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History of El Cerrito

The following was written by Fay Breneman, a daughter of Dr. Joseph Breneman. The doctor and his family moved to Rust in 1911. Fay was a schoolteacher and a librarian. She ran the library on Fairmount Avenue and Liberty Street for many years. She was born in 1884 and lived to be 90 years of age. This must have been written around 1940-41, before El Cerrito High School opened. It was received from Joe Staley, Dr. Breneman's grandson.

The history of El Cerrito antedates the coming of the English-speaking people to California. From 1697 when the Jesuits came until November 9, 1822, California was under the Spanish flag. The Jesuits left in April, 1768, and the Franciscans under Junipero Serra came and began the founding of the missions. This church work was part of the Spaniards three-fold plan of colonization: the religious, represented by the missions; the military, by the presidio, that was established by each mission; and the civic, by the pueblo, with an alcalde who acted as mayor and judge, in charge.

After Mexico became independent of Spain in 1822, the last Spanish governor, who was also the first Mexican governor, called an assembly of ten delegates composed of the commandants of eight presidios and two Fathers representing the missions and apprised them of the successful Mexican revolution and the assembly declared Alta California from then on dependent solely on the government of Mexico. This governor, Pablo Vincente de Sola, on August 5, 1820, granted to Don Luis Maria Peralta the Rancho San Antonio, consisting of 43, 472 acres, a tract which is south of the Rancho San Pablo.

During the Mexican rule, 1822 to 1846, there were several different governors and at times as high as two. Disputes arose, sometimes there was armed conflict, but usually no one was hurt.

Two of these Mexican governors concern our history. Governor Jose Figueroa, who served only two years and then asked to be relieved of his office, on June 12, 1834 granted to Francisco Maria Castro the 17, 938 acres comprising the Rancho San Pablo. This is inscribed on a marker at the county line on the west side of San Pablo Avenue. The rancho was inherited by Mrs. Julia Galpin, who lives in Piedmont, from her father, Victor Castro.

The other governor who was of importance to us was Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado, who was so adept at persuasion, that he could make a man believe black was white. His son, H. V. Alvarado was district attorney of Contra Costa County and later Superior Court Judge. I think that the Alvarados at one time resided at the rancho. [Editor's note: the Alvarado family lived for years at their adobe on Church Lane in San Pablo.]

In an old letter which was translated by an El Cerrito man not long ago, there is an interesting account of a man who set out to join his two sons who were taking part in the Bear Flag uprising in Sonoma County. He stayed at the Rancho until he could get a boat to take him across the bay, but before that time the affair was over.

One heritage we have from the Spanish rule is in our names: San Pablo means St. Paul; El Cerrito, the little hill; Contra Costa means opposite coast, a name which lost part of its significance when Alameda was cut off from it. [Editor's note: Alameda County was created in 1853 by carving off and combining the southwest part of Contra Costa County and the northeast part of Santa Clara County.]

Between 1846 and 1848 California was under the rule of American military governors, six of them. On December 20, 1849, all the machinery for state government was ready with representatives elected and sent to Washington to hasten the passage of the bill making California a state, September 9, 1850. Peter H. Burnett was the first American governor. [Editor's note: the United States and Mexico fought the "Mexican War" from 1846-1848.]

Like all other Spanish grants the Rancho San Pablo was in time cut up into smaller parcels and came to be owned by the Americans. When the U.S. government took over the state, a man named William Carey Jones was appointed from Washington to investigate the land titles. Nevertheless there was much litigation regarding the ownership of property. There was an especially long dispute over the Rancho Sobrante.

