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article imageOp-Ed: Locals of Sonoma remember when it was lumber and farms, not wine Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Oct 13, 2012 in Lifestyle
Sonoma - A house in the suburbs, is what the American Dream is made of, or so it seems. And, what is a suburb? Well, most often it is or was a small town or village not far from a major city. The Wine Country of Northern California is no exception.
And for this reporter, the town of Sonoma is a fine example of that. One among many of course, that are not only in California but all over.
Small towns as they grow in essence become "suburbs" as farm land or open space fades away to allow for more housing, shopping areas, office spaces and parking lots. The initial charm might remain, such as in the situation of the old Mission town of Sonoma. Yet reminders of its original small town or pioneer past are scattered here and there, sometimes in some unexpected places.
For example at the dead-end of a street where a busy intersection with traffic light has been installed. Right next to it is an old barn. Old structures such as barns are an indication that a more rural life once existed. Or, perhaps an old house, especially one over 100 years old, can say a lot about a town's history, its successes, its downturns.
As land gets sold or acquired by a municipal entity, large parcels of land such as farms, dairies, ranches orchards get divided up into smaller parcels or lots for construction developers to create a new setting to meet the demand for suburban lifestyles.
So as this reporter waited at the stop light at the intersection of West Spain and Old Sonoma Highway, the old barn, with peeling pale blue paint, stirred up some curiosity and questions of history. What was this old barn? It is now part of an auto parts and repair shop. Yet, it is plain to see it had a life prior to its current incarnation. What was its original function? How much land did it originally sit upon? Those questions stirred this reporters' imagination.
Local people usually can tell the story of something like an old house or an old barn and fortunately this reporter met Joyce Parsons at Sonoma Market.
Sonoma Market this is where the locals go. It is in the same area as Scandia Bakery where locals have coffee. Of course, to meet so many people in one spot it helps when free food is offered. Parsons works at Sonoma Market, offering customers samples of some of the many wonderful food items the local market has to sell.
One day it will be a new variety of hummus, another day it will be a specialty of locally made cheese. The samples vary from day to day and week to week. Yet for Parsons being there offering samples is a way to connect to the community to hear the latest news from friends and neighbors as they enter in the front door.
Parsons was eager to know who this reporter was. So, then I asked about the old barn at the end of West Spain Street. "That was Farrell's Mill and Lumber," she said. With a last name like Farrell, the interest of this reporter was piqued!
Parsons said that the Farrell's that had owned the mill and lumber yard were a different Farrell family (from Roger and Mary Farrell) the ones that owned what is now Friedman's Home Improvement just off of Broadway - the main thoroughfare leading to the town square in Sonoma.
A remnant of Farrell s Mill and Lumber Yard  Joyce Parsons who works at Sonoma Market said she and G...
A remnant of Farrell's Mill and Lumber Yard, Joyce Parsons who works at Sonoma Market said she and Gail Farrell used to play in the lumber yard. Gail has since moved to Oregon but the two have remained life-long friends.
Parsons and Gail Farrell who's father owned the mill and lumber yard are dear friends. "We grew up together and we used to play there in the lumber yard. But oh that was so many years ago," said Parsons.
Parsons explained that she is native to Sonoma. "We moved here from Berkeley when I was three," she said. Parsons went on to say that so much of California more than 50 years ago was agricultural. "There were lots of lumber mills, yards, ranches and orchards around here." There used to be pear orchards, farms, dairies and groves," she said.
She then encouraged this reporter to find out about the history. "I know that barn belonged to Farrell's Mill and Lumber. Yet, look it up at the library, I am sure there is a book or some record of it some place." She said.
With interest piqued and Parson's good wishes, this reporter was on the quest. Off to City Hall to ask where records are kept? The clerk said to go to the Visitor's Center next door. Friendly and helpful, Lois and all the staff there were only able to offer a few brochures. The center has lots of souvenirs. They recommended the Sonoma County Public Library.
The librarian took time to find a few history books, one in particular was "Yanks in the Redwoods - Carving Out a Life in Northern California" by Frank H. Baumgardener, III. The rest of the books she found were mostly books from the Arcadia series consisting of old photos and some historical accounts written by locals. There was references to Old Sonoma when it was a part of the California Missions and then later into early 20th Century. The old drug store, the butcher shop, general store, and other shops were mentioned, complete with photos and captions but nothing of a lumber yard or lumber mill.
