The Northside Oral History Project

Beatrice (Bee) Bernhart

by Stephanie Bernhart

Bee circa 1950s My grandmother Beatrice (Bee) Bernhart, who will be 99 years old on June 8 (2002), has lived in the Northside neighborhood for 96 years, the past 94 of them in her current home. Bee moved into an 1888 Victorian house on the 400-block of N. 6th St. along with her family when she was five years old. The lumber for Bee's house and the one next door, built by the same owner for his son, was supplied by the lumberyard of the Green family, who lived across the street. Bee's family on her mother's side, the De la Torre's, came from Spain with Father Junipero Serra and arrived in Sinaloa, Mexico. They walked with Father Serra on his journey into California, establishing the first mission in San Diego in 1769. Bee is a member of Los Californianos, a society of descendants from California's Spanish period. Bee's father from Prussia (Germany) came to America to avoid the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s. He joined the U.S. Army, then later landed a job on her mother's ranch in Prunedale (near Salinas), the remnant of a Spanish royal land grant. The couple started a family and then moved to San Jose, where her father, a butter-maker, operated a creamery at 4th and Santa Clara Sts. "They don't have butter-makers anymore, do they?," Bee observes. Bee was the seventh of eight children, six girls and a boy. "I'm the last one. They're all gone," Bee says. Bee's elder sister Lee Elliott lived was 97 when she passed. Lee reminisced about the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Atascadero elementary school (Atascadero News, Feb. 2, 1994, at p.A6). The family lived in a two-story house on N. 5th St. which rocked back and forth, with only the chimney holding it in place. Luckily, since they had no gas, there was no fire. The militia came to prevent looting, and the family could see a big black cloud on the horizon in the direction of San Francisco. Bee at her 99th birthdayThe family had to live in the barn at the back of the house, with no floor and a leaky roof, until they moved into Bee's current home a block away. Bee cannot recall the quake: "I was only three then." The kids all spoke Spanish, and Bee didn't learn to speak English until she went to Grant School, newly rebuilt after the quake. When they were kids, Bee and her sisters would go to St. James Park to sit in the sun on the cool grass and play games. Sometimes they would bury rocks and say, "Let's come back in 30 years and see if they're still here!" But decades later, in November 1933, as she was driving home, she got stuck in a stand-still traffic jam. So, like everyone else, she got out of the car to see what all the commotion was about. A mob had broken into the nearby jail and seized two young me, and dragged them into the park. To Bee's horror, she witnessed the hanging of these to young men, the kidnappers of department store heir Brookie Hart. (See, H. Farrell, Swift Justice). Needless to say, Bee never went back, not even for her buried rock treasure. Bee first found work when she was about eight years old. There was a large mansion next door, on the corner of N. 6th and Washington Sts. It occupied the space of the four houses there now. Bee and her sister would sweep the sidewalks all around for 10 cents per week. Then, at age10, Bee washed dishes for the Herold's and the Bailey's, who lived on N. 5th St. They would have big dinner parties and would trust the neighborhood kids to wash their good china dishes. They never broke one! Then Bee found work in the busy canneries. At age eleven, she went to work at the Goldengate Paking Co., which then turned into the Hunt Bros. Cannery. It was located on N. 4th St. where the Salvation Army is now. There she would cut apricots and put them in cans, and then put the cans in boxes. She was paid eight cents per box. Bee also worked for the Del Monte Cannery on N. 7th St. In Bee's backyard was a big barn and a two-story water tank. Her little brother would tease her by telling her he had been swimming in it. Bee would cringe because they would have to drink that water, and she wondered how he ever got into it.
Bee with her dogs
In the barn, they would roller skate up on the big barn floor or jump rope, and her brothers would play marbles. One day Bee's friend, Mildred French, who lived three doors down, invited her to go for a ride in her father's car, an old rambler. They went for a long ride and ended up at Sarah Winchester's house. While Mildred' parents had tea with Mrs. Winchester, the two girls roamed about the house, opening closet doors that had stairs leading up to nowhere and other peculiar things. They were too young and polite to ask her why she had such a funny house. There were no garbage pickup trucks when Bee was a child, so they used to bury their trash in the backyard and burn the rest. Back then, the streets were not paved and got very dusty in the summer, so a water truck would come and spray down the street to keep the dust down. Bee's poor mother, with eight children, would have to boil their clothes in a big pot on the wood stove and then wash them on an old zinc washboard. This was way before washing machines! Bee remembers "little" Bobby Hutson, the boy next door on the corner of 6 th and Washington, and how he would fight with the neighbor's boy on the other