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.
Valley Coast Miwok History
by Tina Noble
Our Valley’s story began 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 big-game hunters—first the occasional hunter, and later whole families arriving for the acorn harvest. 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 bunchgrasses that supported coveys of many hundreds of 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.
Home carried a meaning it’s hard for us to imagine. 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 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 1844–2017
by Jean Berensmeier
Note: This history is compiled from early records and memories by Betty Gardner, Robin Barnett, Jean Berensmeier, Wendi Kallins, and Brian Dodd, and from the printed works of Jack Mason, Helen Van Cleve Park, Joseph Revere, Louise Hall Tharp, A. Gray Dickinson, and Louise Teather.
With a nod and thank you to the Miwok Indians who took care of this lovely Valley for 10,000 years before we discovered it, here is a summary of white settlers’ impact from 1844 – 2017. It describes who they were, what they did, when and why, and ends up with you and me. Enjoy and love the San Geronimo Valley.
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 1857, 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 $1,000!
In 1868 Adolph Mailliard and his family moved from New Jersey to San Rafael, where Adolph engaged in horse breeding and railroad construction. In 1873 Adolph and his wife, Annie, set out to establish a grand estate on Rancho San Geronimo, building their home of 18 rooms and 11 fireplaces near Castle Rock in 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 wondered how Annie could put up with straw matting on her floors, awkward servants, and austere furniture. 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 Mailliards’ 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 in payment of debts he owed them. 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. In 1924, their home became the clubhouse of the Woodacre Improvement Club. A swimming pool was built for the membership. The building burned in 1958 and was replaced. Later, a room was added and used by the Valley Pioneers, an elders group. In 2010, they discontinued their use and it is now a small fitness center. During the last decade a children’s playground was built.
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 entire Valley Planning Area which, at that time, included the area over the southern ridge encircling 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 on a diagonal across Roy’s Redwoods, over the northern ridge and into Nicasio Valley. During the next ten years only the golf course and a subdivision of 18 homes adjacent to the golf course, on San Geronimo Valley Drive, were developed as elements of that 1961 Master Plan.
After the Summer of Love in 1967, 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 some old timers.
In the early ’70s, a Countywide Plan based on the extraordinary document “Can the Last Place Last?” was proposed for adoption by the Marin County Board of Supervisors. Prior to its adoption, Lagunitas resident Jean Berensmeier learned of the 1961 Valley Master Plan. She organized a community meeting to review the plan and the ad hoc Planning Group was born. Gary Giacomini was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1972 and was the third vote needed to adopt the far-reaching Countywide Plan in 1973. This rescinded the ’61 Master Plan. The Planning Group worked from 1972 to 1977 to create the first Community Plan that defined the four villages and preserved the Valley’s rural character, ridges and streams. Twenty-acre zoning was adopted for the area outside the villages that cut the potential development considerably and preserved open space and land for agricultural use. It was adopted in 1978.
Soon afterward, a major subdivision was proposed by Hendricks & Horne that included 165 houses on 1,600 acres of land, along the entire south side of the Valley, behind the villages, up to the ridge. After five years of controversy and community input by Friends of the Valley and the Planning Group, a maximum of 134 homes was approved to be built in four phases. In 1995, lack of sales provided an opportunity for purchase of the remaining three phases of unbuilt land. The County of Marin Open Space District purchased almost 1,500 acres, leaving a maximum potential development of 37 homes and some remainder parcels.
In the 1980s, a 411-acre agricultural parcel was sold to Insight Meditation West (IMW). The Planning Group worked out an agreement with their board whereby the Planning Group would support a small Buddhist center in lieu of the 20 homes the 20-acre zoning allowed in keeping with the Community Plan. This was approved by the Board of Supervisors. IMW dedicated land to the Open Space District, which was added to Roy’s Redwoods, and arranged an agricultural easement with MALT (Marin Agricultural Land Trust). The remainder was used by IMW and renamed Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Spirit Rock later got an expanded Master Plan approved and is currently constructing major facilities.
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. Three hundred and eighty acres were dedicated to the County Open Space District along with community trails, private agricultural space, three affordable housing units, and a waste treatment facility shared with the Lagunitas School District.
Over the years Barnabe Fire Lookout tower has “grown” with additional facilities to serve Marin community residents. In 2007 Verizon installed a 60-foot tower on the ridge for better cell phone reception and emergency use. It is disguised as a giant evergreen tree.
The millennium found the Valley with three parcels outside the village boundaries that have potential development. This includes a 200-acre parcel on the northern ridge above Forest Knolls, the 590-acre Flanders Ranch, located at the east end of the Valley on both sides of SF Drake Boulevard (currently an operating cattle ranch by heirs of the family); and the 47 acre parcel owned by the Tamalpais School District, formerly a part of the Flanders Ranch and condemned for use as a high school under the proposed ’61 Master Plan.
Nineteenth century West Marin was the political and economic equal of East Marin, reflected in the fact that Nicasio was originally proposed to be Marin’s County Seat, 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 1840s cart trail of Indian and Spanish origin over White’s Hill. 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 county road, later renamed Sir Francis Drake Blvd., was completed through the Valley following the Olema-to-San Rafael stage road route. After World War II, a building boom occurred in Marin County. In the ’50s part of this road was rebuilt with generous shoulders and rerouted from the bottom of White’s Hill through the Flanders property bypassing downtown Woodacre and San Geronimo. The original Sir Francis Drake Blvd. route that went through Woodacre and San Geronimo was renamed San Geronimo Valley Drive.
In the early 1970s another freeway was proposed to be developed, this time along the northern ridge of the Valley, as an extension of what is now Interstate 580, to provide improved tourist access to the newly-created Point Reyes National Seashore, but that proposal also died.
The storm of January 1982 played havoc with logging roads and fire roads located on steep hillsides that had been created without benefit of construction standards. Liquefaction caused countless slides and enormous amounts of sediment poured down the tributaries into San Geronimo Creek. Flooding was a serious problem everywhere. The Fire Department did a post-flood fire road assessment and decided to cutback on the number of fire roads they cleared seasonally through large private properties on the uplands.
In the late 1980s the County expanded the road shoulder from Lagunitas School in San Geronimo to the Inkwells west of Lagunitas to improve safety. This led to a partnership between MMWD and the County that resulted in the creation of a pedestrian bridge over a large water pipe that connected Sir Francis Drake Blvd. with the trail over the railroad right of way that goes through Taylor Park on the north side of Lagunitas Creek. The Dhority family provided an easement over a portion of their property and the bridge was named after them. The bridge/trail is a popular pedestrian, equestrian and biker route.
