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Gaye LeBaron: A visit to the Crane melon barn a rite of fall in Sonoma County

Those among us who make an effort to live close to the land, to eat what’s raised, caught or grown here, spend considerable time and patience waiting - anticipating may be a better word. We wait for the local strawberries and peaches and Gravenstein apples and white corn and tomatoes to ripen. They come each in their turn and we come to know when to expect them.

I bring this up now because Sunday is the date set by the Crane family prognosticators when I asked, back in July, when their melons would be ripe and when, most important, would their landmark barn on Petaluma Hill Road open its doors to customers.

The answer was “About September 15th” coming with the explanation that it’s a “late year” because of heavy rains soon after planting.

(These predictions are not an exact science. In fact, the barn opened a few days ago. Predictions about crops are always hedged bets. That’s why they call it farming, not shopping. In future seasons, you can call the barn and a Crane family member, live or recorded, will tell you if they’re ripe, if it’s time.)

Crane melons are, of course, unique to Sonoma County. And, more important, they may well be unique to just one ranch and one pioneer family. This is an issue that went to court in the ’90s when the Cranes attempted to legally own the “Crane melon” name. The Press Democrat’s ag writer Tim Tesconi labeled it “a paternity suit.” While the family lost its legal claim to exclusivity, the question remains: Is it really, truly a Crane melon if it isn’t grown by Cranes in the soil where it was created?

Other Sonoma County gardeners grow them, but the purists insist (and I admit to being one of them) that the unique flavor, the “big” flavor, is found only in that sweet-smelling pile-up in the corner of the Crane melon barn.

The judge who denied the family claim, ruling that “Crane melon” is a generic term, must not have run a taste test.

HHHHHH

I WELL REMEMBER my first visit to the barn. It was the middle of the ’60s and the barn had just opened for the season.

There was a “Hay for Sale” sign on an outside wall. The melons were heaped in a far corner of the building, under a sign, if I remember correctly, reading “9 cents a pound.” I swear I got a gulp of their sweet smell when I opened the car door.

Customers were sorting through the pile, choosing size and ripeness. Most of them were buying a dozen or more - some to keep, some to give away to friends, to neighbors, to newcomers on the job site who had never heard of a Crane melon.

The man of the hour was obviously the elderly Dick Crane, the only son of Oliver Crane who had “created” the melon ?50 years earlier through seasons of patient cross-pollination. As Oliver’s great-great-granddaughter, Jennifer Crane, tells it, experimenting with plants had become a fashionable hobby for farmers in the Victorian era - and, locally, in the Luther Burbank era.

Accounts vary, but the melons involved in Oliver’s experiments are believed to have been popular in the early 20th century but are seldom seen today - a white melon and three others with more exotic names: Ambrosia, Japanese and Persian. It took many years and great patience, Jennifer reminds us: “Lots of time to plant seeds together so the genetic materials would combine.”

HHHHHH

ON THAT DAY of my maiden voyage to the shrine of the Crane 50 years ago, Dick was holding court in a tipped-back chair in the barn door, sharing a plug of tobacco with a semi-?circle of friends, several of them local businessmen, politicians and a couple lawyers. A younger Crane, maybe son Bill or George, was weighing melons on an old-fashioned scale inside. The bees were buzzing around the tobacco juice.

If you didn’t look too closely at the customers’ dress or note the cars parked outside, It could just as well have been 1868, the year the barn was built, in a prune orchard, back when the road in front was the main route south, cutting through two Crane ranches to reach Petaluma and San Pablo Bay.

We were a few short miles from the courthouse, but we had time-traveled to an earlier Sonoma County.

Needless to say, the Crane melon barn has come into the 21st century. Rick and Cindy Crane, in their tenure, began the barn’s upgrade to a unique event center. Now we go there when the melons aren’t in season for meetings, luncheons, fundraisers, art shows, birthday parties, funerals even. And weddings - including daughter Jennifer’s wedding to Lucas Jones in May of 2015.

The barn is an official California landmark, so designated by the Native Sons of the Golden West. It earned its first plaque several years ago, a modest historical tribute on an inner wall. But last month the Native Sons returned with a large stone plaque set in a brick monument. Sculptor Rick Crane built the flagpole, with a piece of his signature metalwork at the top.

A history graduate of Redlands University with a viticulture degree from Santa Rosa Junior College, Jennifer adheres to family tradition. She is not only growing melons but has planted 11 acres of pinot noir, curious, like old Oliver, to see how it will do in that soil, that climate - that Crane terroir - that works so well for melons.

We cannot leave off this subject without a mention - for those who have not been down the path before - the unique place the Crane clan has in the “first Americans” history of Sonoma County.

Like so many of our earliest farmers, they came from Missouri - the Crane farm in Philadelphia, Missouri, where their parents raised 17 children, including Robert and Richard who decided in their early 20s, - as Richard would later say - that 14 sons were too many for one farm. They joined a wagon train headed for California in 1849. Later, brothers William and James headed west. They all planned to “come back with enough gold to buy the biggest farm in Missouri.”

But there wasn’t enough gold in the Sierra foothills to fulfill the dreams of all those ’49ers. (Almost a quarter of a million hopefuls created the Gold Rush - the world’s largest land migration ever - up to that time.) So, in 1852, the four Cranes gave up on mining, loaded their horses on barges and came down the Sacramento River to San Francisco where William and James booked passage on a ship home.

Richard and Robert stayed to look around. Ferrying across the bay to a landing on Petaluma Creek, they rode northwest, to the top of a hill and looked out at the southern end of the Santa Rosa Valley.

What they saw, according to a Crane family history, were “acres of tall, thick wheat, waving like an amber sea.”

Each of them claimed land, adjoining sections at the northwest base of a sprawling mountain and commenced farming. They took it as open, government land. They were part of a rush of “squatters” to Mexican land grants, the title to which took most of the first decade of California statehood to be confirmed by the government land commission. In 1858, when the Rancho Cotate grant was declared the property of Dr. Thomas Page, the brothers bought their ranches - for $9 an acre.

Like the 9-cent-a-pound melon of the 1960s, it seems like a mythical number that boggles the modern mind. But then, so does the notion of a curious farmer spending a decade “inventing” a melon, or of a ?weather-beaten barn on a twice-bypassed back road becoming - well, the term “iconic” comes to mind.

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