November 15, 2020 - Walnut Creek

Walnut Creek

History of Walnut Creek: Walnut Creek’s earliest known inhabitants were peaceful, Costanoan-speaking Native Americans who lived in numerous villages scattered among the three creeks at the base of majestic Mount Diablo. The 3,848’ mountain (called Koo-Wah-Koom or Laughing Mountain) and fertile valleys provided all the subsistence needs of these hunter-gatherers. The Native Americans of that period survive as part of the present-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. The tribe actively promotes its language, culture and traditions throughout the area. In the spring of 1772 Captain Pedro Fages led the first Europeans to pass the base of Mount Diablo, seeking an overland route to Bodega Bay.


In 1834 Doña Juana Sanchez de Pacheco was granted the 17,734 acre Arroyo de las Nueces y Bolbones (Stream of the Walnuts and Bolbones) for her husband’s service to Mexico. She later renamed it Rancho San Miguel in honor of her husband. It was one of four land grants in the area and included the land that would become the city of Walnut Creek.

Walnut Creek was originally known as The Corners. That name described the junction of the main roads converging from the towns of Martinez and Pacheco to the north and from Lafayette to the west. It was also where the four land grants came together. The town was renamed Walnut Creek when its US Post Office was established in 1862.


Year Incorporated: The town of Walnut Creek was incorporated in 1914 by vote of 127-67 in favor of incorporation. Local merchants wanted to be able to raise local tax funds to pave Main Street. They hoped to shed the commercial area of its dirt road image and attract some of the visitors to the upcoming 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The land of the East Bay was devoted to cattle grazing in the early days of the rancho land grants. Disillusioned gold seekers, some former farmers, returning to their homes in the East passed through the fertile valleys surrounding Mount Diablo and recognized the potential for growing crops. They began wheat farming, the traditional staple of the era. Eventually the wheat farmers moved south to the Central Valley. Fruit and nut farming replaced the wheat as primary crops. Farming continued with vigor into the 1930’s and ended in the 1960’s, when much of the land was rezoned residential and commercial.


Population: The 2010 Census gives the population of Walnut Creek as 64,173.


Growing Walnuts in Walnut Creek: Of the fruit grown during the early 1900’s, grapes brought in more earnings to local farmers than any other. The first Grape Festival was held in Walnut Creek in 1911. But in 1920, the Volstead Act ushered in Prohibition and doomed the production of wine grapes. Most farmers in Walnut Creek’s Ygnacio Valley ripped up their vines. For ten years they were without income from their lands. In place of their vines, the farmers planted black walnut seedlings. After four or five years they would grow to three to five inches in diameter. Farmers then cut off the seedlings a few feet above ground and grafted English walnut shoots to the trunks. The resulting nuts had more than double the meat and were easier to shell. After a total of nine or ten years valley farmers were again able to recognize favorable returns from the land. Ygnacio Valley became knows as a “Shadeland” with the spread of wide reaching limbs shading the ground wherever walnut trees grew. Because of the eye appeal of well-manicured walnut groves, Ygnacio Valley became the destination of motorists from San Francisco and the East Bay on their Sunday drives. In 1946 the tonnage of the valley’s walnut harvest reached a peak never again equaled. An affliction called “die back” struck, from which the walnut groves never recovered. (“Die back” is the name given to what appears to be a blockage of sap at the graft.) By the early 1950’s valley farmers began selling their land to developers for sub-divisions.


Mount Diablo Fruit Farm & Ruth Bancroft Garden: Two families from that era of fruit and nut farming are still remembered in Walnut Creek today. The Mount Diablo Fruit Farm was started in the 1880s by Hubert Howe Bancroft, a famous historian and publisher who amassed a huge personal library of books related to the American West. Bancroft sold his important collection to the University of California for only a fraction of its value. That collection became the nucleus of the world famous Bancroft Library. In the 1930s, the Bancroft farm was awarded first place in the state for pears 8 out of 9 years. At the height of production, the farm had 200 seasonal employees. Pears were shipped to the East and as far away as England. The farm was passed down to Philip Bancroft, Sr. and then to his son, Philip Bancroft, Jr.

The farm remained in operation until the late 1960s, when the property was rezoned for city residential use. In 1971, the last walnut orchard on the property was cut down, and Philip Jr. offered his wife Ruth the three acres to begin a new garden using her large collection of succulents, which had outgrown their space at home. Ruth, then in her 60s, seized this opportunity. The Ruth Bancroft Garden is a foremost example of the art of garden design with drought-tolerant plants, and it is known as one of the finest dry gardens in the world. The Garden displays an expansive collection of plants from the world’s desert and Mediterranean climates, collected by Ruth for over 60 years. She passed away on November 26, 2017 at the age of 109 – a tribute to doing what you love and loving what you do.


Shadelands Fruit Farm & Shadelands Ranch Museum: Another Walnut Creek farm family still with us today in spirit is the Penniman Family, who farmed property near the Bancrofts. Their Shadelands Fruit Farm operated until 1942, growing fruit (pears, apricots and plums) and nuts (walnuts and almonds.) Hiram Penniman, New York native, farmer, former gold miner and patriarch of the family, was the second Walnut Creek postmaster. He had laid out the town site of The Corners in 1856. He was also responsible for realigning the town’s primary north-south road away from the downtown creek, creating Main Street in the process.

