Glen Ellen’s Glen Oaks Ranch, a slice of the past preserved
At the end of a narrow, carriage-sized road lined with eucalyptus stands one of Sonoma Valley’s oldest homes, a two-story Italianate made of rusticated stone and adobe that has stubbornly withstood some 150 years of wear and tear, including multiple earthquakes.
It’s easy to miss as you drive past it on Highway 12 through Glen Ellen. But if you look east just as you pass the Arnold Drive intersection you’ll spot its low roof poking out of the vineyards.
It is the mansion at Glen Oaks Ranch, built between 1858 and 1868 by Charles Stuart, a Gold Rush-era forty-niner who came from Pennsylvania and made his money in San Francisco real estate.
Stuart first dubbed the 234-acre ranch Glen Ellen in honor of his wife, Ellen. But as the village grew up around it and assumed the name when the first post office was built in the 1870s, Stuart rechristened his ranch Glen Oaks to avoid confusion.
For a century and a half, the land remained in private hands. But when the last owner, Joan Cochran, died in 2002, she left the historic property, complete with house, barn, smokehouse, outbuildings and a network of picturesque stone walls and bridges, to the Sonoma Land Trust.
Over the years, the trust periodically has opened the old home to its members. But for the first time, the land conservation organization is allowing the general public to take a peek inside as part of a series of monthly outings called “Discover Glen Oaks Ranch.” The next outing is 4 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 with “Storytelling and S’mores Around the Campfire,” led by historian and writer Arthur Dawson.
“All of the ranches on that side of the valley have a distinctive feel because they look out to the setting sun,” Dawson said. “If you stand on the porch in the evening, you get this feeling of serenity and warmth.”
Lava rock walls
The house is built of adobe and rhyolite, a lava rock quarried from the nearby hills. Some 20 years ago the old walls were re-mortared and then coated with Barricade, a protective coating for masonry structures, to prevent further deterioration.
With faded and peeling wallpaper, fraying drapes and an odd assortment of furnishings, some antiques, some simply old-fashioned (a 19th-century chair with a sign “Reserved for the General” sits next to a 1960s-era console TV in the back parlor, while the dining room is outfitted in 1950s modern), the house could use a little love inside.
But while an expensive renovation is not in the immediate cards, the Land Trust is fixing things up bit by bit. It recently had the front porch rebuilt and detached from the main structure to give it a better chance of withstanding an earthquake. The trust also secured a grant to shore up the horse barn, a $300,000 project that earned an award from the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation. Many of the quaint stone bridges have been rebuilt.
“We’ve also reinforced the chimneys,” said Reta Lockhert, donor relations director for the Land Trust. “There were six fireplaces, four downstairs and two upstairs. We reinforced all of them with rods to keep them from getting shaken. But again, how many earthquakes has this place survived?”
Part of land grant
Glen Oaks was part of the 3,219-acre El Rancho Agua Caliente Land Grant. It had been owned by Gen. Mariano Vallejo. But the commander of Alta California, who had vast landholdings and made his home in Sonoma, traded Glen Oaks to Andres Hoeppner, a local music teacher, in exchange for five years of piano lessons for the 16 Vallejo children. Hoeppner disappeared, but his widow deeded it to Col. Charles Stuart in the late 1850s or early 1860s.
Between 1863 and 1868, he hired Chinese laborers to build the sturdy and simple house with keystone arches over double-hung windows, many of which still have their original glass.
Stuart championed those workers. Representing Sonoma County at the state Constitutional Convention in 1878, he spoke passionately against the Chinese Exclusion Act, which shut the door on further Chinese immigration, Dawson said.
In its early days, Glen Oaks was a lively place and setting for many a social event, from balls and theatrical productions to dinner parties, with guests arriving by train and disembarking at the Warfield Station just across the road.
After Stuart died, his widow Ellen kept things going at the ranch, running the winery operation that at the time was one of the largest in the state. When a Phylloxera epidemic wiped out two-thirds of the Sonoma Valley’s vines, she sold Glen Oaks to the Quien (pronounced Keen) family in 1896. They ripped out the diseased vines and replaced them with fruit orchards. They also had dairy cattle, chickens and a vegetable garden.
Glen Oaks also had a brief history as a popular hunting and fishing resort from 1912 to 1917 and it was at that time that a second, Craftsman-style ranch house and a series of resort cabins were built, all of which remain. During that time, a more modern dining room was added, connecting the detached kitchen to the rest of the house.
The ranch was bought by Roswell Cochran in the early 1950s. A colorful figure, Rozzie was the original “Mad Man,” working for the advertising powerhouse McCann Erickson, which famously created the iconic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad campaign in the 1970s. Memorabilia from some of his accounts, like Lucky Lager beer and a caricature of him done by a buddy from the Bohemian Club, remain in the house, along with family photographs.
One of the oldest pieces is a Knobe parlor grand piano that has graced the front parlor of Glen Oaks since it arrived in the 1880s by ship around the horn.
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 521-5204.
Features, The Press Democrat
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