December 29, 2010

San Leandro History at City Hall

On the wall at the northeast end of City Hall, five sets of images and words describe San Leandro History from the Ohlone Indians to farms and industrialization. The images were collected and words written by Cindy Simons, a retired San Leandro librarian, in 2002. Simons is also the author of San Leandro (Images of America: California), part of an Arcadia Publishing series on American history.

Here is the text that Simons wrote about San Leandro's history:

San Leandro
Proud of Our Past -- Looking to the Future

San Leandro history, as does California history, reflects changing cultures and land use-from the first Native American inhabitants, to the ranchos of the Spanish and Mexican periods, to the massive influx of people from all over the world during the Gold Rush, to the 20th Century transformation from agriculture to industry. The Ohlones, called Costanoans by the Spanish, were the first people in the San Leandro area. Archaeological evidence and accounts of the first Spanish explorers indicate several Ohlone villages in the East Bay. Deer, bear, and other wild game, shellfish, acorn meal, wild oats, seeds, and berries provided abundant food for the skilled Ohlone hunters and gatherers. The first Europeans in the San Leandro area were a Spanish exploring party in 1772, led by Captain Pedro Fages. Father Crespi's diary of the Fages expedition is the first written description of this land. Spanish settlement, the conscription of the Ohlone into Mission San Jose, and the rapid influx of settlers during the Gold Rush devastated the Ohlone culture.

In 1820, a land grant was given to retired Spanish soldier Don Luis Maria Peralta. His 44,000-acre land grant, stretching from San Leandro Creek to present-day EI Cerrito, was named Rancho San Antonio. He divided the land among his four sons, Ignacio, Antonio Marla, Vicente, and José Domingo. Ignacio settled in the area that was to become San Leandro. In 1842, Don José Joaquin Estudillo, also a retired Spanish soldier, was granted 7,000 acres of land from San Leandro Creek south into the present-day San Lorenzo area.

He named his land grant Rancho San Leandro. The Peraltas and Estudillos raised cattle on their land, exchanging hides and tallow for the cloth, furniture, equipment, and other goods brought by trading ships.

With the discovery of gold in 1848, people from all over the world rushed to California seeking instant wealth. The fertile land, mild climate, and access to shipping on San Francisco Bay brought disappointed goldseekers and other settlers to the San Leandro area. Spanish ranchos gave way to farms. Fruit orchards and vegetables crops began to fill the land. Cherries were one of San Leandro's well-known crops, honored by the Cherry Festivals since 1909.

In 1855, John Ward, a son-in-law of Joaquin Estudillo, filed a map of a town site to be called San Leandro. In 1856, San Leandro became the Alameda County seat. The county courthouse stood at the corner of Davis and Clarke Streets. The major Hayward Fault earthquake of 1868, which destroyed the county courthouse, was one factor in the relocation of the county seat to Oakland in 1873. San Leandro was incorporated as a town on March 21, 1872, one hundred years and a day after the Fages expedition.

Industry. as well as farming, was important in the development of San Leandro. The San Francisco, Alameda and Stockton Railroad, built in the 1860s, offered relatively cheap transportation. Many factories were located near this rail line. One of the earliest was the San Leandro Plow Company, which was purchased by pioneer Daniel Best. He formed Best Agricultural Works, which later merged into Caterpillar Tractor.

During and after World War II, San Leandro's population grew rapidly. Bay Area shipyards and military installations drew thousands of people to the area. From 1940 to 1950, and again from 1950 to 1960, the population doubled and thousands of homes sprang up in the community. In addition to population growth, 87 industrial parcels and 27 non-industrial tracts were annexed to the City between 1942 and 1965. Pelton Shopping Center, one of the first of the open-air shopping malls in California, was developed to meet the growing residential demand for commercial services.

By the late 1960s, the City was largely built out, with little land available for development or annexation. Recent decades have been a period of cultural diversification. This period has also seen a move away from San Leandro's traditional large Industry base, and a move toward small manufacturers making high-end products that require highly skilled workers.

San Leandro has grown from a population of 426 in the 1870 census, to 2,253 in 1900, to 11,455 in 1930, to 65,698 in 1970. and to 79,452 in the year 2000. As we face the challenges of the 21st Century, we look to our past with pride, and to our future with the forethought and spirit of the people who came before us. These photographs, from the San Leandro Library's Historical Photograph and Document Collection, provide a glimpse of the farms and small town life that once were San Leandro.

