Victory Garden or Victory Farm?

Written By: Katherine J Rinehart
Published: June 3, 2020

It seems like everyone is talking about victory gardens these days as people find ways to keep busy and healthy while sheltering in place. 

The many articles, TV and radio programs sharing information about “pandemic gardens” or 21st Century Victory Gardens got me thinking about the history of Sonoma County victory gardens. So, I started poking around in a few online newspaper databases since I don’t have access to brick and mortar libraries.

I came across quite a few interesting items from both the World War I and World War II eras, but one article in particular practically jumped off the page – or I guess I should say off the computer screen.

 A headline in the Press Democrat dated July 30, 1942, declared that Sonoma County’s biggest victory garden was the 323-acre farmlands of the Sonoma State Home – what we know today as the Sonoma Developmental Center. Did they mean to say “victory farm?” When does a garden become a farm? I bet there is a Farm Bureau member who could answer that for me. I digress – back to Eldridge 1942.

Sonoma State Home was expected to produce food valued at more than $100,000 and provide roughly 3,905,000 meals to 3200 “inmates” as patients were called at the time, and 400 employees between July 1942 and July 1943. The state home furnished all its own milk for cooking and drinking, eggs, as well as pork and some beef; fresh and dried fruit, and about 50 percent of its own fresh vegetables. 

Established in 1890, the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children as it was called at the time, occupied a 1,640-acre parcel that was previously owned by one of Sonoma County’s largest fruit growers and former state senator and county supervisor, William McPherson Hill. Hill is believed to be the first grower in Sonoma County to plant non-mission grape varieties, which he imported from Peru.

The Hill property had access to an ample water supply and two railroad lines and was well suited for crops and livestock. This was important since it was expected that the home would be largely self-sufficient.

By the early 1900s, the farm at Sonoma State Home had its own dairy, cannery, orchards consisting of apple, peach, pear, and plum trees and of course a vegetable garden. 

An adjacent hog ranch provided meat and chickens were raised for eggs. 

Originally only used for egg production, the poultry operation expanded and more chicken houses, feed storage, an egg cellar, and barn were added.

The third quarter agricultural reporting for the farm in 1924 showed that produced 31,248 gallons of milk, 5,952 dozen eggs,1,640 pounds of dressed poultry, and 5,065 pounds of pork.

Although the farm was still considered economically sound and rated as one of the top institutional farms in California, the State Department of Mental Hygiene officials shut it down in 1968. This action was in keeping with the department’s policy to discontinue all its farming programs.

Now the home itself is closed and its residents relocated. Interest in what will become of the property, which is historically significant for its agricultural, environmental, social, and architectural associations, is high. 

A specific plan process is underway. The idea is that the property will be redeveloped in a manner that is sensitive to the character of the buildings and landscape and provide for a mix of uses. Numerous environmental documents exist that will help guide the specific plan team, decision-makers, and potential investors. 

If you’d like to learn more about the past as well as the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center check out the SDC Specific Plan website. I highly recommend taking the virtual “walking tour” which you’ll find on the site along with recordings of past public meetings.

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