In 2001, John Lee’s random act of searching the Internet for name of the family for which their street is named, ‘VESSING”, gave rise to the e-mail address of one of the ‘twigs’ of the Vessing family tree. After several pleasant interchanges, several family members attended the annual ‘block party’ at the original Vessing ranch house and left behind a plethora of photos, stories and family obituary notices.
John has consolidated the stories, tales and conducted some research at the County Recorder’s office. And there has been added to this history more than a dash of Valle Jo Whitfield’s definitive research into the history of Pleasant Hill.
The Vessings trace their ancestry back to Germany and are among the influx of immigrants to the United States in the 1830’s. After a generation in New York, two Vessing brothers emigrated to California in the late 1800’s. Each had named their sons for each other, causing the creator of family trees no end of confusion. Enoch lived in Oakland while Henry settled in Saratoga. Both eventually had streets with their surname in Pleasant Hill and Saratoga California Of particular interest to us is Henry F. Vessing who was born in Brooklyn in 1871 and came to California with his father Enoch and mother Annie at the age of 9 or so. We know little of his growing up time until at the ripe old age of 28 he married Ardine Margaret Hack. According to relatives, he ran a business in Oakland called “H-F Vessing Tea and Coffee” until at least 1910. CLICK>
Roots in Pleasant Hill
The Vessings came to Contra Costa County in 1908, when Henry Vessing’s mother, Annie Vessing, purchased 16.38 acres in what was to become the southern end of the City of Pleasant Hill. This plot was purchased from the Putnam family and is essentially the same as that which was subdivided in 1951. A map dated about that time indicates that Penniman, Putnam, Rogers, Hook and Larkey were the major property owners in the area at the time.
How the Vessings came to this area is still being researched. There must have been a prior connection to the Putnams, because Annie purchased the property in her name alone for $10 in gold coin and immediately Grace Putnam, herself, took back a mortgage. At $.75 an acre, it was a token payment even then. And her husband was still alive, so what of community property? Was it that Annie's daughter Frances Vessing was engaged to Grace Putnam's son Blalock? He would have been 20 at the time and Frances 22. But they did not marry until 2 years later.
Henry Vessing’s obituary reports that he had lived in Pleasant Hill for 42 Years, making his arrival in the area about 1912. It is surmised that the original Vessing farm house was built between 1908 and 1912 and maybe even used as a “summer house” much like one would own a second vacation home in Tahoe. The family reports that Henry sold the Oakland house in 1911, making the dates fit pretty well.
Annie Vessing deeded the property to Henry for $10 in gold coin in February of 1913 (again, a token payment). It is unclear as to where Henry worked between moving to Pleasant Hill in 1911 and February of 1918 when he started delivering mail for the Concord Post Office. He was listed as a farmer in a 1914 business directory. Could a life as a full time farmer have been difficult even then, forcing Henry to take a side job delivering mail? He may have even “commuted” to Oakland on the new interurban trolley operated by the Sacramento Northern Railroad while managing his Tea and Coffee business.
A Country Outing
An all inclusive family photo was reported to have been taken in 1901 and is known as the “stump photo”. Could be a weekend outing to scout property to use for weekend outings? Is this where Francis met her husband-to-be? The Vessing family is in possession of several photos from the stump although the story of its origins have not been passed down.
Vessing Family 1901 Left to Right: Enoch Vessing; Eme Vessing (Berwick); Fred Vessing Wetmore;
Minnie Vessing Wetmore; Frances Wetmore (Hallmeyer); Etta Vessing (Hughes); Henry Vessing holding
Gladys Vessing; Annie Vessing (Slankar); Ardine Hack Vessing; Annie Seiker Vessing; Frances Vessing
According to Valle Jo Whitfield, famed historian of Pleasant Hill, a school house at the site just North of the current elementary school was used from 1892 until 1912. A new schoolhouse was built on Vessing property in 1912 in an area shaded by Eucalyptus trees. The picture to the left shows Henry and Ardine’s daughter, Galdys, attending the school in 1913. So obviously, the Vessings must have moved to the “country” prior to this picture. There is a large, old stand of eucalyptus trees at the Southern end of the current school yard which easily appear to be over 100 years old. In this picture Gladys is standing next to her very best friend, Bernice Putnam. Family stories relate that Bernice was blinded as a teenager by watching an eclipse without proper eye protection. She fell in love and married with Charlie Beatty who owned the Geary Road Service station at the corner of Larkey Lane.
