Father’s Stewart’s Point memories preserved in new book
Over centuries and generations, the small towns and hamlets dotting the Sonoma Coast north of Petaluma have seen vast changes.
Many have been transformed from bustling fishing towns and important ports of call to charming tourist destinations, but some of their histories are better known than others. Now, thanks to the determination of Donna Richardson Robbins, a lifelong resident of the area, a new collection of personal tales sheds light on the history of Stewarts Point, one of the smallest unincorporated towns located about 110 miles north of San Francisco.
The new book, “Tractors, Trains and Shipwrecks: Yesteryear Recollections of Sonoma County,” is a collection of stories from Robbins’ late father Donald R. Richardson, a rancher, early environmentalist, forester and accomplished community member. Encouraged by her father’s wish to write a book and “go down in history,” Robbins published the stories verbatim and was adamant about including his handwritten pages so there would be no questions about whose memories they are.
“It wasn’t me saying it was from him and putting my twist on it,” she said.
Robbins and her two brothers grew up on their family’s ranch on Miller Ridge, next to the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians’ reservation, on part of a large swath of land that was owned by the Richardson family. In 1876, Robbins’ great-grandfather, Herbert Archer Richardson, arrived in Sonoma County from New Hampshire with, as the family lore goes, a new bride and 40 cents in his pocket. The Richardson family went on to run multiple businesses, including logging and ranching as well as a schooner company that transported people and goods from Ft. Ross to San Francisco.
Eventually, the family amassed 25,000 acres of the area including eight miles of shoreline and Stewarts Point which, at its height, was a bustling seaside town with a hotel and general store. Over the years, many family members worked at the Stewarts Point Store, a popular general store that sold staples and gas to communities all over the area. The store is still a landmark in the town, but it is now called Twofish Baking Company and serves sandwiches, coffee, baked goods and, according to Robbins, a mean affogato drink.
Robbins was given her father’s written stories after he died in 1983 and she said she was startled to discover that she had never heard many of the tales. As a girl, she was busy caring for the sheep and cattle on the ranch and, after seventh grade, traveling back and forth to Point Arena for school. And, while her father rose to prominence as Stewarts Point’s postmaster, Sonoma County supervisor, president of the Farm Bureau and the Wool Growers Association, to Robbins, he was always just “Dad.”
“I never thought about him being accomplished until I put this all together,” she said. “Now I wish he had written more.”
The collection of stories, which Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron called “Tom Sawyer-like,” are personal anecdotes from the 1920s to the 1980s. Robbins said they are important because, although they might be about familiar events, the first-person memories give readers more of an insight into what happened, through the eyes of someone who was there.
Born in 1914, Richardson writes about growing up on Sonoma County’s “windswept coast.”
As one of nine children who attended school a one-room schoolhouse, he tells about playing hooky with his friend August down at the port and, later, about traveling by buggy to Duncans Mills and boarding a train to Santa Rosa every week, where he stayed at his grandparents’ house, to attend high school and junior college.
He writes about how his father saw two panthers while hunting one day, a rare occurrence even then, and how, without refrigeration, his family would have to store their ice in sawdust.
Another story tells how his father was tempted to catch a whale off the coast for circus-master P.T. Barnum for $5,000. The last piece is a first-person narrative that takes place in and out of hospitals towards the end of his life, including a touching moment with his daughter and grandchildren.
Although Richardson died in 1983, it took awhile for Robbins, now 71, to gather enough money to publish the book. She also suffers from health problems that keep her close to home. But, despite these challenges, Robbins was determined to share her father’s stories with their larger community.
“People tell me you can’t do things, but I’ve learned how to still have a very productive life,” she said.
Perhaps her family’s history of grit and fortitude also played a part. In addition to her father’s notable family tree, her mother’s side of the family were North Coast ranchers for even more generations than the Richardsons. She said her mom “just had a knack” for working with animals.
“My mom could tell which cow was which and she could tell every chicken apart,” Robbins said. “She had a sixth sense for it.”
The process of putting together the book and reaching out through social media has illuminated even more connections between Robbins’ family members in the area.
“Between my mother and my dad I’m probably related to half of the people around here,” she said.
But whether or not readers have a family connection to the stories, Robbins said writing the book was a healing and rewarding process for her that is sure to delight Sonoma Coast history buffs and beyond.
“Tractors, Trains and Shipwrecks” is available directly through Donna Richardson Robbins at DRRpress.com or at retailers in Sonoma and Mendocino including Copperfield’s Books, the Classic Duck in Montgomery Village, Whistlestop Antiques in Railroad Square and at the Sonoma County Museum.