Remembering San Jose as It Used to Be

IMG_20180626_150901406[1]Sitting in an over air-conditioned Jack in the Box restaurant at the corner of Branham Lane and Almaden Expressway in San Jose the other day, my father sipped his chocolate milkshake and smiled at the irony. When he was a boy, this was the site of the Five Mile House saloon. Across Almaden was Ed Mullins’ general store. His Grandpa Joe and Grandma Louise Fagalde lived across Branham just west of the Guadalupe River. They had a house, a small orchard, a vineyard, horses, a fish pond, and in later years a service station with a little store.

Joe didn’t know much about cars. When my dad would come to visit as a teenager, he’d urge him to drive, saying, “Hey, kid, let’s go for a ride.” But with the help of his sons and niece Irene, they made it work. For my father, growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, it was a magical place where his grandfather spoke several languages, piloted a horse-driven water truck to wet down the dirt roads, had horses so trained they’d obey him like dogs, and a parrot who would call “Hey Joe!” in exactly the same voice as Grandma Louise, driving him nuts.

There was no bridge over the creek, but a graveled crossing, which Joe rebuilt after it washed out every winter.

The two-story house didn’t have electricity when Dad was young. Later, it just had one light bulb hanging in each room. There were no plugs; there was nothing to plug in. They used an outhouse, cooked on a wood stove, and stored food in an ice box, yet they had wonderful family gatherings where somehow the women produced a feast without any modern conveniences.

Looking across the six busy lanes of Branham Lane now, we could see a two-story retail building which offered manicures, eyelash extensions, computer service, a dentist’s office, and some kind of car repair. The creek was all that remained of the old homestead. The Fagalde property was sold in the 1960s after both grandparents had passed on. Changes were happening all over Santa Clara Valley. The land of orchards and dirt roads on which Dad occasionally road horses between his parents’ place on Dry Creek Road and his grandparents’ home on Branham Lane disappeared. But in his mind, he could still see it.

We had been touring the sites of Dad’s youth. I laughed when I came to the intersection and saw the Jack in the Box. I had been looking for a place to get a burger. Now we could park and really study the place. Afterward, I drove through the parking lot across the street to get a closer look. Dumpsters stood where the outhouse used to be. The creek, where it was not blocked by trees, still had water in it. And the occasional shopping cart.

“You should write a book about it,” my father kept saying. Maybe I will. If not a book, something. When the physical evidence is gone, how can anyone otherwise know what came before, that it wasn’t always a nail salon and a Jack in the Box, that once people ate ice cream at Mullins’ store, stopped for a drink at the Five Mile House, and heard a parrot shout “Hey Joe!” behind the service station?

I’m 30 years younger than my father, but a lot of what I remember in San Jose is gone, too. We have to tell our stories.

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Speaking of stories, the launch party for my new novel Up Beaver Creek is next Sunday, July 8 at 2:00 at the Newport, Oregon library. Come hear about the book and help me celebrate its publication. You can buy it now on Amazon.com or order it at your local bookstore.

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California trip renews old memories

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I have just returned from a trip to San Jose, California to visit my father. It was a journey through two lifetimes of memories, mine and my dad’s. Now that I’m home, I’m still trying to believe that my long-awaited trip has come and gone.
My father, Ed Fagalde, is 89. I just turned 60. We are both widowed. We both order senior meals now, and we had a fun conversation comparing our prescriptions. We are lucky that Dad is still able to live on his own and doesn’t seem nearly as old as he is. Wherever we go, memories of our spouses go with us. I can see Mom in her chair by the window, hear Fred laughing at a joke.
Dad is a storyteller. Boy, does he like to talk about the good old days. We both grew up in San Jose. Dad grew up on the Dorrance Ranch, where his father was foreman. They raised prunes, cherries and other crops. Driving down Curtner Avenue between Monterey Highway and Meridian Road, he noted that we were in the middle of the ranch, which extended for hundreds of acres. He pointed to trees that were there long before the area became a suburban housing tract.
Everyplace we went, I had my own memories to match my father’s. “We had a big well here,” he said as we crossed the intersection near St. Christopher’s Church. I went to church here the first couple years Fred and I were married. He wired that building over there when he worked for Sure Electric. I interviewed the people who worked there for the San Jose Sun.
We drove through Saratoga, where I was editor of the Saratoga News, and Los Gatos, where I wrote for the Weekly-Times, had cheeseburgers and fries at a Burger Pit just like the one we went to almost every weekend when I was a kid, then headed east to Almaden, which brought back memories of my days writing for the South Valley Times. Dad’s memories went back much farther.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, San Jose had two working quicksilver (mercury) mines, the Almaden and Guadalupe mines. Dad’s grandfather and father worked at the Guadalupe mine, and his mother taught at the school there. Both mines are long closed now. In fact, the Guadalupe mine site is a landfill site now. As the road narrowed, we drove through miles of oak trees along Los Alamitos Creek, past the houses of the wealthy and the eccentric, past a dam and a county park with trails leading to the mining sites. Dad recalled riding that steep road on bicycles with his cousin Irene. Going up was tough, but going down was really exciting. He pointed to where there used to be a dance hall, a picnic area, a swimming pool. He told how his grandfather, who was more comfortable with horses than cars, took driving lessons from a local guy in exchange for breaking two horses.
These days, the road leads to a big white building that has been a dance hall, a bar, a theater, and a restaurant. I did a story there, too, can’t remember which paper it was for. Now it’s a museum.
The sign said the museum was closed, but there were cars in the parking lot, and Dad insisted we knock on the door. Surely they’d just send us away, I thought, but no. When Dad shared some of his history, Ranger Mary Berger let us in for a private tour of rooms decorated to look like 1850s parlors and other rooms full of information about the old days of Almaden. She described a busy schedule of activities we might enjoy. Meanwhile, Dad told her a few things she didn’t know about Almaden.
It was the highlight of a week full of memories. We visited my brother at his hilltop estate near Yosemite, talking, eating and watching basketball on TV as the rain cascaded down outside. I had lunch at an ultra-modern restaurant in Newark with my stepdaughter and dinner with my aunt at La Paloma in Santa Clara.
All too soon, it was time to say goodbye, warmed by memories made new by sharing them. 
For more information about the Almaden Quicksilver County Park and Mining Museum, visit www. parkhere.org and click on “History Here.”