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Days Gone By: You can judge a local history book by its photos
By Nilda Rego   - 08/30/2009

Contra Costa Times

More Info on This Book: Concord

LOCAL HISTORY BOOK authors have been busy lately, judging by the number of books appearing in my mailbox. Especially active are those energetic writers and gatherers of historic photos working with publishing companies that have found a profitable niche in using old photos of ordinary folks to tell local history.

These books include photos of how Main Street used to look. Some streets are filled with horse-drawn carriages, others with Buick touring cars. There are photos of men at their jobs and once in a while, women. Usually there are photos of baseball teams, coronet bands, school children posed with sober-looking teachers and queens of Fourth of July parades.

Turner Publishing of Tennessee recently sent me "Historic Photos of the Chinese in California" by Walnut Creek author Hannah Clayborn. It doesn't quite fit the pattern of other local history books.

The photos and text skillfully tell the story of the Chinese immigrants and their children enduring oppressive discrimination and rising successfully to take their place in American society.

It is a handsome book that covers more than 100 years, with 200 photos starting with Chinese men searching for gold in Placer County in 1852 and ending with the St. Mary's Chinese Girls Drum Corps marching in San Francisco in 1964.

Clayborn says she got interested in the Chinese in California back in her high school years. Born in Oakland, she moved to the almost extinct community of Bloomfield during her teenage years.

It had been the second biggest town in Sonoma County during the age of the stagecoach. But by the time Clayborn got there, it was a ghost town. The railroad had bypassed it.

In researching Bloomfield, Clayborn found evidence of a Chinese community. Old-timers remembered their own parents describing "Chinese workers who lived by the hundreds in shacks or the backrooms and basements of commercial buildings along a Bloomfield street "... still called 'Pigtail Alley.'"

However, not a word had appeared about the Bloomfield Chinese in print, Clayborn says. Finding out about the Chinese, from the time they arrived to 1880, was a frustrating experience, she explains. Photographs had been taken, but documentation was scarce.

But Clayborn had the determination as well as the know-how to extract the information needed to go with the photos.

She has impressive credentials. She has a graduate degree in history, has served as the director of four history museums in the greater Bay Area and published history books and articles on Bloomfield and Healdsburg. She has edited more than 100 pictorial histories of California communities.

Arcadia Publishing has sent me three books in recent months in their "Images of America" series: "Concord," "Pinole" and "San Leandro." All three of these start with the natives who lived in the Bay Area before the Europeans arrived.

Joel Harris, a Concord attorney whose wife, Cherry, owns Clayton Books, took on the task of telling Concord's story in pictures.

"The idea for this book came from the customers of Clayton Books, who so frequently requested a Concord book that I contacted the local history publisher, Arcadia, and negotiated a contract with them to write the book. It was a very interesting project, and I am pleased I took it on," Harris says. He adds the books wouldn't have been possible without the "well-organized collection of the Concord Historical Society" and its volunteers.

The Pinole Historical Society thanked Dr. Joseph Mariotti, whose collection of photographs of the city made the Pinole history book possible.

Cynthia Vrilakas Simons is the author of the San Leandro book. She credits the San Leandro Public Library for many photos in that book. One of her most intriguing chapters is about how at one time so many immigrants of Azorean descent were coming to San Leandro that the town was called the "Portugal Capital of the West." Arcadia's "Images of America" books and the Turner Publishing books can be found online and in local bookstores. The Arcadia books cost $19.95, and the "Historic Photos of the Chinese in California" costs $39.95.

Buy It Now: Concord $21.99

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