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The Birth of Mill Valley

The Birth of Mill Valley

The City of Mill Valley is privileged to have inherited a number of excellent online articles written by Mill Valley resident Alan Nayer. These articles give historical background and information about Mill Valley. We hope you enjoy these articles as you learn more about the amazing resources in and around our city.  More articles can be found by visiting our Locations of Interest page.

On August 25, 1900, residents of the unincorporated California area about ten miles north of the Golden Gate, known first as Eastland and then Mill Valley, voted to incorporate, and on September 1st of that year the Town of Mill Valley was born.

The story of that fateful late summer at the turn of the twentieth century is but one of forty-one chapters in the most comprehensive book about Mill Valley's history ever written, Mill Valley: The Early Years by Barry Spitz.

As part of the year 2000 celebration of Mill Valley's Centennial, and with the gracious permission of the author, the following is a complete transcription of the chapter on Mill Valley's incorporation.

Part 1. Water, Liquor, Mud, Taxes

Three events helped shape the decade [1900-1909], and life in Mill Valley since.

The first was the vote on August 25, 1900, to incorporate. This transferred control of Mill Valley affairs from the Tamalpais Land & Water Company and the County to locally elected citizens.

Second was the start of electrified rail service into Mill Valley on August 19, 1903. Travel to San Francisco and elsewhere became easier and faster, often quicker than by automobile today. This made living in Mill Valley more practical, and drew the town closer to the rest of the Bay Area.

Third was the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906. Immediately after, many part-time Mill Valleyites chose to make the town their year-round home and other San Franciscans moved across the Golden Gate as well. Mill Valley experienced the greatest percentage increase in population it would ever know, and at least a dozen sizable tracts were subdivided to accommodate the surge.

In a sense, it was during the first decade of the 20th century that Mill Valley became a community.

Talk of incorporation undoubtedly began early - the 1890 TL&W notices to purchasers referred to the not-too-distant-time when "a city will be established" - but the issue did not become pressing until late in the decade.

Control by locally elected representatives was the compelling argument for incorporation. To many, the TL&W seemed a clique of rich outsiders with its own agenda, although some directors, such as Joseph Eastland and Lovell White, built homes in Mill Valley. The TL&W was blamed, unfairly or not, for a wide range of problems. And the seat of County government, San Rafael, was an hour's ride by train, even more by horse and wagon over the poor roads.

Several arguments were advanced by the opposing side. Incorporation included the power to tax, as emotive a word then as now. California law prohibited a tax rate higher than 70 cents per $100 in assessed value in towns of Mill Valley's size. But anti-incorporation advocates pointed out that a town could vote for special levies (a two-thirds majority was required). Mill Valleyites would indeed be asked to vote on a host of bond issues during the first years after incorporation - for street and sewer improvements, fire house, library, and park site acquisitions and for school construction. While several passed, the tax rate never went over 65 cents.

Street maintenance was an important issue. Incorporation opponents argued that necessary improvements to Corte Madera Avenue alone, for example, "Would come much higher than the original cost of the lots to the present owners." (Complaints about roads and sidewalks were, and would remain, a constant of Mill Valley life. Kathleen Norris wrote in her diary; "Mud, mud, mud. Some of the women must have wondered why they ever thought life in the new community would be so wonderful.")

Opponents also feared that incorporation would result in anti-growth (and therefore anti-business) policies. They claimed, "Advocates of incorporation have openly declared their intention of discouraging, by every means in their power, the entrance into Mill Valley of any but property owners and their friends" and sowed fears that the railroad would cut back its Mill Valley schedule, or eliminate the service entirely.

The liquor issue was of paramount importance, dividing the town between pro- and anti-saloon factions. Some said the TL&W was reluctant to bring charges against unlicensed saloons because they collected rents from them and feared that if a test case went to a higher court the alcohol restriction clause written into Mill Valley deeds might be overturned.

Indeed, in February 1900, the TL&W lost a key ruling that appeared to doom as unconstitutional the company's anti-liquor covenants. Many considered this the trigger for the incorporation movement; as a town, under the State's "local option" laws, Mill Valley could set its own liquor policies.

The debate shifted when the TL&W subtly let it be known that it would not only refrain from opposition, it would underwrite the legal costs involved with incorporation and make other concessions.

There were several advantages to the TL&W in incorporation. The 25-year commitments, actual or implied, to lot purchasers regarding public works and road maintenance would be ended. Indeed, throughout much of the rest of the decade the TL&W would be trying to turn over (dedicate) streets to a reluctant town government.

