The Sixties at Fifty
Turbulence and Transformation
The San Ramon Valley in the 1960s
Fifty years ago the decade of the sixties was a memorable one for Americans. And with the Summer of Love and Berkeley free speech events not far away, San Ramon Valley residents’ lives reflected the turmoil and opportunities of the time. A museum exhibit on the Valley during this tumultuous decade was mounted in 2019.
In 1962 California become the most populous state -- just over 17 million people. 1963 was the peak year for a net migration into the state of 356,000. The San Ramon Valley grew over 100% , from 12,702 in 1960 to 28,090 in 1970.
California became the center of the aerospace industry in the 1950s and 1960s, supported by federal government funding. In 1965 “nearly 500,000 Californians – about one-third of the total numbers employed in manufacturing – worked in the various branches of the aerospace industry, including the production of aircraft, missiles, electronic equipment, and related instruments,” according to historian James Rawls.
New businesses opened in tiny San Ramon which were touted as “modern and glamorous” by weekly The Valley Pioneer. Aerojet-General Nucleonics (nuclear engineering and research) brought 700 jobs to the area. MBA Associates opened to do research and development in the field of rocket ordnance and survival equipment. A NIKE missile base had been installed in Bollinger Canyon in the fifties.
The war in Vietnam bitterly divided Americans and brought serious economic consequences. As troops were sent in ever-increasing numbers from 1965 to 1968, doubts about the war increased. Anti-war marches in San Francisco included valley residents who were bused there. Local young men were conscripted to fight, including Joe Harker who grew up next to the Vets Hall.
In the sixties the United States was racing with the Soviet Union to place a man on the moon and produce enough missiles to ensure the nation’s security. The July 20, 1969 landing of American astronauts on the moon was a dazzling and historic event. A new school in San Ramon was given the name Neil Armstrong to honor the first astronaut to set foot on the moon. He famously said “That’s one step for man, one giant step for mankind.”
An extensive network of freeways spread across the state, supporting California’s love affair with the automobile. San Francisco’s “freeway revolt” over the ugly Embarcadero Freeway began in 1959. No such opposition appeared in the San Ramon Valley. Interstate freeway I680 was completed through the Valley by October of 1966, allowing drivers to circle the East Bay for 73 miles with no stop lights to slow them down. One reporter wrote “Happiness is a new freeway.”
School administrators struggled to find spaces for new students. New homes were built beginning with Cameo Acres and Montair in the fifties. In the sixties, Volk-McLain’s San Ramon Village’s 10,730 homes included stores, schools, shopping centers and a golf course. The newly unified school district board had raucous meetings and tried to prevent double sessions. Five new elementary schools and one intermediate school were built in the sixties with the Valley’s second high school, Monte Vista, opening in 1966.
And there is much more: think about the sixties women’s movement, youthful alienation, wild new styles of clothing, the beginnings of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, innovative music and drug use. All this brought major changes to the country and the valley. The social ferment surrounding civil rights marches and the events of 1968 will also be featured in the exhibit.
Special thanks to James Rawls and Walton Bean for their sixties insights in California, An Interpretive History.