May Day Queens: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

We recently had 420 Day in San Francisco. A slang term for marijuana became a joke about April 20th, and within a couple of years it was an excuse for people to drive to Golden Gate Park from all over the Bay Area to get stoned. It’s a recent thing. A bit older, but not by much, is the SantaCon pub crawl, when people dress like St. Nick and journey from bar to bar, giving everyone the holiday treat of Father Christmases vomiting in streets. What we don’t have anymore—or it’s so underground I’ve missed it—is May Day.

May Day parade at Market and 7th Street, 1936.
This sort of May Day parade, in support of workers’ rights and social justice, continue today. Market Street at 7th Street, May 1, 1936. (wnp27.2689.jpg, Courtesy of a private collector.)

I don’t mean any of the May 1st pro-labor strikes, ever-hopeful Socialist rallies, or International Workers Day marches that are still held in liberal cities like San Francisco. I mean the pageantry with pagan roots of crowning a May Queen and dancing children braiding ribbons around maypoles. May Day was an actual holiday for San Francisco’s school children in the early twentieth century, when free cookies and milk were served at Golden Gate Park’s Children’s Playground and hundreds of 6-12 year-olds participated in a pageant with mock royalty.

May Day festivities in Golden Gate Park, May 1, 1918.
Dancing around the maypoles at Children’s Playground, May 1, 1918. (wnp36.01855.jpg, Department of Public Works, Book 22, Image 5337; Copy courtesy of a private collector.)

In the early 1890s, May Day events were mostly hosted by benevolent or fraternal organizations and consisted of band music, picnics, and private military company drills. The local post of the Grand Army of the Republic hosted a big event on May 1, 1891 in the Mechanics’ Pavilion at the civic center and just a small part of the lineup was a May Pole Dance, described as “Sixteen young ladies on the ribbons surrounded by sixty young Misses in ballet costume.” Miss Eva Dold Brand was crowned Queen of May, drawn on a cart pulled by dozens of her less fortunate peers. United States president Benjamin Harrison, in the midst of a visit to the city, attended. Queen Brand had a pretty address ready to give him, which began “It is most fitting that the Queen of Utopia should pay her respects to the head of a nation…” Over at nearby Woodward’s Gardens at a different event, Miss L. O’Brien was crowned “Queen of the May,” and I suppose we are fortunate that the two queens didn’t have a war over Market Street with the president in town.1

The Midwinter Fair was in full flower for May Day in 1894, and as part of the exposition in Golden Gate Park four hundred girls between 10 and 12 years old were recruited for a May Day dance on what is today Big Rec ball fields. More than twenty applied to be the May Queen, with the qualifications set forth she must be “a little girl 10 years old and very pretty.” Her court was to number 150. Dance instructor Professor W. J. O’Brien, in charge of the affair, had his hands full with the arrangements, which included a flower-decked chariot for the queen pulled by two ponies.2

May Day parade in Golden Gate Park, 1920s.
May Queen and court pulled on cart by attendants in Golden Gate Park, circa 1920. (wnp27.4744.jpg, Courtesy of a private collector.)

By 1910, the city park department had become the host of a giant May Day festival in Children’s Playground with maypoles, dancing, games, athletic events, and lots of free food, from oranges to beef sandwiches. The San Francisco Chronicle promised that “every child who takes advantage of the holiday will be given all he or she wants to eat and all the fun he or she can stand.” Scottish and Gaelic dancing schools had begun to emerge as primary participants. As many as 60,000 people attended and fifty police officers were assigned to the event.3

In addition to the giant Golden Gate Park celebrations, neighborhoods held their own pageants and crowned their own local queens. Mayor James Rolph drove all over town on May 1, 1912, to honor four different queens. As the century progressed, the maturing Parkside neighborhood’s May Day pageants crowned a queen from the 1930s to the mid 1970s, and were a must-attend event for the political elite.

The park department ceremony moved to Kezar Stadium after World War II. The photos on OpenSFHistory from that era are a little sad, with the smaller crowds and dance groups diminished by the cavernous size of the stadium. The last queen officially crowned under city auspices may have been Mary Elizabeth Gleim in 1969, as maypoles and May queens ceded the Golden Gate Park stage to hippies, rock concerts, and Vietnam War protests.

