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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Once flourishing, town now echoes history

Jerry Bowen

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Birds Landing fit the economy of the late 1800s

With so many new folks in Solano County, and quite probably with many who have been here for several years, my bet is that a whole lot of you never have heard of the town of Birds Landing.

It’s tiny and still breathing, but a wee bit off the roads most traveled, so it quite likely doesn’t attract many “sightseers.”  If you’re heading toward Rio Vista from Fairfield you can get to Birds Landing by turning right off Highway 12 onto any of three roads: Shiloh, Olson or Birds Landing roads, in that order. All three intersect at the town.

The town’s location was chosen in large part because the site had permanent fresh-water sources adequate for a community, yet was situated on ground not subject to the tidal flooding typical of land near Montezuma Slough. The location met economic and social essentials as well because it linked the scattered agricultural community to the commercial and social services available in Suisun and Rio Vista, and in those days to the transportation and shipping corridor of the Sacramento River at Collinsville.

The town was named for John Bird, who was born in New York in 1837. He sailed to California in 1859. After working in the dairy business near Sacramento, he bought 960 acres in Solano County in 1865 and established a farm and dairy. In 1869, he built a wharf and warehouse on Montezuma Slough. With income from his farm and warehouse business, he constructed a large two-story home east of the crossroads.

Birds Landing began to develop into a rural village during the 1870s. Around 1876, Jacob Frank and Moses Dinkelspiel bought John Bird’s warehouse and much of his acreage from Collinsville Road to Montezuma Slough. They established the growing village’s first store at the crossroads. Local tradition says that Frank and Dinkelspiel envisioned the town as a “New Jerusalem,” a community full of promise.

Soon others began to buy property in the area and take up farming. New arrivals included William Smith who bought 160 acres and John Blythe who came to California in 1853 and in 1870 owned 480 acres of farmland. Thomas Hooper settled in the area in 1850 and by 1877 was farming more than 1,000 acres. His ranch extended from the Montezuma Slough at Meins Landing to Collinsville Road.

Blythe’s parcel at Birds Landing later was divided roughly in half. John Bird purchased the land south of the county road and Frank Taylor bought the north part.

In 1876, Frank and Dinkelspiel established a store at the intersection near Bird’s home. Bird became a partner with Dinkelspiel later and bought the store in 1880. In the 1890s, the store’s proprietors were Bird and a man named Smith. Early photographs and oral history interviews have produced suggestions that the Smith in Birds Landing was associated with the company that produced Smith Brothers Cough Drops, although too little information is present to confirm or deny this as fact.

The first town lots were laid out with homes and businesses facing Collinsville Road and a public elementary school was built a short distance north of the village.

As   the community grew, additional lots were surveyed and the town took on the appearance of prosperity. In 1899, E. A. Young, who had acquired the Hooper Ranch, deeded a lot north of the crossroads to the I.O.O.F. for a hall. By the turn of the century, Birds Landing also boasted two hotels, saloons, a butcher shop and a dance hall. The community had become a major commercial and social center for the isolated farmsteads throughout the Montezuma Hills.

Bird was appointed postmaster and the town officially was named Birds Landing. The Birds Landing post office was set up in a front corner of the store and remained there for 91 years. Bird’s sons, John Jr. and Elmer, took over the store and postmaster’s position until 1918. Then, John’s wife, Mary, ran the business and held the postmaster’s position until 1921.

When Mary retired, they sold the store to Chris Benjamin and she recommended Evelyn Benjamin for the job of postmaster, which she held until 1967. At that time, the post office was moved to a small shed on an adjacent lot and became known as one of the smallest post offices in the country. Stories from the area say the little post office was built with old jet engine crates.

The store was a principal focus of the community, supplying a wide selection of perishable groceries and staples, dry goods and clothing. It handled hardware and farm materials, such as fence posts and barbed wire. Because of the distance from regular pharmacies, the store was also able to carry prescription drugs. San Francisco suppliers shipped their goods by schooner and unloaded at the Collinsville wharf or Birds Landing warehouse. Merchandise then was delivered to the store by wagon. The nature of the goods and the delivery schedules necessitated the building of a storage facility, which was constructed across the street from the store. Merchandise also was kept in the store’s basement and upper floor.

John and Evelyn Benjamin ran the store for 61 years until Evelyn’s death in 1982. Over the many years they ran the store, business slowly but surely declined but she was so devoted to the store she just couldn’t bear to close it down. Over the years, the old Birds Landing Store building had also suffered from deterioration and damage from the elements.  Evelyn’s granddaughter, Gayle Benjamin Barclay, tried to keep the business open, but finally gave up in 1987.

Evelyn’s grandson, John Benjamin and his wife, Leona, moved into the decaying building with sagging foundations in 1988. Years before, John had made a promise to his grandmother that he would keep the store standing. It was the beginning of a long and arduous quest.

Initially, John estimated it would take about $75,000 dollars to renovate the store in 1988. The old structure still had all the fixtures, safe, mailboxes and other artifacts from the store’s past.

He and Leona planned on doing as much of the work themselves as possible. But by 1990, he was looking at upwards of $200,000 for the work. Historic renovations don’t come cheap.

Then another monkey landed on his back when   Solano County’s building inspectors got involved over the septic systems. When the store closed in 1987 it became subject to new code enforcement rules that hadn’t applied before. I had happened to wander by in early 1999 and found Benjamin and Leona hard at work. You could tell by the frustration in his voice about “the runaround” he was getting over permits.

Leona gave me a tour of the inside of the store. The colorful old safe was a real eye-catcher. From there it was like being transformed into the past when the store was also the telegraph station and post office. An old movie poster was there, reminding a visitor that part of the movie “Honky-Tonk Man” with Clint Eastwood, was made in the store. The bullet fired by an irate boarder at hotelkeeper Ben Olson was still lodged in the front door frame. In August 1999, John was successful in listing the building as a work-in-progress in the National Register of Historic Places.

I haven’t visited them since then, although I have occasionally driven down in the area to photograph the changes over time for the historic records at the Vacaville Heritage Council. It was obvious the store wasn’t finished.  The old post office closed in 2001 so Birds Landing no longer can claim to have one of the two smallest full-service operations of its kind.

The tracks of the Western Railway Museum on Highway 12 have been slowly restored along their original route and were inching their way toward the old station at Birds Landing when I was there. If they ever finally make it to the historic   little town, the Birds Landing Store would make an excellent place to revisit history.

It would be a shame if this couldn’t come to pass. I guess it’s time to make another trip there to see what’s happening.

Books published by Arcadia Publishing on Dixon and Fairfield soon will be available, joining those already in stores about Travis Air Force Base, Vallejo, Vacaville and Benicia. I understand that Rio Vista also will submit a work for publishing. Soon all the cities of Solano County will be covered by these pictorial histories.