the facility helped shape the ….
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.