The Last Emeryville Historians: A conversation with Emeryville Historical Society Co-founder Don Hausler
For a city so rich in history, I’m often perplexed why Emeryville’s History is so buried. We have no museum, historical places are often unmarked and online resources are few. In fact, if you want to learn anything about Emeryville History, you have to go to the Oakland Public Library.
Some of the last defenders of Emeryville History are an aging group of history buffs called the Emeryville Historical Society (EHS). One of the last active members is Oakland resident Don Hausler.
Now in his late 70’s, Don lives in an aging craftsman in Oakland’s Lakeshore District. We sat down with Don at his home to hear some fascinating stories about our city, and his efforts to preserve them for future generations. “I don’t know how long we can keep this going” he mentioned in the course of the interview.
The Emeryville Historical Society had been a recipient of the Emeryville Community Grants program, but was cut off in 2012 shortly after the loss of redevelopment. They are now completely funded by subscriptions and donations. Don still produces the quarterly printed journal out of his home available for a $20 annual payment.
The Emeryville Historical Society has a special Park Avenue District Exhibit in the Oakland Main Public Library History Room through June 30th. Our Facebook Live interview with Don can be viewed above.
Feature Image: Don in front of the Oakland History Room EHS exhibit.
A conversation with Emeryville Historical Society Co-founder Don Hausler
EE: Don, you’re a longtime Oakland resident but never actually lived in Emeryville, right?
DH: No, I never lived in Emeryville myself, but have a strong connection to it. My father worked in Emeryville, my father lived in Emeryville on Adeline Street, my older brother was born in Emeryville and my son lived in Emeryville. My father worked at one of the Westinghouse plants in Emeryville. It was just off of Powell and Peladeau.
They tore it down after the quake and built the Amtrak station near the site. The Emeryville electric plant was damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake. They sawed off one end of it and put plywood over the openings, and then they eventually just tore it down.
EE: Tell us about the Emeryville Historical Society – how and when it came together, and who the founding members were.
DH: In 1988 I was working at the Lakeview Library. Theresa McCrea contacted me and she had this assignment where she had to find historic photographs of Emeryville for this pub that wanted to mount the photographs on the wall. She did some research and found photographs and contacted me. She thought it would be a good idea to form a Historical Society for Emeryville. We did it on one level kind of as a joke. I jumped into it. My coworker Nancy Smith, she lives in North Oakland and she’s still involved, she joined. Then Paul Herzoff, who was a photographer living in Emeryville, he joined. Arrol Gellner was an architect who lived on Park Avenue. Tony Molatore, Phil Stahlman was another member, so there were about eight of us (additional founding members include Vernon Sappers and Ray Raineri – both deceased).
We used to meet on a monthly basis, and that went on for a few years. Then people dropped out or moved away but I kind of kept it going.
Paul Herzoff knew computers, and he published the first newsletters. We were real active during the centennial year, 1996. We published a book for the centennial called “Early Emeryville Remembered.” This consists of articles that we had written that appeared in the newsletter and other articles, and then we wrote articles for it. That was a lot of work. We did an exhibit for the centennial, and we attended all of the meetings with then Mayor Nora Davis. We were part of a “centennial” committee.
Nora Davis supported us from the beginning and would often show up to our meetings. We would do an exhibit every year at the Oakland Main Library in the Oakland history room; they have these big exhibit cases. We were in contact with her for a long time, and we were receiving grant money from the City of Emeryville for several years. We had a lot of money to throw around and we could afford to buy a lot of rare photographs. That unfortunately kind of fell apart.
EE: Photographs from the Bancroft Library, I think you mentioned?
DH: Bancroft, the Oakland Museum, the Oakland Public Library and elsewhere. Photographs from the Oakland Museum cost $50 each – or they used to be, they’re probably more now. We probably have one of the best collections, if not the best collection of photographs of Emeryville in existence. Also, in 1990 or 1991, Nancy, I and Tony photographed every major building in Emeryville from different angles, different times of day. We also photographed adjacent neighborhoods – the Golden Gate neighborhood and the Watts Track, which is south of Emeryville.
We did that for two or three years, and photographed San Pablo Avenue, we photographed all the factories. We have dozens of photographs of Judson Steel. Since my father worked at Westinghouse, I have about a hundred photographs of the Westinghouse plant at the time of its demolition, interior shots.
EE: These are treasures that have not been completely published. Hopefully we’ll get to see those someday. So, yourself and eight others founded Emeryville Historical Society in the 80s. Here we are 30 years later. Some have dropped out, and you’re kind of the main engine right now that’s keeping the EHS going.
DH: I decided to just take it over and keep it going. I retired at the end of 1999. Once I was retired, I was in a position to devote more time to the newsletter. I tried to improve it. We started running color photographs on the front. We don’t do it every time, but 25 percent of the newsletters have a color cover.
EE: Do you still keep in touch with any of the other founding members or know their whereabouts?
