Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - September 30, 2011

'Desperate' past revealed for City of Planned Progress

Long-time Pleasanton friends share stark contrast of 'then' and 'now'

by Jerri Pantages Long

It all began with a little black book.

Not the kind that lists names and addresses -- this book is likely the last existing copy of the first ordinances adopted for the city of Pleasanton 117 years ago.

Gene Pons found the small volume among his mother's possessions after her death and shared his find with lifetime friend Phil Henry. Both second-generation Pleasanton natives, Pons and Henry thought that current residents might be quite surprised to learn of this area's turbulent past.

That conversation between two friends lead to quite a bit more research and evolved into an entertaining talk entitled "Brothels, Bar Rooms and Bandits: Pleasanton Then and Now."

First presented by Museum On Main as part of the Ed Kinney Lecture Series, the popular talk was repeated at the Pleasanton Public Library -- but many who wished to attend were turned away due to an overflow crowd. Now the library is planning a return engagement at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 27, at 7 p.m. This talk will be one of many events that are part of the Tri-Valley Heritage Happening throughout October.

Pons and Henry are uniquely qualified to speak about the community's past. Each had grandparents who settled in this area in the late 1800s, and each had a grandparent who ran a hotel/saloon. Each of their mothers was born in Pleasanton, Pons' mother in 1910.

"At the time of her death, at age 98, she was the oldest native Pleasanton resident alive, and also the oldest living graduate of Amador Valley High School," Pons told the audience. Henry's mother was a member of the second class to graduate from Amador Valley High School.

That was the same high school from which Pons graduated in 1953 with Henry one year later. Both young men attended San Jose State College, as it was then known, living in Spartan Hall. The friends both had careers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, retiring on the same day and then "going to play golf the following Monday," Pons recalled.

Since then, the two best friends and their wives, Ann Pons and Terry Henry, have shared many adventures, including world travel. But home is still Pleasanton, albeit a very different one from their childhoods.

When Pons served on the General Plan Review committee in 1968, and later on the Planning Commission, a survey of Pleasanton residents showed that what they wanted for the community fell into eight priorities: clean industry; no high-rise buildings (over four stories); protection for downtown, "The Heart of Pleasanton"; protection of surrounding hills; limits on shopping malls and gas stations; distribution of high-density residential development; and strict sign ordinances.

These goals were very different than those set forth in that little black book of 1894. For example, Ordinance Number 68 set forth "Preventing Acts Against Good Morals, Decency, & Comfort of the Inhabitants." Dance houses and brothels were outlawed, as were those who "frequented houses of that character."

The prohibition also applied to places "where persons assemble for the purpose of smoking opium or inhaling the fumes of opium." The newly incorporated town made it illegal for anyone to flash "any deadly weapon in a rude, angry, or threatening manner" or to use such a weapon in a fight, or to "discharge any firearm within Town limits without a permit."

By today's standards, those may seem to be common-sense laws but others may seem a bit harder to understand. Section 22, for example, made it a misdemeanor to "play the game of ball in any of its forms" on Main to Neal streets or Rose Avenue -- and the fine for such a violation could actually exceed that for firing a gun!

Ordinance No. 41 declared that "any person who intentionally rides, drives, or leads horses, mules, cattle, goats, jacks, jennets (female donkeys), sheep or swine upon public sidewalks to enter any buildings, bars, or other openings is guilty of a violation of section 17."

Pons remembered asking his grandfather about that particular law when he first saw "the little black book" as a child. His grandfather, Louis Ghiotti, was the owner of the Colombo Hotel, Bar and Restaurant on Main Street, now occupied by a bicycle shop. He explained to his grandson that men who had been denied access to drinking establishments sometimes exacted revenge by riding an old horse into a saloon and killing it, thereby creating a mess for the management.

Henry had heard people say that Pleasanton once had a reputation as being a "desperate" town in the Wild West and wondered how that could be. His research revealed that there were at least 21 bars or saloons in downtown Pleasanton in the late 1940s, prompting Life magazine to dub it the "drinking-est town in the U.S." About that time, Readers' Digest noted that Pleasanton had more bars per capita than any town of its size in the United States.

