany Collection.)

In 2003, Jack Tillmany wrote an account of an accident between 31-Balboa and 21-Hayes line streetcars at the intersection of Balboa Street and 8th Avenue for our sister website,

“For a ten year old rail fan living in San Francisco, the summer of 1947, or more specifically, 24 July 1947, was a dream come true.

“For some time I had been clipping the accident reports from the daily newspapers and secretly hoping that some day I might be lucky enough to take part in one of these events. Living on Anza, half way between the 31/Balboa and B/Geary lines, I figured I had a pretty good chance if I concentrated my efforts on the 31, which seemed to have more than its share of colorful mishaps. I tended to avoid the B/Geary, which never seemed to get into any kind of trouble.

“Thursday, July 24, 1947 was the stuff that dreams are made of. My mother and I boarded #976 at 25th & Balboa and headed downtown. Eastbound on what I considered a rather nondescript (at least for the Balboa line) decline, the brakes apparently failed, just as #116 on the 21/Hayes line was lumbering across Balboa southbound on 8th Avenue. Rather than slowing down, our car picked up speed, and the rest, as they say, was history. Moments later our 31 car broadsided the 21, and nearly overturned it. We had been sitting in the front section of the 31 and found ourselves rolling around on the floor in a mass of broken glass, debris, and dust, along with a handful of other passengers. The most serious injuries seemed to be to an elderly man whose head was bleeding profusely, and who, according to newspaper reports, was hospitalized afterwards. We suffered no more than the usual ‘cuts and bruises,’ made our way to the rear of the car, got off, and waited to see what would happen next.

MUNI 31-line streetcar #976 in collision with 21-line streetcar #116 on July 24, 1947.MUNI 31-line streetcar #976 in collision with 21-line streetcar #116 at 8th Avenue and Balboa Street on July 24, 1947. (wnp67.0515.jpg; Jack Tillmany Collection.)

“In no time at all medical personnel, and newspaper reporters and photographers appeared on the scene. My mother and I were photographed by the San Francisco News sitting in an ambulance, and just hours later, there we were on the front page, no less, of every newsstand in town. Looking at the picture today, I see the face of the coolest ten-year old in captivity, a kid who has really died and gone to heaven, knows it, and is loving every minute of it.

San Francisco News photograph of Samuel Tufo, Jack, and his mother Frances Tillmany in ambulance, July 24, 1947.

“The aftermath: My mother and I both received a ‘settlement’ from the Municipal Railway: $25 apiece. Yes, I said $25.00. I still have the stubs as proof. Much to my surprise, some time later, both #976 and #116 reappeared back in service on their respective lines. Seeing the amount of damage they sustained in the accident, it amazes me to this day that they were ‘re-assembled’ and actually made operational again. My mother refused to ride the Balboa line ever again, but, I, on the other hand, rode it at every opportunity, more out of reverence than anything else, right up to that fateful day in July 1949, when the last vestiges of Market Street Railway rail service faded into history.”

Jack Tillmany clippings and stub from $25 settlement check.Jack Tillmany clippings and stub from his $25 settlement check.

Jack saved clippings from newspapers and even returned to 8th and Balboa on the 60th anniversary of the crash in 2007 to remember his exciting day. The ten-year-old rail fan grew up to be a dedicated collector of transit and movie theatre images and we are pleased to have a selection of Jack’s collection online now here at OpenSFHistory, including those of the 1947 crash that made him so happy.

Browse images from the Jack Tillmany collection

Apollo Bottling: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

In the last few months the intersection of Masonic Avenue and Geary Boulevard has been a mess. The city closed a short cut-off on the southwest side to make a plaza of sorts, putting in new pavers, artwork in the form of semi-humorous wayfaring signs, and, in the continuing madness we San Franciscans are somehow unable to stop, palm trees.

View south at street work at southwest corner of Masonic and Geary, July 10, 2018.

