Interviewed by Patricia Swensen (with assistance from Laurie Buntain and Chuck Swensen), March 10, 1996.
William Franchini was a longtime San Anselmo merchant, town mayor, and one of the original members of the Historical Commission.
Q: Bill, you’re known for several accomplishments, activities, adventures and such in the history of San Anselmo. You’ve been mayor of the town; you were one of the most important merchants, owning the Home Market; you were a famous baseball player; and a formidable athlete. So we’d like to know some more about you. Let’s start with your background. How and when did you get to San Anselmo?
A: Well. My folks came over here about 1915 and bought a house on Ross Avenue. It was sort of a summer place at first and then we moved over here when I was about 5 years old. I was born in San Francisco, and after a while we moved over here permanently. And I grew up in San Anselmo, went to the local schools: Main School, Saint Anselm’s School, Tamalpais High School, and College of Marin, and then after school I had a chance to go on with a baseball scholarship, but I passed it up because I was going to get married and I don’t know whether that was a mistake or not (laughter). I’ve only been married 58 years, so maybe it was a mistake.
Q: Let’s go back to your school days for just a little bit. You went to Main School. Are there any special teachers you remember?
A: Oh yeah. Wade Thomas was the superintendent of schools. In those days there was Fairfax, San Anselmo, and Yolansdale. There were only three schools. Miss Ansel was the principal and eighth grade teacher, and she was a great teacher. She was well respected. She belonged to the San Anselmo Historical Commission years ago. She has passed away now. For some reason at the seventh grade my mother moved me to the Catholic school, Saint Anselm’s, and I finished up there before I went to high school.
Q: Do you have any particular friends you remember, especially ones who are still in San Anselmo?
A: Oh, I know a lot of people. In fact, I don’t know whether I should tell you about this, but the other day a prominent San Francisco attorney, Vincent Mullins, died. He went to St. Anselm’s school and went on the be a prominent citizen in San Francisco. And I knew a lot of people in San Anselmo. Being in business I knew an awful lot of people in San Anselmo. Grew up with the Fire Chief and the Chief of Police and the whole works. And when I was growing up the population of San Anselmo was only about 2,000 people. It didn’t start to grow until after the war.
Q: What did you do in the summer? When you weren’t in school, what were your favorite activities?
A: Sports. On Sundays we played baseball. In those days when I was just a freshman in high school baseball was a big thing in town. I started out playing on the morning team and then as I got older I moved to the afternoon team. But that was the thing to do for people who lived in San Anselmo. They didn’t have much to do. They didn’t have cars like we do today and the population was 2,000-2,500, so on Sundays they went to the ball game over at Memorial Park, and they used to draw maybe 500 people and played pretty good baseball in those days. And that was one of the things. Then we had a show downtown. The Tamalpais Theater. It was built in ’26 and that was one thing we did. We didn’t have the things that they have today. I guess your would say we made our fun. In the 1930’s baseball was the thing. Every town in the County had a team. There was a league: San Anselmo, San Rafael, Fairfax, Novato, Hamilton Field, Sausalito, and Tiburon. So that was the big thing on Sundays in the summertime. As time progressed baseball came to San Francisco and the Coast League was there already. As soon as the car came along, people found other things to do. That was the main attraction in my day.
Q: When did your family get their first car?
A: My father loved automobiles. Every two years he bought a car. One of his first cars I can remember when I was a kid was a McFarland. It was a touring car. And in those days it cost $6,800, which was a lot of money. That was his Sunday car. During the week we had several different automobiles. We had Essexes, we had Hudsons, we had Chryslers. We always had cars. He loved automobiles. And when the Depression came along, we didn’t really feel it in my family because we were in the food business. My father had a business and he lost a lot of money in the stock market, but on the other hand he had his business and he always fell back on that and we always had everything we wanted, really.
Q: Can you think of particular people or events that you can look back on as having shaped your life?
A: I think sports shaped my life. I loved sports and my life was kind of built around that. Even after I got out of school I kept close to sports. I refereed and I umpired and I was one of the founders of the Little League in San Anselmo. I loved that. Of course my life was built around my business, really.
Q: Your father started the Home Market?
A: My father came over here, and then in 1926 he built the Home Market building, and the family ran that business until 1972. I had it for ten years by myself. That was in the meat department. We leased out the other part of the market, the grocery and vegetable market. We were just in the meat business.
Q: What kind of meats did you sell?
A: We were a first class operation. When that market was first built — you wouldn’t know it to look at it today — that was a first class market. It had separate departments: a meat department; a bakery; a vegetable counter; and groceries. In fact, Kientz Bakery was in there with a little stand and later we took it over and put in a fish department. Now its nothing.
