LeBaron: The Springs, now and then

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So now it’s just The Springs.

In their “glory days” in the early 1900s, the trio of busy Sonoma Valley resort towns each had its own name. One was the same as the land grant that stretched along the valley — Spanish words that mean, appropriate to the geology, “hot water.”

Another took the name of Capt. Henry Boyes, who is credited with being the first entrepreneur to take note of the hot water bubbling up from the earth and build a bathhouse and hotel.

Another was named for George Fetters, who also found a hot spring on his property, and for his wife, Emma, who ran the sprawling resort that not only tapped into the spring but provided her own “hot water” in the rip-roaring days of Prohibition.

Now Agua Caliente, Boyes Hot Springs and Fetters Hot Springs have morphed into one entity. In government-speak, it is The Springs. (Who says? Don’t ask me. I only know what I read in the newspapers. But I like it.)

This two-word town is a much different community than the triple towns were in their time.

The change has been anything but sudden. It’s taken decades. But it is now symbolized, I suppose you could say, by the question of the colors. The vivid purple, pink, green and yellow designs — love ’em or hate ’em — constitute a bright and bold new look that reflects current demographics, a new direction.

Some might call it a renaissance for these towns that have come through some hard times and emerged smiling.

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From the first decade of the 20th century, there were three big hotels and clusters of summer homes around them, each with its own post office and identity. They were the products of two important factors — hot mineral springs and access by railroad. “City people,” especially immigrants who were familiar with the Old World health habit of “taking the waters,” staked out their own spheres.

Agua Caliente was an Irish family resort; Fetters was less for families and more for those who, in today’s terms, came to “party hearty.” The Boyes Springs Hotel — which became the Sonoma Mission Inn in 1928 when nearby Sonoma began to exploit its history as the “birthplace” of California — was a little more upscale, with an impressive high-ceilinged lobby, a rather formal hotel dining room and, by the 1920s, access to a golf course.

From the early hotel trade came the summer residents — little houses along Sonoma Creek favored by the Italian population, and the two-story retreats of the wealthier Bay Area visitors on the hillside above the train tracks.

For 50 years the city people came. At least three generations danced to the big bands that played at the Boyes Springs Bathhouse, and sports fans came to see the San Francisco Seals train at Lichtenberg Field next door. World War II turned the Sonoma Mission Inn into a military rest and rehabilitation center for the duration.

But by the 1950s, things were changing. The business district was still viable — markets, a drug store, a movie theater, several bars, a sporting goods store, a dress shop, a hardware store and several small office buildings. The bathhouse still drew swimmers and small crowds to the arcade and Saturday night dances. But the trains had stopped in the 1930s, and the new mobility of four wheels on paved roads took visitors on wider sweeps. Lake Tahoe could be reached on a weekend. Reno beckoned, as did Monterey and Carmel and the coast and Humboldt redwoods. The resort towns faded, as did those along the Russian River.

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The next half-century was not kind. The Big Band era ended. The Seals gave way to the Giants, who trained in Arizona. The bathhouse burned down. The little Quonset hut movie theater, once a family destination that competed with Sonoma’s much-grander Sebastiani Theater, became notorious as Sonoma County’s magnet for those who sought films that teetered on the brink of porno. I seem to recall that “Deep Throat” (the film, not the hero of Watergate) played there for more than a year.

Soon, the main attraction that brought outsiders into town was Mary’s Pizza Shack, easily the success story of that era. In 1959, Mary Fazio, a cook at the Woodleaf café on Boyes Springs’ main corner, moved across the highway to a building that was quite literally a shack and started making such good pizza that it became a three-generation family enterprise with 20 locations stretching from Redding to Walnut Creek.

Meanwhile, the Sonoma Mission Inn, the last of the resort hotels, survived an abortive rebirth planned by Ed Safdie, a quirky millionaire who had lodged at a summer apartment next door as a kid and always dreamed of owning the hotel. His plans went awry right after he unwisely decided to take on the whole Boyes commercial district as his special project. He even offered a free service to “color-coordinate the buildings to be harmonious.”

We think about that, now that there is disagreement about colors that critics feel are not “harmonious” enough.

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With the rise of Wine Country came the chain-hotel owners who reprogrammed the Inn as a destination resort. They advertised the cosmetic properties of the natural hot spring and filled the spa and the rooms with movie stars and other luminaries.

But there was another side to the transition to Wine Country.

The first of the new wave of vineyard and winery workers found housing in the old summer places, opened their own small restaurants and markets, and frequented the bars along the highway.

In the ’70s and ’80s, as Sonoma’s tourist cachet advanced, the Springs area was regarded as a low-rent district — so low, in fact, that a penal system official was quoted as saying that the area drew more parolees per capita than any place in Northern California. And with that, sadly, came visiting gang-bangers and bikers and an increase in crime.

Talk of a redevelopment project began in the mid-1980s and was still being “talked about,” but that’s all, at the start of the 21st century. The population was one-third Latino by 2005, and the markets and restaurants and other businesses reflected that culture.

County officials took note of the residents’ call for sidewalks and affordable housing, a central plaza, more parks, curbs, gutters, parking, better streets — all the things that make people proud of where they live.

One more decade later, there is progress. Unfixable structures have been removed. Others have been rehabbed. The state has undertaken a series of highway projects. There are some sidewalks — not enough. The old Fetters Hotel site is an affordable apartment complex under construction.

There are new plans to build a plaza just about where trains once off-loaded hundreds of summering city folk. The community seems to have taken command of its own destiny.

As always, that means disagreement. This time it’s the colors, the bold designs that business owners are choosing for their buildings.

Some delight in them, seeing the boldness as a sign of a town determined to be unique, to be SOMEthing. Others, of course, because it is the American way, see them as over-the-top expressive, too brazen for “respectable” businesses. There have been community meetings. There will be more. But that’s fine. That means there’s community there — not a Sonoma satellite, not three separate identities, but one town with one name: The Springs!

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