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Digging Our Roots: Sonoma House Museum

Digging Our Roots: Sonoma House Museum
Sonoma House.Source: Glen Ellen Historical Society

Contributed by the Glen Ellen Historical Society

One of the flood of worthy choices for redevelopment on the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) campus is an excellent proposal by the Glen Ellen Historical Society: Establish an enchanting museum highlighting the SDC, Glen Ellen, and Sonoma Valley history.

Secreted away from the main entrance, and not obvious to passersby on Arnold Drive, is a wonderful pale-blue Queen Anne Victorian called Sonoma House. Built in 1897, it exhibits turrets and sunrooms, balconies and screened porches. It served as the “Superintendent’s Cottage,” housing a succession of superintendents and their families over the years.

Peggy Butler McAleese grew up in this “mansion,” as she called it, in the 1920s and ’30s, when her father, Dr. Fred O. Butler, was superintendent of the institution. She has memories of horseback riding on the Spreckels estate to the south and on the London Ranch to the north, and of visiting luminaries as house guests in the mansion ( Childhood Memories of Glen Ellen, pg. 65).

Sonoma House remains today in a shady glade just south of the iconic brick PEC building, behind the firehouse, and to visit it is to be transported to the last century. You imagine tea parties, and mothers in aprons serving dinner on the table at 6 p.m. sharp. There are small structures behind it — maybe maids’ quarters, or a smokehouse, or a barn for horse and buggy. But the home itself is graceful and proud and to remove it would be, frankly, a crime.

This striking Queen Anne building is ideal for an Eldridge Museum.

Already on Sonoma County’s Historic Registry list, it is in surprisingly good condition and is a perfect place for an historical museum that could tell the stories of bygone Glen Ellen and the SDC facility’s significant history.

In fact, the idea of a museum here predates the historical society’s involvement. The concept was floated in 1968, when the state of California proposed the old Superintendent’s Cottage for a museum, a plan which never came to fruition.

The Glen Ellen Historical Society has accumulated intriguing artifacts from a disappearing Glen Ellen. It has, among other things, checks made out to Joshua Chauvet and signed by Jack London, the original hand-hewn bucksaw belonging to the real Martin Eden, vintage oak wheelchairs and medical equipment from the state home, early nurses’ uniforms, an ancient carousel, personal items from Jack and Charmian London, and stories of the memorable people who contributed to the warp and woof of this small, but critically important, crossroads community.

Other structures on the SDC campus — King Cottage, Bane/ Thompson and McDougall Hall — would also fit the bill for a museum. But Sonoma House has the gravitas, the poise, and the grandeur to best house these irreplaceable artifacts from our past.

History, in part, tells us who we are. It is our collective memory that guides us into the future.