More than just a place, the Valley is living history. As we hike the trails, gaze into the creeks, rest under the trees, we come closer to the first and most ancient inhabitants, among them: the coho, steelhead, redwood, and live oak. In this way we can gain an appreciation of how the native Miwok people lived in their sacred valley, understand how much we have to protect, and realize the importance of our stewardship.
Our Valley is a constantly evolving quilt, each new piece adding to the last. Our history since the first settler made their way to this “lovely” place has been one of change. The transitions of different population sets, with differing ideals of what is important and how to steward the land, has created a rich history.
by Tina Noble
Our Valley’s story begins with the vast, slow collision of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates over millions of years, crumpling up the hills and valleys of the California Coast Ranges.
Twelve thousand years ago, as the last ice age melted away, the Valley was home to giant sloths, mastodons, bison, camelids and equids, short-faced bears and dire wolves. Shortly after, with the arrival of the first humans, most of this variety vanished. Humans, who arrived at least 10,000 years ago, almost certainly played a key role in this great extinction.
We have no direct record of the Valley’s First People, those who came long after the first wave of hunter gatherers. The Garden of Eden they lived in here and maintained for thousands of years persisted until the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s. There were elk by the hundreds, grizzlies wading through the glut of salmon in the creek, condors wheeling above a cougar’s kill by Spirit Rock. The meadows were clothed in perennial bunch grasses that supported coveys of many hundred quail.
The First People here had no tribes, no chiefs, no armies. They lived in extended families or bands no larger than thirty or forty, and had the most democratic of all governance; long discussion concluding in consensus.
The muscular men wore no clothes and walked unshod. They carried wooden bows and otter-skin quivers. Each had his glossy, oiled hair arranged in a net of iris fiber, and each was adorned in his own style with feathers and abalone-shell pendants.
The women wore two-piece skirts of deerskin and intricate basketry caps of black and russet-red, patterned to evoke quail or rattlesnake. They carried long, cone-shaped baskets supported by leather bands across the forehead.
Every individual oak tree had its name and story. A girl barely old enough to talk knew dozens of food and medicinal plants. Young boys studied the animals and mimicked their movements in dance. An early French explorer tells of hunters clothed in deerskin drifting into herds of deer and elk to nudge their prey into position for a killing shot. The only essential the Valley could not provide was obsidian for tools, so they bartered for that with travelers from the peoples to the north. Life was spent in storytelling and ritual, playing with children, sweating, rhyming and word-play, and intricate gambling games.
The essentials of life could be provided with two or three hours of work a day. These First People did not own the land; in their conception, they were owned by it. A family might possess the rights to a particular tree’s acorns, but another might have the right to hunt or gather greens beneath it, and yet another to harvest dead wood for fires. A band had a permanent home village, but moved with the seasons to other camps for harvest or hunting. When a place began to feel tired, the home camp would be burned and another built some distance away. In this way pests and disease were left behind and the harvest regenerated, and when they returned in a few years, the place would be renewed. They harvested bulbs for food in a way that encouraged the multiplication of the bulbs. They pruned the willows to provide the best shoots for basket making.
The First People’s lives were well-ordered, with complex rules governing sex and hunting and relations with neighbors. This intricacy kept populations low and stable in relation to resources for millennia. Their stories told of coyote, who broke the rules and suffered dire — but often hilarious — consequences. When the first Europeans came and asked their name, they shook their heads at the rudeness and ignorance of the question. Sata-ko, they said. We are the human beings who belong to this place, Sata. Today we remember them, and honor those who still live among us, as the Coast Miwok.
