Living Life Well: This place, these people
By Jim Shere
Each morning, as I come into Glen Ellen, I think about the good people that I’ll meet here that day. I think about their troubles and their triumphs, and how they shape their lives in the best ways possible, given the world in which they live. I also think about how the world they share with one another is also shaped by them. This special place, Glen Ellen, has always been shaped in just this way by just such people, just as this place has shaped each one of them. Today I’m writing about the ones that come to mind — how each have lived life here in their own way, and as well as possible.
At the very beginning there were only the original ones, the ones who named this place the Valley of the Moon. The people we call the Wappo lived among the mountains to the east, and the ones called the Pomo lived along the valleys to the north and west, while those known as the Miwok lived to the south and west around Sonoma Mountain, where they said the world had begun. For thousands of years these peoples followed the waterways of the canyons to where they met in this place we now call Glen Ellen.
Coyote’s Land, a thought-provoking book by Margery Wolf, tells about the arrival of the padres through the eyes of a modern anthropologist and the Miwok elder who, through a series of mind-bending, time-traveling encounters, brings her to their time to document the way their way was quickly nearing its end. And it did end — their landscapes of dense groves and open meadows were quickly, abruptly possessed by the Mexican government, and given out as land grants to a few favored men.
In 1833 Teniente (Lieutenant) Mariano Vallejo, the 26-year-old comandante of the Presidio of Yerba Buena (later renamed San Francisco), suddenly found himself reassigned to the northern frontier. Mexico had finally won its independence from Spain and sent him to fend off the Russians menacing from the north, while overseeing redistribution of lands taken from the church. It was his assignment to watch over the settling of Sonoma Valley by immigrants from other places throughout the world.
Vallejo, now Comandante General of the Free State of Alta California, built a sawmill at the confluence of two streams to mill out the stands of redwood growing there, for the lumber that he saw would be needed. Vallejo’s mill is still here to this day, not far from the cabin that serves as my office in Jack London Village; built in 1839, it’s the oldest building in Glen Ellen. I’ve seen the contracts he signed to lease the mill to others as they filtered into the valley to settle and work to build their homes.
Early on Vallejo granted Agua Caliente — over 3,000 acres of our valley — to his henchman Lázaro Piña, but Piña died soon after, during the Mexican war. Ignoring Piña’s widow, Maria Placida Villela, Vallejo turned the grant over to Andrés Höppener, an itinerant European professor of languages and music, in exchange for piano lessons. Höppener immediately subdivided the grant, selling parcels to newcomers while opening the region’s first commercial hot springs mineral spa.
On June 14, 1846, American rebels replaced the flag of Mexico flying over the Sonoma Plaza with a handmade Bear Flag, declaring the valley and all of California an independent republic. The republic lasted just 25 days, when the flag of the United States of America was raised. These tempestuous times are well described in the detailed novel Valley of the Moon by Sherry Garland, written as a child’s diary as historic events continued to unfold.
In 1856 Vallejo sold his mill to Joshua Chauvet, who brought millstones from France to convert it to a grist mill, as fences were built and the great ranches became smaller farms. Charles Stuart brought a wagon train west from upstate New York, not for gold but to help build a new society — at first as an alderman in the fledgling town of San Francisco, and eventually to help write the constitution for the newly formed state of California. Stuart named his ranch Glen Ellen for his wife Ellen, “glen” meaning a narrow valley in his native Scotland.
Stuart’s fiery speeches on the floor of the constitutional convention in support of the despised Chinese and against racial discrimination were stirring, although far too far ahead of his time. Mary Ellen Pleasant, who built the neighboring ranch Beltane, shared Stuart’s beliefs. Born in the South as a slave, she escaped to become an abolitionist, supporting John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. After moving west Pleasant became wealthy through careful investments in the rapidly changing local economy. Aiming to help women in California become safe and selfsufficient, she became known as the “Mother of Human Rights in California.”
The story of the settling of Sonoma Mountain by Redwood Thompson is told in Arthur Dawson and Linda Dodwell’s recently published What a Place for a Home. The title is taken from a passage in Jack London’s novel Valley of the Moon.
“Ahead and toward the right, across sheer ridges of the mountains, separated by deep green canyons and broadening lower down into rolling orchards and vineyards, they caught their first sight of Sonoma Valley and the wild mountains that rimmed its eastern side. To the left they gazed across a golden land of small hills and valleys. Beyond, to the north, they glimpsed another portion of the valley, and, still beyond, the opposing wall of the valley — a range of mountains, the highest of which reared its red and battered ancient crater against a rosy and mellowing sky … ‘Oh, what a place for a home,’ Saxon cried.”