In 2008, the County funded the Sir Francis Drake Blvd. rehabilitation project. In 2014 they repaved Sir Francis Drake Blvd. from the Inkwells near Lagunitas to Tocaloma five miles west. The design improved what had been a dangerous route for autos and bicyclists for decades, and lessened the impact of erosion and sediment on streams that are home to endangered and threatened salmonids.
The North Pacific Coast Railroad laid narrow-gauge tracks over White’s Hill and through the Valley in 1873 and 1874, the right-of-way through the Valley having been donated by Adolph Mailliard. Chinese laborers armed with only pickaxes, shovels, and wheelbarrows did the work. 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 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. The original San Geronimo train station was relocated, restored and is used today by the Presbyterian Church. Traces of the original railroad bed can still be seen at the east end of the Valley, on the northern edge of the Valley floor on the Flanders Ranch.
Much of the old-growth redwood forest was felled for lumber and milled at James Shafter’s lumber mill (at what is now the bottom of Kent Lake) and 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 on Creamery Road.
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. For many years salmon could not get upstream to 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 in Taylor Park commemorate the sites of the mill and the dam, west of the main 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. It consisted of the Lagunitas Grocery, a lumber yard and post office. An ice cream parlor and candy store was added later.
There was little change in commerce until after WW II. A golf course was built in anticipation of the implementation of the ’61 Master Plan. Woodacre had a country store. San Geronimo had a restaurant. Forest Knolls had a country store, beauty shop, ice cream parlor, real estate office, trailer court, gas station, saloon and summer camp. Lagunitas had a country store, summer camp and Speck McAuliffe’s bar, known as Lagunitas Lodge.
The World Wide Web changed many aspects of life for the average resident. One change in particular is the number of residents who use the internet to operate their business out of their homes, avoiding storefront costs, the expense of signs, publicity and insurance, not to mention commuting costs.
Around 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, a friend of the Mailliard family, installed the first California telephone system at Rancho San Geronimo. Using the top strand of barbed wire on the fences to stretch the telephone line, it connected the Mailliards’ home in Woodacre to the cow barn and on to the Middle Ranch, near San Geronimo, and then to the Lower Ranch, at the upper 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. The prefix used only by Valley residents at that time was 488. As demand for phones increased in the 21st century, the Valley lost their exclusive claim on the treasured prefix. In 2016, residents were required to add the 415 area code to all calls.
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 the Mailliard family and was called the Lagunitas Water Company. It produced 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 MMWD absorbed it into its system. The local springs and intakes continued to supply the Valley until 1963, when they were abandoned by MMWD. The Valley’s water supply now comes from the District’s system of lakes.
Since 2010, Marin Clean Energy has been a competitor to PG&E in providing alternative energy options to meet household needs.
Recreation and Entertainment
While the Mailliards were developing their ranch and other ventures, Samuel P. Taylor used money he earned from prospecting for gold to buy land on Papermill Creek (Lagunitas Creek) and built a paper mill on its banks. 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 to12 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, “His place used to be a knockdown, 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 on the corner of Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and Tamal Road. The large building still exists and currently houses the Marin Tack and Feed store. In recent memory it also served as the House of Richard and the original Lagunitas Brewery. 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 Speck McAuliffe’s Irish Coffee, until it burned in 1983.
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. Larger post offices were built in new locations in Woodacre, San Geronimo and Forest Knolls during the 1980s.
In 1929, the first Valley library opened in a small building built for that purpose at Lagunitas School. In 1946 it moved to the Kenny Burt building in Forest Knolls and in the ensuing 60 years moved to Woodacre, back to Forest Knolls, then to Lagunitas and then finally to Lagunitas School. It was closed in 2009 due to budget cuts and non-use. Wilderness Way is developing a small environmental book and film library with teacher resources for environmental education.
County Parks, Open Space, and Trails
Concurrent with the adoption of the Countywide Plan in 1972, a bond measure was passed by Marin voters creating the Marin County Open Space District that taxed residents for the purchase and preservation of county open space. Today, the District manages 16,000 acres on 34 preserves. Four of these preserves are in the San Geronimo Valley and total approximately 2,500 acres. The four preserves are: Roy’s Redwoods, Maurice Thorner, Gary Giacomini and French Ranch.
In the last decade the Parks and Open Space Department adopted the following plans and projects that have had significant impact on the Valley’s four preserves.
- Trails Element of the Countywide Plan—Adopted in 1985, it identified and designated Valley fire roads and trails to be acquired for public use through the development, donation, or acquisition process. It has been amended several times.
- Road and Trails Plan—Adopted in 2014, this lists policies to protect the environment—including surveys of user impacts—while providing diverse recreational opportunities. It resulted in restoration projects in Woodacre, San Geronimo and Forest Knolls.
- Vegetation Management and Biodiversity Plan—Adopted in 2016, the plan scientifically identifies plants and wildlife on County preserves and creates Legacy Land zones. The Giacomini Preserve has extensive Legacy Land designations that are leading to trail closures resulting in improved protection of plant and wildlife habitats that are rare and/or unique to Marin Restoration projects to reduce sediment and restore native plants—The Open Space District and Deptment of Public Works have approved about eight projects to meet this goal including reworking an old logging road in Woodacre and in San Geronimo.
- Christmas Holiday Tree Harvest—Staff made available 100 Douglas Firs and Monterey Pines for residents as part of a restoration program. A popular but time consuming effort that may come again.
- Measure A—In 2012, voters approved a ¼ cent Open Space Tax measure: 65% for restoration; 20% to save family farms; and 15% to local cities and towns to enhance parks and nature preserves.
Inter-organizational Partnerships are common today. They result in funds being used efficiently and effectively, often providing diverse expertise and improving relationships. The County, MMWD (Marin Municipal Water District), State and Federal as well as regional agencies have “partnered” on at least 14 projects that have restored and improved Valley creeks, native plants and wildlife, roads and bridges. Currently, Roy’s Redwoods is a project being reviewed by over 20 experts for restoration possibilities with future meetings planned. In addition, Department of Public Works worked closely with the Planning Group to design and upgrade the Forest Knolls Park with a playground for toddlers, picnic benches, a basketball court, water fountain, bathroom and planting.
