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.