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Sunday, September 28, 1997

Oral histories hearken back to simpler times

Kristin Delaplane

Old-time Solano residents remember early days in county

The early days for parks and recreation taken from an oral history with Lyston Johnson.
‘My parents came here in 1917. My father worked in a grocery store down on Georgia Street. He delivered groceries seven days a week for $15 a week.
“I went to Lincoln School and then the old Washington Junior High School. I was one of the last classes to graduate before Vallejo High School was in operation.

“I went to college, graduated in ‘34 and then came back home.

“I went to a seminary for a year and then we ran out of money. This was the middle of the Depression.

“During that time I did a number of things; went with the National Youth Program, worked for Winchell Hardware, where my father had worked, and was assistant to the pastor for the First Presbyterian Church.

“In 1937, I had nothing to do and I volunteered to help the recreation director, Art Kirkpatrick, with a Kite Day.

“I remember just after that passing by a line for WPA sign- ups and saying to myself, ‘I’ll give it one more day.’

“When I got back home, Kirkpatrick called. I went down to a little building called the Widenmann Building, where the Recreation Department had their office.

“I took a job at 35 cents a hour, three hours a day, as playground leader at Washington Playground.

“Washington Playground was the second playground in Vallejo. Curry was the first and had opened in March 1937.

“By the end of that summer there were five playgrounds and a recreation commission.

That’s when I was offered to have my job upgraded to playground leader-at-large. That meant supervising all the playgrounds. I kept that job for 35 years.”

The Good Templars’ Orphans Home edited from an oral history with Mr. McMullen.

‘I lived at the orphans home, which was run by Mr. and Mrs. Anthony. My father lived in Yountville at the Veterans Home.

“I used to hitchhike to Yountville to visit my father. My mother had passed away when I was 2.

“The orphanage was a very beautiful building. The children came from different parts of the country, but there were no Chinese or colored children.

“The boys and girls were segregated. We were even in separate classrooms and they played in different fields. We had books and we played hockey and baseball.

“We had a lot of freedom. Each child had his own locker to put his personal belongings.

“The food was delicious and we had huge amounts for it. It was all wholesome. Things like cereal and fresh whipped cream.

“We had orchards with apples, pears and other fruits. We had wheat fields and work horses. The boys helped take care of the horses.

“There was a well and the boys helped with the laundry. Each child had some little tasks to do.

“After breakfast, we did our duties until it was time to go to school. Mine was to sweep the halls.

“Each child was given a plot of ground to raise vegetables. The teacher taught us how to raise carrot sand radishes. We could raise our own rabbits too.

“There was a ‘pest house’ where people went when they had measles and other contagions. All were circumcised by Dr. Dempsey.

“They didn’t take us downtown to church, but every Friday night a man came from Vallejo and taught the Bible. He made us learn the names of all the books in the Bible.

“They would take us downtown every once in a while, but not very often. We had to walk into Vallejo. The streets were dirt roads or cobblestones downtown. Men wheeled wagons around with hot oysters for sale. They were delicious. Oyster loaves were popular too.

“I was one of those who went to the World’s Fair from the orphans home. I was on the boat when it struck the rocks. We had to crawl up the rocks to safety.

“Then they lowered us down to the rescue boat with ropes. We were lucky our boat didn’t roll over.

“Once a month the committee from the Good Templars visited. They were sponsors for the home and they came up to inspect it.

“Some of the reason the place closed related to a little boy who died, a child who was found in the attic, nude, lying on his clothes.

“Then Mr. Anthony got into some kind of trouble with one of the boys. The Good Templars had some investigations and the place finally closed.

“I went to town when I was in fifth grade and lived with my half brother.

“I have no acquaintances or associations left from those early days at the orphanage.”

Early Italian immigrants taken from an oral history with Albert Encerti, who was 75 in 1986.

‘My parents came from Italy and couldn’t speak a word of English. My dad started out as a laborer in the Starr Mills.

“At that time Vallejo was known for its grains. From here way up to Rio Vista was nothing but grain.

“As a youngster, I used to go down to the mills a lot. Foreign ships would come in to this huge warehouse right on the water. They used to put the grain in sacks. The sacks were sewn by hand.

“My dad had the job of filling the sacks with grain and then sewing them. Then he’d buck them onto a truck and truck them over to a chute. They were shipping grain, not flour.

“My dad also worked at the brickyard. Most of the bricks made here were used in San Francisco.