Here we have a family photo of Ardine Vessing, third from the left at Doll's Day in June of 1915. She was 8 years old in this picture.
According to Valle Jo, the school was expanded in 1917 and then abandoned for a new school build back on the original school site in 1920. That still stands as the “Old School House”. The “expansion” appears to be the portion of the old school that was subsequently moved to the Vessing property. After Enoch died in 1910, his widow Annie lived with her daughter Eme in Henry’s older home at 839 37th street in Oakland at least until 1919. Henry must have introduced his sister to a co-worker, Bob Berwick.
Bob was a war orphan and we are not sure how he came to Contra Costa County. He started out delivering the mail with a horse-drawn cart. Bob's dashing picture with his ‘Mail Harley’ is in the Pleasant Hill Museum. Bob married Eme and must have taken over old school building as their home around 1920 when it was abandon in favor of a new building on the original site. There is some thought that the schoolhouse was moved to the current site, either by dismantling and reassembly or jacking and drayage.
Eme’s mother, Annie Vessing’s obituary states she had lived in the area for 21 years, giving credibility to moving into the relocated home in 1920. A deed of gift is recorded in December 1930 to Annie from Henry for a small piece of property on the farm. Annie in turn deeded this property to Eme Berwick alone in 1938, 4 years before her death.
The 20’s and 30’s
Yvonne Clark, granddaughter of Henry Vessing, is in possession of letters from Henry in the summer of 1919 indicating it’s tough to make a living on $60 per month delivering mail. He planned to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary driving to Tahoe (a two day trip back then). The depression must have been difficult for the Vessings as there are several property transactions and mortgages in 1932. But it was also tough for many of the other farmers in Pleasant Hill, there being many tales of tough times with the Hook Family, once the biggest farming families in the area.
Henry retired from the post Office in 1936 after an 18 year career. He had suffered a stroke according to family notes. This picture from his great granddaughter shows Henry with his daughters on Glady's porch in Placerville about 1949.
Ardine Vessing, died in 1941 in Mills Creek at their summer home near Mt. Lassen. Her obituary indicated she had lived in Pleasant Hill for 30 years, giving credence to the 1912 arrival of the family in Pleasant Hill. The Vessing home went through several changes from it’s initial small footprint during this period. The original house was about 960 square feet on two floors.
A bathroom was added as a bump out to the west side of the home when indoor plumbing was available. We often forget that a “necessary house” was often placed a suitable distance from the living space and surely was the case when the home was built. The family room / kitchen was added to the North – most probably in the mid 30’s based on construction techniques employed (old left overs). The home was also stucco’d with a thick layer covering the three tab clapboard siding.
A grant geed to PG&E (ne้ Great Western Power) would indicate electrification of the home in 1932. And those same power poles are standing in the back yards of homes on the East side of Vessing Road. A testament to the power of creosote!
Pleasant Hill ‘boomed’ in the 50’s with several large subdivision – catering to the post WW 2 families. The Vessings also decided it was time to sell off the property to the developers. In preparation to divide the property, a plot he owned North of the original plot was sold to the School district and now serves as a soccer and ball field maintained by Park and Recreation. The Country Gardens subdivision was dated in May of 1950 and shows that Henry carved out a desirable piece of property bounded by the arroyo which was a part of Murderous Creek.