Mrs. Mollie Davis told me that her father had a farm in the southeastern part of El Cerrito, their home being located somewhere in the neighborhood in back of the mausoleum. Mrs. Davis was a sister of Mr. Louis Hagen, the father of Mrs. Blanche Brodt and of Louis Hagen, Jr., in whose honor Louis Hagen Post of the American Legion is named. For years the Hagens lived at the county line where the Hollywood Club is now, but they now make their home in Walnut Creek. Mrs. Davis told me that bears were frequently seen in the hills near her home when she was a child. Another sister of Mr. Hagen married the Mr. Davis who owned the property on which the bank is located. This Mr. Davis was the father of Mrs. Annie Wilson and Mr. Harry Davis and the grandfather of Louis Davis and Albert Wilson. Another son, Fred, was constable and school trustee. Included in the Davis property were the buildings from Fairmount Avenue to the Denton property. [Editor's note: about a half a block south of Fairmount Avenue.] Here were the barber shop and Davis Hall, later known as Huber Hall, because Mr. Huber afterwards bought the vacant property, and now it is known as Bill's Club.

The land now known as Richmond Annex was farmed by the Conlon Brothers, whose home was on the site of the Union Oil Service Station. [Editor's note: the station was at the southeast corner of San Pablo and Lincoln.] Mr. Frank Conlon was constable during the time of the influenza epidemic and he was succeeded in office by his brother George. One of the Conlon brothers, Tom Conlon, is still living here as is also, Miss Mamie Conlon, a sister. One sister, Miss Fannie, died in 1931. Mr. Ed Conlon was at one time a school trustee. He was a man on whom everybody depended, who everybody respected more highly than people usually do their neighbors.

Mr. John Balra ran a dairy farm on the land between the high school and the cemetery. His home stands on a knoll just north of the cemetery. Of his dairy, the health officer said, "It is the cleanest dairy I have ever seen."

Mr. Hansen had a farm in the northern end of town. Another resident who has lived here a long time, is Mr. John Simas.

After the Southern Pacific Railroad came through, factories found locations near it on the waterfront. One of these was the powder plant back of El Cerrito Hill and on Point Isabel. Explosions were of such frequent occurrence that the houses in this town had to be built without plaster. The last explosion was so severe as to break windows in Berkeley, and the powder plant was never rebuilt.

All these factories and farmers used horse-drawn vehicles, so in 1888, Mr. William Rust decided to located his blacksmith shop here. The blacksmith shop was remodeled and is now the Kiefer Furniture store. For years Mr. Earl Wilson had a garage there. Mr. Rust specialized in the building of wagons and was able to make all the wagon parts himself. In 1899 he sold out to Mr. Schwake, another blacksmith, who had a shop on his own property where the hall is now. Mr. Charles Schwake, his son, is now our constable. Mr. Rust, his wife and sons took a trip to Germany. On their return they started a hardware business. Mr. Rust also was the first postmaster in the town. Albany wanted the post office but the government decided in favor of Mr. Rust. The post office and the town which was now growing up bore the name Rust.

In the nineties there was a narrow gauge railroad running from the bay region into Orinda. After the Spanish American War, the right-of-way was taken over by the Santa Fe Railroad. When the Santa Fe shops came to Richmond and the Standard Oil Company located there, Richmond started to become a city. Lots in Richmond were sold in all parts of the state. Naturally any other property in the vicinity began to attract attention and several tracts of land were subdivided here, the Boulevard Gardens tract and the Hays Tapscott tracts. [Editor's note: the Henderson Tapscott Tract.] The San Francisco earthquake in 1906 caused people to look for new locations on this side of the bay.

Among the families who pioneered here were the Hinds, who had the first home on Behrens Street, Molica, Schaefer, Barber, Matthiesen, Floyd White, Henderson, Mrs. Heine, Mrs. Wiseman, Wagner, MacKinnon, Bert, Renfree, Wright, Rosenstrauch, Curtin, Ayres, Marsala, Bigley. Mrs. Floyd Wright Scott came in 1906 and says there were only 10 houses in town then.

Mr. John Morris had the misfortune to have his grocery store burn down, but he rebuilt it on Richmond Street.