DH: I haven’t seen Arrol for a long time. He used to write an architectural column for the newsletter. He has a condo across the street from Del Monte, American something. Anyway, it’s an old brick building. He renovated the space. He got married and he works in China half the time, so I’ve lost track of him. Paul Herzoff, he kind of disappeared, although I think he’s still living in Emeryville (Paul in fact still resides at the Artists Co-Op). Nancy Smith is still active. Phil Stahlman, he disappeared.
EE: So when you’re writing your stories, it takes a lot of research. What resources does the EHS have at its disposal?
DH: We have a collection, we have every book that was ever written about Emeryville and every book that’s written about the history of Oakland, the history of Alameda County going back to we have books about the Emeryville shellmound. It depends on the subject as to how I do my research. I use the California Digital Newspaper Collection that indexes Rialto, California, and The San Francisco Call. That goes way back to the 1860s or 1870s up until about 1913. That’s one way to research the 19th century and early 20th century, and that’s the period I’m interested in. Then I subscribe to newspaper archives, which includes the Oakland Tribune which goes back to the 1870s. I search by subject or name and copy articles, and then I think about the subject for a long time. I go to the main library, and I’m familiar with the sources in the Oakland history room; I used to work there on a substitute basis.
I worked for the Oakland Public Library for 32 years. I worked at the main library for 12 years in the history and literature department, and I substituted in the Oakland history room. I was familiar with all the sources. I did a lot of research on local black history. I wrote a manuscript titled “Blacks in Early Oakland.” It covers the period of 1850 to 1900. I wrote another manuscript, “Blacks in Oakland 1852 to 1985.” I was initially interested in local black history, and I was a member of the East Bay Negro Historical Society. Then after I became interested in Emeryville, I dropped that subject. My focus has been Emeryville now for almost 30 years.
There was also an Emeryville newspaper called the Emeryville Herald, and that was published in the 20s into the 1950s. I have it in my basement. It’s in bound volumes, so that’s an important source of Emeryville history. There’s a microfilm copy in the magazine and newspaper room at the Oakland main library. Then there some documents relating to Emeryville, and the original minutes of the City Council that are in the public works building. We went and looked at them, there’s a whole roomful of them. Someone needs to go there.
EE: What do you think it is about Emeryville that makes it such a fascinating city to write about? Was there one thing that drew you in? One thing that said, “Wow, I’ve got to learn more about this.”
DH: It might have been when Teresa McCrea first told me about the racetrack there, I thought that was unusual and it piqued my interest. When we studied the racetrack, we then discovered Shellmound Park and of course the Oaks ball park, and then the dog racetrack …
We studied the stockyard district, “Butchertown” it was nicknamed, and published a series of newsletters on it. I think there were maybe six separate issues on Butchertown. In 1988, LaCoste meatpacking company was still there next to the railroad tracks, so Butchertown had an advantage. I guess that there were still meatpacking plants in operation in Emeryville as late as the 1970s, so it has a long history, it goes clear back to the 1870s. Oakland didn’t have a slaughterhouse district. San Francisco did, but Emeryville provided meat for all over the Bay Area. There were a lot of bad odors that came out of the Butchertown slaughterhouses that the meatpacking plants could be smelled as far away as the Golden Gate District is how it was described.
They used to dump the blood and the offal into the bay. That eventually disappeared and the meatpacking plants moved to the San Joaquin Valley with refrigerated trucks hauling the meat. The meatpacking plants were built out over the water. So in the late 30s when they built the East Shore Freeway, they filled a lot of that in. The shoreline extended out into the bay, and there was a lagoon created when they built the East Shore Freeway. The Berkeley lagoon still exists today as Aquatic Park.
EE: Is there like one particular article that you might refer to us that is among your favorites?
DH: I’d say the walk-a-thon stories. There was the Fisher body plant across from the Del Monte plant. It was built in, I think, 1929. Because of the Depression, it went out of business, so this big brick building held these walk-a-thon contests where these male and female couples would walk around the perimeter inside the building. They also had what they called Dance Marathons. There’d be several couples, and it would go on for days. The couple that was still standing would win some kind of prize, and it was broadcast on the radio.
EE: Without sleeping?
DH: Yeah, they would go night and day. There was a lot of that stuff going on in the 20s and the 30s – flagpole sitting, stunt motorcycle riding … a lot of crazy stuff. Anyway, this walk-a-thon, we found programs, and we found photographs of some of the famous walk-a-thon couples. We found these in the Oakland history room, which we reproduced in the EHS newsletter. I spent a lot of time on writing that story. There’s a movie about those Dance Marathon contests called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (starring Jane Fonda, Directed by Sydney Pollack). It lasted for two or three years. Since I think there were some deaths because of it – not in Emeryville that I’m familiar with — but they were doing it in other areas of the U.S.
EE: People would push themselves to the point of exhaustion and die?
DH: Yeah, it was a brutal sport. Then another newsletter that I like was Emeryville Ephemera, which consists of old colored postcards, some of Shellmound Park and the racetrack, and even old motels. A lot of the pages are in color because the postcards were colored. We spent a lot of money on that edition.
EE: Clearly, we’ve lost some great architecture. If you could rewrite Emeryville history, what would one thing be that you would like to preserve?
