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  • Writer's pictureDante Mazza

#510 Alviso Adobe

Updated: Mar 4


The adobe house in June 2016


On a hill overlooking the sprawling, tree-canopied Bay Area suburb of Pleasanton sits one of the area's oldest homes, an adobe brick structure that recalls a time when ranches rather than tech companies dominated the area's economy. The Alviso Adobe is California State Historical Landmark #510 and is today the centerpiece of the cherished Alviso Adobe Community Park.


 

ALVISO ADOBE
"Built in 1854, the Alviso Adobe is one of the few adobe structures remaining in the Bay Area. Declared a California Historic Landmark in 1954, the building stands relatively unmodified since the 1920s. The adobe was in continuous use from 1854 until the Meadowlark Dairy closed in 1969. During the dairy period, workers took their meals in the kitchen and dining room of this building."


As shown above, there is no official California State Historical Landmark plaque on the adobe; there is just a private one placed by the park administrators. The home is listed in the official California State Historical Landmark guidebook with the following description:


"This building, erected in 1844-46 by Francisco Solano Alviso, was the first adobe house built in the Pleasanton Valley. It was originally called Alisal-The Sycamores. Following the Battle of Sunol Canyon, General John C. Fremont withdrew to this building, which became his headquarters for several days."


Almost all of the details in that description are wrong. When the city was rehabilitating the adobe area into a park, they hired an architectural restoration firm to investigate the home's history. They discovered the home was built in 1854, ten years after the description states. This adobe was confused with another constructed nearby in the 1840s period referenced. The title "Francisco Solano Alviso Adobe" is also inaccurate, as Francisco Alviso, the son of Francisco Solano Alviso, built the home, not his father. Today, the home is known as the "Alviso Adobe." The line about John C. Fremont also has no basis in actual history. The referenced "Battle of Sunol Canyon" apparently never happened, and Fremont was further south in Santa Clara around the time the description indicates it would have occurred.


There was reportedly an official state plaque on the site with the same inaccurate description, but it was removed when the inaccuracies were discovered. The roadside marker that usually accompanies such plaques remains in place, however, as seen below:



The historical consensus that the standing adobe was constructed in 1854 is so strong that Pleasanton engraved the date in concrete on the pathway leading from the parking area to the home, as seen below. Several other entries in this concrete timeline mark pivotal moments in the site's history. We'll start at the oldest entry on the list: 3240 BCE.




 

Native Heritage And A Land Grant


The path from the parking lot to the adobe is engraved with a timeline of the park's history. This is the oldest entry.


The story of the Alviso Adobe begins in 3240 BCE when native peoples first inhabited the area. Known as the Ohlone, this group of Native Americans occupied the entire Bay Area, even as far south as Monterey, for thousands of years, living off the bountiful land. According to the city of Pleasanton, "There were approximately 10,000 Ohlone living in the area between Big Sur and the Northern Bay before European expansion. Over 50 distinct Ohlone sub-tribes have been recorded, each with their unique dialects and rituals."


Pleasanton also says the modern city was home to several Ohlone villages, whose residents took advantage of the plentiful water in the area as well as a sweeping canopy of oak trees that provided a large number of acorns, a vital staple of the Native diet as the nuts could be dried and stored for year-round use. Interpretive panels in the park, shown below, explain the acorns' significance and illustrate the sizeable tule-filled lagoon at the center of the valley below.


An interpretive panel on the path to the adobe explains the importance of acorns to the native Ohlone people and illustrates their process of grinding acorns for food.


A second nearby panel is most notable for illustrating the large lagoon that once dominated the valley floor, which sprawls below the adobe's hilltop perch. A seasonal stream, flowing only in the rainy winter months, runs past this sign and would have emptied into the lagoon pictured on it.


There is some evidence to indicate that this specific hillside held ceremonial significance to the Ohlone people. A rock on the property has several indentations, which suggest it was used for ceremonial purposes.