History of the San Geronimo Valley
by Brian Dodd and Jean Berensmeier
Settlement and Development
Rafael Cacho, a military officer and friend of General Mariano Vallejo, was the first person to hold title to the San Geronimo Valley. On February 12, 1844, he was granted the 8,800 acre Rancho Cañada de San Geronimo (The Valley of Saint Jerome) by the Mexican government, in acknowledgment of his loyal service as a Mexican citizen. Cacho lived in the Valley with his wife and children, grazing cattle and horses, until his finances forced a sale in 1846 to Lieutenant Joseph Revere, who purchased the rancho for $1,000 and an interest in a very small ranch in Napa. Revere, a naval officer and grandson of Paul Revere, had served under General Vallejo, and had released the beleaguered general from imprisonment at Sutter’s Fort. Revere had discovered the Valley while hunting elk, and immediately determined to make it his own. He wrote:
The Canada of San Geronimo is one of the loveliest valleys in California, shut in by lofty hills, the sides of which are covered with redwood forests, and pines of several kinds, and interspersed with many flowering trees and shrubs peculiar to the Country. Through it flows a copious stream, fed by the mountain brooks; and the soil in the bottomlands is so prolific, that a hundred bushels of wheat to the acre can be raised with the rudest cultivation and other crops in corresponding abundance.
Joseph Revere retained ownership of Rancho San Geronimo for only four years, and then sold it to Rodman Price for $7,500. Price returned to New Jersey, where he was elected Governor, and hired Lorenzo White, a 49er gold miner, to manage Price’s cattle operation on the rancho. For many years the rancho was known as White’s Valley, and White’s Hill still bears his name. Title to Rancho San Geronimo was then sold several times, finally, in 1854, to Adolph Mailliard, whose father was Louis Mailliard, “natural son” of Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and Naples, and elder brother of the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte. After the family’s exile from Spain, Louis Mailliard retrieved from Switzerland a strongbox filled with the family’s jewels, and brought the treasure to their new home in New Jersey. Adolph Mailliard purchased the rancho, to celebrate the birth of his son, Joseph, for $50,000, a mighty sum considering it was purchased a mere eight years earlier for $1000.
Adolph Mailliard and his wife, Annie, set out to establish a grand estate, building their home of 18 rooms and 11 fireplaces near Castle Rock, in today’s Woodacre. Annie’s aunt described it as “an unremarkable house with a deep veranda all around and small rooms with high ceilings.” Her sisters pitied her isolation, and visitors from the East “were to wonder how Annie could put up with straw matting on her floors, awkward servants and austere furniture, but she did.” In fact, Annie loved her house and her Valley, and refused to ever leave. Annie’s sister, Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and an active abolitionist and suffragette, would often enjoy relaxing at the Mailliard’s home in the Valley during her travels.
Early in the second half of the nineteenth century Adolph Mailliard transferred title to tracts of 400-600 acres each to James and Thomas Roy in San Geronimo, and to James Dickson and Calvin Dickson in Woodacre. Little other division of the rancho occurred through the end of the century.
In 1895 Annie Mailliard died of breast cancer in the home she loved so dearly. Her husband died a year later. Their home became the clubhouse of the Woodacre Improvement Club in 1924. The building burned in 1958 and was replaced, where it continues to serve the Club’s members and the Valley community.
In 1905 and 1906 the Mailliard heirs subdivided much of Lagunitas, and in 1912 they sold their remaining interest in San Geronimo Valley real estate to the Lagunitas Development Company, which subsequently subdivided Forest Knolls, San Geronimo, and Woodacre. Most of the homes built prior to World War II were used as summer cabins. In 1925 San Geronimo had 20 families that “swelled to 30” in the summer. After the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, offering easier access to Marin County, and with the coming of World War II, when Sausalito shipyard workers needed housing, many summer cabins became permanent residences.
Following World War II, little changed in the Valley, but in April 1961 the Marin County Board of Supervisors adopted a Master Plan proposal for the Valley that envisioned 20,000 new residents, and 5,000 new homes that would cover the Valley’s northern and southern hillsides, up to and around Kent Lake. The land around Spirit Rock was proposed to be the site for a civic center, fire station, shopping center, heliport, and multifamily residences. A freeway was proposed to come from San Anselmo over White’s Hill and through the center of the Valley, with an interchange that would cross into Nicasio Valley. During the next ten years only the golf course and a few homes adjacent to the golf course, on San Geronimo Valley Drive, were developed as elements of that 1961 Master Plan.
