Gaye LeBaron: Remembering the Sonoma Developmental Center
“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.
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.