24 March 2011

Birthday Bio -- Granwilla -- Wilhelmina "Willa" Truman (Sale) Gilbert 1887-1986

  • We called her Granwilla. 
  • Her husband, Louis Jules Gilbert, called her Billy. 
  • She was christened Wilhelmina Truman Sale at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael. 
  • She liked to be called Willa.
  • She was born in San Rafael, 24 March 1887, the youngest of 4 daughters born to Elizabeth Anne "Annie" Walton and William Truman Sale.  
  • Her name is a dead give away that they had given up on having a son.
  • Her parents were English immigrants from Warwickshire who met and married in Marin County, California.
  • Just one English relative, her mother's sister Eva (Martha Evangeline Walton Harbord), came to the US to visit, but she was a pen pal with her cousins in England though she never went there.  Aunt Eva from England is on the left below, Annie next to her. Willa is 2nd from the right with sister Kit's arm around her. Sister Eva is in front. Unidentified male friend in the middle, and the Marin hills in the distance.

  • Her cousin, Tom Hackett's daughter, Winnie (Hackett) Miles renewed the family connection when in the 1960's she came to Berkeley to visit her son, Roger Miles who was at Cal as a visiting math professor.  Willa loved Winnie who eventually stayed for weeks with her. I met Tom in Chippingnorton, England in 1966 and stayed with Winnie and Leonard Miles at Haverigg, their beautiful home and garden on Burford Road. Our extended families are still in touch -- Walton, Miles, Hackett, Boddington, Gilbert, and more.
  • She played the violin beautifully -- both in an early symphony in Marin County and in a string quartet in Berkeley that played regularly on the radio. As a girl she took a ferry to San Francisco for lessons.
  • She came by her musicality naturally. Her mother's uncle, Willam Thomas Atkin, was a pianoforte maker in London. Her sister, Eva, taught voice and sang in Alameda. Her son (our dad) studied and performed under Eva's guidance, and was in the Cal glee club with his trained baritone/bass voice (he was a policeman in Pirates of Penzance).
    • Her family moved to Alameda when she was in college and she remembered the 1906 earthquake with seriousness.  The family slept in the downstairs living room for days during the worst of the aftershocks. She walked to catch her ferry to go to classes at Cal where she was a sophomore but was told at the dock that all the male students were in San Francisco fighting the fire and classes were cancelled.
    • She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1908, and could read Latin until her death at 99 in Orinda. She asked me in 1968 when I graduated if the senior girls still wore white every day of senior week.
    • She eloped with Louis Jules Gilbert 4 Feb 1911. They got married in her sister Kit's Stockton living room, then lived in the big Gilbert house in Alameda (as Louis' father demanded of both his elder sons and their wives) until she convinced Louis he could commute to San Francisco just as easily on the ferry from Marin County as from Alameda, and they moved to San Rafael where their children were born and raised.
    • She had two children in San Rafael -- our aunt Elizabeth Anne "Betty" Gilbert and our dad, John Baptiste Gilbert III.  They eventually moved to Alameda then Berkeley.
    • She spent 45 years as a widow -- Louis died just before Christmas 1941 after lingering in a SF hospital with a failing heart. He never knew his grandchildren, us.
    • She played the piano almost as well as she played the violin.  We could hear her as we walked up to her door on our visits.
    • She was the first person I knew who had a TV -- a huge wooden console with a tiny green screen.
    • She walked down many stairs from Eucalyptus Road to Star Grocery on Claremont Ave. in Berkeley to buy treats for her cat who was allowed to sleep on the center pancake grill on her gas stove.
    • She kept sourdough starter in her refrigerator, always. And brought sourdough biscuits to Thanksgiving. She also brought tomato aspic which I loved but my brothers did not.
    • She kept a box of wooden spools and shoelaces, and one noisemaker for us to play with in her kitchen nook though children were to be seen and not heard. I was a little afraid of her as a child.
    • She taught me to play solitaire.
    • She created a gorgeous garden which even had gladiolas, irises, and calla lilies streaming down the steep back hill beyond the curved paving stone patio, lawn and flowers.  We could see and hear the Sacramento Northern Train come through the tunnel into Oakland from the backyard, and later could see Highway 24 winding its way east to the Caldecott Tunnel.
    • She pronounced the flower impatiens impottyens.
    • She had a high trilling tinkly laugh.
    • She came to dinner at Hacienda Circle every other Sunday night, and we always had leg of lamb.  She had a tender gut and ate a limited number of things -- chicken, lamb, rice, aspic, sour dough biscuits, and occasionally a hot buttered rum.
    • She knit, sewed and designed her stylish clothes.
    • She carried herself with great dignity and was always trim. She took long daily walks well into her 90's.
    • She announced at 99 that her time had past, and she quietly stopped eating. 
    • She died 8 May 1986.
    •  She had two children, four grandchildren, seven great grandchildren, and now 15 great great grandchildren.
    • She has a beautiful great great granddaughter named for her, Willa Cerys Holt.

    Happy Birthday, Granwilla.  I'm still in awe of you.


    1. What a beautiful young woman! I love this post and the way you have made bullet points of the facts. Very easy to read that way. Wow 99 years! You must have loved her very much! (and I love the name "Willa"!)

    2. Interesting. I love both names, Willa and Wilhelmina.
      She would certainly feel honored to know Willa Holt was name after her.
      Happy birthday!

    3. I am not connected with this family but really enjoyed reading the blog. Thanks for sharing.



    4. Hello Lavinia - I recently came across a circa 1890 advertising sign from the manufacturing chemists J. M. Scott & J. B. Gilbert of Sacramento for their "Top-Notch Tonic" elixir. Is this Gilbert any ancestor of yours and if so, do you have any other information about this "Tonic"? If I can figure out how to attach a .jpg photo I will send one on to you. Many thanks, Phelps@Fullertonassociates.net


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