Another clue toward the significance of this hillside is its views of two Bay Area peaks sacred to the Ohlone: Mount Diabolo (above, left) and Brushy Peak (above, right). As the City of Pleasanton explains:

"Mount Diablo features prominently in Native American creationism in the area and is considered sacred. Ohlone creation narratives and myths involve animals such as Eagle, Coyote, and Hummingbird. It is believed that Coyote created the Native American peoples from atop Mount Diablo’s peak. Mount Diablo is visible from most parts of the Bay Area. Brushy Peak is also considered sacred by Native American tribes. It served as an important location for spiritual ceremonies, trade and social events."

Mission San Jose in nearby Fremont was first built in 1797. This replica of the original building was built in the 1980s


The valley's bounty provided a comfortable home for the Ohlone for thousands of years, but ultimately, they would not be the only ones to enjoy its natural treasures. The region changed forever with the next milestone on the pathway timeline, the 1797 construction of Mission San Jose, pictured above, in nearby Fremont, on the site of the Ohlone village of Oroysom. According to the mission's website, several hundred Ohlones lived there within a few years of its establishment.


The Spanish founded the mission system to convert the native people to Christianity. But the church was just one part of a fully functioning mission. They were complete agricultural settlements with fields, orchards, and, in this case, ranches. Raising cattle required land, and the area now Pleasanton became pasture land for 30,000 mission-owned cattle, according to an interpretive sign at the park.


However, being mission number 14 of 21, running along the California coast from San Diego to San Ramon, San Jose did not have much time to operate as a traditional Spanish mission. Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, taking all of what is now California out of the Spanish Empire. In 1833, Mexico secularized the missions and relinquished control of them and their land, which was transferred to and divided among prominent local families.


That development leads to the next stop on the pathway timeline: the 1839 Santa Rita land grant.




On April 10, 1839, Governor Juan B. Alvarado, the first native-born Governor of California, officially granted Rancho Santa Rita, originally part of and known as Rancho Valle de San Jose (essentially "ranch of the valley of San Jose," named after the mission) to Jose Dolores Pacheco, who had initially petitioned for the land grant in 1834.


Just north of the Rancho Santa Rita was another one, Rancho San Ramon, owned by Jose Maria Amador. Amador's sister, Maria Rosa Amador, was the wife of Francisco Solano Alviso, the ranch manager of Rancho Santa Rita. As noted above, in the official California State Historical Landmark designations, the adobe is called the "Francisco Solano Alviso Adobe" because it was initially erroneously believed that he had built the adobe house. But in reality, his son Francisco Alviso and his wife Maria Ysabel Miranda built the home for their 10 or 12 children.


Francisco Alviso was born in 1818 in the then-international port city of Monterey, California. He arrived in the Bay Area in 1839 and appears to have followed in his father's footsteps as a ranch manager at Santa Rita and on other ranchos owned by Robert Livermore and the Bernal family.


Eventually, Francisco Alviso decided he wanted to some land himself. He partnered up with his brothers-in-law Antonio Higuera and Manuel Miranda and petitioned the Mexican government for a grant they received in 1844. They were granted thousands of acres of land, which they named Cañada de los Vaqueros or the Valley of the Cowboys. However, this land was more of what we might call today an investment property than a home for the three men. They hired Native and Californio vaqueros to stay on the property and look after the cattle. At the same time, the three and their families moved from place to place, living on Rancho Santa Rita, Rancho San Ramon, and eventually the land where Alvsio would later build the adobe.