Also, the TL&W had already sold most of their lots within the town; they were now marketing, in 100 to 1,000 acre parcels, their vast holdings elsewhere in southern Marin. The TL&W was making money on its water business - it planned on retaining its watershed lands, reservoirs, tanks and monopoly water franchise and splitting into a land and water division. (Critics called the rates - 45 cents per 1,000 gallons, double the price paid by San Franciscans for water from more distant sources - exorbitant and dubbed the TL&W, "The Millionaire Water Monopoly of Mill Valley.") The TL&W was to receive compensation for public improvements assumed by the town. (Critics later claimed these improvements were valued too high; the TL&Wsued that they were valued too low.)

And the company may have recognized that incorporation was inevitable; better it come when it might still be able to control the composition of a new governing board.

Part 2. The Vote (Man Overboard!)

On May 8, 1900, the TL&W sent letters to Mill Valley property owners stating a desire to get out of their road maintenance obligations, 15 years early. This set the incorporation movement into high gear. A few days later, what was described as an "anonymous call" went out for a public meeting on the incorporation issue. Alonzo Coffin opened the meeting and Frank Bostwick was named chairman but Daniel H. Bibb played a major role in the proceedings. Anti-TL&W forces regarded Bibb as beholden to the TL&W; the former San Francisco politician had been given, free of charge, valuable water rights by the company on his 30-acre parcel atop Blithedale Canyon.

The Sausalito News reported, "After the meeting dispersed the Chairman [Bostwick] was seen consulting with an official of the TL&W, and the result was that Mr. Bibb was made Chairman, and a majority of the committee [Bibb, Bostwick and T.H. Reynolds, who were to confer with the TL&W and report back in two weeks] appointed were known to he inimical to the business portion of the community, and had already declared for incorporation. Old permanent residents and large property holders, whose taxes would amount to a large sum under incorporation, were completely ignored.... [Dr. Barkan was fighting [TL&W interests] single handed, and doing noble work on behalf of the people."

The committee turned in their report to a well-attended, second meeting. The News said, "After considerable wrangling a motion was carried favoring incorporation, the committee previously appointed was perpetuated and given full power to take the necessary steps to incorporate the town." Jacob Gardner and Morris Marcus, two respected residents, were added to the incorporation committee.

The incorporation vote was set for August 25, 1900. Judges, inspectors and clerks were appointed. Notices were posted two weeks in advance in the usual four places: the Millwood and Mill Valley stations, by the Old Mill, and at the Woodside Inn. Grethel's Hall (18 Miller Avenue) was the sole polling place. It was open from six a.m. to five p.m. This early closing time spawned a Mill Valley legend that pro-incorporation forces, apparently seeing they had the narrow vote won, paid Dan Slinky $50 and a flask of whiskey to jump off the ferryboat San Rafael from San Francisco, thus delaying Mill Valley-bound commuters long enough to miss the election! In addition to the incorporation question, voters also chose a five-member Board of Trustees, Town Clerk, Treasurer and Marshall. The vote was predicted to be close, "with both sides claiming a small majority."

Incorporation won by a vote of 99 for, 63 against, with some 80% of the men registered to vote participating. Mill Valley was now the Town of Mill Valley (nearly 50 years later it officially became the City of Mill Valley). Incorporation opponents immediately challenged the election, saying ineligible voters had cast ballots, but the results stood.

Receiving the highest number of votes, 116, for Trustee was 40-year-old Frank Fiske Bostwick. The Detroit-born accountant thus became the first President of the Board, something akin to a combination of today's City Manager and Mayor posts. Also elected as trustees were Jacob Gardner (112 votes), Alfred Bush (97), Charles Storck (97) and Oscar Cappelmann (93). J.J. Cullen, the Marin County Enterprise editor who had railed against the TL&W, finished last among the eight candidates.

Louis Janes, who had been the resident agent for the Tamalpais Land and Water Company in the 1890's, won a close contest (87-79) for Town Clerk. James McDonald won, 128-1, the post of Town Marshal. A.L. House, the only candidate, was elected Treasurer.

Thirty-six years later, at the dedication ceremony for Mill Valley's new City Hall, Bostwick reflected, "We started with no money, no civic organization, no police or fire departments, no health protection and no local laws. But we did have streets and sewers in poor condition and about 15 or 20 blind pigs [illegal saloons]."

The town annexed 276.632 acres, according to a Survey by Augustus Avery, mostly Reed heir lands. Owners of the largest parcels added were: Mary F. and Jessie O. Deffebach, 93.7 acres; the contested Judson estate, 48.83 acres; the contested Wormouth estate, 39.66 acres; the Hugh Boyle estate, 34.17 acres; Sidney Cushing, 25.482 acres in Blithedale canyon; and Miss Susanna Throckmorton, 21.28 acres along the southern edge of town. Mill Valley's expanded boundaries, which had been marked by ribbons on posts and trees prior to the election, now covered 461 acres (other sources say one square mile, 640 acres). Surveyors would later complain about Mill Valley's lack of permanent, sunken stone survey markers as the old wooden ones rotted.

