“Thank you for visiting the beautiful half of Alameda County.”
Our guide was being somewhat facetious, but it was hard at the moment to disagree standing next to a handsome historic house surrounded by four and a half acres of gardens and grounds, with the golden—and undeveloped—hills of Fremont in the near distance.
Yes. The city that Berkeleyans (including this writer, on occasion) tend to dismiss as a bland expanse of tract subdivisions and auto malls is also home to a number of historic houses, parks, and other properties where you can envision life of earlier days in what began as a prosperous agricultural district of Alameda County.
We were at the Shinn House and Arboretum, which dates back to the 1850s and was the four-generation home of the Shinn family until given to the City of Fremont as a historic site and park in the 1960s.
The house and grounds are a treasury of early Alameda County rural history and a pleasant spot to visit for a short tour and garden stroll. Located at the warmer end of the county in a district rich in deep, alluvial, soil, this area quickly became a focus of early agriculture in post-Gold Rush days.
Dr. Joseph Clark from San Francisco bought the property in 1856 from the Sim (sic) family. He invited his sister, Lucy, and her husband James Shinn to move to California to manage it. They came from Texas with at least one young child by the sea route through Panama that same year.
For several years the Shinns—who ultimately had seven children—lived in a tiny, literally one room, cottage built by the previous landowner “Captain” Sim out of timbers taken from Gold Rush era schooners that had been abandoned in the tidelands along the bay shore.
This structure, now clapboarded and white painted, was moved to a site near the current property entrance and is used today as headquarters for a dedicated group of volunteer gardeners who maintain parts of the grounds.
If on your visit you have a chance to peek inside, you’ll see the wide-timbered walls, a rustic fireplace across one end, and a lowered ceiling that housed a loft where the children slept.
The main house—the feature attraction of tours—is a two and a half story above basement Stick Eastlake farmhouse which, our guide said, had Bavarian folk architectural touches reportedly suggested by Continental Shinn relatives.
Now painted yellow, it’s built of clear-heart redwood that was logged not far away in Castro Valley. The main structure was under construction from 1865-1876 and weathered, reportedly without mishap, the great Hayward Fault Earthquake of 1868 that tore through the grounds within 100 feet of the building.
The house has a generous front door shaded by a huge rose arbor. Left, when you enter, are formal parlor and dining room. To the right, the first room is a small office lined with agricultural texts where the ranch was managed. Beyond it, a generously sized “day room.”
Big windows and French doors facing east, a fireplace with inglenook seating, a circular dining table, the kitchen conveniently next door, and plenty of informal sitting around room and daylight make this century and a half old space surprisingly approximate a “family room” of today.
According to our guide this is where the Shinn family spent much of its indoor time and the adults regularly ate. Beyond, in the ample kitchen, is a L-shaped built in bench with table where the children and servants dined. Off to one side—and not on the tour—is a building extension and water tower, partially converted to park restrooms.
Upstairs—accessible by formal staircase from the front hall, or steep back stairs from the kitchen—there are four bedrooms and a small nursery in the front of the house. One bedroom features a wall covering made from thin pieces of bamboo, mounted in a screen and painted with flowers and birds.
A small bathroom represents a “modern”—that is, first half of the 20th century—improvement. Our guide noted that the house was originally lit by kerosene lamps, and then went straight to electricity, without a gas lighting era.
Behind the back stairs there’s a second floor hall with another small bedroom, a bath, and a back bedroom, done as an early addition, and looking like a ship’s cabin with walls and ceiling paneled in redwood.
The house is furnished with a mix of Shinn originals and collected objects from the 19th century. The pantry is stocked with period canned goods and hand-operated mechanical devices for food processing such as cherry pitters. There’s a laundry alcove and “sad irons”, so called because, after heating on the stove, they could easily transfer a speck of soot to a piece of laundry, ruining that piece of washing.
Many of the furniture items are not original to the Shinn family, but there are ample authentic family artifacts from paintings to books, to a custom built indoor sedan chair in which a disabled member of the family could be carried up and downstairs from her bedroom.
Our guide mixed in interpretations of 19th century life with Shinn stories. For example, he said the tradition of doing washing on Monday had roots in large Sunday dinners at which guests were often present and prosperous families prided themselves on never running short of food.
This meant there were leftovers for meals the next day, leaving time for the women of the house to turn to another time-consuming task, like laundry.
There’s a close and early tie between the Shinns and Berkeley. Four of the children went to Cal, son Joseph starting in 1879 when the University was just a dozen years old.
The most notable academic Shinn was Joseph’s younger sister, Millicent. She not only received a degree as an undergraduate but, several years later, earned a PhD—the first graduate degree awarded to a woman by the University of California.
Millicent Shinn’s advanced degree was based on study of her niece. Her dissertation was published as Biography of a Baby and, our guide said, is still used in teaching child psychology.
There in her southwest facing bedroom in the house is a photo of her and other delegates on the Berkeley campus at an American Association of University Women convention. And there are also reminders of her adventurous literary life.
In the early 1880s she bought the rights to the Overland Monthly magazine—a publication co-founded by Mark Twain—and published and edited it for several years, giving prominent place to poetry and women writers, mixed with luminaries from Joaquin Miller to Jack London.
