Gaye LeBaron: You’re an old Sonoma County resident if you remember Santa Rosa’s First Night parties

There’s nothing like the start of a new decade, with all the hopefulness and uncertainty it presents. When we have built up a stockpile of decades it can be surprising what we remember about the path that has led us this far.

Aha! An Old Older game is afoot!

“You’re not going to play that stupid game again are you?” said Sam the Shark.

Sam, who likes to drop around just before deadline and tell me what to write, likes to think of himself as “au courant” and scorns my affinity for an occasional stroll down memory lane. Nostalgia is not his long suit.

“C’mon,” I said. It’s Sonoma County 2020. Are you going to just peel off the past?”

He didn’t bother to answer. He knows that I know that he’s not a fan. He says he remembers too much - more all the time - and he doesn’t like to be called old, let alone older. I don’t know whether he has considered the alternative.

The Old Older game, for the uninitiated, is a silly bit of business that, you might say, came in on the train.

In the 1970s being Old meant having nostalgia for the Grace Brothers brewery whistle or coming home to visit family and asking, “What the hell happened to the courthouse?”

Older was reserved for the good old boys who loved to talk about the swimming hole on Santa Rosa Creek where the train from Sonoma Valley passed over the bridge, heading for the station on North Street. Today we call those “tracks” Montgomery Drive.

Sadly, none of the good ol’ skinny dippers are around anymore. And the brewery whistle crowd is thinning. And the world keeps turning. So, you get the drift? Old and Older are relative terms.


It was accidental - or at least unintentional. In 1975 I wrote about the railroads that came and went in three directions from Santa Rosa 50 years earlier saying: “You’re an old-timer, If you remember when there was passenger service to Eureka.” And then I added, as an afterthought that Old Older was a kind of game that anyone can play.”

It was a throwaway line, but the game was on. People wrote to tell me what they remember. Some got a little huffy at the notion of being Old. The Olders, generally, don’t mind.

But if I had taken out a full-page ad, I couldn’t have had more response. So, not everyone agrees with cranky Sam. I have fat files filled with bits and shards of many people’s memories as testimony

So, yes, Sam. The game is on!


Old if, when the ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve you had a moment of nostalgia for First Night, the short-lived New Year’s Eve party of the ’90s that filled the whole downtown - from Railroad Square to City Hall and the library, with music and food vendors and performances. Several thousand people loved it, but the second year it rained and well … you know how it goes.

Older if you had been part of the cultured crowd at the Tower Theater (next door to the library on Fourth Street) when it showed foreign films, and the audiences got all dressed up and sipped champagne at intermission.

Old if you came to town in the ’50s to work at the government facility off Eastside Road where the junior college’s Shone Farm is today. It was the place that no one was supposed to know was a CIA radio facility monitoring Russian broadcasts.

Older if you remember being fitted in your classroom for a gas mask early in World War II - just in case.

As you see, some decades - some memories - are happier than others.

Old if you recall the female mud wrestlers at Magnolia in Railroad Square. Were they the “California Hardbodies?” or was that another attraction?

Old if you are reminded, with the departure of the Oakland Raiders, when a sprawling motel called El Rancho on Santa Rosa Avenue was the training camp for the rowdy team. Extra points if you can name the two taverns that were favorites of the silver and black. You’re right, you’re Old. They were the Bamboo Room and Melendy’s.

If you been around a while, you won’t need to be reminded of the Topaz Room. For more than 40 ?years it was Santa Rosa’s dining-in-style restaurant. It was also an unofficial annex to the courthouse across the way or the City Hall upstairs. (That’s right, the City Council met upstairs, above the bar.)


Old if you remember being able to see all the way down Third, Fourth and Fifth streets to the railroad tracks? I’d say the 1970s. It was about the same time as the old post office crept along a track from Fifth and A to become the Sonoma County Museum on Seventh Street.

You couldn’t actually SEE the big stone building move. You had to put a marker on the track and come back later to know it was making progress. I think it took six weeks to move two blocks. Like all progress, it was slow.

If you’re old enough, you know that we’ve always been big on moving things. In the 1950s, the citizens raised money to move native son Robert Ripley’s famous Church Built from One Redwood Tree from B Street to Juilliard Park.

Old, alas, if you remember Rosenberg’s Department Store and Bill McNeany’s noble effort to stay in business when Macy’s opened in the mall. Older if you remember the elevator operator at Rosenberg’s who sat on a stool by the buttons and always had a pleasant word.


Old and Older if you and all your buddies had summer and/or after-school jobs as bag boys at grocery stores or soda jerks in a variety of fountains. I know a banker in town, now retired, who claims to have learned all he knows about high finance from being chastised by the boss at Eat ‘n Run on Montgomery for putting too much ice cream in the milkshakes.

Old if you remember when schools opened AFTER Labor Day. Older if your elementary school had just one room-well, maybe two. And, except for the Catholic families, all the kids in the neighborhood went to the same school. What a concept!

Older if the Clover man put your milk - AND cottage cheese AND eggnog at Christmas time - into a box on your front porch. Old when you had the same mail carrier for so many years that you invited him to your Christmas parties.


So, Sam’s crankiness notwithstanding, we have left another decade behind. If it seems it turns faster, you’re Old. But one way to greet the new age is to remember, just remember. And we all have the liberty to pick and choose.

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