Say “Fountaingrove” in Sonoma County these days and the most immediate reaction would be something about expensive hilltop dwellings, or the parkway or the round barn. Or maybe it would be a reminder of the dismal winery ruins that were recently wiped off the face of the hill, thereby following the rest of what was once a rich and somewhat famous Utopian community into oblivion.
Say “Thomas Lake Harris” and the response would be something about a street the goes left off the parkway.
However, there is a history to Fountaingrove that is many-faceted.
I go way back with Thomas Lake Harris. I have written columns through the years about the old devil, trying in a short space to explain his hold over the “pilgrims” who followed his teachings as members of his Brotherhood of the New Life.
It’s not an easy task. Harris’ beliefs are, well, for want of a better word, bizarre.
This has never been more clear than in a new book, to be released Tuesday, about his relationship with a British writer named Laurence Oliphant, whose global adventures took him from the Far East to Palestine, earned him a seat in the British Parliament and tossed him on top of a heap of seekers who followed Harris into his strange spiritual world.
Santa Rosans of the late 1800s didn’t even try to understand all the tenets of Harris’ “theosocialism,” which was complex beyond comprehension, borrowing from so many of the world’s religions that one scholar would term him “an ecclesiastical octopus,” reaching out for the parts that fit his vision.
He was introduced to the community by the Sonoma Democrat, Santa Rosa’s newspaper in the 19th century, as “a wealthy Eastern gentleman who has built an expensive estate “ on the old Henderson Holmes Ranch, “to entertain important visitors.”
The town’s elite, including the Episcopal minister, several physicians, the district attorney and most of the bankers and merchants dined often at Fountaingrove and rose to defend Harris when his practices were questioned by a visiting writer from Boston.
Luther Burbank went to parties at Fountaingrove. The well-known poet Edwin Markham was a regular visitor when he taught in Santa Rosa at the Christian College on B Street.
But Santa Rosans had to be intrigued by the comings and goings, particularly of the Japanese contingent, headed by Kanaye Nagasawa, arguably one of the first, if not THE first, Japanese immigrants to the United States. Still, the community was apparently treated with nothing but respect. If there were suspicions that Harris’ beliefs were a bit odd, they weren’t made public.
Truth be told — as it is in Bart Casey’s new book, Harris’ Brotherhood “guidelines” were odder than anyone imagined.
“The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant,” published by New York City’s Post Hill Press, is the result of a chance encounter Casey had in his student days, deep in the stacks of the Harvard Library, with a shelf full of books about amazing prophecies and poetry dictated to the poet from “the Celestial Sphere.”
The poet and prophet was Thomas Lake Harris and Casey was off on a lifelong exploration of his life and the stranger-than-fiction stories of those who followed him.
Casey’s original manuscript includes Nagasawa — his success as a vineyardist and vintner (Fountain Grove wines were the first from California to be sold in New York and in Britain), his subsequent ownership of Fountaingrove, his role in Japanese immigration and his honors in Japan.