Keep Martinez’s Rich History Alive!

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Matthew Barber and His Name on the Street Where He Lived

Written by Charlene Perry, News-Gazette 1983

Editor’s Note: This column appeared in the November 1, 1983 edition of the News-Gazette

Martinez is rich with old houses that have a history we can still locate in the old books of the people who built them and those pioneers’ contributions to our city.  One of these is the home on Barber Lane, still well kept, though more than 100 years old.

Barber Lane, (off Pleasant Hill Road East), is named for the man who built the house, Matthew Root Barber who was born in Ohio in 1813.  With the death of his father, he was taken to live with the family of Elam Brown in Illinois where he grew to manhood as a member of the Brown family, attending frontier schools and at the age of 24, marrying Orpha Bean.

Barber farmed, raised stock and built wagons for sale until 1849 when he joined an emigrant wagon train to California.  After mining a short time, he joined Elam Brown in what is now Lafayette.  Brown had come west three years earlier, had bought the Valencia Grant and begun his own farming operation.

For a time, Barber worked in the redwoods near Moraga) whipsawing lumber.  While there, the first election for county officials was held and Barber prepared the first county tickets (now called ballots), writing them by hand.

Coming to Martinez, then just beginning to be populated, Barber built several of the first houses and the first wooden bridge over Alhambra Creek on Main Street.

In 1851, Barber returned to Illinois by way of the Isthmus of Panama, gathered his family together, purchased a large band of livestock and proceeded back to California across the plains without incident, arriving in Martinez in August of 1852. Selling much of the livestock, bought 443 acres at the (northern) mouth of Alhambra Valley, planting 40 acres to vineyards and orchard.  He built a home for the family of five children and Orpha, but, as he prospered the need for a larger home caused him to build the home on Barber Lane.

Elected four times in the period of 1857 to 1863, he served as County Administrator, indicating that his frontier schooling stood him good stead as an adult.  His children attended local schools and one daughter, Maria, married Judge C W. Lander. Their daughter, Aga Lander, taught in the Martinez school system for many years (and helped found the Martinez Free Reading Room , forerunner of the County Library System and the successful fight for woman’s suffrage in California in 1911).  One son, Elam Brown Barber, finishing business college at Heald’s in San Francisco, returned to run the ranch, living there until his death in the late 1920s. A Contra Costa Gazette item of November, 1887, tells of Matthew and Orpha celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary on the grounds of the old home.

One hundred and forty guests enjoyed a picnic lunch spread on long tables beneath the trees at the old home place on what is now Barber Lane.


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