Although most of the published histories on Dry Creek Valley stress the early introduction of the grape culture and its recent ascendancy, which since the 1970s has become the major industry in the area, it was not always thus. Since little has been published on the history of Dry Creek prior to the popularity of the wine grape industry, most of the following information was obtained from reminiscences and newspaper accounts.
In an 1891 recollection of the earliest days in Dry Creek Valley, William T. Allen provided a rare glimpse into the lifeways of the early settlers:
I came to the Russian River over forty years ago, and so I am inclined to think I should be classed as a pioneer. When I came here this section of the country was but sparsely settled, in fact it was actually a rare sight to see a white man…. There was no pretty city of Healdsburg in those days I can tell you. The site of our town was then a perfect wilderness and large oak and madrone trees covered its broad acres. The deer, bears and panthers roamed in peace and without fear through our forests, but they too have long since gone.
In 1853 I settled in the Dry Creek Valley, on the farm on which I have since resided. And there I have toiled ever since, enjoying good health and many a happy day. When I first settled in that valley, the only residents in that section were the Lamberts, Miles, Millers and Henry Laymance. Indians were numerous then, too, but were of quiet disposition and we had no trouble with them. Wild animals, however, proved a constant source of annoyance to us, bears and panthers especially doing an immense amount of damage. I have known a bear to attack a steer belonging to Lambert and after biting it by the nose, beat it to death with its paws. Bears have often killed large cattle, and we always find it necessary to corral colts and hogs at night. I tell you we raised horse, cattle and hogs.
We pioneers raised grain, too! The land was not worn out then and yielded fine crops. Our flour was made at the old flour mill on Mill Creek, owned by Miller.
The nearest town to us then was Petaluma, and a very poor road it was that led there, being almost impassible in the winter time. Yes, indeed, we had good times in those days, and if I was young and strong I should enjoy living them all over again (Allen 1891).
Another account was provided by Major Phillips, a descendant of Duvall D. Phillips, another early settler:
Back in the 1850s and 60s, most of the Dry Creek area was planted to hay or grain. My dad told about farmers, and later their sons, forming crews and going from ranch to ranch mowing, windrowing, and harvesting the hay, also working on threshing machines readying the grain for the mill or mills in town. It was a co-operative sort of deal.
The average farmer was pretty much self-sufficient, raising his own garden, family orchard, cattle for milk, butter, and beef, or pigs for lard. Lard was used to make soap in large iron cauldrons mixed with wood ashes. They salt-cured the pork and dried it in well-insulated (thick rock or adobe walls) smoke houses. The farmer made his own sausages, pickled pig’s feet, ears, etc. From the beef, some was corned, by what method I am not sure. There was always a flock of chickens and turkeys. When unexpected company dropped in, either the wife or kids would run out, grab a couple of fat cockerels, ring their necks, dip in hot water to loosen the feathers, and pluck them clean using a piece of burning paper to singe the fine feathers. Then we had the quick entrée for the dinner, with potatoes and gravy.
Then, of course, there was bartering of produce for groceries – salt, pepper, sugar, spices, beans, flour, with the stores in town (Phillips 1985a,b).
As noted in the previous chapter, by 1860 there were several families residing in Dry Creek Valley, either as landowners or squatters. One of those first settlers was Kentuckian Duvall Drake (D.D.) Phillips, a front rider for Kit Carson, who came to California in 1849 to prospect for gold near Georgetown. In 1855, he and his family headed west to the Healdsburg area, settling in Sonoma County in 1856. Phillips purchased acreage from the Peña family, owners of the Tzabaco Land Grant, and moved into their former adobe dwelling (6630 Dry Creek Road), the first in the valley (Phillips 1985a,b:1, Thompson 1877:100).
After the family purchased the land, Phillips’ brother-in-law James Terry, a shipwright, remodeled the former adobe fort into a two-story frame house with verandas. Phillips developed one of the most productive farms in the area, planting trees and vines in alternating rows on the same piece of ground. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge, a county supervisor, and respected local farmer until his death in 1904. His second wife, Mary McCloud Phillips, died three years later (Phillips 1985a,b:1-2, Florence 1993:30).
