Blaze destroys 14 vintage vehicles at landmark ranch north of Santa Rosa

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The sight of his auto shop in flames stunned Fred Stoke when he rushed home Friday night to his ranch, a roadside attraction on Old Redwood Highway north of Santa Rosa.

The blaze that broke out about 9 p.m. destroyed 14 vintage cars and pickups valued at about $1 million, Stoke said Saturday, while attending a car show in Windsor.

“It was pretty disheartening,” said the retired contractor, 80, who has spent most of his life building fast cars and restoring vintage vehicles, with a particular yen for 1930s Fords and 1960s Mustangs.

Stoke said he was at a Moose Lodge dance Friday night when a neighbor called and advised him of the fire. Fanned by wind, the blaze destroyed more than half of the shop, but left standing two adjoining structures, a red barn and a building that houses Stoke’s collection of thousands of oil cans. Stoke’s home, set apart from the other buildings, was untouched.

The cause of the blaze remained undetermined after a follow-up examination at the scene Saturday, Central Fire Authority Battalion Chief Ron Busch said.

Stoke said two Mustangs were saved from the flames, and he took them to the Windsor Day Festival, featuring a car show and a parade, sponsored by the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge. He had intended to bring six other vehicles that were reduced to blackened hulks by the fire.

“It’s a sad loss,” said Busch, calling the Stoke Ranch “a really neat place.”

A metal arch over the entrance at 5525 Old Redwood Highway, two blocks north of Fulton Road, bears the name Stoke Ranch. The 7.5-acre property, immaculately maintained, features Stoke’s collection of rusted antique tractors and farm equipment lining the road. Along the driveway leading back to his shop are a miniature church, built for the occasion of his younger daughter’s wedding, and a tiny red firehouse, with a brass bell on the roof, housing an antique fire truck with the Wanamingo, Minn. Fire Department’s name in gold letters on the door.

A large, red-winged horse, a trademark of the Mobil Oil Company, prances on the roof of the red barn.

Firefighters were dispatched at 9:07 p.m. Friday and had the blaze under control at 10:22 p.m.

Busch said 33 fire crew members from six agencies responded to the blaze with 14 vehicles, including fire engines, water tenders and support vehicles. Windsor, Rincon Valley, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Forestville and California Department of Forestry personnel were involved.

Stoke said firefighters did a good job, coping with the wind and a fairly distant fire hydrant. Busch said the hydrant was 1,400 feet from the fire, prompting a call for three water tenders.

“Nobody got hurt, that’s all I care about,” Stoke said.

The incinerated vehicles included a 1932 Ford Highboy Roadster — a model that comedian and car collector Jay Leno called “the most iconic hot rod of all time” — a 1933 Ford Cabriolet, and a 1932 Ford pickup with a hemi engine, all polished and ready for showing.

The sight of the ruined steel chariots was depressing, Stoke said.

“I grew up in grease,” he said, working in his father’s garage. “Cars are my love. I rebuild ’em from the ground up.”

Stoke bought the Old Redwood Highway property, the former home of Newton’s Well Drilling, in 1998 and undertook a major restoration, including a new shop for building hot rods and pickups.

For years, Stoke has hosted public and private events at the ranch, but said in September that he was no longer entertaining people who just stopped by his place.

“It gets to be too much,” Stoke said in an interview at the time.

Stoke referred to his avocation as “just a hobby shop in the back yard.”

A graduate from San Rafael High School in 1953, Stoke built a roadster while still in school and assembled his first drag racer not long after graduating.

He raced his cars professionally at drag strips in Cotati and around the greater Bay Area into the mid-1960s, then opened a commercial construction company in San Rafael. He retired early and moved to Lakeport with his family and began collecting old farm implements, oil cans and other memorabilia from old fuel stations.

In 1988, he and his late wife, Joyce, relocated to Old Redwood Highway.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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