Francisco was the youngest of the three men, just 18 years old, when he married Manuel Miranda’s sister at Mission San Jose in 1838. (Antonio Higuera later married Francisco's sister Josefa). But, despite the age gap, Francisco was the leader of the pack, who all united under the name Alviso. As one history puts it:

"Despite his youth, Francisco Alviso appears to have acted as head of household for the group—perhaps serving as something of a protector for his two married sisters. By one account, the three families came to be commonly known as the Alvisos.
The 1841 San Jose District padron supports this notion: all five children listed for Antonino Higuera and his wife, Josefa Alviso, were listed under the surname Alviso. Francisco Alviso handled all business transactions for the group, including acquisition of the land grant and, later, transfer of ownership.
Perhaps he did so as the most outgoing, clever, or businesslike member of the group; he seems also to have been the only one of the three men to hold down a responsible job or to own land in the more desirable area near the mission and pueblo. Like the others, however, he was not conversant in English, recognizing only 'one word here and there' as late as 1867"

 

THE ADOBE


This portion of the home, built of adobe brick, was constructed first. The attachment, now interpreted as a kitchen, was added later


Eventually, a legal battle would ensue to control the Valley of the Cowboys. The ownership battle got complicated and lasted for years, but one thing is undisputed: Francisco Alvsio left the land.


Instead, he and his family started living on a portion of Rancho Santa Rita in 1846. Francisco was a Californio of Spanish/Mexican heritage, born in California in 1818, living on a large ranch and making a living in the cattle industry. Californios are roughly equivalent to the Tejanos of Texas.


Alviso and his wife Maria Ysabel had either 10 or 12 children by 1854, perhaps not uncommon for the time but indeed a number requiring a solid home. To build one, the couple turned to one of the most common building materials of the time: adobe brick.


Exposed adobe brick inside the home behind protective glass shows visitors how the place was built. Adobe bricks like this were a prevalent building material during the Californio period


As the city of Pleasanton explains, "Adobe bricks are made from a mixture of sand, clay, and straw." This mixture was poured into wooden molds and then dried in the sun. According to a display in the home's window, the word adobe is Old Spanish for "mud brick." Like the word, the construction method came from Spain and was first used in California, with its plentiful soil, when the missions were constructed.


The home is built mainly of adobe bricks just under two feet wide, about a foot deep, and just shy of 3 inches high, though the brick sizes vary in different parts of the house.


One significant advantage of adobe construction was insulation. The thickness of the bricks meant that the interior of the space was kept cool in the summer, shielded from the beating sun, while in the winter, heat from a fire would be trapped inside. To keep the preferential-temperature air inside, there needed to be as few places for it to escape as possible. That's one reason why the home's front door is so low.


The adobe's front door is shorter than expected to keep the interior air trapped inside and cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The average height of people at the time of construction was also much less than it is now.


The adobe looked very different than it does today when it was first constructed. There was no porch on the exterior, and the outside walls were made of exposed adobe brick without their current white cement plastering. There were fewer door and window openings than now, and there was no glass in the windows, only shutters. The floor inside was dirt, the interior walls were also "bare mud" according to the city, and of course, it being 1854, there was no electricity.


The living room of the home. The fireplace would have been an essential feature for heating in the winter and cooking year-round, though it's also likely much cooking was done outdoors


The northern bedroom inside the home interprets what life could have looked like when tenant farmers lived here in the 19th century. The weaving loom is placed near the window because there was no electricity, so abundant natural light was necessary for weavers


Another view of the same bedroom. The loom is now on the left. The wood floor is not original.


This bedroom on the south side of the home is interpreted as being from the 20th century. Notice how the sewing machine has replaced the weaving loom


Both bedrooms open onto the main living room space with a fireplace. This original part of the adobe consists of just three rooms, a portion of each of which can be seen in this photo.


This second portion of the adobe was built later and is not connected to the larger original section on the inside, only on the outside through a door under the porch overhang. It is believed this portion of the home was initially built as a barn for the family animals.


During the Meadowlark Dairy era, this space was turned into a kitchen and dining room. According to the city, "The dairy workers would have eaten here after the cook prepared their meals in the kitchen."


