Have an “Uncle Nathan” Christmas

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 12/1989

No early Mountain pioneer was more beloved than Nathan Comstock. The spirit of the 1912 Christmas story shown below shows you why. This month’s history is merely to help you enjoy that saga. Universally known as “Uncle Nathan”, Comstock was an archetypal hermit. Yet he was noted for generosity and “soft eyes” and while he was regarded as a “character”, he was well known throughout the County. For instance, you can find passing reference to him as recently as in the 1960 CSM yearbook. pretty impressive for a coot who died in 1896. But as befits a hermit, whose life should be hard to detail, his is shrouded in mystery and contradictory evidence. He was born in Rhode Island, sometime between 1808 and 1820. Four different documents show four different years. He was tall, with grayish white hair and a long beard, and soft blue eyes; records vary his height between 5’11” and 6’2″. One account describes him as the perfect image of Rip Van Winkle. Absolutely zip is known about his early life. Exactly when he came to the Mountain is unclear, but records of the Pioneer Society of San Mateo County show he arrived in the County in February, 1850, which makes him about as close as you can get to a 49er without actually being one. Maybe he was one and came here soon thereafter. But he was clearly on the Mountain by the mid-1850s.

Rumor says he left Rhode Island due to a jilting by his heartthrob. Regardless, he always lived a hermit’s life here. Early on, in the 1850s, he was a low level lumberman, probably working for the Richards Steam Mill, and then later for C.H. Lapham at the same site. Comstock himself became the next owner of this land and kept his residence at the old mill site until his death. This was at what is now the Kromat home on Old Ranch Road, a little south of Ware Road and immediately north of Henrik Ibsen Park. But the entire parcel was much larger then, totaling 140 acres and covering the west slope of Skyline from just north of Ware Road down almost to the Fire House. His land extended west to what is now the MROSD Purisima Preserve, and down to what was then the Kreiss property and is now the Redwood Park subdivision.

After the mill closed, his life was spent hunting for skins with his dogs, a perfect hermit” s lifestyle. But he also farmed lightly on the few cleared acres immediately around his cabin. Some of his aged apple trees still remain just south and west of the intersection of Old Ranch and Big Pine roads. He also rented this area out for group picnics, and it was well known throughout the County for weekend frolics. Gordon Bromfield, who was on the Mountain as a boy wrote of his recollections in The San Mateo We Knew:
“Nathan’s aged shingle home contained about three rooms, with front and back doors. The floors were of rough, wide planking, showing much wear in places, especially upon the sills and steps. There were one or more uncomfortable, straight-back chairs covered with skins of wild animals shot or trapped in earlier years, and an odor, which is common to all such musty cabins, prevailed. The old fellow’s appearance was also in keeping. As I picture him now, he was tall and stooped, with long gray hair and beard. His clothing was roughly patched in places, and it seems that at times he wore a skin coat that was sadly in need of stitches. His pants were decidedly high waters and his shoes of the old style, Congress gaiter, pull-on variety. With such clothing, there was plenty of skin showing around his neck and ankles. The piece de resistance was the crooked manzanita cane he leaned on when hobbling about… Like many who are partially deaf, he kept up a constant stream of conversation.”

Comstock died in 1896. As his health failed, he was cared for by Honora King. Comstock had two sisters in Connecticut and when Mrs. King notified them of Uncle Nathan’s situation they came out and tried to persuade him to return east with them. He wouldn’t. They returned home and Mrs. King continued dispensing her services to him. After he died, she billed his sisters $700 for her efforts, and with that and another $800 cash, bought from them Uncle Nathan’s 140 acres. Later she sold it to Gordon Bromfield’s father, Davenport Bromfield who used Comstock’s cabin as a summer retreat. It stood until the 1970s.

Ironically, while Comstock Road is named for Uncle Nathan, it is on land Comstock neither owned nor used. The road slices through a piece of the old Devine Ranch which Bromfield also later bought and subdivided, naming the road in honor of Comstock. Bromfield, in fact, who did most of the subdivision that has ever occurred from Harkins Road south to the Fire House idolized Comstock as the personification of the Mountain’s pioneer spirit. Most of the roads on the Mountain’s north end were named by Bromfield, but that is another story. The point is that Bromfield’s admiration of Comstock was well-placed for it is Comstock’s own hermit spirit that has driven so many of us here over the decades. In a desire to seek peace in these woods, the hermit in all of us is merely reliving in a easier era what Uncle Nathan achieved when life was tough. This story is Uncle Nathan’s Merry Christmas to you.

Woodsman Gets Christmas Gift From Ghostland
Letters Yellow With Age Directs Him to Buried Treasure Left by Hermit long Dead
(Special Dispatch to The Call)

MATFIELD, Dec. 25. - Stalking forth into the Christmas world like the spirit of a beneficient Scrooge, the ghost of old Nathan Comstock, an eccentric pioneer of the mountain village of Woodside, who died 16 years ago, came out of its grave today, bringing to a resident of this place a Yuletide gift that makes one of the prettiest stories of the holiday season.

Perhaps you do not believe in ghosts and spirits, but every reader of Dicken’s “Christmas Carol” believes, and so does Steve Perkins, a wood chopper and mountaineer in the Alpine district, near here. And in proof that ghosts exist in this workaday world he spent today showing his friends $500 in gold eagles and double eagles - none of the coins of mopre recent date than the middle nineties.

Perkins is 50 years old today, but that is only a small part of this Christmas yarn. It happens that he has spent most of his life in this region and as a young know Nathan Comstock, s did all the countyside, more by reputation tha otherwise. “Uncle Nathan” as he was called, lived alone up in the hills, a veritable recluse, and was reputed to be rich.

One day 20 years ago, in November, Perkins was walking home from work through the forest when he came upon Comstock, then more than 90 years old, pinned beneath a fallen tree. He set to work and liberated him, whereupon the aged man thanked him profusely and promised to remember him in his will. Perkins laughed and though no more about it.

He even did not know when “Uncle Nathan” died, about fours years afterwards, nor did he know that the kindly ghost of the old hermit was waiting above the ground 16 years to do him a good turn. Such property as Comstock left was distributed and forgotten long ago.
Tuesday afternoon, the day before Christmas. a yellow, age worn letter bearing a new stamp and a San Francisco postmark of December 24, 1912, reached Perkin’s home. He opened it to find the following message, dated December 25, 1892, just 20 years ago:

Steve Perkins,
Dear Friend - From the westerly end of Frank King spring on the Grabtown road you will measure 25 feet towards the sun when it sets over Bald Mount. There dig into the ground and three feet from the surface you will find reward for your kind service to me. Let it help you in your old age as you helped me.
Witnessed by Dr. J.O.Tripp.
Woodside, San Mateo County, December 25, 1892

The letter was in Comstock’s hand writting, but the odd script was still legible. Perkins immediately recalled the slight service he had done for the dead man years ago and decided to follow instructions. He took a buggy, drove to the exact spot on the lonely mountain road described in the note, and dug up for himself a rusty tin can filled with good gold coins - $500 in all.

Who mailed the letter in San Francisco Perkins doesn’t know. He thinks it must have been the ghost of Nathan Comstock.

From the S.F.Call, 12/25/1912. Courtesy of the San Mateo County Historical Association