Outside the house, take time to stroll the grounds that are a combination of historic re-creation, imaginative landscapes, and fallow corners awaiting restoration.
There are two barns at the back of the property, one of them salvaged and brought from another historic site in Fremont (the original Shinn barn burned in the 1970s when the house was vacant and awaiting restoration). By the barns is a small enclosure of bearing apricot trees, labeled as the last remnant of original orchard in Alameda County.
The Shinn’s used the ranch for food production, but also built up a substantial and well known nursery business, one of several that made the future Fremont area famous by the late 19th century for its prolific production of useful plants—such as fruit trees—along with exotic species and ornamentals.
“Niles has become the leading point in the township for the shipment of fruit, partly became the soil and situation are so excellent, but chiefly by reason of the comparatively early establishment of local and commercial nurseries here”, Charles Howard Shinn wrote about the neighborhood in 1889. “Even before tbe Shinn nurseries were begun, neighbors who saw my father extending his orchard would come in to see if he could spare a few trees.”
At the time of the writing, Joseph Shinn was devoting 110 acres of his 250-acre property to fruit trees, besides his commercial nursery.
Another source of income for the Shinns came from selling gravel from adjacent Alameda Creek, which annually washed down alluvium from Niles Canyon and the vast littoral of inland Alameda County beyond. The gravel mines are now the Alameda Creek Quarries Regional Park, just northwest of the historic house.
Several early trees survive on the remnant Shinn property. There’s an enormous pair of wine palms planted around 1878 and rising like ancient temple columns, a Morton Bay fig with a tangle of sinuous surface roots dozens of feet across and a gingko older than the one on the UC campus.
Rose beds, ornamental fountains, a lush shady lawn in front of the house, and a handsome modern-era Japanese garden off to one side are all open for strolling. The grounds would be a nice place to have a picnic lunch before or after a tour of the house.
In fact, if you’d like to go to the Shinn House and a picnic, next Sunday—July 18—noon to 4 p.m. is a good opportunity. The Shinn House grounds will be put to use for a “Victorian Ice Cream Social”, benefitting the Mission Peaks Heritage Foundation that operates the house.
Model A antique cars, an old West gunfighter’s re-enactment, lace making and quilt making demonstrations, and tours of the Shinn House are offered.
The overall event is free. House tours are $5, and food—including hot dogs, popcorn, and ice cream sundaes—will be available for purchase. Call (510) 795-0891 for details.
At other times house tours are offered on the first Wednesday and third Sunday of each month, from 1 to 3 pm. The Mission Peak Heritage Association operates the house and staffs tours. The grounds are open as a City park from sunrise to sunset.
Our tour was led, in costume by an enthusiastic and well-informed Fremont community historian, Al Minard, who is also a leader in statewide history organizations.
The visit was organized as one of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s “First Friday” events, organized and led by BAHA Board member Sally Sachs. First Fridays take groups of visitors (advance sign-ups required) to local historic and architectural sites, often with a guided behind-the-scenes tour.
Visits to the Berkeley City Club (August 6) and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (September 2) are currently scheduled.
See the events page of BerkeleyHeritage.com for more information.
If you want to explore the Fremont area further before or after a visit to the Shinn House, the Niles business district is not far away, just off Mission Boulevard north of the Alameda Creek bridge.
It includes three or four blocks of one and two story wooden and brick storefronts mainly populated by antique stores and art galleries, along with the Essenay movie museum (open weekends) that recalls the era just before Hollywood when Niles was a major center of film production.
The City of Fremont has just completed an extensive park across from the shops around a historic railroad depot. This is one end of the Niles Canyon Railroad that offers rides on historic rolling stock down what was the original Transcontinental Railroad route into the Bay Area.
A drive up nearby Niles Canyon to Sunol is a trip back into rural Alameda County, where early Westerns were filmed. If you’re making an ambitious excursion you can circle ‘round the east side of the Berkeley Hills and return through the Caldecott Tunnel.
This historic parts of the Niles district always remind me of what Berkeley may have felt like in the early second half of the 19th century with a rustic wooden downtown commercial district, quiet side streets of Victorian cottages, and unbuilt hills rising at the edge.
The Shinn Historical Park and Arboretum is at 1251 Peralta Boulevard in Fremont, about 35 driving miles south of Berkeley.
If you’re going by car you can take either the low road or the high road to the Shinn House from the Berkeley area. 880 runs south to Fremont, then take Mowry Boulevard east to Peralta Boulevard, then double back a block west on the latter. Or drive down 580 to Hayward and head south on 238, which becomes Mission Boulevard, to just past the entrance to Niles Canyon, where you turn west down Mowry, thence to Peralta.
The 880 route is perhaps faster, if there are no traffic back-ups. The foothill route leads you through a rapidly developed district of Hayward and Fremont where condo tracts adjoin bait shops and defunct bowling alleys.
The Fremont BART station is also about a 15-minute walk south of the property.
City of Fremont website for the Shinn House
Website links for historic attractions in the Shinn House vicinity
Niles Main Street Association http://www.niles.org/
Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and theater
Niles Canyon Railway
Niles Railway Museum (under development) in the historic Niles station.
(Steven Finacom wrote about another historic Fremont estate, Ardenwood and the, in the December 7, 2007 issue of the Planet, which can be found on line.)