The last surviving family member created a foundation to manage the family home and property. Eventually the property was sold to developers and the home and 1.5 acres of land were gifted to the City of Walnut Creek in 1970 for $1. A few years prior to the gifting of the property, the Walnut Creek Women’s Club had made it a club project to sponsor a historical society. The City turned to this new Walnut Creek Historical Society to restore the 1903 Penniman home to its original condition for use as a historic house museum, highlighting life in Walnut Creek in the early days of the 20th century.

The “Shady Ladies” rose to the challenge, presenting the City and its residents the beautiful, restored Shadelands Ranch Museum. The house became the headquarters of the historical society as well as a city museum. On August 29, 1985 the Shadelands Ranch became the second Walnut Creek landmark to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Heather Farm: In 1921 John W. Marchbanks, a wealthy gambling hall owner with a colorful past, purchased the 255 acre Sulphur Springs Ranch originally owned by Ygnacio Sibrian (grandson of Doña Juana Sanchez de Pacheco.) An interim owner had lost it to foreclosure. Marchbanks re-named the property Heather Farm after his champion stallion, Heather King. He invested $1 million to build a Spanish-style mansion, a half-mile track encircled by a white fence, a 48 stall stable and a barn. Heather Farm became the most important horse-breeding farm west of the Mississippi, raising dozens of champions. John Marchbanks retired to Heather Farm and died in 1947. His wife sold the property to a developer, who was unable to realize his vision for the property. After several interim transactions, a 50 acre parcel of the property was acquired by the City of Walnut Creek and developed as a park and swimming complex. Sporting Blood, a 1931 MGM film featuring Clark Gable in his first starring role was partially filmed at Heather Farm. The actor was sufficiently unknown at the time that the local paper here misspelled his surname as “Goble.”

Walnut Creek Open Space: The City of Walnut Creek Open Space division manages over 3000 acres of Open Space in four unique areas and over seven miles of neighborhood trails. These areas have been set aside to preserve natural resources, protect wildlife habitat and corridors, and provide recreation opportunities. Walnut Creek was the first city in California to actively purchase and preserve open spaces. The outdoor recreation activities have been much used and appreciated during this pandemic. Two of these four Open Space properties are of historical interest. The Howe Homestead Park is the former home of James Howe, an Associated Press correspondent from the early 20th century. He was born in Kansas and traveled the world, reporting on events such as the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and World War I. Howe interviewed numerous people who influenced the world including Stalin, King George V, and Gandhi. After retiring to Walnut Creek in 1935 he had the house remodeled and established his estate. He was a winemaker, breeder of pigeons, nut grower, gourmet, and collector. Borges Ranch is part of the Shell Ridge Open Space. It is nestled in the foothills of Mount Diablo. It was established in 1899 by Portuguese settler Francisco Borges and his family and is a great example of an early 20th century central California cattle ranch. Today many of the original buildings and structures still exist including the Borges family home, which is one of seven structures placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.

Content generously provided by Suzanne Hudson of the Walnut Creek Historical Society.  If you would like your city or town featured here, please contact Christine Esser in our administrative office at [email protected]!

Sources and Resources:  

“The Mountain and Creek Remember: Walnut Creek” by Helen C. “Pixie” Hicks from July/August 1983
issue of Heritage West Magazine

Walnut Creek: A Look Back published by the City of Walnut Creek in honor of 75 th anniversary of
incorporation; compiled by Brad Rovanpera (Walnut Creek Public Information Officer)

150 Years in Pictures: An Illustrated History of Walnut Creek by Brad Rovanpera
Walnut Creek: Arroyo de las Nueces by George Emanuels, 1984

Ygnacio Valley: 1834-1970 by George Emanuels, 1982
Bancroft Library web site
Ohlone Tribe web site

Ruth Bancroft Garden web site and staff
Walnut Creek Open Space web site


Comments from fellow history lovers welcome below!


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commented 2020-11-17 19:01:24 -0800 · Flag
Thank you Moira for the information. So there was a Crosby link to the race track at Heather Farm, but he did not own it. Very interesting.
commented 2020-11-17 14:07:41 -0800 · Flag
It’s rumored that Bing Crosby purchased a house in Walnut Creek to be close to Heather Farm where his horses were trained and boarded, but he did not own the track. Heather Farm was considered one of the the most important horse training facility west of the Mississippi.
commented 2020-11-16 13:26:41 -0800 · Flag
Richard, You can find more information about the race track in the Arcadia Publishing book, “Images of America-Walnut Creek”. This book, published in 2009, is in its third printing and contains over 180 images of historic Walnut Creek.
commented 2020-11-16 12:12:52 -0800 · Flag
In the late 1940s or early 1950s we would drive by a horse race track and my father would say that Bing Crosby owned in – at least that is what I remember. I wonder if that could have been Heather Farm? I remember it was near a place called Four Corners.