Sonoma County Farm Once Fed Region’s Poorest Residents

Written By: Katherine J. Rinehart
Published: July 1, 2020

The “Chanate property” is in the news again as the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors plan to put this prime piece of Santa Rosa real estate on the market – again. What’s not in the news is that this property was once occupied by a farm that fed some of the county’s poorest residents and grew grapes used in wine and brandy produced by Isaac DeTurk during the late 19th century.

The 71-acre parcel located on Chanate Road is packed with history. Not only is the property associated with a 1930s hospital and tuberculosis sanatorium, both funded by Public Works Administration (PWA) grants and designed by local architect, John D. Easterly, but it also includes the site of the Sonoma County’s second hospital and a farm.  

Since 2014, when Sutter Health vacated the former hospital buildings and relocated to a new facility on Mark West Springs Road, the property has sat nearly vacant and allowed to deteriorate.

How is it that this property, considered a liability rather than an asset, came to be owned by the County?

It started in the 1870s when plans to replace Sonoma County’s first hospital on Humboldt Street in Santa Rosa came about. In 1874, the Board of Supervisors found their site and paid L.A. Murdock $5,000 for a 100-acre parcel in what was then known as Pleasant Valley. There the Sonoma County Hospital was built which acquired the nickname “County Poor Farm”, because the lands around the hospital produced crops that fed the inmates, as the patients were called, who were poor and infirmed.

There is much to share about the history of the hospital, its inmates, those who are buried in its cemetery; the associated poorhouse and those employed to manage the whole operation during its 80-year existence, but for the purposes of this article I’ll focus on the farm.

Crops and livestock raised on the farm not only meant food for the hospital and poorhouse, but also generated an income that helped to defray costs associated with providing housing and medical services to the county’s indigent. 

The farm was managed by contractors appointed by the Board of Supervisors and were called County Farm Superintendent. Superintendents planted commercial crops based on the soil and markets available to them, often following the lead of local farmers, but also from the Board of Supervisors themselves as noted in an article from the Sonoma Democrat dated December 16, 1882.

At the December 7th board meeting farm superintendent, Jerry Claypool, was authorized to plant out from 10 to 15 acres of vines of such varieties as may be ordered by the supervisors. The ground was to be plowed twice, and put in the best possible condition for setting out vines. Holes were to be planted twelve inches deep, and the ground kept, well cultivated for one year, for the sum of $17 per acre.

Reports filed by the farm superintendents with the Board of Supervisors offer a wealth of information about what was raised on the farm. For example, an annual report states what was on hand as of November 1887 as 250 pounds of lard, 50 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds of pickled pork, 85 gallons canned fruit, consisting of peaches, pears, and tomatoes. Dried peaches, prunes, apples, plums and sweet corn, about 400 pounds of onions, 2,200 potatoes, 100 gallons of vinegar, 100 pounds snap peas, 300 pounds Le Grande sweet corn from seed, 1,000 pounds yellow field corn, with cabbage, turnips, beets, parsnips and carrots in the garden.

Livestock consisted of three horses, one bull, five cows, three heifers, one young calf, and 33 hogs.

Zinfandel grapes were sold to Ben Arata (12 tons), Lay, Clark & Company (10 tons) and Mr. Bowlie (13 tons). N. Bacigalupi bought nearly five tons of mission grapes.

In 1888, the vineyard at the county farm yielded 60 tons of grapes of which 46 tons were sold to the Isaac DeTurk Winery. Also, in 1888, the farm produced 600 pounds of tobacco.

The State Viticulture Commission listed the Sonoma County Poor Farm in its 1891 directory of Grape Growers, Wine Makers and Distillers as producing 45 tons of Zinfandel and mixed grapes on 22 acres.

In January 1902, the farm produced 46 tons of hay, 10 tons of pumpkins, 25 tons of beets, 2,080 pounds of dry onions, 1,000 pounds of lima beans, 80 pounds of soup beans, six barrels of sauerkraut, 10 tons of tomatoes. Lettuce, parsnips, radishes, cabbage, table beets, new onions, sweet corn and melons in abundance were raised during the season. The farm yielded only 6 ¾ tons of grapes due to two killing frosts and phylloxera. The yield four years previous of 63 tons sold for nearly $1,500. The 1901 crop sold for $162. 

By 1925 the net cost of conducting the Sonoma County Hospital and Farm was $24,000, making the per capita per inmate per day $.587. 

Although, the farm was doing well in the 1920s, the hospital was not. More than one grand jury found the county hospital to be an antiquated, inadequate and a firetrap. Even after the rehabilitation of some buildings in 1923, many in the community called for a new hospital that could meet the demands of a growing population.

In 1931, the Board of Supervisors set aside $100,000 to be put toward the cost of a new hospital and by 1936, with 45% of the expense covered by a PWA grant, construction began on a new county hospital. In 1966 the name was changed to Community Hospital of Sonoma County.

The old hospital, renamed Hillcrest at some point, remained on the property serving as the chronic ward until it was demolished in 1956 by which time the farm was long gone.

The Board of Supervisors voted to abandon the county farm on September 14, 1937 claiming that its continued maintenance was an unnecessary expense. On November 1, 1937, an auction was held. The sale of all farm equipment and livestock totaled $4,075.

Today, the only things to suggest there was ever a farm on this site is the County Farm Drive road sign located off Chanate Road just past the Coroner’s Office which by the way is built onto a powerhouse that was constructed in 1911 to serve the hospital laundry and other facilities; remnants of building foundations, rock walls and the Chanate Historic Cemetery marker.

As the Chanate property is re-development there is an opportunity to acknowledge past uses of the site through interpretative exhibits. Some of the existing buildings can be repurposed taking advantage of federal historic preservation tax credits. An agricultural component seems likely. Housing will definitely be a part of any plans and community gardens would surely be welcome and in keeping with the history of the site. Time will tell.

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