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Sunday, August 07, 1983

Atlas provides glimpse of local life in 1870’s

Ernest D. Wichels

It is always interesting to pick up an ancient document that contains maps and descriptions of our county as our fore-fathers saw it.

This time we refer, as we often have, to Thompson & West Atlas of Solano County, which was written in 1877 and published in 1879. We possess an incomplete copy which was resurrected in Benicia during the demolition of St. Catherine’s Convent by the late Steve DeBenedetti, one of the genuine historians of our county. Much of Steve’s collection, including photographs, reposes in the State Capitol Landmark in Benicia.  Today we will quote from page 15 not with any objective in mind, but to illustrate how the atlas editor saw us 105 years ago and the style of writing in those days.

“White Sulphur Springs (now Blue Rock)—- Owing to the proximity of these justly celebrated springs, the city claims them as one of its numerous advantages.  “They are located about three miles in a northeasterly direction from the city, and for a long time have been resorted to by large numbers in pursuit of health and pleasure. The waters are pronounced beneficial in relieving the human system of the `ills that flesh is heir to,’ while the delightful natural scenery renders it desirable for recreation.”

For more than half a century an orphanage, complete with schoolhouse, stood atop the Vistahill, in the general area between Loma Vista and Redwood Street and from the railroad tracks easterly to Tuolumne Street.  We have written in great detail about this orphanage, but here is what the atlas editor said 106 years ago:  “Orphans’ Home Among the charitable institutions that do honor to the citizens of Vallejo is the Home for Orphans. The institution belongs to the Good Templars of Nevada and California, although the advantages of the home are not restricted to the unfortunate children of the order, and its charities are extended to all orphans.

“Mrs. Elvira Baldwin is accredited with the honor of originating the idea of establishing this orphanage, but the means employed to vitalize the idea are due to William H. Mills and G.W. Simonton. (Note: The latter was once principal of the Vallejo High School, superintendent of, schools, and also worthy patron of Silver Star Chapter No. 3, OES.)  “In the latter part of 1867 a large tract of land was purchased in what is known as the Hannibal Ranch. Twenty acres were reserved for the site and the grounds of the home, and the remainder divided into 334 lots, 50-by-130 feet, which were sold out at such a rate to enable the Home Association to realize on the enterprise a profit of nearly $20,000.

“On the 11th day of May, 1869, the cornerstone of the structure was laid, and dedicated on the first day of October. It commands a beautiful view of the bay, the city, and the surrounding country. (Note: Mayor Curtola’s home is not located on the site.)  “The city, in addition to the most adequate church and school advantages, excels any town of like population in the number of its charitable, literary, musical, temperance and social societies.”  That same editor, were he writing today, could add that Vallejo excels any town in California of like population in the acreage of its public parks.  Our up-county neighbors might be interested in what the atlas has to say about Solano County’s agriculture and the diversity of its crops.

From the start we can omit mention of very many orchards, because the gross value of all fruits and nuts, raised in our county in 1877 totalled only $112,000.  The 1877 county inventory shows 12,790 cattle, 71,146 sheep, 8,332 hogs and 35 cashmere goats.  The county sold 427,000 pounds of wool that year, and 118,000 pounds of butter.  There were 1,387 acres in grapes, and 149,000 gallons of wine were produced. There were three breweries.  Sheep raising and grain were the leading farm products. Solano, in 1877, had 93,575 acres in wheat, 15,819 acres in barley, 145 acres in oats and 237 acres in corn.  Our farms also produced 400 bushels of dried beans, 60 tons of potatoes, 23 tons of sweet potatoes and 19,500 tons of hay.

There were 264 commercial orange trees.  Obviously, no mention was made of sugar beets, safflower, lettuce, tomatoes, spice is-land herbs and other present-day crops.  The 1877 report does not contain any mention of hops, although our neighboring county of Napa once ranked high in the production of hops. It is not merely the diversity of products for which Solano and Napa have been widely known, but the drastic changes in them over the years.  A century ago Napa counted on apples, grapes and wheat as cash ‘crops.

Some 75 years ago both counties had tremendous crops of. dried prunes. In the same era Solano was known nationally for its annual shipments to the East Coast of plums and peaches, and for the earliest cherries in the nation.