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Sunday, August 02, 1981

Just A Century Ago

Ernest D. Wichels

What did the newspapers tell us in Napa and Solano counties just 100 years ago the first two weeks in August 1881? How did our great-great-grandparents live?

Vallejo and her neighboring communities didn’t have electricity, telephones, paved roads or streets, radio or television, movies, automobiles and very few domestic water pipes.  We did have gas (limited) in Napa and Vallejo, but none elsewhere in the counties; we had telegraph, and in the rural areas this was confined to railroad depot agents, and when the depots closed for the day, so did the telegraph.

We had stage shows that week in 1881 “Othello” was presented to the Vallejo audience in the Eureka Hall (the later site of the YWCA and the Women’s Club building) and now the parking lot for Crocker’s downtown bank. Races were held in that week at Vallejo’s Holly racetrack (1900-block of Broadway) and Mr. Chisholm’s (Benicia) horse “La Chapelle” won the feature event for mares.  There were hard times then, too, and the Vallejo Commercial and Savings Bank, the forerunner of the present Bank of America on lower Georgia Street, issued its July 1 statement, and it didn’t look good. At that time it was Vallejo’s only bank.

Total loans on mortgages were $75,508; total real estate owned (foreclosures on properties) exceeded $33,000; total cash on hand was $19,260; total deposits were $77,576. The bank had a deficit of $95,000 offset by the, paid-up capital stock of $192,700.  City trustees were passing funny ordinances, even in those days. The Vallejo Evening Chronicle reported: “The Dixon town trustees have just passed an ordinance saying: ‘It shall not be lawful for anyone in this -town to stack hay or straw upon the ground unless the same be in a barn or under cover or enclosed.

Solano and Napa, in those days, were big wheat counties - and most threshing was done in the field with power generated by huge steam harvesters, which burned straw or wood for fuel. On Aug. 15, 1881 was this story from Napa: “Three men were killed on Sneed’s wheat field, at Oak Knoll, when the boiler on the threshing machine blew up.”  South Vallejo was in danger of having its fruit and vegetable cannery moved to Benicia because of high rents and wages.

In Vallejo, in August 1881, muscat grapes from Green Valley were selling for $1.25 for a 25-pound box.  One of the busiest of Vallejo’s industries was the Foundry, operated by John L. Heald, manufacturing mining machines, engines, boilers, etc.  Another active factory was the carriage works, on Marin Street, where Montgomery Wards Catalog office is now situated. It was operated by O.L. Henderson.  Levee’s corner was then operated by Farnham and Co. Farnham built the early mansion atop Virginia Street Hill (now Ter-race Apartments), which later became known as the Frisbie House, the Irma School for Girls, the Widenmann residence, and the Vallejo Elks Club which burned Jan. 1, 1933.

Farnham’s Store was having a sale another store opened across the street on Georgia, and called itself the “Opposition Store” operated by a man named Kahn.  This was wheat-export country in those days although South Vallejo’s Starr (Sperry) Elevators were being eclipsed by those at Port Coasts.  In those first two weeks of August 1881, may we list the ships that were loaded at South Vallejo: British sailing ships Thomas Stephens, Cowell, St. George, Hospodor, British Commerce, MacBeth and Sea King. They went to either Cork or Liverpool in the British Isles.

At the same time the following British ships cleared Port Costa for Ireland or Eng., land: F.J. Carleton, British Enterprise, Maderia, River Indus, Cairnsmore, Alder-grove, Gadcrop, Jabes Howes, Knight and Garter, Camelia, and Louise Marie.

In August 1881, the Benicia Agricultural Works was incorporated, and for years was an important industry. They made agricultural 1 equipment and machinery. The offices in- I eluded one named L.L. Baker and one Robert M. Hamilton.  Earlier the plant had been located in San Leandro under the name of Sweepstake Plow Co. When it came to Benicia_ it became the founding company of a later San Francisco giant Baker, Hamilton and Co. Most old. timers throughout Northern California will remember this prominent firm.

Actually, the industrial plant perhaps too root in the 1840’s when the Pacific Main Steamship Co. built its maritime maintenance plant in Benicia. In later years this Benicia, industrial nucleus, and the expert artisans in employed, evolved into the Yuba Manufacturing Co.  building machinery, and especially gold dredgers, for use around the world.

Another advertisement in the August 1881 Chronicle was by McCudden Coal Yard, foot of Georgia Street on the channel urging Vallejoans to stock up on coal for the winter while it was cheap. Coos Bay coal was $10 a ton; Best Wellington Coal was $12 a ton.  The featured articles on sale at Farnham’s were “boots, trunks and valises.” Who buys a trunk these days. and a valise is a word our teen-agers never knew.