Santa Rosa's proud 'farm town' roots go way back
For 150 years, Santa Rosa has been a hub for the thriving agricultural economy that continues to reinvent itself in the fertile valleys and sunny hillsides surrounding the city.
“The basis of the economy was to remain the same that started the immigration of the 1850s … the lush and fertile land,” observed the authors of “Wild Oats in Eden,” a history of 19th-century Sonoma County.
The word had gone out in the letters home about the “black loam” soil of the valley land, the “wild grasses that grew tall enough to hide a man on horseback,” and the place where “February was as lovely as May.” All of these and more enticed the westward-gazing farmers from the other side of the Missouri River to keep coming.
Crops came quickly in the temperate climate and the growing population of the Santa Rosa and Russian River valleys tried everything. Wheat came first, as it generally does when farmers go “pioneering.” But with the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and a hotter climate, the Sacramento Valley soon took the lead in grain crops. Interest in diversification included an experimental farm at Santa Rosa’s early fairgrounds with some rather odd experiments, such as silkworms, opium poppies and bamboo “for water pipes.”
More logical attempts in the late 1800s included raisins, cotton and tobacco. Farmers tried apricots for a couple of unsuccessful seasons, and Charles Juilliard had a small peach orchard where the park named for his family is today. But it was the crops we still talk about as seminal to the city’s prosperity - hops, apples, prunes, walnuts, cherries, berries and grapes - always grapes, from the days of the mission padres.
The real blossoming of Santa Rosa as a farm town came with the railroads - the first of which arrived on the last day of 1870. By the late 19th century, there were trains on three lines for bringing in and shipping all the products of the land.
If we could sit down with our neighbors from the first half of the 20th century to talk about what kind of city they lived in, they would undoubtedly tell you that it was a farm town in the most positive sense of the term, a place where the blacksmith shops and hardware stores opened before 5 a.m. in the season so the farmers could get their tools ready and be in the orchards, hop yards or fields at dawn or soon after. The businessmen would tell you that it was a city where the street corner talk was about the fluctuating price of hops on the world market.
Before the urbanization that began with the population booms of the second half of the 1900s, agriculture was the engine that drove the civic machine. Eight years earlier Hunt Bros. processing plant on the tracks had kick-started a national food empire. And, in 1909, California Packing Co. (the Del Monte label), canning everything that grew within this cornucopia. Besides apples and prunes, there was spinach grown in Valley Ford, peas from Ignacio, pears from Lake and Mendocino counties, berries and cherries from Sebastopol and peaches and plums from Geyserville.
Finally, in the 1970s, the wine industry reinvented itself as the public rediscovered the virtues of wine that had been lost in the years during and after Prohibition which had taught those so inclined to drink the smuggled and bootlegged “hard stuff” instead.
Wine came off the immigrant dinner tables and marched militantly into the national consciousness. The valleys surrounding Santa Rosa became Wine Country, capitalized.
A quick count of wineries currently operating with a Santa Rosa address is 64 (in the county closer to 500), and that doesn’t include the wine wholesalers or the wine equipment businesses, label printers and barrel makers that call the city home.
From an agrarian standpoint, everything has changed. And nothing has changed. The farmers markets draw crowds. In the harvest season, the workers are still in the fields before dawn. Many would argue that Santa Rosa is today, in so many ways, a farm town.