The final years of the nineteenth century were an extraordinarily turbulent time. Titles to property were debated in the courts for decades while land was opened for homesteading, and squatters simply moved in to establish their homes where they could. Casa Grande, a melodramatic novel worth reading for a sense of the time, was written by Charles Duff Stuart as a thinly disguised story about the world of his father Charles Stuart, who had been forced to buy his ranch several times from several different people to ensure certain ownership.
Colonel Joseph Hooker, most recently of the Mexican-American War, sold his property near Glen Ellen to George Watriss before going east to become a famously controversial general in the Civil War. Watriss had already developed a reputation as a hotelier by establishing the Astor House, the first luxury hotel of New York, and the Hotel Charles in New Orleans. A letter to his son described the ranch as “bounded on one side by Sonoma Creek where plenty of salmon trout are caught, and on one side by mountains, and on the other sides by splendid large oak trees laid out they say like a fine park … there are plenty of people who have spent weeks at the farm that declare it to be the Paradise of California …”
Soon after, the state of California purchased over a thousand acres of land from William McPherson Hill to build the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children, later known as the Sonoma State Home, Sonoma State Hospital — and eventually the Sonoma Developmental Center, orthe SDC. Eventually staffed by as many as a thousand employees, the institution brought caring, altruistic people to live in Glen Ellen while working with people with some of the most severe disabilities. It can easily be said that the facility helped shape the character of our village as a kind, though sometimes edgy, place.
When Charles Poppe’s general store, Pioneer Saloon, and post office burned down in 1905, he replaced them with the stone building that stands to this day next to the Chauvet Hotel, which was built the following year. The village was becoming a significant watering hole and destination. The hospitality industry got a healthy start as hotels, spas and restaurants opened to serve the hundreds of tourists who arrived by train each weekend to enjoy the sights and pleasures of the region.
By 1901 it became obvious that a constabulary was needed to keep law and order, so the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors established the Glen Ellen Township, which reached from the city limits of Sonoma as far as today’s Oakmont. Soon afterward the Glen Ellen Improvement Club was created, automobiles began arriving while blacksmith shops converted to mechanic’s garages, and the Twentieth Century was in full swing. To learn about how Glen Ellen grew from there, Bob Glotzbach’s collection of oral histories in Childhood Memories of Glen Ellen is a must read.
Jack London happened along about this time, hanging out at Wake Robin Lodge with the charming and disarming Charmian Kittredge and, quickly divorcing his wife Bess, he claimed Charmian as his mate. He bought up several depleted farms to galvanize his “Beauty Ranch”, rehabilitating the land by applying environmental techniques he had learned in the far east and from Santa Rosa horticulturalist Luther Burbank. Jack brought many artists and writers to stay with him, contributing to the literary and cultural character of the region while continuing to write a thousand words each morning to support his work.
Prohibition severely slowed the winemaking industry, but the community forged ahead. After the old schoolhouse burned down, as the result of mischievous children stuffing the chimney with burlap bags, a new school was built on land donated by the Dunbar family. The local response to the Nunn’s fire of 1923, which devastated homes and farms as far south as Fetters Springs, launched the Glen Ellen Volunteer Fire Department.
During Prohibition Alma Spreckels, whose youthful form had graced many a saloon wall throughout the west, coined the term “sugar daddy” for her wealthy husband, sugar magnate Adolph Spreckles, and took over the family home nearby at Sobre Vista. A formidable driver of style, she discovered the sculptor Rodin and built the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco to house her collection of his work. Just as London had done before her she brought significant visitors to the valley, such as boxing champion Gene Tunney, banker A. P. Giannini, and Hollywood icons Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore. During WWII General “Hap” Arnold held secret military meetings at her home, and when the war was finally over he retired nearby, on Arnold Drive.
In 1961 Dr. Robert de Ropp began writing a series of influential books essential to the burgeoning New Age Movement, including Drugs and the Mind and The Master Game. A student of Peter Ouspensky, who had studied with the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, de Ropp began a study group in his home on Sonoma Mountain. His autobiography Warrior’s Way describes his thoughts and feelings at the time, including his opinion of another local New Age figure he declined naming, though it was obvious to many he was talking about Alex Horn.
