Alameda in history: The First Families of Bay Farm Island
Alameda in history: The First Families of Bay Farm Island
Photos by Michael Lano.
Homestead: A house, especially a farmhouse, possibly with adjoining buildings, land and a farm. Moving to an area to settle, develop and farm the land there.
My name is Mike Lano, and I’m going to be writing monthly about some of Alameda’s amazing history exclusively for The Alamedan – or doing my best while crediting the Island’s real historians and the Alamedans whose relatives made all that history. (For example, trying to find out whom amongst the populous Ratto clan knows their history on Bay Farm best, and then actually finding a working contact for that person, was like finding a near invisible needle in a never-ending haystack.)
We’ll research (with new discovery thanks to Alamedans like Mike McMahon) in-depth pieces on Neptune Beach and South Shore, local celebs, Victorian history on the Main Island, our West End and the original Skippy’s Peanut Butter Jam – anything and everything Alameda. In future articles we’ll discuss the country’s best July Fourth parade, the Hornet and all our Naval history; the many incarnations of Alameda Theatre; Alameda’s athletes and entertainers; our schools, chiefs, elected officials and much more.
Our islands have been occupied by quite a few superstars, including the USS Hornet, chef Weezie Mott and opera great Fredericka “Flicka” Von Stade. I polled 10 people each at three Alameda shopping centers and none knew that Bay Area-bred musician and film star Chris Isaak had one of his homes right in Harbor Bay Isle.
There are also Bay Farm’s many athletic greats, including world champion wrestler Joseph “Pepper” Gomez, longtime Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson and many other coaches and aides from various Bay Area teams like the late, great Warriors superstar Manute Bol. The Oakland A’s Carney Lansford used to live down my own street, along with CSN’s Ray Ratto and the Raiders’ beloved Jim Otto.
So, as that old 1940s slogan goes, Alameda is indeed, some great place!
So many Alameda historians have toiled either living or recording much of our Island City’s history, starting with Imelda Merlin and her outstanding book, “Alameda: A Geographical History,” available at our Alameda Museum. Dennis Evanosky of the Alameda Sun is also a local historian who has written volumes about Alameda and conducted tours on Bay Farm, talking about its farming history and sharing the intricacies of creating the communities of Harbor Bay Isle.
I’ve only lived in Bay Farm Island since 1981, but sadly have never really driven beyond the Harbor Bay Island Shopping Center. Although I’m in one of the Harbor Bay Island tracts, I learned real Alamedans refer to what became 94502 itself overall only as “Bay Farm Island.” They would never dream of calling this Island “Harbor Bay,” since the development occupies only a portion of the island. Any time they mention that they live in Bay Farm, they’re congratulated for being true, old-school, “real” Alamedans.
I also learned that there are four (yes, four!) islands in Alameda. The Main Island was created by the Oakland Inner Harbor Tidal Canal and built by the Army Corps of Engineers; the development of that canal also created Coast Guard Island, which is in Alameda proper. Then there’s Bay Farm, and also, Ballena Bay (it is indeed an island).
The next step was trying to reach some of Alameda’s “first family,” the Rattos. One faction originally settled on Bay Farm, and is believed to have first lived in some of the earliest traditional Mecartney and Silva Family farmhouses adjacent to or near the famous farms. (One area historian quipped that “there’s more Rattos per capita in Alameda than there are championship pennants flying over Yankee Stadium.”)
The Bud Soares League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
I met with Bay Farm Island historians Bob Perata, John Olivera, George Anthony, Bud Soares (descendant of Alameda’s Silva family) and Robert Cumming, all of whom are wealths of Island knowledge and nuance. They meet almost every morning over coffee to discuss Alameda history and current events. I took notes furiously as they were all very passionate about Alameda, often talking all at once like a hipper version of The View.
They all helped tremendously with the following:
The farms and farm homes Alameda’s homesteader forefathers built put Bay Farm Island on the map as early as 1850, thanks to the Mecartneys. And it’s from those post-Native American beginnings that Bay Farm Island originally derived its name.
The farmhouses in particular were erected fairly quickly, but still built with craft and precision to last. And last they did until they had to go to make way for progress and some new history on the Island.
