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November 25, 2009 > History: The Griffin Family home in Irvington

History: The Griffin Family home in Irvington

The graceful old house at the corner of Bay Street and Chapel Way in Irvington was built by Frank Griffin in 1892, the year that Randolph Griffin, long time local general contractor and community leader was born, the third son to Frank and Minnie Rix Griffin. As the years unfolded, Randolph would serve as the link to the family's future in what became Fremont.

Frank (his given name was Francis Ignatius), a member of the Virginia City family that had owned the legendary newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise, was on his way to join the Jesuit Seminary in San Francisco in 1887 when he stopped by Irvington to visit relatives, the Stivers, who farmed the land that is now Lake Elizabeth. Finding work for the summer at A O Rix's wheelwright and cabinet shop, Frank met Minnie, A O Rix's second of four daughters, and his plans to become a Jesuit were altered forever. They soon married, and their family quickly grew. Frank built the family home on land that A O Rix's father, Timothy, a pioneer, and one of the earliest settlers in the area, had acquired by a land grant in 1849. The property extended between Bay Street and what is now Fremont Boulevard, east to the five corners where the two streets meet.

Frank served as Irvington's postmaster for a short time and then ventured out as a builder of barns, houses and schools, including those at Newark and Niles. The Mission San Jose Grammar School that he built in 1912 has been restored and is still standing. His wife, Minnie, was an artist and had a studio in the front parlor of the house. She taught china painting to the ladies of the community and won awards at world fairs. She was active in the social growth of the community and was a member of the Country Club of Washington Township, a prominent women's organization. In addition to Randolph there were four children. Their oldest son, Alfred, became an architect and was hired to construct the Essanay Studios in Niles where the early silent movies were made. He stayed on to design and build stage sets for filming before leaving along with a band of local people who had joined Charlie Chaplan in 1916 on his migration to Hollywood. Griffin's second son Lee, as was the tradition of the day, lived in the home of his grandfather, A O Rix, to help with chores. He achieved skills in drafting and accounting in his early years working for Southern Pacific in San Francisco. Daughter Mildred was born in 1894 and a fourth son Philip in 1900.

Tragedy befell the family in 1913 when Minnie died at childbirth. She was 42. The town's newspaper carried a poignant story about the funeral, which was held in the shade of a large black walnut tree in the side yard of the home - the stump is still there. After the ceremony, Minnie's four sons bore her casket to the cemetery a half block away, leading a procession of the town's people to her grave in the family plot.

Later that year Lee and Randolph joined their father in the construction business. In 1915 the family was again placed in mourning when Frank died while building a barn in Hollister. Lee and Randolph continued the business. One of their projects was building the Irvington Monument in the middle of the five corner intersection in 1916, intended to keep the growing number of automobiles traveling between Oakland and San Jose on their own side of the street. The monument has since been moved to the park at the entrance of Bay Street. In 1917 Lee and Randolph volunteered with the army engineers when the US entered into the First World War in Europe. Lee was sent to the front in France to help build prisoner camps and was killed by enemy shrapnel. When the war ended Randolph walked for five days and nights to locate Lee's grave and make arrangements for its care.

After the war Randolph met and married Mary Liston, a sister of a wartime buddy. Mary, a native of Alvarado, lived in Oakland and commuted daily by ferry to San Francisco where she was a legal secretary. Randolph and Mary moved back to Irvington and into the old home. Randolph operated his construction business from there, as did his father, building custom homes, dairies, and commercial buildings, including the old Cloverdale Creamery in Centerville, while Mary kept the books. His sister Mildred had been a secretary to the Commanding Officer of the Pacific Command in Hawaii when the war broke out and after the war married a World War One pilot. Philip, the youngest brother, attended Washington High School where he founded the 'Hatchet', the school newspaper. Later he worked at the Chronicle and became chairman of the journalism department at the University of California. Alfred, who had been in on the ground floor of the movie industry in Hollywood, died suddenly of appendicitis in 1920. He was 32.

Randolph's son, Jim, entered the business in 1957 and is still active along with his son, Randy, an engineer, who joined the business in 1992, and is president. The company is now engaged in providing construction services for institutions and corporate clients. The firm recently completed a science building for Mills College in Oakland that achieved LEED Platinum certification, the highest for sustainable construction. Jim's sister, Helen, became an architect and now lives in San Francisco.

Mary lived gently in the Bay Street house by herself until her death in 1988 at the age of 97. She had helped write the History of Washington Township and had served as secretary of the Historical Society for twenty five years. The home has never been sold and is now occupied by a foreman of the company. Soon Bay Street will be redeveloped and the 100 year old walnut trees in front will be replaced by sidewalks and streetscape planting. The old house built of first growth timber and with old world craftsmanship is a reminder of generational passage and times gone by.

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