Reflecting on the Past
In 1950, the San Geronimo Valley was still a rural community with four villages. The population was under 3,000, and thousands of fish migrated into the Mt. Tamalpais watershed, village homes were about 1,200 square feet in size, and dogs could spend half a day sleeping on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and never have to move for a car. Peters Dam was built to create Kent Lake to provide water needed for expected growth. Regretfully, it cut off many square miles of salmon spawning habitat. The ’61 SGV Master Plan was adopted, envisioning 20,000 people and 5,000 homes from ridge to ridge in the Valley. Six years later, 1967-68 the Summer of Love changed people’s lives and many emigrated from San Francisco to the Valley with different views, ideas, politics, eating and smoking habits. Parental pressure for a different kind of education for their children resulted in the Open Classroom, Montessori and Waldorf-Inspired programs replacing the traditional program. In 1972, the Countywide Plan was adopted that stopped major development in its tracks and preserved West Marin ranches. At the same time, a bond measure passed to acquire and preserve open space in Marin. The ad hoc SGV Planning Group formed and spent five years with other residents in creating the first Community Plan to protect the Valley’s rural character and natural resources. It was adopted in 1978. It is noteworthy that the Community Plan, which guides development in the Valley, and the bond measure that provided funds for the acquisition of 2,600 acres of Valley open space preserves, along with the vigilance of the Planning Group, are the key elements, more than anything else, that has helped to keep the Valley rural with its natural resources protected.
by Elaine Patterson Doss
Inland a short distance [from the ocean] the country is so sheltered by the surrounding hills that none but the most pleasant and gentle winds are felt in the valleys, which are small and numerous, while the scenery in every direction is grand and romantic. In the center of such a country Nicasio is located—a small but very handsome village, with a first-class hotel, two churches and a school that is well attended. Fine roads run in every direction . . . .
San Rafael Herald, July 20, 1874
The writer, at work in 1874, could be describing Nicasio and its valley in 2016. For almost a century and a half, Nicasio has been admired and loved as a village out of the romantic past, with its diminutive white church, its plain but distinctive wood-frame homes, its little league ball field on the country square, all placed in an especially beautiful setting surrounded by rolling green hills dotted with cows, wildflowers, oaks and redwoods. . . .
But there’s much more to Nicasio than its scenery and quaintness—there is a history that is rich, complex and surprising in the breadth of its span in time, from Indians to dairy farmers to the highest of high tech. (Excerpted from NICASIO: The Historic Valley at the Center of Marin, by Dewey Livingston, Nicasio Historical Society © 2008 and 2012)
Nicasio’s first people were the Coastal Miwok who inhabited western Marin and southwestern Sonoma counties for countless centuries prior to the arrival of the European explorers, missionaries, adventurers and settlers. There were 13 villages scattered throughout this area, each established near a creek. The village in Nicasio was called Etcha-tamal, inhabited since the 1400s, if not earlier, by the Tamals, a Coast Miwok tribelet.
The cycle of the seasons and nature’s corresponding bounties were the organizing principle of their lives, and nature supplied them well. The Tamals, like other Coast Miwok, were semi-nomadic; they had their permanent village, but they also followed the bounties of nature according to their seasons, moving to temporary settlements near each food source.
The Coast Miwok were a peaceful people who traded with neighboring tribes. They traded clamshell beads and other coastal products with the Lake Miwok (Lake County) for obsidian, which they prized for crafting knives, spearheads and arrowheads, much preferred to the local chert, which they also flaked into tools and weapons. The various Coast Miwok groups also traded, visited and intermarried among each other.
The incursions into Coast Miwok culture, which eventually led to its complete demise, were the mission-building Spanish padres, from 1776 when Mission Dolores was established, to 1834 when San Rafael Mission closed, accompanied by Spanish soldiers and the large number of disenchanted gold seekers who flooded northern California in the 1850s.
Although a small number of Tamals continued to live at Etcha-tamal into the 1880s, settlers’ homes had already begun to appear in the vicinity of their village, and the town square already had a church, three-story hotel, general store, livery stable, Wells Fargo office and blacksmith shop.
Nicasio and Lucas Valleys began to fill up rapidly with settlers, largely beef and dairy ranchers. The era of large land holding cattlemen began with James Black, who built the first settler’s house in 1850. In order to cut out the middleman and maximize profit, he created a cooperative of beef ranchers who together drove their huge herds of longhorn cattle along a trail (near the current Lucas Valley Road) and northeast to the Mother Lode. Black brought home a fortune in gold.
Taking advantage of the timber in Nicasio, several early settlers erected sawmills, producing lumber for building and large redwood shakes for roofing. The Nicasio Township was founded on May 12, 1862 and the Nicasio School District, on May 13 of that same year. In fact, by 1862, school districts had been formed in all of Marin’s eight townships of that day, Saucelito (historic spelling), Tomales, San Antonio, Point Reyes, San Rafael, Nicasio, Novato and Bolinas.
School sessions for the first four years of the school district’s existence may have been held in a pioneer’s home because the first schoolhouse wasn’t erected until 1866 in one month at a cost of $300. It was located where Rancho Nicasio Restaurant stands today. Due to growing enrollment, it was replaced in 1871-72 by the one-room schoolhouse, which still stands today—the cost of construction and furniture, $3,000.
A wave of Italian Swiss immigrants from the Ticino Valley area began arriving in the 1870s. By 1900 these industrious, hard-working families ran many of the two dozen or so dairies.
Life in Nicasio remained relatively unchanged between the 1880s and 1950s, although facilitated with new ranching, transportation and communication technologies and a new two-room schoolhouse.
However, the one technological advance that did bring great change to Nicasio was the construction of the earthen dam and the resulting reservoir, completed in 1960. It single-handedly wiped out several dairy operations, not to mention the total loss of abundant runs of coho salmon and steelhead. Dairies closed, families were displaced and large tracts of land were parceled for development. Several of Nicasio’s ranch families were forced to move elsewhere.
Due to the availability of affordable, developable land parcels, an influx of new demographics arrived: adventurous working-class suburbanites in the 1960s, back-to-the-land hippies in the ’70s, and eclectic yuppies in the ’80s and 90s. New industries also arose, like horse ranches, high-tech cinematography, viticulture and wine production, exotic longhorn cattle breeding, and even a llama farm.