Around the side of the adobe, visitors can see the separation between the two portions. The green-painted wood structure between the two adobe sections is labeled as a washroom on a home floor plan shown inside. Keep in mind that initially, the adobe brick of the walls was exposed to the elements and not plastered over as it is today


The rear portion of the main adobe home. Each bedroom has one window


The two concrete arches on the south wall were added to provide additional support to the structure after it sustained damage during the 1906 earthquake that devastated nearby San Francisco



Contrary to what's written in the wholly inaccurate description listed for the adobe in the guidebook, this historic place gains its significance not from any specific event that happened or person that lived here, but rather because it is such a typical and representative building from the Californio period of the state's history.


Displays in the home's rear windows explain the hallmarks of the Californio period, including "large herds of cattle that were slaughtered for their hides and tallow, and used for trade with the Yankee clipper ships of Monterey." When the hides were brought to that international port, they were traded for manufactured goods or other imports such as "silk, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and cutlery" to shipping merchants and traders who then sent the cowhide "back to Boston, where they would be processed into leather-based goods such as shoes." An 1875 interview with Jose Maria Amador, Francisco's uncle and the owner of Rancho San Ramon, recounts how he would trade hides from his ranch for goods imported to San Francisco from all over the world.


The hides became leather products and gave cows their value in this period, not beef, as we might assume today. The window display continues: "Hides were such a commonly used medium of exchange that they became known as 'California banknotes.'"


While cattle were the economic backbone of the Californio period, the ranchers also made their herds the center of their cultural life. They were all skilled horsemen who often played games on horseback in their free time. They hosted semi-annual rodeos where they "drove in cattle from the surrounding pastures and separated them for branding or slaughter." This was the only time the cattle were rounded up, as they usually roamed free on the fenceless pastures.


However, it appears that the Alvisos were pioneers in using their cattle for more than hides. According to one document, "It appears that by 1860, the Alvisos were running a dairy on the property, perhaps one of the first in the area." If true, the original owners foreshadowed a future use of the building as part of the Meadowlark Dairy operation.


The Alvisos' dairy operated as just one part of their agricultural holdings. Data from 1860 shows the family had "200 acres that were unimproved, valued at $1,000" along with "seven horses, 30 milch cows, and 100 other cattle, all valued at $2,000."


But the family was not alone on their property. Their adobe home was surrounded by "fields of sugar beets and grain, farmed by Chinese workers" while "an Indian family of four was living in an adjacent house on either Alviso or Bernal lands," headed by a Native American blacksmith named Hele, according to data from the 1860 census.


While the Alviso family would call this area home for decades, they would not always own the land. An influx of gold seekers and the transfer of California from Mexico to the United States after the Mexican-American War created confusion and brought hordes of squatters to Northern California, some of whom apparently settled on the land owned by Francisco. While he tried to prove his ownership in court, he had to sell portions of the land off to meet the expenses of doing so, and eventually, the bills mounted too high. In 1872, Francisco sold the adobe land and ranch to future Oakland Mayor J. West Martin, who then sold it to "Water King" Anthony Chabot, setting the stage for the next entry on the concrete timeline:


1881: Water Company Ownership and Tenant Farmers


Anthony Chabot came from Quebec, Canada, to California at the time of the Gold Rush, where he became a pioneer in the hydraulic mining industry. Known for destroying the state's natural beauty but providing high returns to miners, hydraulic mining did so much damage to whatever the water was shot at and anything downstream of the mining activity that a federal court order ended the practice in the 1880s.


Instead, Chabot turned to the business of supplying drinking water to cities. His first customers were San Francisco, Portland, Maine, and Milwaukee. Then, he set his sights on a target much closer to home: Oakland. To supply the city, Chabot dammed up local creeks to create two reservoirs: Lake Temescal on the northern side of the city, now a swimming and picnic spot, and the much larger Lake Chabot on the south side, now known for hiking, fishing, and camping. That large lake is located inside Anthony Chabot Regional Park, where a campground is named after him. A nearby neighborhood is called Chabot Park. Chabot is also the namesake of Oakland's Chabot Space and Science Center.