As the librarian looked through more books, snippets of our conversation caught the ears of one regular library patron Laurence, said he too remembers a lumber yard in that vicinity of West Spain Street. Yet, he was not able to say for sure if it was Farrell's Mill and Lumber.
What about old newspapers or legal documents on microfiche? "We don't have records like that here at the library anymore, all those have been transferred to the County Archives in Santa Rosa," why not try asking the old Depot Park Museum for help," the librarian said.
Sandi at the Depot Park Museum which also serves as the headquarters for the Sonoma Valley Historical Society said that "yes there was a lumber yard there at West Spain Street. But for more details talk to someone from the Westerbeke family, they had a brother or uncle that worked there many years ago," she said.
There were three or four listings in the phone directory for Westerbeke. A family that has been in the Sonoma area for generations. It took a few days, but after several attempts Patricia Westerbeke called back to say that there were three old barns in Sonoma that she knew of and if I had time to try to find out the history of each. (Well, that's another story to be investigated later!). Yet, about the old barn with pale blue peeling paint at the end of West Spain Street, "yes, that was Farrell's Lumber Yard, she said, and it was my son Van who used to work there." "He had a blacksmith shop within the lumber yard, but that was some time ago," said Westerbeke.
Van had since moved to the northeastern corner of California in Lassen County, where small town life is very rural. Tried calling him but no answer. Maybe this reporter should make a trek over to Santa Rosa? Yet that would take up more time just to answer a simple verification with some documentation.
Back to the Sonoma County Public library the librarian recommended speaking to local historian Bob Parmelee. "Yes, Farrell's Mill and Lumber did exist," he said. Yet, other than that, I really am not able to give you any more information," said Parmelee.
After more than a week of trying to trace the full details of Farrell's Mill and Lumber Yard and find some written documentation, this Farrell reporter decided to give up and take Parmelee, Westerbeke and Parsons word for it. Yes, there is always the archives of the local newspaper the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Yet that would take up more time and writing of this article would get delayed longer and longer until interest in the pursuit diminished.
Baumgarner's book while it had no reference to Farrell's Mill and very little to Sonoma in recent times, it did give a very detailed and unique account of life in California before and after the Gold Rush. Focusing mostly on the early lumber industry before the "Gilded Age," Baumgarner provides details not easily found in average California History books. He did note that over time small family owned lumber mills were soon taken over by larger more corporate entities as the 19th Century expansion entered into the 20th Century.
And, Baumgarner was able to present a very realistic point of view about the life of most of the native tribes that lived on the California landscape before the white European settlers arrived. He noted that while it is a common belief often depicted in stories and movies about pioneer days that such people who settled the West were rugged individualists, "they did it by pulling together, not by going alone."
From the bits of reading this reporter did of Baumgarner's book "Yanks in The Redwoods," I would like to read his other book about California history entitled, "Killing for Land in Early California." So much of early California is left unexplored in history books. Very few pages go into much detail about the hundreds of tribes that lived in harmony with the land.
Baumgarner notes the contrast between the native tribes and the incoming white settlers. Native peoples saw the land as "their mother," whereas the white settlers considered the land theirs for the taking. And, take it they did. That is of course another story to write about.
Yet Baumgarner's book did confirm what Parsons said about lumber mills being abundant amid the orchards and farms. "I know there has been a lot of growth and change around here in Sonoma," said Parsons. "But this is my home, I still love it here, where else can we natives go?"
She mentioned that one thing that bothers her the most is the increase in noise as well as traffic. Try getting across town without having another car on your tail eager to pass you by. The overall speed limit in town is 35 or less, most vehicles push to 40 or more miles per hour. Parsons mentioned that if people just take a moment to find the natural setting which is Sonoma, or any place in California. "It is where the sounds of nature are, the places that are quiet from the noise of traffic, congestion and you can hear the birds, the wind in the trees," she said.
"Just look up at the mountains, what beautiful mountains we have here in Sonoma Valley, find a spot where you can be with nature. That is the best of Sonoma, That is why I stay here," she said.
And of course the many happy memories and friendships. "Even though Gail moved away to Oregon to retire, we still keep in touch, In fact she drove more than 11 hours to bring my Labrador Retriever to me. The dog was a rescue pup she had found for me and she went all that way, out her way to bring the puppy to me; been with me now for more than 10 years." "That's the kind of friendships that a town like Sonoma has, a treasure," she said.
For more information about Sonoma, its history and points of interest visit the City of Sonoma web site or the web site of the Sonoma Valley Visitors' Bureau.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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