May Day parade in Kezar Stadium, 1950s.
May Queen and court in Kezar Stadium, 1950s. (wnp33.00984.jpg, Lee Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)


1. Advertisement, San Francisco Chronicle, May 1, 1891; “May Day Festival,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 2, 1891, pg. 10.
2. “The May Day Fete,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1894, pg. 11.
3. “Children’s Day to be Big Event,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 1, 1910, pg. 37.

Calvary Cemetery: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

In early March 2018, excavation work in a parking lot of the City Center shopping complex on Geary Boulevard between Masonic Avenue and Lyon Street unearthed dozens of grave markers and cut stone. Workers carefully stacked the headstones and granite curbs in piles while an archaeologist on site noted what was found.

Unearthing cemetery stones at the City Center parking lot, March 8, 2017. (Photograph courtesy of Chris Carlsson.)

We shared the news on Western Neighborhoods Project social media ( and @outsidelandz on Twitter) where even long-time locals expressed surprise to learn that, in the heart of the city, thousands of San Franciscans had been laid to a final rest that turned out to be only temporary.

The shopping center and the Anza Vista neighborhood to the south had all once been part of the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery. The archdiocese purchased the land on August 16, 1860, when Divisadero Street represented the western edge of the City of San Francisco. Calvary was one of four major cemeteries established in the 1850s and 1860s around Lone Mountain: to the north was Laurel Hill Cemetery and on the west were the Odd Fellows Cemetery and Masonic Cemetery (the origin for the name Masonic Avenue).

Calvary Cemetery, circa 1865.
Calvary Cemetery, circa 1865, looking southeast over the Point Lobos Road (now Geary) near Masonic Avenue; tollhouse and gate for the road; (wnp37.01364, Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

Beginning in 1864, the Central Railroad horse car line carried visitors up Bush Street to the land of the dead, terminating at what was known first as Cemetery Avenue, then Central, and now Presidio Avenue. There, those looking to continue farther west could rent a horse and buggy and pay a toll to drive on the Point Lobos Road (today Geary) to Ocean Beach. Beginning in 1880, the Geary Street Park & Ocean Railroad ran cable cars to the summit, where those headed for Golden Gate Park could transfer to a small steam train that went as far as 5th Avenue and Fulton Street.

Geary and Presidio, 1881.
Geary St. Park & Ocean Railroad Co. cable car at today’s Geary and Presidio. Calvary Cemetery in background. Here one transferred from cable car to steam train to Golden Gate Park. (wnp37.00328, Isaiah West Taber photograph. Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

Calvary Cemetery’s first entrance was at the Central/Point Lobos transfer point—today’s Presidio Avenue and Geary Boulevard—but the riotous behavior from saloons that opened at the intersection forced the Archbishop to create a new entrance on the east side at Ellis Street. For four decades Roman Catholics of the city were laid to rest on the hillside.

The City of San Francisco banned new burials within the city limits in 1901. As development stretched west, Richmond District neighborhood groups, real estate concerns, and leaders in city government agitated for the cemeteries to be removed from San Francisco altogether. Masonic and Odd Fellows Cemeteries were the first to go in the 1930s. After a long fight, Laurel Hill and Calvary succumbed at the dawn of World War II. Those from Calvary were reinterred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.

In the early 1950s, the Calvary Cemetery land was redeveloped as Anza Vista featuring a large Sears department store, today’s “City Center,” with a Target, Ulta Beauty store, Starbucks, and a couple of small quick-food restaurants.

Holy Cross Cemetery shared our Facebook post on the recent excavation, and has apparently agreed to take the stones: “We received these remnants from the contractor this morning and are busy researching what names we can decipher.” Preliminary research indicates that the people were indeed relocated to Colma, even if some of their memorials were not.

1947 Aerial over Calvary Cemetery.
Aerial view looking northwest to Golden Gate, showing graded Calvary and Laurel Hill cemeteries awaiting housing developments, September 29, 1947. (wnp28.1794, courtesy of a private collector.)