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July 23, 2013 > History: One hundred years

History: One hundred years

By James R. Griffin

Randolph Adams Griffin (R. A. Griffin), Irvington builder and community leader, retired in 1963 after 50 years in business building custom homes, farm buildings, dairies, churches and whatever needed to be built in Southern Alameda County. His son, Jim, took the reins. He thought: "Fifty years - such a long time!" Another fifty years have gone by and the company, now named "James R. Griffin, Inc.," is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

This story of entrepreneurship and skills spanning six successive generations begins many years ago. Timothy Rix, born the year after George Washington was president, was a veteran of the War of 1812. He retired after selling his fleet of small trading ships that sailed from the homeport of Boston Harbor. Already 51 years old when the cry of gold echoed in the east, he seized the opportunity and organized the first cooperative stock company to sail to the gold fields.

One hundred fifty young scions of New England families bought shares at $300 each. A ship was purchased and named for the president of Harvard - Edward Everett - who donated a library to the venture and gave each passenger a bible to help stave off the evils of the new world and enlighten the wilderness. The ship was new and technically advanced. A captain was hired, and the ship sailed from Boston for California on January 8, 1849, arriving at the Golden Gate on July 4th. The group spent a day celebrating the country's independence with feasting, songs and speeches before setting off for the gold fields. After eleven days, laboring in searing July heat on the Mokelumne River the company voted to disband; all but thirty went home.

Rix purchased 160 acres from Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California, in what is now the corner of Stevenson and Fremont Boulevards in Fremont. He erected a zinc Quonset hut that he had brought with him and sold pigeon eggs and farm implements to miners. His wife and youngest children, Alfred, 17, Kent, 11 and Helen, 7 arrived in 1853 via the Isthmus of Panama. In a frightful experience, the younger children, separated from the rest of the group when crossing the isthmus, were found by men with machetes they thought to be pirates. Frightened, but safe and unharmed, the children reached the Pacific Port.

To start another business, Timothy sold his ranch for a team of mules and cash. He received a government land grant for property in town and, with his son, Alfred (A. O.), went into the business of wagon making and, manufacturing farm implements, millwork and cabinets for settlers. This was the first industry in Irvington.

Timothy later became the town's first postmaster. A.O. went on to marry Angie McDavid, who in 1852, at the age 4, crossed the plains via prairie schooner from Redbud, Illinois with a group of early Irvington settlers. Her duty on the trail: to care for a redbud seedling "to plant at the doorstep of their new home out west, where the snow never falls." In 1883 A. O. built the first Protestant Church in Irvington. He and Angie had four daughters, Julia, Minnie, Helen and Mila.

In 1886 Frank Griffin was on his way from Virginia City, Nevada where his mother's family owned and operated the legendary Territorial Enterprise newspaper, to join the Jesuit Seminary in San Francisco. He stopped by to spend the summer with relatives, the Stivers, at their ranch, now part of Fremont's Central Park and took a job for the summer at A. O. Rix's shops. There he met Minnie Rix, a pretty 16 year old and already an artist.

Frank and Minnie soon married. With skills acquired in Rix's shops and books on engineering and construction, Frank began building barns and dairies and later schools including Mission San Jose School (still standing) designed by son, Alfred. His sons, Alfred, Lee and Randolph joined him in business in 1913, and the company was renamed "Frank Griffin and Sons." Oldest son, Alfred, was hired to build movie studios for Essanay in Niles and continued in their employ as a set designer and builder, leaving for Hollywood with Charlie Chaplin in 1916. A rising star in the industry, he died suddenly of appendicitis in 1920.

Randolph and Lee continued the engineering and construction business, meeting the needs of a growing community. They donated their time to design and build the old Irvington monument designed to help automobiles, the new rage, avoid accidents at the five corners.

When World War I broke out, Randolph and Lee joined the army and were sent to France. Randy was a sergeant and served under Lt. Steven Bechtel building barracks in Bordeaux and Lee was sent to the front to build prisoner of war camps; he was killed by shrapnel. Randolph came home, met and married Mary Liston, also a descendent of an early pioneer, and returned to Irvington and the family business. Mary kept the books. They had two children, Helen, who later became an architect, and Jim.

By 1957 Jim Griffin had completed college and a tour of duty in the navy and returned home to apprentice with his father. He married Patricia Bladine from McMinnville, Oregon, and had three children: Sarah, a biologist, now living in Alaska, Elizabeth, a physician at UC Berkeley and Randy. During a period of great expansion in the Bay Area, the company was soon engaged in building clean rooms, laboratories and buildings for the high tech industry.

Randy, Jim's son, joined the firm in 1992 after graduating from UCLA with a degree in engineering and focused on the needs of Bay Area research institutions that required an understanding of technical mechanical and electrical systems and the importance of sustainable construction practices. Projects included the Mills College Natural Sciences Building, the first building in Oakland to receive LEEDS Platinum certification by the Green Building Council, and the recently completed Campus Center Building for Varian Medical Systems, Palo Alto. Randy is married to Sylvaine Guille of Poitier, France, a pattern maker employed by Levi Straus, San Francisco. Randy is now company president. They have two daughters, Minnie Alize, 8 and Mary Maelle, 6.

The success of the six generations of builders and entrepreneurs, beginning with Timothy Rix, is shared by others - locally and migrating from all parts of the world. Similar stories of hard work along with skills and knowledge passed through generations have brought new energy, vision and diversity to California and the Bay Area.

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