As Nicasio entered the new millennium, the 1950s school facility was renovated and several new buildings were added: a library, an admin building with staff lounge, and a large free-standing Multi Purpose Room, at a cost of $2.4 million, completed in 2001.
The dam and its aftermath may have radically changed the people and natural landscape of Nicasio’s northern valley, however, there are certain values that seem to be inherent in the place, that remain constant across the waves of new inhabitants. Whether born here or denizens who immigrated by choice, all Nicasio people, past and present, have welcomed newcomers, treasured Nicasio’s natural beauty, worked and strived together cooperatively for the common good and highly prized quality education.
Trains—the Lifeline of the Valley 1874–1933
by Anne McClain
The era of trains rolling through the Valley was an exciting one. With regularly scheduled trips to the Valley (and beyond) from San Francisco, people were able to easily come and go. Camp Taylor had made the area a popular destination for summer picnics and recreation, and in the 1920s people came and built summer cabins within walking distance from the train stops. My family’s home in Forest Knolls started out as a summer cabin for a San Francisco butcher and his wife. A nephew of theirs stopped by once some years ago to revisit the place he had spent some happy summers. He told of going through the alleyway to town and the dance halls. The trains made the dance halls, the bars and lodges (and the alleged brothels!) of the Valley accessible and popular.
We can still see traces of the trains in the Valley. The Presbyterian Church has restored the San Geronimo station for use as an office and meeting place, and if you know where to look, you can see the leveled pathway of the old tracks through Flanders Ranch. The old tunnel connecting Fairfax and Woodacre cut through the hill at Elm Road. After the railroad days came to an end it continued useful life as a shortcut for fire engines from Woodacre to get to emergency calls “over the hill” until the tunnel partially collapsed and was then blocked off.
Lots of old postcards of the Valley featured the trains and stations. We are especially grateful to Jim Staley who allowed us to use photos from his book Railroads in the San Geronimo Valley 1874–1933” I marvel at the photo of people getting on and off a train stopped in Forest Knolls on page 87. What bustle and activity in our now sleepy town! We hope you enjoy these pictures of a bygone way of life here in our Valley home.
LAGUNITAS SCHOOL DISTRICT: A BRIEF HISTORY
by Don Holmlund
Beside the family, schools—and what happens in them—are the most important places in any community. The seeds of all future learning are planted there, social and athletic skills are nurtured, and values are explored. For more than 100 years, the Lagunitas School District has played a huge role in the lives of children, parents, and most residents of San Geronimo Valley. For the past 40-plus years, the District has offered various programs to facilitate all of these goals. These programs have also been a reflection of various populations living in the Valley, and through the years, there has been tremendous parental involvement in all programs within the school.
In the late 1800s, when the population of the Valley was largely limited to the big ranches in Woodacre and San Geronimo, the first school was located on Roy’s Ranch in San Geronimo (near the duck pond on San Geronimo Valley Drive), and the San Geronimo School District was formed in the 1870s. A second school was built in 1904 in Lagunitas as land was being developed there. (This building still exists as a private residence on W. Cintura Road in Lagunitas.) In 1924, a new school building was built to accommodate students from both schools, and the Lagunitas School District was born. In 1967, the building was condemned (and became the current San Geronimo Valley Community Center) and a new building was built next door. Later buildings were added for the Open Classroom on the upper campus in the mid-1970s. Some portable buildings were added for the Middle School in the early 1980s, and after a bond issue passed, a permanent building for the Middle School was constructed and opened by the mid-1990s. The Community Gym was completed in 2010.
The curriculum, teaching, and administration of the school was very stable and traditional until the late 1960s. At this time, the population of the Valley began to change. New residents, a good number of them artists, workers in the helping professions, and escapees from the Haight, found homes here. Often they found common ground around civil rights issues. Many were raising families. They became involved in cooperative pre-school groups. They wanted change in the school.
The Open Classroom
Among them was Sandy Dorward, who was hired by the school as a teacher in 1970. Sandy and other parents, with support from the District Superintendent, began to develop an Open Classroom alternative. The group identified four cornerstones upon which to build their program: parent participation, choice, play, and equal weight given to emotional growth/development. The fall of 1971 saw the first multi-graded Open Classroom (kindergarten – third grade) in the San Geronimo Valley, with Sandy as the teacher, joined by a very enthusiastic and skillful group of parent volunteers.
Judy Voets was a student teacher in this classroom at the time. When she completed her student teaching, she went to England to experience the “hands-on” approaches then becoming popular there. The British schools were using many materials and techniques that Judy recognized would be extremely useful for the program the Open’s founding families wanted to create. She brought back progressive teaching tools that were not used in California at that time. Some 150 families supported an expanded Open Classroom. The program was welcomed by some and vehemently opposed by others, but the School Board election of 1972 proved that a majority of the community supported alternatives in education. Richard Sloan was elected to the Board with a mandate to create choices for parents. Board meetings were very contentious; one community member called Sloan a Communist, another said if the Open Classroom proposal passed, it “would be the end of Western Civilization as we know it.” Richard recalls that “it almost came to blows.”
The program was adopted, and the district reformed the school into three programs. Parents were given a choice between the Open Classroom, the Existing Program, which consisted of the same teachers and classes as before, and the ABC Program (also known as Back to Basics), which consisted of a beefed up curriculum. The Open Classroom was able to hire outstanding teachers, and parental involvement, including classroom and financial support, remained extremely high. The ABC and Existing Programs also had stable enrollments and satisfied parents because they appreciated having a choice: Some children thrive in structured environments whereas others thrive in less structured classrooms. They liked the fact that there were alternatives.
Academics & Excellence
Within a few years, due to teacher retirements and declining enrollment, the Existing Program was discontinued. In its place, another program was adopted, called Academics Plus, which gave families an even greater choice in their children’s education. This program offered greater enrichment in the curriculum including art and music. In the late 1970s, the ABC and Academics Plus programs merged into the A&E (Academics and Enrichment) Program, adding enrichment activities such as language (French) and dance. Parents of A&E students valued this program for many reasons: students learned in the traditional and structured manner; there were wonderful teachers; there were no combined grades; there were standardized tests by which comparisons could be made with other children and other schools. The A&E parents also were extremely active in the school, and would show up at Board meetings arguing against combining grades, and in favor of standardized testing. (Eventually the A&E program was discontinued in the early 2000s because of low enrollment and District financial difficulties.)
