The City recently began working on the new fire station being bulit to replace station 93. Fire services are provided to the City by the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District. The Fire District has operated out of the existing fire station #93, located at 215 Second Street in Oakley, for nearly 50 years. The station is being built with fees collected with the Fire Facilities Impact Fee Program, which was established by the City in 2003 to finance the acquisition, design, engineering, construction, upgrade and other costs related to improving fire facilities in Oakley.
The land was purchased from the Romiti family, which first came to Oakley around 1915. Some members of the Romiti family served as voluntary firefighters for Station 93, including Albert Romiti, who lived his entire life at this location
The Old House at 530 O’Hara
By Marlene Romiti
Approximately 100 years ago, a small mining shack was moved from the foot of Mt. Diablo on huge rollers by horse. It was moved to what is now 530 O’Hara Avenue. A family lived in it for about 10 years until Joe and Clementina Romiti bought the house and the 10 acres surrounding it. They were immigrants from Italy and part of the Del Porto Family. They moved from Jackson, California, where the Del Porto family owned and ran a boarding house. Still located in Jackson is the first family home of the Romiti’s where their three daughters were born. After coming to Oakley, the four boys were born to the family with the last child, Joseph Romiti, being born in that house on July 5, 1919. Joe Romiti senior died in 1920 from black lung disease caused by working in the coal and gold mines in Jackson. The Del Porto half of the family built the Oakley Hotel which included “Ben’s Place”, Del Porto Garage, and a restaurant.
Clementina and her husband believed you should invest in land and being smart business people they bought as much as they could afford. Across from their home, they bought 30 acres of almond trees and later sold 6 acres to the County so they could build the Oakley Elementary School. They bought a 10-acre vineyard on Oakley Road where Ben Romiti raised his family. He farmed that land until he died in 2008 having lived in Oakley 95 years. Ben used to say, “If you live in Oakley why would you want to live at any other place?” He sincerely meant it. He had a great sense of pride in this city and this County. He and his sons had all worked for the County until retirement. In fact, between all the family members there is over 120 years of service to the County. Being asked to be Grand Marshal for the first City hood Parade was one of his proudest moments.
The Romiti family was known for their generosity, public service and the fact that you could always drop in at dinnertime. Clementina Romiti believed that there was “always room for one more”. A way of thinking that was carried on by her son, Albert Romiti. If you were an “old timer” in Oakley, you would have ended up at Albert’s place at least once a week and of course, you shared a meal. The neighboring ranchers would all meet at the back porch to share a snack and to drink the wine that was made from the vineyard on the 10 acres or to enjoy almonds picked from the trees in the yard. Joe Tovar, retired Fire Chief of Oakley Fire Department, grew up down the street from the Romiti ranch and he recalls the local kids picking almonds from the Romiti trees to sell for “movie” money and he claims Mrs. Romiti knew the kids did it. She just smiled and walked away. Raising six children on a farm alone had taught her that you had to help each other out any way you could.
This was also carried on by her son, Albert. There was a time when most all of the kids in the city had worked for him at one time or another, doing yard work, fieldwork or helping on the “almond huller” (donated to the Agricultural Museum at the Contra Costa County Fairgrounds). He fed the kids, gave them pocket money, and taught them that “a man is only as good as his word” and if they got into any kind of trouble they were no longer welcome at his house. Very few had that happen because of the respect they had for him. To this day, we have young men coming by to see the “old place” and to try to find Albert to thank him for all he had done for them. I have been lucky enough to be one of his nieces and to see these young people come back to find him after all these years. They speak of opportunities that they would have missed and of his generosity and kindness. My Uncle lived in that house until he died in 1999. At his memorial service many people spoke of the great times they had at that house with my uncle. It is difficult to think of him without smiling and remembering a funny story. He was the last farmer in Oakley to give up using horses to pull his plow and to work in the field. He raised hogs, chickens, and cows. If you bought a cow, he would throw in a chicken. Whole families would show up on the weekend to share a meal, purchase chickens, maybe a goat or a cow, but mostly to see the farm. It was like a field trip for the kids to a petting zoo. Most of the families returned year after year.
Because he grew up during the depression, he believed you never threw anything away “because you never know when someone might need that thing”. Unfortunately, he had 85 years worth of things that had not been thrown away! That old house was filled to the brim with all the treasures that he would not part with. He still had things like the tack for the work horses that hadn’t been used in over 20 years, keys to things that no longer existed, half filled cans of paint, 100 year old trunks filled with old photos, a T.V. with a round screen, parts of this and parts of that – which might come in handy some day.
He was infamous as a practical joker. He loved the opportunity to pull something over on one of his friends – and every one was his friend! It is surprising that any of the kids in our family ever passed history classes. He had told us outrageous tales and stories about historical figures that we absolutely believed and always included himself in the tale. He thought nothing of putting on a wig and strange outfit and driving hundreds of miles with an unsuspecting friend who had no idea of who he was. When his sister asked him to bring her a “fresh” chicken when he came to visit her in San Francisco – it was in a sack in the trunk of the car – probably the only live chicken in the City. When he would come back from Pittsburg with a truckload of day old bread to feed to his hogs – he would drive down the street giving bread to any one he met because times were hard and families were barely making it. I remember he made the National Inquirer because someone painted a Chicken Crossing with white paint on the street in front of his house and the Oakley Press actually caught a chicken using the crossing. Unfortunately, it was headed for Jess Mello’s house (the last Constable of Oakley) and Albert had told him he could keep any chicken that went into his yard. It is believed that Jess was baiting his lawn!
On a sunny June day many years ago, I received a call from a Sheriff’s dispatcher who said that there was a cow loose near the land that my uncle leased for his cattle. I crossed the street to tell him and volunteered to go with him to “round it up”. Four hours later, as I was still accompanying him on his “route” to pick up the greens from all three Centro Marts, made many stops to talk to friends and to snack at each place, I wondered when would we be going after the loose cow. He said, without cracking a smile, “Oh, the cow – it’s not mine.”
During an election year, my uncle staked out one of his cows with a sandwich board sign across her back. I watched dozens of cars stop to pet the cow and to see the sign. He was very proud to call Sheriff Rupf his friend and was delighted to present him with a huge framed print of the cow wearing the sign. The Sheriff was speechless at the sight because at the bottom it said, “Even the cows are voting for Sheriff Rupf.”
As my family drives down Main Street we not only see all the new businesses, we see the old shops and history of this city. We remember Olney’s Dry Goods, the Oakley Pharmacy with it’s soda fountain, the old Post Office, the Oakley Theater, Ben’s Place, Ike’s Acme Club, the L & D Market, the library at the Women’s Club, Judge Teddy Olmsted sitting on his bench in the Delta Muni Court, the Snack Shack, Baroni’s Bar, the Ice House, the Oakley Market and we remember many more businesses that have been long forgotten. We look at the same street names that everyone sees but we remember the families that they are named after and their part in the history of Oakley and our lives. We remember the people that taught us that every person is important, every tree has a history and every day is an adventure.
From the house at 530 O’Hara came a family that loved and respected the land that is now the City of Oakley. Many people will see only an old house but to the second, third and fourth generations of a family that has always lived in Oakley, it is a treasure of memories. As it is torn down, the memories will remain and I know that my Uncle will be proud to see the new Fire Department built on his land. After all, he was one of only two honorary firemen in the history of Oakley.