In 1893, Phillip W., one of the Phillips’ seven sons, was married to Mary Jane Miles, born in the valley in 1865. Her parents, John A. Miles and his wife Jane Allman Miles, were married in San Francisco in the 1850s, purchasing 60 acres of bottom land about two miles south of the Phillips Ranch in Dry Creek Valley in 1858. There they built their home, planted orchards, vineyards, and fields of grain; also a very productive farm. After the death of her husband in 1865, Jane married another settler, John Snider, and the couple had three daughters and a son (Phillips 1985a,b:2).
In 1860 a newspaper correspondent traveled through “Dry Creek Country” in a Concord buggy and described it in the pre-1880s wine boom era:
After a rapid drive of two hours through a most beautiful and fertile country, the greater portion of which was in a high state of cultivation, we arrived at the thriving little town of Healdsburg; passing through this place, we took the Dry Creek road, and must confess that the section of country through which this road passes, more richly deserves to be called the Eden of California, than any portion it has yet been our privilege to visit. Having traveled about five miles along this lovely valley, we reached the farm of Mr. Sanford Bennett…This farm, containing one hundred acres, is decidedly the most highly improved on Dry Creek. Mr. Bennett settled on this place in 1853, and by his own labor, has succeeded in clearing up and fencing his entire farm, besides rearing an orchard containing every variety of fruit, and cultivating a garden, which, in the variety and quantity of its products, we venture to say, is second to none in Sonoma County. Mr. Bennett has twenty-six acres in wheat this year, which will yield him an average of forty- five bushels to the acre; twelve acres of corn, which will average forty bushels; besides he harvested sixty tons of hay. Farms containing from fifty to one hundred acres, are cultivated to the highest state of perfection, by from one to three men, and they have much leisure time. Every acre they plant in corn, yields an average of from forty to fifty bushels; and wheat from fifty to sixty. Is there any other country in the world than California, where such results can be produced with the same amount of labor? (Sonoma County Democrat, August 30, 1860).
The first mention of Dry Creek Valley in a formal publication, L.L. Paulson’s Handbook and Directory of Napa, Lake, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties produced in 1874, portrayed the valley thusly:
…a very productive locality; grain averages about forty bushels to the acre on the bottom lands. In some places the growing grain is so high as to hide the fences. Dry Creek Valley covers about twelve square miles, and is pretty thickly settled by farmers, sheep- raisers, etc. Dry Creek is so-called because of its being dry in the middle of summer (in Heintz 1985:7).
Although no mention was made of the orchards and vineyards, they had certainly been planted by this time, but undoubtedly the majority of the vines growing in the valley by 1883 were planted only after 1880. With phylloxera destroying the wine industry of France, speculators determined that California was to become the wine capital of the world (Heintz 1985:11).
Of the total number of men whose occupations were noted in the 1877 history of Sonoma County, 24 men in the Dry Creek area of Mendocino Township listed their occupations as “farmer,” “farmer and fruit raiser or grower,” three as “stock raisers,” one as a “chicken raiser,” another as a “Representative in Legislature and stock raiser,” and one as a “civil engineer.” Only George Bloch listed his occupation as “winemaker” (Thompson 1877:100). This pattern held true from the 1860s through the 1880s, with all the landowners noting their primary occupations as “farmer,” except for Georges Bloch, who, in 1880, noted his occupation as winemaker and France as his homeland (U.S. Federal Census 1860, 1870, 1880).
In March of 1878, a newspaper account noted that recent flooding of the Russian River and Dry Creek had caused great devastation, with only one crossing, at Capells Ford, remaining of the small bridges and culverts. Roads were also wiped out, and farms were flooded. Grain crops looked good, however, and the almond trees were in bloom and the vineyards pruned. Several homes were under construction, including a two-story house for John Snider “conveniently arranged and painted white.” Dr. Ottmer built an addition on his house, and William Board remodeled his with an addition (Healdsburg Enterprise, March 7, 1878).
