With the February 11 deadline for Good Egg nominations quickly approaching, I got to thinking about who might be the next Good Egg. Each year the Committee strives to honor a Petaluman who has approached some level of boosterism on a par with the roaring twenties-era pitchman, Bert Kerrigan, the man who established P-Town as “The World’s Egg Basket.”
And then I realized – wait! – I actually know the very first Good Egg of modern times. Indeed, Adair (Heig) Lara, who wrote “History of Petaluma, A California River Town,” and who now has plans to republish the book, was my first writing mentor.
Before her more than twenty-year career as a beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist and a best-selling author, Adair was a young homemaker living in Petaluma. The story of how she came to write her first book, which led to being the very first Good Egg in 1983, is a fun one.
She would never say it, but I will. After many years and many requests Adair has decided to offer a reprint of her book. You can order your own copy of History of Petaluma, A California River Town at in Petaluma or send $24 (includes shipping and handling) to Scotwall Associates, 95 Scott Street, San Francisco, CA or order online at Lulu.com.
Because her version is better than anything I could re-tell, here is the story in her own words.
How I Came to Write the History of Petaluma
By Adair Lara
I was 26, and just out of college.
Every day my husband Jim would rattle off in his secondhand Chevy pickup to evict the squirrels from our dream house. Left behind, I fell prey to emissaries of the Newcomers' Club, who insisted I try one of their Mystery Trips: "We tell you what to wear but not where you're going."
I did need time away from the kids, but I didn't think that mystery trips were the answer. One day, disconsolate, I arranged the babies (a toddler girl and a baby boy) side by side in their rusted twin stroller and wandered down to the river.
Things looked kind of slack. I’d already seen the roofs of collapsing chicken barns touching the ground on the hills back of town, and now I saw that thrift stores lined the main street, which had been renamed Petaluma Boulevard North in a fit of progress that had otherwise passed the former egg town by.
On the other hand, a sense of history hung over the town. Iron front buildings, grocery stores with saloons in the back, the cobblestones that caught at the stroller's wheels--all began to work on my sluggish sense of the past. I could see the mossy green pilings of former steamboat landings in the waters of the estuary that rose and fell with the tides of San Francisco Bay.
I wondered what had happened here. When I went to the library by the county fairgrounds to glance through the Petaluma history books, there weren’t any. I got the notion of writing one.
So I began, doing some reading, making notes. I spent whole days at the house of Ed Mannion, a local historian whose house was filled to the rafters with Petaluma memorabilia: fragile old newspapers, posters, drawers of photographs and maps, actual incubators, books on California history.
I spent a day poring over crumbling insurance maps in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, and then called my husband at work, to tell him that I thought I could prove that the First National Gold Bank had been three doors in from the corner of Main and Washington streets.
One morning, as the winter sun filtered through the window, lighting up the face of my baby son as he lobbed Cream of Wheat at the wall from his high chair, I wrote the first sentence of my book:
"The first non-aboriginal settler of Petaluma was a genial, illiterate runaway sailor named John Martin."
I was thrilled. I had tried to write fiction, but never got further than three or four words before ripping my tortuous clichés out of the typewriter and tossing them into the wastebasket. My wonderful discovery on this February morning was this: You can't wad up the town's first settler and toss him into the wastebasket in a fit of despair. History stands still: the facts restrain you.
So, thrilled to have overcome my writer’s block, and with my subject, I kept filling up pages. I wrote about how Petaluma lost the county seat to Santa Rosa, the nimble upstart to the north. The town didn't give up, though; as late as 1920, Petaluma was still coming up with schemes either to get the county seat moved or to redraw the county line so that Santa Rosa was outside it.
I was aware that local history can be numbing, so I took care to stay away from any tedious recitation of names, dates, and events that might interrupt the lively flow of the narrative.
I was so successful at this that my first fifteen pages, cheerfully banged out on my portable Royal in our sunny backyard, brought me from the town's Mexican rancho days to the end of the Civil War, when Petaluma loyalists set out to attack rebel Santa Rosa. At this rate, my husband noted dryly, another fifteen pages would launch Petaluma into the space age.
I wrote about how the railroad snaked into Sonoma in the 1870s, on its way to bring down the redwood logs, an event that ended Petaluma’s smug shipping monopoly on the river, but which also brought newcomers to town. One was Lyman Byce, a medical student. He invented the incubator that would in a few years bring the river town a new monopoly: the wholesale, flamboyant, hugely publicized production of eggs.
Byce had a partner, a dentist named Isaac Dias, who many people thought was the true inventor of the incubator. Dias died in a mysterious accident on the Petaluma Creek in 1884, shot through the heart by his own shotgun when it jammed under the seat of his rowboat--so the story goes. In all his voluminous publicity, Byce never mentioned him.
The town's fortunes cracked again much later when the egg business moved to Southern California, to places like Moorpark (spell it backwards); Petaluma went into a mid-20th century slump and thus lacked the energy and money to rip down its old buildings, as more prosperous towns were doing. As a result the whole west side was filled with 19th century Victorians, including a row of commercial buildings with intricate cast-iron decorations. It was so perfectly a freeze frame of American small town that dozens of movies and commercials were shot there, including “American Graffiti.” Francis Ford Coppola, who set “Peggy Sue Got Married” there, said, “You can find any decade you want somewhere in Petaluma.''
Jim published the History of Petaluma himself, launching a new business for himself.
The reviewers were kind, as I have since discovered they invariably are toward the local historian. I spoke before a jovial lunch meeting of the Rotary Club and chattered for an hour before 105 beaming elderly ladies of the Petaluma Garden Club, none of whom could bear to tell me that the mike had failed five minutes into my talk. The Masons asked me to entertain their wives at a coffee klatch.
I appeared on TV 40 in Santa Rosa, sandwiched between a square dancing group in western costume and a woman who teaches wheelchair aerobics. At that year's Butter and Eggs Day Parade, officials gave me the first annual Good Egg Award.
A lot has changed since then, for us and for Petaluma. Jim and I moved back to San Francisco, and I switched from being the Thucydides of Petaluma to working for a newspaper, and then to writing books and teaching writing.
And Petaluma! It has tripled in population, but the downtown (now on the National Register of Historic Places) is a walker’s and historian’s dream, with wonderful shops and alleys, lively theater, river walks, and Victorian house tours.