Ruth Steiner’s Story
I moved to Concord when I married at the age of 17. My husband was in the Navy, and I saved all my allotment checks and we bought a house on Rose Lane when I was 18. Since I was under 21, I could not take ownership of the home, and my husband had to list me as his dependent (he was 21). The house was built by his uncle, and his uncle was about to lose it for lack of funds, so I (we) bought it from him. At 18 and female, I could not get credit in my name, and in fact, credit for a woman in the 1950’s was rare.
There was an old train station somewhere in the area, and my children (born in 1954 and 1956) and I used to walk over to it.
We also liked to hike over to the little town of Cowell and walk around inside the big empty metal buildings which surrounded the old smokestack. There were lots of houses in Cowell that were owned by the Cowell Cement company, and many of them were still occupied in spite of the factory being closed. Workers at the Cement factory lived there, and they also shopped at the little grocery store that was on the property. We heard stories that when the factory was in operation, the employees lived in company houses and shopped at company stores to the point of being in servitude – rarely could they get out of debt to the Company.
Embedded in the sidewalks around the housing area were remarks about safety, awards to particular individuals, symbols, and mottos of encouragement. We used to walk the streets and read them. There was also a facility run by the University of California Agricultural Dept. that dispensed information about local growing issues and flora and fauna. There was a little grocery store there, and we would buy penny candy to lick on our way back to our home on Rose Lane.
There was also an airport on what is now West Street here in Concord. People think I’m joking when I say that.
My facts may not be 100% accurate, but these are my memories. My children loved living on Rose Lane where they had forts built in the ground (sandy soil) and tree houses. When we moved from there to a bigger home near Concord High School, they were furious with me.
Someone in the blogs suggested that Brown’s Department store may have become Hilsons. Not so – I knew the Hilson family – their main store was in Martinez where I worked – but Brown’s was a relic of the long-ago past. The merchandise was placed on top of tables and bare light bulbs hung on long strands from the ceiling. The floors were very rough and splintery, and had big cracks between the boards. — Ruth Steiner
Sal Sander’s Story
Interested in the CHS as I lived in Cowell in 1941-42, attended the one-room school house in 2d grade. My father, Jack Sanders, was the electrician at the Cement Plant. Our house, as I recall it, was across the street from the plant. Tried to find Cowell years ago driving through the area but no one had even heard of it, but I heard that the Plant closed. Am now 76 years old, a semi-retired attorney in Long Beach and don’t mind digging up memories.
Recall the one-room school house in Cowell, grades 1 thru 8, I believe.
One story I recall, sort of apropos for these times when bullying is such a big deal concern of parents. We just took it in stride and dealt with it. During the 1941-42 school year in Cowell I was in second grade, basically, a nice easy going kid. Walking home from school one late fall day it was rather cool.
My mother gave me a new wool skull cap to keep my ears warm. Always small for my age, this runt looked like easy picking to four fourth grade boys itching to torment someone. They surrounded me, took my cap and knocked me down. Got up and tried to get my hat but they began playing keep-away, tossing it back and forth with me in the middle and pushing me back and forth in the process, Great sport for them.
I ran home. First thing mom said, angrily: “Where is that new cap I just bought you. You better not lose it. Tearfully, I explained what had happened, fully expecting sympathy and to have her march back to school to deal with those killers and retrieve my hat. Bad assumption on my part. “You go back there and take your cap back from those bullies.” “But there are four of them, big fourth graders,” I pleaded, “they will beat me up.” “I don’t care who they are or how many. You march right back there and get your hat or I’ll beat you up if you come home without it.” My fear of an angry feisty mother (she was all of 4’10” in heels) was worse than being beat to death by bullying fourth graders. Running back to where the bullies were still hanging out, one of them was wearing my cap.
