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Local History Lesson: 06/15/2012

Early agriculture on Sonoma Mountain

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 firs 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, 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 begun considering whether they could make a go of it on more marginal land. In the fall of 1850 the Asburys purchased 640 acres on the side of Sonoma Mountain from General Vallejo for $3,500. The property encompassed what became the upper part of the original Developmental Center property, running all the way to the top of the ridge.

By 1852, their family had grown to three children and extended family members had come west to join them. Coleman’s younger brother Elisha was “working in Redwood” nearby. Two of Charity’s brothers were also living and farming on the mountain, and so were her parents. Coleman and Charity’s farm had four milk cows, three head of cattle, 20 chickens, and 10 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 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 ended up selling it to the state of California in 1890.

Wresting 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 described these early settlers as mostly Scotch-Irish, similar in heritage to the people who settled the southern Appalachians back East. They included the Cowans, whose homestead included Cowan Meadow (now in Jack London State Park) in the 1850s. The Cowans were tough people. Some locals still remember Hazen Cowan, who was Jack London’s foreman and was 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 icehouse 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.

Jack London summed up the experiences of the early farmers: “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.”

Jack must have found inspiration in the knowledge that at least one pioneer family had managed to prosper. The Thompsons, his neighbors to the north, were farming land “Redwood” Thompson had homesteaded in the 1850s. London’s own property included a commercial vineyard planted by wine merchants Kohler and Frohling in that same decade. During his brief years on the mountain, Jack 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. Jack 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 Jack’s vision, carefully working within the limits of the land. Likewise, some of “Redwood” Thompson’s descendants are still living on the family’s mountain homestead, and the land where Kohler and Frohling planted their vineyard is still in grapes. Some kinds of success can only be measured 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 owns Baseline Consulting, a historical ecology consulting business in Glen Ellen.


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