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Guide to the Harry Plate Collection: The Rikers and Holy City, 1900-1970
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Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Biography: the Rikers, the PCDW, and Holy City
  • Summary of Collection
  • Related Material at History San Jose

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Harry Plate collection: The Rikers and Holy City, 1900-1970
    Dates: 1900-1970
    Bulk Dates: 1960s
    Collector: Plate, Harry
    Collection Size: 2 ms boxes, 1 flat box
    Repository: History San Jose Research Library.
    San Jose, California 95112-2599
    Physical location: For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the History San Jose Research Library.
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection: English

    Access

    The collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    History San Jose can only claim physical ownership of the collection. Users are responsible for satisfying any claims of the copyright holder. Permission to copy or publish any portion of History San Jose's collection must be given by History San Jose.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Harry Plate collection: The Rikers and Holy City, 1900-1970, [Box No.] History San Jose Research Library.

    Acquisition Information

    Gift of Trudy Plate (Mrs. Harry Plate), Scottsdale, Arizona, 2007

    Biography: the Rikers, the PCDW, and Holy City

    “Father” William “Ed” Riker (1873 Oakdale, Ca – 1969, Agnews State Hospital, Santa Clara Co., CA) and his wife, “Mother” Lucille Schutrum Jensen Riker (1874 Nebraska – 1950 Holy City, CA), lead a utopian communal cult, The Perfect Christian Divine Way (PCDW). Incorporated in Los Angeles in 1918 by Ed Riker, Irvin Fisher and Anna Schramm, the PCDW established Holy City in 1919 in the hills above Los Gatos.
    Riker later claimed it was a revelation in the hills above San Jose in 1906 that led him to change from palm reader to “The Comforter.” A former San Francisco waiter, salesman and con-man, Riker, and later Ohio-born mechanic Irvin Fisher (1881-1980), drew many of their followers from among financially struggling and marginally educated middle-aged throughout the Midwest. (Riker first met Fisher in Indianapolis in 1913). Counter to rumor, they were not all single, nor was “free love” a common practice. Riker, charismatic and all-knowing, offered simple answers to life’s many complex questions.
    Holy City flourished during the 1920s and 30s as a popular road stop along the difficult mountain road from San Jose to Santa Cruz, where the curious could stop for a bite to eat or help with an overheated radiator, or take a peek at a strange array of attractions or debate “perfect government.” Although the PCDW itself probably never numbered more than about 30 confirmed disciples, the population of Holy City and the surrounding neighborhood peaked at around 300.
    Holy City’s small population declined rapidly after the 1940 construction of Highway 17, which bypassed the village. The real death knell, however, was Lucile Riker’s death in 1950. While she had not been able to keep her husband’s political ambitions in check (a career move that had divided the PCDW community), her very pragmatic business sense had kept the community self-supporting. Riker lost control of the property in an attempt to revise Holy City’s fortunes by transferring ownership to an alleged, and very minor, Hollywood producer, Maurice Kline, in 1956-57. Subsequent legal battles left the PCDW dispossessed and Holy City in the hands of a land development company. By the early 1960s, little was left after arson and bulldozers destroyed most buildings.

    Summary of Collection

    Harry Plate, journalist and writer, served as Associate Editor of California Today, the Sunday magazine section of the San Jose Mercury News. He subsequently moved to Arizona. These files were compiled in 1970 to support what Plate intended to be a series of three feature articles on the life of William Riker (1873-1969), and the evolution of Holy City, California, home of the disciples of Riker’s Perfect Christian Divine Way.
    To get beyond the “tidy collection of vignettes” that made up most popular accounts of Holy City, Plate interviewed Riker family members, aging disciples, and Holy City neighbors and critics. Riker’s niece, Helen Dunning, and nephew, Ray Riker, helped Plate pin down elusive details of Riker’s early life and background. “First disciple” Irvin B. Fisher, then approaching 90, provided additional details about The Philosophy, while Joe Albert, an early disciple and one of the few remaining PCDW residents of Holy City, allowed him limited access to the Riker house. The PCDW’s youngest disciple and self-proclaimed heir, Wallace Stovall, gave Plate access to early documentation and photographs.
    Plate’s extensive correspondence with Robert Alexander Clogher provides special insight. Clogher, a local surveyor and self-styled “Passing Paladin of the Holy Citizens,” had helped the remaining eight elderly PCDW disciples protest Riker’s illegal “sale” of Holy City to an alleged Hollywood producer, Maurice Kline, in 1956. Fourteen years later, Clogher still held the San Jose Mercury News culpable for siding with Riker and Kline in dispossessing the elderly disciples. Clogher found Plate a sympathetic ear, however, and he shared much of what he’d learned about the community and helped correct many apocryphal stories.
    Included among Plate’s research and interview notes are many original Riker letters, 100 photographs and postcards, other early PCDW documents and printed material. In addition to the original material, several sources (particularly Wallace Stovall) allowed Plate to photocopy their originals. Also included are news clippings, and a notebook kept by postmistress and bookkeeper Winifred Allington.
    Plate’s “Riker: From Mechanic to Messiah,” California Today (San Jose Mercury News) (30 August 1970), pp. 6-10, about Ed Riker’s early years, was the only article he completed on the topic. “I’ll probably do two or three other installments, covering the subsequent years—but not right away,” he wrote Helen Dunning. “First, we’ll wait to see if this brings any new witnesses out of the woods.” Local and national events of this busy summer apparently intruded. Nevertheless, Plate’s collection remains a rich source for further study of Holy City’s community.

    Related Material at History San Jose

    William E. Riker, “Notes of “Father” Riker (ca. 12 pages of notes, n.d.), accession no. 1997-237-666.
    News clippings collection: Cities and Towns: Holy City (1 folder)
    Charles J. Allard, ‘Father’ William E. Riker and his Holy City, Unpublished Masters Thesis, San Jose State University, 1968.
    Joan B. Barriga, The Holy City Sideshow (San Jose: Santa Clara County Pioneers, 1988). Unpublished paper submitted to the Santa Clara County Pioneers.
    Betty Lewis, Holy City: Riker’s Roadside Attraction in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a Nostalgic History (Otter B. Books, 1992). Reference Coll: F868.S33.L49x.1992
    Eleanor Mauro, William E. Riker and Holy City: An Historical Study of One Man’s Utopia, Unpublished Masters Thesis, Dept. of Librarianship, San Jose State College, 1971.