In 1981, a group of parents began meeting to explore the feasibility of a public Montessori school in the Valley. Their children had attended Montessori preschools, and the parents were convinced that this educational method would be a good fit for the Valley. They proposed this to the School Board. Montessori education emphasizes mixed age classrooms, student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and a “discovery” model, where students learn concepts from working with materials developed by Maria Montessori and colleagues, rather than by direct instruction. Once again, there was great opposition to this and contentious meetings were held. The original proposal was turned down. However, with the discovery of a successful public Montessori program in the San Mateo District, support from Richard Sloan arguing that families should be given a choice as to school program, and a newly elected School Board, the Montessori program was adopted, and classes began in 1982. The Montessori families were also tremendously involved in making their program a success. Enough money was raised to hire a Montessori trainer to work with the faculty here. The new program was popular, and some children came from other districts to enroll. It eventually grew into a K-5 program.
In 2004, the Waldorf-Inspired Program started in the Lagunitas School District with a kindergarten class. This also began with a group of parents wanting an alternative form of education for their children. These parents had petitioned the Ross Valley School District to start a charter school similar to the Novato Charter School, which had a Waldorf-Inspired curriculum and had been in existence since 1996. Ross Valley District was not interested, so a dialogue was started in the Lagunitas District with the addition of many Valley parents. Once again, Richard Sloan was very instrumental in encouraging the group and persuading other Board members to accept the proposal. Once again, there were major arguments and contentious Board meetings because the model of a charter school was new to this District, the Waldorf curriculum was new to many, and as always, there were financial anxieties. But the concept of parental choice of program prevailed, and there were classrooms available as the A&E program had closed.
Waldorf education is based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. This approach focuses on practical, hand-on activities and creative play for young children, developing artistic expression and social capacities for grammar school children, and developing critical reasoning and empathic understanding for older children. As with the other programs, parents in the Waldorf-Inspired Program were extremely involved, both in the classroom and financially. Due to a change in funding for the School District (Basic Aid), not as many students were coming from other Districts, and there was insufficient enrollment to justify hiring more teachers. The program was terminated in 2014. Most parents in the program were very disappointed, but felt deep gratitude toward the District for having supported it for 10 years.
The Middle School
For most of its history, the school district’s programs each consisted of a kindergarten and eight grades, with one teacher for each grade (or in the Open Classroom, several grades together). In the late 1970s, the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students from all programs wanted to be together with their peers and wanted a more “high school” atmosphere. Some were transferring to White Hill Middle School in Fairfax. The District then created the Lagunitas Middle School. Departments were formed, and students would have different teachers for different subjects and change rooms for the different classes. Middle School staff faces a challenge working with students from different programs, but they have been very successful at honoring those differences while providing students with skills to make the transition to high school. New buildings were constructed for the Middle School on their own campus, adjoining the other campuses.
Each segment of the Lagunitas School District—School Board, administration, staff, teachers, parents, and students—has done an admirable job over the years. Today, there are three programs in the District: the Open Classroom, the Montessori, and the Middle School. Each program has undergone challenging periods, but survived stronger because of the challenges. A constant has been the reflection of community values and desires, strong commitment to offering different programs to the community, and deep commitment to parental involvement in the lives of their children and the school. Current Lagunitas School Principal Laura Shain sums it up, “The School District has held onto its progressive educational approaches despite the political and societal pressures that have imposed upon much of public education in recent years. . . . Through determination and shared decision-making, the school has remained innovative and unique.”
Retired Superintendent Larry Enos agrees, “The passion and involvement by the school community outweighs difficulties and helps maintain a dynamic and vital environment for the children of the Valley.”
This history of Valley schools relied on discussions with history guides Larry Enos, Laurie Klein, Heather Podoll, Richard Sloan, Bernie Stephan, Amy Valens, and Judy Voets. Thank you all.
Our Community’s Faith Organizations
by Suzanne Sadowsky
Among the various organizations, clubs and groups serving the San Geronimo Valley and Nicasio, the faith congregations have had a very long history. Collectively they have served the people of our villages far longer than any other nonprofit organizations. For more than 150 years the faith organizations—St. Mary’s and St. Cecilia’s Catholic Churches, the San Geronimo Community Presbyterian Church, the Buddhist Meditation Center at Spirit Rock, and Gan HaLev (the Jewish Congregation)—have individually and collectively served as anchors of community life. They have all provided a source of social engagement for their adult members and their children. They have contributed to the spiritual and emotional needs of Valley people as we experience life events—joys and the challenges—births, confirmations, b’nai mitzvahs, marriages, illness, loss, and death. The Valley faith groups have each in their individual ways and collectively worked to support the community at large and to create a sense of cohesion, appreciation of diversity in belief and practice, and their shared values. They have provided food for the homebound and homeless, and their members have worked tirelessly for other Valley nonprofit organizations. For over a decade, the Valley Faith Organizations have come together twice a year—in the fall for their Interfaith Thanksgiving Service and in the spring for an Interfaith Forum.
I asked representatives from each of the congregations to respond to a number of questions about their origins and founders, their mission, challenges and role of their organizations in today’s world. Below are excerpts from their responses. Their responses follow in the order that they first began to serve the Valley.
St. Mary’s/Nicasio & St. Cecilia’s/Lagunitas
St. Mary’s Church in Nicasio has been ministering to the Catholics in West Marin for more than a century. The picturesque church on the Square was dedicated by Archbishop Joseph Alemany on October 27, 1867. In the mid-1800s, Nicasio was being considered as the Marin County seat. (Fundraising to restore the church’s aging structure has been ongoing with a major celebration planned for October of 2017.)
St. Cecilia’s Church in Lagunitas was built in 1912 (at a cost of $4,000) along the railroad line that went from Sausalito to Cazadero up the coast. In December of 1934, the original St. Cecilia’s Church was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt and dedicated in 1936. During the 1990s, the Church was threatened with closure, but a committee of active parishioners and community members convinced the Archdiocese of San Francisco to let the church remain open. Subsequently, a major restoration of the church and meeting hall took place.
Both St. Mary’s and St. Cecilia’s have been administered by priests appointed by the Archbishop in San Francisco. Father Cyril O’Sullivan has served as pastor for both churches since July, 2006. He is advised by a Pastoral Council made up of parishioners.
