Adventures in Local History
A Mystery Uncovered & Partly Solved, a Community Institution Celebrated,
A Statewide Gathering of Local Historians Welcomed, all in June, 2009 In Martinez
By Harriett Burt
This issue of the Martinez Historical Society newsletter celebrates even more than usual the richness of local history and the dedication of those professionals and volunteers who maintain our sense of who we have been and from whence we’ve come. In June, the Martinez Historical Society hosted the annual meeting of the Conference of California Historical Societies with representatives from local societies all over the state sharing information and learning about our proud past. In this issue, CCHS regional vice-president Mary-Ellen Jones reports on the event she coordinated with our own Executive Director, Andrea Blachman.
There will also be a story about the compilation of pictures, facts, names and faces behind the establishment of public education in Martinez. Martinez Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Rick Rubino, with a well known local name but who was himself born and raised in Brooklyn, loves history and given an opportunity to find some historic pictures to be displayed in the new district office building, plunged right in spending hours going through files, sorting through records and asking questions to develop the most comprehensive history of the school district up to the 1950s yet developed. He presented his excellent results at the June program meeting of the Martinez Historical Society. Our story features a picture of the new (in 1922) Alhambra High School found as a result of Rick’s work.
The third story shows how much there is to find out right in front of our eyes if we just look. Recently the John Muir Association and the John Muir National Historic Site gave me and Association member Sherida Bush permission to develop a display poster for the Site’s Visitors Center covering the history of the Muir Mansion and the Site in the years between Muir’s death in 1914 and the establishment of the National Historic Site in 1964. Obviously Faire and Henry Sax who bought and saved the property from developers in 1955 would be included but so also would be other families and individuals who had a significant connection with the site during those decades. The Schultz and Kreiss families who owned and lived in the Mansion in the 1930s and 40s are among those deserving attention. (Although I did not know that when I started this project).
And so I set to work. Naturally, I checked the files of paper and pictures at the Martinez Museum where Executive Director Blachman and Board Member Marlene Thompson and the rest of the volunteers are always so helpful. Not finding a great deal there that wasn’t already well known, I walked down Main Street to the Contra Costa County Historical Association’s History Center. Executive Director Betty Maffei and her helpful volunteers pulled the relevant files and let me sit down and comb through them. There was lots more material thanks the Louis Stein Collection and all the papers donated by the Bray family regarding the John Muir Memorial Association, the community group that backed the Saxs’ efforts to get a federal NPS designation.
Paging through the reproductions of news clippings, copies of legal documents, and old association newsletters suddenly I came across a advertising card – bigger than a standard business card but smaller than a postcard. Aged no longer white card stock, simple blue lettering, it promoted “Muir Gardens on the famous John Muir Estate” featuring a pavilion for dancing, a picnic ground and a barbecue pit.. I sat straight up in my chair. Having just researched and written a feature on the Bay View Pavilion, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t ever heard a Muir Gardens recreation site “Near Martinez, on the Franklin Canyon Highway.” And who was D. L. Parsowith, the manager? Even helpful Betty whose brain is encyclopedic on county history had never heard of any of this and there was no date noted on the card (see illustration).
Long story short, it took some sleuthing and even more help from the three repositories of local history our community is so fortunate to have. Dunstan Granshaw, one of the Friday volunteers at the Martinez Museum, looked in the Richmond/Martinez business and residential telephone directors of the 1920s and 1930s that preceded the telephone directories we take for granted today. He found Parsowith’s name and profession (tailor) and an address on Franklin Canyon Road. Then at Bettye Bloom’s suggestion, I called Tad Shay, Lead Ranger at the Muir Site. He’d never heard of Muir Gardens but did know that someone he thought was a cobbler lived at the Adobe for a number of years. But he had never heard the name or heard of a Muir Gardens recreation site. He then took the “Historic Structures Inventory” on the Adobe Park Service staff had compiled in 1991 and armed with the Parsowith name, found the pages covering the over two decades the family owned the Adobe. And sure enough, the Muir Gardens were mentioned in conjunction with a lunch place Pearl Parsowith operated on the road for travelers to and from west county. The Gardens were apparently an offshoot of that but it all came to an end when the restaurant burned in 1927. There is no record of when the enterprise started. But we do know the Parsowiths bought the Adobe in 1921.
Tad shared the Parsowith material with us – it is an exhaustive record to the extent discoverable of the changes the couplej made to the structure in three decades. Their story ended with Mrs. Parsowith’s death on Christmas Day in 1954 and Mr. Parsowith’s decision in 1955 to sell the Adobe to Louis Stein, the Kensington druggist whose fascination with and collection of Contra Costa County history is a gift beyond measure to us all.
But there’s a story even about that. In his later years, Stein told Betty Maffei that when news came that the Adobe and its surrounding land might be for sale, Judge A. F. Bray, already part of a group trying to preserve John Muir’s grave and legacy, called Stein and told him cryptically to “take care of it.” Stein told Betty that he didn’t know what else to do but go out and borrow $1000 and buy the property which he did. Thus he has more than earned his mention in that poster Sherida and I are going to put together.
And all local three historical repositories, each with its band of staff and volunteers, each with a different focus, came together on this to share material and shine a brighter light on our past…..in the same month that Martinez was briefly the center of statewide local history preservation. That’s pretty neat!
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160