Q: How long was it in existence? How long did it last?
A: It lasted until 1972. I sold the business a little before that. We sold the building in 1972. The Franchinis were out of there in 1972.
Q: What services did you offer in the market?
A: We offered charge and delivery service. A person could go in and charge a purchase and get a bill at the end of the month. Call in at 9 in the morning and ask for two lamb chops and we would deliver them by lunch time, or call in the afternoon and get something for dinner. It was the kind of business we ran. It was a service business, which is gone. They don’t do that anymore.
Q: Were there any customers that you especially remember?
A: Oh yeah. We had some real fine people in Ross. The ones I can remember were Mrs. Skewes-Cox, Mrs. Wayman, Mrs. Schmiedell , and Mrs. McNear. They were all prominent people in Ross. We catered to a lot of the wealthy people in Ross. And they all came into the market because they could charge and they had the maids and they could phone in and buy.
Q: What would a family like that spend on food in a month?
A: In those days hamburger was ten cents a pound. If they spent 100 dollars they were a good customer. If they spent $200 they were really a good customer.
Q: Did you ever have trouble getting people to pay their bills?
A: We did. Along came the Depression and we would be the last ones to be paid. But as a rule we did all right because we belonged to the Credit Association and before they could charge they would have to fill out an application and we would check their credit. We lost a little money, but not very much. In fact by the time I got out of it — when I went to retire– we had a lot of money on the books and we lost 10 dollars, so we got all our money. Which was pretty good.
Q: Were there any crises you faced in the market? Did you ever have fire?
A: We had lots of problems with earthquakes. We had several. One earthquake was on a Friday afternoon in the 1950s and it blew the ammonia pipe that fed our refrigeration and we didn’t know what to do. We had to get the Fire Department down. We lost a lot of meat. The ammonia discolored the meat, so we couldn’t sell it and we lost a lot of money. But we got it fixed and got back in business. And the floods. We didn’t have any as bad as the flood in ’82, but we did have several years when the water would come up in the market about 2 inches. We really didn’t lose anything, but it was just a nuisance. They used to blow the horn if the water was coming up or they would call and tell you to come down, because there were not that many merchants around. We didn’t have fires, luckily.
Q: What was the population before the Golden Gate Bridge was built?
A: Around 2,000. And then it started to grow to 4,000. As time progressed in 1956 it was 12,000 and it hasn’t changed. And the reason for that is there is no place to go in San Anselmo. There’s not to many pieces of property left, and there are no big apartment houses.
Q: Let’s move from Bill Franchini the eminent merchant to Bill Franchini the Mayor of the town. How did you get involved in local politics?
A: Well. Everybody thought I was crazy. I just decided one day that I was interested in the town. I was a business person, had spent my life in town, and I used to read in the paper what was going on , and I came home to my wife and said “I’m going to run for Council.” And I knew a lot of people. So I took out the papers and I got the most votes. I’ll never forget in those days there was a lady on the Council by the name of Carmel Booth who was a tiger. You know Sarah Nome. She was tougher than Sarah Nome. The first meeting she wanted to elect me Mayor. Well, you know, I didn’t know what it was all about so I turned it down. Anyway, I was just interested in the town and as I got involved. I enjoyed it. It’s kind of an ego trip after a while, and I ran again and I was elected again.
Q: Who did you run against? Do you remember?
A: Probably there was a seat open. One of the person’s name was Martin, but I don’t remember.
Q: How did you conduct a campaign for Council in those days? Did they then as now put signs out on lawns and in windows?
A: I spent $35. I put an ad in the U (Independent Journal). My motto was — my kids usually kid me about it – “Good Clean Government.” Can you imagine. That was the only money I spent. I didn’t have posters made or anything. In those days we had a paper in town that was very active. Every week there was a big article about the town and so you know they made a big deal over it, and being a local merchant and knowing a lot of people through my athletics and such and my good name — we were prominent citizens in San Anselmo — I had no problems at all.
Q: Did the paper have any bias? I mean, would it back one candidate or another?
A: They would recommend, yes. We had a lot of problems on the Council, too. They think it’s hard today. We had problems with the Chief of Police. All kinds of problems. It was kind of a headache, but it was worth it. I enjoyed it.
Q: So what years did you serve?
A: 1956 through 1964. I served eight years.
Q: Could you pick out a major event or a major problem or a major success during your tenure?
