Sidewalk makers: Blake & Bilger

17 June 2018

The enterprises run by Frank W. Bilger (1868-1950) left a large stamp in Oakland and beyond; Blake & Bilger was just one of them. James Guinn, in his 1907 history of Alameda County, said of Bilger, “With truth he may be called the pioneer road builder of Oakland and vicinity.”

Frank William Bilger was born to Guilielmus “William” and Pauline (Hauser) Bilger in Willow Springs, Oregon and raised in San Francisco. He earned a degree in pharmacy from UC Berkeley in 1889. Joseph Baker’s 1914 history of Alameda County recounts what came next: “Pending his intended entrance into the Cooper Medical College, he secured a position as collector for the Oakland Paving Company and, becoming interested in this line of work, rose rapidly to the position of bookkeeper. On the death of one of the owners he was elected a member of the board of trustees and later was made secretary, treasurer and general manager. He is now president of the company, which position his initiative spirit and executive ability make him eminently qualified to fill.” Guinn noted that Bilger’s grandfather was a prosperous quarry operator in Germany. (That’s also why his name should be pronounced with a hard “G”.)

The oldest surviving sidewalk stamps from Oakland Paving Company — excuse me, The Oakland Paving Co. — are from 1902.

At the time the company had at least two stamps — one of them with the N’s backward.

The company switched to its classic inverted triangle stamp starting in 1910. The great bulk of its surviving work, from 1910 to 1918, is in North Oakland and includes larger items like street corners. An outlier of 1927 marks is scattered around lower Broadway Terrace.

In 1904 Bilger founded Blake & Bilger with Anson S. Blake, whom he knew from Oakland Paving, and Anson’s brother Edwin. More about Blake later.

Frank Bilger was an uncommonly energetic man. Besides holding multiple high positions in both Oakland Paving and Blake & Bilger, he was an early president of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and president of the Harbor Bank. He was also an accomplished magician, the tenth member of the Society of American Magicians. He sold his stake in Blake & Bilger in 1914 and ran for mayor the next year with a Republican platform of “good government and lower taxes,” losing in a landslide to John L. Davie.

A campaign photo of Bilger’s family showed his four children with his wife, the former Carolyn Siebe. A newspaper photo from 1926 showed him still at the helm of Oakland Paving. The family lived at 407 Vernon Street. Bilger appears to have remarried a couple of times after a divorce. In the 1940s he was living in the Athens Athletic Club building. By the time he died, Bilger was remembered by the Tribune as the first Potentate of the Alameda County Shriners chapter.

Anson Stiles Blake (1870-1959) was the son of a Forty-Niner, Oakland Paving’s president Charles T. Blake (1826-1897), and both Blakes were also involved with Bay Rock Company. Young Blake became president of Oakland Paving in 1909, but then sold out his position to Frank Bilger in 1914, retiring from Blake & Bilger at the same time. He lived at 2231 Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley with his wife Anita (Symmes) and a changing cast of relatives and servants.

Blake & Bilger sidewalk stamps are rare today, and even more rarely dated. I’ve found examples from 1906 to 1908, plus a 1910 mark from Berkeley.

Anson and Edwin Tyler Blake (1875-1948) took over the firm as Blake Brothers Company, general contractors, with operations in Richmond. They never stamped sidewalks again, at least not in Oakland. Anson Blake was also the head of the San Francisco Quarries Company, with operations in Richmond and Marin County. He was involved with the University YMCA for over 50 years — Stiles Hall was named for his grandfather — and in the late 1940s he headed the California Historical Society. At the time of his death he lived in Kensington and was noted in the Tribune as having been “active in the Society of California Pioneers, the Save the Redwoods League, the California Academy of Sciences, Friends of the Bancroft Library and numerous other organizations.”

Both of Bilger’s companies were centered around the supply of crushed stone from the large quarry at Broadway and Pleasant Valley Avenue. Active from the late 1860s to 1945, it was for many years the largest rock quarry in Alameda County.

Blake is buried in El Cerrito. Bilger was cremated in a Masonic ceremony, but I have no info on his burial place.

2006 – B. R. Concrete (and Robin Hood)

16 May 2018

42 Calvert Place, Piedmont

Yesterday I finished surveying the last bit of Piedmont, the Appendix to my survey of Oakland, and so with this final sidewalk stamp my survey is complete.

I will not undertake to survey Emeryville, Berkeley or San Leandro. However, I’ll be keeping my eyes on the ground at all times and places for various reasons. One is to scavenge any missing dates of Oakland sidewalk makers. Another is to determine answers to some nagging questions that didn’t occur to me until I was well into my survey, so there are reasons to stay alert even in territory I’ve already covered. And, of course, I’ll continue to document new stamps as they appear in years yet to come.

I’ll also stay active in researching the different sidewalk makers. I feel like I’ve barely begun that part, although I’ve published 33 “Profiles” of them so far. It involves searching genealogies and old newspapers and directories, mainly. There’s also the whole larger topic of sidewalks as part of Oakland’s history, California’s history and the history of technology.

Part of that research involves you, my readers. The people who made our sidewalks lived here, and many of them have living descendants in the area. Hearing from them in the comments to these posts has been a real joy.

I stopped posting amateur concrete markings a couple years ago, but here’s one from my last outing yesterday that I couldn’t resist, from Blair Avenue in Piedmont.

Signs and signatures like this are persuasive evidence that Piedmont really is part of Oakland. Those of you who remember biology courses may think of Piedmont as an organelle inside Oakland, like the nucleus or the mitochondria of a living cell. As a geologist, I think of Piedmont as an inclusion in the crystal of Oakland. If you’re a geographer, you may think of Piedmont as one of eight enclave cities in California. It’s also a city that managed to trap its natural store of wealth, back in 1907, by avoiding annexation to Oakland. For every stubborn accumulation of wealth, there are Robin Hoods bent upon redistributing it.

This is the kind of mark that the socialist Jack London, who spent time in both Piedmont and Oakland, could have made. That’s part of the energy within and between these two dynamic, fascinating cities.

1980 – Apodaca Bros.

5 May 2018

Park Way at Mesa Avenue, Piedmont

This date is exceedingly rare in Oakland.

1979 – Apodaca Bros.

4 May 2018

15 Crocker Avenue, Piedmont

1970 – Angelo C. Sposeto

3 May 2018

236 Seaview Avenue, Piedmont

This is a new and younger stamp for Angelo Sposeto that extends his record by seven years.

1921 – Riechel & Bredhoff

2 May 2018

18 Mesa Avenue, Piedmont

This version of Riechel & Bredhoff’s stamp has the date on the right rather than in the center.

1916 – J. Catucci

1 May 2018

2506 23rd Avenue

This is a different configuration of the Catucci stamp.