Florence Cunningham — Saratoga Historian
"Much of the graceful and pleasant atmosphere of the city (Saratoga) is due to its lovely trees and picturesque roadways," said Florence Cunningham. Cunningham, unofficial historian, had a life-long passion for Saratoga and California history. She is responsible for writing and documenting the first hundred years of Saratoga in a book; for Saratoga becoming California Landmark #435-the only city in California to become a landmark; for being one of the founders of the Saratoga Historical Foundation and for providing the seed money for the Saratoga museum.
Cunningham was born in Suisin Valley, California on December 31, 1880 to Amanda and Ebenezer (EM) Cunningham. The family moved to Saratoga in 1881 where they lived on Saratoga Avenue on a fruit ranch. Cunningham could trace four great grandparents who crossed the plains starting in 1848 to come to California. Her father also crossed the plains to get to California.
Cunningham's brother, Charles was born in 1885 in Saratoga in the family home on Saratoga Avenue. He is noted for writing an unpublished history of the Madronia cemetery.
She was educated at Saratoga School on Oak Street and at San Jose Normal College where she graduated in 1901. Today women have many opportunities for employment. In the 1900s women were teachers, dressmakers, nurses or went into domestic service. Cunningham taught school for many years-including a one-room schoolhouse near Castlerock where she taught all grades to a class of 35. She also taught at Saratoga School on Oak Street and school in the gold country in Jacksonville.
In 1915 she took a correspondence course from the American School of Home Economics in Chicago, IL. The class was advertised for homemakers, professional courses for teachers, dietitians, institution managers, nurses, and caterers. The course covered food, health, housekeeping, clothing and childcare.
Cunningham kept notebooks documenting the wildlife and plants while covering her travels to the Sierras, Yellowstone and the western United States from 1920-1924. She saved Saratoga memorabilia with the dream of opening a history museum.
History and Landmark Committee-the Beginning
Cunningham was an early member of the Saratoga Foothill Club and started the History and Landmark Committee in 1938. She served on the committee for almost thirty years and is credited with preserving many of the records of the Foothill Club's history.
Saratoga's First Hundred Years
Cunningham gained knowledge of Saratoga's history by studying the Frank Farwell diaries, deeds, newspaper files, and other records.
"It's as exciting as a whodunit," she was quoted in an interview. "You get a little clue and work on it. You may come up against a blank wall on that, but get some information that starts you off on a new trail."
She wrote a series of articles for the local newspaper in 1948 called, Our First Hundred Years that became the basis of a book by the same title. Her health was poor and Frances Fox was asked to edit the book which was published after her death. She also wrote a book about Abolitionist John Brown called After Harper's Ferry. She began to research and write extensively about local history-responding to queries in the public regarding local history. She was a popular speaker about local history at PTA meetings and in schools.
California Landmark #435
Cunningham, along with 15-year old Saratogan William Abeloe, was instrumental in getting the town of Saratoga declared California landmark #435 (the area believed to be Oak Street and Big Basin Way). The plaque was placed on the Memorial Arch on March 25, 1950 to commemorate when Juan Bautista de Anza came through in 1776. Abeloe would also go on to write many books and articles about local history and become a leading local historian.
Saratoga Historical Foundation
The 1960's appeared to be a time when many local history organizations were founded including Mountain View, Cupertino, Campbell and others. She started a history club that met at her house for a few years until the Saratoga Historical Foundation was formed in 1962-one of the first local history organizations in the area.
She was a founding member of the organization. Although her passion sparked interest in history in both the Foothill Club and the Saratoga Historical Foundation, she was a modest woman and preferred to stay with researching and writing rather than pursue a leading role in either organization.
Cunningham was an active member of the Pioneer Society of California as well as enjoyed historical tours produced by the San Jose Adult Center.
The Start of a Museum
She died on May 31, 1965 after a short illness at the age of 84. She remained single all her life and left money in her estate towards the founding of a museum as well as donated items to be put in the museum. Many of the books on history that she had collected during her lifetime were given to the Saratoga library.