Nov 012011
 

When Jose Altimira traveled through Sonoma Valley in 1823, looking for a place to found a mission, he described Sonoma Mountain as “well-covered with trees fit for building a pueblo.” There were plenty of flat places on the valley floor to grow crops; the idea of farming the mountain probably never crossed his mind. Sixteen years later, General Vallejo established one of the first water-powered sawmills in California on what is now Asbury Creek in Glen Ellen, and the cutting of redwoods and Douglas fir began. It was common on the frontier for settlers to be close on the heels of the loggers, moving onto the freshly-cleared land. While the big trees were being harvested from the mountain, Charity and Coleman Asbury and their two year-old daughter Virginia began making their way west from Missouri by wagon. Arriving in Sonoma, they found the best land on the valley floor already claimed.
Looking at their options, they must have considered whether they could make a go of it on more marginal land. In the fall of 1850 they purchased 640 acres on the side of Sonoma Mountain from General Vallejo for $3500. The property encompassed what became the upper part of the original Developmental Center property, running all the way to the top of the ridge.
Over the next two years, their family grew to three children and members of their extended family had migrated west to join them. Coleman’s brother joined them and “worked in redwood” nearby. Charity’s siblings and parents also lived on the mountain.
Coleman and Charity’s farm had four milk cows, three head of cattle, 20 chickens, and ten oxen. Oxen were the heavy machinery of the day; their brute force used for plowing fields, pulling wagons, and hauling sections of big redwoods to the mill.
They likely used them to plow the five acres they had under cultivation, where they grew corn, wheat, potatoes and onions. Their neighbors were also growing hay and raising hogs.
Elsewhere on the mountain, logging continued until about 1856, when the sawmill was converted to a grist mill. After 1852, the Asburys mysteriously disappear from the record. Were they were visited by disease or some other catastrophe? Did they give up farming the mountain because it was just too hard? All that’s left is their name on the creek that drains their old homestead. By 1867, their property appears to have been abandoned, with no legal owner. Eventually, William McPherson Hill took over the land and sold it to the State of California in 1890.

Jack London Pig PalaceWresting a living from the side of Sonoma Mountain was tough. Farming probably provided a subsistence living in better years and something less in harder times. Milo Shepard, grand nephew and heir to Jack London’s Ranch described these early settlers as mostly Scotch-Irish, similar in heritage to the people who settled the southern Appalachians.
Among them were the Cowans, whose homestead included Cowan Meadow (now in Jack London State Park) in the 1850s. Some locals still remember Hazen Cowan, who was Jack London’s foreman and still around in the early 1970s. His brother Norman was a rodeo rider. During one competition, Norman broke his leg. Unwilling to accept defeat, he spent the night in an ice house with his leg between two blocks of ice and went on to win the finals. But even the Cowans were ultimately unable to make a go of homesteading. Scrambling to feed themselves during the depression of the 1880s, they hunted out the last deer and finally had to
abandon their place on the mountain.

There were exceptions to this pattern. Descendants of ‘Redwood’ Thompson still live on land he homesteaded in the 1850s, along what is now Sonoma Mountain Road. Just to the south, wine merchants Kohler and Frohling started a commercial
vineyard in the 1850s; that land is still in grapes.

But most early settlers were eventually defeated in their attempts to farm the mountain. As Jack London described it: “most of the ranchers were poor and hopeless; no one could make any money there, they told me. They had worked the land out and their only hope was to move on somewhere else. . .” These “farmers of the old school” had “lost their money, broken their hearts, lost their land.”

London pieced together his beauty ranch from a half-dozen bankrupt farms and set to work, “rebuilding worn-out hillside lands that were worked out and destroyed by our wasteful California pioneer farmers.”

During his brief years on the mountain, London experimented with many crops, growing hay, grapes, and eucalyptus, raising pigs, horses and cattle. Recognizing that the volcanic soil was delicate and prone to erosion, he built terraces to keep it from washing away. He knew that finding the right practices and the right crops
were essential to keeping his ranch going in the long run.

