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Living life well: Revisiting This Place & These People

Living life well: Revisiting This Place & These People


by Jim Shere

At first it was mostly the men— the padres and their soldiers— who came to claim the land and all its people for Mexico, which had just won its war of independence from Spain. And then the other men came with their vaqueros to claim the land as theirs, pioneers filling the valley with vast cattle ranches. And then in time the settlers, men and women, arrived to homestead, to build fences and farms, and to plant their orchards and vineyards. Men claimed and worked their place in the valley— but it was largely the women who cared for this place.

As I began learning about the history of our valley, I became increasingly aware of the hands of women in the fashioning of our legacy. Julia Judah and Frances Bentley came to build the home for the severely disabled that we now call the SDC, and Mary Ellen Pleasant built a place called Beltane in part as a refuge for women in a world dominated by men. Ellen Stuart, with her neighbors Kate Warfield and Eliza Hood, tended the early vineyards of the valley and made their wines, and Jack London’s stepsister Eliza Shepard took care of his Beauty Ranch while he was sailing to the South Pacific— and long after his untimely death, with his widow Charmian. These were strong women who saw what needed to be done — and did it.

The story I started to tell last month about this place and these people needs some revisiting, for few well-meaning errors had crept in. As I told the kind editors of the Kenwood Press: history is always being rewritten, as more is learned. To correct the record, it wasn’t simply the Glen Ellen Improvement Club— it was the Glen Ellen Women’s Improvement Club that was officially formed in 1904, and was inducted into the California Federation of Women’s Clubs the following year.

According to the 1906-07 Official Directory and Register, the group met twice monthly in Mayflower Hall, next door to the newly built community church on O’Donnell Lane. They worked throughout the early, turbulent years of the 20th Century to improve the community in many ways, and were instrumental in raising money for the eventual building of the Jack London Memorial Library in 1923— largely under the direction of Eliza Shepard.

There are two artifacts in the Glen Ellen Historical Society collection that illustrate the presence of women here. One is a signature quilt, made sometime in the Twenties or Thirties and is embroidered with the names of many prominent residents, and the other is a cookbook from the Thirties and Forties titled “Valley of the Moon Friendly Circle Glen Ellen Cook Book.” The organization continued its good works until it was formally disbanded in 1978.

About this time another community group calling itself the Friends of Glen Ellen began gathering to promote the creation of a park in the open space where the Rustic Inn had burned down in 1974. The Rustic had been the community’s gathering place and watering hole for decades, and was something of a living room for the community. It was generally felt that the downtown location should become, according to one of the members of the group, an “open space for a small village green or park, where friends and neighbors could gather informally.” A tourist-oriented strip mall was planned instead, but after a particularly volatile public Board of Supervisors meeting in 1979 the project was withdrawn. The Friends of Glen Ellen went on to become attentive watchdogs over further development for a while longer, until the early Eighties.

A more formal organization, the Glen Ellen Association, was established in 1986. The first issue of their quarterly newsletter was published then as they set to work developing the Glen Ellen Town Plan, which was adopted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 1990 as the “Glen Ellen Development and Design Guidelines.” The group went on for several years, galvanizing community concerns and action throughout the Nineties.

As I wrote last month, our downtown cannon and the Chauvet Hotel were saved by organized protests and demonstrations, out of which the Glen Ellen Historical Society emerged to celebrate our rich legacy. Our cherished annual block party, the Glen Ellen Village Fair, found official approval to close down the streets in 1991 for a parade and concert, where— to this day— friends and neighbors greet and applaud one another in a daylong show of community celebration and pride.

The Glen Ellen Town Forum found its origin in 2002, as over 200 locals met at Dunbar School to discuss “a collective vision for our town’s future.” The Forum still holds town hall meetings every month, online since the pandemic began but with as much vigor and devotion to the community as ever. When the region was devastated by the wildfires of 2017, residents scrambled throughout the night to save one another, and worked through the following days to save what they could of their homes. The Forum organized community response with material support and comfort for the many people that had lost everything they owned.

As residents began to rebuild along the highway and Dunbar Road, Henno Road, Warm Springs Road, O’Donnell Lane, London Ranch Road, and Hill Road, attention also returned as well to the closure of the SDC. Committees formed and collaborated with one another on the many facets of that impact; naturalists were concerned for the wildlife corridor, community advocates likewise for housing and services, and historians as well for the legacy of care and advocacy that reached into three centuries.

When the county produced plans that incredibly ignored the public input it had in fact once encouraged, the same vehement reaction began spilling out of Glen Ellen that had protected its cannon and hotel a few decades earlier. As always, many if not most of the voices being heard are those of strong women, for they have always paid attention and been at work to make Glen Ellen a better place. Here, I salute them.

We don’t yet know what will become of our effort to maintain the character of our community, which had been so attentively cared for by so many good people— women and men— for so many years. This place and these people are inseparable expressions of one another and, although our county government may now want to claim land here, what takes place must continue to be decided by the people who actually live here.