Parkmead Community Association

The History Project

Historical articles about original residents Kay Hatch and Betty Soskin, the first Walnut Creek merchants, and the Dewing Pool
The Kay Hatch Story
Fifty Years Ago
by Michael Lester



    Katherine (“Kay”) Hatch was born along the Pacific coast in Raymond, Washington in 1925. Her father, a secretary of the YMCA, was transferred to Berkeley when she was three. Kay met her husband, Chester, at the Calvary Presbyterian church in Berkeley. They married and moved to Walnut Creek in 1956.
    Their first house was at 1685 Arbutus Drive. It was two years old when they purchased it for $13,000. They lived there for ten years and started their family there – a son and daughter, both of whom were born in Berkeley, went to Parkmead Elementary and then the “Upper Parkmead” intermediate school.
    In 1966, they moved up the street to their current home at 1668 Arbutus. Kay remembers that they paid $25,000 for the house “from Robert Wicks and his wife. He was a teacher at Acalanes. Our home was on the border of Los Lomas and Del Valle high schools, so our children could choose which high school to attend.” They picked Del Valle; son Larry graduated in 1969 and daughter Marilyn (who still lives in Walnut Creek) graduated in 1971.
    “We moved to Walnut Creek because Chester was working for Livermore Lab, but we still wanted to live near our widowed mothers in Berkeley.  After two years, Chester went to work at the Berkeley Lab; he carpooled to work by driving over Fish Ranch Road and Grizzly Peak Blvd.”
    Suburban life for the Hatches during the summer centered around the community swimming club, now known as Dewing Pool. The pool didn’t exist when the Hatches moved here in 1956, but Kay remembers that a neighbor who lived on Maple Lane, Sybil Sweger, “got interest in the idea by going house-to-house. The Wilsusans family originally owned the land (she was a kindergarten teacher at Parkmead) but sold it at a discounted price, and the Wilsusans received free dues to the club. People paid a flat fee to join.” Membership consisted of 150 families from the Parkmead and Saranap areas. The Hatches didn’t go away on summer vacations. They hung around the pool, enjoying the potlucks and barbecues and swim teams. Kay worked as a lifeguard and swimming teacher for ten years at the Dewing Pool.
    As it is today, the Parkmead community of fifty years ago was full of new families. “There were lots of children in the neighborhood when we moved in,” recalls Kay. “Almost all the homes had two or three children who would roam the neighborhood freely. They rode their bicycles up and down the streets. We had Fourth of July parades, and we enjoyed water fights during the summer.”
    A Parkmead babysitting club had about twenty families, most living near Arbutus and Poplar Drive but a few on the lower loop of Magnolia Way. “It was a barter system. It allowed couples to go out to dinner or to the El Ray [the downtown movie theater]. Sometimes the fathers even did the sitting.”
    Kay can remember when Magnolia Way, at its top near the current Norman Court cul-de-sac, headed down the hill towards what is now the Rossmoor Safeway. Today it is a bike/walking path and residential streets, but fifty years ago it was a dirt road. “We called it the ‘Ben Scott Freeway’ because Ben Scott, who was about my son’s age, had a jeep and blazed the trail over the hill in order to go to Del Valle High School.” The Hatches also used this dirt road to go to Grace Presbyterian Church on Tice Valley Road.
    Kay and Chester still live at the home on Arbutus Drive. Behind the house used to be a horse pasture owned by State Senator John Nedjedly, and Kay can still recall the silhouettes of the horses against the morning sky. Back then the trees of Parkmead were new and “very small and there wasn’t much shade on the street.” The redwood that towers in her backyard was only six feet tall. The tree, like the neighborhood, has grown.