The main mission of the Catholic Church is to proclaim the teachings of Christianity in worshiping God and loving our neighbor. Parish events such as picnics, trips and parties are an integral part of building our community. In celebrating traditional Catholic liturgies, our local parishes hope to meet the needs of the people for a deeper spirituality in the face of increasing secularism. For many years we have joined with other San Geronimo Valley faith communities for an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Besides sharing our gratitude, we all contribute to the community Food Bank.
San Geronimo Community Presbyterian Church
The San Geronimo Valley Community Church was first organized on March 13, 1932, under the direction of the Board of National Missions. The Church remained under the authority of the Board until June 27, 1954, when John C. Bonner was ordained and installed as the first full-time pastor who served until April 1961.
In late 2005, Reverend John Gerity Scott was called as the full-time pastor. He arrived with the agenda of expanding the church membership, fostering ecumenical ties, and strengthening involvement in the Presbytery of the Redwoods. Of particular importance to both Reverend Scott and the entire church was the congregation’s willingness to hire an openly gay pastor. Reverend Scott scheduled new member classes, initiated a Valley Interfaith Thanksgiving service engaging Catholics, Jews, Native American groups and Buddhists. He joined neighborhood groups such as the Lions Club, the Healthy Community Collaborative and the Marin Interfaith Council, where he became Board President.
Reverend Kate Clayton became the interim pastor in March 2011 and was later called to be the Church’s full-time pastor in 2013. Pastor Kate Clayton loves the diversity of West Marin and this congregation. She continues the congregation’s tradition of interfaith work, and serves on the core team of West Marin Coalition for Healthy Kids.
The Church’s Mission Statement: “We commit ourselves to worship God, grow in spirit and bring love, compassion and justice to our community and the world.”
The present church buildings and grounds have taken shape over a period of more than 80 years. In 1935 the original 1878 train station was purchased from the North Pacific Coast Railroad Company. The train stopped running in 1930. The building was remodeled to accommodate church services and was used for that purpose until 1964. Church Elder Jene Chadwick recalls that the train station was moved to its present location in 1964. The Train Station is now used for the Pastor’s and the church and preschool administrative offices. The Conference Room is made available to community organizations for meeting space. Monthly free movie nights are held upstairs.
The annual Holly Fair is a highlight of the Church’s annual calendar and of the community at large. It was started more than a half century ago by the Ladies’ Guild. Each year in November the church welcomes 500 residents of Marin County and beyond for a delicious home-made turkey dinner and sales of crafts, baked goods, jams and jellies, a white elephant sale, outdoor games, and silent auction.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center
In 1976 a group of West Coast Vipassana Meditation practitioners that included Jack Kornfield, James Baraz, Sylvia Boorstein, Anna Douglas, Howard Cohn, and others, founded the Dharma Foundation. Its purposes were to sponsor Vipassana Meditation retreats (the first being in Yucca Valley, CA, that same year) and to publish The Inquiring Mind, a Journal of the Vipassana Community, which it did for several years. In 1985, members of several Bay Area meditation groups incorporated Insight Meditation West for the purpose of acquiring land and establishing a West Coast Insight Meditation Center.
In 1987, a contract was drawn up to purchase 411 acres of undeveloped land in the San Geronimo Valley of northern California from The Nature Conservancy. Then in 1988 the title was taken on the Woodacre land, and the name Spirit Rock Meditation Center was formally adopted. Since 1990, attendance at Spirit Rock has increased enormously. Hundreds of people now attend classes, daylong programs and residential retreats each week at the center in Woodacre.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center is a spiritual education and training institution whose purpose is to bring people to a depth of realization of the Buddha’s path of liberation through direct experience; to provide the community of practitioners with inspiration and teachings to integrate and manifest wisdom and compassion in all aspects of their lives, for the benefit of all beings. The leaders of the meditation center today are Co-Guiding Teachers, Sally Armstrong and Phillip Moffitt; Executive Director, Michelle Latvala. A volunteer Board of Directors, comprising teachers and sangha members, is the central decision-making body for Spirit Rock.
Amidst changing political conditions worldwide, our role as a meditation center has expanded to providing spiritual refuge and supporting the community with practices, teachings and discussions that nurture our internal life in support of external service.
Gan HaLev—the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley
The idea of a Jewish Congregation in the San Geronimo Valley emerged at a small gathering in the home of Wood-acre resident, Suzanne Sadowsky, on February 20, 1992. Suzanne had submitted a brief notice that was published in the January 1992 issue of Ridgelines/Stone Soup newsletter:
“A Jewish congregation is forming in the San Geronimo Valley to celebrate Jewish holidays and Shabbats. Other activities might include children’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes, adult education, a community Seder, etc. . . .”
At a Board meeting on September 1, 1993, the Congregation adopted bylaws that were signed by Suzanne Sadowsky, David Knepler, Michael Chadwick, Laurie Chorna and Gary Mitchel. Articles of Incorporation were filed with the State of California and approved on October 26, 1993. Gan Halev’s mission: “To develop a permanent community which comes together to celebrate Jewish life—to worship, educate, socialize, share and explore our religious and cultural heritage.”
Gan HaLev sees itself as an independent, progressive and welcoming congregation. It is not affiliated with any of the national Jewish organizational movements and sometimes it has been described as “post-denominational.” Its members come from all over the United States and as far away as Asia, South Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Members have had a variety of religious backgrounds—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism, as well as other religions. Many are self-described secular, cultural Jews, agnostic, atheists, pagan and Jewbuhs. In the 1990s the Congregation began to call itself Gan HaLev, which in Hebrew means Garden of the Heart.
Shortly after joining together, the Congregation learned about Torah Scrolls from Europe that had survived the Holocaust and were being repaired and maintained by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. After much correspondence and many phone calls, the Congregation was given the opportunity to acquire a Scroll on permanent loan as long as it continued to exist.
San Geronimo Valley Music History: 1966–Present
by Laurence Brauer
The San Geronimo Valley’s musical fame (or notoriety) began in 1966 when many of the musicians who created “the San Francisco sound” actually lived in the Valley. The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service arrived first. The Dead moved from Olampoli to the old scout camp on Arroyo Road in 1966. The Dead and Quicksilver lived near each other and engaged in acid-assisted “Indian and Cowboy” battles; the Dead were the Indians, Quicksilver the cowboys. (Sadly, in Grateful Dead history, the Valley is more known as where Jerry Garcia died in 1995 from heart failure at Serenity Knolls.)
