The Martinez Adobe - A Ticket To History
By Harriett Burt
Editor’s Note: As the 161 year old Vincente Martinez Adobe again becomes an important Bay Area site as (whatever it is in terms of the DeAnza Trail), some of its history between its sale by Muir’s daughter, Wanda, and its inclusion in the John Muir National Historic Site formation in 1964 was not completely known. Following is an article written for the July, 2009 Martinez Historical Society newsletter about accidentally discovering two interesting little stories about the Adobe and how it was saved to become a ‘star’ this weekend and a ‘destination’ going forward..
Recently the John Muir Association and the John Muir National Historic Site gave me and Association member Sherida Bush permission to help 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 Andrea 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 (since retired) 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 an advertising card – bigger than a standard business card but smaller than a postcard. Aged no-longer-white card stock with 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 two other 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 couple 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 even a story 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 later told Betty that he didn’t know what else to do but go out and borrow $1000 and buy the property which he did. And the County files have his 1955 Christmas card showing the building to prove it.
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 by hosting the annual meeting of the Conference of California Historical Societies!
This and other articles by Harriett Burt can be found at The Martinez Patch and the Martinez Historical Society Month Newsletter