“I was born at 621 Maryland St., which is now Curtola Parkway. There was water up to Maryland Street before the fill.

“In fact, my dad used to row to work when he worked at Mare Island. All the workers had their boats tied up right there at Maryland Street.

“Vallejo used to supply San Francisco with produce. Right down on Tennessee Street was a big vegetable garden, a truck garden. It began there and went all the way out to the Napa Junction. It was a beautiful sight. Vallejo was famous for its tomatoes.

“From Maryland Street, my father moved to the corner of Nebraska and Amador. He had 10 acres. He established a dairy and truck farm there.

“I went to the orphanage’s school, Roosevelt. At the orphanage they raised almost everything: grain, cattle, poultry and fruits. They had a dairy and a bakery. We were encouraged to get a little plot of land and grow our own vegetables.

“That was Roosevelt School up there where we kids went to school. When I started school, I hardly spoke any English.

“The reason we didn’t speak English was because our parents spoke Italian and our friends were also Italians.

“My dad pastured our cows down in the tules. We used to drive them down there before going to school. After school, I would bring them back.”

Memories of an early settler’s beginnings taken from an oral history with Elsa Widenmann.

‘My father came here at the age of 21.

“At the time, German was at war with France. My grandfather said he had not brought his sons up for gun fodder. He wanted his sons to go to America and seek his fortune. So they did.

“At first the three brothers settled near Ann Arbor. My father and one of his brothers were in the hardware business.

“When his brother, his partner, passed away, my father decided to move on. For a time he panned for gold up at Dutch Flat in the California gold country.

“Not finding success in that venture, he wandered down to Vallejo.

“At that time Vallejo had two breweries. The owners of one needed someone in the business. He thought the business could be profitable because Vallejo was a working man’s town and beer is a product working people enjoy.

“So my father bought out the Rottenbasch brewery, which was the Solano Brewery. They had established a very lucrative business as a steam brewery in downtown Vallejo.

“My mother, who was also from Germany, came out to California to join her brother, who had started a brewery. She married one of the brewers.

“They moved to Oakley where her husband either worked in a brewery or owned one and they had a child. After three or four years, he passed away.

“Through him she had met people who lived in Benicia and she moved there to be close to friends. That’s when she met my father. He wanted to marry her, but she had decided to return to Germany with her son. She did. My father followed and they married there.

“He met her family and she met his and then they came back to Vallejo.

“They bought their house around 1870 and raised their family.”

Early memories of Vallejo taken from an oral history with James Robertson of Vallejo.

‘My father must have come to Vallejo when he was in his 20s. His life had been at sea and when he came to Vallejo he worked as a shipwright on the Navy Yard.

“My mother came here from Virginia when she was about 2. She said on their way here by wagon train in the 1860s, soldiers rode with them to protect them from Indians.

“My parents bought the property from Gen. Frisbie. They were going to buy on Georgia Street, but that was in the city limits and they had horses, so Frisbie put them here.

“There were no other houses here. There was nothing all the way to the other side of this hill, only hayfields.

“There was no bathroom. We used kerosene lamps. You had no sink for water. Saturday night you bought out the tub into the kitchen.

“Being the youngest, I was always last. You didn’t throw out the water. It was too hard to get.

“My father had friends in Napa and we’d travel up there with the horses hitched to a surrey. It took all day.

“In 1918, my father got a car. It was an Overland. The speed limit was 35. The road to Napa was gravel. I’d be driving the speed limit and the car would be shaking. My father would say, ‘You’re driving like a maniac.’

“I walked to school. We lived right around the corner from Lincoln School and the old high school was on Ohio Street. I never took my lunch. I just went home.

“Around the time of World War I, I quit high school to go work over at Mare Island in the cafeterias as a supply boy. The main cafeteria was down the Yard and the canteens were up the Yard. I used to haul the dinners and supplies in an old Dodge truck. I was making two or three dollars a day. From that job, I went to the Boat Shop and was mostly sand papering boats.

“Another job I had was at Crowley’s Department Store. I was called the ‘Cash Boy.’ They’d sell something and call the Cash Boy. I’d run and get the purchase and take it to the wrapping desk to be wrapped and bring it back.

“I worked there nine hours a day and for a dollar a day.”

Suggestions and local historical information for this column are welcome.

Write biographer-historian Kristin Delaplane in care of The Reporter, 916 Cotting Lane, Vacaville 95688.