When the Civil War Came to Sonoma County

washoe2Sonoma and Napa have an ongoing rivalry. Sonomans like to make fun of Napa: “Sonoma makes wine; Napa makes auto parts.” The affluent sophisticates in Napa County respond… well, they don’t respond. They scarcely acknowledge the existence of the bumpkins in Sonoma County. But that’s not the civil war this is about.

Modern-day Sonoma County is a bastion of liberalism. Barack Obama garnered 60.3 percent of the vote in the 2012 election. A century-and-a-half earlier, political inclinations were different. Santa Rosa and its rival Petaluma, fifteen miles to the south, competed for preeminence in the county. The city of Santa Rosa and the Russian River area to its north, were islands of Confederate support in the Union state of California. The Sonoma Democrat, ancestor of today’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, was staunchly “states rights” – its masthead proclaimed, “The World is Governed Too Much,” and argued against the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Petaluma Argus strongly supported Lincoln as the savior of the Union. (The Press-Democrat and the now Argus-Courier currently are both under the same ownership.) Sonoma was the only county to not vote for Lincoln in the 1860 election. Petaluma was the only community in Sonoma County to vote Republican.

Physical hostilities for a while were limited to a citizen from the town of Sebastopol who ventured to Petaluma, got drunk and went out into the street to shout, “God bless Jeff Davis!” He was arrested and put on trial.

A more serious conflict occurred after the assassination of President Lincoln. Outraged upon receiving the news, a posse formed in Petaluma, mounted their horses and headed for Santa Rosa. Their intent was to raid the courthouse and carry the county seat back to Petaluma. Other speculation was that they more likely planned to attack the offices of the Democrat. Armed conflict works up a thirst. The militia stopped at the Washoe House, about halfway between the two communities, for the necessary sustenance of cold beer. For some reason, they never made it to Santa Rosa. Legend is that the wives came the next morning to retrieve the hung-over would-be combatants.

The Washoe House was built in 1859 as a stop for stagecoaches traveling the arduous Petaluma-Santa Rosa route. It later became apost office and a butcher shop. For the last many decades it has been a stopping place for hungry and thirsty locals or wine-tourists that have strayed from the wine trails. New owners have taken over, but have not announced if plans are to retain the dusty roadhouse atmosphere or to “upgrade” to “wine-country cuisine” to bring in more upscale and affluent customers.

Sonoma County may be on its way back to the future. Decades ago, before wine grapes took over agriculture, hops were an important crop, along with apples, prunes and others. Growers have not yet started tearing out vineyards to plant hops, but craft breweries have been sprouting almost as fast as in Oregon. (Distilleries, too.) Beer ostensibly prevented a Civil War altercation in northern California. Could it be a key to peace and harmony?

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