Since his death almost a century ago, London’s family has carried forward his vision, carefully working within the limits of the land. Likewise, some of “Redwood” Thompson’s descendants still live on the family’s mountain
homestead. The land where Kohler and Frohling planted their vineyard is still in grapes. Some kinds of success can be measured only over the course of generations. Where others moved on in broken-hearted defeat, a few have managed to make the mountain a true home.

Arthur Dawson:
Arthur Dawson has long had a keen interest in ‘the story of the land. He has served as historical ecologist at the Sonoma Ecology Center for over ten years and is the author of several books, including ‘The Stories Behind Sonoma Valley Place Names, a local bestseller. He can see Sonoma Mountain daily from his home in Glen Ellen, but has never quite been to the top.

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Nov 152010
 

During the summer of 2010 Jack London State Historic Park hosted several birthday events. Jack, had he been there, would have enjoyed them all.

jack london park preserve sonoma mountain .Organized and led by park neighbor and volunteer activist Elisa Stancil of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, events included a mid-May Plowing Playday which highlighted aspects of Jack and Charmian’s Beauty Ranch; a “Celebrate the Park” festival in June with food, wine tasting, music and other revelry, dampened only by the 100 degree heat that day in the meadow; and finally, a romantic, elegant, full-moon blessed, catered, alfresco dinner for 100 at the London ranch house in July.

Under the umbrella of non-profit VMNHA, Stancil has created the Jack London Lake Alliance, which focuses fundraising efforts on a plan to restore Jack London Lake, a feature of the Beauty Ranch that Jack loved.

Built in 1915, the lake captures water from Sonoma Mountain springs and annual runoff. Over the years the curved dam holding the lake has weakened and the lake has filled with sediment, a threatening combination.

Downstream erosion has increased significantly since 1989 when the State Parks installed a poorly designed side spillway. Sediment harms fish and wildlife populations in Kohler, Asbury and Sonoma Creeks, according to a number of recent studies. For more information on lake restoration and to a make a donate to VMNHA, go to www.jacklondonpark/VMNHS.com

Nov 092010
 

jack london sonoma moutain visitRecreation on the mountain can include wine tasting, visiting Morton’s Warm Springs, attending a retreat at the Westerbeke Ranch, or, as most visitors and residents do, heading to a park, principally Jack London State Historic Park.

To reach Jack London State Historic Park, take London Ranch Road south out of Glen Ellen and follow it to the end. Parking costs $7/day. No dogs are allowed out of the historic section of the park, which is near the entrance. Bikes are restricted to designated fire roads and several trails. Cyclists need to watch for sign at trailheads and observe season restrictions.

First time visitors often start by touring the historic buildings, including the burned-out Wolf House, the summer cottage and museum, and the barn and must-see Pig Palace.

Then on to the hikes.

Major trails inside Jack London State Historic Park include the Mountain Trail, a six-mile round trip, which starts at the parking lot and climbs past London Lake to the top of Sonoma Mountain, via either the Summit Trail or the Hayfields Loop.

Signage along the way makes sense and can easily be followed. The Sonoma Ridge Trail, a 10-mile loop, begins about two miles from the parking lot, leaves the Mountain Trail to the left and rises along a ridge to afford great views of Sonoma Valley, Mt. Diablo, Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. St. Helena and much of the Bay Area.

Shorter trails take off from the Mountain Trail around London Lake, including Fallen Bridge trail (yes, there is a fallen bridge) which follows Asbury Creek canyon into the old London Ranch orchards and some old growth redwoods. For the adventurous, several steep trails lead down to the Sonoma Development Center’s peaceful Fern Lake.

Trails also wander through the old Jack London Beauty Ranch orchard (pear trail, apple trail, etc.) and circle the historical buildings, including the Wolf House ruins.

