While closing the Pasetta House, my coworker looked at a small wooden statue and commented, “Goodnight Captain.” At the time, I did not think anything remarkable about the small-gnome like figure. This week, I discovered a folder entitled “Cap’t Briggs” with various notes about the statue from its previous owner, Leonard McKay. A transcription of a radio interview by Leonard in September 1995 best tells the story:
One of the most interesting characters to adorn the streets of San Jose was Captain Briggs who led three lives, first appearing on the street as ‘The Jolly Tar,’ a three foot tall British Seaman. Today, he would be known as a Cigar Store Indian, but while he adorned the front of many cigar stores, he certainly wasn’t an Indian. Unique and rotund, he was carved out of redwood and first appeared in front of the Pioneer Cigar Store in 1872. Cigars were big business at the time and at the turn of the century, fourteen cigar manufacturers were listed in Santa Clara County and tobacco was grown in the south valley Gilroy area.
His name was changed to Captain Briggs when Charley Williams, publisher of the San Jose News, decided to have some fun, and announced in the paper that “the eminent merchant shipper and prominent in New York Financial Circles is paying San Jose a visit, and is interested in purchasing some good prune property.” The local real estate brokers lined up to greet Briggs and were surprised and chagrined to find him a wooden sculpture. Later issues of the News quoted him as an authority on sports and many other fields.
He was moved from one cigar store to another and in 1936 he was finally retired when purchased by Dick Meade. He completely disappeared and it has been rumored that he is now in an East Coast Museum.
He was recently re-carved by Cliff Short. The original Briggs greeted Rutherford B. Hayes and General Sherman when they spoke in this city, he saw the first automobile arrive, the erection and fall of the famed Electric Tower, the first paving of downtown streets, and Victory Parades of the Spanish American War and World War I.
We wonder what our revived Captain Briggs will see?
After the September 1995 radio interview, the re-carved Captain stood guard outside Leonard McKay’s store at 250 West St. John Street. Today the good Captain watches over the Leonard and David McKay Gallery in the Pasetta House at History Park.