Preston was a small community on the Russian River just above Cloverdale . It was named for Hartwell Preston, who grew up in Ohio and was an abolitionist, a lawyer and a rancher. But the town of Preston became better known, after his death in 1889, for his wife, Emily.
At the age of 52, Emily had an epiphany. As she described it, “Something fell from my eyes and suddenly the world was enveloped in a brilliant light.” From that moment on, she claimed a gift for diagnosing and treating illness, sometimes even if the patient was far away.
Emily, also known as Madam Preston, prescribed a variety of treatments. Her concoctions included such ingredients as alcohol, honey, dandelion root, Chinona bark, glycerin and turpentine. One therapy involved spreading caustic liniment on the skin. After blisters erupted, their oozing was believed to draw out disease. She also recommended fresh air and exercise, advising patients to “split wood until you sweat.”
Some considered her a quack; others credited her with saving their lives. She had such a magnetic personality that patients followed her when she moved from San Francisco to Sonoma County. Hartwell Preston graciously built a 20-bed “hospital” on the ranch to accommodate them. Deluged with letters requesting her help, Emily started a mail-order business.
Even after they felt better, many patients didn’t want to leave, so she let them build houses and live on the ranch rent free. A community began to grow. Eventually there was a school, railroad depot and general store.
A grateful millionaire, cured of kidney disease, constructed the Free Pilgrims’ Covenant Church, complete with a chiming clock on the steeple. Even though bottles of Emily’s “Gin and Garlic Tonic” were shipped out regularly, there were no saloons. Liquor was prohibited in Preston .
By the late 1890s, more than 100 “Covenanteers” lived at Preston. As the town’s recognized leader, Madam Preston served in the role of school board, employer, medical advisor and construction superintendent. In the church, she preached the ideal of “living so that one is not afraid to die.”
Emily was about 90 when she died in 1909. The church clock continued to chime the hours, but in her home, time stopped.
Even as the community slowly disbanded over the following decades, her mansion was kept as a shrine, undisturbed. When Preston was finally sold in 1947, Emily’s clothes were still hanging in the closet.
Contact Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist Arthur Dawson at email@example.com.