The Silk Culture House


I believe you left the many foreign neighborhoods in Oakland and moved up to Piedmont. When was that?


In 1902, to the "Silk Culture House" at the end of Mountain Avenue. The picturesque old house had an impressive sign across its front, "Silk Culture Experimental Station", popularly called "the bug house," was on a narrow ridge that dropped down into Hayes Canyon with its trees, heavy shrubbery and babbling creek. It fronted the large expanse of the towns of Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley, spread out below,

down to the wide sweep of the Bay with its islands and across the Bay to San Francisco whose wharves, buildings and towers we could see clearly from our windows — a spectacular view that always impressed our visitors and awed us when we first saw it.

The house was a large, well built eleven room house with high ceilings and six foot double windows. The old house was full of antiques and curiosities. The bedrooms were furnished with real mahogany colonial beds and matching highboys, brought around the Horn by the Sea Captain. The living room, left by the second tenant was tasteless. It had ornate tables and a gaudy lamp with a colored glass shade, ugly rep covered Victorian chairs and couches. The dining room was a jumble of massive Mission furniture and, to add to the confusion, my father's study looked like a museum of pre-Columbian antiquities — an accumulation of treasures from two years in Mexico—including Aztec sculptures, richly colored Mexican pottery, colorful blankets and Mexican silver.

The old house and the property had a clouded title. The government had donated the seven acres of land and the California legislature had appropriated funds for the project. Mrs. Kirkham had built the house on behalf of her nephew who was joint co-worker with the old Sea Captain on the experiment. The nephew, a mining engineer in Mexico, was killed there, so the property reverted to her. For several summers it did duty for a Y.W.C.A. Rest Home for working girls. A relic of their occupancy was the printed rules and regulations with the prize statement we cherished "Young Ladies! Do not empty your

chamber pots out of the top windows!" Several tenants took refuge there for a while, then it fell into father's hands as caretaker for the munificent sum of ten dollars a month. After he took over the old house was filled with life, gaiety and many activities.

On the seven acres of land was planted a mulberry orchard, on whose leaves the silkworms lived. The small, stubby trees grew quickly, and were soon productive. The silkworms had been imported from China. The project was well on its way to success when, unfortunately, the tariff on Chinese silk was reduced to such a low that the venture could not compete with Chinese labor. So, the silk raising experiment became a lost cause and a conversation piece. The only souvenirs left of the experiment were the beautiful silk culture displays elegantly arranged in massive gold frames.

Early Days of Piedmont

We moved to Piedmont in 1902, a short while before my father took his first trip to Mexico. Piedmont was then cattle country with its golden hills upon which was raised hay for the cattle ranches on the other side of our Skyline. The big event of the summer for us was the round-up and cattle drive whose trails wound over our hills and down into our Hayes Canyon. The big cattle ranches were over the Mt. Diablo area of which the most famous was the Blackhawk Ranch. There was another big ranch whose name I cannot recall who joined up and included their cattle with the Blackhawk herd for the cattle run. Both ranches had mostly Mexican cowboys. For parades and special occasions, like the cattle drive, they had appropriate outfits. The

Blackhawk cowboys were dressed in white shirts and jackets and pants of black velvet, with silver trimmings topped by a black Spanish hat with a silver headband, as was traditional in the Mexican period.

The cowboys of the other ranch were clad in magenta silk shirts, brown leather jackets and pants and tan flat Spanish hats. These Mexicans sang beautifully, pausing now and then as they prodded and pushed the steers to keep them in line with a flow of curses that sounded musical to me, but delighted my brothers, accompanied by the skillful cracking of whips to keep the cattle moving.

On top of our hill was an old and twisted eucalyptus tree; leaning out on its wide branches we could watch the over twelve hundred cattle stream over the Skyline, weave in and out down the steep Thornhill grade, then pour into our narrow Hayes Canyon with a thunderous roar. They would then file out past the cemetery and fan out into the empty fields on the outskirts of Oakland to the slaughter houses on the edge of the Bay.

Each summer our boys scouted the ranches to find the day for the cattle drive and we never failed to be there to watch this truly beautiful spectacle. And it was with sadness and regret that the year following the earthquake the cattle drives stopped and we lost our greatest thrill of the year. After the earthquake, the sleepy town of Oakland, jolted awake by the earthquake, rapidly developed into a city. And our golden hills, on which was raised the hay to supply the cattle ranches with feed for the cattle and horses, succumbed to progress and homes and tracts crept up the hills and topped

the Skyline.

Our Hayes Canyon was named after Captain Jack Hayes, a Texas Ranger, who bought the large Moraga land grant that enclosed our canyon. In his autobiography, his nephew, the celebrated John Hayes Hammond, wrote several delightful pages on the holidays with his brother spent on his uncle's ranch — the glorious and exhilirating hours roaming the hills and exploring the lush canyons and taking part in the many activities of a great cattle ranch.

