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Bill Lynch: Eldridge passes into history

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For Sonoma Valley old-timers like me, it is still hard to believe that Eldridge’s Sonoma Developmental Center will be no more by the end of this year: The last residents will be moved out.

Where once was a bustling little community in which many of our fellow Sonomans earned a living will become a virtual ghost town, while the state and community decides what to do with the facilities.

The 1,670-acre initial parcel was purchased from former Sen. William McPherson Hill for $51,000 and, by June of 1890, the first contracts for buildings there were awarded.

From the beginning, its founders intended it to be more than a place where mentally retarded children were merely kept and cared for. It was for their training in vocational skills. The institution adopted the idea that “occupation is one of the best mental tonics known.”

Its children began their school day at 9 a.m. with activities that one would have seen in most schools of the day. Classes taught included geography, U.S. History, spelling, embroidery and band music.

Over the decades, the laws governing the institution and care of people with developmental disabilities have changed and evolved. Its name somewhat reflected those changes. It began as the California Home for the Care and Training of Feebleminded Children; it then became Sonoma State Home, then Sonoma State Hospital, and finally Sonoma Developmental Center.

As late as the 1960s, it cared for more than 3,400 patients and employed nearly 2,000 people, most of them Sonoma Valley residents. Many were friends of my family whose children were my classmates.

For a time it was the largest of the state’s developmental centers. It had a budget approaching $100 million a year with more than $60 million spent on salaries alone. It was a big economic force in Sonoma Valley’s economy. During the latter part of the 20th Century, its residents also contributed to the work force in the Valley with many local businesses employing residents through SDC’s Sunrise Industries Corporation.

I remember Eldridge as a bustling little town with its own store, coffee shop, laundry farm and dairy, school and fire departments. Back in the day, when I helped my dad deliver bundles of the Sonoma Index-Tribune for resale to dozens of small stores from Kenwood to Schellville, one of our stops was always the Eldridge store. We sold lots of copies of the I-T there in those days.

The SDC of the last decade and a half bears little resemblance to that vibrant village of my youth. My friends who worked there have all retired or moved on. The higher-functioning residents were moved out to regional centers, and only the severely compromised clients remain. All of the people and activities that made it a real community are gone, and only the shell, including the classically designed early buildings, remain as reminders of those old days.

I don’t know if those who resided there were better off then than people with similar handicaps who are residents of smaller, less centralized, regional facilities today. But I do remember that it seemed to be a real community in which the clients were productive citizens and participants.

I also remember the many fellow Sonomans who earned a decent living there and were active and productive citizens in greater Sonoma Valley.

As it passes into history, I can only hope something as good for our Valley of the Moon will rise in its place.