There’s some minor disagreement with some history buffs living out here, whether Bay Farm Island initially was called simply Bay Island. (Most of the people I interviewed said that the name “Bay Farm Island” was fully adopted in the late 1930s or early 1940s.) The lure back then, oddly enough, was Bay Farm Island’s soil, which many residents often complain about now as being so sandy that not much will grow in their backyards.
Back in 1850, however, the soil here truly was something special, along with the temperate climate and “everything coming into alignment for so many things including asparagus to be grown in vast numbers.”
Asparagus, as it turned out, and much more.
Bay Farm’s homesteading and earliest settlers
Bay Farm’s first “pilgrims” were the Mecartneys, who came in 1850, followed by the Silva family, in 1886. Both families were reportedly among the earliest people (after the Native American tribes that were here for centuries) to move in, settle and homestead “Farm Island.”
The Mecartneys were wealthy and influential and spent a lot to purchase up so much of the land. They, like the Silvas and others who followed them here a few years later, had heard almost anything could grow on what was then known as Farm Island; that was the primary lure, along with the agreeably mild climate. The soft-sandy soil, though, had to be enhanced with prime additive dirt that was shipped in.
“They got the necessary manure to help out the sandy farming soil from all the chickens, cows and pigs that they also raised on the farms out here,” Cumming said. “Everyone said you could sure smell the manure at times, but the sandy soil often needed its help. And all that early farming was done with horses until the 1940s, when the tractors were finally introduced.”
The Silva clan came here next. Originally from Half Moon Bay, the family was aware of Bay Farm’s then-advantageous climate and soil.
“Back then, our families could grow almost anything on Bay Farm before the landfilling began, which eventually killed off our farms,” Olivera said. “They often juggled up to seven or more crops grown all at once, which was unheard of, including seven types of lettuce of all sorts, potatoes and almost any kind of vegetable, especially asparagus.
Before the development of the last few decades, asparagus was the primary – or most famous –farmland crop here, giving Bay Farm yet another colorful nickname, “Asparagus Island.” Bay Farm was also home to rich oyster farming beds that supplied some of San Francisco’s busiest and most popular eateries, like Tadich’s Grill, Sam’s, Jack’s and later Papa Vanessi’s and various Joe’s world-famous grills.
Members of the Ratto family were reportedly next to settle here, initially renting but soon purchasing some existing developed land and farms from the Mecartneys and the Silvas. They also built their own farms and farmhouses, which became the most profitable of the era and of their kind, with the latest technology. They were extremely skilled – almost instinctively, it seemed – in the art of farming, and those of marketing, distributing and selling their crops.
The Ratto family sold produce for years, not just on the Main Island but also in many other cities at stores and traditional outdoor farmers markets. Ultimately, they supplied many well-known stores and restaurants in the Bay Area.
“My family worked for the Rattos, even though we later discovered on a chance trip to Italy (that) our families were actually related,” Perata said. “They really did have the most success at farming here and making the most from Bay Farm.”
Others who were important in helping to mold Bay Farm and its resultant history were the Augenbaughs and some of the Chipmans (who mostly helped settle the Main Island but also owned some of the early farm homes on Bay Farm).
One of the original Silva daughters married into the Soares family; the Soares clan worked for some of the Silvas and also bought property and began farming as well. The League’s leader, genial Bud Soares (88 years young), has lived all his life here.
Olivera said that his father came here from Sacramento and that he started his own oyster farm; he married one of the Silva girls.
The Silvas, he said, “were regarded as amongst the very best cooks in Northern California.”
The Oakland Museum of California offers a story that Jack London reportedly was an oyster poacher right here on Bay Farm Island and at other spots along San Leandro Bay. One source claimed to have newspaper clippings showing London used to come all the time to steal oysters, with owners and officials looking the other way most of the time because of who he was.
In 1872, Captain Jack Winant – who’d raised oysters for 20 years – purchased oyster farms at the same time Oyster Company moved here from Oakland, according to an 1873 story from the Encinal newspaper. By 1874, Bay Farm boasted the most extensive oyster beds in the state, with their product headed primarily for the San Francisco market.
