Interview: Former Mayor Jerry Hayes On Benicia’s Fascinating History

Malcolm Slight

As a boy, Jerry Hayes would pedal his bicycle from his home on East I Street—back when it was still a dirt road—and head off on adventures with his brothers and friends. Sometimes in the summer, they would spend a nickel to ride the ferry back and forth to Martinez all day. Or they’d go fishing on the pier that existed off East E Street.
    
He wasn’t supposed to go below F Street if his travels took him down First Street—too many bars and prostitution houses there at the time—but he remembers a wooden sign on First Street between C and D streets. “Gold,” declared the sign, identifying the nearby Von Pfister General Store as the site where word leaked out about the discovery of gold in California.
    
“It might have been that in the bright day of summer, it was OK to ride your bikes down there—or it might not have been and we did it anyway,” Jerry says with a chuckle.
    
He left Benicia after high school. The Von Pfister General Store re-entered his life when he and his family returned to town in 1986. Jerry dove into civic work right away.

“You can get involved in Benicia simply by showing up at any meeting and raising your hand,” he says. “I went to my first Historical Society meeting and left as its president.”

Jerry became active in the Chamber of Commerce as well, and served on the city’s Waterfront Commission and Planning Commission. He was elected to the City Council in 1992 and as mayor in 1996. He currently is secretary-treasurer on Benicia Main Street’s board of directors and serves as vice-president and secretary for the Benicia Historical Society.

He wants to make sure Benicia’s future includes parts of its past. He is working with the Historical Society and the city to restore the Von Pfister General Store, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places last year. The building is now behind a fence and protected by a metal-and-tarp structure.

Jerry, 77, owns Hayes Supply Company in Vallejo, and his wife, Maryellen, is co-owner of the Camellia Tea Room in downtown Benicia. Their three grown daughters and their families live in Benicia.

Why is preserving the Von Pfister General Store important to you? I’ve always been intrigued by history. I grew up in a city that is rich with history, and I don’t want Benicia’s history to be overlooked. The Arsenal is gone, the railroad is gone, and most people don’t know their impact on our community.  …
    
The Von Pfister is connected to the Gold Rush and the broadcasting of that news, and it’s one of the oldest buildings in California.

The building is a unique adaptation to the challenge of having no building materials available. The only way to get materials was via boat—there were no roads then. They started with adobe because that’s all that was available.  As they neared the end of construction, planed lumber became available so they finished with that. It ended up being clad in redwood clapboard. So it has features unique to construction in the beginning days of the city of Benicia.

It was the general store, the post office, the local bar, and the upper level was a loft where people were put up overnight. If you wanted to know what was going on, you would go there to hear the news from people coming off the boats.  There was no other store in Benicia or in the county—nothing until you got to Sacramento.
    
It was the hub of any activity in Benicia, whether you wanted to buy something, to hear what’s going on or buy a drink to bury all your troubles.  It was right on the water then, and the water was deep. That was before the tailings from the Gold Rush filled it in.

What did the Von Pfister General Store look like when you were growing up? It was hidden when I was a young boy.  The whole area was still an industrial area so you couldn’t really see it.

It was owned by Joe Garske then, and he used it as a storeroom.  The boatyard was built around it.  Fortunately, he was someone who kept everything. It was still a pretty stable building then.
    
What does the interior look like now? The interior is in pretty bad shape.  Some of the ceiling rafters are collapsing. A lot of the exterior adobe wall has crumbled into the building, especially on the water side.    

But there’s an interior wall that’s almost pristine.
    
The adobe bricks in the building aren’t like those in the Southwest or even in Monterey, which were built to Spanish specifications. The dimensions are different. The adobe bricks in the Von Pfister were the same size as bricks used in American construction. They used those measurements, so the adobe bricks are a different dimension than those in the Southwest.

What do you hope will happen now that the building is on the National Register? I’d like it to be available for viewing. Not open for people to wander through, but available for people to be able to look inside and see how it looked when it was set up as a general store. The (Benicia Historical) museum has the handwritten log of every sale he made during the time he operated, so we know what he stocked. I’d like to see something like in Monterey, where you go up to the windows and doors and look inside.    

What would it take for the building to be restored? We’re looking at a three-phase approach to make that happen.
    
The first phase is stabilization and identification of the historical components that can be preserved. That would involve the city as owner and the Historical Society.
    
Then we want to engage an archeological historian to develop plans for restoration.

We want to do those two things before we look for funds. So the third phase is to do fundraising and the restoration work, and establish it as a landmark site on the Bay Trail.
    
What do you do to relax? I read—a lot. Mostly political blogs and current events, both national and international. I like to know what’s happening and why. I want to know what’s going on in Ukraine, what’s going on in Libya, what’s going on in Greece and why. I also read about local, national and statewide politics.

What’s next for you? I like to travel, but my family is the most important thing in my life. They’re all in Benicia so the farthest I usually get is Military West.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Check it out, Community, History, Interview, People + Places

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