Here to Stay: The Second Generation of Griffins In Alhambra Valley

By Harriett Burt

Martinez Historical Society Newsletter May 2010

Editor's Note:  Part 2 of the Griffin family story centers around George Griffin, a hard-working farmer, horseman and surveyor who was a friend of John Muir and John Swett. He lived all his 96 years on the ranch the family still owns in Alhambra Valley. George and his three sisters, Lilly, May and Eva, were the children of Thomas and Alice Griffin who arrived in California in the 1860s from Ireland by way of Australia.  Thomas Griffin bought the Alhambra Valley property in 1868 after several years as superintendent of the Black Diamond Mine near Antioch.

George Griffin was always working, his eldest grandson, John Phillips, recalls.  Up to a week before his death in 1958 at 96 from pneumonia, George never stopped doing something around the ranch all day everyday -- chopping wood or working in the garden or anything else he thought needed doing.  The challenge for Tom Griffin in the 1940s and 50s, John says, was to keep his father off the roof  -- that would be where he wanted to be if that’s where the job was – no matter that he was in his 80s or 90s.

“He valued hard work more than anything.  He judged people by how hard they worked.”

A favorite family quote of George’s is “the University of California spoiled a lot of good truck drivers.”

And hard work was the key to survival in a 19th and early 20th century small family farm. In a family biography written in 2004, Bess Griffin Phillips Girgich, described vividly the life she was born into with her brother, Tom, in 1912:

“George was up before dawn to feed and milk the cows, do whatever was required each season to raise hay and corn for the animals, and end the day with another milking.  He was a “natural” with horses and trained his own and those of friends and rode horseback until he was in his 80s.”  

“Jessie (his wife, Jessie Dukes Griffin, raised in what is now Pleasant Hill) had to put the milk through a separator manually twice a day, then boil water on a wood stove to clean the separator parts, the kitchen stove being the only source of heat for cooking and warmth in winter.  Since almost everything we consumed was raised on the ranch, there was always a vegetable garden to tend, chickens to feed and protect from predators, fruit to can or dry, three meals a day to prepare, all without refrigeration, clothes to wash with a hand-turned wringer, but without a washing machine, and clothes to make with a pedal Singer sewing machine.”

George also often hired himself and two horses out to help build county roads or work on other farms for one dollar a day.  In addition he spent part of several summers on a surveying team in the Sierras with Martinez/Lafayette pioneer Elam Brown.  He needed the money from these jobs because he owed John Muir $10,000.

When Thomas Griffin died in 1894, he left the Alhambra Valley property (on the south side of what is now Reliez Valley Road just east of the “T” with Alhambra Valley Road) divided between his four children.  George decided to buy his sisters out so went to Muir who was his friend and neighbor.  Knowing young Griffin’s honesty and dependability, Muir gladly agreed to the loan which was indeed eventually repaid in full.

George was 32 when he took over the 60-acre property – land he was always critical of his father for buying when, as he often said, Thomas could have had much more fertile land in the Central Valley in 1868 for $1 per acre.  Thomas’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren always joked that he could have bought land in Concord or Walnut Creek which would now be worth a fortune.

The Griffins had two sons, Robert and James, born before the turn of the century.  One day when he was 9, Jamie picked up a shotgun leaning up against the house, left there by George who had been shooting at hawks hunting the chickens.  The boy looked down the barrel just as Rob, then 6, somehow touched the trigger. Bess wrote that the parents and Rob never fully recovered from Jamie’s death. 

However, the farm work needed to be done so the family soldiered on – even through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which did little damage to the property except for a water tank on its platform being moved three feet, a fireplace that had to be rebuilt and a mess cleaned up consisting of spilled milk mixed with broken jugs of vinegar in the basement.

It is George and Jessie Griffin for whom the Earthquake was such an emotionally difficult experience that they could barely speak of it for the remainder of their lives.  By chance, Jessie was in a hospital in San Francisco recovering from a hernia operation performed the day before.  All the beds were moved into Golden Gate Park, where stoves were set up and the patients cared for.  Of course what communication systems existed were completely disrupted so George ride his horse over the hills to the Oakland waterfront where he bribed a boatman to take him to the City to look for Jessie. The City was under martial law with no one allowed in and suspected looters were to be shot on sight without due process.   George eventually found Jessie and transported her to good friends who took her into their home to recuperate.  The family still has contemporary newspaper photographs of the devastation but little detail of the Griffins’ experience.

