From the first-ever airmail flight to a migrant labor camp, Hembree House offers look into Windsor’s past
With its long, colorful and vibrant history, it's not surprising that Sonoma County is home to more than a dozen museums that focus on the area's past. Most are small, zeroing in on a defined subject area - or, as in the case of Windsor's Hembree House Museum, a specific town.
“The great value of local museums,” said Steve Lehmann, president of the Windsor Historical Society, “is in touching the past and allowing visitors to see how their community fits into the greater world picture. That's our aim at Hembree House.”
Windsor has a compelling past, and much of it can be explored at the Hembree House Museum.
Visitors can study arrowheads and mortar and pestles that belonged to local Native Americans and check out 19th-century household items and farm tools. They can learn about the town's 1930s migrant labor camp and World War II prisoner-of-war camp and marvel over ancient photos.
More recent history is tackled, too, like the exhibit on a strain of LSD known as Orange Sunshine. More than 3.6 million tablets were produced in a local farmhouse in 1968-1969.
One of the museum's great benefactors was George Greeott, a local farmer born in 1910. Greeott, who died at the age of 103, collected historic artifacts - many found while plowing his land - and donated them, along with more than $100,000, to the museum.
After retiring, Greeott took up art with passion and a sure hand. Among his excellent works at the museum are abstract wood sculptures that possesses a flowing, sinuous beauty.
Perhaps the most popular exhibit at Hembree House is devoted to Fred Wiseman, a daring Windsor resident who, in 1910, built his own biplane. The next year he flew the plane from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, carrying and subsequently delivering the first-ever airmail letter.
“I would say that virtually everybody who sees the display about Fred Wiseman is stunned,” said Lehmann. “Even if they already know that he flew the world's first airmail letter, they don't know that he taught himself to fly in Windsor, practicing takeoffs and landings at the Laughlin Ranch, or that he built that airplane in a tent at the Ranch. That was the first plane ever built in California.”
Born in 1875 in Santa Rosa, Wiseman took naturally to adrenaline-inducing activities created by new technologies. He liked bicycling, competed successfully in Stoddard-Dayton race cars, and in 1909 became interested in flying. Together with his friends J. W. Peters and D.C. Prentiss, he built the Wiseman-Peters biplane in 1909-1910 from scratch, modeled on his observations and photographs of the Wright Brothers' plane (and others). He taught himself to fly and then started barnstorming around the west, earning money in flight exhibitions.
“Wiseman introduced flying to thousands of people in California, Nevada and beyond,” Lehmann said. “He is immensely important in the history of aviation.”
Wiseman is best known for his approximately 20-mile, February 1911 flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa. He carried along a small stack of the local Press Democrat newspaper, groceries and three letters, including one from Petaluma's postmaster, John Olmstead, to his counterpart in Santa Rosa, Hiram Tripp.
The flight was intended to be nonstop, but a breakdown required Wiseman to land and make repairs. By the time the airplane was fixed, it was too dark to fly. He took off again the next morning, never flying higher than 100 feet above the ground.
Near Santa Rosa, the plane developed problems again. He landed short of his intended goal, but the crowd cheered anyway when the plane came to rest in a field. Wiseman was driven into town to deliver the letter to Postmaster Tripp, which read, in part: “Dear Sir and Friend, Petaluma sends, via the air route, congratulations and felicitations upon the successful mastery of the air by a Sonoma County boy in an aeroplane conceived by Sonoma County brains and erected by Sonoma County workmen.”
Wiseman's biplane can be seen today in the atrium of the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.
Hembree House itself is a fine piece of architectural history. Built in 1931 for Dr. Alan and Clara Hembree, the 3,000-square-foot Spanish Colonial Revival building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is an L-shaped stunner with casement windows, recessed arched doorways, and a multilevel terra cotta tile roof. It's surrounded by mature redwoods and oaks, a recessed garden, hop vines, and eight cypress trees planted in 1872.
Just behind Hembree House is Cunningham House, which started life in 1849 as a simple cabin built by pioneer Robert Cunningham. It was expanded over the years to house three generations of the family, and today is one of the county's few existing examples of a mid-19th-century dwelling. The house is currently used for storage until funds can be raised for renovation.
Asked to name his favorite artifact at Hembree House, Lehmann didn't hesitate: “The quilt,” he said.
Windsor hosted a Farm Securities Administration migrant labor camp from 1938 to 1940 on the Hembree House grounds; it had tent cabins for families and a school for children. Migrant families were so grateful to the schoolteacher, Alvia Jones, for her kindness and diligence that they pooled resources to make her a quilt. Each person embroidered their name - Virginia, Bob, Lola, Leona and many more - to surround the dedication:
To Her Loyalty
Patient Devotion to Our Children
Windsor Migratory Camp
Sixty-eight years later, the son-in-law of Alvia Jones got in touch with Lehmann. His wife, Marjorie, Alvia's daughter, had died. It had always been Marjorie's intent to donate the quilt to the Hembree House Museum, and he wanted to follow through on her wishes.
“This was such an unexpected donation,” Lehmann said, “something we never even knew existed.”
The quilt is displayed in the museum's period bedroom, spread on a double-size bed so that each stitch and name is visible.
Lehmann's face lights up when he talks about the quilt.
“Look at all those names,” he said, “and think about the time and care that went into making this. Since we've had it, two people have come in who are on it. One woman pointed out the names of her mother, father and older brother.”
He ran his fingers lightly across the quilt's stitched dedication.
“When you touch this,” he said, “you know you're really touching the past.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: A former migrant labor camp and World War II prisoner-of-war camp in Windsor were located on Old Camp Lane off Windsor River Road. Incorrect locations were included in a previous version of this story.