Remembering the days when kids would swim at Pendergast in Sonoma Creek
Pendergast was a well-remembered spot to swim in Sonoma Creek, just below downtown Glen Ellen.
“It was 6 or 8 feet deep,“ recalled Bill Meglen, who was a kid in the 1920s. “We called that Pendergast Hole because he owned the house there … If we made a lot of noise, Pendergast would come down and holler at us.”
One of his neighbors was a Mr. Yell, whose name lives on as “Yell Lane” across the creek from Glen Ellen Market. Before cellphones, a good shouting voice was a valuable asset.
At the start of summer, Meglen and his friends hauled down gunnysacks and shovels to make sandbags for a low dam. They also lugged in a length of 2-by-12 for a diving board. Sometimes, the kids dove right off the bank. As Meglen described it, “the bank was pretty high ... about 12 feet. There was a ledge out there. You had to go out far enough to miss it. A lot of times I just about skinned that ledge.”
Marlin Sassenrath, another Glen Ellen kid, remembered foraging for lunch at Pendergast. It “consisted of crayfish from the creek, dropped in a bucket of boiling water, water that we had dipped out of the creek. Then we would pick blackberries (nearby) so we had our lunch of crayfish and blackberries.”
Both local kids and adults enjoyed many such places between Kenwood and Sonoma. The best were found on Sonoma Creek’s outside bends, where its scouring current was the strongest. El Verano claimed a hole that was 10 or 12 feet deep. In the first half of the 20th century, tourists also flocked to the creek to swim, relax and fish. Flowing water was a bigger draw than wine. Since then, runoff from development has caused Sonoma Creek to both downcut its bed and fill the deep spots with sediment. The old swimming holes are much shallower and less enticing today.
Few kids play in Sonoma Creek these days, even when there’s more water. The decline may have started in the 1950s as serious polio outbreaks swept the country in the summer. The polio virus can cause paralysis and other life-altering outcomes and people thought it could be transmitted in public swimming areas. Some parents forbid their children from going to such places. That scientists were working to develop a polio vaccine at the Sonoma State Hospital, just downstream from Pendergast, may have added to parental angst in Sonoma Valley.
The rapid rise of television was probably another factor. In 1945, virtually no one had a TV — 10 years later, half of all American homes had one. Undoubtedly, many hours that previously would have been spent in and along the creek were now spent watching “The Adventures of Superman” or “Howdy Doody.”
A Glen Ellen friend remembers swimming at “Penny Gas” in the 1960s. He said it had that name because it “cost a penny’s worth of gas to get there.” That’s probably about right, considering gas cost 30 cents a gallon. He described it as just downstream from downtown Glen Ellen. “Penny Gas” sounds like what you’d get from playing telephone with “Pendergast” passed down through a few generations. Both Mr. Pendergast and Mr. Yell went silent many years ago. All that’s left of them are a few stories.