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Downer Elementary School History Project

San Pablo, California, Spring 2020

A painting of a man named E.M.Downer hangs in the lobby of E.M.Downer Elementary School in San Pablo, California. The students walk by the painting everyday - but who is E.M.Downer? Principal Chris Read asked World Story Exchange to design a virtual project to illuminate the the history of the founder of their school.

We began by researching the legacy of the Downer family in Richmond, San Pablo and Pinole. After our research, we designed the project and wrote scripts for 5 separate video lessons, each about 45-minutes long. Working with the teachers, we posted the video lessons on Google Classroom. Every student in grades 3-6 (over 300 students) had a chance to participate in the project.

The video lessons provided students with a collection of primary and secondary sources, including interviews, news clippings and archival photos, reflecting the history of the Downer family, the family business Mechanics Bank, and the Richmond/San Pablo/Pinole communities. Our lessons also provided assignments designed as fun activities for students to interact with the sources.

The end result of this project will be a photographic timeline informed by the bits of historical information, and photos, that the students think are interesting to display in their lobby.

MacDonald Avenue, Richmond, CA, 1950's. Mechanics Bank, the Downer family business, is located on this avenue.

Pinole, CA, 1905. E.M. Downer settled in Pinole in 1889.

Throughout Edward M Downer’s years in Pinole, he had a variety of jobs. He was the post master, meaning he ran the post office. On February 1st, 1891, Edward became the railroad Station Agent, meaning he ran the railroad station. With a friend, he also established the Pinole Times, the town’s first newspaper. In 1903 he became the first City Clerk, and ten years later in 1913 he was elected Mayor of Pinole.

As the railroad station agent, the railroad workers trusted Edward M Downer with their paychecks. As a service, he would take a horse and buggy and ride all day to a bank in Martinez, CA to exchange the rail workers checks for gold.

After Edward M Downer exchanged the checks for gold, he would return from the bank in Martinez, CA to Pinole, CA on horse and buggy. After a few years, this journey became dangerous because he was carrying so much gold. So he decided to install a safe in the floor of his office so he could keep the gold in a secure place, and need not risk transporting large amounts of golf from the bank in Martinez. And that’s how he started his own bank - the Bank of of Pinole!

Eventually the bank changed its name to Mechanic’s Bank, and is still open today and serving the greater East Bay community and beyond. The closest location to EM Downer Elementary school is on 20 San Pablo Towne Center in San Pablo.


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