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Leland takes flight with 'Balloon Boy'

June 5, 2005
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

It’s easy to see that Dorothy Kupcha Leland enjoyed the years it took to research and write “The Balloon Boy of San Francisco.”

She loves to talk about the detective work it took sifting through old newspapers, diaries and public records in an effort to reconstruct many of the details surrounding this true 1853 adventure story of a 14-year-old newsboy who became, inadvertently, the first Bay Area balloonist.

Leland, a Davis resident, earned her English degree from UCLA “a long time ago,” and began but didn’t finish a master’s program in journalism at Cal.

Life got in the way of that advanced degree – she began working at TV stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento. And then she married Bob Leland, the finance director of Fairfield. Before too much more time went by, they had two children and moved to Village Homes in Davis, not necessarily in that order.

But Leland always kept her hand in publishing in one form or another, beginning in 1984. Her business, Tomato Enterprises Book Publishing, has three books in print: “Patty Reed’s Doll: The Story of the Donner Party” (which she did not write) and two that she did: “Sallie Fox: The Story of a Pioneer Girl” and “The Balloon Boy.”

She enjoys both reading and writing historical novels aimed at young readers, about age 10.

“We didn’t have a TV when I was growing up,” she said. “Reading was a really big thing in our household of four kids and two parents. We read a lot. I remember particularly the summer between sixth and seventh grades. That summer I read ‘Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea' and several other Jules Verne books. That just sticks in my mind.

“We used to ride our bikes up to the library, fill our (bicycle) baskets with books, read them and take them back,” she said. “And I was always intrigued with the idea of writing.

“I really enjoy the research, too,” she said. She ran across the story of Ready Gates, the young San Francisco newsboy who took flight, when she was researching the story of Sallie Fox. She always thought she would return to it someday.

“I found this newspaper story about a balloon ascension that took place in Oakland. Ready and his friends went over to sell oranges to the crowd, estimated at 2,000 people.”

The crowd wanted to see the balloon take off, but there was a glitch. The balloonist was too heavy and it wouldn’t rise. Ready, who was small for his age, climbed on and the balloon shot into the air and out of sight.

The onlookers assumed it was all over for the newsboy but remarkably Ready sailed over Mount Diablo, past Martinez and Benicia, and touched down somewhere around what today is the Interstate 80/Highway 680 interchange. He was fine. He walked to a farmhouse, spent the night, and the next day walked to Benicia and took a boat back to The City.

He wrote up his story on the boat, and took it to his paper, the San Francisco Commercial Advertiser. A special edition was printed up and Ready got the exclusive sales rights – no other newsboy was allowed to sell his story.

“That’s the story I found,” said Leland. “But I wanted to incorporate more historical details.”

The SF Commercial Advertiser was not the paper of record for the day and few copies of it remain. But Leland bought the microfilmed copies of the Daily Alta California and by reading each paper published in 1853 she was able to integrate several interesting historical events, large and small, into the story of the balloon boy.

“San Francisco was cut off from the rest of the world,” she said. “When ships arrived they would bring news including mail and newspapers from New Orleans and New York City.”

The newspapers might be 28 to 30 days old, but never mind. The newspapers were the first goods off-loaded and quickly rowed to the docks where Ready and his contemporaries sold them.

“It was a good job for a boy at the time,” Leland said. The newsboys bought the papers for 10 cents each and tried to sell them for as much as they could get. Sometimes a wealthy reader would throw down a dollar and not wait for change.

She found another curiosity in the newspapers of the day -- myriad missing persons ads.

“It touched me,” she said. “There might be an ad seeking information about someone who left Boston in 1849 and hadn’t been heard of since. A mother in Germany might be trying to reach her son. The ad would instruct anyone with information to contact a solicitor’s office.”

That gave her the idea for a subplot that runs through “The Balloon Boy.”

“I do like history and I tried to figure out how people accomplished things without the resources we are accustomed to today,” she said.

She has an idea for another book, too. She is a little close-lipped about it because it’s just in the idea stage.

“It takes place in the 1860s and it’s the true story of a boy who became very famous later on. Everyone would recognize his name,” she hinted.

But Leland fans will have to wait for the next Tomato Enterprises title. In the meantime, “The Balloon Boy” is available at local bookstores.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org. If you have a favorite author or title to suggest for review, this is the place.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
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