The children of the pioneers at first attended schools of West Berkeley and Stege. The first teacher to conduct a school in El Cerrito was Mrs. Bowers, not Mrs. Nantz of Albany. At first the children met in the Miller barn in Albany, then later in Davis Hall while Fairmont School was being built. In 1912 Stege School was annexed to Richmond when the people near the Pullman Shops and in Stege voted to become a part of Richmond. Up to this time our city had been part of the Stege School District which also included Kensington. This left a two-room school here, so the trustees petitioned the supervisors to include it in the Richmond school system. This was done and has given our children the benefit of the Richmond supervision. The high school is a union affair serving Pinole, San Pablo and Giant as well as Richmond and El Cerrito. In 1913, Fairmont School had four teachers, two good rooms and two shacks. Later two wings and an auditorium were added to the main building. It burned down and has been replaced by a larger, safer building. Our new high school will be ready next August, we hope.

In 1912 the sale of lots in Richmond Annex was going merrily on. Mr. Rust had built the flats where the cleaning establishment is located now. [Editor's note: in the space now occupied by Pastime Hardware.] One of the store rooms was used by the Henderson Company (who subdivided the Richmond Annex) for a tract office. Mr. and Mrs. Rust lived in one flat and my folks in the other one.

The Six Bells in early times was called the Red House. Mr. Avila, who ran it for a while, owned six acres around our house and built his home, which is now our house, on this property. In early times there was no bank so the men who worked at the Powder Plant used to cash their checks there and Mr. Avila is reputed to have done considerable money lending. As a result of the litigation about the Rancho San Pablo, that portion of it which is now know as Richmond Annex, had fallen into the hands of a Mr. Myers, an Oakland attorney, and when the taxes began to be more than the rental, he sold his 350 acres to the E.J. Henderson Company who made a beautiful subdivision out of it. The streets were well paved, trees were planted, and the parking strips were planted with petunias. The purchase price was in the neighborhood of $300,000.00. When my folks first came here there was a grand truck garden around our place.

When you got off the streetcar at the County Line in 1913, you found a saloon on each side. On the west and on the very edge of the creek was Mr. Fischer's and on the east side, Mr. Mundy's on the site of the Hollywood Club. Some other old buildings housed some lunchrooms on the east side of the street. Blind Jim had a peanut and cigar stand there. Continuing north on San Pablo Avenue you came to the grocery store run by Mr. and Mrs. G. E. Miner, now the old Kona Club. Then there were the hall, bank, shops and other Davis buildings on up to the corner of Fairmount. North of Fairmount there was the house in which Judge Thompson now has his office, and back on Kearney, Mr. Kaufman's house. On the west side of San Pablo between Fairmount and Central were a blacksmith shop, grocery store, meat market, post office, hardware store, Annex land office, and Mr. Schwake's home. At the corner of Central there was the Red House and in the next block, my home. The next building on the west side was the La Vyra Inn. [Editor's note: about 12 blocks north, at San Pablo and Burlingame.] The grocery store where the Annex Candy Store is now was run by Mrs. Murphy and later by C. R. Johnson.

Back on the east side of San Pablo Avenue there was a bakery shack that was built for a bakery, but which was mostly vacant. Mr. Sanford's shop is there now. At the corner where the Union Oil Station is now located, the Conlon home stood. [Editor's note: at the southeast corner of San Pablo Avenue and Lincoln.] The monument works was located where the library is now. [Editor's note: on Fairmount at Liberty.] Mr. Morris had a grocery store on Richmond Street near Fairmount Avenue.

At Stege Junction there were stores and a blacksmith shop. [Editor's note: at Potrero and San Pablo Avenue.] Mr. Moro, the father-in-law of Mr. Soldavini, had a plumbing and heating shop there. In 1913 to 1914 the post office was where the Vogue Beauty Parlor is now. Mr. Barber was postmaster. Later the post office was moved across the street into the place where the bank is now and then it was run by Mrs. Onnie K. Curry.

In 1913, the County Librarian, Mrs. Whitbeck, came to the teachers' institute and asked for volunteers to start branches of the County Library in their towns. I offered to start one here. Mr. Barber let me keep the case of fifty books in the post office and I went there three days a week after school and we had a library. Later we moved the library to our home where it was located until the El Cerrito Improvement Association outfitted the present quarters in May 1925. [Editor's note: at Fairmount and Liberty.] For several months they paid the expenses, and then the city took it over, all except my salary and cost of the books.

