Island City Hosted Vast Collection of Social Clubs

Courtesy  The 1878 Oddfellows Lodge at Santa Clara Avenue and Park Street as it appeared before being replaced with the building that stands there now in 1927.

Island City Hosted Vast Collection of Social Clubs

From the Elks to the Eagles and the Oddfellows to the Masons, social clubs in Alameda left permanent marks on our community. The meeting places of these clubs, many originally restricted to White men only, today comprise some of the most recognizable locations in town. Some clubs still operate. Others have come and gone.

New California residents straggling in after the Gold Rush, or men without families, could find connections in these social clubs founded back east. Many, like the Independent Order of the Oddfellows, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks based their goals on Christian ideas of charity. Others focused on community service, including the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, the Knights of Pythias and the Knights of Columbus. There were Lions, Moose and Optimists.

Still more attempted to appropriate trappings of foreign cultures including The Improved Order of Red Men and the Alameda Highbinders Tong. Some clubs focused on where they originated: from the hyper-local Old El Dorado County Residents to the Scheutzen Turn Verein that maintained European military traditions. The Woodmen of the World, Masons and others brought together men who worked in the same trade.

Speaking of trade, a key reason to gather in Alameda at the beginning of the 20th Century was for increasing commerce. By 1900 Alameda had developed several thriving commercial districts, typically centered around a train station, where plentiful traffic and trade could be expected. Alameda’s business owners offered convenient options to shopping in San Francisco or Oakland just as they do today.

And they formed associations. Fast forward 100 years and as we opened the Alameda Sun in 2001, it was critical our executives joined these business groups to make connections and establish ourselves. The joke was “WABA, GABA, PSBA and the Chamber makes four.”

Four groups, each with their own dues, boards of directors and hundreds of member business owners awaited our sales pitch. I thought four groups was a lot for a small city like Alameda. But there was still the Alameda Business Network, the Alameda Association of Realtors and the list went on.

Delving into Alameda history, I discovered recently that this tradition of localized business groups gathering to further their interests has a strong tradition. I found a November 1911 article in the Alameda Times-Star telling of the Grand Street Station Merchants Association’s 20-course banquet.

Today Grand Street Station’s interests are geographically represented by the Greater Alameda Business Association and the neighborhood features about a half-dozen small businesses. To think this same geographic area played host to such an opulent banquet speaks to the success of the Island City’s small business community in the early part of the 20th Century.

According to the article, “Co-operation is necessary to the success of all modern business enterprises and in carrying out this idea, the Grand Station merchants entertained about 20 of their employees and friends at a 20-course banquet.” Several papers were read in front of the crowd.

The manager of the French Dry Cleaners, Clement Mesple, started the festivities by reading an article “explaining the mysteries of preserving the colors in some delicate fabrics” when dyeing and cleaning.

Next L. A. Lombard who ran Lombard’s Tonsorial Parlors took the stage and spoke about “Sanitation in the Tonsorial Art, Tonics and Cosmetics, Their Origin and Uses.”

Next up, local pharmacist P. E. Mackey of Morgan’s Pharmacy weighed in on “Salesmanship in the Modern Pharmacy and the Value of Trading at Home.” H. D. Morgan himself followed up with a talk on “How to Attract Trade to the Drug Store.” Morgan’s main points were to offer free delivery and to change the shop window displays frequently.

“The banquet was prepared by an expert French chef,” reported the Times-Star. “Escargots, or French snails served ... in shell being the center of attention.”

The group heard last from Frank T. Reeve of Minturn Street. It appears Reeve had much to do with the banquet itself. Dubbed “Baron Franca d’Reva the Snail Catcher,” Reeve explained how easily snails could be raised for the French gourmet. Catching them, however, was “a fast and furious task requiring two men and a hook.”

Eric J. Kos is a historian who has contributed to several titles including Lost San Francisco and Bay Farm Island: A Hidden History of Alameda.