The Berwicks were also left with a large lot from the original farm. The entire subdivision was made from the original 16 acre farm and ended at the school property, bounded by the middle fork of Murderous Creek. There were 50 homes build in the subdivision and the base model sold for about $10,000. There were only two models, left and right. The naming of Vita and Diana Courts off of Vessing Road still remains a mystery and may have been daughters of the developer / builder.
Here is an aerial photo from a friend's piper cub about 1953 or so. Not too many trees!
The Vessing house was moved from it’s original location to the lot carved out from the original lot to the west of the creek. That was easier than placing a culvert and adding two more street courts. The house was jacked up and moved by Trost and Son Movers. Marian Gibson, niece of Henry Vessing, reported that the current family room ‘fell off’ when the house came over the creek. The movers had to stop and rectify the problem before continuing.
The home was put on a new foundation at the current location. Here is a photo of Dick and Yvonne Clark who are standing in front of the home just after it was moved.
Henry continued to live in the home until his death in 1954. His family cared for him and several relatives reported calling the upstairs bedroom “theirs”. He had been incapacitated by a stroke, perhaps as early as 1935.
The home was sold in 1958, a few years after Henry died for the grand sum of $11,000. The new owner was Terry and Lavern McLeod. Terry was a building inspector for the City of Walnut Creek and a local historical society had this picture of him holding a year's worth of permits in the Fall of 1959.
According to the family and next owner, the old farmhouse fall into disrepair. Weeds almost took over the acreage and it became impossible to traverse the length of the lot.
The 60’s and 70’s
The Berwick family continued to live in their home at 3014 until the death of Eme sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s. The property was further subdivided during this time with a lot to the North and one to the West. Still another lot was carved out from the front in about 1980.
Jerry and Kay Mandel purchased the original Vessing home at 2979 in 1962 for $16,000 and devoted much of their efforts to improving the yard by clearing the overgrowth and planting many trees. The also replaced the rickety wooden bridge across the creek with a concrete culvert that will last as long as the pyramids. A neighbor, Ralph Way, assisted in this effort. The Mandels sold the home and moved to Las Vegas, having returned for a brief visit only once. But Jerry did find this Website and contributed a bit to the history via e-mail.
John and Jo-Ann Lee purchased the home in March of 1970 and moved in with their 4 month old daughter, Catharine. John had just been transferred to the then new Exxon Refinery in Benicia. They had sold their 1880 Victorian summer home in New Jersey and wanted to trade up for something more modern. The Vessing home was the first and only home they saw in California – a case of love at first sight for Jo-Ann. It was a stretch to purchase the home as the house payments were going to increase by 20% - from $150 to $180!!
One of the first big expenditures on what was to become ‘this old house’ was a new sewer line out to the West to Hillsdale Road. As a part of the project, John recalls that at lunchtime, the clerk at the Central Sanitary District was more interested in eating than finding out if the equalization fees had been paid. A trip to the microfiche in the basement always takes second place to a bologna sandwich. A family report indicated that Henry Vessing was against paying the sewer fees – so it is unlikely that equalization was indeed done. He probably was rankled that Central Sanitary district commandeered an easement across the north end of the property in 1948 to service the new development at Barnett Circle.
Peter Lee was born in 1972, at which time the kitchen was remodeled in earnest. Just one electrical plug in the corner was not enough for the growing family. This was the first of 3 major efforts done by the Lees.
The creek was first used to irrigate the property starting in 1975 under the ‘Pleasant Hill Water Project’ which continues to be improved annually until this day. Improvement over time include a second pump and a programmable logic controller. The next year the living room was redone with a new fireplace incorporating a mantle from a home in Oakland build about 1903. Floors were redone in oak at this time as well.
A tankhouse was common for early California farms and many can be seen in Napa and around Fremont. A structure to hold a water tank high enough to flow into the house was built next to the well. It was a small chore to slap on some cheap redwood siding – and then you had a storage shed. The tank was then enclosed to keep out leaves as well as protect the redwood tank from the severity of the intense California sun.