When Henry and Pons walked to school together down Main Street, they could smell the stench of stale beer from many of the bars, and it was not uncommon, Henry said, to see drunks sleeping in doorways.

The curfew ordinance enacted in 1894 was still in effect when Pons and Henry were growing up. A night watchman would ring the large bell that now sits by the Firehouse Arts Center to signal 9 p.m., when no one under age 16 was permitted to be out and about without written permission from a parent.

While some of the original town ordinances might seem quaint compared with Pleasanton's goals as a self-designated "City of Planned Progress," they show a transition from a much more violent era in the region's history. Henry discovered that the town's first lawman had kept detailed journals, and these became the basis for a book entitled "Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835-1912," written by San Francisco attorney John Boessenecker.

Morse recorded cases of livestock rustling, arson and murder in what became a kind of war between different cultures. When the United States government annexed California in 1848, some Mexican land grants were disputed, and new settlers crowded out previous landowners, sometimes squatting on land to which others had claims. Families established farms and dairies, but, as noted by an Oakland newspaper on March 9, 1863, "the valleys were overrun by horse thieves and desperadoes."

Known first as Alisal ("sycamores," due to having the largest groves in the country), this area became the stopping off point for bandits, cattle rustlers and horse thieves as they moved back and forth between northern and southern California.

Henry did an analysis of the census figures for Murray Township, which included what is now Pleasanton. The population was only 505 in 1860, but had grown to 2,390 just 10 years later. By 2008, the area had a population of roughly 200,000.

What intrigued Henry was the shift of ethnicity. Californios, as they were known, had been 40% of the local population in 1860, but by 1870, they comprised only 10%. Europeans of non-Hispanic descent, plus immigrants from Australia and Canada, had been 41% of the 1860 census, but made up 58% by 1870, and another 23% moved in from other states, up from 14% in 1860.

Henry concluded that this demographic shift resulted in two things: "The Californios developed a hatred for Anglos," he said, "and none of these groups had had any experience of living with mixed cultures." Add to the 1870 mix Native Americans (4%) and Chinese (5%), and the result was what one historian called "a cauldron of social unrest."

Today Pleasanton is known for schools, soccer and its business park, among other things. But Pons and Henry have a wealth of entertaining stories to tell about an era when shoot-outs, swindlers and saloons were the norm. If you cannot make it to their Oct. 27 presentation, consider investing $12 for a DVD version at the Museum On Main.

Hear them in person

What: "Brothels, Bar Rooms & Bandits: Pleasanton Then and Now"

Who: Speakers Gene Pons and Phil Henry

When: 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 27

Where: Pleasanton Public Library

Cost: Free

Tri-Valley Heritage Happening

History centers, libraries and genealogy groups in the area are offering programs celebrating the area's history and culture during October in a series of events called Tri-Valley Heritage Happening. A sampling is listed below. See the complete list at www.PleasantonWeekly.com.

* Oct. 8 -- " Family History: Genealogical Introduction" by Livermore-Amador Valley Genealogical Society at Pleasanton Public Library, 1-5 p.m. (Repeated Oct. 22)

* Oct. 8 -- "Visitor Appreciation Day: Free Tours of the Glass House & Tractor Museum" -- Forest Home Farms Historic Park (San Ramon), 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

* Oct. 9 -- "Extended Roots: Music from Our Immigrant Past" -- 2 p.m., Pleasanton Public Library

* Oct. 9 -- "Ravenswood Historic Site Tours" - (Livermore), hourly, noon to 3 p.m.

* Oct. 13 -- "Ask Granny: Family History Workshop" by L-AGS at Pleasanton Senior Center, 10 a.m.

* Oct. 16 -- "The History of Camp Parks," Dublin Public Library, 2 p.m.

* Oct. 21, 22, 28, 29 -- "Ghost Walk" - Museum On Main, 6-8 p.m. (departs every 30 minutes; advance reservations recommended)

* Oct. 22 -- "Pleasanton History Walk" -- Museum on Main, 2 p.m.

* Oct. 28, 29 -- "Halloween at Alviso Adobe" -- 7-8:30 p.m.

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