Historically, the Millbrae area was home to the Costano (coastal) Indians – the Ohlone Tribe. These peace-loving people subsisted on shellfish from the San Francisco Bay. Shell mounds from the Bay to El Camino gave evidence of their principle source of food, although they did hunt deer, rabbit and bear in the hills of Millbrae. Mortar and pestles were found in the hills as late as the 1950’s. In the 1800’s the bay extended almost to El Camino Real. Records show that when Darius Ogden Mills, founder of Bank of California, built his dairy on El Camino Real, he hired Chinese laborers to fill portions of the marshlands from the bay to El Camino. Prior to that time, the Indians built their teepees and canoes from reeds gathered from the marshes. They also wove their baskets from these reeds, gathered acorns from the oaks on the hillsides from which they made their meal for bread.
The 1800’s ushered in the era of the Spanish with Jose’ Antonio Sanchez and his family. At age 14, Jose’ joined the army at the Presidio and patrolled the area from San Francisco to San Jose. In 1822, when the Mexican Empire took over, Jose’ continued to serve until 1834 when he completed 45 years of service and was retired, with pay and a Rancho Grant – Rancho Buri Buri, which extended from South San Francisco to Adeline Drive in Burlingame. Now, as a landed gentleman he enjoyed the title of “Don Jose’ Antonio Sanchez”. He built twin adobes on El Camino, Millbrae, where the Travelodge stand today. His great, great, granddaughter, Mildred Cavanaugh Wilson, contributed the 66 original Spanish Documents found in her trunk, and translated by the late Dr. Frank Stanger while she was a student in his history class at the College of San Mateo. Mildred’s grandfather, Jose’ De la Cruz Sanchez, inherited as his one-tenth of his father’s estate, the portion which is now Millbrae. He sold 1500 acres to Darius Ogden Mills, gold rush entrepreneur, Grantor of right-of-way- for a depot in Millbrae, and for whom our city is named. As a Scotsman, the “Brae” meant rolling hills, and together with “Mill” for his name he left his heritage.
For a time, the dairy that Mills established, along with his partner, A.F. Green (whose home still stands at #1 Lewis Avenue) was the primary source of employment in Millbrae. Then came small business establishments, the large porcelain works, and housing developments. Mills’ Mansion burned in 1954. Both Mill’s and Green had died in 1910. Mills’ Mansion had, in the interim, been occupied by his heirs and during WWII as a seaman’s R&R facility.
In 1926, the City of San Francisco decided to establish an airport East of Millbrae, calling it Mills Field. Finally, on January 14, 1948 after a decade of heated discussions about incorporation, members of the Millbrae City Council-elect drove to Sacramento where the Secretary of State handed them a certificate giving Millbrae legal entity. The new city’s chief industries were agriculture, floriculture, dairy and porcelain manufacturing. Transportation has shaped Millbrae’s growth. From the turn of the century, the #40 “interurban” streetcar traveled through Millbrae linking the city with San Francisco and San Mateo. The streetcar line was dismantled just after Millbrae’s incorporation, leaving the Southern Pacific Railroad as the only railway linking Millbrae with surrounding areas.
Millbrae Historical Society was formed in 1970 to make an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save the original 16 Mile House located at El Camino Real and Center Street from demolition, hoping to repurpose the landmark building as a museum. That failure resulted in a cohesive group of dedicated citizens who filed incorporation papers, in 1970, as the Millbrae Historical Society.
You can learn more about Millbrae’s history by visiting the Millbrae Historical Museum, located at 450 Poplar Avenue adjacent to the upper library parking lot. This very special museum, housed in a historical turn-of-the-century building, offers visitors a wonderful glimpse of vintage furnishings, clothing, documents, photographs and books through the years.
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