The following week the correspondent described the farms on Dry Creek as he proceeded up the valley. The first farm noted was that of James Miller, with 100 acres of rich bottomland, a fine orchard, and two-story dwelling house. J.S. Laymance was next, with 80 acres with house, barn, orchard, and vineyard. Then Ira Proctor’s 70 acres, also with house, barn, orchard, and vineyard. George Bloch was described as having a “small pretty place” with vineyard and a distillery; F.M. Laymance had one of the rare brick houses, with 30 acres and an orchard, while A.K. Bell had a good vineyard and orchard on his 20 acres of bottom land (Healdsburg Enterprise, March 14, 1878).
R. Rodgers was one of the few who built his house on the hillside, with an orchard, vineyard, and barn, and water supplied from a spring through pipes to the residence. He also raised carp in a pond on his land. A.J. Galloway’s orchard, vineyard, fence, and barn were similar. Next up the valley was John Peck’s orchard, the largest on the creek, growing apples, peaches, and cherries, on land he settled in 1853. Charles Lambert was described as an old settler, with a fine farm, a small orchard, and a good two-story house. J.H. Fay’s farm contained a small orchard and vineyard, with the best field of barley in the valley, sown on corn ground and “now knee high” (Healdsburg Enterprise, March 14, 1878).
Dr. Ottmer’s farm was next, with 80 acres of rich bottom land and a new residence. John Snider was noted as having two farms, one on each side of the creek, and had also recently completed “a fine residence.” He was mostly engaged in wheat raising, but also had a small orchard and vineyard, as well as a band of Angora goats. Then came the small farms owned by M. Kelly, Mrs. Rackliff, J. Thayer, et al., “which are good homes, having orchards, vineyards, etc.” The next farm visited was that of S.O. Heaton, who owned a portion of the Piña Rancho, divided by D.D. Phillips, who occupied the old adobe, and divided by him into two farms with Phillips “having a good vineyard and the best peach orchard in the valley” (Healdsburg Enterprise, March 14, 1878).
After passing several small farms, occupied by Hartsock, Hoover, and others, the correspondent came to William Board’s stock ranch, where he was engaged in grazing goats, and resided in his new dwelling. D.W. Bradford, next up, owned a good place with a fine vineyard. C.W. Capell, an old resident, had a small orchard and vineyard on his 50 acres of bottomland. The final farm visited was that of W.T. Allen on the west side of the creek, settled in 1852, and planted to a vineyard of 10 to 15 acres, with “all the choice varieties of grapes.” The writer went on to note that nearly all of the farmers also owned foothill land, well adapted to grazing, and furnishing an abundance of timber (Healdsburg Enterprise, March 14, 1878:3).
An account in 1882 noted that vines and fruit trees, as well as wheat, oats, and barley, were all doing very well in Dry Creek (Healdsburg Enterprise, May 11, 1882).
By the early 1890s not much had changed in the valley, as recounted by J.S. Bell, the brother of Dry Creek resident of G.K. Bell (Figure 9). He noted a good outlook for a large fruit crop, with no sign of insects, and stated that if the farmers had another good year they would likely get out of debt and make some improvements. As he remarked, however:
Improvement is all that we need. If man had done a little for our section it would be a veritable paradise. If neat dwellings, good barns, substantial fences, and better roads were to be found in the valley, I know of no more desirable place in which to live (Healdsburg Enterprise, May 2, 1891).
Much cordwood had been cut, but not much corn, and most fields were planted to wheat and barley, with most of the grain sown to be cut for hay. He stated:
Dry Creek Valley land will produce almost anything, but is at present devoted to the growing of grapes, fruit, and grain…Good schools are ours; wineries, canneries, and fruit-driers are convenient; the water cannot be excelled, our roads are better than the average, and all in all Dry Creek Valley may be counted as a favored region (Healdsburg Enterprise, May 2, 1891).
