AN ANCIENT CHINESE proverb goes like this: “Wealth does not pass three generations.” The implication is that a family’s first generation struggles to
get a business up and running; the second
generation maintains that growth and maybe
enjoys a few benefits; a third generation
knows little of the preceding struggles and
hardships, only the blessings, and squanders
However, in Marin, that rule doesn’t always
hold true — far from it, in fact. In the building
trade alone, at least four longtime family-owned businesses are currently alive and
thriving in the county: San Rafael’s McNear
Brick and Block is now in its fifth generation
of family operation; Ghilotti Bros. Inc., one
of Northern California’s largest heavy construction firms, is in its third generation,
with a fourth generation studying construction management; San Anselmo’s Ongaro and
Sons Plumbing, Heating and Cooling includes
four generations of men named Ernest and
dates back 85 years; and San Rafael’s West
End Nursery has stayed in the same family’s
ownership and at the same location for more
than 100 years, with a member of the fourth
generation now essentially at the helm.
• • •
By age 24, John Augustus McNear was already
an ambitious and enterprising young man.
After his parents emigrated from Scotland, he
arrived in San Francisco via Maine, determined
to make his mark. By 1886, John Augustus
had purchased 2,500 acres of bayfront property four miles east of growing San Rafael — if
you drive east on Point San Pedro Road from
downtown, after passing the community of
Glenwood, look to the right and you’ll see some
low brick buildings and three thin, towering
brick chimneys, skinny structures that survived the major earthquakes of 1906 and 1989.
His long-term goal was to create an industrial
city there; encouraging such a move on the site
were rich natural deposits of clay and a func-
tioning brick kiln.
Within a decade that existing kiln failed, but
in 1898 McNear reopened it. Today, nearly 120
years later, Jeff and Dan McNear, John Augustus’
The company has seen its share of hard
great-great-grandsons, are still turning out bricks
at the same location on San Pedro Point. Only
now the company’s name is McNear Brick and
Block, and its location is known as McNear Point.
times. In 1933, John Augustus’ son Erskine B.
McNear gained control and, in the midst of the
Great Depression, had to shut the brickyard
down. It remained shuttered through World
War II until 1946, when Lawrence P. McNear,
John Augustus’ grandson, once again fired up
the kiln and resumed brick production.
At the time, a bayfront location was critical to McNear’s success. In those early years
bricks were shipped first by scow schooner,
then barged to Sacramento and Stockton and
throughout the Bay Area. Nearby buildings constructed with McNear bricks (by intent, they
never bore the McNear imprint) include San
Francisco’s iconic Shriners Hospital on 19th
Avenue; San Rafael’s city hall and library; UC
Berkeley’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house;
and the Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael.
By 1972, when Augustus’ great-grandson
John E. McNear and his wife, sister and brother
acquired ownership, the business had seen sig-
nificant changes. Most of the original 2,500
acres had been sold off; the brick kilns were no
longer fired by wood, coal or diesel oil, but by
natural gas; and the once valuable on-site clay
deposits had been depleted.
“Now our raw material comes from construction sites throughout Marin County,” says
Dan McNear. “In fact, we’re making bricks out
of soil excavated from the new Marin General
Hospital site — it’s dirt that would otherwise
go to the landfill, so it’s fair to say our bricks
are ‘recycled.’ ”
AT THE SAME
Tourists from the town of Lonate Pozzolo
visit the brickyard in 1988. Opposite from
top: Ernie Ongaro in front of the shop; Don,
Ernie and Rich Ongaro hard at work.