Marin County Genealogy

Marin County - Our Towns - Larkspur

Hosted by permission of Cathy Gowdy of the Marin County Genealogical Society.

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Larkspur Heritage Committee

The Escalle Vineyard and Winery offered home delivery for regular customers in the early 1900s. Prohibition and phylloxera later did in the popular spot for garden dining.



Lupine by another name

This small town has a whole lot of history - some of it as shady as its tree-lined streets


By the time Highway 101 hits Marin County, it's gathered enough steam to effectively bisect Larkspur and its neighbor, Corte Madera, and impose upon them a mildly schizophrenic temperament. While the Twin Cities' western halves are residential, hilly and rich in history, the eastern reaches are informed by the postwar building boom and a taste for growth. Towards Mt. Tam there are redwoods, meandering streets and Victorians; towards the bay are shopping centers, broad boulevards and Eisenhower-era single-stories resting comfortably atop reclaimed marshland. Unlike Corte Madera, however, Larkspur clings resolutely to its frontier past, all the way down to its historically designated downtown. 
The city's first residents, the Coast Miwoks, lived along Corte Madera Creek near what is now Redwood High School; from there they made hunting-gathering forays into nearby Madrone Canyon and out to the salt marshes, bringing home wild turkey, deer and bear. Initial white settlement came in the 1840s with loggers working the Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio, a sizable chunk of real estate granted by the Mexican government to Irish adventurer John Reed for the purpose of supplying lumber to the Presidio in Yerba Buena (now San Francisco). Two sawmills were set up in what is now Larkspur. They and the logging barges navigating Corte Madera Creek did away with most of the trees in the area; ranching and farming became the region's principal industries after that.  

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Larkspur Heritage Committee

Hotel Larkspur, built in 1895, was refaced with blue rock in 1909 and got a new name.

Then, in 1886, C.W. Wright and his American Land and Trust Company of Oakland (manufacturer of wire nails) bought up much of the area from speculator Patrick King, divvied it into lots, piped in water from a Baltimore Canyon dam and waited for the summer traffic. Wright's wife, Georgiana, delighted in the town's preponderance of lupine and, not being a botanist, named the city Larkspur. (The balmy weather would continue to inspire a bounty of horticulturalism: In 1971, 300 Larkspur roses were shipped to the White House for Tricia Nixon's wedding.) The town grew quickly, its population rising faster than its housing. Streets were named for the trees that would one day, presumably, line them. The first five houses had been thrown together practically overnight to qualify the town for its own train station; one of the town's nuttier homes was so elaborately planned it was never finished-a mansion with seven fireplaces and a cupola eventually used by San Pablo Bay sailors as a reckoning point.

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Larkspur Heritage Committee

Gus Frizzi's popular saloon is now home to Cuquelicot.

Larkspur around the turn of the century had a rough reputation as a fun-loving town. Illegal dog races, prizefights (sometimes featuring Gentleman Jim Corbett) and slot machines were an open secret, and it was easy to get a drink no matter what your birth certificate said. Wright's baby, the Larkspur Hotel (now the Blue Rock Apartments/Left Bank Bistro), was a reputed home to prostitutes and bootleggers, and the Escalle Winery just up the street was known for its rowdy Bastille Day celebrations. Gentler pleasures were enjoyed in Corte Madera Creek, whose salt waters were reputedly the warmest in Central California, and the Larkspur Inn, whose hilltop grounds featured stables, a bowling green and a croquet court.
The 1906 earthquake and fire sent 200 families from San Francisco to Larkspur, many of them summer tent residents already enchanted by the town's balmy, fog-less weather. The city incorporated two years later; municipal parks, street repairs and a brand-new city hall quickly followed. But what really put Larkspur on the map were the regular Saturday night dances at the Rose Bowl, an open-air dance palace in a grove of redwoods just off the main drag. Oftentimes during the Bowl's half-century of operation, 4,000 celebrants from around the Bay Area would show up to dance the night away.

Larkspur continued its growth when the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 made the city more accessible, and the housing shortages of World War II drove civilians from crowded San Francisco into suburbia. The town annexed Greenbrae property in 1949 (although it's still out of Larkspur's ZIP code area) and part of the San Quentin peninsula in 1968, the area now known as Larkspur Landing. Baltimore Canyon was saved from development in 1977 with the city's purchase of canyon open space.

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Larkspur Heritage Committee

Looking north on Magnolia Avenue in 1911: The first building on the right now houses the Silver Peso.

A stroll down Magnolia reveals a number of treasures. There's the Left Bank restaurant, the Larkspur Hotel's delicious descendant and as such a reminder of the town's Wild West roots. Pasticceria Rulli, just down the street, produces the finest pastries east of the Pacific Ocean, while the neighboring Silver Peso is one of Marin's last great blue-collar bars. On a more sober note is the jewel of a city library tucked into a corner of City Hall (built 1913), its chandeliers, cut glass and overstuffed armchairs reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century gentleman's club. From there it's a short hop to the airy, spacious, 1888-vintage Victorian recesses of the Lark Creek Inn, where Bradley Ogden's staff whips up award-winning Americana in a graciously casual setting. On mild evenings, when the doors are open to the soft warm air, it's easy to understand the attraction the town has had across the centuries for Miwok, gambler, jitterbug and prizefighter alike.

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© Copyright 2007 Ron Filion and Pamela Storm. All rights reserved.