Grand Old Man of the Pacific


Falkirk's long-term, historic resident was Captain Robert Dollar who bought the house in 1906 after Ella Park's death. Falkirk is named after Dollar's birthplace in Scotland, and his story is one of great personal success linked to the expansion and growth of America. Born to a poor family in 1844 Dollar immigrated to Canada with his family and at the age of 14 began working in a lumber camp as a cook's helper. During the next five years Dollar taught himself to speak French and to do the camp's accounting, and by the age of 22 was in charge of the camp. In 1872 he bought his own lumber camp and, though his first venture was a failure, he went on to great success in the lumber business, first in Canada, then the upper peninsula of Michigan, and finally Northern California. Dollar settled with his wife in San Rafael in 1888 and began buying timberland and lumber camps in Sonoma,  Mendocino, Oregon and as far north as British Columbia. He founded one of the largest lumber companies in the west with mills producing 15 million board feet of timber. A portion of Dollar's Meeker Tract on the Russian River was sold to the Bohemian Club of San Francisco and is now the Bohemian Grove.

Dollar's second career began in 1895 when he purchased a steam schooner to transport his lumber from the Sonoma coast to San Francisco. He continued buying vessels to ship lumber, and by 1901 had established the Dollar Steamship Company that later became the American Presidents Line. In 1902 he began traveling to Asia to develop trade. He became a pioneer and leader in the China trade and in his seventies built the most important trading business between the United States and the Orient. He developed a round-the-world cargo service in 1920, and had his ships covering world trade routes on a strict schedule - a revolutionary idea at the time. In 1924 he followed with a round-the world-passenger service that was the first to publish scheduled departure and arrival times. Robert Dollar had come to be known as the Grand Old Man of the Pacific. He was on the cover of Time magazine on March 19th, 1928, and Ernest Poole wrote a series of articles about him for The Saturday Evening Post during 1929.

Dollar amassed a fortune of $40,000,000. In a 1995 survey of the wealthiest 100 men in America based on the Gross National Product of their day, Dollar was rated number 88. A poor immigrant, he became an astute businessman whose vision and perseverance exemplify the American spirit. He foresaw the development of Pacific nations and the importance of establishing trade with them. During his lifetime he made some 30 voyages to Asia, the last in his late 80s shortly before his death in 1932. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral, including foreign dignitaries, government officials, business associates, friends and family. The United States government sent the navy dirigible to drop roses over the church. California Governor James Rolph, Jr. said at the time of his death, "Robert Dollar has done more in his lifetime to spread the American flag on the high seas than any man in this country." 

 Marin Benefactor

Though Robert Dollar was an international figure his philanthropy was strongly felt at home in Marin. He donated to the purchase of 20 acres in San Anselmo for Sunny Hills Orphanage. In 1902 he built a school there and he paid to rebuild it in 1913 after it was destroyed by fire. In 1920 he gave 42 acres of pastureland for cows so the children could have fresh milk, and in 1923 he had the Grace Dollar Dickson memorial building constructed in memory of his only daughter. In 1929 he built the Robert Dollar Home for Boys. In 1917 with an endowment of $50,000 he established the Robert Dollar Chair at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. He served on the San Rafael Park and Recreation Commission, to which he donated land for Boyd Park, and he gifted the City of San Rafael with 11 acres of land in 1920 and another 8 acres in 1923. He donated chimes and beautiful stained glass windows to the Presbyterian Church in San Rafael. Though the original church was destroyed the chimes can still be heard ringing on Sunday morning and the windows are on view in the new church.

In addition to the 19 buildings Dollar erected to house his enterprises in China, he built a Y.M.C.A., an orphanage, a school for the blind and a village school. In his native Falkirk he donated an 11 acre estate to the City to serve as a park, a set of chimes for the Presbyterian church and a fountain for the town center. He also built an orphanage in Oakland for Chinese children.

Captain Dollar is certainly a prominent figure in the history of 20th century California and the United States. In 1997 Falkirk Cultural Center presented "The Odyssey of Robert Dollar" an historic exhibit of his life. Many photographs and artifacts from the exhibit are now on permanent display in the second floor hallway at Falkirk.

Family Man

The tenor of life at Falkirk during Dollar's occupancy is best conveyed by his granddaughter, Grace Dollar Dickson Kleiser. She and her sister came to stay at Falkirk in 1920, after their mother died. "We all arose at 6 a.m. and went to bed at 9 p.m.," she writes. "Grandfather read a passage from the Bible each morning and we joined in. He returned from the office about 5 p.m. and went for a walk up the hill by the tank. He carried a walking stick and often we accompanied him... There was no drinking of any liquor at any time or smoking in his presence. The holidays were celebrated with all children and grandchildren whenever possible. After my Aunt Agnes and Uncle Harold and their children arrived from China, there was much livelier entertaining." The Harold Dollar family changed the house by adding a section and redecorating and remodeling the garden.

"The barn was filled with sidesaddles (including my mother's red velvet one), and old horse-driven vehicles. My grandmother told me she had driven a pair of matched bays... When I was there she had an electric car... My grandparents frequently left for four or five months at a time. During these times the house would be closed and all furniture would be covered with sheets. Grandmother liberally distributed moth balls around and quite often she would give you candy faintly flavored with moth balls!"

"The closet at the top of the short flight of stairs going into her room was her closet, and she had things in there from all over [now the bride's dressing room to the left of the main gallery]. I remember the Japanese kimonos she liked to give as presents and lovely lingerie embroidered in convents in China."

"The nurse's room was at the top of the back stairs in those early days. I don't remember where the Chinese cook lived. Later on the Swedish cook, Gladys, lived in the center attic room. Dick Spellman, the chauffeur, and Rose, the housekeeper, became engaged and married, and they had living quarters over the garage, which was built after I moved back home... Sometimes the Chinese cook, "Gingsie," who had been brought over from Shanghai by the Harold Dollars, made "Chinese chow" for tiffin [tea]. It was very good. When lunch was served, or dinner, there was a large Chinese gong standing in the downstairs hall fireplace, which was never used, and the help would strike it."

"Grandfather sat at the end of the table and said grace before each meal. At festive occasions he would tell us a story about his life in the Canadian north woods and have us all spellbound and laughing... he had dark brown, very sparkling eyes and a white beard and you couldn't keep your eyes off him when he was talking. Although we heard the same stories over and over, we always asked him to tell them again."

In 1924, Margaret Proudfoot Dollar and Robert Dollar celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at Falkirk, with five hundred guests in attendance and signal flags from the Dollar ships decorating the grounds. Few further events on such a scale took place at Falkirk until May of 1932. Robert Dollar died on the 16th of that month, and over three thousand people attended his funeral at the First Presbyterian Church down the street. Honorary pall bearers included the Governor of California and the Mayor of San Francisco. The U S Government sent a dirigible over the scene of the funeral, and flowers were dropped from the sky.

 

One of Robert Dollar's projects was to donate the church bells that are used to this day in both Falkirk and San Rafael,
which are now Sister Cities. In this video, you will hear the bells being played in Falkirk, Scotland on April 20, 2014.