EL CERRITO -- Long after Oakland and Berkeley were built up with Victorian and Edwardian homes and distinctive downtowns, El Cerrito remained rural, a place of farmhouses and wide open spaces.

And there is a group of what the El Cerrito Historical Society calls "pioneers" who were born and grew up here and still remember those days.

The society plans to honor the pioneers, residents who were born in or near El Cerrito before 1925, at a reception at City Hall from 4:30 to 6 p.m. April 23.

One pioneer, 93-year-old Vilate Viers, is the daughter of El Cerrito's first mayor, Phil Lee.

Viers lived until she was 18 in a house behind the Standard Oil service station that her father owned near the corner of Fairmount and San Pablo avenues, across the street from what is now Mechanics Bank.

El Cerrito pioneer Vilate Viers, 93, holds a picture of the first El Cerrito City Council that includes her father, Phil Lee, the city’s first mayor.
El Cerrito pioneer Vilate Viers, 93, holds a picture of the first El Cerrito City Council that includes her father, Phil Lee, the city's first mayor.

Viers remembers "a lot of open space" in her neighborhood, where they could just barely see the home of their nearest neighbors.

"Fairmount wasn't even a paved street and there were streetcars running down San Pablo that we could take to Berkeley or Oakland to go shopping," she said.

The small town, just over the county line, was the home of illegal gambling joints and speak-easies during Prohibition, with a dog racing track at what is now El Cerrito Plaza shopping center.

Viers and her husband were married in 1938 when she was 18 and the couple bought a new home in town in 1940 after renting a house on Lexington Avenue for $25 a month.

The couple had three children before Veirs' husband died in an auto accident.


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One of Viers' sons, John Viers, has operated the Park Place Barbers in Point Richmond for the past 41 years, she said.

"I have a lovely view from where I live and lovely neighbors," Viers said. "I have a few schoolmates left, but just a few."

Frank Storno, 97, remembers a lot of construction crews grading and paving streets and putting in sewer lines when he was growing up.

His father, also named Frank, worked at the Berkeley Golf Club, now the Mira Vista Golf & Country Club, as a greens keeper and young Frank used to walk up the hill to bring his father his lunch.

Storno attended Stege Elementary School, Longfellow Junior High and Richmond High School in Richmond, graduating in 1935. El Cerrito High School didn't open until 1941.

Storno remembers the gambling halls and speak-easies in El Cerrito, especially the Wagon Wheel, now the Eagles' Hall, near the corner of Carlson and Central avenues.

"One night my dad took me in there and a guy jumped up with a pistol and said he was being cheated and everyone started running for the door," Storno said.

Storno's only significant time away from El Cerrito was serving in the United States Army and Air Corps during World War II in the South Pacific.

"When I came back from the war in 1945 things had really changed," he said. "Houses were filling in and the gambling that was happening in the earlier days was gone. The place really began to sprout."

Storno was not the eldest child in his family. His sister, Albany resident Estelle Williams, will celebrate her 100th birthday in June.

Tom Panas of the historical society said the April 23 event will be "an opportunity to sit down and talk with (the pioneers)" and will include a slideshow of historical photographs and a selection of popular music from the 1920s and '30s.

Panas is also seeking help in locating more early residents. He can be reached at 510-526-7507 or by e-mail at tmpanas@yahoo.com.

"I'm looking forward to the event," Panas said. "These people are my best friends."

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