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“Bitter but sweet.” Those were the words an Eldridge neighbor used to describe the recent “hail and farewell” party for the Sonoma Developmental Center.

Nearly 200 people involved in the impending closure of SDC gathered to salute the 127-year-old Sonoma Valley institution and look to its future.

There was laughter and tears and music and memories — with the occasional punctuating holler-out-loud from, appropriately, one or another of the center’s few remaining residents who had accompanied their families to the gathering aptly described as a “commemoration.”

The party’s hosts were the Sonoma Land Trust, the Parent Hospital Association and the Glen Ellen Forum, organizations that have been involved in the future of the campus since first rumors of its closure began in the 1990s.

Another party host was a photo studio called Light at 11B, which made the stunning portraits of clients and families for The Eldridge Portraits Project. The photographs, greatly enlarged for motorists, lined both sides of Arnold Drive through the town of Glen Ellen in the preceding week.

Listening to this outpouring of sentiment, one can’t help but see the now-virtually completed work of the center as a triumph and the response from “the neighborhood” as unique for government institutions.

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We should start at the beginning, as Glen Ellen historian Jim Shere did so ably at the start of the program, crediting the two Bay Area women who in 1883 determined developmentally delayed children should have more opportunity than being abandoned to a “poorhouse” or hidden away at home.

Within a decade, their California Association for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children was tending to more than 100 people and clearly needed a permanent home.

The man charged with finding a proper site was Oliver Eldridge, whose name would be permanently affixed to the area northwest of Glen Ellen.

The impressive brick building was not quite finished when, on Nov. 24, 1891, 148 children with adult caretakers, arrived on the Southern Pacific Railroad at a stop called Gelston — soon renamed Eldridge.

A brass band played “Home Again.” Ones who could not walk were put into waiting carriages. The others, clutching their bedrolls under their arms and waving celebratory flags, formed ranks and marched off to their new home — the very first of its kind in California. It would be 35 years before there was another.

The property nestled against Sonoma Mountain on what valley residents called “The Back Road” was well positioned for their needs.

The beauty of that area would, over the coming years, bring many “high-end” neighbors, including World War II hero Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold. The “Back Road” now bears his name.

Others were the indomitable Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, owner of the Sobre Vista estate, a destination for the rich and famous in the early 20th century; and, of course, Jack London, whose 1914 short story titled “Told in the Drooling Ward,” created a sympathetic hero-resident that many credit with advancing the public understanding of the home and it’s mission.

As people learned more about those with special needs, the language softened and the official name of the institution, locally known as the “state home” or Eldridge, changed four times, as did the words we used to describe the people who lived there.

In 1909, it became Sonoma State Home, and the “feeble-minded,” which seems unimaginable today, became “inmates.” In the 1930s, there were 3,500 “inmates” living at the Home.

In 1953, the name was changed to Sonoma State Hospital and the residents were “patients.” Finally, in our brave new world, it has been Sonoma Developmental Center (which we might note is closer to the original “care and training” name than the others) and the last residents are “clients.”

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It was very clear at this farewell gathering that the clients, most of whom are already placed in private facilities, are cared for.

So the emphasis is what the future holds for the center’s 1,000-plus acres, including enough structures — from the historic original building (sadly in need of preservation) to family homes and wards and barns and sheds — to constitute a complete town.

An additional 600 acres, including the old orchard, were deemed surplus and “annexed” by Jack London State Historic Park two decades ago.

The party’s theme, “Protecting What We Love,” was an apt double entendre, encompassing all who lived there as well as the place they leave behind.

The SDC’s current (and last) executive director, Aleana Carreon, who started work at the facility as a Santa Rosa Junior College student in the “hospital” years, talked of her time there — when the population was more than 2,000, when field trips “taught people to enjoy life,” about the cemetery where nearly 2,000 are buried, most in unmarked graves. There are hopes that it will be set aside as a memorial, whatever happens.

Carreon stressed the importance of the natural beauty of the site and said she hopes “to be able to come back and enjoy the land, this place that I have loved.”

That theme was repeated by Kathleen Miller of the Parent Hospital Association and Dave Koehler of Sonoma Land Trust, who talked of Sonoma Creek and Fern Lake and credited the founders with knowing “that the land is therapeutic.”

Neighbor Steve Lee of the Glen Ellen Forum grew up and still lives on the property adjoining the SDC’s northern border. He talked of the importance of the institution to the community around, how at least half of his classmates at Dunbar Elementary School had parents who worked at “the hospital.”

He presented his personal memories of a happy place, “a people place,” where the higher-achieving clients gathered on the lawn every day to hail passing motorists, wave Giants’ pennants and offer the world’s broadest grin to those of us who honked our horns, waved back, and drove on feeling a little better about the day.

All of us of a certain age who have lived in Sonoma Valley shared Lee’s memories of the place that was once the largest payroll in Sonoma County. He called for the future of the land to be “middle class” because it has always been for the middle class, clients and staff — and because now “we need middle class people, we need green space for them.” And, he said, garnering a round of spontaneous applause from residents of this wine-rich valley, “we need non-vineyard agriculture.”

It was clear that Lee, like the others gathered there, was both sad and cautiously hopeful.

“May the five o’clock whistle sound forever,” he concluded.

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The disposition of the SDC is a matter to be decided by the state. The closure, from rumor to announcement to “almost,” already has taken more than 20 years.

The wheels of the gods, it is said, grind slowly. Along with Steve Lee and others, we wait and see.

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