There was probably a tankhouse on the Vessing Farm, but it probably went to the dump during subdivision – almost the same fate as the Bonne Road tankhouse It was dismantled in a week by John alone. He recalls that he called in “markers” from all the friends he had helped move in the prior 5 years and the gang moved everything to 4 piles on the South end of the yard. North South East and West. The structure was then rebuild over a period of the next two years. An old pencil mark found in the top, inside indicated a date of 1927. But that was just the top cover which appears to have been added to protect the redwood tank. The windmill did not come with the Tankhouse, the original one sold by the previous owner. After 3 years of “putting the word out”, John was able to purchase a circa 1930’s Aermotor from a farm in Napa. It’s a model 600 which they stopped making in the 30’s – switching to the 700 series which continued through the 1990’s.
John hand-dug a well 75 feet (it gets deeper with each telling) deep at the base of the windmill in 1986 (having nothing better to do?). Just wait until the next drought. Speaking of droughts, it was the great drought of 1976 which led to the demise of all but one of the great English walnut trees from the original farming activity.
Stories of Murderous Creek
The Creek running through the Vessing Property made subdivision in 1950 very difficult. There are two branches on the property – the larger being the one along the north end of the property.
The creek was subject to some significant flooding in both 1954 and April, 1958. The inability of Grayson and Walnut creek to handle all the water led to the Army Corps of engineers “solving the problem” with a series of large ditches for the main channels. There was a move afoot in 1985 to put all of Murderous Creek in large pipes whose smooth bore could easily handle a 100 year rainfall. Residents of Vessing Road helped form “Friends of Creeks in Urban Settings” (FOCUS) which led to a much downsized scope of planned improvements for Drainage area 46.
Now just a bypass from Murderous Creek at Oak Park to a retention basin at the old High School area would be needed. And that has been in the planning for years just in case some "free money" from the Federal government comes along. And indeed it is needed. In late 1996 there was some flooding along the Poet’s Corner area when Murderous Creek jumped its bank at Oak Park Boulevard. The City of Pleasant Hills’ solution was to clean up the creek of old debris so that it could flow faster!
An edict for property owners to cut back trees and remove old shopping carts was met as a fun challenge by the Vessing Neighborhood. A work party was formed and worked all day to cut back and remove growth from the intersection with the main branch of the Creek at the school all the way to the sewer pipe at Hillsdale. Many hands make for a fast job, and a full load was gathered for the Pleasant Hill Bayshore garbage truck.
The creek wasn't always known as "Murderer's Creek." Historically, "murderer's" is inaccurate, and until 1852, the creek had no name. In 1844, a former Irish sailor named William Welch was granted 13,000 acres of land between Arroyo del Hambre (Alhambra Creek) and the Arroyo de las Nueces (Walnut Creek). The name, Las Juntas, referred to the junction of the two streams. Welch died two years later and his heirs petitioned for the division of his estate, prompting the probate court to call for a survey of the land. That was completed in August 1852.
During that survey, however, the body of a brown-skinned man was found hanging from a mature oak tree alongside a small steam. The surveyors called the hanging, 'murderous,' and they wrote the word on their surveyors' map and the final plot maps. A popular account, which Vallie Jo Whitfield claims may have some credibility, is that the man probably was a local vaquero who was hanged for stealing horses. Around the time of the body's discovery, there was a report that a man had been found stealing horses in the region and was hanged. The tree would have been somewhere south and west of Withers Road, along the rancho boundary line. Although Whitfield and the Lee’s continued to refer to the creek by its historic name, they were among the few who still do. Over the years, "murderous" has gradually changed to "murderer's." But the residents whose homes have been ruined over the years by the creek's flood-waters would probably agree "Murderous" Creek is more appropriate. .
