Monday, October 02, 2006

A Pocket of History

A Pocket of History -- Cordelia Offers Glimpses Into What Central Solano Used To Be
By Barry Eberling

Old Town Cordelia resident Bob Lockefeer sits next to a portrait of his grandfather Deitrich Glusen who moved to Cordelia in the 1870s to become the town's blacksmith. (Gary Goldsmith/Daily Republic photos)

Editor's note: Solano County in the late 1800s had a half-dozen additional towns trying to become the next Big Thing, only to disappear or enter long twilights.

But these towns are more than colorful stories from the county's Wild West past. Some linger today as peaceful places threatened by subdivisions creeping from nearby cities. Others are remote and all-but-forgotten, yet are still candidates to play in important role in the county's future.

This series is about Solano County towns that disappeared or faded. Today's installment looks at Cordelia.

FAIRFIELD - Small, proud Cordelia is being squeezed by its bigger neighbor.

The town still looks like a remnant from the county's past, with its scattering of homes both grand and humble, lack of sidewalks and, of course, saloon. But Fairfield has crept near on three sides with new businesses and subdivisions. The slick city seems poised to swallow its rustic neighbor.

Those new homes and apartments are visible from Cordelia resident Bob Lockefeer's hillside home. Lockefeer, whose grandfather came to Cordelia in 1870 to start a blacksmith shop, is among those who hope Fairfield keeps its distance.

"I think most of the people feel as myself - what advantage do we have to become part of Fairfield, other than to pay more taxes?" Lockefeer said.

Cordelia has no museum - it has little more than houses, the Cordelia fire house and the Thompson's Corner bar. People such as Lockefeer are the keepers of the town's history. With a smile, he's willing to share what he knows.

"I used to shoot birds and squirrels over there, where they're building houses right now," he said, pointing at the land below his hill.

The reason Fairfield is building all those homes is it started annexing land around Cordelia in 1971 - a huge leap, given that city limits had been about eight miles away. Lockefeer doesn't blame Fairfield for growing that direction. But he clearly wishes things had been different.

"It ruined the opportunity for the people in this community to ever have their own city," Lockefeer said.

Fairfield and Cordelia have had their destinies interwoven since pioneer days. Capt. Robert Waterman, the famous clipper ship captain turned real estate speculator, founded both of them.

Cordelia came first, in the early 1850s, along a slough for shipping agricultural products to market. But rival ship Capt. Josiah Wing founded Suisun City, which proved a better shipping point. Waterman then founded Fairfield next to Suisun City and Cordelia never achieved its promise to become central Solano County's dominant city.

But Cordelia's origin is a convoluted story. Waterman seems to have founded the original Cordelia about a mile to the west of the present town, then founded Bridgeport at the location of the present town. The original Cordelia died and Bridgeport lived, only to take on the name of its predecessor when the U.S Postal Service said California already had a Bridgeport.

Both names had a personal connection to Waterman, though. Cordelia was the name of his wife and Bridgeport the name of her Connecticut hometown.

By the early 1900s, Cordelia had five saloons, a livery stable, a butcher shop, three dance halls and a train station. It had a nearby quarry at Nelson Hill that provided jobs.

Lockefeer's father in 1919 started a garage in a livery stable. By 1921, he had sold enough Red Crown gasoline - the forerunner of Standard - to tear down the stable and construct his own garage, where he sold Model Ts. The Lockefeer garage later became the Cordelia fire house.

Lockefeer, born in 1932, can remember Cordelia at a time when the town had reached its zenith. He remembers riding bikes down the wooden walkway of Studer's saloon, now the Thompson's Corner bar. The noise made people mad enough to throw beer bottles at them.

He and a friend could walk around with a rifle to shoot birds and squirrels. Today, a kid doing that would probably have a SWAT team responding.

"That's how things have changed," Lockefeer said. "That's one of the things I liked about Cordelia when I was a kid."

By 1939, the Lockefeers lived about a mile outside of Cordelia, near what is today the interstates 80 and 680 interchange. But they came to town on June 20 that year to watch Cordelia's own apocalypse, when a fire wiped out virtually the entire business district.

The fire started in the back of the Cordelia Meat Market early that morning. The meat market, the post office, the barber shop, a warehouse and the Southern Pacific passenger depot all were destroyed. The two remaining business buildings were the Studer saloon and the old Lockefeer garage, then owned by the Cordelia Fire Department.

Lockefeer, then a child, sat at the Moiles Hotel and watched the town burn. He can recall how the flames destroyed Siebes general store, which had operated for 60 years. The heat started a fire in the right-hand corner. The fire climbed to the attic, then broke out all over.

"I can see it like the day it happened," Lockefeer said.

Firefighters from Suisun, Rio Vista, Elmira and Benicia came to fight the fire. But a strong west wind thwarted efforts to extinguish the blaze. As Lockefeer noted, there were no fire hydrants then and many of the buildings were made of redwood.

After the fire, Cordelia entered its long twilight. Much of the town was wiped out and much of it was uninsured. The business section never got rebuilt.

"It's never been the same again," Lockefeer said. "No, it hasn't."

Cordelia had a chance to wake from its slumber and become a city in the late 1940s. Would-be developers came up with a plan for homes near Cordelia.

"My father worked with the people in the community," Lockefeer said. "They wanted to get the bylaws of incorporation. My father worked hundreds of hours on that stuff."

But the plan for the homes never worked out and Cordelia continued its slumber.

Meanwhile, others were busy.

The Aster Corp. and Ford Foundation bought 2,400 acres of ranchland near Cordelia in 1968. They liked the location near the intersection of newly built interstates 80 and 680. They laid plans to build a town of 20,000 people to help fill the need for moderately priced Bay Area housing.

Motorists from there could easily reach Napa, the Bay Area and Contra Costa County, making this prime land for development, a spokesman for the new owners said. But he played coy over what nearby city would get to oversee the development, saying the landowners might choose Fairfield or Vallejo.

Cordelia itself wasn't in the running. The town of 100 people had no elected body to govern it, nor the resources to provide water and sewer service. Fairfield annexed the Aster/Ford land for its Cordelia Villages and other developments.

That set in motion events in that area that continue to this day: Fairfield builds and Cordelia remains largely the same, except for the additional traffic that goes through town.

Fairfield Mayor Harry Price said his city has no plans to annex Cordelia.

"I think Old Town is one of those unique areas that should be preserved unto itself," Price said. "I see it remaining as county. It's one of those quaint places that should be preserved, unless the residents decide they want city services."

But that's not to say Fairfield couldn't someday annex Cordelia. City voters in 2003 approved growth boundaries surrounding Fairfield and Cordelia is within those boundaries.

Having Fairfield annex Cordelia makes sense "in the long haul," Supervisor Duane Kromm said. Cordelia for the most part has suburban-style lots and already uses city water and sewer services, he said.

For now, Cordelia remains a time capsule of the county's rural past embraced by a fast-growing, neighboring city.

Next Monday: Elmira

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or

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