Wrapping up the Western Hills – Foster Street etc.

By Harriett Burt

As always, thanks to the late Charlene Perry for the gift she gave to the Historical Society and therefore the City of Martinez by not only working to establish the Borland Home Museum site but for spending hours on research and writing about early Martinez history.  Many have followed her lead and added to it over the years, but we’ve all had a great foundation to begin with.  This column uses that sturdy foundation plus some local memories not shared before.

Island Hill and the surrounding neighborhoods of the hills of northwestern Martinez continued throughout the 19th century to be a significant location in the town.  Like every other part of town, the original residents moved on to make room for new ones whose families often added significant dimensions to our town, including a street name. 

Fred Foster came to Martinez in the 1870s to be editor of the Contra Costa Gazette and junior partner under the direction of the publisher, R. R. Bunker.  His home at 305 Talbart still exists 134 years after it was built, very near to Foster Street, a short street off Talbart just before it turns northwest to become Carquinez Scenic Drive.  It was named according to Charlene Perry in “Martinez: A Handbook of Houses and History” after the Foster family very likely as a tribute particularly to Fred’s father, James.

James Foster arrived in California in 1852, working as a millwright in San Mateo until 1857, then building a grist mill near Auburn followed by moving to Contra Costa County

Settling in the “then thriving town of Alamo” according to Slocum’s 1882 history of California, he established a successful wheelwright shop and sent for his wife and two children.  He served as postmaster, justice of the peace starting in 1860 and by 1869 was elected county assessor, a post he held for ten years.  Along the way, he studied and practiced law and was admitted to the Bar in the 15th Judicial Court, presumably in Contra Costa County.  He made his mark on Martinez history in the mid-1870s by solving with the approval of all parties in contention the very confused and inaccurate title records to property in the city.

Charlene Perry notes that by the time Martinez was about to make its successful application for incorporation (1876), it had long been clear that ”many early settlers had bought whole blocks of property, sometimes several, and streets were not driven through at that time.  In later years, lots were sold within the boundaries of these properties and, in many cases were not surveyed out, so that property lines were hazy at best.” One can easily imagine the litigation nightmare sorting that out would be remembering that Teadora Soto held off two powerful rancho owners for 14 years before winning a land dispute for her family’s rancho,  an opening salvo of several years of disputes and confusion over the land beneath Martinez citizens’ feet.

Slocum’s History, the most respected of the many histories of the County between 1882 and 1940, noted that being appointed the sole referee for sub-dividing the lots in the town of Martinez, Foster had been given “a task than which none more difficult and complicated was ever settled in the State.  By adding new streets, and changing the width and location of many of the old ones, and by re-arranging and adding to the number of lots and blocks, his allotment to each owner was made with such satisfaction, that although there were over one hundred interested parties, his report was accepted without a single dissenting vote. (italics by this writer).”

In the Foster Plan, streets were re-named, re-aligned, and in some cases, removed.  Before the Foster Plan, Warren Street was named Harrison, A Ridley Street was a block south of Soto and a Chapman, Morgan and Bullock Streets were approximately where A, Bertola and Flora Streets are now.  The most interesting change is the street where this writer lives: before the Foster Plan, Robinson Street, thought to be named after a local builder named William Robinson, was called, would you believe, Toschnacher Street.  What a nightmare it would be to have to spell that out on the telephone.

In 1860 the Martinez Masonic Lodge, founded in 1854 as one of the earliest lodges in the state, built its temple on the block between Henrietta and Susana that is now Susana Park.  At that time, Ferry Street stretched from the shoreline to Alhambra Creek.  Above the creek crossing at Green, the street was re-named Mason Street which extended a short distance to the temple. As late as 1927, city planning maps showed Mason Street reappearing again about 6 or more blocks later at Robinson Street, crossing Brown and ending at Allen Street.  At some point, perhaps when the new temple was built at its current location at the corner of Estudillo and Masonic, the short Mason Street extension to the new park was renamed Ferry Street.  A small stub of Mason at Robinson Street was abandoned and the two blocks from Robinson to Allen were renamed Ferry Street.

Foster Street is 1 block long from the end of Talbart Street if the short section off Berellessa that appears to be abandoned isn’t included, far shorter than James Foster’s achievement merits. He allowed the town to move forward without disruption and endless litigation because his unique abilities.

Island Hill and its surrounding area evolved as the town did at the beginning of the 20th century.  Granger’s Wharf and the surrounding area including Howard and Escobar Streets became the center of the Italian fishing and business community.  Soon Italian immigrants, reaping the American Dream, began to buy properties on Island Hill.  The Coffin/Porter home, scene of many parties hosted by state Senator C. B. Porter, later became a boarding house. 

Meanwhile smaller homes were being built including what Perry describes in “A Handbook of Houses and History” as “the classic city cottage built by Nunzio Sparacino in 1902”’.

As Perry writes “He had come to the United States from Italy and became one of the many Italian fishermen who arrived in the period from 1875 to 1910 and became one of the many who built up the area known locally as Granger’s Wharf on the site of that organizations piers at the foot of Berrellesa Street.”

The American dream came true for many who then bought property south of the railroad tracks.  Soon there was what Perry called “a fine Italian village with stores, bakery, winery and a pasta factory.”   As was often the pattern, the senior Sparacino later brought his son, Giuseppe, a twelve-year-old soon known as Joe followed by his entire family who moved into the cottage he built at the corner of Escobar and Richardson Street which is there to this day.  Joe, after two years in school, went to work with his father.  When his father retired in 1907, young Joe succeeded him becoming a very successful fish wholesaler.   He was one of the organizers of the National Bank of Martinez.  His son, John, became a businessman and banker in Martinez for many years and served on the City Council as the first elected mayor of Martinez.

As more and more families rented or built homes in the Island Hill area, some of the tensions, customs and attitudes of the home country manifested themselves in the neighborhood.  The late Josephine Ferranti Billecci told this writer years ago that her mother, Mary, would not allow her children to play with other Italian children from outside of their immediate neighborhood on Talbart near Foster.  The Ferrantis were from Isola della Femini, a small island off the Sicilian coast. She didn’t want them associating with children from other parts of Sicily or the Italian mainland.  Her husband, Joe Billecci, who grew up a block south on Talbart, confirmed that happened. 

“It was the mothers,” he observed.  Lots of what he called “old country” Italians lived on the “flats” (probably Howard and Berellessa) and he went down there to play with them, presumably without telling his mother.  He added, “the Aiellos, the Azevedos…..we all went to school together.  We were all good friends.”  To this day, he says, Italians joke among themselves about where their forebears came from in the old country.

The late Al Susini, Sr., told this writer, also many years ago, that he had come to Martinez from Italy when he was about 9 or 10 years old moving into the Island Hill area.  From northern Italy, Al learned Sicilian real fast he remembered to keep from being a punching bag.  At the same time he was learning English in order to do his lessons.  He grew up to be a well-known Martinez businessman with lots of great stories of his life here.

Next time:  Moving the focus to streets outside of the downtown core

Sources: Charlene Perry:  Avenues of History:  Columns in the Martinez News-Gazette, Sept. 1978

               Charlene Perry:  Martinez: A Handbook of Houses and History, Martinez Historical Society, 2008

                 W. A.  Slocum and Co., History of Contra Costa County California, San Francisco 1882



Martinez Historical Society

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