Bill Lynch: Old buildings stir memories

I have this habit, annoying to my family, of offering unsolicited historical trivia about places we pass while walking or driving. This happens even while Dottie and I are out walking in our neighborhood. I see an old house and vivid memories of the family who once lived there pop into my head, compelling me to share it with whoever will listen. Most of the time, she’s the only one available.

Stories in the Sonoma Index-Tribune sometimes have the same effect. But my correspondent’s job lets Dottie off the hook and allows me to share the trivia with the I-T’s vast audience in the Valley of the Moon.

Such was the case with a few stories in the paper this month, including the one on the front page of the Aug. 21 edition announcing that Sonoma’s first and lone marijuana dispensary is going to be located on Highway 12 at the restaurant site known most recently as El Gallo Pinto.

Before it was El Gallo Pinto, it was a different Mexican restaurant under a different name. But for me, and probably a few other old-timers left in town, it will always be “Sonoma Grove,” an Italian restaurant that dates back to the beginning of the last century.

Over the decades before Sonoma’s Plaza became loaded with restaurants, Sonoma Grove was a place that on any given night you could find a lot of your friends and neighbors dining. It was also a venue for large celebrations like anniversaries and receptions. At various times, the local Kiwanis Club and other service clubs met there.

The name, Sonoma Grove, is so old, I can’t find any reference to how it came to be. I assume that it’s location, next to Sonoma Creek, meant there was a large grove of oak trees there when it was first built.

I don’t believe that in their wildest dreams the adults of my parent’s generation, or mine, could have imagined that the kind of grove associated with its soon-to-be occupant would be of a different leafy species entirely.

The other stories which prompted a historical flashback this month were the two regarding buildings located at the end of West Napa Street where it bends north and becomes Sonoma Highway.

The first was about the fire at the Napa Auto Parts building reported on Aug. 7, and the second was about Cinnamon Bear B&B being for sale.

Both used to be part of a business and residential property owned by the Robert Farrell family.

It started in 1928 when Robert, who was a stagecoach driver over Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, moved his family to that creek-side property. In 1934, Robert, and a friend, Irving Nelson, decided to open a lumber mill on that property, opening their doors as “Sonoma Mill and Lumber Company.” A year later Robert bought out his partner and eventually his son, Dale, took over the business. Dale’s daughter, Gail, was a classmate of mine all the way through elementary and high school. Her brother, Bob, eventually took over the business and it grew so successful that, in 1979, the Farrells built a large new lumber and hardware building at the Four Corners (Napa Road and Broadway).

In 1985, Bob sold the business to Yaeger and Kirk, but that company went bankrupt in 1993 and Friedman Brothers moved into that site and has been there ever since.

Meanwhile, back at the old lumber yard, other businesses moved into the barns, the latest being Napa Auto Parts, and the old Farrell family home became a bed and breakfast inn.

People sometimes ask me if Sonoma has changed during my lifetime. The answer is, of course it has. But whenever I walk or drive by an old place, the people who lived or worked there are just as alive and thriving there in my memory as though it was yesterday.

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