In 1912, Jessie gave birth to fraternal twins, Elizabeth Cary and Thomas Haughton Griffin.  Fourteen-year-old Rob was sent to fetch Dr. E. L. Merrithew but the babies arrived first so George delivered them with dispatch.  He also instilled his work ethic and skill at many different tasks in them so that by the time the children were 5 years old they were bringing the cows into the barn each afternoon for milking.  Not long after, Tom was helping his father with the milking and Bess was helping her mother with the other chores including taking care of the chickens, preparing meals and canning fruits and vegetables. 

“Apricots, peaches, figs, pears, apples, Bess recalled.  “We dried the apples and figs.  Made jams and jellies.  Jellies were more work.”  According to John, the early training took as Bess canned fresh produce every year all of her life until she died in November, 2009 at age 97.

Bess and Tom shared their memories of growing up on a local farm in the early 20th century in interviews with regional newspapers and the Martinez Historical Society.  Tom remembered the family doing its own butchering, hanging the carcasses from one of the tall trees to remove the internal organs then taking the rest by horse and wagon to butchers at the Oakland estuary until 1918 when George bought a Studebaker automobile because Studebaker had always made such good wagons.  The auto had eisenglass curtains to keep out the rain.

As his son Tom did in the years after World War II, George built his own family home in the 1890s and lived there until his death in 1958 – alone for the last ten years after Jessie died.  The kitchen had a wood stove for cooking and for heating in the winter.  Indoor plumbing was installed sometime in the 1920s but there was still a pump handle at the kitchen sink for water at the time of George’s death.   John, who came out from Berkeley on weekends and in the summer in the 1940s and 50s to help Tom build his own house among other tasks, remembers George’s home as very, very dark inside from all the years of wood smoke.  Given the job of taking the house down after George’s death, he notes that it really wasn't a hard job as the house “wasn’t very well built” lacking much of the bracing and other construction requirements of today’s homes.  But it survived the 1906 earthquake.

George attended school until the Alhambra Valley school house burned down when he was in 8th grade.  In an interview in the Contra Costa Gazette in 1947, he made no secret of the fact that he was delighted to be out of school and “out ‘razooing’ horses and cows.”

“We started school in 1870 in the old Madame Soto place…then owned by Dr. Tennant.  Old Madame Soto ran a saloon and roadhouse.  Dr. Tennant volunteered the building as a school.  Three years later they built a school on the hill, above where the Alhambra Farm Bureau clubhouse now stands,” George recalled.  His father donated an acre or two of land at the Alhambra Valley/Reliez Valley crossroads so long as it was used for a school.  In 1918 when the twins started school Bess said there was a bus to take the valley children into town for school in the brand new brick Martinez Elementary School building (now Martinez City Hall).  For years, however, the shed built for the teacher’s horse at the foot of the hill was where she and her brother waited for the bus.  The land was eventually returned to the family by the school district. (Ed. Note:  The Farm Bureau clubhouse was torn down some years ago. It sat  on the northwest corner of the Griffin property at the “t” intersection of Alhambra Valley and Reliez Valley Roads where the Christmas Tree Farm is now located.)

George was interviewed in 1947 at age 85 for a three part series in the Contra Costa Gazette about the early days of the town and Alhambra Valley.  But he said very little about himself, his family and the farm which fit with another favorite family quote of his: “an honest person has his name in the papers three times - when he’s born, when he’s married and when he dies”.  (See accompanying story reproducing one of the articles in the series.)  But the success of his life is shown by his succeeding generations’ dedication to the land, belief in the value of hard work and allegiance to Alhambra Valley.

(In Part 3 in the July edition of the newsletter, the third generation of the Griffin family keeps the ranch working and the history preserved plus Bess Griffin Girgich’s memories of her beloved relatives, aunts May and Eva and cousin “Dr. Alice”).


Martinez Historical Society

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