Alameda in history: The First Families of Bay Farm Island

Alameda in history: The First Families of Bay Farm Island

Michael Lano

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.

Glossary

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.

Some tremendous places to learn more about Bay Farm Island’s farms, homes and history are the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society and the Alameda Historical Society/Alameda Museum.

Mike Lano is a nationally syndicated CBS radio host, print columnist and sixth generation Californian.

Comments

Submitted by Tim Coffey (not verified) on Fri, Aug 29, 2014

Great column, Mike.

Submitted by Mary (not verified) on Fri, Aug 29, 2014

Don't forget to look into the celebrities and athletes who inhabited South Shore Beach and Tennis Club back in the day. When you begin focusing on the 1970's and forward, you will find there were a number of high profile visitors including Clint Eastwood. Am very glad to have the opportunity to read about Alameda history.

Submitted by marian on Fri, Aug 29, 2014

You could start by having someone proofread your work before publication. I didn't read past "Imelda Martin", because it's MERLIN, not Martin. If we have to correct all your mistakes, it won't be such a great column.

Submitted by Frank Contreras (not verified) on Fri, Aug 29, 2014

“Bay Island” in 1778
From the “Official and historical atlas map of Alameda County, California 1778” David Rumsey Collection
The map shows Bay Island property owners.
http://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~21356~620058:M...

A 1912 map shows Bay Island now called Bay Farm Island.
From: http://www.teczno.com/old-oakland//

Submitted by Steve (not verified) on Fri, Aug 29, 2014

Encinal High School coaches George Read and Jim Kruse lived on Bay Farm Island in the 1960s.

Submitted by Nancy Ely (not verified) on Fri, Aug 29, 2014

Do you have anything on the earlier inhabitants of this land -- the Native Americans?

Submitted by Debbie Damele (not verified) on Sat, Aug 30, 2014

Thanks for the history - great article! And Phyllis Diller also lived in Alameda for a time before she hit it big. :-)

Submitted by Dana Spicer (not verified) on Mon, Sep 1, 2014

The Rattos moved to Modesto CA and have been farming here since leaving Bay Farm Island. As a Child I live there until 1961.

Submitted by a ratto (not verified) on Mon, Sep 1, 2014

Liked the article..I have stories handed down to me from my family who was actually THERE, of lot of what u want to write about, from The Ratto farm, to historical happenings around town, to the celebrities not mentioned,what the Gov't did to our family during WWII on bay farm island so I look forward to maybe seeing some more in depth articles focused more on my family. Thanks!

Submitted by Marianne McNair (not verified) on Mon, Sep 1, 2014

Really enjoyed reading this, and am looking forward to more!

Submitted by Tracybelle2 (not verified) on Mon, Sep 1, 2014

Wow, Marian - pretty mean-spirited of you. How about the 99.9 percent he did get right, which made for a fascinating read? Thanks, Mike, I learned a lot.

Submitted by marian on Tue, Sep 2, 2014

Why is it some people never question anything, even if it means denying reality? Pointing out the truth is never mean-spirited. How do you know 99.9% is "right"? Dr. Lano may be a 6th generation Californian, but he is from LA; I am a 3rd generation Alamedan. I went to school with 3 different Ratto families. I was always told, by Ratto kids, that they weren't all related, even in Alameda! There were 2 Ray Rattos at SJND at the same time in the 1970's-they don't look anything alike.
I did try to find Gramma Silva's house-found Silva Lane, not the house. What's the address? It isn't easy to find "old" in Islandia , since the new houses are all mixed in with them.

Submitted by Jim Mackey (not verified) on Wed, Sep 3, 2014

It was my understanding that Chipman and Aughinbaugh had the spanish land grant. Another big industry was the Alaska Packers. My dad worked there in 1931. There was a steam tug for a tender for the Salmon ships. The old captain died one day, and my dad took it over. Got his license in 1933, and died on a Crowley Maritime tug in 1986. The Alaska Packers Fleet was a huge part of Alameda Hx.

Submitted by a reader (not verified) on Wed, Sep 3, 2014

C'mon Marian. Lighten up cupcake. Have a mint. The article is interesting, especially to newcomers like myself who have only lived in Alameda for 30 years. I especially appreciate the comments from Frank Contreras with the links to the old maps. Very cool.
If you really want to criticize the article, the only thing that should be called out is referring to Manute Bol as a Warriors "superstar". I had W's season tickets back in those days, and I loved Manute and his crazy 3 pointers. But "superstar" ??? Not quite, even though the memories still bring a smile to my face ...

