Wilson Island Stories of the early 1900s
The Deacon / Eilert Home at
660 E. Carmen Avenue
Early 1900s Fresno brewer
and state activist
Long-time residents of the Wilson Island Historic District passed down a legend that long ago Mafia bootlegging was associated with the home of William J. Eilert. The house was indeed a trend setter as the home of one of Fresno’s well-known capitalists, sportsmen, and industry leaders of the early 1900s whose specialty was brewing beer. Many of the homes in this unique neighborhood have interesting pasts, but the rumor associated with this one is questionable.
William J. Eilert, born July 23, 1870 in Wisconsin, owned and operated the Fresno Brewing Company, founded by him and his father in 1900 at the foot of M Street. The only plant of its kind in the Central Valley, it was located at the confluence of several railroad lines which facilitated receiving grain and shipping products.
After the death of his father in 1902 he continued operations until Prohibition began in 1920. In 1918, in anticipation of the new law, the plant was converted to produce soft drinks and renamed Eilert Products. He later organized an auxiliary business, the Sierra Ice Cream Company. Prior to his retirement in 1928, he sold the Eilert Products Company to Los Angeles interests, and the ice cream operation was absorbed by another local concern.
Perhaps in anticipation of retirement, Eilert purchased the house in 1924, in a neighborhood designed to attract Fresno’s elite. He enlarged and fortified the basement the following year, contributing to rumors that illegal beverages were stored there. This would not have been out of character for Fresno which was generally suspected of being a hub for illegal bootlegging.
Later, Eilert added a boat house in back. As a member of the Fresno Motor Boat Association, he was an avid racing enthusiast. His obituary in The Fresno Bee (8/24/34) reported that “He devoted himself to outdoor sports, especially golf, hunting, and fishing. He was interested in trap shooting and was one of the top notchers. He was also an expert rifle and pistol shot and a member of the old Raisin City Gun Club… He played a first rate game of billiards and took a keen interest in horse racing and baseball.” In addition to his primary residence on Carmen, he owned summer homes at Huntington and Bass Lakes. He was also a member of the Fresno Lodge of Elks (#439), the University-Sequoia Club, and the Shaver Lake Fishing Club. Other members of his social circle who had purchased homes in this up-and-coming neighborhood undoubtedly influenced Eilert’s decision to locate there.
Around the corner, on Echo Avenue, was the new home of the widow of Charles B. Shaver, an influential lumberman, who lent his name to Shaver Lake where Eilert fished. Next door to him to the west was W. O. Blasingame, a fellow member of the Pacific Southwest Bank Executive Board.
Prior to 1919 Eilert arranged to have the house built by Roual O. Deacon, a lumberman from Lemoore and President of the nearby Deacon Lumber Company. Deacon had acquired the large lot from the developer of the Wilson’s North Fresno Tract, Rosanna Cooper Wilson. She included the following conditions in the deed: “… no dwelling house shall be built on said property at a cost of less than $20,000, and [Deacon] further agrees not to build any part of said dwelling house within 25 feet of the front line of said property, and agrees not to build a garage within 75 feet of the front line of said property.” And finally, Deacon had to agree “… not to sell or lease said property, or any part thereof, nor to convey by deed or otherwise, any portion of said property excepting to persons belonging to the Caucasian race; and agree not to lease, sell or convey, or otherwise dispose of the whole or any portion of said property to any person born in the Turkish Empire, nor to any lineal descendant of such person or persons, nor shall any person or persons other than those of the Caucasian race be permitted to occupy said property.” It was a restrictive covenant common in that era that fortunately no longer exists.
Deacon sold the finished house to Eilert and his wife Mae in 1924 for about $23,000. The sale was front page news, reported to be “one of the biggest sales of residential property in Fresno that year.” Local realtors considered it an indication that Fresno was coming out of the agricultural depression and “back into her own.” Today, both Eilert’s house on Carmen Avenue and his brewery are registered historic buildings in Fresno.
Eilert lived in the house for about ten more years. He died there on August 23, 1934 after being wounded while hunting doves. Following his death, Mae continued to live in the house for another decade, occasionally taking in occasional guests. In 1935, then Vice President and manager of Fresno’s Security-First National Bank, Orval Overall, and his wife Ethel were her guests for a while. Overall was perhaps best known as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. Born and raised in Visalia, Overall was their winning pitcher in the final game of the 1908 World Series, the last time the Cubs were in a World Series until their recent 2016 victory. He was also a good friend and golfing partner of Archie MacAlpine who lived next door to the west. Archie was the manager of the Fresno Brewing Company after Prohibition ended and the brewery on M Street resumed operations.
Stories of the home’s connection to Mafia bootleggers were fueled by Mae Eilert’s sale of the home to Lou Segal in 1945. Though pronounced the same as the name of the notorious bootlegger and alleged murderer, Bugsy Siegel, Bugsy didn’t have a brother named Lou, despite statements to the contrary in subsequent sales brochures. The Segals sold the home the year after Bugsy was murdered in Beverly Hills.
Nonetheless, some of the facts led curious minds to speculate that 660 Carmen might have a kinship with Mafia. Bugsy was sent to Los Angeles to expand bootlegging. Eilert owned a brewery when Prohibition went into effect, and sold it to a Los Angeles based company around that time. Eilert was arrested on felony charges in 1909 (but later acquitted), along with the largest liquor dealer in San Francisco, for illegally registering voters to defeat an ordinance to close saloons. He was very active as a Director in California’s Brewers’ Association, addressing “wet and dry temperance” issues across the state well before Prohibition. He expanded and fortified the basement of his new home for storage during Prohibition. Fresno was known for violations of the liquor laws and was a suspected hub of bootlegging activity. Urban myth?
In any case, this son of a German immigrant beer brewer, who first settled in Wisconsin before moving to Fresno, had an impact on statewide legislation regarding fermented brews from about 1910 until his death twenty-four years later. At least one of his neighbors in the Wilson Island was also a business colleague. Collectively, their presence reflected the goal of the developer, Rosanna Cooper Wilson, to create a neighborhood that would attract Fresno’s wealthy people of influence of the early 1900s.