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Mike Humphries Train and Witter Field Walk

There was great summer weather for our Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group last Wednesday, and 36 walkers and two K-9 best friends were on hand at the Exedra for what was to be a special, memorable walk. On a recent Wednesday, when we were going down Magnolia Avenue, we saw and talked briefly with Mike Humphries in front of his home at El Cerrito and Magnolia Avenues. Mike is a retired Piedmont High teacher, who coached the PHS baseball team for 33 years and the freshman football team for 43 years. Before the pandemic put our walks on hold, Mike had invited us to come see his model train collection in his garage. Seeing Mike was a reminder of his invitation, and he was still happy to have us come, so this past Wednesday was set for a visit. We would go through Piedmont Park to get to Mike’s house. We would also pass the high school's Witter Field Complex, with its softball field, football field, and the Humphries Baseball Diamond; which was named after Mike in 2010 when he retired. Some the area’s history was recalled before we started walking. In the 1850s a Sulphur spring was discovered in the area that is now the Piedmont Park. In 1872 Walker Blair, the first European settler in the area, built the Piedmont Springs Hotel where the Exedra is today. People would come and enjoy the spring’s believed medicinal benefits. Unfortunately, in 1892 the hotel burned to the ground. But in 1898 Frank C. Havens, a land developer, built a club house and café near the site, and created the park. It had paths, water cascades, and grottos. Additionally in 1904 Havens created a large, English hedge maze where Witter Field is today. These were all attractions to bring people to the area and buy Havens’ real estate. We headed out going behind the Exedra and Community Hall, and took the upper path through the park. At its end, we took the path up to the top of the stairs off Wildwood Avenue. We stopped there, and Dave DeRoche used his strong, baritone voice to read the placard that told the history of Havens’ maze and Witter Field. The maze was demolished when the new Piedmont school board purchased part of the park land in 1920 for its new high school and future athletic field. In 1948 the field was named in honor of Jean C. Witter, a former PHS football team captain, who was killed in World War II. The field’s scoreboard is a memorial to Charles Williams, who was also killed in the war. Renovations were made in 1998 when a new field house, track, and synthetic turf field were built. Before walking down the stairs to the field we took a short side trip to see the lovely, recently built bench and landing that is dedicated to Nancy Witter Hodgkinson. It overlooks the field and might be Piedmont’s equivalent to Cal Memorial Stadium’s Tightwad Hill, for people who want to watch football games without paying. We went back to the stairs, walked down them, and saw the softball field on our right. We noted that this area was once the site of Wildwood School’s upper playground and also the Piedmont Play School that got moved to Hampton Field during the 1998 renovations. We continued on to the field house and saw a plaque dedicated to Glen “Brick” Johnson, who was a PHS PE teacher and coach from 1930 to 1960. He also started the PHS bagpipe band and other school Scottish traditions. Where the field house is today, there was once a locker room for the boys to change into and out of PE clothes, and take showers. There was also a laundry in the back for towels and lost PE clothes to be washed. In the early 1960s the man who did the washing would sell laundered shorts and athletic supporters to the boys for ten cents. On a second floor, there was a middle school basketball court with no stands or seats. We went down to the field and some walkers remembered that it was once a grass, sometimes muddy, football field with a cinder, dirt running track surrounding it. There was not enough land for the track to be the usual quarter mile, so when students ran a mile it took about four and a third laps. The new track is now a full quarter mile around, but there was only enough room for seven running lanes, not the usual eight, when the track was reconstructed. We went over to the baseball field with its “Humphries Baseball Diamond” sign hung on the batting cage. There was a large summer youth baseball camp going on, so we continued on up to the foot of El Cerrito Avenue and a climb up it to Mike and Daley Humphries’ home. The Humphries were there to greet us with a “Welcome Wednesday Walkers” sign.

Mike was in a “Still Playing with Trains” t-shirt, and told us he had an interest in model trains as a youth in Canada; and started building model train tracks in his garage in 1996. His hobby has grown into a full, miniature mountain town, which is named “Daley Mae Land.” It consumes the Humphries’ entire garage. Mike said he built some of it with scavenged wood that included the old Witter Field benches when they were replaced. He purchased some pieces of the collection, and built others himself. Before going in to see the trains, we posed with Mike and Daley for the attached group photo in front of their home. The group was a too large for all of us to be inside the garage at the same time, but Daley and Mike had snacks and chairs for those waiting in their backyard. The first set of walkers entered the garage and were taken back by what they saw. There are upper and lower, long tracks with trains winding their way through and around the little town. It has Main Street, stores, a Hotel California, cars, people, animals, trees, and a couple on a bench kissing with a shotgun holding father nearby. There is a snow covered mountain with skiers, snowboarders, cabins, and a gondola that Daley put in motion for us; while Mike conducted his trains rushing around the tracks. The detail is impressive and great fun. On the garage walls, are train signs of all kinds, along with remembrances of Mike’s PHS baseball and football teams. PHS alum Meghan Bennett, who was once one of Mike’s PE students, said Mike also designed the Piedmont High baseball cap with its script P that she was wearing. It was lots of fun, but time to go. Before leaving and climbing up Magnolia Avenue back to the Exedra, we thanked Mike and Daley for their hospitality. Mike said we, and our children and grandchildren, were welcome anytime. The group certainly intends to make a return trip to Daley Mae Land. P.S. Piedmont Historical Society shared with me that I had a couple of things wrong in the summary of last week’s walk. Frank C. Havens and his wife Lila built their home, “Wildwood,” between 1906 and 1908. Lila was a student of Eastern religions and designed every feature of the house. Havens died in 1918. Lila loved the house and continued to live at Wildwood until her death in 1936. The house at 455 Wildwood Avenue was designed by John Hudson Thomas in 1909 and built for Willis F Kelly, a VP of the Oakland Traction Company. Kelly lived there until 1914, and in 1915 Josiah Stanford and his wife Alice moved in. Alice Stanford lived there until 1943.


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