A Glimpse into the Life of Harriet E. Weaver

 

Fillmore High School Teacher, Author, and California State Park Ranger

By

Susan M. J. French

Harriet "Petey" Weaver 

Introduction

Susan M. J. French, August 26, 2020

As I watched the news on the huge fire that decimated much of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County last week, I thought of Petey Weaver and her love of this historic park where she became the first woman park ranger in California. Many of her summers, when she was teaching at Fillmore High School, were spent there.

 

The 118-year-old Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California’s oldest state park, and features the largest stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. A ray of hope is that many of the extraordinarily resilient redwoods are expected to survive, as they have withstood fires for hundreds and even thousands of years. However, the historic buildings that Petey knew, when spending 14 of her 21 summers as a California State Park Ranger here, were consumed by flames during this fire of August 2020.

 

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, as drawn by Harriett "Petey" Weaver

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, as drawn by Petey Weaver

Capturing her memories, Petey wrote a 404-page autobiography, Me and the Mother Tree about her 20 years working at what was the beginning of the California State Park System. Tonight, my daughter, Erika, who also loves Big Basin, told me that the park’s 329-feet-tall Mother Tree of the Forest, which Petey is referring to in her memoir’s title, is miraculously still standing after this huge lightning fire.

 

Although Petey was prohibited from becoming a full-time ranger during her tenure with the park service from 1929 to 1950—because the job was thought to be only suitable for men—she is credited as the first woman to break the gender barrier and pave the way for women who finally entered full-time service in the 1970s.

 

If only Petey was still alive in 2010 when the California State Parks year-long exhibit, "A Most Glorious Heritage: The Grandeur and History of California State Parks" was held at the California State Capitol Museum in Sacramento. The exhibit showcased the uniform of Harriet Weaver, the first female California State Park Ranger.

 

Petey’s contributions as a school teacher, author and ranger gained her the recognition of being listed in “Who’s Who in the History of California Women.” 

 

When I was a 7th grade student at Fillmore Junior High School in 1966-67, I knew Petey as Miss Harriet Weaver—the enthusiastic teacher who inspired in me a great love of California’s nature, geographical diversity and history. I knew she spent early morning hours before school writing her books and, like her, I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age. We stayed in contact throughout my high school and college years, where I majored in journalism. Our friendship continued through my years at Sunset Magazine, where Petey also worked, and then through backpacking solo through Europe for six months in my 20s, and then finally settling into a career writing about wine and raising a family. During those years, she was “Petey” to me as she continued to be my literary sage, my inspiration and truly supportive friend.  

 

I remember the last time I saw Petey, when I visited her after she moved to Fortuna to be once again among the big trees. With poignancy, I also remember the last letter I received from her, just a day before she died at 85 in 1993. Rereading it after I received the sad news, I realized that it was truly saying goodbye. Ms. Weaver was a Fillmore school teacher I’ll never forget, one who really made a difference in my life.

 

Sorting through a dusty box of old high school and college writing in my garage, I found this story that I wrote about Petey more than 45 years ago. 

P.D.Q

Susan French

June 5, 1974

“Petey” Weaver’s name came from being P.D.Q.—Pretty Darn Quick. The nickname began in high school when fellow baseball players found it necessary to shorten P.D.Q. to P.D. if they wanted to keep up with this human burst of energy and ambition.  Keeping up with Petey has been a problem ever since those days back in the 1920s.

 

Petey Weaver was a California State Park ranger for 20 summers, carved a football field with a team of horses and a plow, and led a football team to a championship. Petey is the author of six books and numerous articles, and is associated with the publishing company of Sunset Magazine & Books.

 

Petey Weaver is a woman.

The Woman Who Didn’t Wait to be Liberated

Harriet Weaver, age 6

Ever since Petey was six years old, she’s known that she wanted to write. And since age six she has been a writer, although she’s also pursued many other interests.  She sums up her life-long philosophy saying, “Whenever opportunity knocks, I answer. It’s taken me in a lot of directions.”  

