142 Years – Four Generations

And Going Forward…..

By Harriett Burt

Martinez Historical Society Newsletter July 2010

Editor’s Note:  In the third and final article in the MHS newsletter series about the Griffin family and its 142 year history in Alhambra Valley, the focus will be on the third and fourth generations: George’s children - particularly twins Tom and Bess who died within weeks of each other in late 2009 at the age of 97 and their children.

Martinez residents interested in the community’s long history have reason to be grateful to Tom Griffin and his twin, Elizabeth “Bess” Griffin Girgich for in the final years of their long and productive lives, they shared the history of their family’s 14 decades of ranching in Alhambra Valley in numerous interviews and articles.  Their legacy is not only the record of a family but a personal view of life on the land from 1868 to the present.  Tom and Bess lived from 1912 to late 2009 thus participating in a century during which the world  and how people live in it changed more in a shorter time than in all the centuries that preceded it.

Following his memorial service in January, many of the invited guests told Tom’s widow Jan that they wished they had known him better.  Tom Griffin was liked and respected by all who came in contact with him but he was a quiet man who focused on his family, his work and the land in Alhambra Valley.  Consequently, his activities took place mainly in the Valley except for his membership in Martinez Lodge #41 F. & A. M. and his recent membership and participation in activities of the Martinez Historical Society. 

His twin, Bess, was more outgoing but like her brother she was a hard worker who focused on what needed to be done whether it was studying hard enough to be valedictorian of Alhambra Union High School’s Class of 1929, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC Berkeley four years later or learning stenography in order to get a job in the middle of the Depression.  She raised three boys by herself when it was neither easy nor usual to do so while building a successful career in the insurance industry.  It is from Bess that we have the written narrative of the Griffin family from Thomas and Alice’s arrival here from Ireland by way of Australia in the early 1860s.

Their father George was the last to depend on farming as the family’s major source of income although even he moonlighted as a surveyor in the County and in the Sierras to supplement the family income and pay off the debt he owed John Muir who loaned him the money to buy his mother and sisters out after the death of his father Thomas in 1894. 

When his youngest son, Tom, returned home after service in the United States Navy during World War II, making a living from dairy and crops on 65 acres in Alhambra Valley the way his parents had was not an option for him, newly married and soon to start a family.  

“Tom never had an interest in farming,” his nephew John Phillips observes.  “He was a businessman, not a farmer.  But he was interested in the preservation of the land.”

So Tom lived a double life for nearly 30 years after the war.  By day, he was a salesman and later western regional manager of Wheel Industries, a division of the Budd Company.  Tom’s company developed custom wheel and suspension systems for heavy equipment such as the trucks that hauled pineapples and sugar cane out of the volcanic soil of Hawaii to nearby ports.  John remembers being impressed by Tom’s detailed drawings of wheel assemblies for customers.  His widow credits Tom’s success in that field to his ability to look at something and immediately know what to do.  “He had an understanding of how things worked.”

By weekends, vacations, early mornings and late evenings, Tom was a home builder and a rancher.  Doing the chores before he drove off to work in San Francisco or wherever his business took him, he spent weekends in the 1940s and 50s building a home on the ranch where members of his family still reside.  Tom and his first wife, Jane, had four children, Peter, Stephen, Alice and Robert, who grew up on the ranch learning from their parents and from their grandfather George the value of hard work and the love of the land.  

Meanwhile, Tom juggled his double life moving from salesman to western manager covering a territory from Colorado to Hawaii.  His superiors were so impressed with his abilities, his conscientiousness and his effectiveness in both sales and management that they offered him substantial promotions --- the only problem was that he and his family would have to leave Alhambra Valley and move to Philadelphia or Detroit.

“At considerable cost to myself,” Tom admitted in an interview in 2007 for the Alhambra Creek Project, “I refused to go back there.  I didn’t want to live anywhere else.”  This was an unusual decision in the mid-twentieth century era of “The Organization Man” when a successful corporate employee moved himself and family wherever the promotions took them. 

“Tom loved the land,” says his nephew.  ‘He was never reticent about making clear that he was going to live here.”

 Jane, a popular member of the Alhambra Valley group of residents, fell victim to brain cancer while still a young woman.  She endured years of surgeries and treatments which never quite cured it.  She and Tom and the children figured out ways to deal with the situation but finally she became so incapacitated that Tom retired at age 60 to care for her full time until her death in 1979 and raise their children.  He was proud of his success – “all of them graduated from the University of California and none of them went to jail” he would say.

