Meeting the Real McCoy

The Native Informant challenges her hometown history knowledge with local historian Doris Marciel.

Photo | Lani Conway
If you're looking for Doris Marciel, you can often find her tending to the lush garden surrounding her tan-hued house on one of San Lorenzo’s busiest streets. Marciel is petite, with a head of light brown curls. When I first spot her from behind the white picket fence, she is raking up a patch of dirt spoiled by bits of grass and weeds. Although she’s 73 years old, Marciel appears youthful and energetic, a feat she attributes to one of her many lifelong passions: gardening. Her other passion is local San Lorenzo history.

Ask Marciel any question pertaining to Old San Lorenzo and San Lorenzo Village (trust her, there is indeed a pronounced distinction), and she’s rolling a mile a minute, rattling off dates, historic facts and anecdotes. “I tend to get carried away,” she said after we had settled down behind a small folding table inside her home, a well-preserved two-bedroom purchased by her great-grandparents in 1875. It’s been owned by her family ever since.

I had heard that Doris Marciel, a third-generation San Lorenzan, was the definitive source for local history. She was born and raised in San Lorenzo in the late 1930s and 1940s, and was even a member of San Lorenzo Elementary School’s final graduating class. Growing up, she witnessed firsthand the town’s transformation from a rural farmland community teeming with fruit trees and orchards to a post-WWII track home development masterminded by architect David D. Bohannon. What sent me heading up her driveway early on this Monday morning wasn’t just a history lesson. I wanted to meet a real Native Informant, the person who could teach me a thing or two about what it really meant to know a place so well.
 * * *  
We’re standing in Marciel’s great-grandparents' low-ceilinged kitchen, accented by lacy white curtains. “I always like having the radio on,” Marciel says, as she quickly shuts off the brown retro-style music player which sits on an original light blue countertop. We head to the living room and sit down. The dark shaggy brown carpet and plain white walls immediately catch my eye. Marciel wastes no time launching into a passionate hour and a half rundown of all things San Lorenzo. She feeds me a heaping plate of information, from San Lorenzo’s founding as Squatterville in 1847 to rural farmlands and mansions governed by names like McConaghy, Lewelling and Meek. As overwhelming as Marciel’s font of information, I find myself sitting back to soak it all in.

 Marciel continues speaking, occasionally pausing in her animated spiel to show me the collection of San Lorenzo history projects scattered throughout the living room: the Village Real Estate Company historic photo calendar, several history timeline poster board displays that were once exhibited in the San Lorenzo Library, family photos, many of which are included in her 128-page photo book Images of America: San Lorenzo, published in 2006. While we're on a page-by-page tour of the photos in the soft-cover book, Marciel reels on: “Did you know that the street by the 880 off-ramp is called Embers Way because of Embers Restaurant?” Marciel says when we reach one picture. “They had the best steaks in town!”

Among the many fascinating black and white images are young men weaing bowler hats and vests, standing in front the old Shiman’s General Store; women in 1940s farm dresses carrying milk bottles while walking down open dirt roads; and exuberant kids posing side by side in front of lush fruit orchards. This is San Lorenzo as it once was. "Why are you so into this?" I finally interrupted. "San Lorenzo has always been left out of history, with the focus always Hayward, or Oakland or San Leandro," Marciel responds in a matter-of-fact tone. "But we, too, have a rich history: The first library in the county, one of the longest continuous school districts in the state, and one of the oldest continuous post offices."

Marciel suddenly glances down at her watch, signaling her need to head to another engagement. We say our goodbyes in her lush backyard garden, but not before she relates a few more stories about raising chickens and farm animals right here in this very garden. I step back into the modern morning as if were emerging from a long, sleepy-eyed hibernation, like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle.

Originally appeared May 31, 2011 on San Lorenzo Patch.