Boys beating the summer heat in an old swimming hole in the San Ramon Creek. Potluck socials every Saturday night in front of the Grange on Front Street. Bucolic scenes of historic Danville came to life last Saturday morning as docent Patty Dobbin led a downtown walking tour sponsored by the Museum of the San Ramon Valley.
The tour began at the museum at the old Southern Pacific Railroad depot on Railroad Avenue, which was erected when the Martinez line was extended south to San Ramon.
"The farmers were delighted," said Dobbin, who has been a docent at the museum for seven years. "They finally could ship their crops. The first train came to town in 1891, on June 7."
The old depot was originally further down the street, where Andronico's is now, Dobbin said, but it was moved in 1996 when the museum bought and renovated it in a huge community effort. Because it is registered as a state Historic Landmark, the outside had to be restored to its original state of Victorian Stick architectural style using gold and brown colors.
"The train originally went to San Ramon, where Costco is, and the train was put on a turnstile and turned around. San Ramon was the end of the line although eventually it went on to Pleasanton," Dobbin said. It ended in the north at Avon, now Martinez, after stops in Walnut Creek, Concord and Pleasant Hill. The ride to Martinez cost $1.35.
"In Martinez, the crops were put onto flatbed boats and ferried to San Francisco," Dobbin explained. "Some of the hay went all the way to the hay market in London."
The walking tour headed east on Prospect Avenue, which Dobbin said was then merely a winding footpath known as Tiger Alley. "We're not sure why," said Dobbin. "Maybe because it curved like a tiger's tail. Or maybe because it was lined with saloons."
The group stopped at the corner of Prospect and Hartz Avenue across from the Veteran's Hall. It was built in 1925 to honor veterans of World War I, and it also served as the town library for 40 years, Dobbin informed the group. She drew everyone's attention across the street to Starbucks, which was the site of the Bank of Italy. Dobbin showed a photograph of the solid old-fashioned bank building, which was torn down in 1959.
Across from the old bank site on Hartz, Dobbin pointed out the site of Acrees market from 1925. "You could call in and order groceries," she said, explaining it was difficult for folks to leave their farms to come in and shop.
Next to that was the old telephone exchange where, beginning in 1925, Viola Root was the operator with her board to plug in telephone calls. "Everything you said, Viola knew," said Dobbin.
The next stop was Elliot's Since 1907, which was opened first at the north end of Front Street and moved to its present location in 1912. "During prohibition, it was an 'ice cream parlor,'" reported Dobbin.
The tour continued up Hartz to learn that Meenar's restaurant was once McDonald's Pharmacy and the family lived upstairs. The Uptown CafÃ is in the oldest commercial building in town continually used for businesses, Dobbin said, built in 1921 and at one time housed Pynn's Drygoods Store.
The group crossed Hartz at Diablo Road, originally called County Road. Back up Hartz in front of the Rising Loafer, Dobbin showed photos of the old firehouse situated there for 50 years. "It was built in 1925," she said. "The early firemen were volunteers and the siren was so loud it could be heard in Alamo."
The tour stopped around the corner on Prospect at Ella J's and learned it was the original Lawrence's Meat Market. Further down the street the group stopped to admire the boutique adjacent to Father Nature's Shed, built in the Victorian Folk Style. "It was originally behind where the Veteran's Building is but they moved it. That shows how sturdy the houses were then," Dobbin said.
The walk down Front Street evoked the very early days of the town, when gold miners came to the area to settle after making their fortunes in the Sierra. "They came from all over the world and bought property from the Spanish ranchers," Dobbin said, adding that the Jones and the Stone families came before the Gold Rush.
"The original residents were of course the Indians, some 5,000 years ago," she said. "There was a big Indian establishment by the Oak Tree. When they excavated for the road they found lots of artifacts. And there were lots of seashells, because this area was once under sea. They were the Miwok Indians, very peaceful. They hunted, there was a lot of game, they had access to water and built their homes from tulle reeds."
When the Spanish arrived, they camped along the creek, with the first expedition passing through in 1772. "This changed the lives of the Indians," Dobbin said. Huge Mexican Land Grants were given in the early 1800s, with the Pacheco ranch reaching from Pacheco in the north to Crow Canyon Road, and this land was sold to the early pioneer families, who raised wheat.
