A Time Before Fences: Memories of Childhood at the Antioch Waterfront
This is Part 1 of a 3-part series. Part 1 introduces the current state of the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge and covers the history of several individuals who grew up along the river in Antioch. Part 2 continues their stories, discussing dangers, costs, and strategies for negotiating access and survival along the river. Part 3 discusses various points of view regarding current and future access to the river and waterfront.
In October of 2018 I was hired by the Delta Protection Commission to work with Dr. Robert Benedetti researching historical and cultural sources on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. We are assembling these sources for publication as an anthology of narratives about the Delta that can be useful for teachers, students, businesses, and for all who may wish to learn about the rich history and culture of this complex and often-overlooked region of California — as indispensable for its people, its innovation, and its beauty as it is for the water it supplies to other areas of the state.
We began with a list of many well-known and previously published narratives on the Delta, but our goal was to reach out to local residents to uncover stories that have received little or no exposure in print, media, or classrooms. The histories and cultural experiences of individuals, families, and communities form the backbone of the Delta’s heritage. These stories, though often tucked away in memories, heirlooms, old letters, and photo albums, form a vital part of the Delta’s past, present, and future, and as such, they are essential to our anthology.
Since coming on board last fall, I have had the privilege of working as a community liaison with people throughout the Delta in collecting these stories, as presented in poems, histories, photographs, material artifacts, and many other records of life in this region. As part of this effort, I was invited to Antioch for several tours and to conduct oral history interviews to help me dive deeper into Antioch’s past. As I set out down Highway 160 two months ago on a bright June morning, I expected to see the town through the eyes of its long-term residents, but in the process, I came to see it through the eyes of the young. In fact, it is Antioch’s offspring, of many species, that remember and embody its past and that may indirectly shape its future.
My journey included private tours with Carol Ann Davis of the Antioch Historical Society, Tom Lamothe at the AHS Sports Legends Museum, Kathie Hammer at the museum she has carefully curated on the Sausalito ferry built in 1894, a tour of the marina and boat ride on the San Joaquin with James Pfleuger, and with docent Michael Krieg at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge [ADNWR]. I learned many things about Antioch’s history from these individuals, but all of the stories converged along the waterfront, where the refuge plays an especially prominent and controversial role.
The ADNWR is an urban wildlife refuge tucked between several industrial properties on the San Joaquin river in Antioch. Krieg met me, along with Sandra Kelly, a local historian and former docent at the refuge, and Beverly Knight, a local photographer who graciously offered to take photos of my tours that day. We stepped through the gate in the chain link fence into a world of sand and shells and low-growth vegetation. The presence of shells puzzled me. It looked like a riverbed. Krieg explained that the shells had come from the bottom of the San Joaquin river. The Fish and Wildlife Service had partnered with the Port of Stockton to deposit the sand dredged from the San Joaquin riverbed bi-annually into the refuge in order to help restore the habitat for three endangered species: the Antioch Dunes evening primrose, the Contra Costa wallflower, and Lange’s metalmark butterfly.
Hearing about this partnership stopped me in my tracks. As a Ph.D. Candidate in U.S. and Environmental History at UC Davis, I have spent many years studying conservation efforts, business ethics, and conflicts over land, water, and wildlife. My specialty is time, patience, and negotiation. I knew that a partnership like this, between several government entities, must have taken incredible patience, optimism, and ingenuity to negotiate and implement. “How had this partnership developed?” I asked.
Slowly the story came to life. The sand dunes, originally towering over 100 feet high, had been mined away beginning in the 1880s and throughout the twentieth century. Over time, the removal of sand had allowed non-native species of plants to displace native vegetation such as the Antioch Dunes evening primrose and habitat species for the Lange’s metalmark butterfly. After many years and several failed attempts to bring in sand to help rebuild the dunes and stimulate recovery of the species that depended on them, Louis Terrazas, the Wildlife Refuge Specialist at the ADNWR and Jeff Wingfield, the Environmental Director at the Port of Stockton, began to talk about the possibility of using the refuge as a spoils site for the biannual dredging operations in the San Joaquin River. According to Wingfield, the initial decision was fairly easy, but “then came the challenging part…it took the Port being the glue between two federal agencies, who go different ways. It took someone in the middle speaking both languages” for the agreement to become a reality.
The Port of Stockton facilitated negotiations between the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for dredging and depositing the sand, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for ensuring that the sand and water deposited will not harm the species under their protection. It took approximately two years and many reports and approvals to create the agreement that would bring the sand into the refuge. The first deposits began in 2013. Wingfield acknowledged that this agreement had taken “great patience and persistence” to help maintain the motivation among key stakeholders for so long a time, with so few results seen initially. But eight years later, this flower’s recovery was stirring hope that the other species might soon recover as well. The evening primrose was beginning to flourish, with hundreds of blossoms exploding into bloom this past spring.
But Krieg also mentioned that many local residents, who had taken the monthly tours led by the Fish and Wildlife Service at the ADNWR, had expressed discontent over the closure of the area for the protection of these species. To them, the fences at the refuge represented a foreclosure of the traditional recreational uses that many long-term residents had enjoyed in this area. Those who grew up along the river in the 1930s and 40s experienced childhood in a way that they felt was now lost. Photos held in local archives from the nineteenth century show families picnicking on the beaches near the dunes, but the decades before and after WWII have been virtually forgotten except by a few individuals, such as Errol Frew, a local Antioch resident, whose memories and family photo albums extend back to this period.
