By Diane Curry, Curator, Hayward Area Historical Society
Did you ever play the game “telephone” when you were a kid? A story is passed from one child to the next and by the time the story gets all the way through the class, it bears little to no resemblance to the original story. While a fun game, it proves that sometimes people hear what they want to hear and everyone likes to embellish a story.
One of our local stories that’s suffered from a severe case of “telephone” syndrome is the story of William Meek and the Bing cherry. The story goes that Meek, whose stately mansion still stands on Hampton Road in Cherryland, developed the Bing cherry and named it after his Chinese cook. I’m sure you’ve all heard the story and even repeated it a time or two. I know I have. It’s a great little tidbit to throw out about the history of our area.
Here’s the thing. The story isn’t true!
The Bing cherry was actually invented by Seth Lewelling. Seth was a brother to Henderson Lewelling who was a business partner to William Meek in the late 1840s in Oregon. Seth was a horticulturalist who developed several types of fruit during his career. Henderson Lewelling and later William Meek moved to California (Henderson settled in Fruitvale, Meek in San Lorenzo) in the 1850s. Seth stayed on in Oregon where he eventually developed the Bing about 1875. Seth apparently did name the cherry after a Chinese man who worked with him in breeding the new cherry variety.
In an interview done in the 1960s, William Meek’s granddaughter, Gladys Volkman, stated that Bing cherries were never grown on Meek property but rather Royal Ann and Black Tartan cherries. Oh my! Never even grew a Bing cherry in Cherryland!
So how did this story get so messed up that it has become an accepted and often repeated piece of our local history? I can’t say for sure, but I can make some educated guesses. I think some of the confusions stems from the complicated nature of Meek’s relationship to the Lewelling family and the large number of Lewellings (a story for another time). Also, apparently Black Tartarian cherries are quite similar to Bing cherries in taste and look; so maybe someone just assumed Meek’s cherry trees were Bing cherries because they looked like them and Bings are a very common variety. Or maybe, someone just misunderstood, wrote down the story with incorrect information, and other people since then have found that reference, taken it as fact and perpetuated the mistake.
So now let’s see if we can do a reverse “telephone.” Now when you mention William Meek, say he was the largest landowner in the area, planted lots of orchards (not just cherries either), was an Alameda County Supervisor and a regent at the University of California, Berkeley. And say, he DID NOT invent the Bing cherry!