Across the street, the old Sears department store, now a mini-mall with a Target store as the primary tenant, is also a construction site with some of the many parking lots getting new construction. On the northwest corner, the old Copper Penny/Lucky Penny diner has been closed for a few years, blighted and sorry, awaiting its own future: a 95-unit residential tower. The northeast corner is an SFMTA parking lot dead zone, a prime place to dump old luggage or broken vacuum cleaners. Thousands of automobiles and busses squeeze and smoke through the crossroads each day.

Latest proposition for the northwest corner of Geary and Masonic.

I have been keeping a watchful eye on the small cluster of cottages and early buildings where the plaza is being made. Dating from the days when three large cemeteries hemmed in this intersection, the buildings have survived previous “improvements” of Masonic Avenue and the construction of the Geary Tunnel in the 1950s. I don’t want them to be lost now. The most recognizable is probably the corner building, which for many years held The Pub restaurant and bar (now Mo’z Café) with a muraled speakeasy in the basement from the days of Prohibition. A bit farther west, past the auto body shop on Geary, are two 1880s Italianate residences that have adapted to the changing times, their old straight entry stairs removed for commercial enterprises. I have had my hair cut in one and bought coffee in the other, but it was only recently in finding a photograph in the OpenSFHistory collection that I discovered how far back one of these buildings housed a business.

219 Point Lobos and Apollo Bottling wagon.Dechent family with Apollo Bottling wagon in front of 219 Point Lobos Avenue (2739-2741 Geary Boulevard today) in center. (wnp37.04294.jpg; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

No doubt driving the decorative delivery wagon for Apollo Lager is Charles W. Dechent, Jr., who bottled beer inside the middle residence, then addressed 219 Point Lobos Avenue. Today it is broken into a café on the ground floor and a number of apartments, including a cottage in the large backyard, and addressed 2739-2741 Geary Boulevard.

Dechent began as a teamster. His father owned a nursery and floral shop just up the hill where the Muni office building and car house stands today between Presidio and Masonic. Customers bought arrangements for funerals services and visits to the graves of their loved ones at Calvary, Masonic, and Laurel Hill cemeteries. From his job as teamster, Charles Jr. began the bottling business inside his house with his wife Nettie, and children Charles Wallace, Chester (likely the two boys in front of the wagon) and daughter Clarice (perhaps the girl shading her eyes) somehow carrying on inside with the works.

From these fairly humble beginnings, the Dechent children grew up to be well educated (Charles and Clarice went to Stanford) and civic minded. The last Dechent in this photo passed away in 1995.

Today the former 219 Point Lobos, the complex of apartments and café, is for sale, the owner asking $2.275 million. The sales agent has the building listed as built in 1900, but that is no doubt a post-1906 earthquake and fire guess. The house was definitely standing as far back as 1889. Here’s hoping the new owner appreciates its history and at a changing corner of new towers and palms trees raises a toast of bottled beer to the past.

Aerial view from across the street at two surviving cottages from sales listing. Interested in the property? Visit the Allison Chapleau Paragon Commercial Brokerage page to read more.

FDR in Town: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

Eighty years ago this week, on July 14, 1938, the president of the United States swung through town in a motorcade. Tens of thousands stood along the route just to get a glimpse. The San Francisco Chronicle admitted that the man was popular:

“San Francisco tendered him as frenzied, as spontaneous, as uproarious a demonstration as it has given any men of the generation. Upwards of half a million persons lined the streets through which the presidential automobile caravan passed. They knew they were to hear no speeches, that the President would not even stop. Yet they came there and stood for hours…”1

President Franklin Roosevelt was doing a “look-see” of the nation in July 1938, stumping for Democratic candidates and struggling to keep his New Deal going. A new economic downturn, labor strikes, and his own strong-arm policies had Roosevelt facing defections within his party and real gains by Republicans across the country.

All those political details did not seem to be weighing on the minds of the people who came out, or perhaps they did, and this was their supportive response.

