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Agricultural Development

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Like the other areas surrounding Healdsburg, in the early years the Dry Creek Valley was planted to grain crops, primarily wheat. In 1840, Chilean wheat, obtained by Captain Fitch, was sown, and grape vines were planted by 1851. Grain, however, remained the mainstay of the early agricultural ranches until the 1870s, stimulating the establishment of gristmills and related industries. The raising of cattle on the vast grasslands was also an early important enterprise, which brought about the establishment of tanning factories and a slaughterhouse in Healdsburg. Lumber mills were another early industry, with the first sawmill built on Mill Creek in 1849 and operated until the 1920s. Another, at Lytton, operated until the 1960s (HCRI 1983:13).

Many of the farm families raised livestock for their own meat, which was butchered on the ranches, often with the help of neighbors. Fat was rendered into lard, and the hams, bacon, and sausage were cured in smoke houses (Dry Creek Neighbors Club 1979:15).

Grape vineyards were first planted in the area in the early 1850s, and by 1860 had become common. With the introduction of foreign grape varietals and beneficial legislations, winemaking in California became prevalent in the 1860s. A new era of grape vineyardists was introduced, and larger scale wineries with better quality products were developed. In 1879, however, phylloxera began attacking the Sonoma County vines, and many vineyards in California were wiped out. The root louse was eventually suppressed by grafting to resistant wild native rootstock, and many European vineyards were later saved by importing the American natives (HCRI 1983:13).

The 1880s were the boom years for wine grape planting and production in California, and Dry Creek Valley was not to be left out. Numerous new vineyards and wineries were established, although farmers also continued to plant orchards and grow hay, corn, and grain crops. Those who did were fortunate, as overplanting in the 1880s created a recession in the California wine industry. Several vineyards were pulled up and replanted with other crops, and diversification was necessary to survive.

It was during this period that Charles Reiners opened a store and post office on his property on Dry Creek Road, later known as “Reinersville.” The extant Dry Creek Store, located at 3495 Dry Creek Road across from Lambert Bridge Road, was also established in that era. In April of 1897, the Healdsburg Tribune reported that R.H. Bayley was erecting a store and dwelling (36 x 44 feet), on Dry Creek Road near Lambert Bridge, as well as a barn, measuring 16 x 24 feet (Healdsburg Tribune, April 22, 1897). These stores provided the Dry Creek residents with their first opportunity to purchase items locally, without the long trips into Healdsburg and Geyserville for basic necessities.

By 1890, however, the area had rebounded and the California wine industry was making inroads into the European markets, and European winemakers, primarily Italians, were moving into the area. From the 1880s through Prohibition, Sonoma County, and primarily the Russian River area, had the largest number of wineries in the state. A statewide cooperative, the California Winery Association, however, led to the lessening of the use of private labels in the area, thus making it more difficult to identify individual vineyards and wineries (HCRI 1983:14).

The local wineries suffered immediate hardships when Prohibition was enacted in 1919. During the early 1920s, the grape growers shipped their fruit by rail through the Pacific Fruit Exchange, but by 1927 that market began to plummet and most wineries essentially shut down. Others, however, managed to keep afloat by selling sacramental wine, and bootlegging was certainly a major enterprise. Nevertheless, by the end of Prohibition in 1933 many of the wineries were no longer in existence, though in 1936 Sonoma County still produced more dry wine than any other county in the nation and had 101 bonded wineries. It would not be until the 1970s, however, that the wine industry in Sonoma County fully recovered from the effects of Prohibition (HCRI 1983:14).

Another local industry that was seriously affected by Prohibition was cultivation of hop vines, first planted in the County in the 1860s. By 1913, nearly one-half of the hops grown in California were produced in Sonoma County, with one-third of those grown in the Healdsburg vicinity. The industry was further injured in the mid-1940s by the appearance of a fungus called the “Downy - Mildew,” which rotted the hops. By this time, Oregon had taken most of the hop market and the local industry withered and died (HCRI 1983:14-15).

Fruit and nut orchards had been planted in the early years in most areas of Sonoma County and had become major cash crops in the later 19th century. By far the most important crop from 1923 to 1970, however, was prunes. During and after Prohibition, most local grape growers ripped out hundreds of acres of vines, and replanted with prune orchards. Packing plants, first established in the 1870s, expanded and some became large cooperatives. In 1947, 13,500 tons of prunes were produced in the Healdsburg area, and by 1967, a city publication noted that prunes were the most important industry, with packing plants and canneries the major local employers. From 1929 through the 1970s the official Healdsburg logo proclaimed: “Healdsburg the Buckle of the Prune Belt” (HCRI 1983:15), and the town even had a baseball team known as “The Prune Packers.”

In recent years, the wine industry has exploded throughout California, with thousands of acres in the Healdsburg area being planted to vines. Prune orchards have now all but disappeared, as have the grasslands that once supported hundreds of head of livestock, as well as the small family farms and truck gardens as more and more acreage is planted to vineyards.