California, including Berkeley, faced a gasoline shortage a century ago. The May 22, 1920, Berkeley Daily Gazette advised readers that many local service stations would start rationing gas at 3 to 5 gallons per private automobile. Some oil companies had adopted a system of “farmers first,” prioritizing fuel supplies for agricultural and transportation vehicles.
“Motorists who have been in the habit of getting gas when they wanted it first resented having service station employees measure their tanks and question them as to how far they were going and whether the trip was necessary,” the paper reported.
Teacher pay: Berkeley teachers were struggling for a pay increase in mid-1920. On May 18, 1920, the Board of Education endorsed their requests and passed a resolution supporting an across-the-board salary increase of at least $500 and an increase in local taxes to pay for it.
Miss Madeline Christie, representing the teachers, told the board that “the salaries of teachers have not kept pace with the advancing cost of living and must be increased. The cost of living has increased 110% since August 1, 1914,” the Gazette reported. “Teachers’ salaries in Berkeley have increased only 35% for elementary school teachers and 28% for high school teachers.”
Tax losses: At the same meeting the school superintendent told the board that six buildings “on the site of the new high school” were sold. These included “four bungalows, a seven-room house and a two-story residence,” according to the Gazette. These were most probably private residences that the school district had purchased on the blocks south of Allston Way as the Berkeley High School property was expanded. In that era, buildings to be removed were often moved and reused, not demolished. Berkeley is dotted with older buildings that were sold and relocated from development sites. It’s quite possible some of those six houses sold in 1920 still survive elsewhere in Berkeley.
There was an interesting follow-up to the school district action. On May 21, 1920, the city assessor told the Berkeley City Council that a combination of tax exemptions for soldiers “and property confiscated by the school board for new schools will remove $750,000 worth of taxable property” from the assessment rolls.
The assessor had received 593 applications for $1,000 exemptions from local property owners who had done military service. This would “eliminate close to $500,000 worth of property from taxation, or approximately 10% of the total taxable property. These include Civil War, Spanish War and World War veterans.”
This is an interesting statistic. Berkeley had, as we’ve seen in last week’s column, a 1920 population in the mid-50,000s at least, and possibly as high as 60,000 or more. That means that about one in every 100 residents of the city was a military veteran in 1920. Probably the percentage was even greater, since only veterans who owned property could access the tax exemption.
Furniture store: Longtime readers may remember that I’ve periodically mentioned the Ashby Furniture Co. in this column. It would become owned by Edward Ament, who became Berkeley’s mayor in the 1930s. The store curiously stood at Alcatraz Avenue and Adeline Street, not on Ashby; possibly it was named for a person, not the street, or perhaps it began on Ashby and later moved. In any case, the May 21, 1920, Gazette carried a good picture of the company’s main building, which was on the northeast corner of the intersection. It shows the architecturally handsome retail establishments that could be found in Berkeley a century ago. It was later demolished — possibly during the era of BART construction — and there’s an open lot there today.
Steven Finacom, a Bay Area native and community historian in Berkeley, holds this column’s copyright.
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Author: Steven Finacom