RICHMOND — The Kaiser shipyards did things in a big way during World War II, including hosting a Labor Day picnic at Tilden Regional Park on Sept. 7, 1942.
The massive operation was working 24 hours a day producing cargo ships for the war effort, but found a way to honor labor while continuing production by renting all of the 1,700-acre Tilden Park for a day.
Initial estimates were that as many as 25,000 people — shipyard workers and their families — might attend the epic company picnic.
The gathering, described by the Berkeley Daily Gazette as “One of the largest and gayest events Northern California has ever seen,” was free — provided employees had paid the $1 annual family dues to enroll in the Richmond Shipyards Athletic Association. The association — an early incarnation of what is known today as the Kaiser Permanente “thrive” philosophy — was a recreation program that sponsored sports leagues, dances and other activities for shipyard families.
As with the groundbreaking Kaiser medical plan, the philosophy was that recreational activities resulted in healthier, happier and more productive workers. The day was also justified as a morale-builder and a chance for families — a good many new to the Bay Area — to meet, socialize and feel less like strangers.
The director of the association, and chairman of the picnic, was Claude “Tiny” Thornhill, former head football coach at Stanford University.
Actual attendance at the picnic was estimated at 10,000, less than the original projections, but still a large company picnic by any standard.
The event was recounted the next week in “Fore ‘n’ Aft,” the shipyard employee newsletter:
Gone but not forgotten is the story of the Labor Day picnic held by the Richmond Shipyards Athletic Association at Tilden Park.
Early in the morning excited and anxious crowds began to arrive in cars loaded down with shipyard workmen and their families — and huge baskets piled high with good things to eat.
By mid-afternoon it was estimated that at least ten thousand were present. Some were playing golf, softball and swimming; others were dancing at the Brazilian Pavilion; still others were engaged in various friendly games and contests or listening to a band concert. The rest were milling around having the time of their lives meeting old friends and making new ones.
Everyone who was there can truthfully say, “We sure had a swell time.”