What Glen Ellen wants
Instead of going with all the others to the goldfields, Charles Stuart, a vigorous visionary and ardent social activist, brought his wife Ellen to our glen to plant a vineyard – which he named Glen Ellen. He saw what this landscape promised for those who worked hard, and he worked hard over the following decades to help develop a healthy and prosperous community. For a good sense of those times, read Casa Grande, written by his son Charles Duff Stewart in a style anticipating the writings of a later local visionary activist by the name of Jack London.
Glen Ellen has always been a community of scrappy, generous people, people who care about their village and one another. From the 19th century – when trains brought thousands of tourists each week to enjoy our resorts, restaurants and wineries, along with those who came to care for the severely disabled children at Eldridge down the road, and the many, many writers, artists, and musicians who came to stay – right down to today, Glen Ellen’s been the home of the most amazing people, who worked hard to make sure things went as well as possible.
A couple of years ago, Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin asked Leslie Vaughn – the indefatigable director of the Glen Ellen Village Fair (our happy annual block party) – what it is that Glen Ellen wants. Leslie asked me what I thought, and I thought it was a good question; so she and I arranged a public town hall meeting, and invited Susan to join in. She came to listen, as folks from all over Glen Ellen came together at Dunbar School on Monday evening, Nov. 7, 2016, to talk. It was a time for us to listen to one another, and a time for us to speak up.
Grassroots gatherings with a can-do attitude like this have shaped our community for more than a century. The Glen Ellen Improvement Club (later renamed the Glen Ellen Women’s Club) was first established in 1904; it saw to necessary improvements until 1986, when it was replaced by the Glen Ellen Association. The Association produced the Glen Ellen Town Plan in 1988, which was adopted in 1990 by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors as the “Glen Ellen Development and Design Guidelines.”
When it was discovered that cherished pieces of our history were threatened with being taken from us – the downtown cannon was sold to a weapons collector back East, and the Chauvet Hotel was slated for demolition – the Glen Ellen Historical Society was formed to protect them. Protests and demonstrations throughout the decade won the day, and Glen Ellen kept its cannon, its hotel, its heart and soul – and its integrity – intact.
Then, as was reported 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 drafted after that meeting; it’s still available, though it’s clearly time for a revision.
The town hall meeting that Leslie and I called for was the first of what became a monthly community event. Over time, a steering committee was set up to formally establish a nonprofit organization known as the Glen Ellen Forum. Michael Furlong stepped up to ably chair the meetings, Tracy Salcedo contributed her writing skills as secretary, Margie Foster resumed the role as treasurer that she had originally held in the Glen Ellen Association, and Leslie and I stepped back as many others stepped forward, joining industrious committees to address the continuing needs of the community.
Then we were dealt those two severe devastations – the wildfires of 2017, and the closure of SDC in 2018. These twin catastrophes brought deep and permanent changes to the community. Homes were lost, and jobs were lost, and lifelong friends were forced to leave. The stages of grief were found everywhere that people met, as tears found solace and warm hugs were shared – in the grocery store, the bank, the post office, and the town saloon. Spontaneous fundraisers and impromptu community dinners took place, as a slow recovery began.
Then there were the several visioning sessions as people gathered to talk, and listen, and write on post-its and sheets of paper taped to the walls, about what they hoped to see happen in Glen Ellen. All sorts of ideas were floated, as a community-wide wish list began to emerge. Gradually, over the past few months, I’ve come to realize that what Glen Ellen really wants – and deserves – is a robust future to match its rich past, an inclusive and generous one that draws upon the skills of every member of the community to address the needs of every one of us, young and old, newcomers and longtime residents, from the homeless to the wealthy.
We want to remember our century-long legacy of care for the desperately disabled, no matter what happens at Eldridge. We want tourists to know why they’ve come to Glen Ellen, not to escape into an indulgent and generic vacationland, but to something – someplace – special. We want our arts to flourish, and our farm to table food and drink to become known without becoming compromised; and as we provide healing services to our visitors, we want to continue in our own healing. We want to do what our founder Charles Stuart had done – to work hard to maintain a healthy and prosperous community.
And I want what Glen Ellen wants.