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Monday, February 15, 1982

How the Old-Timers saw us

Ernest D. Wichels

When we speak of “pages from the past” we mean that, literally.  Pioneer diaries and old-time family picture albums tell us a great deal of Napa and Solano early days. But these are limited to a small group and by the environment or the economy of the authors.

Even the files of our older newspapers the Napa Register dates from 1863, and the Vallejo Evening Chronicle from June 1867 were excellent reporters of the daily scene, but one would have to, read many volumes to grasp an idea of what the counties or communities really were in perspective.  Fortunately in our libraries and in the homes of numerous historians we have the histories written by several observers in early days.

They include C.A. Menefee in 1873 in his excellent story of Napa and Lake Counties; Munro Fraser, in one of the excellent appraisals of Solano in 1879, and the biographical sketches of more than 200 of county residents ; and in 1875 Thompson and Alley in their “atlas” of the townships in Solano County, the assessor’s record of most land-owners, soil conditions, mineral possibilities, and soon.  These people walked in these counties in the 1870s, talked to a wide cross-section of farmers, businessmen, mechanics, and others, and wrote from an unbiased viewpoint for historical purposes.

In this, and in two or three future columns, we will share some of their words on our two counties and its communities. Perhaps looking back for these 110 years we will find some of them amusing and some incredible.  From the 4,000 words about Vallejo by Thompson and Alley, we cite these few on Vallejo:  Vallejo is the southern terminus of the Calif. Pacific R.R. and is the most populous city of Solano County, containing about eight thousand people: It may truthfully be said that it was a city of great possibilities.  It is probably speaking within bounds to say that the natural commercial advantages attaching to the site of this city are unexcelled by those. of any city upon the Pacific coast. For a time it appeared probable that these advantages would be availed of, and the city realize the growth and properity that her geographical position bespoke for her.

Fortune has ruled otherwise, and Vallejo, after a -brief period of prosperity, saw the currents of trade setting in opposite direction, and her golden prospects vanish.  The sanguine expectations entertained for ,Vallejo were far from visionary. The site is an admirable one. The city lies upon Napa bay, an arm of the San Pablo Bay, and its harbor is at the head of navigation for ships of the largest tonnage….None of the requisites of a great seaport town are wanting.  The authors then tell of the struggles to hold the tate capital, the great grain elevators-in south Vallejo, he era of the railroad, and a naval shipyard struggling to keep 200 men at work.  More on this will follow.

Menefee does an excellent job on Napa County some eight pages describing its location and formation it once included all of Clear Lake), some 12 pages on Napa County Indians, and a dozen pages on its climate.  He begins by saying:  “This county is relatively small, but one of the most salubrious and fertile in the state.”  A large portion consists of mountains, wortheless for the purposes of agriculture. Many of the hills are, however, of some value fog grazing purposes. The assessor’s’ returns show that-in 1871, there were 107,650 acres under cultivation, 31,400 acres of which were in wheat, and 3,725 barley.

Menefee describes the 12 quicksilver mining corporation in operation in the county, and four coal mining corporations. But the most surprising item in Menefee’s 1873 history is the assessor’s report showing 19,000 bearing pear trees, 25.800 peaches, 7,100 plums and prunes, 12,300 cherries, and 58,250 mulberry trees more mulberry trees’ than all other fruits combined. In the early years of the 1870s Napa (and part of western Solano) was silkworm country. Huge quantities of silkworms were exported to France and Spain for unwinding and weaving into cloth. But labor for picking mulberry leaves, and the cost of freight to Europe, spelled the doom for the industry. Vallejo still has one of those 110-year-old mulberry trees, part of the grove planted by the Orphans Home, on El Camino Real.

These are the surprises we find from 1870 histories. Another is the story on Fairfield. Instead of beginning with Capt. R.H. Waterman, who arrived in 1857 and purchased the site of the present downtown area, the first paragraph reads:  “Fairfield. The location of the county seat at Benicia caused dissatisfaction on account of its being on the very edge of the county - a serious defect in those days of slow locomotion when residents of its outlying sections had business to transact ...”  Then comes the story of the political battle in the county when Benicia lost a countywide election that in 1857 moved the court house to Fairfield.

Little else is said about Fairfield except that it is named for Waterman’s birthplace in Fairfield, Conn. and about the nine fig trees he planted around his home proving, perhaps, this was tropical country.