Kenwood Press

Serving the communities of Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Oakmont

email print Add this RSS feed to your reader. RSS
Local History Lesson: 08/01/2015

"Picnickers Out in Force"

Tourism's rowdy beginnings

Sonoma Valley’s world-class wine and restaurants, rural scenery and small communities attract people from all over the world. Those of us who make our homes here know that there are two sides to living in a tourist destination. Traffic along the Highway 12 corridor is getting worse and the number of winery events has been rising at a frightening pace. Crime Watch reports in the Kenwood Press like “a lot of noise from drunk people yelling at 3 a.m.” seem to be getting more common. Meanwhile, local renters and home buyers are being squeezed out by high-prices and Airbnb.

This is not the first time our community has faced these kinds of issues. The arrival of the first train in Glen Ellen in 1882 heralded the beginnings of tourism here. Before that, getting from San Francisco to Glen Ellen required riding a ferry to Lakeville on the Petaluma River, catching a stagecoach to Sonoma and then another to Glen Ellen. It took most of the day, one way.

Once the railroad arrived, the roundtrip could be made in a single day. The area became known for its charm and natural beauty, and tourists began pouring in. Kenwood sprang up when a second track came through in 1887, connecting Glen Ellen to Santa Rosa. In May 1890, the Daily Alta California newspaper reported that 2,000 people had attended a picnic for the Young Men’s Catholic Union in Glen Ellen. It was a “great success socially and financially. Picnickers arrived at noon, and from that time until about 5:30 o’clock dancing was indulged in.” It took four separate trains to bring that crowd from San Francisco.

Similar events happened almost daily in the warmer months. Sunday excursion trains arrived at noon, disgorging their passengers like cruise ships docked in an exotic port. It was the 19th-century equivalent of a flash mob. In May 1891 it was reported that there would be a picnic in Glen Ellen “every day this week.” Three years later, a headline proclaimed, “Picnickers Out in Force Everywhere; Jams at the Ferry Landings; Crowds Return with Wild Flowers from the Fields and Fish from the Streams.”

It wasn’t just the environment that was being trashed. Just like today, some visitors behaved themselves, some didn’t. The Daily Alta told of “a party of hoodlums who went along with a San Francisco Sunday picnic to Glen Ellen. When the train reached Sonoma, fifty roughs raided and virtually wrecked Lanx’s railroad saloon.”

“You just had a lot of people here during the summer,” recalled Milo Shepard, Jack London’s great-grand nephew, born in Glen Ellen in 1925. “Glen Ellen had about eight hotels and a dozen bars,” he said. Milo’s mother “wouldn’t allow the girls downtown by themselves; they always had to have an adult with them. So much drinking – those fraternal clubs would come up for the day. Come up on the train and go back on the train.“

The early tourism boom was good for the economy and helped grow the town we know today. But it also gave Glen Ellen a reputation. It was that tarnished reputation that sparked the sentiment behind an 1897 story titled “Sonoma People Up in Arms: Aroused Against Making the Town a Sunday Resort – Attempt of the Railroad to Lease the Vallejo Place for Picnics.” The article mentions the long-term railroad lease on the Glen Ellen picnic grounds and how Vallejo’s daughter turned down the railroad’s offer.

Vacation rentals were a huge business. Some of the most venerable homes in the area rented out rooms by the week or month. Full meal plans were available too. A newspaper ad promised visitors to Glen Oaks Ranch: “Old Oak trees surrounding house. Romantic canyon close to ranch. Large, airy rooms. Can accommodate 20. Adults $7 a week, children under 12, $4.” Ten other places in Glen Ellen were advertised on the same page. Many locals depended on the income from renting their homes to make ends meet.

Prohibition followed by the Great Depression ended that first tourism boom. Eventually things picked up again. In the 1960s the Hell’s Angels were the rowdies, drinking and carousing at the Rustic Inn, which sat where the Glen Ellen Village Market is now. Another road house operated a half-mile out of town on Warm Springs Road. In the 1970s, we adopted the label ‘Wine Country,’ and tourism has been growing steadily ever since.

