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Sunday, June 30, 1996

Grizzly Island slowly evolves to preserve

Kristin Delaplane

Dairies and ranches flourished, but they disappeared over time

In the 1880s through the 1900s, the industry on Grizzly Island was pretty well given over to dairies.
Cows were milked only in the spring and then they were milked by hand. Their fresh milk was separated and fed to the ranchers’ calves and pigs.
It was Steve Staffane’s job to stop at each ranch to collect the cream, which was hauled by barge on the sloughs to Dutton’s Landing where, the White Rose Creamery was established. Staffane also hauled calves butchered for market for the ranchers.

The market hunters who hunted ducks and geese were still in evidence, and hog hunting was a part of the local culture. The latter was deemed a necessary chore by the farmers because these beasts invaded the fields at night.

Starting in the mid- to late 1880s, William Dutton, the island’s major landowner, hired Chinese laborers from San Francisco to build levees along the waterways. Jack Soares, who grew up on Grizzly Island, remembered the Chinese workers. He had an especially vivid memory of the “boss Chinaman” whose name was Sam. Sam would go to San Francisco and sail back with “as many as 300 men at a time!” Records indicate these Chinese workers were paid 25 cents a day; Sam pocketed 10 cents of that pay.

Shelter for the shipped-in laborers was minimal. They either camped out or lived in farmers’ barns, depending on what was available in the area where they were working as they traveled along the waterways. These men worked almost year-round, building 18-inch levees and maintaining those already constructed.

Dutton and family manufactured a number of dredges in order to improve the levees and protect the land. Among these was the Solano No. 1 dredge, which was used in building levees on the island for many years.

Jack Soares recalled the building of the Frost Slough dam. It was originally constructed by cutting sods. The method employed was to construct tule spades with which the sods were sliced off in pieces. These pieces measured approximately 2 feet by 7 inches. These were then laid like bricks. Small portions of these early levees still exist.

At one point, clay that was used in constructing roof tiles was mined on the island, which schooners would load up and transport to market. Another successful product for the island was the tule, which was cut and sold to Gladding McBean Pottery Works. The factory used the tules and island’s salt grass for packing pottery. By 1900, the landing was a center of activity with a hotel, warehouses and a slaughterhouse.

Dutton’s Landing was also the point of embarkation and debarkation for passenger traffic, as island residents did their major shopping and business in San Francisco.

The ferry was another means of transportation for residents, giving them access to Bird’s Landing and Collinsville. The ferry was fairly small and could easily be pulled across the slough by hand.

A memorable event for island residents was the 1906 earthquake, which tilted Mae Merand’s home. The islanders could plainly see the flames in San Francisco. Many immediately loaded their boats with provisions and set off for the city to give aid.

Before the automobile, the trip to Suisun City was made by gasoline launch, about a two-hour trip. When the automobile came into being, travel was made via the Potrero Hills. This was a time when the island had no roads during winter months, no electricity and no phones. The ride over the hills was slow, as it entailed stopping along the way to close the ranchers’ gates. When the drivers came to the Alexander and Kellogg ranch in Suisun, they had to take the car across the Montezuma Slough by launch. In 1919, a road was constructed around the hills.

In 1927, Joice Island was purchased by the state, becoming the first state-owned refuge.

It was at about this time that asparagus proved to be a big crop for the Alexander and Kellogg ranch. The long, green asparagus produced on the island developed a reputation as being of the best quality on the local market. The asparagus was soon being shipped back East. But the ranch gave up growing asparagus in 1945, returning to the more lucrative business of raising cattle, grain and hay.

The ferry house became the meeting place for the men of the area from 1927 on, when Joe Sereno became the ferryman of the Montezuma Slough. This was a job he held for the next 20 years, even though by his own admission he took a nip or two on the job.

Sereno worked every day and was available to night traffic. Anyone wanting to cross the Montezuma Slough after 6 p.m. had to ring a bell at the ferry ramp. However, if one happened to be traveling on a Thursday night, he was out of luck. This was Sereno’s night off.

Sereno was the sponsor of the annual school Christmas party. As the reigning Santa, he brought gifts and candy for all. When Sereno retired, the county found it had to hire three men to take his place.

The Baby Beef Co. of Collinsville started buying up land on Grizzly Island in 1927 for growing hay for its cattle. At the time, the Collinsville feed lot was considered one of the largest in the country.

The dairy business, which had been so lucrative, went into a decline during the Depression. On the other hand, duck hunting was gaining in popularity, so many ranchers took to developing duck clubs, which proved to be prosperous ventures. Today, most of the land that was once used for cattle-raising and raising grains has been turned into duck clubs or is part of a preserve.

The first harbor was constructed in 1938 at Belden’s Landing. In 1947, a new harbor was dredged and Belden’s expanded with a restaurant and bar. Belden’s also had a boat rental business with 100 boats available for anglers and duck hunters.

Both anglers and hunters steered their boats up the Montezuma Slough, which was noted for its fishing. A portion of the slough popular with the hunters was called the “firing line.” In the evenings, the flicking of lights from boats filled the landscape as far as the eye could see. In 1958, Belden’s Landing changed hands. By then, many people had their own boats, so the boat rental business had declined. In 1968, the old barge that housed the restaurant and bar burned and the business was never rebuilt.

The Ed Avila clan was the last family to have a dairy on Grizzly Island. It shut down in 1947. By 1949, the school was closed due to a lack of attendance, and the few remaining students were bused to Fairfield and Suisun. In 1948, the state of California purchased the land on Grizzly Island and created the Grizzly Island Waterfowl Management area.

The large number of hunters created a problem for the ferry, which only had a six-car capacity. It took between six and eight hours for the ferry to bring all the hunters onto the island and the same amount of time to get them off. Island residents were issued permits, allowing them to cross the ferry ahead of the hunters. In 1950, money was allocated for the Grizzly Island bridge, and in 1960 the Montezuma Slough Bridge was completed.

In 1962, a reunion was called, with former Grizzly Island residents joining those who still remained. That reunion became an annual tradition.

In 1972, the beautiful and uniquely formed Potrero Hills were threatened with becoming a garbage dump for nine counties.

The garbage was to be brought to Suisun Bay and hauled up the Montezuma Slough to the hills. This idea received so much opposition that it was successfully squashed. The result was the Suisun Marsh Protection Plan, which was passed in 1978 and has served to preserve these precious marshlands.

That old friend to the area, the tule elk, was reintroduced in 1977. Calves were born and the species once again flourishes on this land.