side of Bee's house. Hutson grew up and invented the Oral-B toothbrush in the basement there. Two doors down lived Albert Gaetano, a boy who set up a CB radio in his bedroom and would talk to people all over the world with it. She, too, remembers the old McKiernan (now Lazzarini) house on N. 7th and Washington Sts. (see Northside, Winter 2001, at p.7). Bee and sisterThe kids had a nickname for the McKiernan patriarch. "We called him Uncle Sam because he had whiskers just like Uncle Sam and he had a top hat just like him, too." Bee remembers Babe (Ethola) and Dee, the sisters who ran Maio's, the corner store on 7th and Washington Sts., and Ann Darling of N. 5th St., for whom a school is now named. And the Morrison "maids," who were really the Morrison sisters who happened to be old maids who lived in a mansion with a huge yard around it on the corner of N. 6th and Julian Sts., where Mi Pueblo Grocery is today. They were the first in the neighborhood to have a motorized car! Bee's father owned the Elite Creamery on 4 th and Santa Clara Sts., so the family always had fresh butter, milk and cheese. The family would go to Franco's Market on 5th and Santa Clara Sts. and buy a bag of groceries for $5, then onto O'Connell's, a butcher shop on N. 6th and St. James Sts., for their meat. "That was the store to go to," Bee says of Franco's. There was also a vegetable man would come in his big truck and bring fresh vegetables. During prohibition, the vegetable man would bring a basket full of vegetables and hiding underneath would be a bottle of wine for their mother, Bee recalls. Unbeknownst to the family at the time, there was also a speakeasy across the street in the house of a German family. They reportedly had the "best beer in town, but we didn't ever know it." Bee talks about going window shopping downtown every Saturday night. That was the thing to do in those days. They would go look at the displays at Hale's, Hart's, Prussia's, Blum's and The Arcade. Bee recalls dancing with soldiers during the first world war and taking the streetcar out to Alum Rock Park to go to dances there. She also went to dances at the Hoo Hoo House, a dancehall in Cupertino where they had little partition rooms where couples would go to "smooch." Bee would work all day, dance all night (until 1 a.m), and go right back to work the next morning. One of her dance partners was the father of former Mayor Tom McHenry. Bee remembers when Japantown used to be Chinatown. (See, Northside, Summer 2001, at p.14). Her father warned her to stay away from the sandbags on the corner of N. 6th and Empire Sts. during the "Tong Wars" when the Chinese gangs were fighting in San Francisco and were feared to be in San Jose. "So naturally, we girls had to head down there," Bee says. The girls were also warned to stay away from Chinatown because they might be "shanghaied", kidnapped into white slavery. Bee graduated from Grant School in 1917 and went to San Jose High and San Jose Teacher's College (now San Jose State University). She became a schoolteacher and taught at Berryessa, Pala, Rogers, Ryan, Dorsa and Linda Vista schools in the Alum Rock School Dist. Some of her former students still come and visit her today. "And they're all in their 70's," Bee says of her former students. "And they say I was their favorite teacher," she recounts proudly. Bee was married to Gustav (Gus) Bernhart, of French Canadian descent, in 1929. Bee and husband Gus Shortly thereafter, the Great Depression arrived. "I wasn't hit by the depression, since I was teaching school," Bee recalls. But her husband Gus, a machinist, wasn't so lucky. Her brother, a pharmacist, was also out of work. They would sit around in the kitchen drinking wine all day, Bee says. Gus's best friend was the late Norm Hastings, the father of Hon. _________ Hastings, a sitting Santa Clara County judge. Bee often remarks how proud Norm would be of his son. When World War II came along, Bee's basement was set up as an emergency first aid station for the neighborhood. Everyone had to cover their windows with heavy black curtains or shades and all lights had to be turned off at night so that any enemy planes overhead would not be able to see anything to bomb. Bee's husband Gus would walk, and sometimes have to crawl, around to check and make sure that everything was dark. So, imagine his chagrin, when one night he came home to find his own back porch light blaring on! Bee remembers with horror the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. Many of her students were of Japanese ancestry, and they were forced to leave school and their homes. "They had to leave everything," she says. "That was awful." Her brother-in-law, Fred, had a number of Japanese workers, and he stored all of their belongings in his house, saving them for their return from the internment camps. "They were very grateful," Bee remembers. Bee's husband Gus passed away nearly 30 years ago, in 1973. But going on 99 years old, Bee is still very much alive. She is completely recovered from having fallen and broken her hip twice, most recently last December. Although she says, "now all I do is eat and sleep and watch TV," she also still does the dishes and laundry, and plays the piano. "I play a little bit," she acknowledges. "But my arthritis bothers."Bee & granddaughter/author Stephanie


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