Mother Minerva: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

Minerva Hartman lived in a residence made of three relief cottages moved from a 1906 earthquake refugee camp to the Daly City/Colma border. The State of California wanted the structure condemned to widen El Camino Real, and “Mother Minerva’s” campaign to defend her home, at times with a Colt pistol in her hand, was big news in 1927. We have three images on OpenSFHistory taken at the time, all courtesy of the Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt collection.

Minerva Hartman, 1927
“Mother Minerva” Hartman telling stories while her home was being moved. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).

Relief cottages or “refugee shacks” were constructed in camps organized in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. When the camps closed the following year, refugees removed thousands of these cottages to private property. Twenty years later, in 1927, the California Division of Highways (predecessor to today’s Caltrans) began widening El Camino Real where Daly City and an unincorporated part of Colma met. The engineers faced an obstructing ramshackle house made of three wooden relief cottages occupied by an elderly woman of unusual character.

Minerva Hartman said she was a 94-year-old nurse that had served in the U.S. Civil War, Spanish-American War, Indian Wars with General Custer, and even the Crimean War, befriending the world’s most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale. Known to locals as “Mother Minerva,” Hartman usually wore an old Army campaign hat with faded cords of blue, yellow, and red in recognition of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery of the U.S. Armed Forces. She raised an American flag on a pole outside her door every morning, and made her living telling fortunes to travelers.

The Division of Highways wanted to cut into the embankment onto which Minerva’s residence stood. The old lady refused to leave or have her house moved. Brandishing an antique revolver, Hartman vowed to defend her “fort” and made personal pleas to the War Department, the governor’s office, and the media. A compromise was reached and Hartman’s home stayed in place by shoring it up with stilts and building an exterior staircase down to the roadway.

Minerva's Fort, 1927
Hartman raising the flag at “Minerva’s Fort,” 1927. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).

The arrangement certainly wouldn’t comply with any modern building code. Hartman had a thirty-step climb to get to her front door, and her rickety “shacks on stilts” home hung two dozen feet above the roadside. Even if she lost some fortune-telling customers who didn’t want to make the climb, the indefatigable Mother Minerva became a folk hero and her house a local tourist attraction.

The end for Hartman and her home came ten years later. On March 25, 1937, an oil lamp tipped over in the bedroom. One of the responding volunteer firemen later reported the scene to a coroner’s jury: “…we responded to the call and went down to Minerva’s Fort and when we got there the house was a mass of flame. We boys all got together and did the best we could. We went through the remains of the shack and as we went we came across Mrs. Hartman’s body.”

Mother Minerva Hartman, reportedly 103 or 104 years old, had died of smoke inhalation before the flames reached her. Her body was interred at Olivet Memorial Park under the auspices of local veterans groups.

For sharing Minerva history we thank the late Rich Higgins at Caltrans, researcher Russell Brabec, and our friends at the History Guild of Daly City/Colma. Other sources: San Francisco Call-Bulletin, San Francisco News, and San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 1937, and Daly City Record, April 1 and April 8, 1937.

Minerva reading
Mother Minerva Hartman inside her home. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).