Chabot built a lot of this water infrastructure under the auspices of the Contra Costa Water Company, which eventually replaced him as the owner of the Alviso Adobe, about the same time the Alviso family left the home for good after decades of calling it home. A water company had no use for the adobe home and decided to use it to raise revenue by renting the house and land to a series of tenant farmers. One of these tenants was the Kroeger family, who planted fruit trees and sugar beets on the land, using it to grow crops rather than raise livestock. The Kroegers are pictured below in an image on the adobe's private plaque.



 

THE DAIRY AND THE PARK


This undated photo from the Amador Livermore Valley Historical Society shows the adobe in a different light than it appears today, heavily overgrown with shrubbery. The tree in front of the home could be a more mature version of the one shown in the prior photo. It appears to be in the same location.


Since cattle were so crucial to the original owners of the adobe, it is fitting that the building's second act was also based around cows, operating as the center of the Meadowlark Dairy. After a series of tenant farmers, Walter Briggs bought the adobe and its 153 acres of land to start a dairy in 1919. Using seed capital from his wealthy father, a Boston shipbuilder, Briggs built one of the finest dairy operations anywhere. Naming the operation Meadowlark, Briggs built the first certified dairy in California and earned a Grade A designation for cleanliness and quality. Dairy workers even tested the milk for germs and bacteria to maintain high standards. Meadowlark was the first and only certified dairy in Alameda County.


The dairy was a significant operation, covering several buildings around the adobe, the second wing of which served as a dining room for the dairy workers. Several of these buildings still stand today, as shown below.


The milk barn was the center of the operation, where the cows were taken to be milked. Today, it serves as a visitor center and headquarters for the park, with interactive exhibits about the dairy period, offices, and restrooms.


Next to the milk barn used to be a large dairy silo that was one of the defining features of the property, standing 45 feet high. It was demolished sometime after 1950. When the park was being restored for use by the public, there was discussion about rebuilding the silo, but local residents successfully blocked the plan, arguing that the silo would be an eyesore. The pavestone circle next to the sign marks the rough location of the silo.


Near the adobe is a reconstruction of the dairy workers' bunkhouse, where they slept and socialized. The park says this is a smaller version of the bunkhouse that existed at the dairy, located just a few hundred yards away, where the road now runs.


In 1954, the adobe home was designated as California State Historical Landmark #510 during this dairy period.


Meadowlark Dairy operated until 1969, passing from Briggs to Jannes and Janna Takens, a Dutch immigrant couple who worked at the dairy and bought it after his death. They stayed in the dairy business, but their operation outgrew the limitations of the land, and they moved on to wide open spaces in the nearby Central Valley. The adobe and land were sold to the Great Southwest Corporation, which intended to build an amusement park. Again, residents protested and blocked the plan.


Great Southwest sold the land to the De Silva Group development company, which built out Laguna Oaks, the upscale suburban residential neighborhood surrounding the park today. As that construction happened, the adobe remained untouched.


In 1993, the City of Pleasanton acquired the land and the adobe from the developer as part of the park dedication requirement included in the Laguna Okas construction approvals. A firm was hired to develop a master plan for the site, and it was decided to simultaneously honor the Native, adobe, and Dairy periods of history in the new park. A subsequent study conducted by another firm as part of the park development process in 2000 uncovered the historical inaccuracies reported in the original plaque.


Funding for the site's development was always an issue, with the City of Pleasanton drawing on its capital improvement fund to pay for the project, balancing it against the city's other needs. On its journey to becoming a park, several improvements were made to the land, including a stabilization effort for the adobe with newly-made adobe bricks created from local soil. After 15 years and $4.5 million, the final entry on the concrete timeline was reached when the current Alviso Adobe Community Park opened in 2008.



Today, the park is a place for residents and visitors alike to enjoy history, culture, and nature. It is a popular spot for school tours and summer camps, with park staff operating a full range of educational interpretive programming for youth. Several families were visiting the park for group photoshoots during my site visit, as was an engaged couple. With Francisco Alviso's adobe at the heart of it all, the park is an example of how, when properly cared for, history can become an amenity for those in the present to learn from and enjoy.


 

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