The Upham Family of Alhambra Valley
By Rich Sandvick
This article is based on notes for a lecture given at the Martinez Senior Community center on October 13, 2006
Published in the Martinez Historical Society News Letter March 2007
The year is 1889. The Columbia Phonograph is developed. The first issue of the Wall Street Journal is published. President Grover Cleveland signs a bill admitting North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington as states to the union. Last but not least Bradford Hervey Upham and his wife Gertrude buy land in Alhambra Valley to grow grapes and start a winery.
Bradford was born in 1843 in Vermont and came to California in 1870. He had some experience in the wine business in Chicago in his early days but in California he first made his money in the stationery business. He met Gertrude Ryder of San Francisco in the mid-1870s and they married in 1876. Gertrude, originally from New York City, came to California at the age of 16 with her parents, crossing the Isthmus of Panama before the canal was built. By 1889 the Uphams had three children: Fredrick (Fred), George and Elsa.
Bradford and Gertrude visited Contra Costa County for the first time in 1874. Starting in 1885, for four successive years they camped during the summer on a friend’s ranch in Alhambra Valley. During that time Bradford learned of the diversity of the county’s climate, soil, landscape, and water distribution. In 1889, with the help of his father-in-law, Bradford purchased 400 acres of the “best land in the Alhambra Valley.” He was now ready to plant grapes and start up a winery.
He had one problem: He purchased his root stock from the wrong man in the wrong place. On February 4th his neighbors, signing themselves “Vineyardists,” wrote to him that he had “bought and rooted here, rooted vines grown in Napa County a place so infested in that dreaded scourge, the Phylloxera” and advising him to “have them burned root and branch.” The next day Bradford’s father-in-law wrote to him with a similar concern. The educator John Swett, who with his son Frank was growing grapes in Alhambra Valley, had visited him after speaking with other growers: Henry Raap, who had 68 acres and 20 varieties of grapes and John Muir, the naturalist, who had 100 acres of grapes. Eventually Bradford got the right root stock and planted his vineyard, built a winery, and began selling his products. He was so successful that in 1897 he was asked to contribute an article to a special, promotional edition of the Contra Costa News.
Bradford named his vineyards Loma Vista (Hillview) and Glorieta, and the ranch became known as the Glorieta Ranch. The grapes he grew were selected varieties of European vines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Southern France, Italian, and Hungarian types. Most of these had proved to be ideal in the soil and climate of Alhambra Valley.
He was also able to develop two springs on the property. He maintained a reservoir varying in size from 2 – 11 feet in depth and 10 – 30 feet in width holding about 300,000 gallons, and never running dry. He stocked it with trout.
All three children attended the one-room school called Alhambra Valley School, where Bradford served as a trustee on the school board beginning in 1890 and also as the clerk.
Bradford died suddenly, on July 30, 1898, only nine years after fulfilling his dream of running a successful vineyard and winery business. The operation of the ranch now fell into the hands of his wife and their children, who were ages 21- 17, and 15 at the time. Bradford’s long-range plan had been to send his sons to Heald Business College in San Francisco to learn how to keep the books. In 1897 Fred, the oldest, did attend the college and George was soon to follow, but Gertrude soon learned that she needed her sons more then they needed to go to business school. There was also a problem of money.
After the brothers came home they began to plant apple and other fruit trees, and in 1905 they incorporated the “Upham Brothers Cider Mill,” with George as president and manager, Fred as vice-president and treasurer, and sister Elsa as secretary. They also got the bright idea of damming the Arroyo del Hambre creek where it flowed through the property, installing diving platforms and starting a swimming club. Their idea became reality around 1903. Fred engineered the design and both brothers worked alongside hired labors. It took six weeks between ranching duties to complete. The final dimensions of the pool were 12 foot by 30 feet. The brother’s organized the Glorieta Swimming Club with 22 members. My mother said she remembers her father knowing a lot of the “young blades” in the valley and all of them belonged to the club. The pool had it’s hard times: There was a flood in 1904 that silted it up, and the 1906 earthquake caused a landslide and damaged some of the timbers like toothpicks.
On June 17, 1908 George married his sweetheart LuLu Pieratt. He built a home for her on the property and it still stands today. Also in 1908, George and Fred built a larger cider mill and packing house to process their growing supply of apples.
George and LuLu had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood: my mother Georgene, Oliver, Genevieve, and Hervey. My mother tells of growing up on the ranch and watching the transition from vineyard to apple orchards. The Uphams made apple cider and apple cider vinegar and had an experimental orchard for grafting. By 1917 they were producing 4,000 gallons of pure apple cider and 26,000 gallons of vinegar annually. They held an annual cider party for the valley children, and there were tales of children getting “collywobbles” for a day or two from drinking all the cider.
Besides running the business, George served as a trustee for the local school district, like his father, and he had a county job. He was active in his lodge of Native Sons of the Golden West. He was the county exhibitor for Country Costa and organized agricultural exhibits at the county fair.
However in the 1920’s the cider mill was not meeting costs. The Depression that was to hit the country hit farmers first and the Uphams lost the ranch in 1924. George moved his family to Brentwood and got a job as secretary and manager of the East Contra Costa Chamber of Commerce, where he worked to promote agriculture. He came up with the idea of a Diablo Valley Apricot Festival in 1926 and was in charge of publicity for it in 1927.
Subsequent moves took the Uphams away from the area, but their influence on the valley remains. They left a legacy of leadership and service to the community of Alhambra Valley. On the occasion of George and LuLu’s 50th wedding anniversary, Frank Swett wrote”
“My dear old friends. Here’s wishing you many more happy years. I’m thinking over the old days of Alhambra Valley and the many good times that George and Mrs. George accomplished for the good of Alhambra community. Once upon a time this little valley had no telephone. George installed communication on fence wires, primitive but effective – a good deed. There was no place to swim, no pool. So you organized the Alhambra Swimming Club, dammed the creek, and youngsters came from far and near. Another good deed. A great neighborly club. There was no community social center. So George and Mrs. George got busy, got their neighbors to cooperate and lo and behold it wasn’t many months till there arose a hall for the community and the newly organized Farm Center – Still another good deed. The two George Uphams were and are real leaders in fine community leadership. We felt the loss when they left our little valley and flew North. But Contra Costa’s loss has been Napa’s gain. Good luck to you and yours.
Frank T. Swett