One Hundred Years Ago in San Leandro

In the first decade of the 20th Century, the 2,253 residents of San Leandro were a thriving community of farmers, industrial workers, and business people. An electric railway already transported passengers between Oakland and Hayward, stopping in San Leandro. The railroad on the west end of town was carrying produce and industrial goods to other markets. The first bank had been established, and the Morse/King Cannery and the Daniel Best Agricultural Works employed hundreds. Anthony Chabot's dam on San Leandro Creek had created Lake Chabot Reservoir. The 20th Century dawned quietly, but brought vast changes to our small town. What was here a hundred years ago, before computers, before television, almost before automobiles?
Horses were still the mainstay of local transportation, but automobiles were beginning their ascendance. Daniel Best built the first horseless carriage in San Leandro in 1898. Contests between local drivers were so keen that a portion of Joaquin Avenue was, by ordinance, declared a "Speedway" - over the protest of several property owners. Bicycles were popular as well, and an ordinance to restrict the speed of bicycles to eight miles per hour included the provision that bicyclists should not appear on the streets with bare legs on penalty of a $25.00 fine. Increased motor traffic created a demand for better streets and roads and the replacement of a "creaky" covered wooden bridge over San Leandro Creek with a concrete bridge built In 1901. This concrete bridge still carries traffic on East 14th Street over San Leandro Creek. Although the bridge has been expanded, the original structure is visible from underneath the bridge.

Electricity brought many changes. Streetlights were changed from coal oil to gasoline in 1900, and then on July 15, 1903, electric streetlights were turned on for the first time. Electric lights were common In businesses by the turn of the century. New residential wiring was reported almost every week. In the photograph above of Hayward Avenue (now East 14th Street), the number of insulators on the telephone poles Indicates dozens of telephone connections.

Turn-of-the-century San Leandro found entertainment in many places. Church bazaars, fairs, parades, and festivals were popular. Many clubs and organizations were active at this time, including the Ausonia Club, the Sociedade Portuguesa Reinha Santa Isabel (S.P.R.S.I.), a tennis club, the San Leandro Baseball Club, and dozens of others.
In the early 1900s, San Leandro children attended Union Public School, located at Clarke, Saunders (W. Juana), Carpentier, and Hepburn (W. Joaquin). Increasingly crowded, Union School was torn down and replaced by Lincoln School in 1910.

Modernization may have been the driving force of the early 20th Century, but San Leandro was still primarily a farming community. An ordinance passed in 1903 prohibited the keeping of swine within the city's limits, but still allowed two cows per citizen having less than two acres of land. Bruce Elerick writes of those days in San Leandro, "It was a time of relative peace and prosperity in Alameda County. A time of hard work, of 12-hour 6-day work weeks.. Younger boys played in knickers, knee length socks, and caps; little girls in petticoats, aprons, and 'pig tails.' There was a car or two banging around disturbing the hum of bees. but horses and wagons were still the mode of the day . . It was a lovely time to be alive and the most spectacular sight of all was the cherry trees in blossom, thousands of cherry trees as far as the eye could see."

San Leandro Celebrates Cherries

San Leandro calls itself the "Cherry City" and a cluster of cherries adorns the city seal. Cherry trees still grow in back yards, but once cherry orchards sprawled across the San Leandro plain, delighting residents with their scent and lovely blossoms in spring, and their luscious fruit in early summer.

John Henry Begier, William Meek, and the Lewelling brothers are particularly associated with cherries in the East Bay. Mr. Begier, known as The Cherry King, laid out many of San Leandro's orchards and helped start the fruit shipping industry. Begier personally wheeled a portion of his first eastern shipment of cherries to the train depot in a wheelbarrow, thereby creating a San Leandro legend. Meek introduced new methods of crop rotation and irrigation. The Lewelling brothers were instrumental ill starting the fruit industry on the entire Pacific Coast. Two years before the Gold Rush, Henderson Lewelling carried grafted fruit trees in soil-filled boxes in the bed of his wagon from, Iowa to Oregon, where he started a nursery. Eventually, Henderson, John, and Seth Lewelling all settled in the East Bay, and they shipped thousands of trees from their nurseries. Henderson named the Royal Anne cherry, and Seth developed the Bing cherry, named for his Chinese foreman in Oregon.

