LARKINS, Tillie Perez
Losing a landmark but remembering the past
By S. Michele Fry, Concord Transcript, June 4, 2009
Back when Concord was primarily surrounded by farmland, it was adjacent to the successful company town of Cowell.
The company, Cowell Portland Cement, owned the houses, the boarding house, the general store, the hospital, the firehouse and the town hall. Company employees and their families were the only residents, and all the workers lived in the town. They abided by strict rules set and enforced by the company.
In what could have been a stifling existence, many people who grew up there recall it fondly — from “Mark Twain-esque” adventures to good jobs.
“It was a wonderful town to grow up in. It was a close-knit community,” recalled Tillie Larkins, 93.
She became a resident at age 3 when her father went to work for the company and the family moved into their home in Cowell. It was 1919 — the Women’s Suffrage Bill passes the Senate, the first nonstop air crossing of the Atlantic occurs, and Babe Ruth hit his 29th home run.
As history was being made, young Tillie Perez attended Cowell Elementary, a two-room schoolhouse — where grades one through eight were taught — before she went on to high school at Mt. Diablo.
She recalled playing in the hills surrounding Cowell and hikes to Mount Diablo via Mitchell Canyon, as well as playing at home on the large front porch and in the large yard.
“We never played inside,” she said.
It was higher education that took her away from her cozy village, but only briefly; after getting her degree, she returned and worked at Cowell Portland Cement. She started on the switchboard, moved to the office, then to secretary to the superintendent. She was at the company until it closed.
“Cowell was my whole life until I got married,” she said. Bill Larkins swept her away in 1950.
Prior to the sale of the land by the Cowell family in 1959, the sense of community and home was strong. A lawsuit by Clayton Valley farmers in the ’30s — which resulted in the construction of the 235-foot stack — to be demolished later this month — is not what former residents vividly remember.
A different era
The Cowell experiences of Ken Rishell, 79, and Jim Dunn, 67, were in different eras than Larkins’, but they, too, remember a close community and fun times.
Larkins saw the company in its heyday, while Rishell lived there for three short years during the company’s wane in the 1940s.
And when Dunn lived there, during the 1950s, the company had succumbed to lack of limestone, railroad changes and competition from Kaiser’s Permanente Cement. Cowell Portland was only a landlord.
Dunn saw some of the area’s biggest changes. His family moved to Cowell when he was 7 and he lived there for 10 years, during which time he saw Ygnacio Valley Road being laid from Oak Grove Road.
He attended the two-room schoolhouse, but new schools were being built — Crawford Village Elementary School and Loma Vista Intermediate School would open in 1952, and Cowell Elementary would close. Dunn started at Mt. Diablo High, but graduated from the new high school, Clayton Valley, that had opened in 1958.
Larkins, Rishell and Dunn all recall playing in the dirt streets, usually baseball.
Larkins remembers rushing home at noon to listen to “Your Hit Parade” on the radio. Some of the kids would get sheet music for top songs and have their friends over to sing around the piano, she said.
Rishell remembers some chores — he and his brothers walked from town to an area adjacent to the present-day Bel-Air shopping center to milk the family’s cow and then carry the milk back home without spilling it.
But he also recollects mischief at Halloween, and a couple of hot days when the company superintendent opened up his pool for the town residents.
When Cowell residents wanted to see a movie, they sometimes went to the big city of Martinez — where there were two theaters, plus shopping at Montgomery Ward and JC Penney.
Larkins said she went to the theater in Concord quite a bit because it gave away one dish every Saturday night.
“I still have some of those dishes,” she said.
Rishell said his family liked the giveaways at the Port Chicago movie theater. It raffled off prizes, such as bags of groceries.
“We went home with something every time,” he recalled.
During Larkins’ youth, cars were less the norm. “Sometimes, we’d walk into Concord for church.”
Cowell had a nondenominational Sunday school with teachers coming over from Oakland or Berkeley. A popular magician who told Bible stories visited sometimes, too, Larkins said. But when people wanted their traditional, denominational service, she said they went into a nearby city.
Rishell said his family didn’t feel bound by the town or the company store. They used the store the way people use 7-Eleven or AM/PM today — for a loaf of bread, for emergencies — and shopped in Concord.
Even after Cowell Portland Cement was no more — it closed in 1946 — the company rented the houses. Later generations remember the boarding house as a hotel, although families lived there, Dunn said.
The memories of these former residents, separated by 30-plus years, are remarkably similar — playing in the hills and the street, running to the store after school, the open farmland, abundant wildlife, and vineyards and orchards. They are left with wistful impressions of happy childhoods.
“We made our own fun — never stole, never ruined anyone’s property,” Dunn said. “It was great.”
Cowell Historical Society