Hayes Canyon was a favorite spot with the ornithologists of the University of California. In the early days, mushroom-shaped scrub oaks dotted the sunny hillside and, opposite, hazelnut thickets, the tall thimbleberry and thick, low-spreading blackberry bushes clung to the shady hillside providing food and shelter for the migratory birds. And down in the secluded sunlit hollow, law a babbling creek in which they could drink and bathe after a long flight.

Our two favorite birds were the friendly bluejay, with his swooping flight and noisy chatter, and, his contrary, the shy, seldom glimpsed russet-backed thrush, the inimitable songster, whose full throated, fan shaped cascade of clear notes held one spellbound at eventide.

After our return from a year in Europe in 1920, we were shocked to find our ranches were being broken up for building tracts, roads criss-crossing our golden hills and garish tract offices vaunting the values of this ruined land. And our pretty creeks, hidden in the canyons, in which we bathed our tired feet after long, hot walks

in the summer heat, were dried up by the Water Company to supply the water needs of a growing city. The lovely wild plants and shrubs fed by the creeks died out and left waste spots to haunt us, all this once natural beauty destroyed in the name of progress.

When I was young, the business section of Oakland ran from Fourteenth Street down to the Bay where the nickel ferry awaited us to take us to San Francisco. To go to San Francisco took an hour but, if the ferry were stranded on a mudbank at low tide, the trip covered two hours. Then Havens  Key Route next hit replaced the nickel ferry and the previous hit Key Route next hit Station just below us at Fortieth Street and Piedmont Avenue was the end of the line. The dedication of the previous hit Key Route next hit was a memorable affair. The dedication plans included a request for our seventh and eighth grade classes to sing at the dedication. The mayor of Oakland, a couple of prominent businessmen, and the son of Frank C. Havens, who represented him, gave the proper official speeches on acquisition of the previous hit Key Route next hit as a fabulous addition and a testimony to the amazing growth of Oakland. The applause for our singing had hardly died down than the first train rumbled into the station. With lusty cheers we pelted it with our now wilted flowers, brought for the occasion. Then the mayor, with a grand gesture, ushered us into the train for our promised reward, the first train trip to the ferry slip, aboard the boat and across the bay to San Francisco and back. You can imagine what a great event this was for us.

Before the previous hit Key Route next hit was running, Frank C. Havens had given father a pass to walk out on the pier any time convenient to him.

I am quite sure it is seven miles from the beginning of the pier to the ferry slip. He had been out several times, then he took me with him — a great adventure. We walked on a couple of twelve inch boards between the tracks with the water rippling against the piles under our feet. When the tracks were finished, George Sterling, his nephew, had permission to use an old hand-car to take his friends out to the ferry slip for the picnics for which he and Carrie were famous.

Frank C. Havens, who was a New Yorker bought a large acreage taking in the hills from Claremont to Joaquin Miller Park. To him this cattle country was barren land and as such had no appeal to him. So to beautify it he planted two million trees — Monterey pines, several varieties of eucalyptus and cypress. We Whitakers used to hop rides on the large wagons carrying the young trees for planting and watched the woodsmen skillfully settle them in the ground. Moreover, he rode the trails of his domain scattering seeds for a ground cover. They sprouted and increased until, a few years later, a dark shadow was cast over much of our golden hills. Twenty years later a tax appraiser told me bluntly, "He planted them as `land improvement' to lower his taxes," so the legend of his love of beauty lost its glamour.

We watched this area grow. From this Scenic Avenue window, which covers the same space as the old Whitaker house. There was a little patch of lights in Oakland, a little patch of lights in Berkeley, and a little patch of lights in Alameda. That was all.

Across the Bay, San Francisco was a tiny little square of lights. Look at it now, it's colossal — three bridges and a circle of cities around the Bay.


Did you know the Havens family?


Yes, we knew Frank and Lila Havens and their son Wickam. It was to their son that we owe the land on which this studio is built — an exchange of a lot for a picture.

My mother died in September, 1905, leaving a gap in our lives that would be hard to fill. Two years later my father married Alyse Hunt. We children had no objection to our father marrying again. However, the day that Alyse stepped into the house she made it plain to all of us that she had no interest in us, would have no part in our lives, and, moreover, wished to have as little to do with us as possible. So far as we were concerned, we reciprocated cordially and lived accordingly, a very difficult situation for my father. So, family life in this discordant and indifferent atmosphere disintegrated rapidly. I soon found I was isolated on the top of the hill with the youngsters and, staying another six months, I put the family in training to get along without me and married Marty.

By the end of the year Alyse showed signs of becoming a mental case, then we understood her attempts to alienate father from his children, a rugged experience for all of us including our poor father who had to combat and survive her insane jealousy and unjustified suspicions.


There were two years when there was no mother.


Yes, two years. I ran the family then.