The 80’s and 90’s
The Berwick property was subdivided once again and the last of the ‘new homes’ built on Vessing Road by the then owner of the old Berwick home, Rod Verrup.
In 1981, Catharine Lee was screaming towards the teen years and John built a second bathroom upstairs to preserve the peace. Again, a bump out on top of the first bump out. The kitchen went through another remodeling in 1982. In 1983, the South Yard underwent a major transformation with grading, clearing and construction of the current carport.
In 1990, the old creek bed to the North of the house was cleared of all the old trash and ashes and turned into a pond, fed by a siphon from the South end of the yard.
During this period, the South end of the yard gave up it’s garden role and became a dirt bike track and then a driver training ground. Peter Lee and his friends ‘finished’ the tank house and turned the third floor into a prime spot for their garage band. A painting done by an artistic (but not musically inclined friend) has now become an “urban legend” about the ghost of Vessing Road.
The Lee children moved out in the late 1990’s and their rooms were converted to other uses – a guest room and an office. John retired from Exxon in 1999 and immediately started his ‘honey do’ list by refurbishing both bathrooms and still another revamp of the Family room / kitchen.
The tradition of a neighborhood party was started once more in 2000 with the entire block being invited to join in a picnic at the old Vessing plot. Now an annual event, it expands each year to bring in a few more neighbors from Hillsdale and Bonnie Lane.
Annual Neighborhood gathering 2003
In 2001, John did a major revamp of the old shed which according to Vessing relatives had served as a garage for ‘Lizzie’ – Henry’s model T. It too had been moved from the old lot to the new one in 1950. The roofing was galvanized sheet metal and had finally rusted to the point that the squirrels were falling through the weak spots. So a new roof structure was made by raising the gable ends with old siding from the North end. With the addition of a cupola, it was renamed “the barn’ and now serves as a woodshop. Flooring is still wooden, taking on a patchwork quilt appearance as repairs and replacements are made. See for John's Web page for more info: Barn Rebuild
The first major revision to the exterior of the home was the revamp of the side porch in 2003. The original entrance was defined by a long drive on the farm ending at the South side of the house. That approach was modified only slightly when the house was moved to the current location. Trees were planted and one was forced to approach the South side of the house again. With the addition of the carport closer to the house, the entrance actually move to the East side, although no door was readily visible. After much consultation with neighborhood design experts, the porch rails and steps were changed to better define an approach to the house. The "Before and After" pictures even made the Contra Costa Times Home and Garden Section.
Again, in this electronic age, see the whole construction story at: Porch 2002 to 2007 .
The 10’s in the New Millennium
The late 2000's were quiet for major
interior home repairs or activities. But in 2012 a big improvement was full
home air conditioning and heat! We figure the History of Heat
for the Vessing Home started with a wood burning stove in the kitchen.
We had seen signs of a plastered up vent in the downstairs hall wall.
When the Family Room / Kitchen addition was done in the 30's, there was
a fireplace in that room. Not sure about the hall heater.
When the home was moved to the current location, the Family room
fireplace was plastered up and a gas floor heater like those installed
in the new homes was put in place of the old stove and vented through
the old chimney. That just had an off on key to modulate the heat
to the home. When the Lees moved in 1970, one of the first orders of
business was to install a thermostat. John found and old, dust gas
in the corner, in the back of the great (and now long gone) Fred
Kelleway Hardware Store.
But in 2012, on to a new system - A big, high efficiency hot water heater provides lost of hot water water to a coil in a air handler. A NEST thermostat is provided for control and it has more computing power than the system on the Moon Mission for Apollo 11.
In 2012 the 'Best Parlor' was painted and redecorated. New bedroom furniture was purchased so that the Lees did not have to climb stairs anymore. Just planning ahead.
A new pond and and yard work to the
north of the house was planned in 2012 and brought to fruition in 2013.
If you look at the subdivision map, you can see that on the north side
of the property, the creek was
To Be Continued ....