Richmond history exhibit glimpses what might have been – what may still be
on August 7, 2011
Time was no obstacle in downtown Richmond on Sunday.
It was 1915, and Richmond Mayor E.J. Garrard was in a jaunty mood, waving and jabbing his wooden cane through the air and blustering of his city’s explosive growth.
Enter the woman who would be mayor 15 years later, who took the microphone to holler from the hustings. It was Mattie Chandler, one of the nation’s first woman mayors, splendid in a baroque hat festooned with bird feathers.
The anachronistic mayoral duo was joined by captains of mighty local industries, like Standard Oil and Mechanics Bank. A trio of live performers provided the piano-driven swing music.
“Richmond will be a leader!” Chandler wailed, to the crowd’s delight.
It wasn’t a time machine, but it may have been the next best thing.
The event, replete with showy performances, marked the 96th anniversary of “Richmond Day,” which was held Aug. 7, 1915 at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The day culminated in the opening of a new exhibition in the Seaver Gallery of the Richmond Museum of History that tells the story not only of the sights and sounds of that heady time, but aims to shed light on how the city grew and where it saw itself going.
“People in and around Richmond saw it as on its way to becoming a great city,” said Museum Assistant Matt Walker, who donned a top-hat and spiffy jacket for the occasion.
The exhibit includes dozens of pieces that were part of the museum’s collection, but are now arranged and displayed as never seen before. Numerous near-pristine clippings from the San Francisco Chronicle, Richmond Record Herald and other publications of the times are encased in glass, and present a world straight from the history books.
The opening Sunday drew more than 75 people, a group that included residents, political leaders, historians, business leaders and members of the museum’s board of directors.
As for the performance, local businessman and former mayoral candidate John Ziesenhenne played the role of former Mayor E.J. Garrard. Current Mayor McLaughlin slid into the role of Chandler, who became one of the nation’s first woman mayors when her husband died, likely in 1929, museum staff said. Perhaps most amusingly, Museum President Lois Boyle suited up in hardy trousers and an engineer hat to represent a railroad worker.
“Don’t forget about the working man!” Boyle said at one point, stomping onto the scene as Ziesenhenne – err, Garrard – was wrapping up the story of how visionary businessman Augustin Macdonald hiked Nicholl Nob while on a hunting trip in 1895 and first conceived of Richmond’s potential as a shipping hub.
Heather Kulp, a current executive with Chevron Corp., joined the skit as a representative of John D. Rockefeller, the billionaire oil baron who controlled then-Standard Oil as it established its refinery in Richmond. Mechanics Bank Chairman Edward Downer, playing a banking executive from an earlier time, noted the close bond the oil giant and the local banking leader have forged. He credited Chevron with saving the bank during the depths of the Great Depression by making well-publicized and large deposits at a panicked time.
On Aug. 7, 1915, Richmond was in its 10th year of existence. Thousands of residents of the city, which by then had grown to about 20,000 people, took the ferry to San Francisco from near where the San Rafael Bridge links Richmond today.
The Panama Pacific International Exposition, the great World’s Fair, was held along the northern San Francisco shoreline.
One of the highlights of the exhibit, and the image that graces the brochures advertising it, is a panoramic shot of Richmond residents assembled in San Francisco courtyard, the lofty Greek-style columns and high archways of nearby buildings fill out the frame.
It was a high time in the Bay.
“300,000 PROVE THAT TAFT WAS RIGHT,” screams a headline spanning the whole broadsheet of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Nov. 3, 1915 edition, a nod to then-President Howard H. Taft’s contention that San Francisco had recovered from the devastating 1906 earthquake to re-emerge as a world-class city. The lead photo below shows an huge, dense crowd lining a parade route at the fair.
Other media at the time hailed Richmond being on the cusp of thriving as a world-class city.
One advertisement on display touts Richmond as “The Pittsburgh of the West.”
Music and other entertainment was provided by youths from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and the LMP Trio, which has helped raise thousands for Richmond historic preservation projects over the years. Its two leaders, Marian Saurer and Leona Derheim, are spry 91-year-old piano and saxaphone mavens, respectively.
Residents in attendance Sunday gave the exhibit high marks.
“I am very impressed, very impressed,” said Scott Badler, a 57-year-old who recently moved to Richmond from Concord. “This museum is a little jewel, and this exhibit is like a walk back in time.”
The exhibit will be at the museum through Oct. 1. For information call 510-235-7387 or visit www.richmondmuseumofhistory.org.
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