Betty Reid Soskin
Pioneering Black Looks Back

by Theresa Harrington and Michael Lester



     When Betty Reid Soskin moved to Walnut Creek in 1952 with her husband and young sons, no other black families lived here. Today, African-Americans still make up a very small percentage of the city’s population – about 1 percent.
     Soskin moved away in the 1970s after two decades of living as an African-American woman in a white person’s world. She looks back on her years in Walnut Creek with mixed emotions. “There are some things that I have washed out, because they are too painful to remember,” she says.    
     Soskin and her husband, Melvin Reid, could not get a bank loan to purchase their property. So a white friend bought it and passed it on to them. They lived at the corner of Boulevard Way and Warren Road in what is now the Saranap district in a home they built in the early 1950s. They remained in the area until the late 1960s/early 1970s when her two eldest sons had completed high school and the third transferred to Berkeley High.
    “It had been a highly intense 20 years during which we grew a lot, but paid a high cost for the education. I’m not at all sure that I’d want to repeat it, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world in many respects,” she says. They chose an unincorporated area to build their home, thinking they would not be as conspicuous as they would be in a tract development. But they were wrong.     
    Hate mail warned them not to pile lumber on their lot or it would be burned. Rumors about them spread throughout the area. “It was terrifying,” she says. But the Reids held their ground. Eventually, close neighbors offered to introduce them to others to ease their transition into the Parkmead community.     
    Her son Rick Reid was the first black student at Parkmead Elementary. He later attended the former Del Valle High School (near Rossmoor). “By the time he got to high school, he had been marked as the class victim. It’s heartbreaking when I think of what I put him through as a little kid.” He endured taunts from classmates and showed signs of early alcoholism in adolescence. He died of cirrhosis about eight years ago.    
     “I think he was the greatest casualty of that experiment, and I think that’s partially why we moved away,” says Soskin. Shortly after Rick enrolled in Parkmead Elementary, the faculty and PTA put on a minstrel show as a fundraiser, wearing black face paint. Outraged, Soskin protested to the principal. She remembers him saying, “We’re just depicting blacks as happy-go-lucky. We didn’t know it was insulting until this very minute.”
     Another heart-rending experience was taking her children to a diner across the street from St. Mary’s Church on Mt. Diablo Blvd. It was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  They waited patiently but were eventually told they had to leave because the restaurant (filled with people) was closed. “I walked out of there in tears. There was no way to explain to my children what was happening. I don’t think I was ever so humiliated in my life.”     
    But, over time, things began to change. “Just as we were the focus of negative energy and racism, we also became the magnet for the liberals, and a community grew up around us. That’s what saved our family and my sanity.”      
    Her family joined the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek and thrived in a community that accepted them. “That small group of families was my world,” Soskin says. “What little racial diversity there was in the Diablo Valley existed in that church. There, my kids could sense freedom.”     
    As her marriage dissolved and her children grew up, Soskin returned to Berkeley, then later to El Cerrito, then to Richmond. Now in her late 80s, she works as a Cultural Resources Assistant (a park ranger) at the Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front National Historical Park and writes regularly about her life and her family. Her online journal can be found at http://cbreaux.blogspot.com
Dewing Pool
In the Swim of Things
by Jodie Hen



     It was 1957, the temperature was hitting 106°, and only one oak tree was available to offer a group of Parkmead/Saranap neighbors refuge from the sweltering summer heat. So, with a final assessment of the situation and the proclamation “%$#^ it’s hot out here, we need a pool,” the Dewing Park Recreation Club took root.  
    There were about two and half acres available on Olympic Blvd., a suitable setting for a swimming pool. The Beckers, Crawfords, Schroders, Richardsons and others decided to form a committee and explore acquiring the necessary land permits with the goal of creating the legal structure necessary to develop a community pool. There was, of course, a minor detail or two to dispose of first, like getting an unlicensed crossing permit against a non-operating railroad track but, with the help of a licensed neighborhood attorney who agreed to provide his service pro bono, the plans moved forward.  
    Initially about five members agreed to toss in $10 each to get the plan underway. As plans developed and the initiative moved forward, members would later contribute about $500 each to finance the pool construction. The membership was capped at 200 families. Neighborhood acquiescence mandated that no swim meets would be held at the pool. That, however, didn’t last long, as Dewing Park Pool had its first official swim team in 1961 under the masterful coaching of Bud Solarno.
    What began as an effort to cool off in the summer of 1957 evolved to the surrounding streets and neighborhoods of Saranap and Parkmead. Fifty-three years later, Dewing Park Pool, the home of the mighty Seahorses, continues to be a base and an attraction for the Parkmead community. 

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Follow the Money

The First Businessmen
by Brad Rovanpere



    The first business to locate at The Corners [what Walnut Creek was called in the mid-1800s] was established in 1855 by Milo Hough. The 31-year-old entrepreneur had been operating a hotel in nearby Lafayette for two years and was briefly postmaster in that village and a founder of the first Methodist church built there. Where Hough built his Walnut Creek House is disputable. No maps or documents of the period precisely record where the hotel was located. However, it likely stood where the Broadway Plaza parking garage stands today. One thing is certain: The Walnut Creek House – a two-story wooden structure, 24 feet by 40 feet – was the singular landmark of the Walnut Creek area for a dozen years.
   Hough ran a store and a bar out of the hostelry, making him something of a one-man chamber of commerce. Across from the hotel he built a blacksmith shop, which was destroyed in a fire in 1861.
   The late 1850s was a time of important change in the area. The fertile farming land of the Ygnacio Valley, once used for cattle grazing, drew scores of new settlers intent on growing wheat, the traditional staple of the era. James T. Walker had arrived in the valley in 1853 and purchased 1,400 acres formerly owned by Doña Juana and set up a cattle ranch. In the spring of 1869, Walker acquired another 140 acres from Ygnacio Sibrian for $840 and built a home that stands today just off North Gate Road.
   Another early arrival was Hiram P. Penniman, an Illinois native who came to The Corners around 1856 and purchased from George Thorn about 25 acres of the original Slusher land in the vicinity of Main Street between Mt. Diablo Blvd. and Cypress Street. He surveyed lots and laid out the first town site, selling the parcels for $50 and $75 apiece, depending on their size. Thus, Penniman became the village’s first real estate agent.
   In early 1866, Penniman and G.C. Sears set up a store at Main and Lafayette streets selling groceries, dry goods, clothing and hardware.  Penniman was appointed postmaster that same year. His partnership with Sears ended at the end of 1867, and Penniman sold the store to William C. Pratt who was, in turn, appointed postmaster in November 1867. Pratt advertised his store in the Contra Costa Gazette as being “at the County Centre, Walnut Creek Corners.”

Excerpted from An Illustrated History of Walnut Creek, newly published by the Walnut Creek Historical Society (925) 935-7871.
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