Gaye LeBaron: Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove Round Barn won’t be rebuilt, but the memory endures
It’s a question still floating in the rarefied air around here almost two years after the smoke and ash have settled: Is the Fountaingrove Round Barn going to be rebuilt?
The simple answer is “No.”
Marin County businessman Angelo Ferro, owner of the Fountaingrove Inn as well the site on the hilltop where, since 1899, the round red barn stood watch over the northern entrance to Santa Rosa has other plans for his land. He politely referred questions to his property manager, Justin Hayman, who assured us that they are well aware that the barn “was a special building. ” But,” he said, “we are focused now on a development that will be highly beneficial to the whole community and the Round Barn does not fit into that category.” Further explanation of the plans, he added, “are not ready for the public just yet.”
So there’s the answer. But there is another question, which doesn’t have a simple answer. And that is: What is so special about a very old barn gone forever in the Tubbs fire?
The Fountaingrove Round Barn had been there beyond memory and seemed to be invincible. It had, after all, survived the 1906 earthquake and wasn’t even scorched in the 1964 Hanly fire, or in other burns along that same wildfire corridor.
We don’t know for certain how many times fire has followed that same path, clearly defined in the 1850s by the trail, then a wagon road along Mark West/Porter creeks for travelers making their way to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the Russian River and the sea. There weren’t always power lines - campfires and carelessly dropped cigarettes, and of course, lightning, have been around longer. The fire history of earlier times must come from the scientists - geologists, meteorologists, climatologists.
Our answers, my friends - to borrow from poet Bob Dylan - are “blowin’ in the wind.”
SO, GIVEN THE staggering cost, not only of property but of lives and livelihood, what’s the big deal about an empty barn that hadn’t been used for at least 40 years?
Why the rush of photographs, sketches, paintings, poems and Christmas tree ornaments memorializing the Round Barn?
Questions about its future - and its past - come from many who have no notion of its history, from those who don’t even live here but have seen it in passing from the highway all these years. Where to begin?
Is it the oldest structure lost in the 2017 firestorm? Probably.
We do know that it was the last remnant of a thriving Utopian community, which was the mission of a 19th century spiritualist and small-m messiah named Thomas Lake Harris. He assured believers in his Brotherhood of the New Life that all structures at the “home centre” he named Fountaingrove were built to be taken directly into the “celestial sphere” when the time came.
These included separate two-story buildings for the women, for the men and a veritable mansion for Harris and his closest disciples. The winery, noted for producing the first California wines to sell in the east and even in Europe, may have been included in this promise. Perhaps even the Round Barn, which was built after Harris departed in the wake of a scandal, leaving his winemaker and de facto son, Kanaye Nagasawa, in charge of the community.
It was Nagasawa who provided the plans and hired a local carpenter named John Lindsay to do the work. And the fact that it was Nagasawa’s creation made it significant - on two continents.
NAGASAWA’S STORY is beyond that of a pioneer vintner. It is a tale of high adventure and an important chapter in the history of Japan.
He was one of a group of 15 students smuggled out of Japan in 1865, before western influences were permitted in that country. The head of his Satsuma clan was sending his brightest students to Britain so they could return as leaders of the nation when the old world regime, already weakened, came to an end.
At 13, Kanaye was the youngest of the group, chosen because he was not only of the samurai class but extremely bright.
He was living with a family in Glasgow, Scotland, learning the language and the ways of the west, when he came with several of the older students, to New York to experience America. Through an English writer and politician interested in the emerging Japanese nation, the young Japanese met Harris at his experiment in communal living in upstate New York.
When all of the other Kagoshima 15, as the students are known, were called home to take their place in the new government, Nagasawa, who had apparently bonded with Harris, not so much as a spiritual guide but as a father figure, refused to return.
Thus, when Harris came to Santa Rosa in 1875, the young samurai came with him, ultimately inheriting the management of the community, although land laws that discriminated against Asian immigrants prohibited him from ever taking title. The success of his vintages made him famous in his native country as “The Grape King of California.”