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October 12, 2004 > The Norris Family of Centerville

The Norris Family of Centerville

by Jim Griffin & Philip Holmes

During California's Gold Rush, few made it rich and most returned home, but the word was out that the Golden State was open for settlement. Garrett Schuyler Norris was born in New York State and came to California via the Isthmus of Panama in 1851. His brother David had come west with Company C of the Stevenson Regiment and wrote telling him of riches to be found, not in gold, but in the fertile lands, and urged him to join him.

Garrett moved to Centerville in 1854 to work on Robert Blacow's ranch. He applied for a land grant and received a parcel west of Centerville. The house he built stood at present day Fremont Boulevard and Mattos Drive. The land sold years later in the 1950's and developed into what is known today as Genmoor Gardens.

Garrett married Johanna Conners and had five children: Joseph, twin daughters Harriet and Emma, Miranda, and James. Five years after Johanna's death Garrett married Margaret Maguire and they had three children: Mary (Maime), David and Garrett Ignatius.

After Garrett's death in 1877, his widow Margaret ran the ranch successfully with the help of her sons and daughters. The boys, other than David who commuted by bike, horse car and steam train to the old Oakland High School before moving to San Francisco, built homes of their own on ranch land. The girls stayed at home with their mother until her death in 1924. Following Margaret's death the ranch continued to be run by the Norris men and ladies who lived in the old Norris family house (pictured in the 1878 Atlas of Alameda County).

Joseph D. Norris was born in the Norris ranch house in 1858 and later built his own home on Central Avenue; two palm trees at the entrance of an apartment building mark its location. He married Margaret Smith and their children Marcella, Allen, Walter and Joseph R. grew up there. Marcella attended Columbia and USC and became a schoolteacher, retiring in 1968.

Allen G. Norris, or "Tink" as his friends called him, became one of the best known and admired citizens of Washington Township. Born in 1901, he attended local schools and the University of California where he won the national collegiate pole vault championship for three years. He graduated from law school in 1925 and returned to Centerville to practice law and elected Justice of the Peace in 1926, a position he held until 1952 when he was appointed Judge of the Superior Court of Alameda County. During his long career he served in many community activities including Clerk of the Centerville School District and Secretary for the Centerville Fire District. He was a leader in the Chamber of Commerce, Community Chest, local and Bay Area Boy Scouts and many community organizations including the Washington Township Men's Club, of which he was a founding member. During World War II he was chairman of the local Selective Service Board. He was a partner in the law firm of Broun, Norris, King, Grasskamp and Lancefield. His many honors include the naming of the Norris school. He died in his sleep at the age of 77.

Twin sisters Harriet and Emma lived in the Norris home all their lives until their deaths in the 1950's. They became famous locally, active in community and religious affairs at nearby Holy Spirit Church and were known for their interest in literature. They dressed alike every day of their lives. For their 87th birthday, 30 nieces and nephews gathered to celebrate.



Garrett Ignatius married Mila Rix of Irvington in 1905, lived in a house next door and farmed the property. After his death in 1933, his widow, Mila, a nurse and craftswoman, remained in the house and active in community causes. She rented rooms to Washington High School teachers including the popular "Pop" Gould, who later became principal. When the Glenmoor tract was built, Mila's house stood in the way of access from Fremont Boulevard and was sold for development in 1954. A new house was built in the Glenmoor tract for her where she moved with her daughter "Bee" and granddaughter Mila Jean. Bee Norris was a member of the first class to graduate from the new Washington High School campus in 1925. After attending California Polytechnic in Oakland, Bee served as a draftsman for the 12th Naval District until her retirement. Mila Jean's career was spent with the old Crocker Bank and, together with her mother, was a leading member of the American Business Women's Association of Washington Township.

Many farm family children have moved on, making their own way. Allen Norris's son Logan,
a professor of Forestry at Oregon State University, recently retried after an accomplished career. Mila Rix Norris's daughter, also named Mila, graduated from UC with a degree in Library Science. At age 94, she continues to live in Bakersfield where she had worked as a librarian for Kern County and married geologist Miguel de Laveaga. Margaret Decker, granddaughter of David Norris, was born in San Francisco and lives in Centerville where she raised 12 children.

Village life on family farms lasted for about one hundred years in Washington Township until freeways were built bringing new waves of settlement. Community patterns and institutions developed over the early years remain the backbone of our community.

 
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