Gaye LeBaron: Rustic McCormick homestead has a legacy of strong women
The Mayacamas - whether you say Maya-KAM-as or My-YAK-amas - are the mountains that define the eastern boundary of Sonoma County. You might say they are our “friends in high places.” As such, they should be treasured.
And they are.
A mid-November news story about the McCormick Ranch and the Sonoma Land Trust told us of yet another mountaintop saved. And it brought up not only happy memories but one of those “local history” stories that go way beyond our borders.
One memory is of a late November day in 1995 when my photographer husband and I “went four wheeling,” as our kids called it, from the end of Los Alamos Road, following Santa Rosa Creek upstream to its source and beyond, all the way to the top.
It was the day after Thanksgiving and, unlike this year, it was crisp and clear. A “see forever” day.
What we saw, looking west, was the Sonoma Coast. And when we turned and looked east, we saw the snow on the Sierra.
It was not a sight you forget.
Our guides were a mother/daughter team - Edna May “Babe” McCormick Learned and her daughter, Sandra Learned Perry. They owned the McCormick Ranch, all 2,300 ?acres of it, inherited through five generations of pioneers.
Babe was the great-?granddaughter of William ?McCormick, one of “Los Americanos,” the bold would-be settlers who came to take their chances in the waning days of Mexican California.
From 1841, wagon trains were finding their way to this part of California, many in family groups, others just exploring possibilities.
The political climate was far from welcoming and, as relations became increasingly strained, McCormick went back to Kentucky, leaving before the June, ’46 Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma and the Mexican War, which brought California to the United States.
McCormick, who had seen what this new territory had to offer, brought his family back in 1848. And they’ve never left.
Babe and her sister, Ina, had another claim to historical importance. They were the granddaughters of Mary Hudson, who achieved considerable historical status by being born in the Sonoma Valley on June 13, 1846, one day before a band of ragtag American settlers captured General Vallejo at his Sonoma home and hoisted a homemade flag with a crude drawing of a grizzly bear on it in the plaza of pueblo. Legend says that the white part of the flag was made from a Hudson petticoat.
For her good timing, Mary, called Molly by her family, became known as the “Bear Flag Baby,” which is how her story is writ large. In fact, on the 20th anniversary of the event, in 1866, she was offered a $100 per-year stipend by the Society of California Pioneers.
Up there on Big Hill in 1995, eating our turkey sandwiches, John and I were privileged to hear Babe’s and Sandra’s “grandmother stories.”
Molly, you see, married William’s McCormick’s son, Henry. She was part of the Hudson clan that arrived in California with the Grigsby-Ide wagon train in 1845 and claimed land in the “Guilico” Valley, near present day Kenwood.
You can read Molly’s story in histories, but it was great to hear it “live” as told on-site by Babe and Sandra - how she lost her husband in a hunting accident a dozen years into their marriage, how she ran the ranch and raised her five children alone.
She made frequent trips down the hill to visit her family in the Sonoma Valley and made the steep, slow journeys home - back up the mountain with supplies (and small children) carried on a travois pulled by a patient horse.
Babe’s stories of Molly’s life on the mountain speak to the essence of life on this frontier and offer us a vision of the sort of strong women who cleared the paths, both literally and figuratively, to the area’s future.
On a subsequent trip to the ranch, Sandra drove us to another hill - the site of her favorite old oak tree, which the family called the “Grandmother Oak.”
From there we looked out on the upper end of the Sonoma Valley - and right straight down the long slope that was Molly’s familiar pathway.
We may not have been able to see forever, but we certainly had a long look back to the past.
If I may be permitted a personal moment, I want to tell about another late November - in the 1950s. I was a teenager and my family was on the way to Santa Cruz to have Thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle.
My dad was driving his treasured Packard through the Saratoga area, heading for the highway over the hill to the sea.
I clearly remember that the view to our left was a peach orchard, with all the trees uprooted and lying on their side and a developer’s sign about homes to come in the foreground.
What my father said was: “I hope I don’t live to see the day that they are tearing down the houses to farm the land.”
Virtually all of the McCormick Ranch will be park by this time next year. Sonoma Land Trust is buying Big Mountain and the 654 acres around it. The $14.5 million sale will close next November when the land will be added to Hood Mountain and Napa County regional parks and open space districts, to be managed jointly.
Other portions of the ranch property, including perhaps Molly’s hill, have been part of Sugarloaf State Park for several years.
The family’s sale to the trust is the realization of the intent of Babe Learned, who died in 2011 at age 94 and her daughter, Sandra Perry, who died of autoimmune disease in 2015, at age 66.
They wanted all of us to see what they saw, to learn what they knew. They wanted all of us to share in their treasured heritage.