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Sonoma: an exquisite early California mission village

By Maria LenhartSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 1981

Sonoma, Calif.

As much as I love the San Francisco Bay area, there are times when it all seems too crowded, too modern. I start yearning for an older, less-hurried California with plenty of open spaces and its Spanish-Mexican colonial roots clearly intact.

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That's when I head for the town of Sonoma.

Actually, Sonoma is not so much a town as a charming time warp, a kind of California-style Brigadoon. The fact that the gentle grasslands surrounding the town are called the Valley of the Moon only adds to this faintly mysterious aura.

Getting to Sonoma, I discovered on the bright spring day on my last visit, lives up to the old cliche of being half the fun. Along the 45-mile drive north of San Francisco, the suburban landscape quickly gives way to brilliant green meadows dotted with mustard flowers. In the distance a rim of mountains appears bluish-gray on the horizon.

Even allowing for a stop at one of the many farm stands along the way for a jug of cherry cider, it takes only an hour to reach Sonoma Plaza. This eight-acre shady square in the center of town is an historic landmark, a splendid example of the Spanish colonial plazas that were the cultural heart of the early Califoria mission villages.

Rimming the plaza are a dozen or more venerable adobe buildings, most of which have been painstakingly restored during this century, some just a few years ago. The gradual addition of modern shops and services during the past 150 years have scarcely marred Sonoma's frontier feeling.

For most of its early existence Sonoma truly was a frontier, the site of the last and northernmost mission of the Spanish colonial chain. In 1834 the Mexican government, which now controlled California, sent Mariano Vallejo, a young Army officer, to take charge of the Sonoma mission and to keep watch on the russian settlements to the northwest. Much of Sonoma's current charm can be directly attributed to the enterprising Vallejo, who designed the town to be one- mile square with the spacious plaza in the center.

An excellent place to begin a walking tour is where Sonoma itself began -- at the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma located a half block northeast of the plaza on Spain Street. A 50-cent admission charge buys a ticket also valid for the Sonoma Barracks, the Vallejo estate, and other landmarks of the Sonoma State Historic Park.

Construction of the whitewashed abode mission with its three-foot thick walls and massive beams began in 1823, but needed heavy restoration by 1913 when it had deteriorated into a crumbling hay barn. To the right of the entrance is a room containing displays on the original construction, the result of strenuous labor on the part of Native Americans who made each adobe brick out of a mixture of mud and hay.

A room at the left of the entrance is the perfect setting for a collection of 62 paintings by Christ Jorgenson, all delicate renditions of the 21 California missions. In a room beyond are artifacts that illustrate the rough pioneer life here: a board bed covered with cowhide and a candleholder fashioned from a flat rock with a hole in it.

The mission and gaily painted small chapel attached at the west are built around an open courtyard where most of the daily chores were performed. There is still a small vegetable garden as well as an ancient wall of prickly pear growing in clumps about eight feet high. To the east is a brick adobe kiln, some primitive barbeque grills, and a tulle hut designed as a replica of a local Indian dwelling.

Just down the street from the mission is a long two-story adobe building with wide balconies, the Sonoma Barracks built by Vallejo in 1836 to house his troops. As commander- general of all the Mexican forces in California, Vallejo spent the next 10 years keeping local Indian tribes and Russian settlements at bay. But he could do nothing about the group of Yankee frontiersmen who "seized" Sonoma in 1846 and announced the establishment of a free and independent "Republic of California."