Just for an instant I thought of retreating home, but the vision of a mad mama steeled me to forge on beyond logic. Walked right up to the guy who had my hat and demanded he give it back. He laughed, pushed me away and tossed it to one of his buddies. The stress was more than I could handle. Postal anger, caution to the winds, I socked him in the eye hard as I could. Must have hurt him. He began to cry. l Turned to the guy who had my hat. He quickly tossed it back to me saying, “here, keep your darn hat.”
Proudly running back home, wearing my rescued treasure, fully expecting my hero’s welcome, mom only said: “You better have that hat. Don’t lose it again.” My first clear dose of the real world. Looking back, that little experience in Cowell sort of helped shape my character.
Never had fear of bullies or hardly anything again. In fact, developed a reputation as a “little scrapper” from then on, and protector of other kids from bullies. Still basically a nice easy going guy, retired as a Federal Cop for the Bureau of Prisons, Federal prosecutor, life member in the 82d Airborne Association and the U.S. Army Special Forces Association, retired as a Counterintelligence Special Agent from the Army of the United States, and now spend a good deal of my semi-retirement mediating litigated cases and coaching amateur boxers, at risk youth, in the Police Athletic League and Police Foundation program, having 11 years of good ring experience myself in the process of growing up, which is still going on.
So I would really be interested in anyone still surviving the Cowell of that era. One might even recall the above incident. No scores to even. Only laughs and good memories. Regardless, fondly recall the total experience in Cowell that one year branded into my character.
Memories — Sal Sanders
Losing a landmark but remembering the past
By S. Michele Fry, Concord Transcript, June 4, 2009
Back when Concord was primarily surrounded by farmland, it was adjacent to the successful company town of Cowell.
The company, Cowell Portland Cement, owned the houses, the boarding house, the general store, the hospital, the firehouse and the town hall. Company employees and their families were the only residents, and all the workers lived in the town. They abided by strict rules set and enforced by the company.
In what could have been a stifling existence, many people who grew up there recall it fondly — from “Mark Twain-esque” adventures to good jobs.
“It was a wonderful town to grow up in. It was a close-knit community,” recalled Tillie Larkins, 93.
She became a resident at age 3 when her father went to work for the company and the family moved into their home in Cowell. It was 1919 — the Women’s Suffrage Bill passes the Senate, the first nonstop air crossing of the Atlantic occurs, and Babe Ruth hit his 29th home run.
As history was being made, young Tillie Perez attended Cowell Elementary, a two-room schoolhouse — where grades one through eight were taught — before she went on to high school at Mt. Diablo.
She recalled playing in the hills surrounding Cowell and hikes to Mount Diablo via Mitchell Canyon, as well as playing at home on the large front porch and in the large yard.
“We never played inside,” she said.
It was higher education that took her away from her cozy village, but only briefly; after getting her degree, she returned and worked at Cowell Portland Cement. She started on the switchboard, moved to the office, then to secretary to the superintendent. She was at the company until it closed.
“Cowell was my whole life until I got married,” she said. Bill Larkins swept her away in 1950.
Prior to the sale of the land by the Cowell family in 1959, the sense of community and home was strong. A lawsuit by Clayton Valley farmers in the ’30s — which resulted in the construction of the 235-foot stack — to be demolished later this month — is not what former residents vividly remember.
A different era
The Cowell experiences of Ken Rishell, 79, and Jim Dunn, 67, were in different eras than Larkins’, but they, too, remember a close community and fun times.
Larkins saw the company in its heyday, while Rishell lived there for three short years during the company’s wane in the 1940s.
And when Dunn lived there, during the 1950s, the company had succumbed to lack of limestone, railroad changes and competition from Kaiser’s Permanente Cement. Cowell Portland was only a landlord.
Dunn saw some of the area’s biggest changes. His family moved to Cowell when he was 7 and he lived there for 10 years, during which time he saw Ygnacio Valley Road being laid from Oak Grove Road.
He attended the two-room schoolhouse, but new schools were being built — Crawford Village Elementary School and Loma Vista Intermediate School would open in 1952, and Cowell Elementary would close. Dunn started at Mt. Diablo High, but graduated from the new high school, Clayton Valley, that had opened in 1958.
