Sweet Jane Wapple

Jane Gertrude Wapple

Too often we forget that women as much as men have played
important roles in the story of South Valley.
My intention is to use the next few columns to highlight various
women in Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Hollister and San Juan Bautista who
helped shape our small niche of the globe.
Too often we forget that women as much as men have played important roles in the story of South Valley.

My intention is to use the next few columns to highlight various women in Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Hollister and San Juan Bautista who helped shape our small niche of the globe. There’s no better time to do this than March, which is “Women’s History Month.” And there’s no better person to start with than Jane Gertrude Wapple. Born to Hollister’s McCloskey family in 1879, she helped save many lives in post-World War I Belgium.

Today the name “Wapple” is mainly known for the pharmacy located in Hollister’s Nob Hill Food Store. The original Wapple’s Pharmacy was started by Jane’s husband George Wapple, a prominent figure in San Benito County during the turn of the 19th century.

The couple’s Hollister home, located at 498 Fifth Street, was designed by San Jose-based architects Wolfe & McKenzie. Built in 1903 at a cost of $5,888, it still is a showcase of prairie craftsman architecture.

George’s wife from his first marriage lived next door. Three years after moving in, the Wapples woke early one morning to the terror of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. George put his arm across Jane as their brass bed “sashayed around the room,” according to their only child, a daughter named Georgia.

The house withstood the famous quake. It now serves as a museum for the San Benito County Historical Society.

Last weekend, I visited the Wapple’s former home. Museum docent Sharlene Van Rooy gave me a tour, pointing out a display case holding the prominent Wapple family’s mementos. In one corner of the living room stands an ornate pharmaceutical case – a focal point of George Wapple’s drug store once located in downtown Hollister.

Van Rooy showed me a picture of Jane Wapple in her younger years. Perhaps it had been taken around the time she married George. What struck me most was her beautiful eyes radiating compassion and a keen intelligence. She must have been a warm-hearted woman, I thought.

Walking through the museum, I tried to imagine life in the elegant dwelling when George and Jane Wapple called it home. They surely would show hospitality to all who knocked at the front door. Perhaps the couple often threw elaborate parties for friends, inviting an array of celebrated folks of Hollister and the South Valley who hobnobbed in the spacious rooms.

But most nights, the couple probably simply sat near the fireplace and enjoyed each other’s company. Their lives were relatively quiet. George minded his various business enterprises, and Jane tended her various society and charity functions.

And then, far from the quiet farm town of Hollister, Europe erupted into a conflict known back then as “The Great War.” Although it was thousands of miles away, news came to the South Valley of the deaths and atrocities. By their fireplace, George and Jane Wapple must have read in the Hollister Free Lance about the blood bath in Europe.

The Armistice began on Nov. 11, 1918. Almost immediately, the Committee for Relief in Belgium appealed to the world for funds to supply food and clothing for Europe’s starving people. Money was also needed to care for orphans whose parents were killed by the war’s devastation.

From Hollister, $5,000 was cabled. It had been quickly raised and sent by Jane who had immediately volunteered to head the Belgian relief activities in San Benito County.

Belgium’s officials were astounded by what was, back then, a huge sum of money coming from such a small California community. In gratitude, they named an orphanage for young girls “Home Hollister.”

Jane continued her efforts to raise money for the orphans. One of the biggest events she organized was a lavish fund-raising party she called “The Belgian Fête.” According to a Hollister Free Lance article: “The Belgian Fête given on the courthouse grounds and attended, it seemed, by everyone from this county as well as neighboring towns, netted a splendid sum totaling nearly $8,000.”

In October of 1919, King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium came to San Francisco to honor 100 Californians who provided humanitarian aid after the war. At a reception at the St. Francis Hotel, the queen pinned on Jane a bronze medal – the highest honor Belgian royalty could bestow.

In the Oct. 16, 1919 issue of the Hollister Free Lance, Jane is quoted as saying: “I am proud of Hollister and proud of the people of San Benito County, for it is because of their hearty response to the call of Belgium in the hour of need that I have had the honor of being decorated by the Queen of Belgium.”

Jane continued contributing to the San Benito County community for many decades. In 1923, she conceived an idea of raising funds to build a Veterans’ Memorial Building to honor San Benito County military men killed in World War I. Certainly inspired by the success of the Belgian Fête, she proposed putting on a county horse show at Bolado Park. She originally called her project a “Spanish Fiesta,” and she and her friend Mrs. John Bryan spent several months raising public interest. Jane’s

immensely successful event raised more than $14,000 in two days. This large sum went toward the Memorial Building soon built in downtown Hollister. Her idea also gave birth to the annual San Benito County Saddle Horse Show that’s still held annually at Bolado Park.

Jane Wapple is an extraordinary woman who made the South Valley – and the world – a better place. Her efforts helped many Europeans she never met survive a barbarous war and rebuild their lives in its aftermath.

“The War to End All Wars,” of course, never did end any wars. But it did make a heroine of Jane Gertrude Wapple, a remarkable Hollister woman who was rewarded by Belgian royalty for her compassionate service to the people of Europe.

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