A Brief History of the Northern Sonoma Coast

As you may have learned in previous newsletters, our search for vineyard land came to a fortuitous conclusion when we discovered an old farmstead for sale out here on the northern tip of the Sonoma Coast. How did it come to be that there were a few old farmsteads sprinkled on hilltops amongst a sea of conifers out here on the edge of the Pacific?

The story of the early days of coastal Sonoma County could begin sometime after man crossed the land bridge across the Bering Strait, migrating south to fish and trap this area. Or even further back to the Pliocene epoch when the inland sea floor gradually rose up into the air. But I will take up the story at the latter half of the turn of the nineteenth century at the time of “The Loggers” as described in the Time/Life Old West series. You remember the volumes bound in faux hand-chiseled leather? I loved reading those on the couch as a boy.

The redwoods along the Pacific Coast were an amazing resource: raw material of incredible dimensions. One old photo shows four couples square dancing to the tune called by a fiddler, all nine of them fitting on the stump of a very large felled redwood. Removal of the first growth behemoths proceeded up and down the California coast assisted by pocket schooners that plied the coastal waters like today’s semis on our highways. They left a few standing to keep watch. We have two on the property over 100 feet tall. Eight people holding hands barely encircle the biggest. The countryside was so open after the giants were cleared out that the river far below our hilltop is named the Wheatfield Fork, though wheat was planted for farm stock rather hay for livestock. The wood tannins from the bark of tanoak trees were in great demand for use in tanning leather. On the cleared hilltops, apples and sheep were farmed for commerce and row crops for subsistence. Annapolis was a boomtown with over 6,000 residents fueled in part by the US Army’s demand for dried apples until the crash of 1919-1920.

The 1919-1920 economic collapse was agricultural in origin, resulting in a great exodus from our section of the coast and a consolidation of land holdings: 5,000 people had left Annapolis township by 1920, and most of their land was purchased by timber companies who had deep enough pockets to ride out economic downturns. Little did anyone suspect such a long-lasting downturn. Timber company rail lines fell into disuse and mills sat idle or were scrapped for parts. Salmon and deer multiplied and became staples in the local diet again. The Annapolis area was pretty quiet until after WWII, when the nation’s economy emerged from the Depression and began to gather steam. The lumber mills started up again and resumed local economic importance.

By that time, of course, the interior of Sonoma County had become much more accessible to the markets of San Francisco. The railroads had already arisen to replace the schooner before the crash of ’20, though a ferry ride across the San Francisco Bay was still required. Back then it took two days of travel along the northern coast to reach Duncan’s Mills and the terminus of the rail line which could take you to the ferry docks on the bay. After 1945 and a lot of WPA road and bridge building, apple farming in Annapolis couldn’t compete with farming in the interior. Today sheep are still raised around our parts at two neighbors’ ranches. I have been told that wool prices have declined steadily since the 20’s, but meat prices are reasonable. Timber remains the main source of economic activity and just barely at that. Mills have closed as the cost of logging has escalated as loggers abide by new regulations (a little late in most cases but welcome). A few vineyards have cropped up, though not many, as it is very hilly on the coast and zoning favors timber production. Annapolis’ population hovers around 75 people. The “town” is a postage-sized post office and a school. It takes 45 minutes to reach the nearest store.

So what about our little hill top? Around 1900 Claus Petersen purchased this parcel from a Captain Sunberg, a schooner pilot who probably staked his claim to this parcel under the Timber and Mining Claims Act, not dissimilar to the Homestead Act of 1862. To stake a claim you surveyed your land, made some improvements, paid a ridiculously small fee, and the land was yours. Claus had daughters and at least one son, Pete, who stayed on, farming for a living until 1953 when he went to seek work for Pacific Gas & Electric. Pete’s sons Mark and Dwight tell me the family continued to farm apples and raise sheep, just fewer head. The lambing barn was pulled down in 1957 for fear it would fall down. Apparently, their fears were misplaced, as the sturdy structure, built without a single nail, proved difficult to pull down. I still have a pile of timbers from that barn, one hundred years after they were milled, still resisting their return to earth. Split redwood picket fencing dating back to the early years parceled up the open fields into paddocks until I ripped most of it out to plant vineyards. We use the extra rails to repair the remaining fence. A picture of one of them is on our label. The compound where the lambing barn stood still has some fence on two sides and is quite picturesque, covered as it is with lichen moss.

Were grapes ever tried out here in the first part of the 20th century? Thus far, my research has not revealed anything conclusive. You can see vines crawling over the fence next to our one-room post office, surely dating from the mid 20th century. In comparison to our viticultural forbearers in Europe, we west coast grape growers are recently arrived interlopers, still looking for the best ground. It should come as no surprise then that we are only now closing in on suitable terroir. Our search for plantable acreage on the new frontier, the cutting edge of cool climate viticulture, was also a search for agricultural or formerly agricultural open space. The particular history of this far away site drew us here. It was the right place at the right time.

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