San Mateo County Genealogical Society's Blog featuring society events, projects, meeting notes and other items of relevance to genealogists.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

SMC Places: San Mateo 1950s

a submission to SMCGS Sharing Stories 2017

Imagine SAN MATEO in the 1950's

Laurie Coulter, 2017, age 70 years

St. Matthews Catholic Church c 1950 - Ellsworth St.
(San Mateo County Historical Association)
The El Camino Real, "the royal road", was from my earliest memories, significant in our town, San Mateo, California. The El Camino is the path Fr. Junipero Serra took walking between the nine Spanish Missions he established in the mid 1700's. Stretching from Baja Mexico to Sonoma, they were a day's walk apart.  Mission Santa Clara is to the south of us and Mission Dolores in San Francisco to the north. There were  metal bell shaped markers on placed along the El Camino, which reminded us of our heritage. The name "San Mateo" is Spanish for St.  Matthew, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, so it is not surprising that there were two churches with that name: one Catholic and one Episcopalian. Both churches had schools and both churches were located within four blocks of each other.

I remember feeling connected to the history of the state of California and our Spanish heritage. The Spanish influence went beyond names as many homes and also buildings downtown like the U.S. Post Office on Ellsworth have white stucco exteriors with red tile roofs, wooden balconies and tile patios, porches or entries.

My Sense of Place.
533 Edinburgh, first home, Spanish style - personal photo Collection

I grew up in San Mateo, a city about twenty miles south of San Francisco, California, from the time I was six months old until age fifteen. My childhood memories are of riding my bike with neighbor kids all over our neighborhood which was from Edinburgh Ave. and 5th Ave/ Parrot Drive, then later, Aragon Ave to Borel.

Our neighborhood was safe and mostly flat so our parents did not limit our explorations. There was a paved narrow road that ran from the Alameda de las Pulgas down to the El Camino Real. It was six long blocks and was called, "the alley." It ran behind homes, so you walked or rode your bike with little if any car traffic. We walked to St. Matthew's Catholic School from about half the distance of the alley and collected students along the way. Even in First Grade, I remember walking home at noon with a girl who lived about three blocks up the alley, then I was on my own for two blocks on my street. I walked home for lunch until I was in the 4th grade.

Central Park

Figure 3 postcard Central Park, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, 
Crystal Springs Reservoir 
(Photographer: Ken Glaser Jr., Smith Novelty Company, San Francisco, CA.)
We spent a lot of time in Central Park. Facing the El Camino from Fifth Avenue to Ninth Avenue, it seemed huge. There was a train ride open ride on weekends, and a stadium where events were held. We once got to see David Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet T.V. fame with a circus. He was a gymnast as I recall. I remember biking all over the park.
We spent a lot of time at the playground. My favorite things were the curly slide and the merry go round that you hung onto and ran like heck before jumping onto and riding it. We took turns running.

Also, I remember walking through the park from school to get to the church. Either our class or the whole school walked from Ninth Ave. to Third Ave, "cutting through" the park to get to Ellsworth and then to St. Matthew's Church. This happened in Lent when we went to confession and to the Stations of the Cross or when we had rehearsals for sacraments or special Masses.


My sister and I took tap, ballet and acrobat as preschoolers. I ended up taking some form of jazz dance through 8th grade. We had piano lessons from an early age and rode our bikes to the piano teacher's house when old enough. We learned to swim when very young as our mother could not and was terrified of us drowning. The early lessons were at an indoor pool on Baldwin Ave. Later we rode the bus to San Mateo High School for Red Cross lessons. We loved to roller skate at the Rolladium, a large domed building with a huge wooden roller rink. We learned to ice skate at the Belmont Ice rink. Both were locations for birthday parties through the years.

For a quarter, we saw movies, sometimes a double feature and always with a newsreel downtown at the San Mateo Theater or further south at the Palm or Manor theaters.
Summers were spent creating carnivals in someone's garage or back yard or building forts, playing board and card games and riding our bikes. Long summer nights were spent playing baseball in the street hating to hear that call to come in at 10pm.
As a teen, I had a friend two years older than I and sometimes she could borrow her dad's '57 Chevy and we would "cruise" the El Camino from Kibby's Restaurant in San Mateo down to Kibby's Drive-In in Redwood City. Sometimes, we would go north to King's Drive-In in Millbrae. We barely had money for gas let alone more than a coke at each place, but we were "out there."

4th Ave. looking East from El Camino c.1950
(Archives of the San Mateo County Historical Association, #88-96.19) 

Our family shopped downtown, for a couple of reasons. The big stores like Macys and Emporium were in San Francisco. Also, the downtown had everything we needed and we did not have to dress up. Going to San Francisco meant dressing up which included hats, gloves and dress shoes. Even when we went to visit friends, if they lived in "The City", we dressed up. Also, we had our own local department stores, Levy Brothers and a J.C. Penney's as well as Roos Atkins, Joseph Magnin and Jud Greene clothing stores.

Downtown San Mateo was laid out in a grid perpendicular to the El Camino Real. The hub was 3rd and 4th Avenues between the El Camino on the West and B Street on the East, which paralleled the Southern Pacific train tracks. It did extend north to Baldwin and there was a shopping district south, off the El Camino, on 25th Ave. Of course when Hillsdale Shopping Center opened in 1956/7, that became our shopping hub.

3rd Ave. looking East from El Camino circa 1950
(Archives of the San Mateo County Historical Association, #88-96.20)
I savor the memories of ice cream sundaes at Borden's Creamery and saving our allowance to go into Blum's Bakery and Cafe and sitting at counter and ordering decadent coffee crunch cake. I can still smell the minestrone soup from the Shadows Restaurant and feel the pinch new oxfords from our annual school shoe shopping at Sommer and Kauffman.

Near B Street we got to shop for toys and birthday gifts at Talbots and get our ballet shoes and tights at Cappezio's. We also got our hair cut and loved browsing at the 5 and 10 cent store and getting a coke at the lunch counter. A special treat was going to Benny's Meat Market on 3rd Ave. Benny or his brother Evo would give us a raw hot dog while taking our mother's meat order. Fridays in Lent meant no meat, so clam chowder or filet of sole at Vince's Seafood market was a treat. The Villa Chartier was a place for special family celebrations. We had to dress up to go there.

Villa Chartier Restaurant c late 1950's
       (Archives of the San Mateo County Historical Association, #88-96.50)
There are so many memories of friends and neighbors from the three houses in which we lived. I cherish my time there. I was very fortunate that I had the freedom to explore and experience a small town life in the midst of the larger community near a large city.
When I met my husband, I was happy to find out that he grew up in Hillsdale. We have since lived down the El Camino about ten minutes in Redwood City for nearly forty years, while raising three children, one grandson and recently welcoming a new granddaughter. San Mateo County is our home.
Laurie Coulter has been a member of SMCGS for 8 years. She was born in San Francisco but raised in San Mateo and has lived on the peninsula ever since. Her Dad was born in Woodside in the 1890s where the family had a farmhouse until the 1950s.  She is actively working on her First Families Application and is now Chair of the First Families Committee.  Laurie started taking classes from Gayle Simon and says "My classes led me to writing stories about my family as a way of sharing the family history which is so much more than a pedigree chart. Since I had no elders to ask, I decided that my own memories and those of my sister and cousins will have to do. I use research for gaps, but I inherited a lot of documents and photos which gain meaning and context in the stories. For now my focus remains on what we know collaboratively  and what I can verify."

© 2017 Laurie Coulter - Please contact SMCGS for use of any portion of this story.

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