DH: I think there are a lot of historic buildings that should’ve been preserved. I liked the American Rubber building and the General Motors parts buildings, and even the Emeryville Warehouse – at a time it was Peck & Hill Furniture Company. When I first heard that they were going to convert the Emeryville Warehouse into condominiums, I thought that was insane. I didn’t see how they could do it. I read that it cost $25 million, so that was a risk to try to renovate that building. I found out that there was a water tank on the roof that held 25,000 gallons of water. If you want to calculate the weight at 8 pounds per gallon, that’s 200,000 pounds of water, which is 100 tons! That tank was right up on top of the building. so I’m glad that they saved that building.
Then they tore down the Del Monte plant. Originally, there was supposed to be some kind of Kaiser facility on the site, and then Pixar took it over. We went through Del Monte and photographed the interior. We have hundreds of photographs of Del Monte. We talked to the manager, got to know him and he would let us go through the building. Anyway, it’s too bad they tore that down.
EE: That was, from what I heard, a pretty beautiful building. It’s a shame that they couldn’t integrate it or preserve part of it in some way.
DH: In the 1990s you could walk down Park Avenue, and there were these old brick buildings on either sides of the street. It looked like it did originally in the 20s. That was an amazing experience. Then after they tore it down, there was – American Rubber, going down Park Avenue, that was on the left, Del Monte on the right, and then the General Motors parts plant on the left, which later became the walk-a-thon. You had this row of brick buildings on both sides of the street from San Pablo Avenue down to Hollis Street. That’s gone now after they tore down Del Monte.
EE: Do you feel like there’s still a lot of history to unearth about Emeryville?
DH: There are a lot of stories. I don’t pretend to know everything about Emeryville history, although I’ve studied it for 30 years. There are a lot of areas that we haven’t studied, and it goes on forever. I’ve been studying the saloons and the saloon lifestyle in Emeryville for three years and have made it the focus of recent editions of the EHS journal. That’s an esoteric subject, but I found a lot of information on it.
I haven’t even studied the post-World War II period. Then there’s Emeryville during World War II, that the Emeryville plants were running 24 hours a day during World War II. Grove Valve, and all the factories were going night and day. Emeryville was an important industrial center during World War II, and made a huge contribution to the war effort on the domestic front. That’s a story that needs to be written.
EE: There’s been discussion of Emeryville having its own history room at the Emeryville Center for the Arts to house these archives – if it ever gets built. You would clearly be the person to lead those efforts, I hope they’ll keep you in mind.
DH: There should be, and it should all be organized. In fact, Seth and I went and looked at the material at public works, and all of the documents and all of the City Council notes going back to, I guess, to 1896. We developed a proposal and submitted it to the city manager and the City Council, but nothing came of it. Of course, we would have to charge money to do that. Now it’s probably too late.
Then we published that Emeryville book in 2005. We were contacted by Arcadia Publishing Company. I was a little reluctant to get involved in that project, so Seth Lunine and I got together, and Nancy Smith. We organized the photographs, and bought a lot of photographs, and compiled a book. We finished it on time and we’re real proud of it.
It’s still in print, you can order it on Amazon. That’s the only history of Emeryville, and a photographic history. It’s comprehensive, it goes clear back to the founding of Emeryville and the early pioneers. It covers the 19th century, the early 20th century and up until the modern era when it came out, the book came out in 2005. There’s even a chapter on modern Emeryville, some of the newer buildings.
EE: Talk to us about the Emeryville Historical Society’s feasibility. All your revenue comes from the subscriptions that you sell, which are now $20.
DH: From memberships. Every now and then someone will give us a check for $100. We lose a lot of money. The membership fees maybe cover only half of our expenses. We run in the red, but we just keep going.
EE: Are you worried that when you decide to stop writing about Emeryville history, that nobody will be around to carry the torch?
DH: I don’t know. I think when I drop out of the picture that might be the end of it, but I don’t know. I was hoping that Seth could take it over, but I’m not in contact with him now. It requires a lot of time and effort and focus, and you really have to be dedicated to keep coming out with a newsletter every four months.
You have to have the time and the energy, and you have to know how to do the research. I got a letter from one of our members, and he asked me, “Why don’t you write about the origin of the street names? Write about the…” there was a trucking industry in Emeryville. He listed all these. They’re all interesting topics, but they’re very difficult to research. I don’t even know how to do it, but you could do it if you spent a year or something. What I try to do is select topics that are interesting – interesting to me and hopefully interesting to the readers. That’s my criteria, and hopefully the topic is significant in terms of Emeryville history and local history.
EE: I’m encouraged to know that somebody like yourself is passionate about it and is keeping this going. The fact that you think there’s still more to write is even better news.
DH: We’ve published over a hundred newsletters – 108, something like that. We’ve covered a lot of very significant topics already. Not every major topic, but a lot of them. That’s an accomplishment right there. We have all these photographs we try to include photographs in the newsletters, and so they’re out there. There’s still more to write.
Interview has been edited for clarity.
If you would like to support The Emeryville Historical Society and receive their quarterly newsletter, please mail a $20 check with the below card filled out to:
The Emeryville Historical Society
6389 Racine Street
Oakland, CA 94609