Finding History – A personal journey of discovery at the SDC
By Gregg Montgomery, Vice-President, Glen Ellen Historical Society Board of Directors
The Old Oak tree a SDC
In the late fall of 1970 I moved to Glen Ellen to settle in before beginning a year long training program to become a Psychiatric Technician at Sonoma State Hospital (SSH), later renamed Sonoma Developmental Center or SDC. I had visited Glen Ellen and Eldridge several times before deciding to apply for this position. I was immediately taken in by the beauty of this quaint little village and loved that it was situated on the eastern slopes of Sonoma Mountain. As an avid hiker and camper I couldn’t think of a better place to call home and to begin my new career. As a teen I was very fortunate to be involved in Scouting. I was in an exceptional troop that spent the summers backpacking and snow camping in the winter. We hiked the Kit Carson trail and explored old mining camps in the gold county and dug for old bottles in their dumpsites. It was Boy Scouts that really fostered my inquisitive nature and my insatiable desire to explore.
It didn’t take long before I found myself exploring all of the outer reaches of Glen Ellen and Eldridge. Sonoma Mountain was like a playground for this Eagle Scout. Before long I knew all of the trails and service roads that meandered above the campus and town. I loved wandering through portions of Jack London’s property and the upper reaches of SSH. I was particularly interested in areas where the remains of old structures were found and was intrigued how portions of Hill Creek had been diverted to Fern Lake, and wondered about scatterings of old rusted steel pipe north of Fern Lake that seemed to go nowhere. And what about that old cemetery? What’s the story there? Discussions with some “old-timers” did offer some clues but were generally contradictory or laced with folklore. There were always more questions than answers. But that was okay. I still loved hiking and exploring the hills of Sonoma Mountain.
In the early 90s, however, I had an opportunity to attend a presentation given by Lynn Anderson. Lynn was our in-house A/V tech guy as well as an amateur historian. His presentation on the early history of the SDC was absolutely riveting. Answers to questions that I had pondered for years were being literally dropped in my lap. We talked for a bit afterward as I hit him with a barrage of questions that must have made his head spin. It was at this point that my explorations of Glen Ellen and Eldridge became more academic than physically explorative.
Several years later I had a chance encounter with a young man who was quite familiar with the facility. Steve Lee, a member of the Glen Ellen Historical Society, and resident landowner whose property actually abuts the northern property line of SDC, was looking to make connections with management staff. I was able to introduce him to Teresa Murphy, the Administrative Services Director who was also spearheading the movement to revitalize the defunct SDC museum plan.
Steve’s acute knowledge of the campus grounds was quite impressive as he lead me on a hike to the Roulet springs and possible Roulet homestead site. It was through Steve’s encouragement that I joined the GEHS in 2011.
Working as a retired annuitant in 2013 offered even more opportunities to explore SDC’s historic past. I was granted permission to work for 10 hours a week over a six month period in the SDC Staff Library to help gather, collate and digitize historic documents, photos, written historical accounts and essays. My co-worker Nancy Flack deserves all of the credit for archiving this important information; I was simply there to help. But all of the knowledge that I came away with from that experience totally fulfilled that inner desire of mine to explore and learn about the history of SDC – a place that had become my home away from home.
Foolishly thinking that I was nearing the end of discovering SDC’s secrets I was surprised to receive a call from Teresa who seemed quite excited about a conversation she’d had with an arborist from Oakland.
Several months ago a very large oak tree had blown over in a lawn area near Oak Lodge. The facility manager contracted City Tree Services, out of Oakland, to have the massive tree removed. Alex Thomas, owner and licensed arborist was happy to oblige as he often traveled through Sonoma Valley on his way home to Ukiah. Alex, after examining the fallen tree, was convinced that this tree was not a typical valley oak (White Oak). As an amateur historian and an accomplished woodworker he was convinced that this tree showed all the characteristics of being a hybrid. With his familiarity with hybrid hardwoods, our conversations quickly turned toward Luther Burbank. Apparently toward the end of Burbank’s career he was quite concerned about the deforestation of hardwoods and was doing hybrid experimentation on different varieties of trees.
“If new trees are needed to make forests to supply the place of those that your thoughtless forbears have destroyed,” the trees seem to say, “why not call upon me and my fellows?” – L. Burbank
Alex knew that Burbank was one of the pioneers of hardwood hybridization and of his friendship with Jack London and his interest in Eucalyptus trees. However, he was quite surprised to learn of the close friendship between Luther Burbank and Dr. Dawson, who was SSH Superintendent from 1902 to 1918, as well as an honorary member of the Luther Burbank Society.
Alex surmised that it was quite possible that Burbank could have used this fairly new campus as a test site for planting some of his new hardwood hybrids. Alex sent me several digital links to some of Burbank’s descriptions of his work with regards to hardwood trees. After reading through much of what he had sent, I too was beginning to think that this was a real possibility. When I read about Burbank’s black walnut hybrid, “Paradox,” it immediately brought to mind the old black walnut orchard behind the chicken barns on campus. I mentioned that to Alex and he was very interested and asked to see the trees. A week later we made plans to walk the campus to check out the walnut orchard and other areas of interest. He knew that Burbank had worked on hybridizing Magnolia and Hawthorn trees and was quite interested in seeing them as well. I hadn’t seen the walnut orchard in quite awhile and was keeping my fingers crossed that it hadn’t burned in the wildfires. As we approached the area we could see the trees towering over the tops of the old barns.
They all looked to be in great shape and showed no sign of fire damage. “Could these trees be Burbank’s Paradox,” I asked. He explained that there was no way of knowing without doing tests on the cambium layer of the bark or possibly the nuts themselves. He explained that that was not his area of expertise but he had a botanist friend who could make that determination. They certainly seem to be the right age, though, he stated. Alex took a couple of small branches that held a few immature nuts and we headed back to the central part of the campus. We parked in the lot next to the PEC building (The Main Building) and he immediately spotted the two massive Magnolia trees there. He agreed that those trees, too, could be Burbank hybrids; they were certainly old enough he stated. With Alex running short on time, I was anxious to show him some of the large hardwood trees that sit in front of the Sonoma House. He was quite taken by the huge Hawthorn tree that sits dead center in front of the mansion. He pointed out the large Catalpa tree and remarked that Catalpas were also hybridized by Burbank.
As we headed back to the parking area knowing that our hopeful musings were purely speculative, we both agreed that until we can discover more factual proof, it’s certainly worthy of promoting this storyline to the annals of SDC folklore.
As I look back on my 50 year relationship with SDC and my “Boy Scout” approach to discovering its past, I realize now that this journey of mine is far from over. With the Glen Ellen Historical Society now focusing on Historic Preservation, it’s pretty clear that my explorations are just beginning.
This piece first appeared in the Summer 2020 newsletter of the Glen Ellen Historical Society.