Farming with ghosts
This 5-acre vineyard is awash with hints of the people who have come before me. By nature, I can't ignore this delayed conversation. The French word terroir defines a large part of the character of a glass of wine. The term includes much more than just the vines and soil. It includes the total story of the land - including the people who lived and worked here before. This mystical ambiance is always with me as I prune and work with this ranch and discover the dozens of artifacts they left behind. I want to focus on the interlocking evidence of the two barns that were in support of the day-to-day work for the last 120-plus years. We will let the oldest barn tell its story first. In a subsequent issue of Journey to Harvest, we will listen to the newer barn. The two barns are intimately related.
Sonoma Valley flourished with the coming of the railroad in the late 1880s. The first barn was built around 1890, although the ranch may have been started before that. The ranch settlers ordered lumber from redwood trees milled where the Russian River flows into the Pacific. The present barn was built by us a hundred years later in 1980. Now I would like to give each barn a chance to tell its own first-person story, beginning with the original pioneer barn.
The pioneer barn
The pioneer barn at Indian Springs Ranch that was destroyed by fire in 1966. Photo by Bob Nixon.
My first memories begin with all my clear heart redwood timbers and boards being loaded on a flatbed railroad car near Duncans Mills and traveling by rail to the Lawndale Road station. Every now and then a burned, scarred piece of this very same redwood is found here on the ranch. My ranch family and neighbors cleared and leveled the site where they built me, a two story, classic Midwest barn, with room on the second floor to store huge amounts of hay for winter, and first floor stalls for five or six horses and maybe as many as six or eight cows to provide everybody with milk and butter. The fig trees they planted in front of me are still there.
I was considered one of the most impressive barns in our area with many folks stopping by to admire my design. There wasn't another barn in the North Valley that could match me!
Over the years, I watched the family living here work hard to make this property productive. I saw them hitch our two giant horses to a big sled and go out and clear the land of stones. They made rows of cleared stones along the edges of some of the best land. Then I saw them plow and then smooth the land, picking up more stones. With huge effort they got the new vineyard planted with wine and table grapes. Some of the table grapes they packed in wooden boxes and then shipped by rail to San Francisco.
The new vineyard was barely planted and producing when the vines were destroyed by the root insect phylloxera. When insect-resistant vines became available, they bravely replanted. And again the new vineyard slowly became productive. All of these new vines were dry farmed - i.e. without irrigation water, so that by your present standards it took much longer for the vines to become productive - perhaps five years. But our family kept at it and by approximately 1910 they were again shipping grapes to San Francisco and beginning to make wine.
During all these lean years, the man in our family had a job across the valley at one of the quarries, making cobblestones to pave the streets of San Francisco. They report he was paid two cents a completed stone. The finished stones were hauled down to the Lawndale Station and shipped to San Francisco. Here on our ranch you can find a number of completed or partially completed cobblestones. Our hero brought these stones home from work to finish them for full credit.
Then Prohibition was passed and it became illegal to make or sell wine. By using bales of hay from their small dairy herd, the family constructed a concealed area in my barn and hid all their wine producing equipment and effectively became bootleggers, supplying wine to friends and neighbors. During these difficult times they also caught and sold out-of-season fish from the creek and deer meat. And if the effect of decades of severe difficulties was not enough to discourage even the biblical Job, in 1922 their farmhouse caught fire and burned to the ground. Touching artifacts found in the ashes of their burned home were three or four brass Army great coat buttons indicating that one of their sons had served in the U.S. Army in WWI and had returned safely. The loss of their home in effect ended their attempt to make a commercial farming success of this ranch. This then left me, their still beautiful barn, alone and abandoned for well over 45 years. Annually, neighboring children came and harvested cherries and apples from my orchard. The railroad company came and picked up their tracks and abandoned service. Blackberries grew over the railroad easement. The vines were abandoned and the land was leased for cattle grazing. The cultivated ridges where the vines were planted could still be traced in the fields.
But the ultimate disaster was still ahead. On a cold night in 1966 a homeless group was seeking temporary shelter and thought it a good idea to build a small fire in my hay loft for warmth. Not a good idea! Within minutes the fire had spread everywhere and I was totally ablaze; an hour later I was nothing but a memory and all my beautiful clear heart redwood timbers were reduced to ashes. The fig trees on my east side were damaged, but all survived. The two large oak trees on my west side were badly burned, but also survived. A few pieces of my large redwood timbers with their tightly packed growth rings survived. And the things that had been stored or left in my abandoned storage areas were reduced to metal artifacts that in future years could be used to tell my story. But most important, the wonderful terroir of this ranch was not damaged, and awaited the coming of a new family to once again see if the potential was here for great grapes and wine.
A note from George
From all of this you can see why I feel compelled to write about farming with ghosts. The evidence is in the dozens of small and large artifacts that I come across almost daily, plus interviews with neighbors who were children at the time of this story. Truly, this pioneer family had unending disasters over some 50 years.