Submitted by Tracybelle2 (not verified) on Wed, Sep 3, 2014

Marian - your tone, your phrasing, your, um, meanness. Over and out.

Submitted by Frank Contreras (not verified) on Wed, Sep 3, 2014

Chipman and Aughinbaugh bought land from the Luis Maria Peralta grant.
Luis Maria Peralta was awarded the grant for his service to Spain.
Spain allied with American Revolutionists. He and all that assisted in our victory are given Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution status

Submitted by Sylvie (not verified) on Wed, Sep 3, 2014

Marian---very mean-spirited comments from you. Try to lighten up.
You said you didn't read past the "error" in Imelda's surname, but now it seems that you read the entire article.
My Italian grandparents moved to Alameda from San Francisco the day before the 1906 earthquake, so we've been here a long time.
I think that half of my classmates were surnamed Ratto and my god, they weren't all related to each other. Do you think they should have been?

Submitted by Art Jeffery (not verified) on Thu, Sep 4, 2014

My sister is married to one of the Ratto brothers(Don)and still lives on Mecartney Rd on the island, and their son (Benny) still runs the family farm in Stockton.

Submitted by marian on Thu, Sep 4, 2014

I sat on the Alameda Museum Board of Directors for 5 years and I care about Alameda history being accurate I don't know what Tracy & Sylvie have against poor Imelda Merlin, but the next time I use Tracy Zollingers services, I'm making the check out to Stacey Zellweger, because obviously accuracy [in acupuncture & spelling] doesn't matter...

Submitted by Sylvie (not verified) on Fri, Sep 5, 2014

Marian---
Speaking of accuracy. Seems that you omitted an apostrophe.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Sep 22, 2014

Hey folks! This is from Mike Lano:

Regarding last month’s piece on Bay Farm Island’s classic farm homes: when I was interviewing six local legends talking all at once, which isn’t easy, all I heard was Martin(when it is in fact Merlin). My apologies Marian and thanks for correcting that. I certainly meant no disrespect. I hope you at least smiled when I gave props to our Museum which everyone can learn from and should support. Thank you for your many years of service there. I didn’t have anything but my notes to proofread and did my best trying to write everything down as they were speaking so quickly. Those men and women(there were some adding their thoughts from adjacent tables) have so much energy and love for Alameda’s history.

Frank Contreras wrote that the “Bay Island” name was given as far back as 1778 from the Official and Historical Atlas Map which is really something. I’ll try in the future to find out more about Encinal High famous coaches George Read and Jim Kruse living on Bay Farm in the sixties. Dennis Evanoski might be one of the few area historians who has studied some of the Native Americans who lived here and all that they accomplished, I believe for centuries. I’ll try to connect with him on that topic soon. Since I had her on my latest radio show incarnation months before we lost her, I’m definitely going to write about the great Phyllis Diller who lived here. Interviewed her for a third and final time by phone from Los Angeles and had her on with Jonathan Winters as they both fondly discussed breaking into the then very hot San Francisco/Bay Area comedy scene in the Beatnick early sixties time period. Alameda Museum did a fantastic job with their recent Ms Diller Tribute event, dedicated to this legendary pioneer of arts and entertainment. A true American comedic force loved globally. And we were lucky to have her living here.

My follow-up piece upcoming is thanks to Richard Ratto who initially wrote in the comments area that he had a lot of stories handed down to him from his family members who again were amongst the very first inhabitants here. And what until you read about what he said the Government here was doing to his grandparents during World War II. Thank you again also to Frank Contreras and Jim Mackey for some GREAT history. Thank all of you for your thoughts and help.

Submitted by Dave LeMoine (not verified) on Fri, Oct 3, 2014

Mike,great article. I grew up on BFI from 1946 through adulthood, and loved every minute.

Submitted by Frank Contreras (not verified) on Tue, Oct 7, 2014

Here is a treasure trove of information on Alameda and Bay Farm Island.

A history of Alameda County 1883 By M. W. Wood: https://ia600407.us.archive.org/23/items/cu31924028881188/cu319240288811...

Free site: The California digital newspaper collection: http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc
Frank Silva of Bay Farm Island and his lost treasurer:
From: San Francisco Call, Volume 79, Number 78, 16 February 1896: http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SFC18960216.2.139&srpos=15&e=----...

Pay site:”Newspapers.com” Some great articles here from San Francisco Cornicle Sept. 17 1893

Includes: A story on the first “White” woman Mrs. Persis A. Benedict (Cleveland), widow of Chester Hamlin on Bay Farm Island: http://www.newspapers.com/image/27339915/?terms="on+bay+farm+island"

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