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Stop here, this is the place: Klinknerville

on March 26, 2012

Klinkner Hall, at the present day corner of San Pablo and 59th Street, in the late 1800s. (Photo courtesy of Oakland Library History Room.)

Even to his family, Charles Klinkner was known as an eccentric character.

That tends to happen to a man who is arrested for counterfeiting after distributing nickel-sized coins carrying the name of his rubber stamp company, who wears a suit with 40 or 50 pockets in order to carry goods he could sell to a customer at any time, or who drives a team of red, white and blue painted mules through the streets of Oakland on the Fourth of July.

“He was a true late 19th century entrepreneur,” Klinkner’s grandson, Thomas Klinkner, wrote in an essay on his family’s history, “whose life seems to have been occupied entirely by business schemes and local politics.”

Shortly before what is now the Golden Gate district became a part of Oakland, it was a small town with Klinkner’s fingerprints all over it. Klinkner was a German-born salesman who made a fortune selling rubber stamps and moved from San Francisco to create his own Eden. He was a developer, and an early founder what became the Golden Gate district, building dozens of homes in the area, and setting up businesses on San Pablo Avenue.

In 1877, Charles Klinkner and his wife, Katherine, an Oakland native, moved to unincorporated land on San Pablo Avenue just north of Emeryville from San Francisco. Klinkner had made a fortune selling “red rubber stamps” in San Francisco and was either looking to get into real estate, or was prodded by his wife to move to the area where she grew up, different historians say.

Oakland at that time only extended to 20th Street, but the city was growing because it had become the Western terminus of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. San Pablo Avenue had already been established as a key regional thoroughfare in the 1850s, and by the 1860s, stagecoaches took passengers from Oakland to Martinez. The area was prime for development, and Klinkner bought a 14-acre tract of dairy farms and began building homes. He also established a horse car line that ran from Park Avenue to what today is 62nd Street.

Over a seven-year period in the 1880s and 1890s, Klinkner furiously built up his town, adding a large gothic-style community center and commercial building called “Klinkner Hall,” as well as a baseball field, hotel, and 75 houses. The houses were sold for between $3,000 and $5,000 or sometimes could be won in a raffle off a $2 ticket.

Nearby Emeryville was developing in the late 1800s as a gambling and entertainment center, with a racetrack, amusement park with a shooting range and merry-go-rounds at what was then called Shellmound Park. (It also housed a slaughterhouse district.) But Klinkner had a very different idea for his burgeoning town.

“The houses he built were upscale,” said historian Don Hausler, a retired Oakland librarian and a member of the Emeryville Historical Society. “It was a residential community.”

In order to attract residents, Klinkner started to build up his town in 1886. His first addition was Klinkner Hall, built at 5832 San Pablo Avenue, which until recently was the site of Your Black Muslim Bakery. The building was central to the town, with a clock tower on top. On the other side of the street, Klinkner built the Del Monte Hotel , which included a sign that read: “This house has no connection with any of the cheap dives in the neighborhood.” He also built a baseball field, which was later the home of the Oakland Oaks, the city’s professional baseball team in the early 1900s.

Still, Klinkner is remembered now more for his unusual behavior than as a founder of what later became a part of Oakland. After all, he did often travel around town accompanied by his dog, which wore a blanket that advertised Klinkner’s real estate properties and had a monkey riding on its back. “The distinguishing characteristic of my great grandfather as an entrepreneur was not his financial shrewdness or enterprises, but his passion for advertising and publicity,” Thomas Klinkner wrote.

One of his more controversial measures was to hang a large banner across San Pablo Avenue to advertise his available real estate. The sign, more than five feet tall, had “Klinknerville” in large capital letters, with a picture of finger pointing left advising passersby to “Stop here, this is the place.”

According to a history of Klinknerville compiled by Phil Stahlman for the Emeryville Historical Society, the sign started a dispute between Klinkner and the new residents of Klinknerville. “This, added to the jackasses and Klinkner’s ceaseless self-promotion, was too much for some of the prosperous citizens of Klinkner’s Eden and they took him to court to have the sign removed,” Stahlman writes. “Justice of the Peace Reed decided that the sign was legal. Jubilantly, Klinkner had the posts on each side of the banner painted white and lettered ‘Long May She Wave’ and ‘Hurrah for Reed.’”

But Klinkner and the town bearing his name did not last long. In 1888, Klinkner applied for the area post office to bear the “Klinknerville” name, “much to the disgust of the old families in the area,” who preferred the name “Golden Gate,” Thomas Klinkner wrote. A back-and-forth ensued, with Klinkner even making a trip to Washington, D.C. to make a personal appeal to then-President Grover Cleveland.

The “Golden Gate” side won out, though, and the name of the town was changed shortly before Klinkner’s death in 1893. According to Stahlman, he caught a cold and “apparently neglected,” and died of complications at age 41. Golden Gate was annexed to Oakland in 1897.

As soon as the town was annexed, the “Klinkner” name began to vanish from the area. What was once called Klinkner Avenue was changed to 59th Street. The Klinkner home was demolished in 1929 to make way for a brick building, which housed a drugstore owned by Klinkner’s son, Fred, for decades before closing in 1968, taking with it the last remnants of the Klinkner name in the neighborhood.

After her home was destroyed, Katherine moved into an apartment in Klinkner Hall, where she lived until selling the building in 1941 and moving next door. Klinkner Hall was demolished and replaced with a grocery store. Katherine Klinkner was unsentimental about the building’s demise, telling The Oakland Tribune that she had “taken care of the place long enough.”

When Katherine Klinkner died in 1945, the Tribune reported that she was “perhaps the oldest native of Oakland” and that she died “a few steps from the crossroads once known as Klinknerville where she lived almost her entire life.”

Charles Klinkner was not forgotten, though. About six decades after his death, when Charles Klinkner’s son—also named Charles—died, his obituary mentioned his father in its first line, referring to the “fabulous antics of a Barnum-like figure.”

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