Two women who helped Cotati &'keep the history'

Our late friend Harvey Hanson, who taught history at Santa Rosa Junior College 30 years ago and more, had an assignment for all who came within range of his discipline. "Keeping the history!" is what he did well and what he charged us to do.

Observing Harvey's dictum may sound easy to the uninitiated, but to those who have labored to keep the old stories alive, to preserve the documents and artifacts, to reproduce the photographs, it can be a daunting task.

Because of a core of dedicated people, the job gets done. In every city - yea, every burg and hamlet - in Sonoma County there are those who collect, protect and codify what is important about their community's past.

In Cotati, which opens its first historical museum this afternoon with appropriate pomp and ceremony (2to 5 p.m. festivities), all credit is due to a small band of citizens - survivors of the tiny farm town that used to be and their descendants - who have been tireless in their efforts to make this happen.

At the forefront are a couple of women who loved their town - one who "kept the history" of the earliest years and another who has lived the history for six decades and has been determined to see the stories survive.

The first is the late Marguerite Hahn. The second is the indomitable Prue Draper. Both were journalists, which shouldn't surprise, since it has been the task of newspapers to write that "rough first draft of history" we hear about.

Marguerite Hahn was Cotati's first librarian. But that title that doesn't come close to defining all she was to the town. She was a correspondent for every newspaper in the region - The Press Democrat, the Petaluma Argus, the Cotatian, the Rohnert Park Press. She was the dispatcher for the volunteer firefighters, a Campfire leader, a mainstay of St. Joseph's Catholic Church. She worked tirelessly for the Cotati Chamber of Commerce - which ran the community until incorporation, some 30years after she arrived in town as a bride in 1933.

In 1955, she wrote a brief history of Cotati that survives as an unpublished typescript of some 22 pages, single-spaced, chronicling the early years.

She wrote of American Indians, the Coast Miwok known as Kota'ti, of the 17,000-acre Mexican land grant known as Cotate Rancho, sold in 1849 to an American-born physician practicing in Chile named Thomas Stokes Page.

After selling off parcels to the settlers who had "squatted" on his claim while it was processed through the new state of California and its U.S. government, Page had some 9,00 acres to leave to his family when he died in 1872. His son Wilfred managed the estate, portions of which remained in the family until 1944. At one time it was the largest piece of property in single ownership in the county.

By the 1930s, the northern third of the Page estate had been sold to Waldo Rohnert Co. of Gilroy and Hollister, which raised crops for seed companies - not only vegetables but a variety of sweet peas that brought excursion trains filled with tourists when they bloomed.

Hahn wrote of the town that grew along the route of the "new" Redwood Highway and of the people in it. She had plans to write more, but she died, suddenly, in 1972 (while talking on the telephone to one of the newspapers, giving them details of a news story). The documents and clippings and notes she collected for her history, stuffed in shoeboxes in the Chamber of Commerce office, were accidentally destroyed.

The loss of Hahn's data was a harsh lesson for Prue Draper, who donned the mantle of town historian after Hahn's death. Much credit for the new museum is due to her and her husband Lloyd's diligence in caring for the photos and papers and historical footnotes that ultimately filled a guest bedroom in their Cotati home, waiting for the museum she pleaded and prodded and pestered for in recent years.

When she and Lloyd wrote the book about Cotati, published as part of the Arcadia "Images of America" series in 2004, the next step was the organization of a historical society and proper museum and this has been the Drapers' focus.

Prue, short for Prudence, is the daughter of one of the many chicken ranchers who surrounded Petaluma, Penngrove and Cotati in the 1940s.

She and Lloyd, who was one of the Cotati's early mayors, had been married just two months when they purchased the Cotatian in 1951. She was 20 years old.

For the next 14 years they were editor and publisher, as well as printers, reporters and ad salesmen, for the weekly. Their children, from infancy, were accustomed to being lulled to sleep in the composing room on press night by the chink and clunk of a Linotype machine.

Ask Prue what Cotati was like 60 years ago, when there were still chicken farms (although not as many as before), and you get a country journalist's kind of answer.

"Everybody knew everybody and it was expected that our news stories would tell about birthday parties, trips to San Francisco, and who was in the hospital. We got hot news by dropping in at the doctor's office, quizzing the grocery clerks, or just sitting around the downtown cafe where everybody went for morning coffee.

"There was no freeway, and the Redwood Highway through the center of town was frequently crowded, especially on weekends, when families went to the Russian River.

"There was no city operation, so volunteers managed most other things in town, too. It took a big effort to get the public utility district formed and a sewer system to replace the smelly ditches. The Chamber of Commerce, American Legion and Lions Club worked on civic improvement projects such as cleaning up the Plaza, planting trees and producing floats for parades, of which Cotati was inordinately proud. It had, and still has, a reputation as a great party town."

Then came Rohnert Park, a "planned town" built in the seed-farm fields of Cotati's northern border. Cities like Rohnert Park were all the rage in the 1950s and '60s - no discernible downtowns but lots of wide streets in neat grids, bike lanes, parks, school sites.

As Cotatians watched, wide-eyed, from their little town where you could throw a stone in pretty much any direction (except north) and hit a chicken, Rohnert Park progressed in the familiar no-money-down, move-right-in, VA, FHA manner.

At first they talked about combining to make one city, to be called Cotati Park. But Paul Golis, the Rohnert Park developer, balked, saying that Cotati's lack of proper streets and planned facilities would be too expensive to maintain.

In 1963, when Rohnert Park moved to incorporate, Cotatians realized they were about to be swallowed whole. So, in what has come to be known as "the long weekend of incorporation," Cotati became a city, too; made ready for the county supervisor's consent on the same agenda as Rohnert Park. Led by veterinarian Bill Kortum and the Drapers, community elders followed a UC professor's how-to book on incorporation, drew up a boundary survey and passed petitions door-to-door, becoming a proper city in less than a week's time.

Today's Cotati, with a fine museum at the west end of City Hall where the police station used to be, has survived the turbulence of the '60s and the honor that came with being the closest shopping, eating, drinking and dancing area to the new Sonoma State College. It has weathered the political storms of hippie philosophies and emerged with a distinct community character.

What it is, is the antithesis of its larger, sleeker, well-planned neighbor. When the chicken ranches departed for the risk-capital corporate farms in the cheaper-labor states of the South, the chicken houses were converted to storage sheds, barns remodeled into homes and small subdivisions shoe-horned into hillsides and valleys on meandering lanes. The result is a town that is - well - cozy.

The Cotati Historical Museum is cozy, too. Not very big. Certainly not an architectural wonder (the City Hall is the old grammar school - that's the way Cotati works). But it is a remarkable accomplishment. And it "keeps the history."

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