Tourism has its issues, but it has also given us some of our most beloved and illustrious citizens. Jack London was a tourist on his early visits to Glen Ellen. Former Fire Chief Bill Murray first came up with his family from San Francisco in the early 1930s. “We were summer people,” he said. After a career as a San Francisco fireman, he built a house and moved to Waldruhe Heights on Sonoma Mountain.

Nobody I know is hoping our tourism issues will be solved by another Prohibition or Great Depression. A hundred years ago, the tourist season was limited to half the year. Today it lasts nearly 12 months. What is the right balance between accommodating visitors and quality-of-life for residents? It’s a complicated question that will only be answered through creativity and persistence, by many people, a little at a time.


Recently Published:

04/15/2019 - The Hurd family homestead
12/01/2018 - The times they are a-changin' - Glen Ellen transitions
05/15/2017 - Spans of time: The bridges of Glen Ellen
07/01/2016 - John Drummond, “Wine Hero”
04/15/2016 - Jack London: for love of the land
04/01/2016 - Jack London and his Beauty Ranch
03/15/2016 - Jack’s Women – Charmian Kittridge London and Eliza Shepard, hearts full of love
02/15/2016 - The writer next door: Jack London and the Sonoma State Home
11/15/2015 - A church for everyone – Kenwood’s original church
06/15/2015 - Clinton Petrie, more than just a plane crash victim
09/15/2014 - The Mayacamas Fire of 1923
03/01/2014 - The Nunns of Nunns’ Canyon
11/15/2013 - The Languages of Kenwood
11/01/2013 - Mountain Magic
03/15/2013 - The Kenwood Hilton: The Story of Monroe Ranch
06/15/2012 - Early agriculture on Sonoma Mountain
04/15/2008 - The Kenwood Marsh, past, present and future

Recently Published:

05/15/2019 - 'Community beautification abounds'
05/15/2019 - OVA Board opening
05/15/2019 - Last call for Wrongful Doings at Woeful Ranch
05/15/2019 - Sounding the alarm
05/15/2019 - Glen Ellen Fire public hearing for parcel tax on May 21
05/15/2019 - New roadside clean up program
05/15/2019 - SVCAC to hear GE mixed-use project
05/15/2019 - Coming in for a landing...
05/15/2019 - Business Beat for May 15, 2019
05/15/2019 - Community meeting on water service yields results
05/15/2019 - Kiwanis raising funds for student scholarships
05/15/2019 - Vegetation management, controlled burning could begin this month
05/15/2019 - Flapjacks for firefighters
05/15/2019 - Rash of vehicle break-ins
05/01/2019 - Emergency preparedness workshop coming up
05/01/2019 - Prices go up at Sugarloaf May 1
05/01/2019 - A year on Sugarloaf Ridge
05/01/2019 - Possible cost of SDC acquisition outlined
05/01/2019 - Kenwood Community Church calls new pastor
05/01/2019 - Fire safe council has stamp of approval
05/01/2019 - Fire district consolidation planning moves forward
05/01/2019 - Going Jack to Jack...
05/01/2019 - Gives new meaning to ‘dumpster fire’
05/01/2019 - Sugarloaf Ridge State Park celebrates half a century
05/01/2019 - Inspections at 3,500+ properties to help reduce wildfire risk in county

Community Calendar

Trail work
Emergency response, CPR training in Glen Ellen
Sierra Garden now open near Oakmont
Kenwood Community Church service
Sugarloaf Turns 50! A Celebration of a Special Park
Family hike
Al Anon meeting
Sonoma Speaker Series features Tony award-winner McKechnie
Oakmont Farmers Market
Sierra Garden now open near Oakmont
Come to the Bennett Valley picnic!

Weather Underground PWS KCAKENWO2