Letter to My California Dreamer: From Denmark to Oakland's Danish Neighborhood

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Terry Curtis's grandparents on their Excelsior motorcycle, near the Oakland hills, 1915. (Courtesy of Terry Curtis)

For our series “Letter To My California Dreamer," we’re asking Californians from all walks of life to write a short letter to one of the first people in their family who came to the Golden State. The letter should explain:

What was their California Dream? What happened to it? Is that California Dream still alive for you?

Here's a letter from Terry Curtis to his grandfather, Henry Christian Curtis:

Dear Grandpa Henry,

I loved the stories you told me about your father, Jurgen. In 1904, he sailed from Bogø, Denmark to California as captain of a sailing ship, then decided to stay. In 1906, you and the rest of the family followed in groups; by steamer to Ellis Island, then by train to a Danish ghetto in the San Antonio neighborhood in Oakland, California.

Henry Christian Curtis and his wife in their Oakland home in the then-Danish enclave of the San Antonio district, 1915. (Courtesy of Terry Curtis)

When you were eligible for citizenship, you worked in a machine shop. Most of the employees were Danes named Petersen and, like you, many had the name Christian. Your given name was Christian Henry Axel Petersen. This meant paydays were a challenge since there were many checks for "Christian Petersen."

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You wanted to be an American, and a Californian, not an emigrant. So, you worked at losing your accent. At naturalization you changed your name to Henry Christian Curtis, after the character Henry Curtis in “King Solomon’s Mines” — the very novel you taught yourself English with by reading and reciting it.

Henry Christian Curtis (far right) worked as an apprentice machinist at the California Cotton Mills in 1912. (Courtesy of Terry Curtis)

Then the Great Depression hit hard. You and Grandma lost your home in Oakland. So every summer you sailed to Alaska to work a fish cannery while Grandma and your kids lived with her sister in Sebastopol. The California dream seemed lost. But World War II brought work. You built submarines at Mare Island.

Growing up in Santa Rosa in the ‘50s, I spent summers with you. You taught me to work. You wanted me to study and become middle class. Part of your California dream was that your grandchildren would have a better life. So, I attended UC Santa Barbara and law school at the University of Chicago. I was there during the demonstrations of 1968. You couldn’t understand my life then – but you let me know that you loved me, long hair, beard, crazy friends and all.

Terry Curtis's graduation portrait from UC Santa Barbara, 1966.
Terry Curtis graduated from University of Chicago Law School in 1969.

By the standards of your family on the island of Bogø, I have prospered. I became an attorney and a university professor. In a way, I fulfilled your dream. But I cannot help but worry about my grandchildren’s lives in California.

My children will not likely earn what I have. They struggle to afford housing and send their children to college. Like you, I dream of a good life for my grandchildren. You and I lived the California dream. Now, I wonder what their lives will be like if they stay here.

Terry Curtis and his former wife with their oldest son in Santa Rosa, 1975. (Courtesy of Terry Curtis)

Love,

Terry