Other bands soon followed Quicksilver and the Dead. Big Brother and the Holding Company moved down the road from the Dead in July 1966. Guitarist Sam Andrew remembers, “It was getting kind of scary in the City and the Haight. The ‘Summer of Love’ was over before it began. People were coming to San Francisco from all over the nation after the Chronicle and Time magazine starting writing all this stuff about it…. We just wanted to go someplace where it was nice and calm so we decided on Marin.”
“One day we all piled into a car, drove over to Marin, picked up a newspaper and looked up ‘Houses for Rent,’” recalls drummer David Getz. “That same day we found a big house in the little town of Lagunitas. Everything seemed to work out right. Nothing could go wrong; God had taken care of us perfectly. On a big butane tank coming up the driveway, someone had scrawled ‘God is Alive and Well.’ Later another had added ‘in Argentina.’ Eventually our house became known as ‘Argentina.’” Singer Janis Joplin and the Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan became drinking buddies and frequented the Papermill and Speck McCauliffe’s until the Dead moved out later in the year due to the septic system backing up and the Big Brother musicians finding separate residences outside the Valley. “Argentina” house was briefly taken over by members of the Sons of Champlin.
In 1967, the Sons began living at Ron and Marsha Thelin’s Red House on Resaca (see story on page 108) in Lagunitas. Sons’ cofounder Tim Cain, recalls, “Our group of crazies were what people had labeled Hippies by that time, although we had no idea what we were until we got tagged. We thought we were just a bunch of nature-loving music enthusiasts living as close to the land as we could, hanging out in peace with our women, our friends, and our beautiful San Geronimo Valley. During that time there were many people, young and old, coming to San Francisco (and consequently Marin) to see what was the big deal with the Hippie Revolution, whatever that was. We didn’t know a revolution was going on!”
The Monterey Pop Festival and commercial success of the Jefferson Airplane caused the major record labels to come calling. The Bay Area bands’ lifestyles and idealistic approach clashed with the more traditional aspirations of the labels’ corporate culture. Everything from song lyrics to cover art sparked intense disagreements. The Sons’ first album, Loosen Up Naturally, gained rave reviews and their live shows were even better, but they failed to gain a wider audience. The music business never knew how to deal with their eclectic sound and unconventional perspective, though the band continued in various forms until 1977. Some members of the Sons reunited in 1997, recorded a live album in 1998, and, with Bill Champlin’s return to the Bay Area, have been occasionally performing ever since. In 2005, they released their first studio album in 28 years, Hip Li’l Dreams, and Tim Cain rejoined the band in 2010.
The Joy of Cooking were another groundbreaking band. The Chronicle’s Jon Carroll described them as “a remarkable rock and roll band, half ballads and half boogie, with a driving rhythm section fronted by two swell women, Toni Brown (a smart, crafty songwriter who could evoke sentiment without sentimentality) and Terry Garthwaite, who sings like an angel with dirty wings.” At the time, women’s musical roles were limited; women were not supposed to lead rock bands. Garthwaite and Brown wanted to create good music, not fulfill stereotypes.
Terry Garthwaite moved to the Valley in 1972. “Toni lived in Fairfax. I almost bought a house in San Anselmo, but it didn’t work out. Then I was shown a couple of places in San Geronimo and it was too charming to resist.” Terry’s brother, bassist David Garthwaite, “brought his family to the Valley after I’d been here for a bit, raising his three daughters here.” The Joy of Cooking recorded three albums which have aged better than many of their better selling contemporaries. Brown and Garthwaite then recorded the excellent Cross Country. Brown became a youth counselor and photographer. Terry remained in the Valley and continues singing, writing, recording solo albums, and producing. “The Valley was close enough to venues for me (there were some fine clubs in Marin)—and far enough away to offer peace of mind. There’s no feeling like coming home after a gig, late at night, driving over White’s Hill, and breathing in the calm of country. This is home. In ’76 my son was born and I found this to be a wonderful place to raise a child. Friendly neighbors, good school, great kids, plenty of sports . . . . Why leave?”
And there’s only one meadow’s way to go
And I, and I say “Geronimo”
And there’s only one meadow’s way to go
And we say “Geronimo”
Those lines conclude Van Morrison’s “Fair Play” from Veedon Fleece, the reflective masterpiece recorded in 1974 after he moved to San Geronimo from Fairfax. Morrison and his Caledonia Soul Orchestra played a memorable school fundraiser at the Woodacre Improvement Club. One of Morrison’s neighbors was tabla master Zakir Hussain. Morrison “would come and hang out in the living room and just see what we were doing.” Hussain ended up playing on Morrison’s 1979 album Into the Music. Shortly thereafter, Morrison moved from his Meadow Way home (now owned by the Giacomini family) to England and Ireland.
Elvin Bishop, after three albums with the Chicago-based Paul Butterfield Blues Band, decided to become his own bandleader. He brought a house in Lagunitas in 1974, dismantled the deck outside his 1915-era hunting cabin, and used the wood to build a greenhouse. While he’s continued to tour the world and record his unique brand of blues ever since, locally Bishop is as renowned for his fishing and garden. His 2005 song “That’s My Thing” declares, “I raise a big ole garden because it really gets old eating that junk out on the road. You see I’m from the country and I know what I need. My home-grown tomatoes and potatoes and peas.” His 2014 album with its Bishop-esque title, Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, was recorded at his Hog Heaven Studio in Lagunitas. As Guitar World said, it’s “rousing, down-home, feel-good music.”
Many musicians have become active members of the community, most notably folk singer-songwriter Kate Wolf. She’d recorded four critically acclaimed albums when she married Terry Fowler and came to the Valley in 1982. The next year, she released her live Give Yourself to Love, and then decided to take a year off. She worked part-time as a production artist for the Point Reyes Light, and took classes, planned activities, and performed at the Community Center. In 1985, she was back on the road with a new album, Poet’s Heart. Her appearances on Prairie Home Companion and Austin City Limits gave her national exposure and increased her growing reputation and following.
In April 1986, Wolf was diagnosed with acute leukemia and underwent chemotherapy. After recovery and full remission, she compiled a retrospective of her recordings, Gold In California, before succumbing to the disease. Possibly the finest American folk singer/songwriter of her generation, Wolf created a musical and personal legacy for which she remains revered. She was the first musician inducted into the NAIRD Independent Music Hall of Fame. The annual Kate Wolf Music Festival in Laytonville features an eclectic mix of music from both up-and-coming acts and big-name stars inspired by Kate and her timeless music.
