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LeBaron: Looking at Sonoma County from the outside in

  • PC: In this 1920s photo, Sonoma County prune farmer Charles Black poses with his children. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum
    3/18/2001: 19-B: In this 1920s photo, Sonoma County prune famer Charles Black poses with his kids. LeBaron chronicled the county's agricultural history from prunes to hops to grapes.

Always, as we teeter on the brink of a new year, there is that temptation to look ahead and make our best guesses as to what is waiting (lurking?) out there. For many of us the world has turned so much faster in recent years, we can't even hazard guesses.

It is interesting, however, to note that we are still very much in the throes of a millennium change, a period which historians and futurists alike characterize as a time of greater than usual upheaval. In our case, experts tell us, the current millennium period — in which, I presume we are 100 times more vulnerable than at a turn of a mere century — began in 1988 and will not end until 2020.

Since I don't have that kind of vision, I choose not dwell on the issues these experts address. I will say that it is interesting to note that life on other planets is still as big a topic as it was at the turn of the 19th century, making H.G. Wells look more like Nostradamus every day.

As always, I prefer to take every opportunity that arises to look back. So, perhaps we should consider that this is a token mention of the future accompanied by a blast from the past.

I ran into Rhoda Bernie last week at Oliver's. I had not seen her in — well, it hasn't been a millennium, but almost.

Rhoda was something of a force around here in the 1980s. An accomplished ventriloquist since being given a Charlie McCarthy puppet at age 8, she and her own off-beat puppet, Iggy, have entertained for charity and great fun all around the county. It was extra curricular duty beyond her day job selling insurance, a job she selected, she says, because her husband didn't have enough insurance to support her and their four teenage kids when he died of brain cancer in 1983.

That's a nutshell description of a rather remarkable woman. But what I remembered first, when I visited with Rhoda again after 20 years or more, was a magazine description of Santa Rosa, which caused considerable hilarity around town in the mid-1980s. I don't remember why Time magazine sent a reporter, but the result was a piece describing the town as "a quaint Victorian village." As it turned out, it was Rhoda who toured the reporter up and down McDonald Avenue. Rhoda still protests that it wasn't the only neighborhood she showed him. "We went downtown," she insisted again last week. But it was the "Victorian village" that captured his fancy.

It made a neat bookend for David Wallenchinsky's assessment in his book "Whatever Happened to the Class of '65?"

A classmate, he wrote, lived in or near the "dusty farming community" of Santa Rosa. Then there was the Dallas columnist who found Santa Rosa to be "a chic little boutique city — a California souffl?"

The recollection of these diverse representations sent me to my files. Riffling through a crumbling manila folder labeled "Descriptions," I found notes about all the ways that outsiders have looked at Sonoma County, beginning with the Russians in the 1820s and ending with the stack of published paeans to the glory of Sonoma County written a dozen years ago when we were on the cusp of becoming (Capital W, Capital C) Wine Country.


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