CLOVERDALE PAST AND PRESENT (March 31, 2023)
This end-of-March post comes to you a few days late. Nancy and I have just returned from a road trip to Cloverdale, California.
Today, Cloverdale is a quiet community of 9,000 residents, 80 miles due north of the Golden Gate Bridge. This placid present contrasts with a dynamic past — booming, multicultural, even exotic.
Here are some journal jottings from our visit.
As COVID relents or at least pauses, several of our senior friends are launching ambitious foreign expeditions. One couple just made a circuit of Southern India, visiting ancient temples and other scenic sites. Another pair boarded a small local cruise ship to enjoy New Zealand fiords and the Tasman Sea.
Having lived and worked abroad for most of our adult lives, Nancy and I are focusing our excursions on domestic routes and destinations. Most calendar quarters, we’re scheduling one-week road trips. Once a year, we’ll aim for a longer journey. In 2023, Cloverdale got us started.
We’d passed through Cloverdale on prior trips: to or from Mendocino or the Pacific Northwest on Highway 101; or taking a diagonal tangent to Fort Ross and Sea Ranch on CA128. The town invited a closer look.
This is Sonoma County’s northern wine country, a fertile region encompassing five growing areas. Vineyards extend right up to Cloverdale’s town limits. No fancy wine bars here like spiffier Healdsburg just to the south. Instead, a cluster of low-key attractions.
For us, proximity and accessibility offered additional advantages. In two short hours, we could drive up from our Portola Valley retirement community. A quick spurt on the 280 Freeway, skirting San Francisco via the city’s western Sunset neighborhood. Then across the Golden Gate Bridge and a straight traverse of Marin and Sonoma Counties.
As we headed north, steep hills were cloaked with intense green, responding to still-falling, drought-relieving rains. California poppies lit the roadsides. On the edge of Cloverdale, the swollen Russian River rushed and tumbled. Spring was displacing winter. A refreshing time to be out and about.
Even in our brief visit, it was easy to retrieve and experience Cloverdale’s faceted past. On foot and in print. The town’s compact History Museum was on the main boulevard. The local Historical Society had produced an informative Walking-Tour guide, profiling 36 surviving residential and commercial structures. A paperback volume from the consistently excellent Images of America series collected and narrated the local photographic archive.
Pomo Indians have inhabited this territory for an estimated 12,000 years. In the modern era, they were displaced and confined by Federal and State authorities. The tribe has rebounded in a reservation or rancheria just south of town. The one strongly positive sign of Pomo resilience we encountered was the display of splendid tribal baskets featured in the History Museum. Nationwide, Pomo baskets are celebrated for their intricate artistry. The Museum collection is the largest on display in the country. Its preservation and presentation were the result of decades of work by Silver Galleto, a Pomo basket-maker trained by his master-weaver grandmother.
Cloverdale was incorporated in 1872, the same year that the San Francisco & North Pacific Railroad reached the town from the south. It remained the northern terminus for 17 years. This rail connection put Cloverdale on the economic map. Its logistical benefits included farm-to-market access for local produce; upgrading Cloverdale’s status as a distribution center for Mendocino, Lake and Humboldt Counties; and more convenient entry for immigrants and tourists. The boom had begun.
In the words of the Walking Tour guide: “By 1890, Cloverdale had a city hall, a fire station, a water company, a post office, a chartered bank, a high school, a library and a newspaper. There were telephone lines, coal-oil streetlights, three hotels, five churches and numerous saloons.”
Three pioneering colonies took root to give the area a distinct cross-cultural allure. In the 1880s, a French utopian community, Icaria-Speranza, enjoyed a brief burst of prosperity. Simultaneously and immediately next door, the Italian-Swiss Agricultural Colony established the community of Asti. Within decades, it had grown into the largest, most successful producer of table wines in the world. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, Emily Preston was attracting 150 fervent followers to her retreat with a combination of personal religious magnetism and herbal remedies.
Driving new tourism was the establishment of local resorts featuring mineral and geothermal baths. Celebrity guests at The Geysers spa soon included the Prince of Wales, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Mark Twain and Presidents Grant, T. Roosevelt and Taft. The nearby Old Homestead resort slept 300/night. Its Clubhouse could feed 1,000. [The Geysers today is the world’s largest geothermal field, encompassing 18 power plants. Within this natural wonder, understandably but regrettably no longer open to the public, PG&E generates 20% of California’s renewable energy.]