Since the heyday of the late 1960s and 1970s, the Valley has been a place where musicians often stay, content to live in a place they love. Woodacre resident and renowned jazz drummer Harold Jones (Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan) is “on call” for Tony Bennett, and leads workshops at colleges and universities around the country. Walt Dickson and the Sky Blue Band, and Sheri Cooper and Clancy Bounds (Cooper Bounds) forge their own music and release albums independently. Saxophone and flute master Shawkie Roth has released solo albums as well as recording with several artists, most notably Stephen Halpern. Roth is well known as one of the originators of New Age Music. His inspiration comes from the practice of meditation combined with a relaxed lifestyle and a spiritual consciousness. He is a frequent performer at Valley venues. Cooper and Bounds with their “original songs for the whole family” won the John Lennon songwriting contest in 2007 with “Jack Rabbit” from The Oh Oh Moon.
Tim Cain had dropped out of the Sons of Champlin in 1970, unable to reconcile “the beauty of my new agrarian life, and simultaneously leading the life of a rock star,” moved to a tree house at the end of Creamery Road, and then a commune in Northern California. In 1985, Cain “came back to the Valley with my terrific new wife Gay Cain and our son Bing, and have been living here ever since, glad to be back, and happy to be with you in one of the most lovely spots on Earth.” Tim began a new career as a children’s music artist with his “sing-along concerts for kids.” As anyone who’s attended any of his Valley performances can testify, Tim combines spontaneity with humor that entertains parents almost as much as their ecstatic children.
Some of those children have gone on to musical careers. Coot Wyman and Shayne Tolchin, childhood friends in San Geronimo, formed Mystic Roots while attending Chico State in 1996. Now based in Southern California, Mystic Roots continues building its ever-expanding following due to its live shows, international touring schedule, and the hit single “Summer Festival.” “Wyman and Mystic Roots returned to the Valley in August 2010 to play a rousing benefit performance at the Community Center. “I love the Valley with all of my bleeding heart,” says Wyman, “I can’t live there now with my touring but I plan on coming back to retire.” Using the open area between the Center building and school classrooms for the stage, numerous performers, along with Mystic Roots, have performed benefits for the Community Center. From the Summer of Love Festival hosted by Wavy Gravy, jamband masters Zero and Tea Leaf Green, and many others have given their talent and created memorable moments to the Center’s music-friendly setting and audience. In recent years, Valley keyboardist Michael McQuilkin has been hosting his “Family Music Hour,” using the Lagunitas School Multipurpose Room to provide a performance showcase for both talented up-and-coming Valley musicians and veterans, including Tim Cain, Kira Thelin, and Howie Cort.
One of those outdoor benefit performers was New Monsoon, whose incendiary live shows established their international reputation. Aside from their two officially released live albums, one can download their performances on Nugs.net. The band came together during the El Niño winter of 1997-98, when “Every day was a New Monsoon” according to co-founder Bo Carter. “That’d make a great band name,” replied guitarist Jeff Miller. Miller moved to the Valley in 2003, followed in 2005 by keyboardist Phil Ferlino. “While New Monsoon has been part of the jam band scene,” says Ferlino, their music synthesizes genres, “everything from bluegrass to reggae, and funk, with stylistic comparisons to world music, blues, bluegrass, and rock and roll.” In 2014, New Monsoon released Diamonds and Clay, which writer Dennis Cook said “affirms New Monsoon as torchbearers for rock & roll with something substantive to say about the human condition.” Recently, Ferlino and Miller joined the Kate Gaffney Band, which also features former New Monsoon drummer Marty Ylitalo, Valley bassist David Russ, and singer-songwriter Gaffney, for whom music “is all about the songs and the players.”
Saying something “about the human condition” inspired Miller and Ferlino’s other project, the Contribution, a “jamband supergroup.” They released Which Way World in 2011 and followed it in 2017 with Wilderness and Space. Ferlino says, “One single will be released each month starting in February, each for a different charity as our ‘Contribution.’ The entire collection of songs will then be released as a full length (ten song) album near the end of 2017.”
Singer-guitarist Jeremy D’antonio recalls how he came to the Valley. “My girlfriend and I went camping at Samuel P. Taylor Park. There was one of those crazy, torrential rainstorms and we fell in love with it. So we found a place to live in Woodacre. It’s magical to me.” While playing a festival with his band Tiny Television, he met singer-guitarist Darren Nelson. “We started talking and Darren said, ‘I live back in the redwoods.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, me, too.’”
“As we kept talking, I finally said, ‘I think we’re neighbors,’ recalls Nelson. “It turns out we live within 150 yards of each other.” They became good friends and also discovered a special musical chemistry. Tiny Television’s sound evolved into a new band they patriotically and poetically dubbed San Geronimo. Described by the San Francisco Bay Guardian as “hard charging Americana” the band’s two-and-a-half year residency at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads afforded them the perfect venue to hone their songs and sound. The result was their 2016 debut album Better Days, which prompted Paul Liberatore to write, “As this first album’s title suggests, there may be better days ahead for San Geronimo. But it’s doubtful that any band could come up with a better first album than this one.”
“I’ve always been able to keep up my music and be happily at home here,” says Terry Garthwaite. “The slow pace and comforting surroundings have drawn me into a calmer creative space. My music, my focus now is more geared toward helping others and making music communally.” In 1990, she and Barbara Andino-Stevenson created a children’s art program, “Sounds for Art.” Terry’s work evolved into exploring music’s healing nature, leading to the critically acclaimed Affirhythms in 1992 and, in 1998, Sacred Circles.
On Terry’s 2017 album, Shine On, she brings things full circle. Recorded in Atlanta and Sebastopol, the album features former Joy of Cooking bandmates Fritz Kasten on drums and brother David on bass, joined by David’s daughter Oona, a former “Sounds for Art” participant, contributing stunning vocals alongside her father and aunt. Terry’s longtime collaborator Becky Reardon adds guitar along with Kate Wolf’s masterful accompanist Nina Gerber. “In Sebastopol I recorded at Jeff Martin’s Studio E, an old transformed barn with chickens rooting around the edges. Lucky the rooster happened to be outside the studio door one afternoon just as I was finishing a song that ends ‘till the morning comes for you,’ and he crowed in perfect timing.”
Note: The Valley has long been home to dozens of musicians, writers, and artists. Due to space limitations, this article only touches on a small sampling of this rich and diverse musical community. Our sincere apologies for all omissions.