History of Graton
Graton sits in the middle of a beautiful valley bordered by Sebastopol on the south, Occidental on the west, Forestville to the north, and Santa Rosa to the east. It is historically known as the Green Valley area. The first inhabitants of what would eventually become Graton were the Pomo and Miwok Indians, most of whom died during a smallpox epidemic in 1837-1838. The land was under Spanish rule until 1824, when Mexico won its independence from Spain. Mexico acquired the large area it called Rancho El Molino, named after a mill built along the Atascadero Creek. In 1834, Capt. John Cooper was awarded the Rancho El Molino land grant. The mill was destroyed by flood in 1841, but the name remained until 1850 when California became a state. The rancho system was replaced by townships, and the Green Valley area became part of Analy township, along with Bloomfield, Freestone, Sebastopol, and Forestville. The name Analy was given by land surveyor and pioneer Jasper O’Farrell, who named the township after somewhere or someone, in his home country of Ireland named Annaly. Pioneers began to discover the fertile land of the Green Valley. Early settlers included the Grensons, Gilliams, and Sullivans, along with Clayton Winkler, John Walker, and the Ross family. They came from the east via wagon train, crossing the Sierra into the Sacramento Valley in search of a better life. When it was not found in the Gold Rush, they headed north to the abundant trees, terperate climate, and financial opportunities of the Green Valley. In the late 1800s, the farm land of the Analy Township would be nicknamed the “Gold Ridge” as settlers realized they could make more money in agriculture than in gold. For a time, the Green Valley portion of the Gold Ridge area was also known as Peachland because of the peaches planted from Occidental Road to Green Valley Road, but after a blight hit and prices dropped, the orchards were cut down and turned in charcoal, the replanted with apple trees.
In 1904, the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad came to the Green Valley area. Santa Rosa realtor James Gray and banker James H. Brush saw the potential and bought the land surrounding the new train depot from Moses Hicks. They filed an application for the Green Valley Ranch subdivision, one of the first subdivisions in Sonoma County, and laid the streets out in a grid, naming them after themselves and their children. There was already a town named Green Valley in California, and at first, the town was referred to as New Town or Gray’s Town. In 1905, the name was officially Graton. Families like the Robertsons, Wirts, and Hallbergs helped build the businesses needed in a new town. John Robertson was the first postmaster and a lumberyard owner, and the Halbergs built the apple processing buildings downtown, including one of the first cold-storage facilities. Graton thirived in the first part of the century, despite enduring several major fires that burned most of downtown. The major source of employment was in agriculture, but a good living could also be make in logging, milling, and construction.
The town catered to working-class people, who were connected by their shared family ties, communal work experiences, and participation in community organizations. Churches were built, the Graton Community Club was founded, a volunteer fire department was formed, and several schools served the growing population. A new wave of immigrants came in the 1930s from the Dust Bowl states looking for employment. Graton’s population, at that time around 500 people, would swell into the thousands during harvest season as seasonal workers filled the many rental cabins and campgrounds located around Graton. The railroad ended passenger service in 1932, but the town was still growing. At mid-century, there were several grocery stores in the town, a pharmacy and soda fountain, a shoe store, a barbershop, several bars and service stations, a few lunch counters and many small businesses. The apple processing plants and canneries were going strong, their seasonal loud noise and noxious smell unnoticed by the locals.
The apple industry began to seriously wane in the 1970s, mostly as a result of increased competition. Dry-farmed Sonoma County apples could not compete with the well-irrigated, high-yielding, cheaper crops from Washington state and the Central Valley. Businesses in Graton began to close as their customers moved on to find work. A sewer system was built in 1977 and new houses were constructed, but the campgrounds were sold to become Christmas tree farms and businesses, and virtually all the cabins were torn down. When workers from Mexico arrived hoping to find work, there was no more cheap housing available and they hung out on the streets and camped in the bushes along the creek. Graton began to be known more for the unemployed workers loitering and its rowdy nightlife than its industry. By the early 1980s, the downtown apple processing buildings no longer operated but were occupied by Chateau St. Jean, Graton Beverages, A-1 Shower Door and Mirrors, Empire West Plastics, and Atelier One. The railroad no longer came through town, and the tracks were town out. A park that was built with community support was abandoned. Apple orchards began to be removed and replanted with wine grapes. By the early 1990s, the town was derelict, and only locals knew what treasures remained.
In 1994, local builder Orrin Thiessen saw the potential, bought many of the downtown buildings and began remodeling them, using old photographs of Graton as a guide. The old railroad route became the paved West County Trail, and new businesses came to occupy the revitalized downtown, including two Zagat-rated restaurants and an art gallery. The wine industry in Sonoma County began to grow, and Graton was recognized as part of the premiere Green Valley wine-growing region. Graton is home to many artists, writers, and musicians, as well as working-class families, professionals, and retirees. It is a diverse and active community, where the Graton Community Club still holds flower shows twice a year, the firefighters are volunteers, and the Oak Grove School and Pacific Christian Academy still educate local children. Graton was once known as the armpit of Sonoma County, but those who live there have always considered it the heart.
This history is from the book "Images of America: Graton", by Lesa Tanner and the Graton Community Club, published by Arcadia Publishing and available for purchase at The Graton Community Club Flower Show and at the Willow Wood.