The city was incorporated in 1917 in August as a city of the sixth class. Mr. Barber was the first Marshall, Mr. Sandvick, Mr. Larsen, Mr. George Adams, Mr. Kirk Gray and Mr. Phil Lee, were the Trustees and Mrs. Grace Castner was City Clerk

The first service station in the city was run by Mr. Phil Lee. [Editor's note: at the northeast corner of Fairmount and San Pablo.] The City Trustees bought a small fire engine which was kept in a garage on Mr. Lee's property. The temporary city hall was in the block by the bank. The city celebrated the first Fourth of July after its incorporation. Festivities took place in the Annex where Panhandle Boulevard turns. In the night, about one o'clock, Mr. Stewart came to our house and said, "your whole place is going. Don't you know your place is on fire?" We went outside and found that the dry grass on the southwest corner of our block had caught fire and the wind was rapidly carrying the flames in our direction, but the fire had not reached our lots. While we were out preparing sacks to fight the blaze, the Albany fire siren blew and soon the Albany fire engine was on the spot and had the fire out. Then Mr. Winfred Schmidt pulled up with the El Cerrito fire engine single-handed. He had found it with flat tires. We were glad when the city issued bonds for a fire hall and had a real fire engine. Our block was not then a part of the city.

One thing to be regretted is that the greater part of Richmond Annex voted to join Richmond. The election was won by a very small margin. In order to give the City of El Cerrito control of traffic on San Pablo Avenue, the people who lived on the west side of San Pablo Avenue between Avila Street and the County Line voted to be annexed to the City of El Cerrito. That allowed for the paving of San Pablo Avenue from curb to curb. Speaking of streets, Kearney Street was the first one paved and improvement in the character of the buildings was apparent at once. The plan was to gradually work east as property owners would sign up for paving.

For years there was a one-track car line to Richmond. It was put through some 32 years ago. It was on the east side of the street. Part of the time a transfer had to be made at the County Line. Later the streetcar company decided to make a double track line of it and put the poles down the middle of the highway between the tracks. They had the work well started when one citizen, Mr. William F. Huber, stood out against them and secured an injunction with the result that the poles were put on the sides of the street. There was a switch at the county line. Sometime the streetcar company would run trains of flat cars loaded with crushed rock from the quarries, sometimes they had trailers on the regular streetcars.

In the early twenties, the Realty Syndicate sold off the tract known as the Berkeley Country Club Terrace in quarter acre lots. Each purchaser was given some lumber to start building. The streets in this tract had been well laid out, but the company had not installed a sewer system nor provided utilities. The city insisted on the installation of sewers and then paving was put in with the result that many original owners lost the homes they had struggled for.

The sewage system for the district was installed by the Stege Sanitary District before Stege became a part of Richmond and before El Cerrito was incorporated. This practically coincides with the old Stege School District. Bonds for it have been paid now.

The city voted to become a part of the East Bay Municipal Utility District so we are assured of a good quality water supply.

The El Cerrito Journal is our older newspaper. It began in 1917 and was started by Mr. Newsom, and run by Mr. Sirard in the MacKinnon Building, and later by Mrs. Maxwell in the present location. Now we have the Review, also.

The El Cerrito Community Church first had a building on Richmond Street which was used until the present church was built. The Catholic church was built later.

In the course of time other stores were built by Mr. Minor and Mr. Bagley in our end of town. Mr. Salituri has started drug stores twice. Mrs. Blomberg for years had a dry goods store, also Mr. Cisi and Emily. Mr. Tezzi had stores at the Stege end.

My father was the only doctor to live in El Cerrito for any length of time.

I have not told you about the addition of the Berkeley Park and Cerrito Park tract nor the building of Harding School.

The census of 1930 gave El Cerrito 870 people. It will probably be double this year.

Copyright Mervin Belfils, October 1975
Copyright El Cerrito Historical Society, June 2006

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