Villa Grande


Villa Grande is an unincorporated community in Monte Rio along the Russian River. How the name Villa Grande was born is a story unto itself.   In the very beginning, there was “Big Flat”, a patch of land filled with redwoods and owned by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, which ran along present-day Moscow Road. The logging boom started to fizzle out by the beginning of the twentieth century, causing NWPR to sell lots in the Big Flat area. A fourth-class post office was established under the title of “Mesa Grande”, a name which adorned the train depot as well (far left photo).       Unfortunately, there was another Mesa Grande located in the San Diego area, necessitating a change. The post office operated under the new moniker of “Grandville”, doing business out of a cubbyhole in the general store.  However, due to confusion with Grandeville in Tulare County, there was yet another adjustment. With a bit of linguistic trickery, “Grandville” was turned inside out to become “Villa Grande” and has remained such since 1921.   

Sidebar: In 1973, the post office (near left photo) was moved to the garage/workshop area of the general store owner’s private residence in order to create a private lobby and additional mailboxes.   It has remained at this site ever since.

 Vacationers from San Francisco would climb aboard the North Pacific Coast Railroad for the three-hour ride from Sausalito to their front door in Villa Grande. The community soon accommodated a hotel, firehouse, general store, post office, and numerous shingled cottages. 1910 was the first year that electricity arrived along with a windmill (near right photo), which supplied water to the cabins. It was dismantled in 1977 and given to a camp in Cazadero but the attached house still remains. With the revenue collected from their whist games, the good ladies of the village erected a sturdy windbreaker for the main beach each summer, which was located directly in front of the windmill.          Across the river was the Sherman House (known today as “The Chocolate House”…far right photo), which served as a hotel for those visiting Monte Cristo. This tourist locale extended from the Sherman House to present-day Monte Cristo Avenue near the Monte Rio Elementary School. This was the most popular party venue for residents of Villa Grande as it rightly laid claim to hosting the largest dance floor along the lower reaches of the Russian River


Cazadero – Part 1

    Silas Ingram (upper left photo) and his wife joined a wagon train bound for California in 1840. While crossing the plains, they were attacked by a warrior party of the Ute tribe.  The Ingrams walked over 100 miles to Salt Lake City where they caught transportation to San Francisco.  Soon thereafter, the family bought property in the hills north of the Russian River and built a hunting lodge (upper left photo) and a sawmill.  Today, that property is known as Lions Head Ranch.
         In 1869 Silas became the first post master of the nearby town, which was named Ingrams in honor of the family.   However, the mail was often not delivered on time or delivered at all.  That was because it was pilfered on a regular basis.  In an awkward twist of history, the culprit turned out to be Silas’s own son, Charles,  who later confessed to the crime and served eighteen months in jail. Silas Ingram died on June 8, 1900 and is buried at the Redwood Cemetery in Guerneville.
        In 2007 the entire town of Cazadero was for sale on the cheap. A similar occurrence happened in 1888. Despite being the rainiest place in the state (85 inches/year), the area has always had a certain appeal. This was true when George Simpson Montgomery (upper right photo) purchased Ingrams and changed its name to Cazadero, which is Spanish for “The Hunting Place”.
      At the time George was living at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and holding membership in the exclusive Bohemian Club. Probably due to peer pressure, he soon developed into a two-fisted drinker with a reputation for visiting the brothels of the City.   His wife ventured in the opposite direction, establishing a ministry.  Her book, Prayer of Faith, was translated into eight languages and sold over four hundred thousand copies.  A few years later her husband saw the evils of his ways and converted to Christianity.
       At the insistence of his wife, George attempted to convince the local ruffians of Cazadero to go dry. If one did not obey the new regulations, Montgomery blocked the person’s business activities with heavy tax penalties. I ask you, what kind of decent, civilized municipality would turn its back on a little fun? After all, the bible says that God works harder for sinners, right?

