The True Story of How Soto Street Got Its Name
By Harriett Burt
This week we present something unusual: a correction that is not buried on the right--hand bottom of page umpteen under the lottery results and that day’s list of famous peoples’ birthdays but is actually the lead paragraph of this week’s column.
Following the admittedly speculative article about how Soto Street got its name in the July 22nd edition of the Martinez News Gazette, this writer received a call from Beverly Soto Holden. She calmly and politely told me that her maiden name is Portuguese and that her great-grandfather, Frank Silva Soto, owned two homes along Alhambra Creek at the east end of what is now Soto Street and farmed on the surrounding land which he also owned. She emailed me an undated, unlabeled copy of his obituary which is interesting enough to be quoted here. She also agreed to show me her grandmother’s three scrapbooks in which she saved clippings relating to the family, most of which lack a date. I can hardly wait to see them.
But in the meantime, my apologies to the Soto family and particularly to Bev who, while admittedly disappointed in the article, was very gracious and forgiving about it. My apologies also to the editor and staff of the News-Gazette, to column readers and to future historians who may read that column and unknowingly perpetuate the mistake. I made it based on the fact that there were prominent Mexican Sotos in the early history of Martinez and California and the family names of local Hispanic, Portuguese and Italian residents appear to be sorted into different groups based on their southern European language heritage. Some sound similar like Cardinale (Spanish) or Cardinelli (Italian) but are spelled differently while others appear to be grouped by the country of their ancestors’ birth. However, that is no excuse for not digging deeper. Charlene Perry, a meticulous researcher, had nothing to do with the mistake.
Thanks to a rather flowery but unlabeled clipping from one of the two Martinez newspapers in 1930, the Martinez Standard and the Contra Costa Gazette, we know something about Frank Silva Soto, Sr. from his obituary headlined “Oldest of Residents Passes On”.
“The oldest resident of Martinez was laid to rest in “God’s Acre” high on the hills overlooking the ever-shifting waters of the Bay yesterday, when the mortal remains of Frank Silva Soto were consigned to their last resting place. (Editor’s Note: “God’s Acre” is the name given both St. Catherine’s and Alhambra cemeteries in the state directories of cemeteries which are excellent resources for tracing an ancestor’s gravesite).
“For nearly a century, 95 years to be exact, Frank Soto had lived a good life. Born in the Azores, he came to California as a young man and shortly after his arrival here settled in Martinez. In what was then the outskirts of Martinez, Soto established his home and reared his children. “The country lane” which passed in front of the house in later years became a city street, paved, guttered and sidewalked, and in deference to its first resident, was named “Soto Street”.
“For over fifty years Frank Soto resided in that home. Two sons and a daughter grew to maturity, married, established homes of their own, but still the aged parents maintained their simple home……”
The obituary mentions that he was in excellent health until a few weeks before his death refusing entreaties to go to the hospital, just three or four blocks away, until the last minute where in a matter of hours late on a Saturday night “he received the visitation of the Death Angel.”
Bev, who sent me the obituary from one of her grandmother’s scrapbooks, pointed out that there is a discrepancy between Mr. Soto’s age reported as 95 in the article and his birthdate on the headstone at the cemetery - 1845. To be 95 in 1930 he would have had to be born in 1835. A look at the naturalization database at the County History Center showed that Mr. Soto applied for citizenship on July 22, 1877. Unfortunately the 1877 book with the hardcopy of naturalization papers is missing all of July so his birthdate could not be validated one way or the other. But a 1927 City of Martinez book showing all the properties in town organized by sections shows the F. S. Soto property on the last block of Soto Street at Alhambra Creek. Soto, however, is spelled Sotio, a misspelling that occurred in other documents about other Sotos.
(Editor’s note: Bev went on Ancestry.com to see if she could find her great grandfather’s date of birth. It turns out that the 1930 census tells us he was 84 when the census taker interviewed him early in the year of his death. Why the newspaper obituary added 10 years to his age will never be known. His land, listed as a ranch in the census document, was valued at $3000 (not bad in 1930) although the land was not being actively farmed then as he was retired. He also didn’t have a radio. Mr. Soto apparently never followed through on his application for citizenship according to the census documents. Neither he nor his wife, Mary who died in 1936, were ever citizens. But the census taker noted that Mr. Soto could speak English and read and write but his wife could do neither…..not an uncommon thing in elderly families at that point in our history.)
All in all, the Soto Street story has galvanized Bev to find out more about the Soto side of her family and this writer to not only be more careful about jumping to conclusions but also to value how much has been done by so many to save the life information of ordinary citizens who are also ancestors of us all or of somebody we know.
Moving on while we’re still in the neighborhood, the next east-west street south of Soto is the one block long A Street followed by Bertola Street. According to Charlene Perry in “MARTINEZ: A Handbook of Houses and History”, it is named after Antonio Bertola, “who had come to Contra Costa from Italy in the 1860s, going to work as a gardener and farmer in Diablo Valley”.
“When he had saved enough to buy property, he came to Martinez and purchased what amounted to two or more city blocks, stretching from Alhambra Avenue to the Creek and running from Soto to what is now Bertola Street. (Ed: across from County Hospital parking lot at the bisection of Alhambra Avenue and Berrellesa Street.) His crops were truck-garden vegetables and fruits as well as vineyards for the wine he specialized in. A number of old crockery wine bottles have been found on the premises of the big two-story house (Ed: on Soto and Castro Streets), once the center of his land ownership that is now cut into apartments.
“Bertola’s daughter, Mariana, was born in the old house. She became a school teacher after attending the girls’ seminary in Benicia. She taught in Martinez and later joined the staff of the Benicia school and when it moved to Oakland to become Mills College, she too went. Returning to school, she studied medicine and became a medical doctor, practicing in San Francisco. (Editor’s Note: There is an article about her in Wikipedia according to a local historian that we will need to explore at some point.”)
Charlene closed the Bertola story with this statement: “The big old house is kept in good repair and is one of the oldest left in town. We feel grateful to owners who preserve these precious old places much as they were built.” One of her goals in helping to found the Martinez Historical Society 41 years ago was to promote just that.
Which leads us to the 10th annual Martinez Historical Society Home Tour scheduled for Saturday, October 14, 2017. A popular event that attracts visitors from Sacramento to San Jose, this year it will feature smaller homes south of City Hall, mainly around Alhambra and Berrellesa to the County Hospital and up the hill to the west as well as this year’s public building, the Martinez Early Childhood center on Arch Street, for some years the Mormon Temple in Martinez. Tickets will go on sale soon.
Sources: Beverly Soto Holden, records at the County History Center and “MARTINEZ – A Handbook of Houses and History”, second edition by Charlene McRae Perry (2008)
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160