The legendary vineyardist Joe Miami grew up here with an intimate understanding of the valley’s complex terroir and microclimates, and he mentored many young winemakers during the resurgence of fine winemaking that brought Sonoma Valley to international attention. When Alex Horn took over the Monte Rosso Vineyard from Louis Martini, one of Joe’s clients, and renamed it Red Mountain Ranch, Joe— like de Ropp— held strong opinions about the charismatic figure, who began bringing young people to work in his vineyard while paying substantial amounts to study Gurdjieff at his knee.
Horn had married Anne Burridge, a student of John Bennett in England who had combined his studies under Ouspensky with a spiritual movement from the far east known as Subud. According to Dick Starr in the Kenwood Press, Alex charged students as much as $250 a week for “the privilege of performing arduous manual labor.” This enterprise only lasted a few years, when Anne grew tired of Alex’s adventures with young women in the group and left him, taking many of their students across the valley to Sonoma Mountain.
Things were beginning to change rapidly with the social and political demands of the times. Motorcycles pulled up at the Rustic Inn, turning the saloon— which workers at the SDC considered their home— into the bikers bar colorfully described by Hunter S. Thompson in his magazine article “Nights at the Rustic.” A young itinerant sports writer living out on Bennett Valley Road at the time, he complained to Herb Caen— a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle— about a lawsuit “filed against me and Cavalier Magazine by the greedy lunatic Chester Womack, who runs the Rustic Inn in Glen Ellen… Never trust a bartender.”
The Rustic Inn burned down in 1974 in one of three suspicious fires that were started within weeks of one another (also at the St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Warm Springs Road and the Weiss barn near Nunn’s Canyon. Fire was often a harsh visitor to the valley. In 1964 many homes were destroyed by a fire that retraced the fire of 1923, burning all the way from Nunn’s Canyon to Boyes Springs. Again, in 1996, a fire came over the Mayacamas range along Cavedale Road and into the Monte Rosso Vineyard.
In 1969 Charles Beardsley bought the old Pagani winery on Arnold Drive, converting it into a cultural center. Colorful figures drifted in, such as muumuu-clad Juanita, whose enormous body ably demonstrated good eating and good times at her restaurant, and Russ Kingman, whose World of Jack London bookstore reinvigorated the local author’s international reputation. The music scene settled in, with weekend parties in the basement of the mill, and the establishment of a recording studio in the barn next door, where a young Kirk Hammett produced a heavy metal group called Death Angel before going on to play lead guitar for Metallica.
Meanwhile the Glen Ellen Improvement Club, founded in 1904, was renamed the Glen Ellen Women’s Club; it formally disbanded in 1986, when the Friends of Glen Ellen was formed. Later the Glen Ellen Association was established, which produced the Glen Ellen Town Plan In 1988; their plan was adopted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors as the “Glen Ellen Development and Design Guidelines” in 1990. The annual Glen Ellen Street Fair began about this time; soon after that the Glen Ellen Historical Society was formed when cherished pieces of our history were threatened— the downtown cannon had been sold to a weapons collector Back East, and the Chauvet Hotel was slated for demolition. Protests and demonstrations won the day, however, and Glen Ellen kept its cannon, its hotel, and its legacy intact.
In 2002 “over 200 concerned Glen Ellenites braved an unusual spring downpour to come together at Dunbar School for an extraordinary meeting. The Glen Ellen Town Forum was designed to be a catalyst for building community, to air concerns, express dreams and develop a collective vision for our town’s future.” A 14-page report was then drafted, which became the blueprint for several innovative changes over the following years, including the creation of monthly town hall meetings in 2016, which continue to this day. Since then, the Forum has continued its vigorous community work, becoming instrumental in rebuilding the community after a devastating wildfire that obliterated a quarter of the town the following year.
Recovery from that tragedy did not distract from a powerful community response to the closing of the SDC. As I said, the legacy of care prevailing throughout Glen Ellen is due in part to the hundreds of people who had come to work with the clients who had lived there. In protest against county plans to redevelop the property in ways that would fundamentally change the shape and character of this place— and the people that live here— intense meetings have been taking place over the past three years as the Forum has been joined by several other local organizations that love our valley with equal fervor.
Looking back over what I’ve written in this very brief survey of our history, I apologize for not mentioning your name among the others. I know that anyone living here has had their life shaped by this place, and that each one of you has— in some way— helped shape this extraordinary place.