Home Features From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Chinaman Joe Folsom

From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Chinaman Joe Folsom

Chin Sin Yu, known as Chinaman Joe Folsom – Lassen Historical Society photo

by Susan Couso

We can only imagine what would cause a man to give up his home and emigrate to a new, unknown place, but so very many men have taken this course. Chin Sin Yu, who was born in China in 1871, was one of those daring young men.

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Lassen County had a number of Chinese inhabitants. They were involved in varied pursuits and only a few remnants survive today of their past legacy in this county.

The Chinese first appeared in Lassen County in the 1860’s, and by the 1880’s their numbers began to decline. They were quite independent on their own, operating their own mines, businesses and property.

Chin Sin Yu managed to find his way to Lassen County and began what must have been a most interesting part of his life. He found work at the Folsom ranch in Willow Creek Valley, near Eagle Lake. 

In the usual fashion, he was anointed with the more European name of ‘Joe Folsom’, but unlike so many other Asian emigrants, records of his birth-name survive. According to U.S. Census records, Joe was married, but there is no more about his family life. 

Joe hired on as a cook, but his intelligence and skill led him to excel at most everything he dared to try. In 1892, the Folsom ranch acquired a telegraph line, and that really piqued Joe’s interest. The following is an article from the Chicago-based Telephony magazine, printed in 1902.

“Occasionally we see articles in the various telephone and telegraph journals extolling some Chinaman for his wonderful ability as a telegraph or telephone manipulator. Some of these articles go so far as to state that some particular Chinaman, by the name of Ah Sing, had become so proficient in the telegraphic art that he could recognize the call of the office at the station where he was employed as chief cook, but as to how much farther his ability went in this direction it is not said.

The particular Chinaman of whom I wish to make mention was born in the province of Hong Kong and is now about thirty years old.  His name is (Chin) Sin You in China, but his American name is Joe Folsom. He lives at the Folsom Ranch in Lassen County, California and the facts which I am about to relate can be verified by any of the operators on the California & Oregon Telegraph Company’s lines.

“Joe, as he is known by the operators (and he signs ‘J’) is well liked by all who know him.  He is accommodating and pleasant on the line, always willing to render any assistance possible, and when the lines are working hard, do all in his power to get business along.  Joe can read and write and can take any telegraphic message that is sent him.

He, of course, is not familiar with all the words in our language but will receive them as sent and copy them correctly, delivering the message verbatim as transmitted. The Folsom Ranch office is equipped with a set of Atkinson repeaters and it falls to Joe’s duty to attend them at times. These he understands thoroughly, and anyone operating them with him would be surprised (if they did not know) to learn that they were telegraphing with an ordinary Chinaman.

One particular feature in Joe’s operating is that he has all the peculiarities of his teacher (Mrs. [Melvina L.] Folsom [1851-1917 m. Melvine O. in 1871 one son Louis Melville]) in his sending, and it is hard to distinguish one from the other in writing. Chinamen are noted for their ability to imitate.

“Joe is as good on the telephone and understands the working of the instruments, switches, etc. thoroughly. He built a local telegraph line with two instruments connected and manipulates this entirely by himself, the line being two miles in length. He is proficient in the manipulation of all instruments, batteries, switchboards, etc., connected with the telegraph and telephone.

“Joe is in for all American ideas. He is thoughtful and reasonable and enjoys all kinds of sport. He is adept on the bicycle, handles a gun with the best of them, can catch brook trout when others fail and will make the average vaquero ashamed of himself when it comes to separating cattle and riding a bucking mustang. He has a camera and is learning how to take pictures.

Joe is one of those unassuming fellows that never ‘shoves’ himself ahead, but is retiring, preferring others to judge his ability and fitness.  He always prefers to give the best of everything to others, taking what remains for himself.

“Most Chinamen (characteristic of the race) if given the least prominence or made anything of will, become so pompous and important that it is impossible to do anything with them.  But this is not the case with Joe.  With all his ability and knowledge, he is the same unassuming Chinaman that he has been and attends faithfully to his duties as a cook, and he is hard to beat in this capacity.

“Mrs. Folsom, the manager of the Folsom Ranch office, deserves the credit of being tutor of this remarkable Chinaman.  When she started to teach him, she thought it would be impossible to get him to distinguish the difference between sounds, more particularly when he began to learn the letters of the alphabet.

“He could distinguish no difference between the articulate sounds of the letters b and n, and after he had overcome this difficulty to some extent it seemed almost an utter impossibility to get him to distinguish between the sounds of the words horse and house.  But she labored with him persistently until she brought him to the perfection he has now attained.

While in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, Joe was offered a position in the main telegraph offices of that city, but his retiring nature and lack of personal importance caused him to refuse the offer, preferring rather to return to the Folsom Ranch and assume his duties as cook.”

The stereotypes of yesterday still abound in our society, but we have, at least, come to understand that just because someone is different, doesn’t mean that they are inferior.  People like Chin Sin Yu helped to bring enlightenment to our part of the world.

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

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