Another touristic drawing card has long been the Cloverdale Citrus Fair. An annual festival since 1893, the Fair features decorated buildings, motorized parades and costumed performances. The sustained irony is that citrus-growing has never reached commercial proportions in the town’s entire history. Interestingly, hops for beer-brewing were once a major crop in the area. It was decimated by 1920s Prohibition.
Nancy and I enjoyed self-guided strolls through Cloverdale’s historic neighborhoods. The town’s boom-time buildings had been built with redwood timber, Russian River rocks and locally made bricks. Fire was a constant hazard, but scores of original and renovated structures still stand.
The popular Gothic Revival style featured steeply pitched roofs, pointed-arch windows, elaborate roof trim and high dormers. This Queen Anne Victorian was built in 1901 by mining magnate Simon Pinschower. Today it is recognized in the National Register of Historic Places and operated as a B&B. The contrasting City Hall was built in Art Deco style in 1936 by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA.)
We couldn’t resist stopping for lunch at Pick’s Drive-In. Reputedly the oldest continuous enterprise of its type in the USA, Pick’s was established in 1923 as a root-beer reaction to Prohibition. Its car-hops are long gone, but we can testify that Pick’s still serves appetizing burgers and fries. Nancy and I fondly remembered similar attractions from our own teen years.
Wheels within Wheels
The paved Redwood Highway reached Cloverdale in 1926. It eventually extended from the Golden Gate to the Oregon border. By the 1960s, the artery had been upgraded to a four-lane thoroughfare, routed straight through town. Motorists, truckers and merchants loved the quick-stop convenience of cafes and other retail services. However, pedestrians and local leaders, alarmed by increasing collisions and fatalities, mounted a sustained, eventually successful public-safety campaign. The U.S. Highway 101 bypass was completed in the 1990s. Downtown reclamation reduced four traffic lanes to two, flanked by wide sidewalks, planters and outdoor sculptures. As with other development controversies across California, this restoration required trade-offs between commerce, transport and the urban environment.
To get a handle on the town’s current status, I had a cordial chat with Neena Hanchett, Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce. Neena’s previous employment was with the Reveille, Cloverdale’s hundred-year-old local newspaper. She explained that the Chamber does triple duty as an informal Visitors’ Bureau, a welcoming committee for arriving businesses and residents, and a reliable source of local economic and commercial information.
Neena described the current Cloverdale population of 9,000 as steady. The demographic distribution is about two-thirds Anglo and one-third Latino. She believes that possible further growth has been interrupted by COVID isolation and the threat of natural disasters – wildfires and floods. Due to vigilant Sonoma-County public-health services, the pandemic did not cause significant local hospitalizations or deaths. But it did slam retail trade like restaurants. Residents, visitors and workers “just stayed home.”
Two more influences may be impeding the town’s potential growth. Cloverdale is not a major tourist destination. The lead nearby tourism magnets are Lake Sonoma State Recreation Area and scattered wineries’ tasting-rooms. And protracted delays in arrival of the regional light-rail system (SMART) postpone any commuting link.
The town’s two largest employers are wood-products firms, legacies of prior sawmills and lumber yards. Local residents (mostly Hispanics) also provide major labor for surrounding vineyards.
The Executive Director emphasized that she was not criticizing or complaining. She loves her town as a friendly, comfortable place to live. “We all know each other. We take care of each other.” While some outsiders might consider “small-scale” and “low-key” to be liabilities, Neena is convinced that, for her community, these qualities are appreciating assets.
Simply getting away can be healthy for mind, body and spirit. A change of scene, a change of activities, both combine relaxation with refreshment. And journeying can be as salutary as arriving.
Bucket-list, five-star landmarks are not the only worthy destinations. A small town can offer large pleasures.
Modern life – even senior life — programs us for busyness. Cloverdale was quiet and slow-moving. It took me some days to gear down, adjust to and appreciate that pace.
For me, this community’s most admirable quality was its pervasive cordiality. People said hello on the street. Cars stopped well-back from pedestrian crossings and waited until we got all the way across. Nancy and I were staying opposite the Plank Café, so we made it our daily breakfast choice. Not only were its pastries exceptionally fresh and tasty, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. This snug space was a humming neighborhood dynamo. The baristas called many customers by name. Jolly seniors were obviously regular patrons. Small kids were well-behaved. Even Hunter, the German Short-hair waiting outside for one of his humans was content to greet us without aggression. At 108 pounds of pure muscle, he could as easily have indulged in intimidation.
Cloverdale was a timely reminder that small communities can be close communities. High-speed bypassers lose as much as they gain.
Sincere thanks to Neena Hanchett for sharing hospitality and insights.
Thanks always to Nancy Swing for her cherished companionship and for her photos.
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