The Future is Up to Us.
Bill Lynch: ‘Impossible’ dreams come true in Sonoma
SONOMA, Calif.—August 2, 2018
I had the opportunity recently to take a small group of friends from out of town on an informal tour of downtown Sonoma. I brought along some photos from my family archives to help illustrate what Sonoma was like a century or more ago, and how that compares to today.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any photos of the Castagnasso property (aka Mission Bell Farm), or its Clydesdale horses, from that far back, but in my opinion it is the closest thing we have downtown that bears any resemblance to old Sonoma.
A valiant effort is underway, led by the Blue Wing Adobe Trust, to raise the millions of dollars needed to buy and preserve it as a bucolic community treasure.
It is a monumental undertaking that will be successful if virtually everybody in our community gets behind it.
The effort, in size, scope and degree of difficulty is not without precedent, and compares with the Plaza improvement project undertaken more than a century ago by the founders of the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Sonoma’s Plaza was considerably less than bucolic. It was butt ugly – a desolate, dusty, overgrazed wasteland.
The photo below confirms that opinion.
In an era in which women could not vote or serve in local government and using only their wits, energy and power of persuasion they launched an audacious plan to not only beautify the Plaza but to make it the city’s civic center.
Many Sonomans, especially the men in charge of local government, thought it couldn’t be done; that it was unrealistic and way too expensive.
But the women would not be denied. They persisted, winning converts one arm twist at a time, and holding bake sales, picnics, carnivals and workdays.
Even the city fathers were persuaded to get on board their bandwagon.
By 1909, almost 10 years after they got started and after a lengthy setback caused by the 1906 earthquake, the Sonoma City Hall was completed at the Plaza’s center, and the women had already been carrying on the landscaping and tree-planting that was part of their plan.
The photo on the next page is a copy of an old postcard showing Sonoma’s City Hall shortly after it opened with numerous trees already visible, plus a stone fountain, funded by the Woman’s Club, approximately where the big palm tree is today.
The Woman’s Club members continued to work and raise money for more improvements, including the newer fountain and pond that still exists today in front of city hall. They were the leaders in the starting and staffing of the Carnegie Library, and in the planting out of the landscape plans they helped pay for.
My all-time favorite Plaza photo was taken in 1956 by Richard O’Neil, Sonoma’s pre-eminent photographer for several decades until his retirement in 1987. It was shot in the early morning sunrise, looking east from the southwest quadrant along the part of the Plaza that fronts Napa Street.
The lovely serenity of our plaza as O’Neil captured it (above) more than a half century ago, can still be enjoyed if you get up with the sunrise and stroll downtown.
Our plaza today exists because of what was accomplished by a small, determined band of Sonomans, mostly women, many yesterdays ago. They did what many said couldn’t be done.