A: One of the big problems was Sunny Hills. In that era the orphanage was there and they were going to move it back and make that into a shopping center. There were a lot of people who didn’t like that because it was going to split the town in half, but there was nothing we could do about it. It was zoned commercial and we tried to do the best we could with it. I guess it probably did divide the town, but it was one of those things.
Q: How do you mean divide the town? Physically?
A: Yes, we had merchants downtown and merchants at Red Hill. Another major thing was that slide down Red Hill when the houses slid down the hill.
Q: What caused that?
A: I’ll never forget it was some outfit from L.A. that wanted to build them. They had soil engineers come in and I’ll never forget that night I said if I had any money I’d never build on that side of the hill and they said the soil engineers said its OK, so we OK’d it. Then the next rain storm they (the houses) were half built and they slid down the hill. You know, went to pieces. One of the big things when I was on the Council was naming a new Chief of Police. We had a lot of trouble with that, but we finally got it settled.
Q: Eight years is a longish period. You can see changes in that period. What would you say were the major changes in the town itself?
A: At one time San Anselmo was the major food shopping area. We had more markets in San Anselmo than in San Rafael. We had Purity downtown, we had Safeway downtown, we had Kings Market, and our market. Safeway was down where the post office is now. But then as time progressed Safeway moved up to Red Hill, Purity went out of business, then the Kings Market closed down, and we closed down, so now there’s only a couple of markets left. United, well United came along in the 50s. The markets just disappeared. There are just a few now. And I think the problem for the small merchant is the overhead got too much and there wasn’t enough volume there and they couldn’t make any money, so they closed.
Q: There were certainly changes in San Anselmo in your lifetime. Go back just a bit, back to the First World War for instance. What do you think were the major issues for the town?
A: Same old stuff. What goes around comes around. They’re talking about the same thing these days that we did twenty-five or thirty years ago. Streets. They want to upgrade San Anselmo downtown. Vacancies. Not enough money. It was the same then as it is now. That’s the way it is and it’ll always be that way. Never have enough money to do what you want. But they’ll survive. Of course downtown has changed considerably in as much as I was just thinking this morning when I drove through there we’ve lost hardware stores, paint stores, lots of stores. They are mostly antique and little gift shops now and restaurants. Every other store is a restaurant. But that’s the changing times.
Q: There was an article in the Chronicle recently citing the number of restaurants that were opening up and saying that San Anselmo is really becoming a tourist town.
A: I believe it. Now they have a tourist bus which comes in on Tuesdays. They come in to tour the antique shops. In fact, one day at the Historical Museum a fellow came in and wanted to know if we were interested in opening up the Museum on Tuesdays because they were thinking of having a tourist bus come in on Tuesdays so people had some place they could go.
Q: Speaking about the town and your view of it, what events do you think, looking back, most drastically changed the town?
A: At one time San Anselmo was a bedroom for San Francisco. People lived here and commuted to the City. And when the bridge came along it changed everything. And when industry came into Marin County a lot of people work in Marin County so they don’t have to drive into the city. It has changed that way. There’s a lot of people living here who don’t even go into the City. They have jobs in Marin County. And in those days when I was on the Council nobody wanted any industry at all in San Anselmo. They wanted it to be strictly residential. We didn’t have a tax base for sales tax, and that’s still a problem. They just don’t have it.
Q: What effect do you think the events of the 1960s and early ’70s had on the community? They certainly changed society nationally. I’m talking about the war in Vietnam and Civil Rights. Do you think it affected the way people lived and thought in San Anselmo very much?
A: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think the women’s movement has changed it. Because now in the banks there are no men, there are all women. And in the town, women run the town. Women run the libraries. Nothing wrong with it, but that’s how its changed. The women’s movement has changed things in the town. I’m not criticizing it because there are a lot of smart women.
Q: Where would you like to see the town go?
A: Well I think as I told you yesterday, I don’t think the town will change much. I think it will probably stay a small town, because that’s what people like. A little village with a lot of antique shops and restaurants and I don’t think any big operation will want to come into town. However, Andronico’s might have some effect.
Q: What did happen to Guasco’s ( the market Andronico’s replaced in 1996)? I mean they were here for 70 some years.
A: They were called the San Anselmo Market. They were down where there’s a little child’s shop on the comer (601 San Anselmo Avenue). That was a market. They were just a little place and then they built the building (at the Hub) and in one part of the building was a store called Sprouse Ritz. It was a five and dime. Then Guasco’s took that over and made a big store. As an independent they were having a hard time making it because of high overhead and not enough volume. They sold out. I guess they sold the property and everything.
Q: I’d like to talk about you as an individual and your family. And Cassie. I tried to convince Cassie to come in and speak to us a little bit.