  The North Pacific Coast R.R. (upper left photos) ran from Sausalito to Cazadero via west Marin. Between Freestone and Occidental the train crossed the monstrous Browns Canyon Trestle, which at the time was the largest man-made structure west of the Mississippi.
           The broad gauge and narrow gauge met in Monte Rio before running down present-day Moscow Road and crossing the Russian River at Duncans Mills, continuing to Cazadero, etc. The local lumber industry helped rebuild San Francisco and Santa Rosa after the 1906 earthquake.  It is also said that redwood pilings from the mills were used as foundations for the Bay Bridge.
           Mishaps along the line were plentiful.  George Montgomery’s insistence that the town go dry might have initiated a protest in 1894 when Engine No. 9 was hijacked by its crew and others in Duncans Mills with the intent of a party-run to Cazadero. The train never reached its destination, plunging into Austin Creek while attempting to cross the trestle at Elim Grove (upper right photo) . 
           Ten days later a local Native American shaman joined the search for missing persons.  He affixed a candle to a board and sent it on its way downstream.   In an eddy of tangled brush, the remains of seven men were discovered.  Booze and religion have never been good bed partners.
         On September 17, 1923, a moonshine still blew up, igniting a blaze that roared through the lumber mills from Guerneville to Jenner.  With the lumber trade on the fritz, passenger service had to pick up the slack.  The Northwestern Pacific Railroad offered “dollar days” on weekends with a roundtrip fare of $1.25 between the City and the River. 
          The Depression soon arrived with the NWP running over a million dollars in the red. The last train out of Cazadero was on July 31, 1933, followed by the Guerneville line two years later. Locals mobbed the passenger cars for the final ride and partied to the next stop. Some inebriated souls, however, lost track of time (and consciousness)  to find themselves at the terminus in Sausalito.  Or so the story goes.  

Black Bart (Charles Boles) robbed the Wells Fargo & Co. stagecoaches on twenty-nine different occasions.  Two of these holdups were near the Russian River.  One was just west of the town of Duncans Mills.  The second was north of Jenner at Meyers Grade on August 3, 1877, where Black Bart made his demands in a civil, gentlemanly manner accompanied by a double-barreled shotgun.  He tucked away the $300 in cash and tossed the following poem into the strongbox: “I’ve labored long and hard for bread / For honor and for riches / But on my corns too long you’ve tread / You fine-haired sons of bitches.”
             It is said that he hid out that night at a barn (the refurbished version can be seen on present-day Hwy. 116 at Sheridan Ranch) before heading into Guerneville.  At a future holdup, he left behind a handkerchief with a laundry mark, which led to his ultimate downfall.  Charles Boles served over four years in San Quentin Prison before being released in 1888. 
            Upon his release, Black Bart was asked if he would rob stages again. He said no.  The reporter continued and queried whether or not the infamous poet had any more verses up his sleeve.  His response was: “Young man, didn’t you hear me say that I wasn’t going to commit any more crimes?”
            Alice Adams Dahl’s research states that Black Bart never rode a horse.  He always walked.
              Perri Paniagua recalls that for over sixty years her relatives had told her that the name “Elim” is “mile” spelled backward, the distance from town.   Others say that George Montgomery’s wife gleaned the name from the Bible.  Exodus 15:27: “And Moses came to Elim where there were twelve wells of water…”  Scholars interpret Elim as being “The Place of Refreshing”.
             Cheatham Jethro remembers as a local getting booted from the Boy Scout swimming hole on many occasions.

Communes of Sonoma County

Morning Star Ranch   


      Morning Star Ranch, a.k.a. Morningstar Commune and The Diggers Farm,  was a rural commune in west Sonoma County between the towns of Occidental and Sebastopol.  Its founder was Lou Gottleib of The Limeliters music group.  Tired of the corporate rat race, he “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out”.  He coined the acronym LATWIDNO (Land Access To Which Is Denied No One).  They preached that if you told no one to leave, that the land would select who should live on it. 
          The domiciles at Morning Star Ranch were of a wide variety of shapes and sizes, made of various materials ranging from reclaimed wood to canvas to plastic to glass.  Each had its own unique personality and earthly appeal, reflecting that of its residents.   Everything from a geodesic dome to a tree house could be found here.

