By Amy O’Hair
Over a hundred years ago, a young woman in Sunnyside led a group of local kids and teens in a fight against animal experimentation on shelter dogs. It was just one part of the nature education and activities of the “Log Cabineers,” a band of young outdoor adventurers led by the remarkable Elfreda Svenberg of 751 Foerster Street. Faced with the dire prospects of a pro-vivisection bill then pending in the California legislature, the group made public its objections, and brought bunches of Mount Davidson wildflowers to the Financial District, hoping to move the hearts and minds of ordinary San Franciscans.
The Prendergast Bill of 1917 allowed for the forced transportation of dogs and cats from animal shelters for the purpose of medical or scientific experimentation. Many people all over California objected to the notion that companion animals could be taken—for only a small payment—from the “havens of mercy” that shelters provided, and given to those who would perform experiments on them before killing them. The Sunnyside kids had spent hours watching the wild rabbits and birds in the scrub of local hills and elsewhere; they loved their own pets at home; and the idea of such cruelties urged them to take action.
Wild Flowers, Wild Life
Setting up stands on Market Street and at two luxury hotels downtown, the kids offered little wildflower boutonnieres of made up of johnny-jump-ups, buttercups, and other offerings picked from from Mount Davidson, where native wildflowers famously grew before housing came to the slopes. (Read an account from the 1920s here.)
Being dedicated to protecting wildlife, and lovers of animals, they had previously offered guinea pigs, rabbits, and other animals and pets at fundraising sales, but now the kids stopped doing this, fearful that the animals might end up in the vivisectionists’ laboratories. Elfreda made sure the newspapers heard about the kids’ campaign, though only the San Francisco Bulletin bothered to cover their efforts.
The pending bill elicited an unprecedented response from the public—aside from the kind-hearted children of Sunnyside—producing crowds of people at the State Capitol on both sides of the issue. At a hearing at the State Capitol three days after the Log Cabineers had been selling their little bouquets in the Financial District, the bill “was responsible for bringing here the largest and perhaps most notable gathering of prominent men and women that has yet appeared at a public hearing on any proposed law in this state,” the Oakland Tribune reported.
The California Assembly passed the bill, but it was defeated in the Senate by May 1917. The defeat became one of the first events in a long progression of California legislative protections for animals. (Here is the latest one.)
Fresh from graduation at UC Berkeley, young Elfreda Svenberg formed her nature group in 1916 or so, and through it she introduced local children to the joys of being outside with plants and animals, and taught them skills of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. They met often to explore the local flora and fauna, like the wildflowers of Mount Davidson. She also took them on trips further afield, such as a ten-day vacation in Marin and a berry-picking stay in Sebastopol to earn money.
We learn more about the Log Cabineers from the SF Examiner, which sent a reporter out to Sunnyside a few days after the anti-vivisection stories. Their feature left out any mention of the controversial issue, focusing only on the activities of the group.
Every Cabineer took an oath—a paean to the idealizing improvement-mindedness of the Progressive Era:
“I promise to keep my body healthy, my morals clean, my mind cheerful, and to protect and preserve wild life.”
Miss Svenberg was inspired to create the group while reading about child psychology in the course of her studies at UC Berkeley. She found out that there comes a time in the teens when the parental influence wanes, and having what she called an adult “outsider” can help keep them on a good course—something now called alloparenting. Her family’s home at the top of Foerster Street in Sunnyside, then unpaved and almost completely undeveloped, was surrounded by lots of open space, the perfect place for exploration and discovery.
She included both boys and girls in her club, ranging in age between 12 and 16. This proved to be mildly controversial, as dividing the sexes for teen clubs and activities was common practice then. In response to “some criticism,” Miss Svenberg defended her inclusiveness, saying the kids were “too occupied with the joys of outdoor life” to become boy-struck or girl-struck.
“When a boy and girl are blistering their hands learning to row; are carrying water for the camp or building a proper fire for cooking a meal or even chopping wood together; when they are equally anxious to become experts swimmers and are interested in plants and trees and flowers, there is no time for distorted sentimentality.”
They had raised funds before this for their various trips, but the main objective in March 1917 was to raise the money to build their own clubhouse.
Perhaps Elfreda and her Log Cabineers had good luck with their fundraising, because later that year, this notice appeared in the SF Chronicle.
SF Chronicle, 15 Dec 1917. SFPL Chronicle Archive.
I have yet to discover where exactly it was located, probably on Judson across from the CCSF Horticulture Center—or Judson Hillside, Sunnyside’s last bit of open space, fittingly enough. The spirit of the Log Cabineers lives on. (My own daughter loved to explore the wilds of Judson Hillside in the 2000s.)
A Remarkable Life
What happened to the exemplary and ambitious Miss Elfreda Svenberg?
After her adventures with the Log Cabineers, she took up writing short stories, having worked on a student weekly publication at UC Berkeley. To get fresh air and give herself a break from the typewriter and the desk, she rode her prize-winning horse, Prince Denmark, at the Golden Gate Park stables.
There she met and fell in love with trainer Oscar Romander, “one of the best known horsemen in the West.” They married in November 1922, settling in a house on Sixth Avenue. She worked as a secretary for the Federal Bank in the city. Later they lived in San Mateo County with her widowed mother.
In the late 1930s, she began another career, becoming a graduate from UC Berkeley once again, at age 43, in 1938.
She subsequently got a master’s degree in social services at Northwestern University in Chicago, and worked at the Illinois reformatory for women at Dwight after that. During WWII, she did psychiatric work for both the US Government and the Red Cross. After the war, the couple settled in California’s Central Coast.
Elfreda did not have children of her own, but certainly did a lot of alloparenting in her life. She died at age 59, in 1954.
A version of this article was previously posted here in 2018.
- “Vivisection Bill Fought by Children,” SF Bulletin, 16 Mar 1917, p13.
- “Juvenile Pet Lovers to Hold Flower Sale,” SF Bulletin, 17 Mar 1917, p8.
- Carol Singer, “Cheer Up with the ‘Log Cabineers’,” SF Examiner, 20 Mar 1917, p20.
- CE Kunze, “Vivisection Bill Fought and Urged,” Oakland Tribune, 21 Mar 1917, p16.
- “Log Cabin Playhouse,” SF Chronicle, 15 Dec 1917
- “Bridle Path to Romance Told,” SF Examiner, 25 Nov 1922, p15.
- “Dwight News,” The Times (Streator IL), 25 Jan 1941, p6. Alfreda Romander, employee of the women’s prison at Dwight IL, is called to Los Angeles, as her mother is ill.
- “Elfred Romander is Cambria Speaker,” The Tribune (San Luis Obispo CA), 8 Jul 1946, p2.
- “Elfreda S Romander Dies Sunday; Funeral to be Held Thursday,” Los Gatos Times-Saratoga Observer (Los Gatos CA), 27 Jul 1954