Brabo Oral History: Life of Mary Bettencourt in 1923


July, 2011

The Mill Valley Historical Society recorded an oral history of long-time Homestead residents Mary and Tony Brabo. Mary is now 100 years old and Tony is 99. They were married in 1929 and have lived on the corner of Reed St. and La Verne Ave. ever since. Mary has lived there over 100 years.

Mary was born on November 15, 1910 in the small farmhouse that her father, Manuel Bettencourt, had built on a 3-acre parcel in 1905. Her mother, Maria Brazil, was Manuel’s second wife. In 1910, Mary’s four half-brothers—ages 4 to 8 by Manuel’s first wife—also lived in the house. Manuel, age 36, had emigrated in 1891 and Maria, age 29, in 1900, both from the Portuguese Azores. Manuel farmed the land and took odd jobs as a laborer, carpenter and gardener. Mary’s grandfather, Joseph Brazil, age 63, also lived with them, making a total of eight in the house.

What was Mary’s life like in the spring of 1923? She was 12 years old and in the seventh grade at Summit school. She had attended Homestead School through fourth grade. She had learned English there—Portuguese was spoken at home. Her four half-brothers had all graduated from eighth grade at Summit School and then gone to work milking cows on dairy ranches in southern Marin. They often came home on Sundays to have their stepmother do their laundry.

The 800 sq. ft. farm house had four bedrooms plus a large room which served as kitchen, dining room and living room. A spring supplied running water to the kitchen. A wood burning cook stove heated the house. There was an outhouse, no electricity, no ice box, no telephone, and no radio. The farm included a milk cow, a draft horse for plowing and drawing the wagon, chickens, vegetable crops and at times a calf being fattened for sale. Mary walked to Summit school every day, two miles away. Everyone in the house either walked or took the horse and wagon.

The family purchased very little food and mainly lived off the land. The men hunted deer and fished. Mary’s mother usually prepared just enough food, usually soup, for each day since leftovers would spoil. She also baked bread. In the fall, Mary’s father would go to San Francisco to purchase large quantities of flour, beans and grain needed during the winter. The family’s income came from various sources: her grandfather’s job with the railroad in Sausalito; milk and egg sales; her mother’s weekly laundry for Mrs. Bone on Evergreen and other neighbors; her father’s odd jobs as laborer, carpenter and gardener on a Ross estate.

Mary loved going with the family to the coast. They went by horse and wagon to Stinson Beach where she and her mother would bathe in the hot springs while the men fished. On the way back they would stop at Big Lagoon (Muir Beach) and load up the wagon with driftwood to fuel the wood stove. Mary has fond memories of growing up in Homestead Valley.

If you have comments or questions about this article or other topics
pertaining to the history of Homestead Valley,
please feel free to e-mail Chuck Oldenburg.