Frew was born in Antioch in 1941 and grew up playing by the dunes with his brothers and sister. The photos he has in his collection were taken by his bachelor uncle, J. D. Frew, who combined his love for hunting and the outdoors with a penchant for photography. These photos offer rare glimpses of the dunes in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, as they were being slowly sold and removed to clear a path for industry. What is more, the photos depict how children and young people used these areas at mid-century: running on the beach, climbing the dunes, fishing, and enjoying carefree summer days. One photo captures Frew and his siblings and friends perched on either end of a long iron pipe that someone had balanced on an old fallen oak tree. Frew’s eyes gleamed with mischief as he looked at the photo. “They made a teeter totter for us,” he laughed.
Frew explained that the sand dunes formed steep cliffs directly across from his home. The kids could climb down them, but they were too steep to climb up — although one photo depicts a group of young adult men making the attempt. Adults who occasionally ventured to the area followed a meandering route further toward the east and accessed the beach where the dunes tapered gently down to the river. But his disabled father, who used crutches, was unable to come to the beach with them because it was too difficult to access. Most parents did not accompany their children to the river. Instead, they let their kids run free along the waterfront where they could play on long, hot summer days without causing too much trouble.
Frew remembers the area with great affection. His family lived in a house on Wilbur Avenue that had been part of the old brick factory where the sand dunes initially came into commercial use. He recalls taking walks with his grandmother, while their fox terrier chased ground squirrels and woodpeckers and flickers. Every spring the whole area would bloom with Shasta daisies and lupines, buckeyes and berry bushes. And butterflies, like the Lange’s metalmark? “There were millions of them,” he said. “Butterflies galore.” He also remembers when the first mills began to tear out the trees and vegetation. “When they built the mills they leveled it all. I laid on my grandma’s front porch…looked out across Wilbur Avenue and watched the tractors tear down all the trees.”
Jim Boccio, who was born in Connecticut in 1925 and moved to Antioch when he was 4 years old, also remembers fishing, swimming, hunting, and playing, but he also found ways to earn a bit of spending money along the waterfront. As a boy, he collected bait boxes, earning three cents per box. He would also take his small wagon and comb the area for old gears and nuts and bolts, which he sold to a local scrap dealer for fifteen cents per wagonload. This was enough that he could afford to go to a show at the local cinema.
Rich Hiebert, born in Antioch 1951, and whose family has lived on their land for seven generations, remembers how he and his friends took odd jobs “reefing the seams” of old wooden barges, which required careful observation of the tide cycles to facilitate the work. Hiebert explained, “[At high tide] we’d run the barge up against the bank, and we’d tie it off on each end…[then] at low tide, we’d go out, and there were certain planks that we’d pull the oakum out of.” He paused and asked me, “Have you heard of oakum? It was hemp, and they’d impregnate it with oil.” After removing the old material, they would pound long rolls of oakum and cotton with a mallet into the seams of the boats. Chris Lauritzen, Hiebert’s friend from childhood and owner of Lauritzen Yacht Harbor, added, “They’d put oakum and cotton between the seams, and then when it swells up…it seals up, and then they would also put hot tar on it as well.” Then at high tide, the freshly-sealed barge would float away.
Over the decades there were also two gun and archery ranges at the dunes. Frew has a photograph from his uncle’s collection of young men and women practicing archery at the first range on Wilbur Avenue in the 1930s. And later, the police department maintained a firing range at the dunes where they practiced shooting and offered hunter safety courses. Local boys would take the course to learn how to handle firearms safely. The firing range closed long ago, but Hiebert remembers taking the course around the age of 9. Then Hiebert’s father gave him his first gun — a 1911 Winchester pump — and a box of shells on his tenth birthday, just as he entered fourth grade. One of Hiebert’s chores was to go out with his shotgun to the almond orchards and shoot his gun to scare the blackbirds away. Hiebert recalled, “It was great for a kid. [My father] would give me a box of shells and I’d run out there, and you know, I had taken my hunter safety course, [so] I knew where to shoot, and where not to.”
All of these men spoke with great fondness about time spent as young men growing up on the river. Dave Brink, another longtime local resident, remembered that he and his father would go out on their boat several times a week during the summer, when his father would get home from work, to water ski or engage in other water sports. And many of the men reminisced about hunting and camping on lower Sherman Island, located across the river from Antioch. Lauritzen noted the differences between the culture of their younger years and today. “When we were kids in high school, everybody had a Ford or a Chevy pick-up truck or a jeep, everybody had a gun rack, and it was not uncommon to take a shot gun to school and as soon as you got out of school you’d go pheasant hunting during pheasant season. And nobody thought of the threat of an attack or anything.” Hiebert recalled, “we used to go across to Sherman Island…load up the boat with your sleeping bags, and whatever, all your food, ice chest…and you’d be over there for the weekend, it was like you were in a different world. ‘Cause, there [were] no roads, no nothing, it was so cool.” He continued, “we would pick wild asparagus…[for] our barbecues on Saturday night.”
To be continued in Parts 2 and 3.
If you or members of your community would be interested in sharing your stories with the Delta Protection Commission for its anthology of sources, please contact Carrie.Alexander@delta.ca.gov. For further information on the anthology project, please visit delta.ca.gov/anthology.
To volunteer with the annual butterfly survey or for more information on the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge, please call 707-769-4200 or visit their website at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/antioch_dunes/. Public tours take place on the second Saturday of every month from 10 AM to 11 AM. They meet at 501 Fulton Shipyard Road in Antioch. Reservations are not necessary.
Carrie Alexander is a Ph.D. Candidate in U.S. and Environmental History at University of California, Davis. She serves as a historian and community liaison with the Delta Protection Commission. She is also a private consultant in design and marketing. Prior to beginning her Ph.D. program at Davis, she worked for ten years in web design and print publications for several large corporations, state organizations, and non-profits on the east coast. Originally from Colorado, she moved to Davis with her daughter in 2012 and has developed a deep love for the Delta’s ecology, culture, and history.