During the 1960s the Valley became a magnet for “Flower Children” from San Francisco, who set up camps and other unconventional abodes in the hills of San Geronimo Valley, much to the horror of many Valley residents.
In 1972 a Countywide Plan was proposed for adoption by the Marin County Board of Supervisors, and was adopted in 1973, emphasizing low density and the preservation of open space, rural areas, and agriculture. Also in 1972, Lagunitas resident Jean Berensmeier was informed that growth was a-comin’ to the Valley, based on the 1961 Valley Master Plan. Discovering the 1961 Master Plan, she organized a community meeting to review the Plan and the proposed Countywide Plan. The ad hoc Planning Group was thus born, and worked for five years to create a new Community Plan that met the goals of the 1973 Countywide Plan, preserving the rural character of the Valley. Gone were the 5,000 new homes, the Civic Center, the shopping center, the heliport, and the freeway. Instead, boundaries were set around the four villages so the remaining land could be preserved for its rural character, and for open space and agricultural use, with only a spattering of homes outside the village boundaries. The San Geronimo Valley Community Plan was adopted in January 1978.
Soon after adoption of the Community Plan a major subdivision was proposed that included 165 houses on 1,600 acres of land, along the entire south side of the Valley up to the ridge. After five years of controversy and community input, a maximum of 134 were approved to be built in four phases. In 1995, lack of sales provided an opportunity for purchase. The County of Marin Open Space District purchased 1,300 acres, leaving a maximum development of 37 homes.
In the mid-1980s, a 411 acre agricultural parcel was sold to Insight Meditation West. IMW dedicated lands to the Open Space District, which were added to Roys Redwoods and an agricultural easement was dedicated to MALT. The remainder was used by IMW and renamed Spirit Rock Meditation Center, for lectures, classes and workshops.
In 1995, after considerable controversy within the community, a final amended Master Plan was approved for 33 houses on the 450 acre French Ranch property located in the heart of the Valley. Negotiations resulted in smaller, clustered houses on smaller building envelopes, 380 acres dedicated to the County Open Space District, a new community trail, private agricultural space, three affordable units, and a waste treatment facility shared with the school district.
The Millennium finds the Valley now largely protected except for two parcels. Final development or protection potential includes a 200 acre parcel on the northern ridge above Forest Knolls and the 590 acre Flanders Ranch, currently an operating cattle ranch (formerly a dairy) located at the northeast and southeast end of the Valley.
Nineteenth century West Marin was the political and economic equal of East Marin, reflected in the fact that Nicasio was originally proposed to be the county seat of Marin County, although San Rafael was ultimately chosen. White’s Hill was the barrier to be breached, to connect the two halves of the county. The earliest trail on record was the 1840’s cart trail of Indian and Spanish origin. The County replaced the trail with the Olema-to-San Rafael stage road in 1865. The new grade over White’s Hill was described as being “very easy and of sufficient width to allow teams to pass without any trouble whatever . . .”, but many years later motorists would find the road so steep they had to back their Model T Fords uphill in reverse gear!
In 1929 the new, concrete, Sir Francis Drake Highway was completed through the Valley and beyond to the west, following the Olema-to-San Rafael stage road route. Following World War II, with a building boom occurring in Marin County, the renamed Sir Francis Drake Boulevard was rerouted through the center of the Valley, bypassing downtown Woodacre and San Geronimo; the original route was renamed San Geronimo Valley Drive.
The North Pacific Coast Railroad laid narrow-gauge tracks over White’s Hill and through the Valley in 1873 and 74, the right-of-way through the Valley having been donated by Adolph Mailliard. The work was done by Chinese laborers armed with only pickaxes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. Two tunnels were bored through White’s Hill, each called “Roy’s Tunnel.” The first was 370 feet long, but was eventually abandoned because the grade was too steep and spring seepage in the tunnel caused problems of lost traction on the rails. The second, lower tunnel was 1,250 feet long and opened up to the western view of the sweeping vistas of San Geronimo Valley. At that time, the principal railroad station in the Valley was at San Geronimo, where travelers to Nicasio would detrain and board a stagecoach to reach that community.