Boy with FDR poster, probably in front of City Hall.Boy with framed FDR photograph (and letter?), probably in front of City Hall, July 14, 1938. (wnp14.11617.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

Families waiting to greet President Franklin Roosevelt on his drive through the city.Families waiting to greet President Franklin Roosevelt on his drive through the Bay Area, July 14, 1938. (wnp14.11614.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

After his train stopped in Crockett at the Carquinez Strait in the morning, Roosevelt transferred to an open automobile for his tour of the Bay Area beginning with brief visits at Mare Island and the Marin Civic Center; then, into the city, speeding past landmarks familiar to us today, but newly made at the time. The Golden Gate Bridge, just a year old, was closed to other traffic for his arrival. Photographers and families found good seats to welcome the presidential motorcade’s emergence out of the fog to San Francisco.

Press photographers on roof of Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza waiting for arrival of President Roosevelt motorcade from Marin County, July 14, 1938.Press photographers on roof of Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza waiting for arrival of President Roosevelt motorcade from Marin County, July 14, 1938. (wnp14.11618.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

People lined at Golden Gate Bridge toll booth to greet President Franklin Roosevelt driving into the city from Marin County.People lined at Golden Gate Bridge toll booth to greet President Franklin Roosevelt driving into the city from Marin County, July 14, 1938. (wnp14.11636.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

President Franklin Roosevelt approaching toll plaza in motorcade after crossing Golden Gate Bridge. Round House restaurant in background.President Franklin Roosevelt approaching toll plaza in motorcade after crossing Golden Gate Bridge. Round House restaurant in background, July 14, 1938. (wnp14.11690.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

Demonstrating the perks of being president, the directors of the Golden Gate Bridge District graciously voted to waive FDR’s toll in crossing.

After a loop through the Civic Center, the line of cars, with Secret Service perched on running boards, took the Bay Bridge (opened two years earlier) to Treasure Island (just created for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 and a planned airport), where a 1,000-person luncheon awaited Roosevelt.

After lunch and speeches, the president and his group boarded the USS Houston for a review of the United States Fleet assembled between Alameda and Hunter’s Point. Each battleship, cruiser, destroyer, submarine, and aircraft carrier offered the president a twenty-one-gun salute as the Houston wove through the armada.

President Roosevelt's motorcade on Yerba Buena Island departing 1939-1940 Worlds Fair on Treasure Island, still under construction. President Roosevelt’s motorcade leaving Yerba Buena Island. GGIE fair on Treasure Island in background still under construction, July 14, 1938. (wnp37.03676.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

Crew of sailors saluting President Roosevelt, July 14, 1938.Crew of sailors saluting President Roosevelt, July 14, 1938. (wnp14.11666.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

Then it was back on a train headed east to visit Yosemite. Roosevelt would later meet up with the USS Houston again in Southern California for a fishing trip in the Galapagos Islands and a return to Washington, D.C. via the Panama Canal.

We catch ourselves saying (more than we should), “It was a different time.” Make no doubt of it, politics was just as cutthroat, partisan, and acrimonious in 1938 as in 2018, but there was a public show of civility, at least at the highest levels.

The San Francisco Chronicle was no friend to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A high compliment from the Chron at the time was that, while FDR was a dictator, he wasn’t as bad as Mussolini or Hitler; but columnist Royce Brier, writing of the visit, grudgingly admitted “Many opponents [of the president’s politics] will be taken by surprise when they find themselves cheering a little, along with the President’s most devoted admirers.”2 California’s Republican governor, Frank Merriam, rode in the automobile with the president and spoke at the luncheon. San Francisco mayor Angelo Rossi, another Republican, gushed FDR a hearty welcome from San Francisco. Perhaps these men would be dismayed at how public discourse is conducted today.

But the future is always hazy. During his own speech at the Treasure Island luncheon, Roosevelt said he looked forward to the Golden Gate International Exposition. He promised “I shall come back to see it next year confident that in 1939 there will be peace in all the world.”


