Bonanza Days, Gymkhana and a rich look into history

They say you don’t really know someone until you’ve heard all
their stories. The same is true for cities. As a fairly-new
Gilroyan, I decided it was time to learn more about Gilroy’s
history. I’ve already visited the museum several times, but I
realized I needed to invest in my city’s story and bring a little
bit of it home.
They say you don’t really know someone until you’ve heard all their stories. The same is true for cities. As a fairly-new Gilroyan, I decided it was time to learn more about Gilroy’s history. I’ve already visited the museum several times, but I realized I needed to invest in my city’s story and bring a little bit of it home.

That led to me to Gilroy, Claudia Salewske’s book of historic images with informative captions. Published in 2003, it’s hardly new, but I thought at this time of starting afresh and making yearly resolutions, this column might inspire others to check it out, too.

One of the most exciting things about reading a book like this is hooking up street names with the actual people who they’re named for. When we first moved to town, we lived on Hanna Street, and I enjoyed seeing a photograph of the fully-bearded visage of William Hanna, a lumberman in the 1800s who logged and milled the redwood stand west of Gilroy. He went on to become mayor and serve as a legislator.

A few blocks away is Rea Street, and the book displays an image of the house of Thomas Rea, a dairyman who later served as Bank of Gilroy president, mayor and state assemblyman.

Not far from Hanna Street, I’d ramble over to the exquisite Wheeler Hospital, whose 1929 façade still glistens as if it were new (now a home for the aged). This was named for Linwood Wheeler, whose capital made it happen. The image shows his sedan in front of the facility parked in the wrong direction; Salewske writes, “There was such regard for Mr. Wheeler around town that the local authorities let him park with impunity in whichever direction he chose.”

An early seed business man, Wheeler also donated money to the fire department for its equipment and for the civic auditorium on Sixth Street which bears his name. One of the more touching details of the book was learning that he secretly funded small business owners downtown during the Great Depression. I’m sure many struggling Monterey Street proprietors would love another benefactor to do the same today.

I found images corresponding to other street names: Filice, Eschenberg, Hecker, Princevalle and the Brownell family for whom I assume the middle school is named.

The architecture of the old City Hall on Monterey with its handsome clock tower has long interested me, and Salewske’s book revealed that it was still being built when the 1906 earthquake hit. An image shows the structure covered in scaffolding; it lost some stone veneer but sailed through largely intact (Loma Prieta was not so kind.) The photos of City Hall show the large doors that once fronted on Sixth Street; behind them the fire department housed its engines. The city’s library started here before it found space in the Carnegie Library (today, the museum).

Salewske does a great job of not just heralding the white settlers of the area, but making mention of Japanese, Chinese and other immigrants. The first several pages of the book are devoted to the Native Americans who first lived here, understandably depicted in drawings rather than photographs.

Before the 1980s bypass, Highway 101 ran right through Gilroy, and a blurry image shows much vehicle and foot traffic on Monterey. How profoundly a major thoroughfare can affect a city’s thriving downtown!

I was surprised to learn about the Gymkhana and Bonanza Days that still live on in many residents’ memories, but were unknown to a newcomer. The picture of 5,000-seat bleachers for the rodeo, once located near the intersection of the railroad tracks and Leavesley Road, made my jaw drop. Gymkhana lasted from 1929 to 1956, with a parade and rodeo on a Wild West theme, while Bonanza Days filled the void starting in 1967 with an annual grand parade.

Salewske presents the story of the Garlic Festival’s beginning with a photo of co-founders Don Christopher, Rudy Melone and Val Filice holding onto the “eternal flame.” It all started with a letter Melone sent to the mayor of Arleux, France, a town that holds an annual tribute to garlic. More details in the book!

Trivia: What was Gilroy’s original name? First correct commenter online wins a $10 gift card to First Street Coffee. Happy New Year!

Erika Mailman is the author of two historical novels. Her most recent, The Witch’s Trinity, was a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book and a Bram Stoker Award finalist.

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