Gordenkers: From Russian royalty to turkey titans
Sylvia and Christine sat at Sylvia’s dining room table in Sonoma, comparing photos, photocopies, and handwritten notes detailing their family history going back more than a hundred years. Once they started looking back at the volumes of family legacy, it was almost impossible to stop the flood of childhood memories and family stories that followed. Tough for an interviewer, but great for anyone fascinated by the journey of a young Russian aristocrat and slip of a girl whose involvement in the very earliest stirrings of the Russian revolution back in the 1870s precipitated the family’s adventures in the New World.
Sylvia is Sylvia Gordenker Bernard, and Christine Gordenker Valente is her older sister. Their brother Peter Gordenker was not on hand. These are the children of Allan and Leonor Gordenker who have a slew of relatives with deep connections to Sonoma Valley. Anyone who drives Highway 12 between Kenwood and Glen Ellen goes by the family property. Running from Nuns Canyon Road to Trinity Road along the highway and eastward up the mountain in a very rough rectangular shape, four contiguous parcels make up the family holdings of almost 400 acres.
However, the original family revolutionary, Olga Palitsyn, was born in the 1850s [exact date unclear], and was directly descended from Avraamy Palitsyn, a 16th-century monk/warrior hero in Russian history. In her youth, Olga’s family was among the elite Russian aristocracy of the time, owning close to 45,000 acres with 2,500 serfs in that rigid feudal society.
The Gordenker name is well known to longtime Valley residents for their turkey farming operations from the 1930s through the mid-1980s, when Sonoma Valley was home to the largest turkey egg operations in the world. According to family records and newspaper articles of the period, Sylvia’s father Allan Gordenker first began raising meat turkeys in the early 1930s. That business did well through WWII, providing staples for troops, but after the wartime demand dropped off, something else was needed.
The new business model came from George Nicholas, who had developed a new breed of turkey. Nicholas began raising turkeys in the late 1930s in Petaluma – the Chicken Capital of the World at that time – but the west county property proved unsuitable. He moved the operation to Sonoma, and by the early 1950s, the new breed of huge turkeys Nicholas had developed, with prodigious amounts of white meat, was fast becoming the staple of the worldwide turkey business. Nicholas convinced Allan Gordenker that breeder birds were the future of the business and the next two decades proved him right. Eventually, turkey eggs from Sonoma and Sonoma Valley produced 60 percent of the world’s meat turkeys. The Nicholas enterprise was sold in the late 1960s for $10 million and eventually was moved elsewhere.
The Gordenkers stopped producing turkeys in 1982, after regulations requiring the birds to be raised indoors proved too much hassle. Turkeys had become highly susceptible to a number of diseases and required special handling.
From St. Petersburg to Glen EllenWhile exact details, dates and devices are sometimes sketchy, we know that Olga Palitsyn was one of the first women educated at a French school for young women in St. Petersburg, Russia. At the time, such schools were practically all French, so great was the influence of that society on Russia’s ruling class. Olga became well-read and radicalized with the times. She was attracted to and joined the non-violent arm of an otherwise anarchistic and nihilistic movement, Circle of Chaikovaskii, but quickly fell afoul of the Tsar’s rigid police state. At some point she became romantically entangled with a man named Vladimir, and she eventually was jailed, along with Vladimir. By all accounts, the two suffered in prison, but managed to get out separately. They reunited in Hungary, and ultimately made their way to New York, with lots of family money sewn into their clothing.
They were travelling on false passports under the name “Gordenko,” which emerged from Ellis Island as “Gordenker.”
The couple joined a large contingent of Russian émigrés who migrated to the American Midwest during the late 1800s. They settled in Nebraska before finding their way to California and Glen Ellen, where Vladimir and Olga bought property on Henno Road. The property remains in the family to this day and is home to Olga’s granddaughter-in-law Leonor and great grandson Peter. Eventually the family acquired more land, including the 400+ acre ranch east of Highway 12.
Olga lived a long and industrious life, passing away in 1932 at the age of 80 or so. In 1923, a writer for the San Francisco Call confused her with Princess Olga Romanov, who was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The resulting story was fanciful, and Olga was not beyond helping it along, but even a cursory exam of birthdates sinks the story’s central premise that a member of the Russian imperial family survived the massacre.
Olga was gregarious and certainly well known to her famous Glen Ellen neighbor, Jack London. That the two engaged in political discourse should be expected considering London’s well-known sympathy for socialist causes and the communist party. Olga’s revolutionary group in Russia had published Karl Marx’s original Das Kapital and she was a highly educated woman whose vociferous political views had resulted in exodus from her homeland.
A letter from London to Olga, dated Sept. 1909, responded to a letter to the editor that Olga had written in a Santa Rosa newspaper.
London wrote, in part:
“It would be a darned poor world if everybody had the same opinions. And it would be a stale, flat, and unprofitable world. My best friends are those with whom I hold the most decided differences of opinion, and I haven’t an ounce of respect for the person who sweetly and complacently agrees with everything one says. That’s why I like you. You have your own opinions and are not afraid to express them. You are an individual. You are yourself.”
He did, however object to her assuming “a pre-eminence of experience over mine.”
Over the years, Olga ran a campground for the many vacationers who rode the Northwestern Pacific up to Sonoma Valley for the country air, fresh food and clean waters. An entry in the Northwestern Pacific publication Vacations 1909 noted that Gordenker’s was “10 minutes’ walk from Glen Ellen. Fresh vegetables, berries, fruits, eggs, chickens and milk are to be had on ranches within close proximity to camping grounds; spring water is on the grounds. Arrangements may be made by personal inspection. Rates, $2.00 a month for each tent; references requested.”
Modern timesToday, the Gordenker ranch is home to two quarries – one working and one being repurposed – a large medical marijuana farm, an organic and biodynamic farm, a vineyard, and one world-renowned sculptor. It is also the perennial host to the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department’s annual Starlight Dinner, which raised record funds this year through the dinner, auction and direct donations.
The SPARC (San Francisco Patient and Resource Center) farm has a large operation supplying the collective’s medical marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol (Kenwood Press, Aug. 1, 2017). The group is eyeing the lower of the Gordenker’s two quarries for further use, including water storage. The upper quarry, Nuns Canyon Quarry, was acquired in the 1960s and still produces Sonoma Gold, an expensive aggregate favored by landscapers and landscape architects.
Bee-Well Farm is known for their farm-fresh produce, eggs, honey, and even grass fed beef. Austin and Melissa Lely offer their products at farmers’ markets in Sonoma County.
Bryan Tedrick is a sculptor of no little ambitions, having produced the signature sculptures for Burning Man since 2008. He creates his amazing works in a barn tucked away near Calabazas Creek, with plenty of room for his fantastic and enormous metal constructions.
And to keep up with the times, the family vineyards produce Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet sauvignon wines under the Gordenker label. Certainly, they are a family that lives up to their pioneering, even revolutionary legacy.
You can visit the website and learn more about the family at www.gordenker.com.