The San Leandro Independence Day celebration of 1892, with a cherry-themed float and cherry refreshments, was a precursor to the later cherry festivals. Around this time, many smaller communities, taking their cue from county fairs, established their own festivals, usually focused on one crop. San Leandro chose to honor the cherry.
The first Cherry Festival took place on June 4 and 5, 1909. Red and green decorations, cherries, flags, and flowers bedecked the city, and the Plaza was ablaze with electric lights. A band concert, a parade, rides, concessions, a queen, a 21-gun salute, and a grand ball were just some of the events that led the Oakland Enquirer to report that it was the county's greatest carnival ever, and the host City was "as full of carnival spirit and joy as her orchards were full of cherries. "

The Cherry festival of 1910 started with a ballot scandal, when competing newspapers In Oakland and San Leandro each declared a different Festival queen. The matter was resolved when the San Leandro Reporter owner refunded $600 for ballots purchased to elect Virgie Wilson, who accepted the prize of a trip to Los Angeles. and Mabel Furtado became the official queen.

The 1911 Cherry Festival drew a huge crowd of 75,000, but in 1912 attendance dropped to 40,000. When the organizer of the 1913 Festival underwent surgery shortly before the Festival, it was decided to cancel the event. Cherry festivals were not held for the next decade, although a San Leandro contingent--including a cherry-covered car--participated in Alameda County Day at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.

Festivals were held again from 1922 to 1931, then the tradition lay dormant for decades. Planning for the Centennial celebration renewed interest in the Festival, and a 1972 Cherry Festival echoed the events of the first one. Bessie Best, the first Cherry Festival Queen of 1909, crowned the 1972 queen Ruth Phillips.

In 1986, the Cherry Festival was revived as an annual event, celebrating the community spirit that is still here, and honoring the orchards that once filled San Leandro.


San Leandro Plaza

The Plaza, formed by the triangular intersection of East 14th Street and Watkins (now Washington), has always been central to San Leandro's cultural life. The street we now call East 14th was once called El Camino Real - the route traveled between Mission San Jose and the San Antonio area of what is now Oakland. Later it was called Haywards Road (Hayward shed its "s" in 1894), or Oakland Road, depending on which direction and which section you were traveling. As the major route between the southern and northern East Bay, this well-traveled road became the center from which the town site of San Leandro was laid out. The Plaza was one of four parcels set aside for public use when the map of the town site to be called San Leandro was filed in 1855.

From 1855 until 1918, the elegant Estudillo House - a hotel, restaurant, and stage and streetcar stop - attracted visitors to the Plaza. Way back in 1855, says Leslie J. Freeman, "it was about a half day's coach ride from Oakland to San Leandro, where you stopped and had lunch at the old Estudillo House. Your next stop was at the Hotel Hayward." A fountain anchored the northern end of the Plaza for many years. Three palms trees were planted in 1890. "Little Betsy," a cannon captured during the war in the Philippines, was placed in the Plaza in the early 1900s - where it stayed for almost 40 years, until a scrap iron drive during World War II claimed it.

Cherry Festivals and Independence Day Parades brought crowds of celebrants to the Plaza many times, but the most notable celebration was the opening of the Oakland, San Leandro & Haywards Electric Railway on May 7, 1892. The first passenger run began at the Oakes Hotel in Haywards, with stops opposite the Estudillo House on the San Leandro Plaza, the California Railway Crossing in East Oakland, and at the central terminal at 13th Avenue. Harry Shaffer, the author of A Garden Grows in Eden, says, "This was a festive occasion, with free rides for children, speeches, and general rejoicing that one could now travel along this route without being mired down in the miserable roads. A whole new era of developments for homes opened, and a rash of subdivisions appeared. For almost forty years, this line continued to be an important link between the three cities."

A 165-foot flagpole was installed in the Plaza in 1897. A dramatic rescue occurred in 1909, when a lineman repairing the top portion of the pole fell. He hung upside-down by his foot-strap, while a crowd below watched, until two other men were able to climb the pole and bring him down.