The narrow-gauge railway was replaced in 1904 with the more modern broad-gauge, and was renamed the Northwestern Pacific. A 3,200-foot tunnel was bored through from Bothin, near Fairfax, to the Mailliard ranch in Woodacre, and the old tracks over White’s Hill were abandoned. The railroad continued to operate until 1933, when Northwestern Pacific shut down the service and removed the tracks. Travel time by train and ferry from San Francisco was then 1 hour 30 minutes. There were two morning and evening commute trains, and a mid-day freight with a coach on the rear.
Traces of the original rail bed can still be seen at the east end of the Valley, on the northern edge of the Valley floor.
Early Enterprises: Commerce
Much of the old-growth redwood forest was felled for lumber, milled at James Shafter’s lumber mill at what is now the bottom of Kent Lake, and at other Valley mills, and then shipped to San Francisco. In 1874 Adolph Mailliard tried to develop a gold mine, located west of the San Geronimo railroad station, but it proved unsuccessful. Other early commercial ventures in the Valley included a shingle mill at the foot of Nicasio Hill in 1877, a fur tannery that opened in 1886, and a creamery, located in San Geronimo.
To the west of the Valley many paper mills dotted the creek downstream, producing newsprint from cloth rags and sacks — Samuel P. Taylor’s mill is probably the best known of these. Taylor built a hotel as housing for mill workers. He also built a dam on Paper Mill Creek, to retain water to power his mill, and for 30 years salmon could not get upstream for the spawn. In 1886 the California Fish Commission forced Taylor to build the first fish ladder on the West Coast, perhaps one of the earliest environmental efforts in California to protect Coho salmon and steelhead trout! Today, creek-side plaques commemorate the sites of the mill and the dam, west of the park picnic area.
The Pacific Powder Works opened in 1865, just downstream from Taylor’s operations. It was destroyed by a violent explosion in 1877, was rebuilt, and finally closed in 1880. In the early 1900s, as Lagunitas was being subdivided, the first “shopping center” in the county was built, now the Lagunitas Grocery. It then consisted of the grocery store, a lumberyard, and a post office. An ice cream parlor and candy store were later added.
Early Enterprises: Utilities
Alexander Graham Bell, a friend of the Mailliard family, installed the first California telephone system at Rancho San Geronimo. Using the top barbed wire on the fences to stretch the telephone line, it connected the Mailliard’s home in Woodacre to the cow barn and on to the Middle Ranch, near San Geronimo, and then to the Lower Ranch, at the end of Arroyo Road in Lagunitas. Regular telephone service was started in 1920, using hand-cranked magneto wall phones. The telephone company serviced the telephone lines only as far west as Oak Manor, near Fairfax, so Valley subscribers had to climb poles and service the local lines themselves. The magneto telephones continued to be used until dial phones were installed in 1948.
In 1868, the Tamalpais Water Company was incorporated by Charles Howard and James Shafter to supply water to San Geronimo Valley from eight springs and from Lagunitas Creek. This water system was later operated by Mailliard family and was called the Lagunitas Water Company, the springs in the Valley then producing 120,000 gallons of water per day. After the remaining Mailliard family’s land was sold to the Lagunitas Development Company, the Lagunitas Water Company was renamed the San Geronimo Valley Water Company, and continued as such until 1951, when the Marin Municipal Water District absorbed it into its system. The local springs and intakes continued to supply the Valley until 1963, when they were abandoned by MMWD and the Valley was then supplied from the District’s system of lakes.
Early Enterprises: Tourism and Entertainment
When Samuel P. Taylor built his paper mill on the banks of the creek, he also opened up his land to campers, anglers, and hunters. In 1884 his son, James I. Taylor, enlarged the Taylor Hotel and renamed it the “Hotel Azalea.” The tourist business was soon booming. By 1889, the rush was so great that over 300 reservations were on file, and by the Fourth of July the colony’s population had reached over 800. Including visitors, it was estimated that over 1,000 people were in and about Camp Taylor during the summer.