 

Even though Petey was pursuing and tackling positions considered male-dominated before the tremor of women’s liberation, a recount of Harriet E. Weaver’s life is a study in career opportunities. Nothing tied her down for longer than she desired. Nor was any job taken that didn’t strike her fancy, although sometimes it was taken for an odd reason.  A 23-year-long teaching job came about when a school principal, Don Main, listening to her fascinating campfire talks in one of the state parks, begged her to come teach at Fillmore High School. She told him that she would hear nothing of it; she had enough teaching for a while.  When she received a contract in the mail a few weeks after the vehement refusal, she thought it was hilarious…and signed it.

 

“I’ve always been a little cocky,” I guess,” Petey laughed. “When I entered UCLA, I told them I wanted to major in journalism, physical education and art. They informed me that at this university, students majored in only one subject. I thought for a while and decided I wanted to play ball the most.

 

So, I graduated from college in 1930 as a women’s physical education instructor. Thirty-eight years later I taught my first girls P.E class. And my last one.”

 

When Petey entered the University in 1926, she was to become one of its first graduates as the University of California, Los Angeles. The campus was founded in 1919 as the Southern Branch of the California University at Berkeley and acquired its present title in 1927. It is the second oldest university—U.C. Berkeley was the first—in the system.

Harriet Weaver, UCLA Class of 1930

Teaching has always come as naturally as writing to this tireless author. Although her high school and college years were filled with playing ball and writing articles, classrooms always fascinated her because there was so much going on at once. As the skilled baseball player, she graduated with a degree in physical education and was offered one of the prize contracts with the well-funded Monrovia High School.  But teaching elementary school had caught her eye. So, she asked to be released from her contract and back she went to UCLA to get her general elementary and junior high teaching credential.

 

Rather than teach at a school filled with more privileged students, she chose her first teaching job to be at the Pico Rivera School near Whittier—an all-grades, all-Latino school in the days before desegregation.  “The students and I had a lot of fun together,” said Petey. “The older students didn’t have any place to play football so I got together a team of horses and a plow and we made one. That first year we had a championship team.”

 

“Then I came to Briggs School in Santa Paula, a school that is steeped in almost 100 years of tradition. I have great memories of those years too, but I became restless; it was time to leave teaching and move on.”

 

In those pre-war years, besides her summers with the California State Park Service, she wrote for the School Arts Magazine, which is a national magazine founded in 1902. It was by no means her first experience with magazines nor her last; she would write for six more publications. Petey first established herself in the field of journalism during elementary school when she had articles published in “Saint Nicholas”, a well-known juvenile magazine. In the immediate years to follow, her byline regularly appeared above full-length stories in the junior section of the Los Angeles Times. In high school, she was an editor for the L.A. City High School newspaper and yearbook, and then at UCLA she worked on the Daily Bruin as the women’s sports editor. 

 

When Petey started at the little high school in Fillmore, California in 1945, she wiggled her way out of teaching math, a subject she abhorred, and set to work on a course about California, which had a roadmap for the textbook, and brought her statewide attention. 

 

Like the small-town mayor who is also the judge, the fire chief and the justice of the peace, Petey wore many hats during her teaching years. “Every morning, I was in my classroom by 6am so I could write until 8am on my books and articles,” she explained. Then, just as the first bus arrived with a load of kids, Harriet E. Weaver, the author, became Miss Weaver, the favorite teacher.  At the first sign of summer, she would get as fidgety as her students and Petey would become the first one out the door for summer vacation with the California Park Service.

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Harriet "Petey" Weaver, California State Park Service

The uniform Petey donned every summer made her the only uniformed woman in the California State Park Service from 1929 to 1974, when the service finally began accepting women applicants for training. The Big Basin area is her favorite stomping ground. Her twenty-one summers of diversified experiences provided a storehouse of material for her books that reflect her authority on the giant redwoods and on her four-footed friends of the forest.

