Hemme Avenue, off Danville Boulevard in Alamo, is a busy thoroughfare -- and it's about the only thing that calls to mind one of the richest men in Contra Costa County in the 19th century. He was a generous man who donated land for the community's church as well as its first school. He also led the fight to get a railroad to bring San Ramon Valley produce to market.

Prussian-born August Hemme came to the United States in 1846 only because he failed to get into the Hanover Military Academy in Prussia. He was 13 years old.

The move proved to be a good one.

His older brother had arrived in New York a year earlier, and by 1846 he had his own store. He wrote back to his family that America was the land of opportunity. His letters to August were filled with the delights of his adopted country.

August worked in his brother's store for three years. Then came the news that gold had been discovered in California. Still a teenager, he was on his way to California.

It turned out that hunting for gold was a lot harder than Hemme expected. It was not a sure way to make a fortune.

He discovered he could make more money buying cattle in the Santa Clara Valley, then driving them up to the mining country and selling them. He must have made more than a few dollars in the cattle business, because by 1852 he bought 3,000 acres in the San Ramon Valley. And he wasn't even 20 years old.


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In 1856, he married a neighbor, Minerva Elizabeth Ish. For the next five years, the couple worked their farm and prospered. Hemme sold his San Ramon Valley ranch in 1863 and went into business with Charles Reihn, of San Francisco. The two ran Reihn, Hemme & Co., one of the bigger gold-assaying firms in the city. They also bought and sold bullion and gold dust.

Hemme must have made a lot of money this time, because he gave a lot of it away, including $100,000 to the tabernacle in San Francisco.

When Hemme retired from the gold business, he went back to the San Ramon Valley and bought back his old ranch home.

"A gem of architectural beauty surrounded on every hand with a wealth of verdure," wrote J.P. Munro-Fraser in the 1882 "History of Contra Costa County."

All went well for a while; starting in 1892, however, Hemme began defaulting on his loans. It was a bad time for farmers all over the country. A year later, the stock market crashed, 600 banks closed and 74 railroads went bankrupt nationwide.

Simon Blum, the Martinez merchant who had lent Hemme $1,300, went to his ranch and attached his horses, two family carriages, farm equipment, mules and 5 tons of hay. Elizabeth Rogers held a $3,000 note on the Hemme farm. When he failed to pay, she sued to foreclose.

Seeing no way out, Hemme declared bankruptcy in 1898. He and Minerva moved to Berkeley to live with their children. Hemme died in 1904.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.