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Digging Our Roots: Notes on Glen Ellen history

Digging Our Roots:  Notes on Glen Ellen history

The French Colony, 1850–1960

By the Glen Ellen Historical Society

Glen Ellen’s French connection has not always been appreciated. But in addition to the Italians and the Irish, French immigrant families made their mark in early Glen Ellen. According to “Gaye LeBarron’s Notebook” in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat of 1993, Glen Ellen’s “French colony” probably started with Joshua Chauvet. Chauvet came to California from the Champagne region of France, bringing skills as a miller grinding wheat for bread. Off he went as a youth from southern France to bake bread for the gold miners at Mokelumne Hill in California during the Gold Rush of 1848.

Later, in 1854, he sent home for his millstones, which were then brought around the horn by Joshua’s father, François, to Glen Ellen (and are still located at Jack London Village). He settled down in Glen Ellen around 1856. Chauvet then bought, from General Vallejo, 500 acres of land and a sawmill on the property at the intersection of Asbury Creek and Sonoma Creek, and later converted it to a grist mill, which stands to this day with its waterwheel intact. Fields of wheat did not grow in our redwood forests, so he later planted a vineyard, developed a winery and distillery, and in 1906, a hotel named the Hotel Chauvet. Around 1900, French summer resorts popped up around the valley, hosted by French immigrants who had traveled across the Atlantic by ship and found their way to French-owned tanneries and restaurants in San Francisco, where they worked before relocating to Glen Ellen. The Mediterranean climate here was familiar, and the French families brought Old World knowledge of country life, growing their own fruits and vegetables, preserving eggs and meat in crockery pots, and cooking. They kept cows, chickens, sheep, calves, and hogs for butchering, offering a taste of traditional country life to San Franciscans who arrived by ferry to Sausalito, and then to the Sonoma Valley for summer holidays under the shade along a flowing Calabazas Creek.

They cooked, as Gaye LeBaron says in her article, “in the best tradition of the provinces of their ancestors in Europe, and offered Americans the music, camaraderie and good food of Europe” at their resorts. The Bouscals, Lasbarielles, Agars, Joulies, Cabrals, and Garrics were a tight-knit community in Glen Ellen, helping and supporting each other during the early 20th century.

According to LeBarron, other Glen Ellen French generally came from south-central France, from a coal-mining region near the city of Rodez near Toulouse. Their departure from the region was caused by the closing of the coal mines there. Lynn Garric spent her 1950s and ‘60s youth at the Garric Ranch along the shady banks of Calabazas Creek parallel to Henno Road. “The property had once been my grandparents’ French resort, but in the 1950s and ‘60s I lived with my parents on what was by then an operating chicken ranch. There was still the structure of the former resort: picnic tables along the creek, and cottages, and plenty of singing and laughing taking place when French guests came up from the city. They all spoke the patois of their native region of Aveyron, and I remember they all loved to sing and there was always someone to play the accordion, and they became sentimental and tearful when singing about the land they left and never expected to see again.”

Garric has very happy memories of her French family getting together under the willows and poplars by the flowing creek for birthdays, holidays, and summer picnics at long tables laden with food, chatting in the French of southern France. Even now, she remains connected with relatives in France, visiting for reunions every few years.

People in town are said to have remarked, on warm summer evenings, that they could hear “the Frenchmen singing” from all over town.

The Garrics and Bouscals were cousins with the Cambou family of Warm Springs Road, whose resort, the Rocky Terrace Resort (now the Olea Hotel; before that the Glenelly) was renowned. A third French resort called Gaston’s was located farther west on Warm Springs.

The celebrated Rocky Terrace Resort was owned and operated by Marie and John Cambou. During Prohibition, the French Consul in San Francisco and his family were regulars at the resort, which was known for its delicious French food and old-country atmosphere. Other guests included Ina Clair, the silent film star, and Prince and Princess Romanoff of Czarist Russia.

In his book, Childhood Memories of Glen Ellen, Bob Glotzbach recounts a memory of Cambou: “Johnny Cambou bustling around the kitchen on a Sunday morning: ‘Well, I’ve got 30 people coming up from San Francisco so I’ve got to kill some chickens.’” It is reported that he would then hike over to the Spreckels Ranch and get frogs from their pond, in order to serve frogs’ legs to his guests as a fabulous French meal. “Every year,” continues Jean Signorotti, “the community— the Bouscals, the Lasbarielles, Agars, Joulies, Cabrals—would help each other out, cutting up a pig to make sausage, using ‘everything but the squeal.’” In those days, “the Cambou kitchen,” as remembered by Verna Bliven Morris, had “a huge black cook stove with warming ovens, all manner of vegetables, chickens, rabbits, and strange mushrooms heaped on a large table while being prepared for dinner. Delicious smells were everywhere! The dining table was long and narrow while being prepared for dinners or lunches … and the long table covered with oil cloth … seated perhaps 25 people and the chairs were wooden with straight backs. There were several courses with platters of homemade pork, chicken, local mushrooms, French bread, and red wine with glasses for everyone.”

For a while, there was a French dairy in Glen Ellen run by the Lasbareilles family, directly across the street from where the firehouse is now, on the curve of Arnold Drive; there is now a home there, which was built from the old French barn. Mrs. Lasbareilles is remembered in Childhood Memories for delivering fresh milk in bottles in her Model-T Ford. There was also a rock quarry run by a Frenchman, Mr. Joulie, among other small businesses around town.

Quels beaux souvenirs…

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