Saturday, August 1, 2020



Obadiah Kendall Levings was one of as many as fifteen children born to Abel Levings and Hannah Marshall. Born in New Hampshire on November 25, 1812, his earliest life is not well documented. One record from the Lancaster School in Lancaster, New Hampshire, documents him at this preparatory school in 1832. While he consistently maintained he was a doctor, there is no record of Levings receiving a formal medical degree.

He married Jane Bleazard in Gore, Ontario, Canada in 1843. He stayed in Canada at least until his only son, John Kendall Levings, was born there about 1845. By 1850 he was living with his family in the house of his father-in-law, Robert Bleazard, at Whitestown, Oneida, New York (later renamed Whitesboro).

Levings arrived in California as early as late 1850. While his mind was obviously on the golden riches of the earth he didn’t let go of his dream of becoming a wealthy patent medicine maker. From January to February of 1851 he advertised his SYRUP OF HOARHOUND AND ELECAMPANE and his SARSAPARILLA AND ROSE WILLOW, in Sacramento, which he claimed was made in New York City.  It s true that the 1850 New York City directory notes a Levings & Co., druggists, at 515 Broome Street. He may have concocted his medicines the year prior to leaving for California, and possibly brought a shipment with him to fund his initial existence in the golden state. The advertisement notes his products may be purchased at the drug store of P. & S.S. Crane in Sacramento. No embossed bottles from this early date have yet to be found.

Levings' early ad which ran in the Sacramento newspaper for a few months in 1851. (Sacramento Transcript, January 9 1851)

By 1852 his name became prominently connected with the new settlement of Gold Hill, in the vicinity of Auburn Ravine, Placer County, California. That he was actively mining for gold in this region is documented by a newspaper article noting that Dr. Levings had found a gold nugget of nine ounces at Gold Hill. (Placer Herald, Auburn, California, January 29, 1853.)

Shortly thereafter, several Sierran towns began running an advertisement attempting to find the whereabouts of O.K. Levings.


The significance of the ad and the effort to locate Levings is not entirely clear, however, aside from the obvious that his family back in New York was attempting to determine if he was still alive, I am also surmising that they may be contemplating joining him in California. In an unusual twist of events O.K. Levings sued his wife for divorce on July 20, 1861. It is, of course, speculation, but it may be a case of his wife, Jane Levings, not desiring to join Levings in California. She continued to live in New York with her widowed father, and died in Whitesboro,  New York on July 28, 1887.

There is good documentation that his son, John Kendall Levings, did come to California, but the date remains elusive. He is noted as joining the army on Aug 12, 1863, in Gold Hill, Nevada, in Company L, 1st Battalion, Nevada Calvary. He was mustered in at Fort Churchill, Nevada, and was mustered out there on November 18, 1865. He re-enlisted December 17, 1866 and was discharged October 15, 1869. His former occupation was listed as a miner.

O.K. Levings continued with his residency in Gold Hill, California, working as a miner and investing in water supply projects for gold extraction, with mixed success. In 1863 he was forced into bankruptcy as an insolvent. (Placer Herald, Auburn, California, August 29, 1863). By 1870 he had moved to San Francisco, and again, advertised himself as a doctor and began pushing his Hoarhound and Elecampane medicine, noting that it was “formerly put up in the city of New York by Dr. Levings.” (Stockton Independent, April 28, 1870). And, by 1872, he had also resurrected his Sarsaparilla and Rose Willow for sale. (San Jose Weekly Mercury, January 4, 1872)  Based on the length of time Levings’ advertising campaign lasted, he again, stopped selling his products about 1875. In fact the 1875 San Francisco business directory notes his occupation as a “whitener” for the Pacific Furniture Manufacturing Company. It appears that Levings’ interest in mining soon returned to top billing as the 1878 voting register for San Francisco confirmed that his occupation was once again a “miner”. By 1880 Levings had returned to Placer County where he was scheduled as a “laborer” within the communities of Damascus and Iowa Hill. He apparently stayed in this vicinity for a number of years, working at odd jobs and prospecting for the next big strike.


Examples of Levings’ earliest bottles are typical of those blown in San Francisco during the early 1870’s. All appear to have applied tops and exhibit some crudity.


Just as with his Hoarhound and Elecampane bottles, the Sarsaparilla and Rose Willow bottles show a fair amount of crudity, typical for the period.


It is clear that by 1891 Levings had been residing at the county hospital in Stockton for an indeterminate time. This was likely the Stockton Insane Asylum, as there would be no other reason for Levings to travel from Auburn to Stockton to seek medical help unless it was a mental matter. Many of its cases involved alcoholism which is probably the affliction for which he was treated.  It is at this time his name is noted in the Placer County Grand Jury report when it investigated a complaint by Levings that he had been mistreated during his residence at the hospital. An investigation proceeded with the determination that there was no basis for the claim and it was dismissed. (Placer Argus, November 20, 1891)

In 1892 the 80-year old Levings again returned to San Francisco with the title of “doctor”. He promptly began selling his same two medicinal products that he relied upon when the excitement of prospecting and mining didn’t pay the bills. He saturated the greater Bay Area newspapers with ads for his syrup of hoarhound and his sarsaparilla – this time until December 1895. He trademarked his brands with the State of California under registration number 2163 on July 18, 1892. Shortly thereafter, Levings moved to San Bernardino City, presumably to be closer to his son, where he registered to vote, on October 18, 1894.


Levings trade marked label as deposited with the State of California in 1892. His registration noted that the words SYRUP OF HOARHOUND AND ELECAMPANE could be substituted with SARSAPARILLA AND ROSE WILLOW.

 During this time period Levings dusted off the old molds from when the same bottles were blown in the 1870’s. The bottles blown from these molds in the 1890’s have a decidedly different appearance in the quality of the glass. They are less crude than their 1870’s counterparts and all have tooled tops instead of the earlier applied version. The glass is generally a lighter aqua and has a tendency to stain easier. They are visually much different than the earlier variants, and quite typical of bottles blown in the 1890’s.

An example of one of Levings' ad that he used in the second round of pushing his medicines - and actually the third if one counts his first attempt in 1851. This time he advertised until the end of 1894. (San Jose Herald,  19 October 1892). 

The real mystery in his life came in 1894, when a small news article noted he made one final prospecting trip in hopes of finding the “big one”, but this time in the desert.


The last known prospecting trip for Obadiah K. Levings. After this date Levings seems to have disappeared. No more references could be found (San Bernardino Sun, September 5, 1894), except for his voting registration about a month later. We must assume then, that he did return from his trip.


Making this story even more intriguing is the fact that Levings son, John K. Levings, had moved to San Bernardino County by 1876, and was living in San Bernardino City about this time. His occupation was usually listed as a farmer or laborer. Approximately six months after his father went on his mining exploration, John did the same thing.

John Levings eventually left San Bernardino for San Diego in 1900, giving up any further interest he had in mining. Unlike his father who just seems to have disappeared, John Levings, died in San Diego on March 17, 1929. 

Being born in 1812, it is highly unlikely that O.K Levings lived into the 20th century. It would have been helpful to have found his death date, but the real story about his penchant for being a successful patent medicine dealer and his unlikely quest for the big strike, had already unfolded in his earlier years. And, now it becomes much clearer why his patent medicine bottles appear to have  been made over a long period of time, when in reality, they were blown within two distinct time periods – the early 1870’s and the early 1890’s.

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