It was 1998, Sacramento was preparing for its sesquicentennial celebrations, and Ed Astone, town manager for the Old Sacramento historic district, had a brainstorm.
Why not make the place look as authentic as possible by covering the streets with tons of dirt?
“People thought that was insane,” recalled Janie Desmond Ison, a longtime Old Sac business owner.
Astone managed to win over the naysayers, brought in 200 tons of dirt overnight, got it removed just as fast a few days later and started a tradition that lasted, as Gold Rush Days, for 15 years.
The incident was vintage Astone, according to people who gathered this week to remember the longtime Old Sacramento leader following his death Feb. 6 at the age of 78.
During a career that spanned five decades, he had a remarkable ability to rally people behind his sometimes unconventional and often bold visions for Old Sacramento.
Bold visions were needed when Astone went to work as a project manager for Old Sacramento in 1964. The place then was little more than a collection of decaying buildings – “a slum, a skid row,” Astone recalled in an interview in 2007, the year he retired.
Working with a few other city employees, he helped shepherd a restoration and promotion campaign that’s turned the riverfront district into one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
Over the years, the Fresno native helped establish associations of property owners and merchants, brought in parking meters to raise revenue, initiated diagonal parking and came up with multiple district promotional events, including the Mardi Gras Festival, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Gold Rush Days.
For all that, he’s remembered by friends mostly for his passion, infectious enthusiasm and willingness to speak his mind.
Ison, whose family runs Steamers coffee shop, said Astone could be stubborn, pushing ideas that weren’t immediately popular. But people usually came around.
“He’d say this is what we need to do and either you’re in or you’re out,” she said. “But you always wanted to be ‘in’ because he had this little twinkle in his eye that told you he had a vision for Old Sacramento and you didn’t want to be left out.”
He also sometimes bent the rules, she said, initiating projects and figuring out only later how to pay for them. It always worked out.
“He was a maverick in a bureaucratic world,” Ison said.
Deborah Chaussé, owner of Evengeline’s gift shop, recalled how intent Astone was on preserving Old Sacramento’s historic character in the face of pressure from some merchants to erect modern, glitzy signage.
Years ago, on April Fool’s Day, she walked into Astone’s office with a brochure for a company selling neon “open” signs.
“I put it on his desk and said, ‘All the merchants are buying these,’ ” she said.
Astone was unaware he was being pranked. “His head just hit the desk,” she recalled. “My point is, he was just so dedicated.”
Steve Mammet, general manager of the Embassy Suites hotel, recalled Astone’s resourcefulness in getting things done despite a lack of money. Bringing a Christmas tree to Old Sac was an example.
About 15 years ago, Astone came across a 40-foot-plus tree at a farm in the foothills, arranged to have it transported by rail to Old Sacramento, then offloaded with a crane and placed in a platform he was able to build at Front and K streets – all with minimum cash outlays.
“He lined up people and got them excited and got them to participate,” said Mammet, who became one of Astone’s best friends and accompanied him in recent years on annual trips to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga.
One of Astone’s great strengths was his ability to stay connected with his Old Sacramento constituents, walking the district and checking in with the owners of restaurants and other shops.
He was a regular at Fat City Bar & Cafe and talked often with Lina Fat, one of its owners.
Like others, she said Old Sacramento wouldn’t be what it is today without Astone and thinks he’ll long be remembered.
“I still feel he’s around Old Sacramento,” she said. “His spirit is still there.”