Larkins, Rishell and Dunn all recall playing in the dirt streets, usually baseball.
Larkins remembers rushing home at noon to listen to “Your Hit Parade” on the radio. Some of the kids would get sheet music for top songs and have their friends over to sing around the piano, she said.
Rishell remembers some chores — he and his brothers walked from town to an area adjacent to the present-day Bel-Air shopping center to milk the family’s cow and then carry the milk back home without spilling it.
But he also recollects mischief at Halloween, and a couple of hot days when the company superintendent opened up his pool for the town residents.
When Cowell residents wanted to see a movie, they sometimes went to the big city of Martinez — where there were two theaters, plus shopping at Montgomery Ward and JC Penney.
Larkins said she went to the theater in Concord quite a bit because it gave away one dish every Saturday night.
“I still have some of those dishes,” she said.
Rishell said his family liked the giveaways at the Port Chicago movie theater. It raffled off prizes, such as bags of groceries.
“We went home with something every time,” he recalled.
During Larkins’ youth, cars were less the norm. “Sometimes, we’d walk into Concord for church.”
Cowell had a nondenominational Sunday school with teachers coming over from Oakland or Berkeley. A popular magician who told Bible stories visited sometimes, too, Larkins said. But when people wanted their traditional, denominational service, she said they went into a nearby city.
Rishell said his family didn’t feel bound by the town or the company store. They used the store the way people use 7-Eleven or AM/PM today — for a loaf of bread, for emergencies — and shopped in Concord.
Even after Cowell Portland Cement was no more — it closed in 1946 — the company rented the houses. Later generations remember the boarding house as a hotel, although families lived there, Dunn said.
The memories of these former residents, separated by 30-plus years, are remarkably similar — playing in the hills and the street, running to the store after school, the open farmland, abundant wildlife, and vineyards and orchards. They are left with wistful impressions of happy childhoods.
“We made our own fun — never stole, never ruined anyone’s property,” Dunn said. “It was great.”
Cowell Smokestack Project – Official Home
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Smokestack Stories – Volume 3
So were you brave enough to climb 235 feet up a Smokestack? Tonight’s Smokestack Stories show there may have been some brave souls out there who did just that.
Our own “Mayor of Claycord” reminisces about two such incidents in our first story. “I remember one time in the 80’s somebody had to be rescued off the smokestack after they tried to climb it, and were too scared to climb back down. They didn’t make it far, but far enough that they didn’t want to move anymore. I went to school with the kid, I think it was around 1989, he was about 13 at the time and lived in the Crossings.
Then again, in 1995’ish, somebody climbed the stack and hung a banner from the top. He was a Clayton Valley High School student, and an expert climber (obviously). I don’t remember what the banner said though, I just remember him telling everybody he climbed it and then I saw it later that day.”
“Sum Random Dork” offers what may be an explanation to the Mayor’s second story in his memory. “Having grown up in the Crossings (one of the 1st homes built I was 6 months old), I always loved the Smokestack. Drives home you could always spot it ahead and know you were almost home. But, my favorite story comes from when I was coaching the swim team in the early 90’s, someone climbed the Smokestack overnight and hung a large sign. It was something about the President but nobody could make any sense of it. I guess whoever wrote it thought it made sense, but none of us had a clue. Because it referred to the President, the Secret Service was called in and took pictures of it. The issue became they couldn’t figure out a way to get the sign down, so we just had to wait for the wind to take care of it. We (coaches) were asked to monitor the sign and if it came down when we were around to gather it up so the Secret Service could get a hold of it. Sadly, we were not around when it was finally blown off and nobody could figure out where it went.”
We had our Board of Directors meeting tonight and all we’re very pleased with our progress. We approved new additional landscaping at the end of Lawson Ct. to make the entrance to the memorial area look even better. We also made progress on the brick issue and hope to have news soon on their possible distribution.
Mark Weinmann, Cowell Smokestack Project Manager, CHOA