The Griffins of Alhambra Valley

142 Years of Family Farming Begins

By Harriett Burt

Martinez Historical Society Newsletter March 2010


Editor's Note:  This is the first in a series of articles on the Griffin family who have been ranchers in Alhambra Valley since 1868.  The last surviving members of the third generation, Tom Griffin and his twin, Bess Griffin Girgich, died in late 2009 at the age of 97.  The information comes from interviews with the twins’ father, George, in 1947, from articles written by Bess in 2004 and 2008 as well as an interview with Tom’s widow, Jan Griffin.


Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery is rarely the site of an interment these days.  Only those families who purchased sizable plots decades ago still have burial rights if space remains.  On January 8 of this year, an even rarer double interment was held at the venerable cemetery for the cremains of Alhambra Valley natives Tom Griffin and his twin sister, Bess Griffin Girgich.  Tom died December 16, 2009 and Bess just six weeks before on November 2.

97 years earlier on July 22, 1912, Doctor E. L. Merrithew had been summoned to the Griffin property on Reliez Valley Road to deliver the third child of George and Jessie Dukes Griffin.  Doc was late so George delivered the surprise package of fraternal twins weighing a total of 13 pounds.  According to Bess, Doctor Merrithew had brought only one birth certificate.  Since the baby girl seemed the strongest, he filled it out in her name, Elizabeth Cary Griffin and added “and baby boy” at the bottom.  Thomas Haughton Griffin received his birth certificate over 25 years later when he enlisted in the US Navy for World War II.  He turned out to be strong enough to live and work a strenuous life almost a century long on the land he was born on.

The Griffin family had been ranching on the 65 acre Valley plot for 44 years when the twins were born.  George’s father, Thomas, was a Scots-Irishman who left Ireland for Australia during the Potato Famine to follow young nursemaid Alice Haughton.  The couple married in 1858 near Melbourne.  According to a family history written by Bess in 2004, it is thought that Thomas gained his mining experience in the gold fields of Victoria in the early 1850s.   In 1862, he suddenly decided to go to California to work in the Black Diamond coal mines in Somersville, near Antioch.  Alice, pregnant with George when Thomas left, waited over a year before Thomas summoned her, their daughter Lilly, now nearly six, and George, the baby Thomas had never seen.  The trip across the Pacific took six months because the vessel got caught in ‘the doldrums’, the equatorial band of the Pacific Ocean where the winds do not blow dependably.  By the time the family arrived in Honolulu, two-year-old George was near death from scurvy.  Fresh fruits and vegetables revived him well enough for him to live 94 more years.

According to the family, Thomas was not in San Francisco to pick up his family – in fact, Alice and her children stayed with distant relatives in the bustling city for a period while Thomas took his time coming to get them.  California was in the midst of one of its serious droughts in 1864-65 so Alice was greeted by the sight and the stench of hundreds of dead cattle scattered around Antioch.  Desperate for water, they would stray into the green around the sloughs that then extended one half mile into the land area.  Getting stuck in the mud, they were too weak to pull themselves out and died according to George in a 1947 interview.  He averred that although just two years old at the time, he could vividly remember the sight over 80 years later

Thomas had become superintendent of the Empress Mine so the family lived in Antioch and Somersville for four years until the completion of the transcontinental railroad brought higher quality anthracite coal from the Appalachians to the growing California market. So in 1868 Thomas, now father of 4 children with the addition of May and Eva, looked for farmland to support a growing family.  George complained years later that his father could have bought prime Central Valley acreage for $1 an acre.  Grandson Tom’s generation joked that Thomas could have bought land in Concord or Walnut Creek, now worth millions.  But he chose about 150 acres of mixed flat and hilly land in the eastern end of Alhambra Valley, 65 of which remains in the Griffin family now in its 4th generation of ranching on the site.  The property belonged to a Mr. Bent, one of the earliest settlers.  Thomas used it as the “home farm” while leasing other acreage in the Diablo Valley as far away as Antioch.  He grew wheat in Antioch and tomatoes, peaches among other crops and raised dairy cattle in Alhambra Valley.  

Thomas was apparently a gregarious fellow who often drove the buggy into Martinez to Masonic meetings and gatherings at local bars, with the horse finding the way home many nights according to Bess.  Alice was never in good health after her fifth pregnancy (her second child died in infancy in Australia) so household management was turned over to 11 year old Lilly. George was quite critical in adulthood of both his father and his mother, accusing her of being lazy. But his wife, Jessie, told her daughter Bess that Alice was actually unwell and could not manage the heavy load of house and farm work wives of the period were required to do.

Taking possession of the Bent property in March, 1868, the Griffins were living in the Valley in October when a major earthquake George described as more severe than that of “ought-six” struck. 

“I remember the quake as well as if it were yesterday.  I was helping my sister wash dishes.  It was about 8:20 a.m.”

Except to note that there was less total damage in Martinez than the later quake because there were fewer buildings, he did not detail its impact on the Griffin ranch nor did he mention that the 1906 earthquake resulted in a water tank on the property being moved several feet.  Slocum’s History of Contra Costa County (1882) did list a fair amount of damage to the County Court house and to the brick buildings of merchants in downtown. 

The four Griffin children worked hard on the ranch beginning a family pattern followed in succeeding generations.  With Lilly taking the role her mother could not fulfill, the younger girls did their ‘chores’ while George not only helped with the farm work but developed a lifelong fondness and skill with horses.

George was 8 when he joined the six or seven Valley youngsters as the first class at the Alhambra School.

“We started school in 1870 in the old Madame Soto place on which is now the C. A. Ricks property, then owned by Dr. Tennant.  Old Madame Soto ran a saloon and a roadhouse.  Dr. Tennant volunteered the building as a school.”  Three years later, a new building was constructed specifically for education at the junction of Reliez Valley and Alhambra roads – on land donated by Thomas Griffin as long as it was used for a school.  The school closed in 1918 when transportation was provided to Martinez schools according to Bess who with her brother were the first Valley children to go to ‘town’ for their education.  The donated land was eventually returned to Thomas’ grandson, Tom. 

George’s formal education ended in 8th grade when the school burned down.  In 1947 he expressed great happiness over that event because he’d rather be out “razooing” horses and cows than sitting in a schoolroom.

Thomas died in 1894 leaving the ranch divided among his widow and the four children.  In part 2, the story of the second generation of the Griffins continues with George borrowing money from John Muir to buy his mother and siblings out.


Martinez Historical Society

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