 

Some years, Petey Weaver was off to the Park Service in early spring before the opening of the season. Then she would make the 75-mile trek on foot over the park trails to see what repairs were needed after the long winter months. When the summer season opened, she returned to leading the evening campfires where hundreds gathered to hear the story of the giant trees. While guiding hikers over the trails she knew like the back of her hand, she shared her knowledge of the area she loved.

Lt. Col Harriett E. Weaver, Area Command

Lt. Col Harriet E. Weaver, Area Commander, Women's Ambulance and Defense Corp

When opportunity knocked during the war years, Miss Weaver fell into a job with the Ninth Service Command Specialty Training for Illiterate Troops at Fort McQuaide. P.D.Q was always at least ten steps ahead of her colleagues as she slyly sorted out the truly illiterate from the draft dodgers.  She passed out Reader’s Digests for entertainment when she was “occupied” with other work and “pretty soon there was snickering around the room and I knew, right away, which ones could read the jokes.”

 

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Harriet Weaver teaching first aid, c 1943

Opportunity never stopped knocking and wartime was no exception. In addition to her adventures at Fort McQuaide, Miss Weaver was the commander of the ambulance corp in Ventura County and taught first aid from 1941 through 1944. “I taught first aid until there was no place left in the county to teach it, there’s where I stopped, and that was enough.”

Harriet Weaver with her raccoons

Through all Petey’s activities and writings, animals have always held a special place in her life. From the stories that she wrote daily in her childhood years to Frosty, a Raccoon to Remember, which is read throughout the United States today, the “little fellows” as she called them, have been there.  

“I was eight years in the writing of Beloved was Bahamas and I lived with Bahamas through that book until he became an integral part of me.  My friends would ask when I was going to stop working on Bahamas. I’d answer, when either he’s published or I’m dead.”  Bahamas, a black angus steer who is mysteriously connected with the great flood in Klamath, California, has been patiently waiting.  

 

About the time that Bahamas makes his first debut on bookshelves this summer, Frosty will be coming back to get into mischief in a paperback edition. 

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The "Athelete's Foot" Award, by Harriet "Petey" Weaver

Knowing Petey Weaver’s independent spirit, one might guess that she doesn’t leave all her stories’ illustrations up to someone else.  Her childish drawing with her very first stories evolved into a career of sketching and cartooning.  She has two published books on cartooning and brings her stories to life through scattered sketches throughout the pages.

 

With her accumulation of knowledge of the great redwood forests, she is one of the most valuable consultants for natural science books and she’s a sought-after author. She has written three books on the redwoods. “And it looks like I’ll be writing more until the publishers give me some peace and quiet,” she quips. Much of her work has been with Sunset Magazine & Books in Menlo Park: There Stand the Giants and California’s Giant Trees.  Following those publications, she was asked to be a natural science consultant for Sunset’s pictorial The Beautiful Northwest.  The California Redwood Association sought and finally enticed her to write their book on redwoods.  Now she is once more launching into the age-old giants’ history with a publication contracted with Chronicle Books.

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Miss Weaver, Fillmore High School

Today, Petey still lives in the small citrus town of Fillmore, in the Santa Clara River Valley, where she taught at Fillmore High School for 23 years. In 1968, she retired from teaching and that year the high school yearbook was dedicated to her. “It was one of the most rewarding times of my life, not just because the students dedicated the “Copa de Oro” to me, but because their decision was made even before I announced my retirement,” reflected Petey during our interview. Teaching is the only one of her careers in which she announced retirement and she still keeps busy trying to fulfill requests from schools around the county to talk at their career days.

 

Yet with all her activities, Petey is still a ranger at heart. At the 1972 meeting of the California State Park Rangers Association in Santa Barbara, she was made an Honorary Lifetime Ranger and she is now a guest at all their conferences.  It might seem strange to some people why Petey doesn’t return to live in the Big Basin and Big Sur areas that mean so much to her. Petey explains, “Yes, there is a gap here, without the wild animals and the big trees, but with thousands of my former students around Fillmore, I just can’t go away, yet.”

Photos supplied by Fillmore Historical Museum

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