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Marin history: McPhail’s Appliance Store


Courtesy of Marin History Museum

The grand opening of McPhail’s Appliance Store in 1950.

By Scott Fletcher | Marin History Museum

November 12, 2018 at 12:00 pm

The story of the McPhail family in Marin goes back more than 130 years and exemplifies the hard work, foresight and good fortune that so many of Marin’s founding families are known for.

Neil McPhail was born in 1864 on Prince Edward Island in Canada. At the age of 21 he immigrated to the United States, first Boston where he tried farming, and then San Francisco where he studied dentistry under his uncle. Neither profession agreed with him. He moved to San Rafael and opened a livery stable business at Fourth and B  streets.

He would soon have more than 90 horses along with a fleet of wagons and carriages that not only transported vacationing families to the luxurious San Rafael Hotel, but also work crews from the railroad, survey and utility companies working out of San Rafael. McPhail returned to Prince Edward Island in 1890 to visit an ailing sister and met his future wife, Katie Murchison, who was nursing his sister.

Upon his return to California he sent for Murchison and they were married in San Rafael. The McPhails first lived on Fourth Street near Lincoln, and then moved to Southside, now Gerstle Park, where they raised two sons and a daughter.

McPhail entered the early home fuel market, buying timber from West Marin ranches and cutting and distributing cordwood for San Rafael families. By the 1920s he had expanded the fuel business to include both coal and fuel oil. As more homes were heated by oil, McPhail saw the wisdom in both maintaining and selling fuel oil furnaces in order to secure a more reliable year-round income for him and his employees.

This was the inspiration and beginning of the McPhail appliance business that culminated in the photograph above. McPhail is the older man with glasses in the center of the photograph. During the 1930s McPhail also purchased two, local building supply companies, and operated a large ready-mix concrete plant on West Francisco Boulevard, taking advantage of the construction on the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Rafael overpass and highway tunnels north of the Gate.

Working with his sons, Graham and John, McPhail also opened stores in both Santa Rosa and Petaluma, becoming a leading provider of home appliances in the North Bay. Eventually, the family converted their fuel business to propane, expanded their business interests into Sacramento and San Jose, and developed the Marin Home Center property on West Francisco Boulevard. In the 1990s, the company divested itself of the building supplies operation and home appliance business, but still serves the propane fuel needs of homeowners, farms and commercial customers in Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties.

History Watch is written by Scott Fletcher, a volunteer at the Marin History Museum, Images included in History Watch are available for purchase by calling 415-382-1182 or by email at

P. O. Box 150727, San Rafael, CA 94915        415-382-1182    

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