New Trails

Two lengthy new trails are in the works. The first, called the North Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail, currently under construction, will run 4.25 miles, connecting on the east with the Hayfields Loop in JLSHP and the west with a new public parking/trail staging area at Jacobs Ranch, about three miles up Sonoma Mt. Road, going east from the fire station on Bennett Valley Rd. The trail will end at one of the highest points in JLSHP. Rising along the north slope of the mountain, it will afford view of the Mayacamas Range and Sonoma Valley to the east and Santa Rosa to the west. It will also, eventually, comprise a section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

Jacobs Ranch, an Open Space District preserve, may be open for short hikes, depending on conditions of access roads. Check with Sonoma County Open Space District before trying to enter.

Another ambitious undertaking, the South Slope Trail, with a planned ground breaking in April 2011, will add about four miles to the Sonoma Ridge Trail (see above). It will provide a 140miles round trip from the JLSHP parking lot. Watch our website for news on this major feature.

To get started exploring the mountain, you can enjoy organized hikes with trained and knowledgeable leaders. Contact the non-profit LandPaths and/or state parks volunteers Bill Meyers or Dave Chalk at (707) 539-8847 or to the website for State or Regional Parks.

Dave and Bill offer monthly hikes at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Most hikes average about 40 participants and are as much social event as hiking exercise. Hikes are called moderately strenuous, but the do end with a tailgate party in the parking log.

Horses

You can bring you own horses to Jack London State Historic Park, parking your trailer in the upper parking lot at the far west end. Horses must stay on designated fire roads and trails. Guided trail rides can arranged by calling Triple Creek Horse Outfit in Glen Ellen (707) 887-8700 or go the their website.

Retreat to the Mountain

For a romantic, low-key, somewhat rustic getaway, redolent with history and steeped in the culture of the mountain, few places compare with Westerbeke Ranch, off Grove Street, west of Arnold Drive in Sonoma. The property that is now Westerbeke Ranch was purchased by long time residents Richard and Muriel Van Hoosear as a vacation retreat for themselves and their three daughters. The buildings and grounds developed as their family grew. Richard and Muriel loved to travel and on each trip to Mexico or Spain they returned with new architectural ideas and decorations.

In the late 1960’s the ranch was transformed into the conference center it is today. The Westerbeke family invites visitors to enjoy their home and workplace. To make an appointment for a tour, for more information about weddings or other events at the ranch, or for additional information, go to their web site www.westranch.com.

Stop and View the Flowers

Another Van Hoosear family contribution to the region consists of the 163-acre preserve at the foot of Sonoma Mountain off Carriger Road known and treasured for its abundance and variety of wildflowers. Over 250 species of common and rare wildflowers and native grasses thrive throughout the property. Carriger Creek, a tributary of Sonoma Creek, runs through the preserve. The property is managed by the Sonoma Ecology Center, with dual goals of protecting the preserve’s botanical, aquatic and wildlife values and providing public access for educational purposes. Now protected by an Open Space District conservation easement, the preserve welcomes visitors by guided tour each year during the spring when the flowers are at their peak. Reservations are required and space is limited; for reservations, contact Elly Seelye at (707) 996-0712 ext. 124, or email elly@sonomaecologycenter.org. A donation of $20 per adult and $10 per child is requested, though no one will be turned away.

Go Organic Wine-tasting and Take a Vineyard Tour

On your way to or from Jack London State Park, pull of London Ranch Road into the Benziger Family Winery. The entire portfolio of Benziger wine is certified sustainable, organic or biodynamic.

The Benziger family has been growing grapes on Sonoma Mountain for almost 30 years. According to the co-owner Chris Benziger, his brother Mike and sister in-law Mary discovered the vineyard in the late 70’s and purchased it with help form their parents. Three other brothers and a sister joined the business.

“In the beginning we farmed the same way as everyone else around here. You spray to keep the weeds in check, to keep the bugs away, and to increase yields,” observed Chris. But, he added, after a few years Mike pushed the family to consider something different.

