A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Above: The Paine family dog of early Spruce Street gets his training in steering an early model of a horseless carriage. Note how this vehicle is a one-seater. Courtesy of Penny Hern Adams.)

Some of the best histories have been written by amateurs, including Thucydides, Edward Gibbon and, in our own time, Barbara Tuchman, Shelby Foote and David McCullough.
Richard Schwartz is another one. He isn't a history professor; he's a building contractor. But one day in 1996 he happened to be visiting the Berkeley Historical Society when he spotted a two-foot stack of old Berkeley Daily Gazette newspapers from 1900 to 1909 that somebody had donated.
The Historical Society was about to throw them out because they were moldy, and nobody wanted to run the risk of the mold spreading to other collections.
"Hey, I'll take them," he said. And the rest - if you'll pardon the expression - is history.
These newspapers became the genesis of his first book, "Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century," published in 2000. Befitting his daytime job as a contractor, he sold it not only in local bookstores, but also in hardware stores.
It was an immediate hit, and no wonder. Who could resist crime stories like this one?
"Too much indulgence in whiskey last night proved to be the undoing of one of the must successful juvenile robber bands that has infested Berkeley for some time. As a result, the gang is broken up and five small boys - Willie Small, aged 8, James Small, aged 9; Fred McNamara, aged 10; John McNamara; aged 13; and Gustav Palache, aged 13; have been made to feel the stern rebuke of the law."
Or this one?
"Perhaps because she feared to undergo the dreaded tuberculin test, or perhaps because her bovine lover no longer smiled at her, a cow of this city committed suicide a few days ago by eating a can of green paint."
Within three weeks, the entire first printing of 2,000 copies sold out. So he printed 8,000 more. And they quickly sold out, too.
People kept bugging him to print more, but he couldn't because there was no room for them in his garage, where he was also storing copies of his second and third books, "Earthquake Exodus 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees" (2005) and "Eccentrics, Heroes and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley" (2007).
But in the 10 years since "Berkeley 1900" was published, people have been coming out of the woodwork with their old family photos, diaries, letters and other artifacts. Schwartz has incorporated them into an expanded 10th anniversary edition, with hundreds of new pictures and stories.
Not all the stories are warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia. In many ways it was a terrible time, with rampant racism ("The fact that two Chinese restaurants are to be opened here is arousing much public indignation") and the constant presence of death. Consider the sad story of the Mushet family:
"Mr. and Mrs. W.T. Mushet of 1831 Derby Street left Berkeley two weeks ago with their four children for a trip to Santa Cruz. On the way down on the train there was a child suffering from diphtheria and, by the time the family arrived in Santa Cruz, the four children had taken ill. Two of them have recovered, but two have passed away. Muriel was six years old and Douglas five."
This isn't stuff you'll find in history textbooks, but it's history just the same - and a lot more fun. "Berkeley 1900" is available in a bookstore - or hardware store - near you.