When driving down Interstate 880 through East Oakland, you pass a couple of free-standing brick walls. It's like you are driving through a building that has been bisected in the middle.

Well, actually, you are.

Dale Vaccarello asked what I knew about that peculiar-looking part of freeway.

All I knew was that my father worked within those walls when he immigrated here from Italy in 1920. Vaccarello's question started me searching.

The bisected building is part of the old California Cotton Mills, which started in 1883 when William Rutherford, a savvy Scotsman who knew a lot about weaving cloth, came to Oakland and bought 6 acres of land close to rail lines and an estuary of San Francisco Bay.

Rutherford had been working since he was 14, serving as a machine shop apprentice in Glasgow and Dundee in Scotland. He went into the business that had occupied his family for generations: the manufacturing of cloth and twine. In 1875 he immigrated to the United States and traveled through the South studying the cotton industry before opening his Oakland mill.

An 1890 report by John J. Tobin to the state Legislature described Rutherford's mill as a series of eight one-story brick buildings, 400 feet across the front and 300 feet deep.

"A visitor to the mill cannot fail to be struck with the order and cleanliness to be seen in every department. There are separate water-closets for the sexes and commodious well-arranged toilet and cloak rooms for the women," Tobin wrote.

The mill manufactured cotton sailcloth, sewing, seine and wrapping twines, carpets, horse blankets, cotton batting, and seamless bags of cotton or jute.

By 1890 the mill employed about 1,000 people, mostly women. Wages for the women started at 50 cents a day but could increase to $1.80 with experience. Men earned $1.65 to $3 a day. Children (who could have been as young as 10 years old) were paid from 50 cents to a dollar a day, according to Tobin.

Rutherford wanted to buy California-grown cotton because its transportations costs were cheaper. He promoted California cotton-growing and provided cotton seeds to would-be growers. By 1896 he was spending $30,000 a year on California cotton for his mill.

"He is responsible in a great measure for the success achieved in the Imperial Valley where cotton growing is now an assured occupation," the Oakland Tribune reported when he died on March 23, 1915.

Rutherford was still managing his cotton mill at his death. He had been sick for six weeks with "stomach trouble," the Tribune reported. In his obituary in The American Economist, Rutherford was praised as a "fine citizen" and an "excellent type of American man of business."

In 1917 a four-story addition was built at the mill. In 1953 the Nimitz Freeway was constructed through the property of California Cotton Mills. The mill closed down a year later. The 1917 addition was saved, restored and turned into studio lofts.

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