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A short history of the Swiss Club Tell
by John R. Felder
After the First World War, immigration again got into high gear and the Swiss started arriving in California in a steady stream once more. Many came to the Bay area, and greenhorns mingled with old-timers. In the days before television, social life centered around club activities. The Swiss had a larger number of clubs than most other ethnic groups of similar population. For instance, Sweden, Denmark, Slowenia and Norway had one or at the most 2 to 3 social clubs. The Swiss, however, counted from 15 to 22 clubs.
At the head of all those clubs was the United Swiss Society, which was founded for the purpose of creating a place, where the Swiss could have their meetings and social affairs. They were also trying to coordinate the dates between the various clubs so they did not interfere with each other's plans. One of the big obstacles of acquiring a Swiss House or Park was the inability to decide on a location. One group insisted that this Swiss House should be within the city limits of San Francisco for easy access to all Swiss functions. The other group was more inclined to look for a locality with some resemblance of Swiss characteristics. In those days, San Francisco ended at the outer Mission district. Colma and South San Francisco contained many dairy farms. These groups were about evenly divided and this so-called head organization could not make up their mind or agree where to go and so, nothing came of it.
During the week, a great variety of activities were offered. One could go to a different club every evening. Monday was Bowling, Tuesday offered Swiss Band practice, Wednesday had Gymnastics, Thursday was the Singing and Friday a Jass Abend. Saturday evening usually offered a Dance with a Swiss music or Swiss Theater group performance and Sunday, weather permitting, a picnic. But it was always at a place that had to be rented from some other group.
It was around 1919 when some leading members from various Swiss organizations got together and decided that since the United Swiss Society was not able to come up with a solution, they would do it on their own. They bought several lots under their individual names in the wild hills on Mt.Tamalpais, above the small village of Mill Valley in Marin County. Since there was no bridge at that time, you had to take the ferry to Sausalito. Then you would hike or drive to Mill Valley and then make your way up the hill. There was also no road leading directly to anywhere near those lots. These were pioneer days for those worthy gentlemen.
As soon as they had enough lots together, they formed the "Schweizer Verein Tell", deeded these lots to the club and the club in the rugged hills was on its way. One of the first things they had to do was build a trail with pick and shovel, just to get to the location. Later on, when the county took over this trail, by now a small road, it was named Edgewood Ave. However, the main entry was from Sunrise Lane above the property. It was a very steep and narrow lane and not easily traversable at certain times. It was decided to use the lower road for building a clubhouse.
The law of gravity soon made the members realize that there had to be an easier way than carry every nail, board or 2x4 laboriously uphill on stooped shoulders. The old saying, "necessity is the mother of invention," came through once more. A track of 2x6 lumber was laid on edge on a cleared path up the hill and a stripped old Dodge was hauled up and put on blocks. A cable was wound around the left rear wheel, attached to a little trolley and the Swiss Club Tell had its own cable car up to the stars. With great enthusiasm they hauled lumber and building material up the hill and erected a small clubhouse.
I have been told it was a very cozy structure built with lots of energy and enthusiasm. Apparently the engineering and site preparation left something to be desired. As it was, one day during a bad storm the structure slid downhill and was a total loss. But in true pioneer spirit, a new and bigger clubhouse was erected with a kitchen and sleeping facilities. This time it was built solid enough so that it is still standing to this day. Of course over the years many additions were made. It grew and grew, and the club prospered.
Rumor has it, that during Prohibition, some discreet members operated a certain piece of equipment which was able to produce some kind of a liquid which looked to the uninitiated like holy water, but was of much higher proof. It is said that those mountain waters supplied the necessary spirit in various Swiss saloons in the City. No old-time member ever acknowledged this rumor, but none ever denied it either. There was just a funny grin on their faces and a shrug.
When the Great Depression came, the clubhouse assumed another function. There were a number of not so fortunate Swiss who had lost their job and with it their place to live .The club decided to open its doors for those few unfortunate enough and house them on its premises. Since among the Swiss there always was a cook or two, one would do the cooking and the others planted a garden, improved the property, worked on the trail, split wood and tried to earn their keep. I personally talked to some men who lived in these hard times at the clubhouse. They told me how grateful they were to have been able to stay at the club and survive.
When I became a member in 1953 it was by now called the "Swiss Club Tell, Inc." It was a swinging place. There was a major gathering at least every month, including a Fastnacht dance, a March festival, a Hobo ball in April, a Mayfest and a Summer dance. The Swiss Band performed many times and so did the Swiss Girls Drum Corps as well as the Swiss singers. They even held several Schwingfests. It was not unusual to count as many as 200 to 250 people attending. There was an arena carved out of the hillside and people sat on the deck outside and on the terraces with benches and tables. Inside there was a 5-piece Landler orchestra playing under the leadership of Ernie Walker and Paul Boesch. Dancing went on till one o'clock. Then the jamsession started and after that there was yodeling till the neighbors called the sheriff and told us to either close the doors and windows or go horne. It usually continued right on till the early morning hours. If you had consumed a little bit too much and felt it was not safe to negotiate the winding roads, you simply stayed at the Clubhouse, upstairs in the dormitory, and went home the next day.
Many a romance blossomed at the clubhouse. After all, it was a place to meet young Swiss girls and boys. The facilities were open every Sunday and one could have a hot meal and liquid refreshment. In the basement under the clubhouse there even was a bowling alley, system Morgenthaler, and many prize tournaments were held amid stiff competition. Many wedding receptions were also held at the clubhouse. Sometimes birthday or anniversary parties for members kept the dance floor polished. But like everything else, nothing lasts forever and attendance started to drop. The directors of the club faced some problems as to how to keep the club functioning.
By now the once younger generation had taken over the running of the organization and we had to face the challenges of the times. With ingenuity and crafty new ideas we were able to adjust to the challenges and keep the club on an even keel. It was not easy, because some of the old-timers were not in favor of new ideas and wanted to keep on going the way it was. But a majority of young directors prevailed and things started to look better again. For one thing, the menu at our festivities was changed to a more culinary delight than Bratwurst and Schtiblig or roast chicken. The club made a name for itself as a place were excellent food was served. It caught on and our activities were again attended very well. A steady income was assured by fixing up the various chalets on the property and renting them out. With a steady income, the club could make many necessary improvements. After much debate and many meetings it was decided to build a new kitchen. Of course those members and directors who never volunteered in the kitchen were opposed to any remodeling. All those who regularly slaved behind the hot stove and in the cramped kitchen along with our guest chefs from some of the finest restaurants of the city were wholeheartedly in favor. Luckily, we succeeded. Our longtime building chairman, an honorary, steady position, made sure that the structures were in sound condition and well maintained. Even new restroom facilities were added. It is a never ending job, but as a result we can say that the club is in good shape and will hopefully survive into the future with flying colors.
The Swiss Club Tell has been fortunate. It has been able to attract enough hard working and dedicated members, especially directors, over all these years. This spirit has enabled us to continue the efforts of our founding members.
A great big thank you to all of you who faithfully worked during the past 75 years or are still doing so at present. Happy 75th anniversary!
My information is based on personal interviews with founding members Ed Keller, Ed Schwab and early members Bob Hallenbarter, Werner Krauer, Eric Ericksen and Charley Himes, as well as Ernest Simmen, Paul Boesch and many others.