Sidewalk makers: Blake & Bilger

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. Since the firm only existed from 1904 to 1914, that’s the theoretically possible date range. 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.

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