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Musings: 'The women of my Sonoma history'

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In March of 1980, President Jimmy Carter established National Women’s History Week, which has become the entire month of March.

He stated that throughout our history men and women have worked together to build our nation but, “too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed.”

“But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well,” said then-President Carter.

Every time I take a stroll around the Plaza I am reminded of the woman in my life whose achievements are responsible for the preservation of many institutions in our town that most of us take for granted – among them our Plaza, the Mission and the Barracks, not to mention the the Sonoma Index-Tribune.

That strong, determined and courageous woman was my grand aunt Celeste G. Murphy.

The oldest of three daughters of my great grandfather Harry H. Granice, the editor and publisher of the Sonoma Index-Tribune from 1884 until his death in 1915, my Aunt Celie was, from an early age, an advocate for civic improvements and preservation of local historical sites.

Shortly after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1901 and long before she became editor and publisher of the Index-Tribune, she and her mother, Kate Granice, were among the founders of the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club. They immediately made civic improvement their primary purpose.

The Plaza, which had been laid out by Gen. Vallejo in the 1830s, was in 1901 little more than a trampled, dusty cow pasture with a few dilapidated buildings. The new women’s organization, which rapidly grew to 75 members, decided the Plaza must be turned from the eyesore it had become to a source of civic pride. It took them nearly 10 years, and lots of lobbying of the men running local government, but they succeeded.

The event that set the tone for future community engagement happened in 1909, when the women’s club sponsored a “Sonoma Day,” during which the town turned out in force to work all day on a Saturday on the Plaza. Business owners, workers, and residents grabbed shovels, rakes and wagons, leveled the land so a lawn could be planted, and paths improved. They picnicked that day in the shade of trees planted in the Plaza previously by the women’s club.

The same group with Aunt Celie leading the way, lobbied successfully for restoration of the Sonoma Mission, which was collapsing into ruins from years of neglect, abuse, weather and the 1906 earthquake.

The Woman’s Club led the founding and completion of Sonoma’s library in the Plaza (now headquarters of the Visitors Bureau).

Aunt Celie became editor and publisher of the I-T when great grandpa Harry died in 1915. Like her late father, she was a feisty editorial writer who led fights for improvements in the city’s water system, fire protection, improvements in civic services, the Plaza and for the repeal of prohibition and the support of the local wine industry.

She and her husband Walter, also purchased the old Sonoma Barracks in the 1930s, and restored them to the original design of General Vallejo. They turned the second story into an apartment home, in which they lived until their deaths in 1962, at which time their property was left to the State of California.

Aunt Celie also wrote “The People of the Pueblo,” the first history book on the founding of Sonoma.

Well into retirement by the time I got to know her, she was a warm and gracious person who hosted our family Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays at her museum-like home in the Barracks. She loved fresh-caught trout, which I would proudly deliver to her during the local season.

A close friend of Charmian London, who wrote the forward to her book, she was well read and had an encyclopedic knowledge of local history. It was through my Aunt Celie that I truly came to appreciate the rich heritage of our community.

Her contributions to Sonoma Valley live on in so many ways that I don’t need to wait for Women’s History Month to think of her. All it takes is a pleasant stroll around our Plaza.