Learn local: Five questions for Lynn Downey

Author and historian Lynn Downey will discuss her book “A Short History of Sonoma” on Friday, February 14 at Sonoma’s Depot Park Museum. In the 2 p.m. lecture, Downey will share interesting stories and historical facts turned up by her research, along recollections of old-time Sonoma residents as well. The museum is located one block north of Sonoma Plaza, adjacent to the Arnold Field parking lot. 938-1762.

The Sun got a preview of the event with mini-interview this week with Downey

Sun: Did you grow up in Sonoma?
Lynn Downey: I actually grew up here as a visitor. My sister and I were raised in Marinwood, but our grandparents lived in Sonoma. Our great-great grandparents were the first to move to Sonoma, in 1913, as a matter of fact. Anyway, we came to Sonoma frequently for family events and just to visit the old folks, and from my earliest memories, Sonoma meant history. I always loved history, and when I was very little my parents would take me through the mission, Vallejo’s home, into the old buildings around the Plaza, the old library, etc.

As soon as I was old enough, I did this all on my own, absorbing the history that all of these sites contained. And my grandparents told me stories of living in Sonoma since the 1920s, which always fascinated me. Grandma worked at the old creamery across from the Mission during World War II. My grandfather worked as a troubleshooter for PG&E for 50 years, even going out to Jack London’s Beauty Ranch to help Charmian London during power outages. I credit my young life in town with forming my decision to become a historian.

Sonoma was always fun. I loved the Vintage Festival, and dressed up in historical clothing to attend with my grandmother. I wandered through the big cactus garden behind the mission. I took winery tours and to this day the smell of a winery is my favorite scent in the whole world.

It was a place where there was history, family, and a peaceful modern pace of life. It’s why I now live in town myself.

Sun: What got you started on the ‘Short History’ book?
LD: I knew the editor of the series, which had just been started by the University of Nevada Press. They already had books about Nevada, and I pitched Sonoma to the editor, Matt Becker, when he was looking to start a series about California cities. He had never been to Sonoma, so when he was in the area for a conference, I took him to dinner at the Swiss Hotel and we sealed the deal. I’ve been eating at that historic restaurant since I was a toddler, so I thought it was an appropriate place to talk about history. And my grandmother worked at the hotel as a maid in the 1920s, so there’s even more personal history there.

Sun: Any big surprises along the way?
LR: I didn’t know that much about the indigenous people of the area, so doing research and finding that there were four tribelets/peoples who had lived in the Valley was a pleasant surprise. Linking this information with the names inscribed on the monument outside the mission made for some very moving moments during the writing of my book.
I also didn’t know how many times the Plaza had been “beautified” over the decades, and how for many years it was, as my grandmother described it, “…a hayfield with a trough to water your horses.”

Sun: What are a few facts and tidbits that locals don’t even know about Sonoma?
LD: Long time residents might know that El Verano was home to a movie colony for awhile in the early 1920s. A man named Josh Binney, who filmed a silent movie in town in 1923, was eventually arrested and sent to the slammer in Montana for defrauding people all over the Valley.

And folks who haven’t spent time at Jack London State Park might not know how deeply London was involved in what was called “scientific farming.” He even tried growing Luther Burbank’s spineless cactus, thinking it would make great cattle feed. But that didn’t work out.

Most people know that Chuck Williams started his Williams-Sonoma empire right here in town. But did you know that the kitchen of his Broadway hardware store blew up in 1956?

Sun: What are some of your favorite Sonoma places?
LD: I still love the historic sites. The Mission, barracks, Vallejo’s home, the Blue Wing Inn. I go there with visitors, I go there if I just need a new infusion of history to enrich my life. And Jack London State Park is very dear to my heart. While London was an amazing writer and farmer, I think about Charmian London when I am up there. She was his equal in courage, in commitment, and on the page. She helped keep the Beauty Ranch alive, and lived here until she died. She was a strong, independent woman and could have lived wherever she wanted, but she chose to live in the Valley. And anyone who lives in Sonoma knows why.

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