The Seeds of Sonoma County’s Third Largest City

Written By: Katherine Rinehart
Published: January 4, 2021

Waldo Emmerson Rohnert was already an established pioneer in the seed industry when he leased 500 acres from the Cotati Land Company in 1930. This initial Sonoma County investment would grow to become part of the largest wholesale seed company in the United States, and eventually the site of Sonoma County’s third-largest city.

Seed growing was nothing new to Waldo Rohnert, a native of Detroit and graduate of the Michigan Agricultural College; he moved to San Benito County, California in 1897, where he worked for the C. C. Morse Seed Company. After a few years, he began purchasing ranches in the Santa Clara and Sacramento Valleys and founded his own seed company headquartered in Hollister. 

In January of 1931, Rohnert bought an additional 700 acres from the Cotati Land Company and continued to acquire more acreage as demand for his seeds increased. By 1933, his holdings included 4000 acres of seed land, 1000 acres of orchards, and extensive grazing land for cattle. He was also heavily involved with the American Seed Growers and Seed Dealers Association, the California Fruit Growers’ Association, and the Pacific States Seed Growers’ Association.

Following Waldo Rohnert’s death in 1933, his 22-year-old son Fred took over management of the Waldo Rohnert Seed Company and, along with his mother Edna and sister Dorothy, continued to grow the empire. Like his father, Fred ran the business from Hollister, making frequent visits to the Sonoma County property in a plane he landed on the seed farm’s private airstrip. By 1955 the Rohnert family owned 3,300 acres in what was known as the Cotati and Wilfred districts.

The seed farm’s labor force during the 1930s and 1940s consisted mainly of single Filipino men who lived in two camps located on the farm. Of the 47 farmworkers listed as residing at the seed farm in the 1940 census, 36 were born in the Philippines; the other 11 were of Japanese descent.

During World War II, the United States Navy took over 143 acres owned by the Rohnert Seed Company for an auxiliary airfield. 

The war put an end to employing Japanese laborers who were interred, but many Filipino workers, such as Jose Canillo, stayed on.

Jose Alqueza Canillo was born in Toledo Cebu, Philippines. In his early twenties, he boarded the ship “President Cleveland” and sailed to San Francisco, arriving on July 14, 1926. By 1934, he was employed by the Waldo Rohnert Seed Farm as a laborer when he nearly lost his hand in an accident involving a scythe. Canillo would later change his first name to Joseph, rise to the position of foreman, move off the seed farm, and marry. He became a United States citizen in 1948, at which time he was living on Chestnut Street in Santa Rosa with his wife Lucille and their two children. 

It wasn’t until I saw maps of the seed farm, owned by Sonoma County Farm Bureau member Ed Grossi that I could fully grasp the extent of the Rohnert Seed Farm.  Ed’s maps detail the numerous vegetables planted and how many acres they occupied each year. For example, in 1934, crops included multiple varieties of carrots, beets, lettuce, mustard, radishes, onions, parsley, and endive. Also noted are acres of hay, garlic, barley, oats, and sweet peas. 

According to newspaper articles from the 1930s, the sweet peas were quite an attraction. Tourists came from near and far to see and smell the acres upon acres of sweet peas, planted in a rainbow of colors that perfumed the air with their millions of blossoms.

Another longtime employee of the Waldo Rohnert Seed Farm was Cleo Clinton “Tex” Carley, who served as the farm manager as early as 1934. Tex was living in Hollister in 1930, so he may have already been on the payroll when Waldo Rohnert established the Cotati seed farm. 

In 1955, attorneys Paul Golis and Maurice Fredericks completed negotiations with Fred Rohnert and his sister Dorothy (who married sugar heir Claus Spreckels in 1957) to purchase 2,600 acres of the 3,300-acre seed farm, which they planned to develop for residential and industrial uses. Golis and Fredericks, along with Tex Carley and others, formed the Valley View Development Corporation and built the initial sections of Rohnert Park.

Much of the remaining acreage stayed agricultural and was managed by Ed Grossi’s family, who grew hay and raised cattle on the property through the 1980s. Ed continues the agricultural legacy with his Sweet Lane Wholesale Nursery, which he owns and operates east of Petaluma Hill Road.

You may have run into Ed and his crew helping to set up for the Farm Bureau’s crab feed. Over the past several years, Ed has donated truckloads of plant material from his nursery, as well as labor to decorate the Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds for this annual fundraiser.

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