Ever in search of a peg on which to hang some history, today I seize upon a Press Democrat news story from earlier this month about the closure of a roadside business known in recent years as the Bodega Country Store.
But for folks who know something of the past 150 years of Bodega’s history — that building, that store is and always will be McCaughey Bros.
It was a general merchandise establishment but also, it was something akin to the Capitol of the Sonoma Coast. And nobody, not even an outsider passing through, would have thought to call it a country store. Nor would they have called Bodega a “tiny hamlet,” as it was described in the recent news.
“Hamlet,” as you know, is a word that means either a Danish prince suffering from chronic depression and suicidal tendencies or a very small “settlement.”
So it does seem a bit dismissive for a town that was once more populous and more important than Santa Rosa.
In 1853, the name was changed from Smith’s Ranch to Bodega Corners because three roads met there and the community now had, in addition to the first steam-powered sawmill in the region, a saloon, a store, a blacksmith, a livery stable and a hotel.
That year, in what would become Santa Rosa, stood merely a trading post in the Carrillo adobe and a few rudimentary businesses in a tiny settlement (hamlet?) called Franklin, right about where the Flamingo is today. Bodega Corners/Smith’s Ranch on the other hand had been a significant settlement for 40 years — first as a Russian farm and a then as pioneer lumber mill town.
McCaughey’s was in the building the Rossiter brothers built in the late 1850s. James McCaughey bought the building shortly after he arrived from his native Canada in 1864.
When James died, his Bodega-born sons, Walter and Howard, inherited the business, added a “Bros.” to the name and created a landmark.
It was Howard, really. Brother Walter, older, was a San Francisco lawyer, valuable to the business for his commercial connections. But Howard was the storekeeper, the purveyor of everything from nuts and to groceries. He was, like his father before him, the postmaster, which brought everyone from miles around into his store every working day.
He was also the go-to guy for everyday advice, the gadfly who hounded the county road department about mud and potholes, the acknowledged leader of the political and social life of the coast and, most surely, keeper of the history.
Howard died in 1960, after his nephew, Milton Cunninghame had taken over the everyday store duties. But some of us still rely on him in matters regarding his territory.
Which brings us to Howard’s daughter, Ruth Burke, inheritor of her father’s s vigilant watch over the place he called “Bodega Country.” That would be everything from the Marin County line to the Russian River and east to Sebastopol.
When Ruth died at her Bodega home seven years ago at the age of 93, she left for us everything her father knew about the area.
The last 25 years or more of her life were spent sifting through papers — 70 years of news clippings, regional stories (both absolute truth and folklore), letters, and even poetry. The resulting compilation is the legacy of her rather remarkable father. Howard McCaughey recorded, collected and stored everything he’d ever read or heard about his home turf.