In 1909, the California Federation of Women's Clubs placed an El Camino Real Bell in San Leandro. This was one of hundreds of bells placed throughout the state to mark the King's Highway running from mission to mission in California's Spanish era. What is now East 14th Street was the inland route of the famous highway. The original bell is now in the San Leandro Main Library, while a replica is still in place at the north end of the Plaza.

A revitalization movement initiated by downtown merchants in 1948 led to a Plaza remodeling and landscaping. The new design created off-street parking and pedestrian malls. Washington Avenue was closed at Davis. In the 1960s, the Plaza I Redevelopment Project dealt with deteriorating buildings and a shortage of public parking.

The Plaza remains the center of San Leandro, but the small town flavor of the old Plaza, the fountain, the palm trees, the cannon, and the elegant Estudillo House are now memories.

San Leandro Farms

Harry Shaffer titled the history of San Leandro A Garden Grows in Eden in tribute to San Leandro's fertile soil, ideal climate, and origins as a farming community. After the Gold Rush, Mr. Shaffer said, the "influx of settlers, coupled with the realization that the soil was almost ideally suited for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, completed the break-up of the large land holdings. No longer was it profitable to raise grain on several hundred acres, when an orchard or truck garden of one-tenth that area would produce crops of equal value - and land was too valuable to use for grazing cattle. Thus cherries, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, sugar beets and asparagus displaced the hides, tallow, wheat and barley of earlier years."

Items about farming and crops fill the newspapers of the late 1800s. The Reporter ran an item on a tomato that weighed three pounds. The 225-pound pumpkin from the Meeks Ranch outshone Jake Harlan's squash. Other articles boasted of three-inch cherries, a 200-pound beet, and a 36-inch carrot. Dutton Avenue, named for the Dutton farm, was once known as Chicken Lane because of the many poultry farms along it. Cherry and apricot orchards spread across San Leandro.

People involved in building San Leandro were often farmers. Socrates Huff, whose elegant farmhouse was illustrated in the 1878 Thompson & West Historical Atlas of Alameda County, was a successful farmer who served on the San Leandro Board of Trustees, served as Alameda County Treasurer, and helped draw up the Act of Incorporation for San Leandro. He also founded several banks and took part in the found of San Leandro Plow Company. Another example, J.B. Mendonca, started as a farmhand for Thomas Mulford. He then rented foothill property, and in 1876 purchased his own 30 acres. For the next 25 years, Mr. Mendonca not only acquired and farmed several hundred acres, but leased a similar number. He was active in the Portuguese Union (the U.P.E.C.), an organizer and director of the Bank of San Leandro, a Trustee of Union School, and helped bring the Morse-King cannery to San Leandro.

San Leandro's first industries served the needs of farmers. Sweepstake Plow Company was founded in 1867 and San Leandro Plow Company in 1881. Daniel Best bought San Leandro Plow and formed Daniel Best Agricultural Works in 1886. Inventions such as the Best tractors, with its huge, broad-tired wheels, found ready markets not only in San Leandro, but throughout the world.

Fruits of the sea - oysters in particular - were as important in San Leandro's early years as fruits of the land. The whole shoreline from Bay Farm Island to Eden Landing had become a series of oyster beds. Oysters were valuable, and control of the oyster beds was a serious matter. The author Jack London writes of having been an "oyster pirate" in youth during the 1890s - joining the cutthroats who sneaked down on the bay on boats during the night to steal oysters. After a few months with the oyster pirates, London decided to join the other side, and became a member of the Fish Patrol, whose job it was to catch oyster pirates and other violators of the fishing laws. The San Leandro Oyster Beds are now State Historical Landmark No. 824.

Orchards gave way to housing, shopping malls, business, and floral cultures in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. The San Leandro Dahlia Society, formed in 1925, became famous for its spectacular dahlias and annual shows. San Leandro adopted a new slogan, "The Home of Sunshine and Flowers." Mr. Shaffer's history, A Garden Grows in Eden, is aptly titled.

Posted by Mike Katz-Lacabe at December 29, 2010 9:35 AM | TrackBack

Thanks for this, Mike. I've read through some of text on the wall in City Hall, but not all. We hope to find a local history columnist for San Leandro Patch and dig into some of the finer details of the city's past.

Posted by: Jill Replogle at December 29, 2010 9:00 PM
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