"Nature is the medium in which life transpires,"
Scott Russel Sanders on Wendell Berry.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day 5: Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park

27 May, 2011

Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park

The second try is the charm. My first excursion to Petaluma Adobe State Historic park took place on a Saturday; unfortunately, the park only opens on weekdays due to staffing shortages. Here is an important note if you plan on visiting the park (and, of course) I suggest you do: the park will be open only on the weekends from10-5 pm beginning in June.

The park is two miles off of Lakeville Highway in Petaluma and is near to a suburban neighborhood and school at the edge of the classic Sonoma County landscape complete with rolling hills and oak woodland.

The parking and picnic area are situated slightly below the main residence of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the central feature of the park. A little bridge crosses a stream before the wide path ascends to the main attraction.

My knowledge about the history of California is limited predominantly to natural history, and I am grateful for the chance to catch up on some lessons of human history here. I wandered through the doorway marked “ENTRADA” in yellow. A beautifully constructed historical display greeted me. Being a kinesthetic person I enjoyed the chance to touch the Mexican saddle and sheep pelt on display. I lived next door to sheep for some time, but never got the opportunity to touch one. Their wool is surprisingly soft.

I entered the main courtyard to pay my fee to tour the park, and met the Park Interpreter Phil who kind enough to chat with me a while. Phil began as volunteer docent 1991 and has been a park employee now for 15 years. Phil is a true storyteller with a pleasing pace, and gestures that leave his audience hanging on each word. He wanted specifically to work at Petaluma Adobe, but I didn’t get a chance to ask him why as a group of school kids arrived for a tour. I got the impression that he is a history buff and that I just barley chipped the surface of what he knows.

No one knows how Vallejo got water to the residence Phil told me. There are several theories and historians argue about it which should please them as I don’t know a historian, scientist or other academic that doesn’t like to engage in a fervent debate.

One theory holds that Vallejo engaged the young Indian boys who lived along the stream that now runs past the parking lot to bring water up the hill in buckets. This would have been an extremely labor intensive and daily routine, especially considering that there may have been 30 to 40 people living in the residence, a blacksmith, and cooks all needing water. I can attest to the grueling nature of hauling buckets of water up (and downhill) as I volunteered at the then newly relocated Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue. The rescue is situate on a steep hill and because it was still under construction the only water spigots were at the top of the hill and thus the hauling of water which often took me four or more hours to supply a few dozen animals.

The second theory is that Vallejo had a well constructed at the residence, yet there is no evidence for this with one exception. A woman and long time resident of the area who had frequented the park told my guide that a staircase once ran from the area near the office of the park to the second floor landing, and that there was a well at the base of the staircase. During the restoration of the building, workers found fired brick in the spot where the well was said to have been located; however, these bricks date to the recent American period. It is likely that the bricks were used to cover the well or even fill it, but I guess we will have to leave it to the historians to duke it out.

Not far from the residence a young relative of Vallejo, decided to engage a grizzly bear in a solitary rodeo. Common practice of the day was to rope grizzlies in groups as both sport and self defense, but they did not do this alone. A grizzly bear is an extremely formidable foe and can run as fast as a horse. “Image what would happen if you only roped one foot” Phil said. I cringed. Regardless of the potential danger the young man, an expert horseman, charged the grizzly; the bear charged back then dropped out of sight and the ground dropped out of sight. An angry frightened man, horse, and grizzly found themselves together in a ravine. Legend has it that the bear climbed out first with the assistance of the man who gave its rear end a mighty shove!

We are lucky to have storytellers like Phil to keep and restore this knowledge to our memories and culture. The stories provide us with a cultural and personal identity that moves through both space and time. I am so grateful to him for sharing his extensive knowledge with me.

Petaluma Adobe sponsors several historic events throughout the year, and has a resident burro and horse who I caught taking a siesta.

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