Exactly six years later a correspondent remarked upon the lack of rain, with the hay crops beginning to show the effects, and many complaints about the prunes dropping off, although it was noted that they blossomed very full and if all had stuck, the trees would have been overloaded (Healdsburg Tribune, May 6, 1897). That same year the correspondent observed that the farmers were busy setting out Carignane vines for claret, and that the Mataro grape was in favor, as well as Philip cling peaches (Healdsburg Tribune, April 22, 1897).
A visit to the successful farm of A.E. Burnham in 1899 provided a glimpse into the operation of a typical 50-acre farm in Dry Creek Valley. Burnham planted nine acres of wine grapes on the hill, with a few prune trees and a tract of woodland and pasture. The soil in the vineyard was well cultivated, vines vigorously pruned, so that it produced 17 tons to the acre. His valley land was planted to orchard, principally peaches and prunes, though apples, pears, plums, apricots, a few acres of vines, and a kitchen garden were also grown. The one-half acre garden produced sweet potatoes, corn, peas, asparagus, tomatoes, onions, etc. Cultivation was accomplished with the aid of one horse.
Burnham was practically independent of the packinghouses, having a furnace and vat for dipping and trays for drying his prunes. In addition, he had a large warehouse, capable of holding many tons of dried prunes or peaches, and had recently erected a tankhouse, windmill, and a 3,000 gallon tank (Healdsburg Tribune, June 22, 1899).
A trip to the Dry Creek Valley in 1905 revealed that the fruit crop, with the exception of apples, would be light; pears, peaches, and prunes would only be half a normal yield. Vineyards, however, were looking “splendid,” with a great many additional vineyards having been set out the past two years, “indicating that they will long hold supremacy in the wine industry.” Practically all of the newly cleared hill-land, hundreds of acres, were punctured with grape cuttings, principally of phylloxera-resistant stock. A great deal of the bottomland was also being planted to vineyard (Healdsburg Tribune, April 20, 1905).
F.M. Gully had dug up every unprofitable fruit tree on his place, and was setting out apples. He planned on running the dryer at the Petray place, and on paying the best possible prices for fruit. He was planning on setting out a number of Burbank plums the next year. L. Bledsoe, who had 30 acres of hops at the Miller Ranch, proposed to increase his acreage also. W.E. Foster had put out 250 prunes that season, in place of peaches, while others were also growing orchards much unchanged from previous years (Figure 10; Healdsburg Tribune, April 20, 1905).
By the early 1900s the subsistence farms of the valley families were supplied with produce and meat by weekly horse drawn routes from Healdsburg, among them Klingle’s Bakery and one of the butcher shops (Phillips 1985a,b:4).
Although farming, fruit and grape growing were noted as their major occupations throughout the latter half of the 19th century, most of the farmers also raised hay and grain, not only for their own livestock and beasts of burden, but to spread the risk. The abandoned plows, mowers, hay rakes, and hay barns seen throughout the valley are reminders of this once-important agricultural industry.
As in many such rural areas in California, the farmers had to make do with simple entertainments, as they were located a fair distance from established towns. During the late spring and early summer months, after much of the hay had been consumed and the waxed second story floors of the barns were opened up, barn dances became popular entertainment for the valley folk. Dances lasted all night, with the revelers, 20 or 30 families, arriving by horse and wagon, feasting on a potluck supper at midnight, and dancing to the fiddles and accordion until dawn. Two of the most popular barn dances were held on the east side of the valley, at Plasburg’s and Wagele’s barns (Florence 1993:48-50).
Other entertainments included teas, where the neighbors club members got together for gossip (The Dry Creek Good Neighbors Club was formed in 1909), and trips to the Nickelodeon, band concerts, and dances in Healdsburg. A community telephone line, installed in the valley in the early 1900s, with a magneto, bells, and a crank, also provided entertainment for those who listened in to the party line (Phillips 1985a,b:4, 5).
From this point on, the history of the agricultural development of Dry Creek Valley will be recounted through a chronicle of the wine grape industry.