Gaye LeBaron’s new book explores ‘wonder’ of Fountaingrove’s history

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Schedule of book readings

Meet the author

Gaye LeBaron will speak and sign her book “The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove” (published by Historia II, $34.95) at Corrick’s in Santa Rosa, Wednesday at 4 p.m.; Copperfield’s Books, Montgomery Village, Oct. 26 at 6 p.m.; Sonoma County Museum, Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m.; and the Japanese American Citizens League, Enmanji Temple Sebastopol, Nov.17 at 11:30 a.m.

Nowadays, there are little more than street names to commemorate religious zealot Thomas Lake Harris and Fountaingrove, the Utopian community the cult leader brought to Santa Rosa in 1875.

The Round Barn, the last vestige of the buildings that comprised Fountaingrove, stood as a prominent hillside landmark for almost 120 years. But it was no match for the furious wind-driven Tubbs fire that incinerated the red barn a year ago, along with thousands of homes and other structures.

The story of Fountaingrove, Harris and his Brotherhood of New Life has not been lost, however, thanks to a new book, “The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove,” by Santa Rosa historian and longtime Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron and co-author Bart Casey.

While it focuses on three key individuals, LeBaron said the book is as much about Fountaingrove, the growth of Santa Rosa and California in the 20th and 21st century, and the October wildfires.

The book takes a deep dive into the charismatic personality of Harris and his ability to get rich followers to turn over their wealth to him and finance his endeavors. It also details questionable relations with his female devotees, “a new sexology” that was exposed in newspapers at the time and led Harris to depart Santa Rosa after 16 years.

Sonoma State University anthropology professor Margaret Purser said the authors demonstrate the Utopian community created by Harris and his “wonder seekers” is still an evocative part of the landscape of Santa Rosa, reflecting not only ongoing transformations that constitute local history, but ties Fountaingrove “and us to a much larger world.”

The 204-page book, plus 16 pages of photographs, also examines the lives of two other prominent figures, starting with Kanaye Nagasawa, the precocious student and samurai who left Japan at an early age and became like a son to Harris before establishing Fountain Grove winery, which yielded award-winning wines that competed with the best French burgundies of the day.

Nagasawa, who collaborated with famed Santa Rosa horticulturist Luther Burbank to share planting and cultivation methods with grape growers, became a more important figure than Harris as the town grew. He lived at Fountaingrove more than six decades, bred prize horses and cows, grew silk and ensured the winery survived Prohibition.

In Japan, Nagasawa was known as “the Wine King of California” and was awarded that country’s prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, prompting many Japanese officials to visit Fountaingrove.

The book takes a look at another Harris follower, Laurence Oliphant, a former member of British Parliament, widely traveled author and London Times’ war correspondent who met Harris when the “prophet” was in England and fell under his spell.

Oliphant would sign over his fortune to Harris and follow him to New York and Santa Rosa, submitting to his rule for 14 years. Both Oliphant’s mother and wife became believers in Harris, too.

In his last years Oliphant broke from Harris and moved to the Middle East, a pioneer Zionist who, although not Jewish himself, dedicated himself to helping refugee Jews find new homes in Palestine.

But the most engrossing character is Harris, a messianic figure who spoke to angels and the deceased, promised immortality and referred to himself variously as Father, Pivot, Primate and King.

Schedule of book readings

Meet the author

Gaye LeBaron will speak and sign her book “The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove” (published by Historia II, $34.95) at Corrick’s in Santa Rosa, Wednesday at 4 p.m.; Copperfield’s Books, Montgomery Village, Oct. 26 at 6 p.m.; Sonoma County Museum, Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m.; and the Japanese American Citizens League, Enmanji Temple Sebastopol, Nov.17 at 11:30 a.m.

Tall and bearded with shoulder-length hair, observers described his dark, translucent eyes that seemed to have an interior light shining from within, but with a glazed look of the blind when he was “away” in other spheres.

He attracted attention from some of the leading religious thinkers and intellectuals of his day. Famed New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley spread the news of Harris’ talent as a preacher with a new concept of Christianity. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle perceived Harris as having “an utterly unbalanced mind and that as a guide he could lead one to disaster.”

Harris taught that each person had an opposite sex counterpart — a missing original half who existed in a higher realm. Union with that other half could be achieved through deep breathing and returning to simple everyday living.

He spoke of a new race of “divine-natural people,” and his move to Santa Rosa was part of establishing an “Eden of the West” where members of the Brotherhood of New Life could redeem themselves by working in the fields and kitchens, setting examples with their humility.

The 19th century saw the rise of a number of Utopian communities. In California there were seven, including four in Sonoma County, LeBaron noted. Besides Fountaingrove, they included Icaria Speranza and Madame Preston’s group near Cloverdale, and Altruria on Mark West Creek.

When Harris arrived from the East Coast in 1875 at the age of 52, the newly chartered town of Santa Rosa numbered just over 3,000 inhabitants. Harris had grown grapes and made wine in the Finger Lakes region of New York and had read in wine publications that the area around Santa Rosa was a wonderful place to grow grapes, according to LeBaron. He bought 400 acres at $50 per acre, creating the ranch that he named Fountaingrove.

Harris was accepted as a respected citizen whose beliefs were a little odd. He joined the Masonic Lodge and the Knights Templar. Some of the most prominent men in Santa Rosa came to dine in the well-constructed and appointed main house and big ballroom at Fountaingrove.

He was a man of contradictions — a keen businessman, but a mystic and prolific poet whose poems were “received” in the Celestial Sphere and dictated to underlings.

“He was extremely complex and some people would say crazy as jaybird. He may very well have been,” LeBaron said.

“You could say he was like a fraud in that he was putting forth all these things to get rich people to follow him. Because that’s what he did. You had to have a certain amount of money to come to be a member of the Brotherhood, and you had to give it to him,” LeBaron said.

But she doesn’t think that was his main purpose.

“He really believed in whatever he believed in at the moment, whether it was Japanese religion, Universalist, or the fairies and the fays (spirits that he believed lived within them). I think he just kept adding layers of things,” she said.

Ultimately, it was a magazine writer who visited Fountaingrove that prompted Harris to leave Santa Rosa and return to New York. Alzire Chevaillier wrote an expose detailing his convulsions and ravings about battles with demonic forces. She also intimated that Harris’ female followers were being sexually victimized by him.

LeBaron said it’s difficult to say how much sex was going on, but there was plenty of physical closeness. For example, Harris repeatedly slept in the same bed with Oliphant’s wife.

“All I can say is, there were no children born at Fountaingrove,” she said.

Fountaingrove has been a topic of fascination for LeBaron for more than a half-century since she met some of Nagasawa’s relatives, read his diaries and studied Harris’ voluminous writings.

She originally wrote a manuscript on Fountaingrove in the early 1970s, but put it aside until meeting co-author Casey a few years ago. He had written a book on Oliphant and persuaded her to collaborate on the new publication.

LeBaron said the search for perfection is probably the quickest way to explain the rise of Utopian communities and Fountaingrove.

Some people make the argument that the United States, representing democracy in the Age of Enlightenment “was the greatest Utopian experiment of our age,” she said. “We want our society to be perfect, but we all have a different view of perfection.”

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