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Gaye LeBaron: Before 7-Eleven in Rincon Valley, there was Baldi-ville

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It can be edifying to say, “OK, this is today, now tell me how it used to be so perhaps I will understand why its happening.

While it doesn’t always work out that way, there are often good old stories lurking in the tattered news clips and handwritten accounts of what has already happened that, if they don’t edify, they at least entertain. That’s why we seek the “history hooks” for current events. And there have been several of these hooks in the news pages in recent weeks on which to hang bits of history.

...

LET’S START IN late February, when there was a brief account in the morning paper of a small protest by climate activists (a couple of dozen people with signs) at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Highway 12 and Middle Rincon Road.

It wasn’t exactly corporate expansion that troubled them. It was gas pumps. These were people concerned with proliferation of fossil fuels and its effect on climate change.

A recent request to city planners from the convenience store chain included not only an expanded 24-hour store but also six gas pumps — at least six.

Stories like that can set the Old Older clock to ticking. In this case it is that old real estate standby, “Location. Location. Location.”

It’s is hard to believe, even for the Olds, that the corner in question, now a busy three-way intersection with stoplights and U-turns and screeching brakes and honking horns, was once, as the Olders well know, the virtual heart of Rincon Valley, which was an entity unto itself, emphatically not a part of Santa Rosa.

That corner was Baldi-ville, where, in 1921, an Italian immigrant named Anselmo Baldi opened a general store that quickly became the gathering place for the neighboring resident and ranchers, whether they were raising prunes or sheep or just plain hell, as Olders might add.

As a newcomer, Baldi first worked in the basalt quarries in the Annadel- Howarth Park hills, until an injury made him a storekeeper, first at a small store at Melitta Station; then at his bold venture, in a bigger building on the Sonoma Road at the center of the valley. The Rincon boundaries, Olders said then, were Melitta Road, known as Lawson’s Corners, to Brush Creek and from the mountains to Santa Rosa Creek. It most definitely did not include any part of Santa Rosa.

Baldi’s Store was where people met to gossip and share family news, to talk crop prices and politics. The customers — all “neighbors” whether they lived on Brush Creek Road or in Peach Flat (think Los Alamos on your Google map).

Baldi built a house beside the store and, in time, his daughter Irene and her husband Jules Faoro, built next door. That stretch of Sonoma Road from the corner west to the Winters’ Ranch became known as Baldi-ville.

Olders who read about the protest and 7-Eleven’s plans certainly recalled the sad couplet that went around in the early ’70s, when the family ended its half-century on that spot — when the nerve center of Old Rincon Valley sold to 7-Eleven. They said “Baldi’s Store/Is no more.”

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NOW INTO the heart of Santa Rosa where, as we write, half of the business block west of Old Courthouse Square is being demolished. The purposeful destruction will accommodate expansion of the elegant hostelry created by Hugh Futrell and Associates in what may well be the oldest building downtown.

It’s already a classy, busy hotel there in the clock tower building that was once the Bank of America (actually Bank of Italy first) and then the Empire Building, early quarters of Empire College, and finally law offices. It is, and has always been, from the outside at least, a focal point — even, in some instances, mistakenly taken by people who arrived after 1966 to be the courthouse for which the Square is named.

The structure to the south that is fast disappearing was built by contractor Dick Colombini nearly 50 years ago, replacing smaller structures that went way back, maybe to the late 1800s.

Such news as this can’t help but open the Old- Older file for those who truly enjoy remembering.

One of them is Colombini himself, who bought existing buildings in the 1970s, upgraded and modified them and added a south wing, which would initially house La Fontana, Tony Prendusi’s ambitious Renaissance-style restaurant.

That’s the Old part. Going Older will take you to The Miramar on the corner of Third Street, which challenged the Topaz Room across the Square as the after-work gathering place for the courthouse crowd of the ’60s.

Between there and the old Bank of America/Empire building, there were a couple of other taverns at different times — notably Al’s Place and the Bambi Room. In between was Roma Pizzeria. Upstairs over all this there were offices, including the busy Santa Rosa Building Department while the new City Hall was under construction — over the top of Santa Rosa Creek! (That fact should be acknowledged every time our city hall is mentioned.)

The Olders remember when the new library was being built on E Street. That’s when book lending was on the second floor of the demolished building, over the Bambi Room. Dedicated readers, going up and down the stairs, would get whiffs of permanent wave solution as they passed the Uptown Beauty Shop on the mezzanine.

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FOR THE NEXT, less sentimental, journey we time-travel to the far southeast corner of Sonoma County, to the much- maligned Highway 37, which clogs at the very mention of rain, rising tides and/or an automobile race at Sears Point.

Last month, when Sen. Bill Dodd announced his proposed toll road legislation — the first step toward making the troublesome, too-often dangerous stretch into a flood-proof, four-lane pay-to-pass highway — businessmen, county and state officials cheered.

It’s certain there were no Olders present to say “been there, done that.” But there was a day in 1928 when another cluster of four-county officialdom gathered for a ceremony. They had come to cut the ribbon, with much more fanfare, to open (drum roll) the Sears Point Toll Road.

There were three drawbridges on that 10-mile route. The toll was 35 cents. Frank Doyle of Santa Rosa’s Exchange Bank, an acknowledged North Bay leader, was among the backers. He estimated the road took 15.5 miles off Santa Rosa motorists’ trips to Vallejo and what was then called the Lincoln Highway (today’s U.S.80) to Sacramento or Oakland.

Those who know Doyle’s story might suggest he was just practicing for bigger transportation decisions. Two years earlier he had assembled other leaders for a meeting to discuss the possibility of actually building a bridge over the Golden Gate.

The 28 toll-takers lost their jobs 10 years later, when railroads were disappearing and automobiles had won. There was another ceremony, where officials announced triumphantly that the toll road was a state highway, open and free for all — into perpetuity. Or at least, the early 21st century.

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FINALLY, THE OLDERS leave you with a history hook on which to hang the current problem of what to call the new plant-based spread. You could ask a Sonoma County or West Marin dairyman what their Older fathers called the new-fangled notion of something called margarine in the early 20th century.

They named it “Bull Butter.”

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