Local History Lesson
Dreams on the mountain
Like cloud shadows playing over Sonoma Mountain, many dreams have come and gone on the lands of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). Picture the place before humans arrived – a mosaic of redwoods, grasslands, oak woodlands, with lush alders and willows along Sonoma Creek. Creatures from freshwater shrimp to grizzly bears made it their home. Rich with life, it was not subject to human visions of what it should or could be. It just was.
We can’t know what dreams the First Peoples brought. Certainly they recognized the place as abundant; abundant enough that several villages were established nearby. How did those individuals and communities share the resources and lands of the future SDC? According to historian William Cronon, native communities claimed “not the land, but the things that were on the land.”
Neighboring groups recognized each other’s right to hunt, fish and gather in specific territories. By agreement, these boundaries were generally respected. Within a group, members shared many of the resources on their communal land. However, rights to the acorns from a particular oak, or fish from a certain pool, were often held and passed down by a family. Repeated use established such rights and could be lost if a resource was not used regularly.
Landscape-scale decisions, such as the common practice of intentional burning, were made communally. Others, like deciding when to prune or fertilize an acorn-bearing oak, were up to the families that held the rights to those resources. Before Europeans arrived, the resources at SDC were probably managed in a patchwork of recognized family and communal rights.
Another vision of ownership appeared in 1579, when Sir Francis Drake claimed California for England under the “Right of Discovery” recognized in Europe. By 1823, California was a Mexican territory and Father Altimira came here seeking to establish a new mission. His explorations took him across the SDC lands. Gazing at Sonoma Mountain, he saw it both for what it was and what it could be, describing it as “well covered with trees fit for building a pueblo.”
It was General Vallejo who realized Altimira’s dream. As the mission system was dismantled, Vallejo claimed the 66,000-acre Rancho Petaluma, including all of SDC west of Sonoma Creek. In 1839, he built one of the first lumber mills in California nearby. Redwoods and Douglas fir from the slopes of SDC were cut and milled into lumber for the pueblo of Sonoma.
In the wake of logging, people with a different vision arrived: American pioneers. Among them were Charity Asbury and her family, who settled SDC’s upper lands, purchasing 640 acres from General Vallejo. Others came with the same idea – to establish small, self-sufficient farms. They worked hard, but turning that dream into reality was difficult – the mountain slopes were not favorable for agriculture. Many sold or abandoned their property.
By the 1870s, William Hill had put together several parcels, including the Asburys’, into a large ranch stretching from Sonoma Mountain across the valley to what is now Highway 12. In so doing he established the boundaries of the future SDC. Hill’s vision was bigger and more commercial than the mountain pioneers’, with 125 acres of vineyard, orchards, hayfields, and cattle herds. From its earliest days, the Hill Ranch saw some public use. A county road ran through it and in the 1880s, two railroads laid their tracks across it. Fishermen and hunters also enjoyed the property.
The next dream arose in the minds of two prominent San Franciscans who were mothers of disabled children. Frances Bentley and Julia Judah dreamed of a place where such children could be cared for. Passionately lobbying politicians and influential citizens, they eventually convinced the California legislature to designate public funds for the idea in 1889. Hill’s ranch was chosen as the institution’s permanent site.
At that point, SDC lands returned to a form of communal ownership – held in trust by the State for the benefit of the clients and broadly, for all Californians. The vision included a measure of self-reliance – the patients would be “trained to usefulness” while the institution strove to be “self-provisioning” with a dairy and cattle operation, vineyards, and orchards.
Even as that vision came to pass, times were changing. Forty years ago, 162 acres of SDC’s former grazing lands were transferred to the county and became the Sonoma Valley Regional Park. Twenty years later, SDC’s upper 600 acres (once Charity Asbury’s) were declared surplus by the State Department of General Services (DGS). The Department’s idea was to lease this land for vineyard development. Sonoma Mountain Preservation and many local politicians, organizations and agencies had a different dream – that these acres be added to Jack London State Park. It took five years of concerted effort, but that dream won out.
The Sonoma Developmental Center is a big piece of property deserving of a big vision. With the institution moving towards closure, many are working hard to creatively imagine its future. The hope is that whatever vision emerges will be equal to the size, the history and the richness of the place.
(This article first appeared in the Sonoma Mountain Journal.)