The camps were wooden frames with shake roofs and wooden floors set 10-12 inches above ground level. Heavy canvas sides made them into comfortable summer homes. Guests took their meals at the hotel, although many chose to “rough it” with their own grub, pitching tents on the ground. Forty years later, with the railroad bringing campers in by the hundreds, Valley residents would complain of “half naked revelers running through the woods.”
As the Valley grew in the early part of the 20th century, so did nightspots and dance halls. “Chief” Kelly had a dance hall in the hills of Forest Knolls, and then built another one on the highway. It is reported that “…his place used to be a knock-down, drag-out. They used to put chicken wire around the band so they wouldn’t get hit by flying bottles.” The “Pavilion” succeeded Kelly’s place after it burned down, but was much more tame. Another dance hall opened in Forest Knolls, in a large building that is still there, on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard near the corner of Tamal Road. Down the road, at the site of the current Lagunitas Post Office, the “Mariposa Pavilion” brought weekend entertainment for Valley adults and teens until it was torn down in 1953. Adjoining it was the Lagunitas Lodge, which for many years featured Spec McAuliffe’s Irish coffee, until it burned in 1983. During the 1960s Janis Joplin and members of her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Van Morrison, and members of the bands Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, Sons of Champlin, and Joy of Cooking would all set up housekeeping in the Valley, and offer informal performances of their music here. Some would stay and become valued members of the community.
Public Services: Post Offices
The first post office in the Valley was established at San Geronimo in 1895, followed by Lagunitas in 1906, Forest Knolls in 1916 and Woodacre in 1925.
Public Services: Schools
The first school in the Valley was located at the Roy Ranch, near the duck pond in San Geronimo, in the 1870s, organized as the San Geronimo School District. With the Mailliard’s 1905-06 subdivision of Lagunitas, and the resulting shift in the center of Valley population, a new school was built in Lagunitas, renamed the Lagunitas District School. Following the development of Valley villages east of Lagunitas, in 1924 a larger, Spanish mission-styled Lagunitas District School was built on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in San Geronimo. Additional classrooms and other school facilities were constructed nearby in the 1950s, becoming today’s Lagunitas School. In 1967 San Geronimo School was built, east of Larsen Creek, and the old 1924 school building was supposed to be demolished. A vocal group supported the building’s use for community needs and it soon became the Art Center, still serving the Valley today as the Community Center.
Anticipating the growth proposed in the 1961 Master Plan, in 1962 the Tamalpais Union High School District acquired 47 acres of the Flanders Ranch, fronting Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Woodacre, as a site for a high school for Valley students. The Lagunitas School District also acquired a site, for an elementary school, at the corner of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Railroad Avenue in Woodacre. Neither of these schools was ever built.
Public Services: Parks, Open Space, and Trails
The land of Samuel P. Taylor remained in private ownership until 1948, when the State of California purchased it for a state park, and various additions have been made to the park during the intervening years. Check out Samuel P. Taylor web site.
Concurrent with the 1973 adoption of the Countywide Plan, a bond measure was passed by Marin voters for the preservation of open space. In 1978 Roy’s Redwoods, a 309-acre parcel formerly part of the Roy Brothers’ ranch in San Geronimo, was purchased by the Marin County Open Space District, and became the first public preserve in the Valley. Its expansive meadow, flanked by giant redwoods that rival Muir Woods for their size and beauty, is a popular gathering place for picnics, weddings, and celebrations of life. In the late 1960s, hippies used a few of the larger hollowed out trees as living spaces.
More recent additions to Valley open space dedications and acquisitions include the 30-acre Maurice Thorner Open Space, on the ridge separating the San Geronimo School from the back nine of the golf course; the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, a 1300-acre parcel that is five miles long and wraps around the southern portion of each village between Taylor Park and White’s Hill; Spirit Rock/Meditation West property, including land added to Roy’s Redwoods and an agricultural easement around Spirit Rock; and the 383-acre French Ranch Open Space Preserve, which includes four trails, a 70-acre parcel designated for agricultural use, and a small community-use parcel.
In 1985, the trails element of the Countywide Plan was adopted. It identified and designated fire roads and trails to be acquired for public use through the development, donation, or acquisition process.