Side Bars
         The Limeliters were an American folk music group formed in 1959 consisting of Lou Gottleib (bass violin/bass), Alex Hassiley (banjo/baritone), and Glenn Yarbrough (guitar/tenor).  They disbanded in 1965 and reunited again in 1981, but the death of Lou Gottleib four years later was a great loss to the group.  Glenn Yarbrough went on to become a successful solo artist until his demise last year. 
       They recorded over thirty albums with such hit singles as “The Midnight Special” and “A Hundred Men”.  Their autobiographical son, “Acres of Limeliters”, noted the activity of the members while they had been apart including the line “…while Lou played Executive Hippie at his Morningstar groupie rest home.”
         The phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was the creation of Timothy Leary.  He was a psychologist who conducted experiments with LSD while teaching at Harvard.  He was fired for “failure to keep classroom appointments”.  During the sixties and seventies, he was arrested often enough to see the inside of a prison on 36 different occasions.  President Nixon once described him as “the most dangerous man in America”.


        The Diggers were a radical community-activist group.  They were anarchists with close ties to the guerrilla theater group known as the San Francisco  Mime Troupe, which was headed up by Peter Coyote and managed by Bill Graham.  The Diggers believed in a system of bartering where medical, clothing, food and music could be distributed freely.  To help with the dispersal of these goods and services, the outfit relied on the cooperation of Sonny Barger and his Hells Angles. 
           With over a hundred thousand teens, vets, and whackos descending upon the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love in 1967, much of the above goods were in short supply.  To help alleviate this problem, Morning Star Ranch grew fruits and vegetables for the masses back in the City with the understanding that the Diggers would care for the crops at the commune.

Side Bars:  
          Peter Coyote starred in such films as Jagged Edge, Outrageous Fortune, Erin Brockovich, and A Walk to Remember.  He has said that he is a Zen Buddhist first, an actor second.
           Sonny Barger is the founder of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels.  He became known as the “guardian angel” of the Haight Ashbury, helping with the transportation of food from Morningstar to San Francisco as well as providing free security for music concerts.  Many believe this was a cover for his operation’s control of the LSD trade in the City.
        Bill Graham held an arrangement with Morningstar for their Gravenstein apples.  If he aided the Diggers with the maintenance of the orchard, he could have all the apples he wanted.  The fruit had special meaning for him.  It was the one thing that kept him alive as he fled from the Nazis in World War II as a ten-year-old.  Apples were a standard giveaway at his Fillmore Auditorium concerts, a private tribute to his survival.

  The thirty acre commune of Lou Gottleib drew young people who sought freedom from convention, government and parents.  They wanted to “get back to the land” where they could escape the rigidity of mainstream America.   Most sported full tans as clothing was optional.  People gravitated into groups, which became “neighborhoods” with their own special flavor.  There were families of few and many, singles and couples.  All these could change in a heartbeat and often did.
          The ranch existed in this state for a short time (1967-1972).  In an attempt to ward off the many threats from his neighbors, Lou Gottleib willed his land to God.  After all, who ever heard of God paying taxes?  A series of court appeals culminated in the 9th District Court ruling that God had no property rights in the state of California.  Sonoma County finally placed a permanent injunction, forbidding anyone but members of the Gottleib family from living at Morningstar.

Side Bars: 
           The county proceeded to bulldoze the structures at Morningstar on three different occasions all at Lou Gottleib’s expense.  He was held in “contempt of court” for not telling the commune residents to leave, earning him $14,000 in fines as well as a week in jail.
            Morning Star Ranch is currently up for sale by the Gottleib heirs.  They are seeking someone who would like to purchase the land and donate the acreage to a local land trust.

Attributions & Asides:

       A special thank you is due to anonymous subscribers for sharing their memories of Morning Star Ranch.   Also, a note of appreciation goes to the following individuals and organizations: Marsee Henon, Friends of Rio Nido ( Card Cow Vintage Postcards (, Sonoma County Historical Society, Russian River Historical Society, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and Wikipedia.
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