Well, I haven’t written for a while, been pretty busy at Mary S. Doten School, but we have a weekend free so we’re hopping in the car to go see Grandma in Petaluma. Petaluma’s a little farm town right next to Napa and we’ll go through Napa to get there. Mom was born in Petaluma; her mother – my Grandma – came with a whole bunch of sisters and brothers from Ireland to be school teachers in the Valley of the Moon, but a few moved from Asti to Petaluma and Napa so I have relatives all over Sonoma County!
I should tell you that Dad just came home with a new car, a 1948 Dodge sedan, gray. He keeps leaving the back-up light turned on and killed the battery a couple times. Our neighbor John Sala gave it a “jump.” We’re loading up the new Dodge to go to Grandma’s in Petaluma. My little sister Marilynn is old enough now to ride in a car seat hung over the front seat of the car. It will take about seven or eight hours to get to Petaluma; one of these mornings I’ll write about the Giant Orange and the stuff along Highway 40.
We’re off now – and I’ll fast forward the trip, took over seven hours this time, we stopped along the way a couple of times. When we got to Stornetta’s Dairy on the Napa Highway we knew we were close! (I heard that the dairy would be lost to a fire many years later, and it was as popular with the residents as were the California Missions and the wineries…) I wish I could write you more about that big fire, but this is 1949 and it wouldn’t happen for many more years so I don’t know anything about it.
We pass through Napa after turning off the old picturesque Highway 12. Napa is a tiny little town, like so many along our way. It’s got one main street and everything on the street caters to agricultural stuff – a John Deere dealer with big green and yellow tractors sitting outside. Boot and clothing stores, hand tools. Many signs are in another language, Dad says Spanish but Mom, who grew up 12 miles away, said they leaned toward the Portuguese language, as the town of Napa was heavily-Portuguese occupied. She said her hometown, Petaluma, was mostly Italian and Irish. There were many other little towns along the way between a place on the main highway called the Nut Tree that opened in 1920, and Petaluma to the north toward the Redwood Highway – Highway 101.
We got through Napa and saw many grapevines along the way – acres of wooden frames with the vines hanging from them. There were big propellers every once in a while, and a lot of little pots. Dad says the pots burned kerosene and the big fans blew the heat over the vines to keep them from freezing. We went into Petaluma by a beautiful old brick building that looked like the Southern Pacific engine house in Sparks next to the roundhouse that was being torn down. The big building was the bag mill, where the bags for the crops and grain that supported all these little towns, were woven. The building was a real beauty.
Petaluma is a nice little town, much like Napa, with almost no one except for the full-time residents living there. Petalumans raised chickens and was known as the egg-capital of the west coast. McNear’s Mill processed the grain from all over the valley, and shipped it every morning aboard the Steamer Gold, from the end of the Petaluma River. Napans raised grapes, mostly for dining but also finding their way into the wine industry. People had been drinking wine for years but I guess never put much interest into grapes and wine – wine was red, and blush. A smattering (like that word? I’m not supposed to use it according to my teachers…) of men from San Francisco and Europe were starting to take more interest in grapes and wine, and were slowly moving to Napa. There were already some beautiful old buildings there operated by the few “vintners,” a hoity-toity word for grape growers. But I don’t recall wine as being that big a deal. But they sure had some pretty buildings and ranches – it would be a shame if a fire ever came along and burned them – they’ve been there since before WWI, some of them.
And I should write you that one of the big industries was making kegs – wooden barrels – out of oak wood for the wine to age in. This industry was really taking off! One guy even had an orchard for cork trees, because corks were necessary for bottling wine and most of them in 1949 came from Portugal. Hence, the Portuguese influence in Napa.
And speaking of wine, when we arrived in Petaluma, Dad sat on the front porch of Grandma’s house on Harris Street, which was an old railroad house that was moved across town and my mother came home from the hospital to it in 1916. Grandma joined Dad on the porch with a bottle of red wine that Dad picked up down Western Street at Volpi’s, and they laughed and giggled as usual while Mom freshened up.
Later that night, we loaded up in the Dodge, and with my great-aunts Isabel and Marge and Iola and uncle Vic and Earl and a few other relatives, in a couple other cars, and we all took off for dinner at the Green Mill Inn, which was a pretty popular roadhouse in Cotati. We went through Sebastopol, Calistoga and a few other old towns, all with some beautiful homes and businesses dating back to the turn of the century, and even to California’s statehood. Sonoma, for sure; Rutherford – we passed through them all.
And we’d do it many times again in the years to follow – Dad and Grandma on the porch with a jug of red, Mom freshening up, all the old ladies sitting around Aunt Kate’s Bosendorfer upright piano that had come ‘Round the Horn from Galway, all singing the old songs they’d learned as children. Or, they’d have more red, all together, and commandeer the Green Mill Inn’s piano and sing of the Emerald Isle. Good times, in the Sonoma Valley. Possibly the prettiest part of California, I’d probably get an argument to that from Santa Barbarans, where I was born ten years before. In 1955 Frank Loesser would even write a Broadway musical about it, “The Most Happy Fella” (in the whole Napa Valley..)!
But beautiful country, old buildings, tree-canopied streets, some picturesque old rock wineries and quaint downtowns – Napa, Sonoma, Petaluma, Calistoga, Sebastopol, Stornetta’s Dairy, the bag mill, McNear’s grain elevator – I hoped that nothing would ever come along to alter it…..
C’mon back in a while, we’ll ride Highway 40 or walk the Truckee’s banks – I never know ‘til I start writing
POSTSCRIPT: I WAS REMINDED THAT MY “LITTLE SISTER MARILYNN” REFERRED TO AS “NOW OLD ENOUGH TO RIDE IN THE CAR SEAT,” RETURNED TO NAPA AFTER COLLEGE AND, WITH HUSBAND ERIC, TAUGHT IN THE NAPA COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT FOR OVER 30 YEARS!
Napa schoolhouse photo credit AP