"The Inman brothers (Daniel and Andrew) came from Tennessee," Dobbin said. "They established a blacksmith shop in 1856." Daniel had bought 400 acres in the early 1850s, which formed the site of Danville. When it came time for the settlement to have a name, the residents wanted to name it Inmanville, so the story goes, but they settled on Danville. Another version of the story says the town was named after Danville in Kentucky, the hometown of Andrew's mother-in-law.
The Gothic-Revival Cohen-Vecki house, at 169 Front St., is the oldest residential building in downtown Danville, built in 1866, Dobbin said. "It sat further back so wagons could turn around in front," she said. Dr. Victor John Vecki practiced dentistry in the house for many years.
Down the street the group stopped by a huge redwood tree to hear about the Presbyterian Church that was on the site, a white, wooden-framed New England structure with a steeple that could be seen for miles around. The church was built in 1875 and burned down in 1932. The tree has a plaque on it noting it was planted in 1876.
"This is historic land," Dobbin said as the group approached the Village Theatre. It was the old Grange Hall, which served as the center of town life for the farmers. "Everyone would gather for potluck dinners every Saturday night," Dobbin said. Grange members were also politically powerful, responsible for tackling community problems. The Grange was built in 1874, and in 1912-14 the building was enlarged, with the original portion raised to become the second floor. Behind the theater, on the south side of its parking lot, is the site of the second school, a one-room schoolhouse dating from 1865. The first one was on the south side of town, built in 1858.
The tour proceeded through the parking lot to Church Street to admire the old Queen Anne style house at the corner of Hartz, which is now the Amber restaurant. "A second Queen Anne was used as the high school building," Dobbin said. "It had 30 students, mostly women because the men were needed on the ranches. There were five women in the first graduating class." San Ramon Valley High School was built in its present location in 1917 although none of the original building remains.
Faz was the location of the livery. "It was $1.50 per day to rent a horse and buggy or a wagon," said Dobbin. "Salesmen would come in from the train, rent a wagon and drive around the valley and sell their wares."
The old Italianate Victorian on the corner of School Street and Hartz is the Shuey-Povda House. It was built in 1891 and is the oldest two-story residence in town. "The second story had a honeymoon suite where newlyweds in town could stay," Dobbin told the group. "The Povdas bought it in 1939 as their 'city house.' Their 'country house' was three miles away in the middle of the Mercantile."
Further up Hartz, the tour stopped at La Ultima, originally the town home of John Hartz, who developed much of the downtown. He came to California from Germany in 1865 at the age of 18 with the proverbial $10 in his pocket and went to work as a farmer. He returned to his hometown in Germany to marry Catharina, and they returned to Danville and raised three children.
"Every Thursday, John had to go away while she cleaned. He'd go to Elliot's," said Dobbin. "After she cleaned, she would sit on the porch and smoke a cigar."
Hartz sold 8.65 acres of land to Southern Pacific for the Danville train station, and with the coming of the railroad he also subdivided 12 acres of his original property into 74 lots. He sold four lots to Edward McCauley for $150 each, and McCauley built his home and the Railroad Hotel on the property. The main part of town shifted at this time from Front Street to Railroad Avenue and Hartz, named in honor of John Hartz.
The next stop was the home of Emma Dodge, who was postmaster from 1913-33. Her husband was blind but he would pick up the mail from the railroad station and bring it home for Dodge to distribute, Dobbin said. Emma lived in the house for 37 years.
Dobbin also showed old photographs of the Toonerville Trolley, an electric railway that ran down Hartz Street from 1914-24, on its route from Walnut Creek to Diablo and back to Walnut Creek.
Lisa B's restaurant now inhabits the old Danville Hotel, originally called the Railroad Hotel. Dobbin walked the group into the courtyard and had them look at the side of the building. "Everything that is painted red was the original Danville Hotel, although it originally faced the other direction and was on Railroad Avenue," she said. It was moved closer to Hartz and turned around in 1927 because by then Hartz Avenue was the main street in town.
A businessman named Russ Glenn owned the property around the hotel in the 1950s. "When a movie company was filming a movie in the area, he hired a stage designer to revitalize area," said Dobbin. "All the little buildings were done by a Hollywood set designer." The folks on the tour pointed out the false fronts to each other and said they'd always wondered the story behind the strange Old West setting.
The tour concluded back at the Depot and everyone returned to 2005, feeling enriched by the walk through the past. As Dobbin said about learning about the town's history: "That's what gives me a sense of place."
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