Coffin Lane namesake shares Kenwood memories
Connie van Löben Sels’ connection to Kenwood goes back more than 100 years
At 95 years young, Connie van Löben Sels is remarkably vigorous in body, mind and spirit. Longevity runs in her family; Connie’s father, Sherwood Coffin, lived to be 94 and her older sister is still around at the age of 98. Likewise, Connie can trace her family back over a long stretch of time, all the way back to the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. She also descends from Tristram Coffin, who sailed to the New World with his family in 1642, just 20 years later.
Tristram eventually bought the island of Nantucket for 30 pounds and two beaver hats. His grandson James Coffin was one of the first to get into the whaling business, an enterprise for which Nantucket became well-known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (The fictional Captain Ahab, of Melville’s Moby Dick, was from Nantucket.) At one point there were said to be six “Captain Coffins” sailing out of Nantucket. Coffin Lane in Kenwood comes from this family name.
Connie’s father, Sherwood Coffin, who was born in 1883, remembered climbing on the Brooklyn Bridge as a kid, which at that time was the longest suspension bridge in the world. He grew up at a place called Sunnycroft Farm on Long Island, a name he later used for his Kenwood property. He came west to work with the Coffin-Reddington Drug Company and was living in San Francisco in 1906 when the “big one” hit. After his apartment survived the earthquake, he had the presence of mind to fill the bathtub with water. When the neighborhood water supply gave out soon afterward, his tub was the only source of water on the block.
Connie’s mother, Constance Edith, was born into the Russell family in San Francisco in 1885. She spent part of her childhood in Sonoma and attended Amelia Lubeck’s Locust Grove School on south Broadway. One of her memories was riding pigs at the Champlin Ranch on what is now Highway 116. She trained as a nurse and was working at a children’s hospital when the quake hit. Like Connie’s father, she was lucky to be in a building that survived the shaking. Connie’s parents didn’t meet until years later; they married in 1917, when both were in their early thirties.
Connie’s connection to Kenwood goes back well over a century. Her maternal grandfather used to come up by train to visit his friends, early settlers William and Eliza Hood (their home, Hood Mansion, is still standing, just off of Pythian Road). When Connie’s father retired as president of Coffin-Reddington in the mid-1940s, he bought 36 acres in Kenwood for $13,000. The property included a dairy barn on the corner of Highway 12 and a six-acre prune orchard.
Connie herself was born in 1921 and grew up in San Rafael. She was a teenager when the Golden Gate Bridge was completed. Connie married in 1942 and had two sons. Her boys were still young when she and her husband parted ways. As a newly single mother, she moved to her parents’ place in Kenwood. For a while, Connie and her family earned income raising hay and Carriedale sheep for meat and wool. When Connie arrived, all the streets in town, except for Highway 12, were gravel. There was a barn where the Kenwood Market is. Telephone service was on a party line that required a live operator to connect a call. Kenwood’s operator didn’t like to be disturbed late at night for calls.
Connie quickly found her place in the community. Her sons attended Dunbar School, where she was president of the PTA and led a Cub Scout den. With Dorothy Behler, Virginia Morton (of Morton’s Warm Springs) and others, she formed the Junior League, a service organization dedicated to “promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through effective action.” With her experience as a formal voice student, Connie joined the Kenwood Carolers and performed during the holiday season. They were accompanied by Emily Grinstead, wife of Judge Grinstead, and an accomplished pianist for whom the amphitheater in the Sonoma Plaza is named.
Connie also remembers Kenwood residents Milo Baker, a well-known botanist, and Nell Griffith Wilson, a published poet and friend of Jack London, who would read her poems aloud at local gatherings. At least one, “Wishing on a Star in the Valley of the Moon,” was put to music. Nell’s husband Ned ran the Kenwood Mercantile across from the Depot, which was a town fixture since the railroad era. It was on the second story and sold groceries and dry goods.
Another memory is of the 1964 fire, the worst this area has seen. As the flames were coming toward the house, Connie’s mother was packing and getting ready to flee. Fire Chief Ed Geib told her not to worry. He ordered his men to start a backfire, which saved the house.
Eventually Connie’s parents sold off portions of the property. After her mother died in 1969, Connie’s father donated the land for St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church. Green Acres Manor, a residential care home, also occupies part of their original property. Connie’s sons are now both in their seventies. William worked as an electronics engineer and Fred served with distinction on an icebreaker with the Coast Guard.
Connie reflected on how Kenwood has changed, with paved roads, a lot more traffic, and a generally wealthier population. But she still lives in the home her father built so many years ago. Connie’s eyes remain bright and inquisitive; even more impressive than her years is her continued zest for life. As we finished our interview, she handed me a cardboard box and invited me out to collect figs. Leading the way through the orchard gate, Connie cautioned me to keep my eyes open because “the rattlesnakes are sometimes a bother. Don’t forget to stay alert.”