Upon hearing that the Contra Costa County Bar Association is celebrating its 85th anniversary I started thinking about what it was like back in the 1930s, more specifically 1934.  Take a quick trip back in time with me and find out what was going on in our nation, our state, and our county.

As a nation, we were still in the midst of the Great Depression but some say 1934 was a turning point as unemployment dropped to only 22%.   Things were still tough and it did not help that Oklahoma experienced a heat wave with temperatures hitting 117 degrees in the summer.   The heat combined with two years of near drought conditions caused widespread crop loss.  Many farms went bankrupt and 35 million acres of land turned from fertile soil to the dust bowl.   Newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt was attempting to bring about recovery through his New Deal.  Public works projects were started all over the United States in an attempt to put America back on its feet.  Prohibition had ended a year earlier.  On a lighter note Donald Duck appeared for the first time and Shirley Temple became a star at the age of five.   In sports, the Saint Louis Cardinals defeated the Detroit Tigers in the World Series and the Chicago Black Hawks defeated the Detroit Red Wings for the Stanley Cup.   

A penny actually meant something in 1934.  You could buy a gallon of gas for 10 cents, a loaf of bread for 12 cents and a pound of hamburger meat for 12 cents.  A dollar was worth something too. You could buy a Studebaker truck for $625 and the average new house was $5,970.   To keep those numbers in line, average wages were just $1,600 per year. 

Nineteen Thirty Four was the end of road for some of the most notorious criminals.  John Herbert Dillinger (Public Enemy No. 1) died after a shootout with the FBI in Chicago on July 22.  Bonnie and Clyde also met their fate when on May 23 several FBI men ambushed them near Black Lake, Louisiana.   The law also caught up with Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson in 1934.

In California, we were still feeling the depths of the depression.   One and a quarter million people were dependent on public charity and just as many were only able to get a few days’ work per week.  Many had to depend on friends and family.  The California governor’s election was held in November, 1934.  It was one of the most controversial in the state’s political history, pitting conservative republican Frank Merriam against socialist party member turned democrat Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle.   Notably, Contra Costa County was only one of six counties that voted in favor of Sinclair whereas Marin, San Francisco and Alameda Counties voted overwhelmingly in favor of Merriam. 

Closer to home, in the Bay Area, construction on both the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge continued.  Construction on both bridges had started a year earlier and would end three years later.  The rise and power of unions was felt as a maritime strike was held in San Francisco on May 9.  Running battles between police and unionists culminated on July 5 (“Bloody Sunday”) when riots broke out.  A thousand police officers attempted to clear pickets from the waterfront.  In the ensuing riot, two strikers were killed and 64 people injured.  The National Guard was called in to prevent further violence.

Contra Costa County looked a lot different back then.  The Caldecott Tunnel had not yet been built.  There was no Benicia Bridge or Interstate Highway System.   Contra Costa County had a system of “highways” consisting of two eight-foot slabs of concrete and a four-foot strip of oiled gravel in the middle.  In 1934 the state adopted a state sign route numbering system.  It was not until 1935 that the road between Martinez and Dublin was labeled Highway 21.  Because of the ongoing Depression, travel was very sparse back then.   By 1934, there were still only two cars per minute using Highway 21 going north out of Dublin.[1]  As an alternative to driving, there still was an existing system of railways in 1934.   To get to Oakland you could take an electric train through the Redwood Peak Tunnel.  Stops along the Sacramento Northern Railway ran from Pittsburg all the way to San Francisco (by train ferry), stopping all along the way at places such as Concord, Walnut Creek and Moraga. The Oakland Antioch and Eastern Railway operated down the San Ramon Valley.[2] 

Economically, Contra Costa County was still based on agriculture in 1934.  There were acres of fruit and walnut trees not to mention all of the vegetables grown.  Contra Costa County had been an important route for the gold seekers who came up the San Ramon Valley to Martinez and took the ferry to Benicia and then continued their journey.   Most development was based on access to ports, water and transportation.  Industry was starting to develop. Shell Oil had already a refinery in Martinez but just opened its chemical plant.   The Ford Motor Company Plant had been open in Richmond for a few years.  The Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) was putting thousands of unemployed, unmarried men to work on public works projects.  Many of the trails and day-use areas of Mount Diablo State Park were built by the CCC crews.  By June 1934, the federal government was spending $30,000 a month on county relief projects putting 1,500 people to work on 29 projects, including downtown sidewalks and streets.  Population wise, Martinez had about 6,500 residents whereas, Concord had about 1,100 residents and Walnut Creek had about 1,000 residents.  

In Martinez, Amato’s Restaurant had been open for one year.  It was formerly a bait and tackle shop.   Amato’s would go on to be a local institution and be open for another 46 years. It catered to congressmen, mayors not to mention Lefty O’Doul and Joe DiMaggio.    Judges and attorneys would routinely meet there for food and drinks.  Some say that more deals were made at the restaurant than at the courthouse.  “It was different in those days” said Jack Amato. “there was a lot of railroad traffic then.  The county government building was just a few blocks away.  There weren’t any bridges then – people rode the ferry from Benicia – and they stopped to eat.”[3]   Per a 1930’s menu, a cracked crab Italian dinner cost 40 cents.  A weekend dinner with ravioli and chicken cost 50 cents and beer was 10 cents a glass.  Martinez was the governmental and financial hub of the county.  The Wakefield Taylor courthouse had been built a year prior. 

In Lafayette, EBMUD had recently completed construction of the Lafayette Reservoir.   The reservoir ended up being 40 feet lower than it was planned to be because a section of the earth-filled dam slipped and sank a few years earlier.  The standpipe in the reservoir is the only evidence that the reservoir level was planned to be a lot higher.[4]

In Walnut Creek, the present Target store was the site of a tomato cannery.   Tomato farming was big business in the area.  Over 800 acres of tomatoes were planted around Concord, producing over 12,000 tons of tomatoes.  The Walnut Creek Canning Company was producing canned tomato puree, catsup and cocktail sauce.  Contra Costa tomatoes were being shipped around the world.  According to Vince Graziano, “[m]y father would get up early when the cannery was in season. Sometimes he’d work all night to get the tomatoes done.  The tomatoes would be dumped on a belt. Women would be on both sides, picking through the tomatoes, cutting out bad spots.  At the end of the belt, the tomatoes would be dumped into a machine that crushed them and removed the seeds and skins.   The tomato juice would go into the cookers, big vats.  There were big brass coils, steam, running around the bottom.  There were three cookers, about nine feet high.  When I was a kid I’d have to jump up to look inside.”[5]

Well that wraps up our trip in time.  An interesting time period for sure.   In writing this article a special thanks to Andrea Blackman, Museum Director at the Martinez Museum who generously provided her time and support for this article project.

[1] Highway 21: The Farm Road That Became An Interstate in the San Ramon And Amador Valleys, John Mercurio and Steve Minniear, Conference of California Historical Societies, 2016.

[2] Before BART: Electric Railroads Link Contra Costa County, Beverly Lane, 2012.

[3] Free Meals Give Birth to Amato’s, newspaper article by Jon Kawamoto. 

[4] Days Gone By, Nilda Rego, Volume 2, pages 29-32.

[5] Days Gone By, Nilda Rego, Volume 2, pages 101-104.