A Beloved Martinez Restaurant for over Thirty Years
By Deborah Zamaria
May 2017 Martinez Historical Society Newsletter
In 1971, when Marsha Davis was in her twenties, she interviewed a woman by the name of Geneva Spriggs. Marsha had lived in Martinez all of her life and had fond memories of her neighborhood when she was a little girl. Many of those memories involved Mrs. Spriggs. Marsha was attending college at the time of the interview and had a love of history, so this was a perfect opportunity to use her skills and record the story of this lovely woman.
This article is adapted from the 1971 interview. The transcript of the interview and the tapes are now housed at the Martinez museum. I’ve summarized and paraphrased some of the more salient points and included information from the Martinez News-Gazette (July 31, 1979), but encourage anyone who is interested to go to the museum and see the original documents. —dz
Geneva Spriggs was an African American woman who arrived in Martinez in the late 1920s all the way from Texas. She was born in Pineapple, Alabama on July 25, 1889 to Laura Brooks Williams and Winsor Williams. Her parents separated when she was very young and her mother took her to Marlin, Texas, near the Brazos River, where Geneva’s maternal grandmother, Hannah Ball, had worked on a farm as a slave.
Geneva’s childhood days were spent on the farm in Marlin watching her grandmother make her own bread, churn the buttermilk and cook vegetables in a fireplace. The family rented a one-room house that had one bed with a straw mattress.
Out of necessity, the grandmother was well versed in the practice of using herbs and available ingredients to cure a variety of ailments. Geneva remembered her grandmother cutting the bark off of a pine tree to get the sap, which she then heated and put in a glass of warm water. Drinking this elixir had wonderful results for the common cold.
As a little girl, Geneva was caught in a “twister” (literally). Her mother had warned her to take cover, but Geneva was distracted by the whirling objects. Her uncle ran and caught her as her feet left the ground.
Although she only made it through the third grade due to a vigorous work schedule alongside her mother and grandmother, she had a good business sense and was a wonderful cook, and these attributes served her well later in life.
She married in 1918 and came by train in 1928 to Vallejo, following her husband, Sylvester Spriggs, who had taken a job at the Mare Island shipyard. Soon after, they moved into Martinez, where they set up a boarding house. Geneva remembered the move: “I came across from Vallejo on the boat carrying my things and leading our cow and calf on the boat and on through town.”
The young couple initially rented a house on Escobar next door to a winery and a Chinese laundry, but eventually bought a house on Castro Street.
While on Escobar, Geneva served boxed lunches and dinners to the men working on the Shell tanks who roomed at the boarding house.
Sylvester Spriggs had several men working under him in a janitorial business. However, although he had served in both the Army and the Navy, he suffered most of his life from depression, even undergoing a lobotomy in Alviso, Texas before moving to California. His last years were spent at Agnews State Hospital in Santa Clara, undergoing electro-shock therapy. Geneva would visit him every weekend, getting a ride from a close friend and neighbor. He died November 12, 1941 and is buried in the military cemetery in San Bruno.
Sylvester had the idea of starting a restaurant. On Easter Sunday in 1930, he and Geneva served the first of many meals at their new establishment, Spriggs Place. They had rented out their Castro Street home and bought a two-story building on the corner of Blum Road (then called Warehouse Road) and Pacheco Boulevard which had formerly been an eating establishment. They moved into the top floor and readied the bottom story for the opening. Their friendships created in town gave them much of their future clientele. Geneva did all of the cooking, and during the war years, it was not uncommon to serve three hundred people in one night.
The menu for Spriggs Place was hearty and the 32 tables were decorated daily with fresh flowers. One could choose chicken as well as three varieties of steak. Ham and turkey were also offered and, of course, fresh biscuits with honey. In one evening 25 or 30 pounds of chicken could be served. Many people in Contra Costa County raised chickens for the Spriggs. Geneva deep-fried her chicken in lard, and her biscuits, although they contained the usual flour, salt, baking powder, and milk, were made with leaf lard and were by all accounts some of the most fluffy and moist in the county. (Leaf lard is rendered from the soft fat around the kidneys and loin of a pig. Because it doesn’t have much pork flavor, it is great for pie crusts and other flaky baked goods.) Geneva would roll out the dough and use a biscuit cutter to make dozens at a time.
The fame of the Spriggs’ restaurant spread virtually around the world during World War II, when the family catered to hundreds of servicemen who in their travels told others, “If you ever go to Martinez, California, be sure to have dinner at Spriggs.’”
Spriggs Place stood for nearly 30 years but the building was eventually condemned in 1960, to make way for the “new highway” (Interstate 680). A new little house was erected behind the restaurant and Geneva lived out her days there.
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160