Holidays at the Barracks

My earliest childhood memories of holidays in Sonoma were centered in the Sonoma Barracks, which was the home of my grand-aunt and uncle, Celeste and Walter Murphy, until their passing in 1962.

Aunt Celie was the editor and publisher of the Index-Tribune until her retirement in 1949. Both she and my uncle Walter were great collectors of antiques, old paintings and historical artifacts. Their home on the second floor of the barracks was a virtual museum.

It was in my aunt’s dining room that our family spent many Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners. Everyone dressed up, and I was expected to be on my best behavior because my mom worried I’d break something.

Guests at these holiday gatherings included R.R. “Dal” Emparan, grandson of Gen. Vallejo; Henri Maysonnave, whose Maysonnave house is now home to the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation, and Jerry Casson, the primary founder of Vintage House senior center.

I was way too young to remember, but I understand that Gen. Hap Arnold and his wife Eleanor (Bea) were also guests for some of these holiday dinners, as was Louisa Emparan, Gen. Vallejo’s last surviving daughter.

Aunt Celie was an excellent cook and her holiday tables were always set with fine china, crystal and silver, all of which had a history behind it.

Served in courses, dinners often went on for two or more hours, with lots of conversation and story telling.

Aunt Celie, Uncle Walter and most of their guests were children of the late 19th century. They knew Jack and Charmian London and several of the original Bear Flaggers.

They did business with Samuele Sebastiani and August Pinelli, the Eraldis, the Marionis (who operated the Swiss Hotel), and John Steiner, who ran the saloon at the old Union Hotel (where Bank of America is now).

Although I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, their stories of old Sonoma became lifelong reference points for my sense of community and my appreciation of Sonoma’s rich heritage.

My grand-aunt, Julia Granice Sprague, also came up from San Francisco to join us. Aunt Julie had been a performer in the San Francisco Light Opera for many years, and still had a beautiful soprano voice.

After Christmas Eve dinner, Aunt Celie played the piano and we’d all gather around to sing carols. While I loved participating in all the singing, I especially loved “Jingle Bells,” because my aunt was also a collector of antique bells and let me keep rhythm with a long strip of sleigh bells still attached to an old harness.

The evening’s music would usually end with Aunt Julie singing “Oh Holy Night.”

To this day, after decades of Christmas holidays listening to many renditions of that song, I still believe Aunt Julie’s was the best.

Of course, there was an exchange of Christmas gifts, after which it was usually late into the evening, and I was beginning to fade.

I would be allowed to leave the adults to their conversation, go back to the guest bedroom in which there was a giant, antique, four-poster bed that seemed like it was six feet off the floor, on which I fell fast asleep.

Sadly, there are no old photos of those family holidays in the barracks, but the pictures live on in my memory. My parents carried on the tradition at our home for many years after the Murphys had passed away, and Henri and Jerry were always part of those evenings. The barracks have been restored to a stark and barren reality that probably reflects Vallejo’s earliest days there. But I enjoy sharing my memories of a slightly later time when it was a vibrant, historically rich and warm home to my grand aunt and uncle.