A: No she doesn’t want to (laughter).
Q: How did you meet her? Tell us about your courtship?
A: I was just out of school and she worked in San Rafael for the Water District as a secretary. We met and we went together for about three years and then we were married in 1938 and we had three children, two girls and a boy. They all went to local schools and all went to Berkeley and all graduated. One is a California Teachers’ representative. My daughter Gale is the Treasurer of Larkspur, and the other daughter works for a security outfit over in Blackhawk in the East Bay. We have six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Q: As a parent, what were the biggest problems you had when you were raising your children?
A: I don’t know. We didn’t have many problems. We ran a strict ship. A strict ship. Our girls, when they were going to school, if they went to a dance, had to be home at one o’clock. No mix-up about it. So they knew what the score was. However, when they went over to Berkeley lockout was at 2:30 in the morning (laughter). I almost died.
Q: When you were running your strict ship, you had support from other parents, didn’t you? I mean, most parents insisted that their children be in at a reasonable time.
A: I think that was general in those days. In fact when they were having what they’re going through now — these sober parties for the senior balls — the parents all got together and decided what it would be for the seniors and that’s the way it was. You know, it was controlled and we didn’t have drugs. We had drinking, but we didn’t have drugs. In fact when I went to high school there were very few kids that I knew who even drank. You know, it was a different ball game altogether.
Q: Anything else on raising children? You were obviously very successful.
A: We are very happy the way our kids turned out. I think one of the problems today with kids is that both parents work. Especially young kids. They come home from school., there’s nobody home, and they have a lot of time to themselves and the first thing you know they’re in trouble. We didn’t have that because my wife didn’t work till later on.
Q: What did she do?
A: When I was going to get out of business she did the books for about six months. I think that’s a big problem. Like in our neighborhood here. During the day there’s nobody here. They all work and they have children and they have a gal taking care of the babies.
Q: You have taken up a new hobby or almost vocation recently, the computer. What got you interested in the computer?
A: Well, I just figured I wanted to know how it worked and I went to night school at college and I wanted to find out how the damned thing worked and I sort of got fascinated. I have one and I fool around with it. I’m not very good at it but I have fun. You know, getting back to San Anselmo, I’ve done everything in the town. I don’t think there is anything I haven’t done.
Q: Tell us a little more about that.
A: Well, I was on the Town Council, I was City Treasurer for six years, I was president of the Chamber of Commerce, I was a Rotarian for 51 years, and I started Little League. I mean I’ve been in everything, so I think I’ve had a full life as far as the town is concerned.
Q: As far as anything is concerned. We have two other members of the Historical Commission here, Laurie Buntain who is one of the co-chairs and our cameraman Chuck Swensen. Do either of you have anything you want to ask or add?
Q: (Laurie) I guess the biggest question I have is: how have you survived living in San Anselmo? Have you been happy here?
A: You know, I’ve been lucky (knocks on wood). In all the time I worked I only missed maybe about a week and I worked in my job for forty years. I was never sick. And right now we’re both lucky. We haven’t been sick. And you know that’s pretty good. My wife is going to be 80 in June and I’m 82 so I’d say we’re pretty lucky as far as health is concerned. And of course my father lived to be 95. He wasn’t very good for the last year, but he did all right. And how old is your dad now (directed to Chuck Swensen)?
A: (Chuck Swensen) Oh, he’s 96. (Pat Swensen) And still living independently.
Q: One last question. You think we’re going to get the railroad car for the Historical Commission or do you think we’ll be able to rebuild the little train station?
A: I don’t know, that’s hard.
Q: If you were the Mayor today, what would you say if somebody came to you with such plans?
A: The first thing I ask is: “Where is the money going to come from?” And the second thing I’d ask is: “Where are you going to put it?” If you came up with that answer I’d say: “Well, OK, when you get the money and you get those things together and can bring us some concrete facts then we’ll talk about it.” But with the tight money nowadays I don’t know. But you never know. They only thing you can do is try.
Q: That’s what we’re doing. Well, Bill thank you so much. I think this has been very helpful and it has been a delight.
A: Thank you.
Q: (Laurie) I have one more question. Have the people who live here changed?
A: Well, the people who live in our neighborhood are all young. It’s another generation. All have little kids. There’s nine kids all this big (indicates small children). Both parents work, or at least the majority of them. When we first moved here, none of the wives worked as I recall, or if they did it was a part-time thing. So they were around and the neighborhood was more lively during the day. Now weekdays there’s nobody here. Except the people taking care of the kids.