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September 6, 2005 > A town of history, a garden of saints

A town of history, a garden of saints

A long time resident of a local parish - referred to as "Niles" by locals - has begun the process of anointing forgotten figures of spiritual and historical significance with sainthood. Ed Frakes searched among tomes and tombs, using a healthy dose of artistic license, to uncover a host of deserving, yet unrecognized men and women of good faith and high honor who heretofore had remained anonymous. The namesake of his town, Niles, was among them and was formally installed in his "garden of saints" last year.

Frakes has been a bit "unusual" all his life. As part of a family of eight siblings, he was always a bit different. Childhood days in the small town of Valley Falls, Kansas was devoid of art training but two and a half years of college was interrupted by the draft and a stint in the army at Fort Ord, Monterey. Moved to different surroundings and bored, he enrolled in an art class. "I could do it," says Frakes who adds, "It gave me so much pleasure, I just never quit."

Following his discharge, Frakes finished his college education and moved to Santa Cruz, Hayward, and Fremont's Warm Springs district, finally ending up in Niles in 1980. The house he bought needed quite a bit of repair, but Frakes and his two sons were up to the task. It now boasts a second floor studio with skylight and many home-built refinements. Frakes' son, Page, lives around the corner from his dad and works as an animator and Jothan lives in Seattle employed in the high tech industry.

For 23 years, Frakes taught in the Newark Unified School District and when he retired in 1992, converted to full-time artist. He remembers that soon after retirement from teaching, he was drawing and thought, "This could take all day and I have it!" A prolific artist for 45 years, Frakes uses watercolor, oil and pencil for landscape, still life and figure drawing. He is drawn to the Iris plant that he sees as a reflection of his soul. Blooms are "fleeting" so he says you have to work fast to capture its essence. A series of 12 paintings adorn one wall of his living room following the life cycle of an Iris bloom. Each painting reflects a day of the bloom. It is hard to find a room that is missing at least one image of the attractive flower.

Ed Frakes' house on Niles Boulevard is the only place his artwork is displayed. People stop by on appointment or during the Friday Artwalk of Niles held on the first Friday evening of every month. Frakes artwork is fascinating and the house which serves as an unusual gallery complements his creations on canvas, but the garden is where a special spiritual resonance resides. He knew his property would not be complete without the blessing and protection of a higher power, or better yet, several of them. An angel was already in residence, but saints were in short supply. Ed decided to find out about little-known "garden saints" who needed to be recognized and enshrined.

Arduous research began to uncover the true stories of garden saints such as St. Dahlia, a Mayan Indian pottery-making woman. Her path to sainthood lay in teaching wild Jesuit missionaries to calm down and "become centered." She accomplished this by instructing them to focus on clay centered on a pottery wheel. "This stopped them from running amuck in the wilds of America, converting and destroying more natives." Football teams use this simple technique by having a "center" on each team. Frakes claims that St. Dahlia is honored each year by a North American celebration called the Super Bowl.

Newly discovered saints reveal a forgotten world of sainthood covering such important personages as the "patron saint of automatic transmissions," and another of "fast foods." The origin of key words such as the naming of Ireland and phrases including "feel good" are actually the result of these garden saints. Frakes also can advise sufferers of ingrown toenails of their patron saint. The saints are cobbled together from all sorts of used materials, often left by friends and neighbors at Frakes' doorstep for canonization.

Standing tall among the garden saints is St. Niles, the patron of the entire community. His early - and thought to be quite unsavory - life is shrouded in mystery, but later he established a mining claim on a small creek at the mouth of canyon. His camp became "a refuge for near-do-wells, hoodlums, and wanna-be's." He built a store/community building/saloon/church and served as minister, priest or rabbi and catered weddings. "The philosophy of wanting to be everything to everybody and using every business and spiritual opportunity is still embedded in the community that began using his name."

Speculation is that at his death, a long concrete cover was fashioned to entomb the remains. Smart townfolk decided to incorporate this block that resembled an "I" into a sign on the hillside so "they wouldn't have to drag a tombstone up the hill." His grave is still visible on the hillside as part of the "Niles" sign. Buying, selling and trading unwanted articles of others became a way of life for the residents of the town that bears his name. A song, indicative of the complex life of this saint, has been created for special occasions. As a prelude to the annual Anitque Faire in Niles, Saint Niles makes his rounds (with the help of his living acolytes) and blesses the people and objects to be traded. The second verse of "the blessing" is indicative of the lighthearted and whimsical spirit of St. Niles:

Bless our goods, St. Niles, we pray, and
Bless the sellers on Flea Market Day.
Bless the buyers, may they pay
For things we didn't want anyway.

Frakes is partial to his garden saints and although on display, are rarely sold. Some of his saints inhabit other parts of Niles, but he does have "generic" saints which, after a suitable dousing of water, can be named by the purchaser and given a history by Frakes. Of course, other art works including canvas representations of local and foreign vistas are also available for sale. Another interesting collection is a bevy of numbered and dated birdhouses from a marathon year-long session in 1995. Frakes had been making birdhouses for sale, but decided that he was "sick and tired" of it and stopped. Looking around, he discovered there none left for him. He vowed to make one birdhouse a day for a year - and he did! There are still about 50 of these left.

To visit the spiritual home of St. Niles and maybe get a glimpse of the great one himself, a trip to Niles is in order. Niles boasts a collection of unique stores that will keep even the most jaded shopper enthralled. Of course, the 12 garden saints and the great St. Niles will always watch over the area to assure a good time. For those interested in visiting Niles, visit for information about shops and events. To make an appointment with Ed Frakes - to visit his home gallery, view the garden saints and have a personal audience with St. Niles, call him at (510) 794-1368.
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