The remaining 65 acres of Thomas Griffin’s 1868 purchase never again provided the full support for a family that it had for so many years.  But it continued to be active agriculturally.  Tom grew hay for horses and for a number of years bred horses for the county fair circuit as well as major California racetracks.  He and his son Robert grew grapes and made wine, developing Robert’s successful career as a vintner in building the Bernard-Griffin Winery in Washington State.  In the 1970s Tom and valley resident Bob Jones collaborated on the Alhambra Christmas Tree Farm which has been a popular holiday stop for families from all over the area for over 40 years.  After his second marriage to Jan Johnson Griffin, an enthusiastic horsewoman, Tom and Jan developed a retirement “home” for aging horses who enjoy 40 fenced acres of Alhambra Valley during their golden years.  The owners are happy to visit their aged pets and riding horses in the peaceful Valley fields and the fire department is glad to know that the fields are being grazed conscientiously for fire prevention purposes.

Because of his love and commitment to the Valley, Tom Griffin used his retirement as a good neighbor who would help neighbors with whatever they needed whenever they needed it – even if it meant fashioning wooden fittings for a neighbor’s dream sailboat, building custom bookshelves and clocks or providing whatever assistance needed in an emergency.

He also put in hours and hours at meetings about Valley issues.  Alhambra Valley Improvement Association president Harold Olson described Tom as a stabilizing influence in any group he was a part of.  Serving as vice president from its resurgence in 1964 until his death, Tom represented the AVIA group on the Alhambra Creek Watershed Group and on the Alhambra Valley Specific Plan committee for three years.  Whenever the discussion in any group got contentious, Tom could calm things down with his steady voice and common sense.  “Tom didn’t speak a lot,” Olson remembered, ‘But whenever he did, people listened.”  As the Valley again became the focus of annexation moves by the City of Martinez in 2010, the Alhambra Valley Specific Plan which Tom helped devise to protect what his family and their neighbors loved,  was the measure valley residents used to protect their area.

The fourth generation of Griffins which began with the birth of Robert Griffin’s daughter Rickey Griffin Wolfe in 1934 increased by two in the early 1980s when Thomas Johnson (TJ) and John Griffin were born to Tom and Jan.  Both boys value the way they were raised with a ‘stay-at-home” Dad as John describes him.  Always ready to take them to whatever activities they were involved with, Tom supported their activities in 4-H and other organizations, many related to animal husbandry.

“Yay for 4-H!” says TJ who credits 4-H projects he and other members of the local group carried out with Tom’s advice and support with creating his love of the land and of animals.

“I spent all summer at the Fairgrounds (in Antioch)” TJ says, learning about and showing rabbits, pigs, dogs, horses and lambs he had raised.  Working in the information technology and data management field, TJ loves the ranch and plans to stay involved in it with a goal of getting it to be self-sustaining going forward. 

If the first two generations of Griffins saw the property now, they would recognize the old redwood barn, formerly across Reliez Valley Road where Alice Haughton Griffin lived after Thomas died in 1894.  George moved it across the road where it still stands on the property. 

They would also notice what is missing.  George’s house, which he built after marrying Jessie Dukes and which is featured in family photographs in the early 20th century, was torn down after his death in 1958 – smoke-blackened walls and all. John Phillips, a young man at the time, was given the task of taking it apart which he said was not very difficult because the quality of construction was not very high.  However,  it sheltered George and his family for as long as it was needed with a woodstove and a hand pump for water in the kitchen, an oil burning stove in the front room to the day George died at age 96.  Electricity and indoor plumbing were added gradually in the early part of the 20th century.

  The ‘carriage house’, formerly the blacksmith shop down at the Martinez waterfront where rails were fashioned for the Southern Pacific transcontinental railroad extension in the 1870s, sat for many years in front of the current residence until it burned down in 2004.  All the pieces in it were numbered and moved by Thomas to the ranch where it was reconstructed sometime in the late 19th century.

Although there is no crystal ball view into the future available, the family pride in its history and love of the land it has belonged to since 1868 is strong.  Matched with the growing interest society-wide in sustainability including land preservation and management and local food production and consumption, odds are that the Griffin family will maintain its part of Alhambra Valley agricultural history even as the Pereira-Sincich family is doing with its century old culture of pear orchards and beef production and as Alhambra Valley residents Tom and Donna Powers are with their agricultural activities near Bear Creek Road on the western edge of Alhambra Valley.  Read the July, 2068 issue of the Martinez Historical Society Newsletter to find out “the rest of the story”.



Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160