To discover the results of their transition to a more sustainable yet still commercially viable model, go to their website www.benziger.com for information on tours and tastings.

Meditate at a Zen Center

The Sonoma Mountain Zen Center (or, Genjoji) is an 80-acre Soto Zen practice center located on Sonoma Mountain Rd.

Founded by Jakusho Kwong and his wife Laura Kwong in 1973, Kwong-roshi is the current guiding teacher of the Zen center. The center offers residential training and a practice regimen for local members and visitors from all over.

The Zen Center supports itself through members’ donations, proceeds from its Zen Dust bookstore, and by offering rooms for rent.

Author Sarah Ban Breathnach described the center in her book A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance:

“Near the top of the mountain, the road dips, bends, then snakes through a small grove of redwoods. The dense canopy blocks all ambient light, so that when you emerge on the other side of the grove, you feel as though you’ve passed through a portal into another world. It’s a fitting way to approach Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, because people there view reality just a little bit differently from the way most of us do.” For more information on programs and access, go to www.smzc.net.

Soak and Swim in a Warm Spring

Bordering Sonoma Creek just west of Glen Ellen and nestled among a canopy of large oaks, open meadows and rolling hills, Morton’s Warm Springs is perfect for picnics, reunions, family recreation, corporate retreats and meetings, weddings, and class field trips.

The Wappo Indians, early residents of the area, recognized the healing properties of the geothermal mineral springs and considered the waters sacred.

In 1939 Ethel and Harold Morton purchased the property and began operating it as Morton’s Warm Springs Resort. The site not includes natural mineral pool, picnic and BBQ sites, bocce ball and a variety of other courts and fields.

Morton’s is open during summer months; go to their website for directions, dates and times.

Oct 152007
 

The addition of over 600 acres to the Jack London State Historic Park was the culmination of a seven-year effort led by Sonoma Mountain Preservation (SMP). The transfer of the two upper western parcels of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), which increased the Park’s acreage by over 40 per cent, was celebrated on September 5, 2002.

sonoma mountain jack londonThe future of these parcels first came into question in 1995 when the California Department of General Services (DGS) declared them to be surplus to the needs of the Center. SMP organized a public meeting in February 1996 to discuss the disposition of these ecologically important lands, which, under proposed legislation, would be available for vineyard development. Over 200 citizens attended this meeting and voiced an almost unanimous opinion that the parcels should be maintained in their natural condition and added to the Park.

The legislation was amended to include an option to sell or exchange the two parcels in a transaction that would result in their becoming part of Jack London Park. The following year the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (OSD) chaired a public meeting where once again public settlement remained the same: open space for the two parcels. In Sacramento DGS continued working toward an agricultural lease on the lower parcel which included the “old orchards” and the old growth redwood tree.

In January 1998 a break-through came when the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved OSD’s purchase of a forever-wild easement over the upper of the two parcels as a coast of $255,000. At a public meeting in January 1998, attended by over 250 people, there was again opposition to an agricultural lease over the lower “old orchards” parcel.

In the fall of 2000, an environmental consultant contracted by the DGS began work on a two-year land-use feasibility study for the “old orchards” parcel, which could have resulted in a multiplicity of suggested uses and opened the way for intensive agriculture, and possible sale of house sites below Fern Lake. By December, DGS had reversed its position to concentrate solely on the conversion of “old orchards” to vineyards.

In February 2001, with tremendous effort by legislative members Wiggins, Nation and Chesbro, transfer of the two parcels to Jack London State Park became the goal. By June 2001, the land-use feasibility study concluded that the State Park would be the optimum organization to have control and oversight over the lower parcel. The study cited the Park Department’s ability to protect both the watershed and historical and natural resources of the land. The transfer of the two parcels to Jack London State Historic Park took place.

In August 2002, the Sonoma Ridge Trail, a segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail system, was dedicated on the upper of the two transferred parcels.

~Pat Eliot, Sonoma Mountain Preservation