The TL&W deeded to the new town Cascade and the Old Mill as parks. They also pledged free water for ten years for fighting fires and flushing sewers, and for two years for sprinkling streets.
Part 3. A Town is Born, and Goes Bankrupt

On September 1, 1900, Mill Valley received its charter from the state. The first town meeting was held on September 4 in Grethel's Hall. This would be the site of town government until October 1903, when the town rented quarters in the new Masonic Lodge building. In 1908, the town moved into the upstairs of the new firehouse building that stood by today's City Hall.

Ordinance No. 1 set the salaries of the town employees: $50 per month for the Town Clerk, who was also the Assessor; $75 per month for Marshal (who earned additional money as the Tax and License Collector); and, to the Treasurer, one percent of monies handled.

Other early ordinances concerned the environment. Number 14, passed in October 1900, read: "It shall be unlawful for any one to shoot, trap or in any way destroy or injure any free flying birds, quail, doves or grouse, or any deer, tree squirrels or chipmunks.… It shall be unlawful for any one to destroy, rob or in any way disturb any bird's nest in the trees, brush or grass within the limits of the town of Mill Valley." The fine was $20, 10 days imprisonment, or both. A month later, Trustees voted 5-0 to grant permission to J.W Williams to shoot jays on his premises.

A 1901 ordinance said: "It shall be unlawful for any person owning, possessing or occupying any land in the town of Mill Valley to permit the Scotch or Canadian Thistle to mature or disseminate their seed on the land so owned, occupied or possessed...."

Fireworks were banned as a fire hazard, "Unless the ground, trees and shrubs within the distance of 50 feet of each direction of said discharge first be thoroughly saturated with water, and at least three persons be present when said fireworks are discharged." After the 1929 fire, fireworks would be outlawed.

The Town Clerk handled much of the paper work. In 1902, Stephen Roberts took over the post and retained it during the town's formative years, until his sudden death on December 4, 1910, at age 64. Roberts was a Civil War veteran who moved to Mill Valley in 1892, and also worked as a local realtor. Upon his death, the Record-Enterprise said of him: "His uprightness of character, his strict integrity, his kindly heart and devotion to duty won him the confidence, respect and friendship of practically everyone with whom he came in contact."

The Town Marshal was not only the one-man police department (soon after expanded to two with the addition of a night watchman) but also collected licenses and fees, and served as probation officer, building officer and Marin County deputy marshal. In October, 1900, Lovell White agreed to let a TL&W-owned barn be used as a justice court and jail.

James McDonald, the first Marshal, was credited with cleaning up the town's saloons. He then proceeded to open one of his own on East Blithedale. Infuriated town officials promptly forced him out and replaced him with J.F Magner.

Of no small importance was the Town Poundmaster, of which C.F. Cline was the first. It was the Poundmaster's job to corral stray horses and cattle and to monitor dogs. Newspaper editorials had been complaining for years about the many stray dogs downtown. The town required dogs to be registered. Lists of dog and owner names were regularly printed in the newspapers. And licensing fees were actually a primary source of revenue in the town's first years. As late as the fiscal year ending July 31, 1909, the town spent more on burying dogs ($112) than on telephones ($22).

The town also had a Health Officer. There was a flap in 1902 when a woman was appointed to what was described as this "very trying and unpleasant...man's... position."

Other town officials were Fire Marshal, Town Attorney and Town Engineer.

As Marin County was already into its 1900-1901 fiscal year, Mill Valley could not immediately collect a local property tax. The Town, relying only on licensing fees, went bankrupt after just two months. A loan was arranged by Lovell White from San Francisco bankers Antoine Borel and Daniel Meyer. In its first fiscal year Mill Valley had revenues of $1,630.50 and expenditures of $3,484.45, for a deficit of $1,853.95. But in 1902, voters approved issuance of $50,000 in bonds, providing initial financial security. The explosive growth of Mill Valley's assessed real estate values -passing $1,000,000 in 1906 and $1.5 million in 1908 - secured for the town a reasonable financial footing.

Two groups - the Citizens and Taxpayers, and the Citizens Independent Party - fielded rival five-member slates for the next Mill Valley election, in April 1902. The Citizens and Taxpayers, campaigning for stricter regulation of liquor sales, a reduction in the salaries of the Town Clerk and Marshal, and an increase in the tax on outside merchants doing business in Mill Valley, almost swept the election. Three of their candidates - F. Blair Turpin, the highest vote-getter with 134, John Wood and Alonzo Coffin - were elected as Trustees along with the Town Clerk (Roberts), Marshall (Melvin Staples) and Treasurer (House, reelected). Independent Party members William Terry and A.C. Hinz completed the second Board of Trustees.

Mill Valley: The Early Years can be borrowed and/or purchased from the Mill Valley Public Library.

Written by Alan Nayer. Text and Photos (except where noted) are © Alan Nayer.

Last updated: 5/5/2009 11:50:19 AM