The Junior Farm: 1968–2017
DIGGING OUR ROOTS: Notes on Glen Ellen History
By Teresa Murphy and members of the Glen Ellen Historical Society
For over forty years, generations of Glen Ellen kids were lucky enough to visit a little petting farm located on the grounds of Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). Originally envisioned exclusively for residents of the SDC, it soon opened its doors to town kids, and many have tender memories of bottle- feeding baby goats, petting rabbits, gathering eggs, laughing at strutting peacocks, and glaring at an angrylooking llama.
It all started with a smooth-singing cowboy and psych tech who had the vision, energy, and skills to establish the Eldridge Junior Farm. In 1968, Dale Hopper took a look at the old, abandoned hog farm on the east side of the SDC and assembled a petting farm with an assortment of creatures who needed homes as much as the residents of SDC needed furry friends. There were bunnies, birds, and burros, as well as an odd assortment of peacocks piercing the air with their shrieks. Mr. and Mrs. Iguana were farm favorites, but the most famous of all was Lucy the Spider Monkey; a popular second was the bilingual Pedro the Parrot, who screeched, “YEW! It’s a girl!” Pedro had an impressive two-hundredword vocabulary and sounded like a human.
In addition to the petting farm enjoyed by both residents and townspeople, Hopper created wonderful opportunities for residents to ride his beloved horses. He offered old-fashioned hayrides that even those with minimal mobility could enjoy, laying on blankets on the hay bales as they traveled slowly around the farm loop.
Hopper also took some of the most able residents on horseback rides in the hills above Camp Via. This was the beginning of the equestrian program at SDC, which was started by Teresa Murphy under the direction of Corey Hudson. Later, under Nancy Sessi-Tallent’s expertise, the program expanded and even competed in the Special Olympics program. The program was one of the first in the country to use horse-riding as therapy for disabled or traumatized children.
Everyone participated. The Adapted Engineering Shop of SDC adapted saddles for those needing lumbar support. Plant Operations built a ramp for easy mounting. About seventy residents per week attended riding classes; language, physical development, and skill sets grew as a result. Even the resident Catholic priest offered a Blessing of the Animals every October, during which Gretchen the Turkey would take turns sitting in the laps of visitors.
Kelley Woodle, who was affectionately called “Farmer Kelley” by local children, took over the reins when Hopper left the farm for greener pastures in Oregon. Woodle, like Hopper, kept a close eye on the animals’ welfare. Whether it concerned a potbelly pig or a llama, Woodle was knowledgeable and serious about the welfare of the petting farm animals. With her husband Ken, who worked in Plant Operations, and children Shannon and Nick, they cared for the farm animals and even bottle-fed a family of abandoned kittens left at the farm.
During the dark night of our October 2017 fires, as flames entered SDC lands from the east, Sessi-Tallent and her husband Jim raced through flying sparks from their farm in Penngrove and safely evacuated all the animals from the little farm. Rob and Robin Lyons had earlier retrieved the parrots and took two mini-horses and the donkeys, which now live permanently at the Lyon Ranch, an organization that takes animals into facilities, schools, and hospitals to provide comfort.
Some former SDC residents still visit the “new” farm in Penngrove. Their fond memories are evident when they smile and offer an apple to one of the retired horses, or a carrot to Dallas the Potbelly Pig, living the good life in Penngrove.