Louise Rantz

Louise Rantz

Louise Rantz, who is 92 years old, and her younger brother George, have lived in this classic California bungalow ( built in 1923) since their mother bought the house in 1935 for $2,400. (They later added another room in the back with a garage below for a total cost of $400.) Their father was a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to America in 1897, joined the marines and fought in the Spanish American war in 1898. Later he migrated west to San Francisco where he was part owner of a garment business and supervised the workers while one partner managed sales and the other partner was the accountant. A large part of their business was tailor-made suits, which at the time were more common than ready-made ones. Their mother immigrated to America from the Portuguese Azores in 1910 at age 18 and came to live with relatives in San Francisco. There she found work in the garment factory where the father worked.

Louise says that her mother cried constantly while sewing, and when Mr. Rantz asked the workers why she was crying, they told her that she was lonely and could not speak any English. So he took on the task of teaching her, and eventually they fell in love and got married. The garment business folded after the accountant defrauded the other two partners, and Mr. Rantz decided that he would like to try his hand at farming, so in 1918 when Louise was just 2, the couple purchased a thirty-acre ranch in Atwater, in the San Joaquin Valley, for $10,000. The family worked the land, growing peaches and grapes, along with other produce, and after ten years, the ranch was paid off. Unfortunately all the promises that the children heard about things they were going to have when the ranch was paid off came to naught, because shortly afterwards the Depression hit, and the family lost most of what it had saved. The family survived the first years of the Depression by living off their own produce and the cows and chickens and other animals they had. The three neighboring farms were not so lucky; all three went bankrupt and lost their farms to the Bank of America. The Rantzes stayed on there until 1934, when the father died of cancer. The farm was sold for $3,500 and the widow Rantz and her six children pulled up roots and moved to Berkeley to be near her family. There Louise’s older sister was a student at Cal. That was in 1935, when they bought the house. The family survived the rest of the Depression with help from the Veteran’s Administration and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who helped the family a great deal. Widow Rantz also did custodial work at St. Joseph’s school.

Louise has a rich and detailed memory of her early years in Berkeley on McGee Ave. beginning at age 19. She remembers that there were lots of kids on the block and that they played in the streets – mostly baseball -- at all hours of the day. They particularly liked to play at the empty lot on the southwest corner of Channing and McGee, a lot that stayed empty until the early forties when a ranch style duplex was built to help house the many workers who were coming to the East Bay to work in the shipyards. There were similar units constructed just up Dwight Way below MLK Jr. Way on the south side of the street. The last vacant lot that she remembers was on the southeast corner of the same intersection where a house was relocated during the construction of BART. Louise recalls that this was an unusual lot with 4 to 5 houses on it that had to be turned into condominiums in order to be sold in the early 1990s.

Louise also remembers that the closest grocery store was a small one on the corner of Dwight and McGee where Helen Holt now has her lighting shop. Down on Sacramento and Dwight, there was a larger market, and a bakery (now the Homemade Café)and a drug store (now a liquor store). Louise also recalls that for many years no one was allowed to leave cars parked in the street at night because that was when the street sweeper came through to clean the streets. These were human street sweepers with brooms, not machines. For the last few years, her brother George sets out signs along the sidewalk near their house to remind neighbors that street sweeping day is coming up because he wants to make sure that the streets get properly cleaned. Louise remembers that earlier this area was called the “flats” and that it was much more working-class than it is today. She does not recall any people of color living on the block except for an Asian family that bought a house across the street for their kids who were studying at Cal, then sold it after they had graduated.

Following in her mother’s Roman Catholic tradition, Louise has been a faithful parishioner of St. Joseph’s ever since coming to the neighborhood. She remembers all the priests who have headed the church and characterizes the current priest as a real devotee of music and handsome as well. She knows many stories about the early church, including one about farmer McGee donating some of his land for a Catholic church because the Irish Catholic residents of Berkeley got tired of going all the way to St. Mary’s in Oakland for church services. Louise proudly calls herself a spinster, and says that her brother George never married either (partly because he was too busy traveling around as a stagehand and carpenter for various theater and music companies in Los Angeles) but that he did “get close.”

Louise went to Healds Business School in Oakland, then worked for thirty years for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph (about 1937 – 1975). At the beginning of WWII she remembers the first time the alarm for a blackout was called. They weren’t prepared, and had to run around looking for things to cover the windows with. She also remembers feeling sick at heart about the internment of Japanese-American citizens. While they didn’t know any Japanese-Americans in Berkeley, they had known quite a few in the valley with whom they were friends and whose farm work they respected. Louise remembers driving with her mother one time down by the Greyhound bus station in downtown Oakland and seeing the many Japanese internees with their families and belonging gathered at the station waiting to be bussed away. In the family, they relish the story of one of her cousin’s daughters, who, many years after the war, married a Japanese-American architect. When he received the mandated remuneration of $20,000 from the government, he went out and bought a fancy sports car.

Near the end of WWII, her younger brother George was a senior at Berkeley High and just two months away from graduation when he was drafted into the army and sent to Manila. After the war ended he served for another year with the army in Japan. When he returned home, they gave him his high school diploma, without him having to go back for two months, because of his experience in the army.

Louise’s mother lived well into her nineties, and it fell to Louise to care for her as she became frail and suffered increasingly from dementia. She passed away in 1986.

                        -- Louise Rantz was interviewed by Hal Reynolds in 2008 

Click here to go back to "Oral Histories."

Make a Free Website with Yola.