Gaye LeBaron: Taking a look back at Sonoma County’s long agricultural, immigrant history
This is a column about plenty of questions with just a couple of answers.
When I was invited to talk at an appreciation dinner offered by a Sonoma County business as a thank you for its clients, I was asked to choose the topic.
I chose to turn that question around. Since it was to be a clearly defined audience - the organizers knew who would be there - why not take a new tack? How about asking what they wanted to hear?
It looked easy. Get two or three questions, make notes of the answers and you’re home free, right?
Not exactly. There weren’t two or three questions submitted. There were 28. And they were all over the place. The only unifying theme was the county boundaries.
My first response was to move to Fresno and change my name. Obviously, no one can speak on 28 topics - and live to tell about it. But a closer look revealed that this wasn’t such a bad idea. Two jumped out of the pack, offering a new approach to some very familiar topics. One asked about the history of immigrant populations. Another was about the history of agriculture here.
Back to back, these two highlighted a pivotal time in the county’s 170-year history - a decade that changed directions, set things off on new paths. The questions about crops and about immigration went directly to the 1870s.
That’s when the first railroad line reached Santa Rosa, bringing a second wave of pioneers - not the “westerners” of Gold Rush days bowled over by the valleys where wild grass grew tall enough to hide a man on horseback.
The rails brought a new breed of pioneers, people who were looking for more than a farm that would feed a family. They had heard about the land, and they intended to feed the whole country.
With quicker access to cities around San Francisco Bay making a market for fruit, Charles Juilliard planted the first commercial orchard in the county in 1875 to find out what grew best. It was 13 acres south of Santa Rosa Creek on Petaluma Road, and all his fruit did well - until the town grew around his enterprise.
The trains also meant that dairymen in southwest county no long needed to rely on the little “butter boat” schooners that bounced through wind and waves along the coastline to San Francisco. And new vineyards focused on wine that “shipped well.”
The people the railroad brought in were significant, not only in numbers but in skills. People like Luther Burbank who got off the train in Santa Rosa in 1875 eager to work with people like Kanaye Nagasawa, who arrived the same year (maybe on the same train?) to plant vineyards at Fountaingrove, producing one of the first California wines to “travel well.” There were others, many seeking Burbank’s “plant wizardry.” Nathaniel Griffith, who planted the first Gravenstein orchard since the Russians left Fort Ross, would make that apple a Sonoma County brand.
Warren Dutton set out to find a nurseryman to deliver ?20,000 young French prune trees in time for planting. Burbank, the new guy in town, offered to try. He grafted prune buds to almond seedlings and delivered 19,500 on time, jump-starting a century of bountiful prune harvests.
In 1878, a young man from Upper Canada named Lyman Byce chose Petaluma as the “warmer climate” he sought for experiments with a poultry incubator that would hatch more (many more!) eggs than one at a time. His success set the south county river town on course to become “The World’s Egg Basket.”
In all the agricultural wonders of the 1870s none was greater than hops. The vines where beer begins were first planted by Amasa Bushnell at the upper end of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. With a railroad to carry the bales of dried hops to eastern breweries, hop kilns and hopyards quickly became a familiar sight along the Russian River and its tributaries, from Mendocino County south to Santa Rosa.
All this agricultural activity in and around the 1870s created ag prosperity into the next century. Fifty years down the lane, in 1920, the county ranked eighth in a national agricultural census - first in wine grapes, eggs and poultry, second in hops and cherries - among the leaders in apples, dairies and livestock.
All of it was still moving out of the county and into the world by railroads.
IT DOESN’T TAKE much explanation to connect the immigration question to the crops. Think for a minute about cherries, apples, hops, prunes and grapes ripe for the picking within a single season.
It requires a lot of workers, all at once. The job was done - is still done - by seasonal workers. They are almost exclusively Latinos who have started in the Imperial Valley and picked through the lettuce fields of Salinas to gather at the Graton Center or a corner in Windsor or Healdsburg waiting for a grower to come hiring.