See all images from the FDR visit on OpenSFHistory


1. Willis O’Brien, “Half Million People Line Streets to Greet Roosevelt,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 1938, pg. 1.

2. Royce Brier, “This World Today,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 14, 1938, pg. 1.

Quesada Gardens: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

In 1919, in the midst of a massive bond-fueled effort to improve city infrastructure and streets, the Department of Public Works prepared to take on the one block of Quesada Avenue running west from Railroad Avenue (now 3rd Street). The street had a jumble of Victorian cottages on either side, which, while humble, had a polished elegance the rough, weedy roadway lacked.

Quesada from 3rd, June 11, 1919.View west on Quesada Avenue from 3rd Street, June 11, 1919. (wnp36.02172.jpg; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works Book 25, DPW image 6098.)

Quesada near Newhall, June 11, 1919.View west on Quesada Avenue near Newhall Street, June 11, 1919. (wnp36.02171.jpg; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works Book 25, DPW image 6097.)

Many of these homes were built around 1903, when the street was named 17th Avenue South, petering out at the hillside where the Silver Terrace neighborhood stands today. Real estate brokers Lyon & Hoag offered lots on the block for just $350 then, appealing to the working men looking for housing near their jobs at the California Fireworks factory, the shipyards, and the meat, poultry, and tallow processing plants of “Butchertown.”

By November 1920, the residents of Quesada Avenue had a newly paved street with center median. On the west end, a concrete retaining wall made a dead-end of half the block, but had a staircase giving walkers access to the Mount St. Joseph Roman Catholic orphanage beyond. Soon after, the Quesada median was planted with Canary Island Date Palms, same as the better-known ones along Dolores Street in the Mission District. (Over the last twenty years, from the Embarcadero to Ocean Avenue, palms have been a popular choice for renewing streetscapes in the city, but they still rub many old-time San Franciscans the wrong way as “too L.A.”)

Quesada from 3rd, November 12, 1920.View west on Quesada Avenue from 3rd Street, November 12, 1920. Median and paving finished, but palms yet to come. (wnp36.02395.jpg; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works Book 27, DPW image 6722.)

The palms and a good deal of the early cottages survived the twentieth century as the Bay View (now commonly spelled Bayview) District swelled in the 1920s and post World War II years. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, the street had become decidedly uninviting. Situated on busy 3rd Street, but not a thoroughfare to anywhere beyond the block, Quesada Avenue became a magnet for litter and a hangout for drug-users.

Resident Annette Smith described the median at the turn of the century in this great article by KALW reporter Jen Chien: “There was a lot of dead grass, weeds […] It had all kinds of debris: beer cans, liquor bottles, needles of where they were using drugs, condoms. Name it, it was out there.”

It was again time for a remaking of Quesada Avenue, but this time it wouldn’t be a city agency doing the work. Neighbors, led by Smith, Karl Paige, and Jeffrey Betcher began turning the ground between the old palm trees into gardens for roses, vegetables, and sunflowers. The Quesada Gardens Initiative was soon born, not only beautifying a block with gardens on the median, murals on the retaining wall, colorful tile on the concrete staircase, but broader community-building with newsletters, a blog, film nights, and art projects across the extended neighborhood. The Quesada Avenue project grew into a model of community building activism. The initiative’s inspiring website says it all: “Together, we are bringing back the days when all who live, work & play in Bayview Hunters Point greet each other by name.”

Karl Paige and the gardens in 2006. Paul Chinn photograph, San Francisco Chronicle

Quesada Avenue wall with mural.

This is a reflection, a positive one, of the times we live in. In 1919-1920, with pavement and palms, the city improved what must have been a dusty-in-summer/muddy-in-winter road for the residents of Quesada Avenue. Today, neighbors are doing it for themselves, planting seeds that flower far beyond their front yard.

Read more on the Quesada Gardens Initiative.