Unfortunately, as early as 1880 and on the San Francisco side of the Bay Farm bay, oyster farming sadly began to face environmental problems caused by industrial growth. With the dumping of mineral wastes in that booming period, including the dumping of oil refinery refuse, oysters and clams all around our shores began dying in large numbers. The warmer water reportedly dumped into the bay magnified the problem.
Bay Farm expands
Bay Farm Island was declared officially settled by 1852, with some of the original farms remaining nearly intact until the late 1960s.
With more people moving permanently here after the families built those earliest farms – transforming the once open-spaced marshland closest to the bay into usable space – they quickly followed up with “settler homes” near most of the new farms.
Typically only the farm owners, bosses and other lead personnel lived in those classic, Portuguese-styled Craftsman, white stucco one- to two-story homes, with their distinctive and fire-retardant red tiled roofs. Their working crews rented or were given less distinctive housing multi-units that were reportedly comfortable, with most of the amenities necessary for that period.
“I remember all those wonderful farm houses, many with the pointed red roofs, and the huge palm trees on the properties,” Olivera said. Some, he said, were square, box-type houses, but most were all white stucco. There were actually some really nice Victorian homes here too, Olivera said, not just on the Main Island.
Productive “Farmer Town” (yet another nickname at the time for Bay Farm Island) continued growing and thriving, with more single story homes built on this true grassroots farming land. Farm Island’s ethnic composition and population also grew both in diversity as well as in the number of workers and farm hands coming here. Many had come from Portugal and from a Portuguese colony that came here from the coast of Africa, Germany, and Japan, along with Chinese-American, Hispanic American and African-American families.
Gramma Silva's original classic farmhouse
It is commonly believed that of all the classic homes of Bay Farm Island, perhaps really only one classic farmhouse still exists on Bay Farm in its original state. (There are actually three originals remaining out of all those wonderful working farm homes, although the other two have “had work done.") That one magnificent original is the white stucco and red-roofed home abutting Harrington Park that was Soares’ grandmother’s famous home (therefore lovingly still called the Gramma Silva House).
Soares’ cousin, attorney Greg Silva, owns it now so it’s been kept in the family.
There are two other farm homes on Island Drive, right before Fir, “but they’ve been remodeled and look far more modern,” Soares said. “The white stucco’s been covered over with newer materials and other colors of paint.”
That distinctive “Gramma” home looks like it was plucked right out of Portugal’s Lisboa Park – famed farm home territory. And it certainly stands out from all the other homes around it.
For those of us who haven’t completely toured Bay Farm to its very edges, this “Gramma” home in what is now called the Islandia District is really something special. Locals say it dates back to approximately 1920 and resembles many of the Portuguese “farmer houses” in San Leandro. But back then, old maps show that there were many similar farm homes filling in most of Bay Farm, which originally ended on what is now the outbound lane of Island Drive.
Many of these original, beautiful and traditional farm homes (nicknamed “quintas”) and the farms themselves were sold to housing developers, who expanded Bay Island into more of a peninsula that was more fully connected to Oakland’s mainland and Oakland International Airport. Soares said his grandfather owned much of the family’s land on Bay Farm but was forced to sell most of it.
When all the more modern Bay Farm developments were under construction, Soares said the runoff from all this pumping and laying in of sand in the landfill poisoned the once rich soil and none of the crops would grow anymore.
“I remember seeing the sand piled 40 feet high!” he said.
With an inability to grow crops anymore, the farms began closing up, Soares said, and the homes were left vacant. With time, these vacant homes drew rats, field mice and other nuisance varmints so it was viewed as kind of a blessing when the developer tore them down and build the new townhouses.
“It was sad to see them go, but they were drawing parasites as well as teens living illegally in the abandoned homes,” Soares said.
The terms Farm Island, Asparagus Island, Bay Farm and Bay Farm Island are interchangeable and have been names used for our overall island of 94502 zip code. However, Harbor Bay Isle refers only to the Harbor Bay development occupying only a portion of Bay Farm Island itself.
Mike Lano is a nationally syndicated CBS radio host, print columnist and sixth generation Californian.