A place set aside
For thousands of years little change came to the landscape of our valley, beyond the cycle of the seasons. Then, less than 200 years ago, great changes came abruptly – sprawling ranches were suddenly established, which were then in time subdivided into smaller family farms – and a sleepy pueblo became, over the years, an international destination. And yet throughout this time one place was set aside, remaining largely unchanged.
In 1882, Julia Judah and Frances Bentley, two prominent women in San Francisco with severely disabled children, lobbied among the wealthy and the powerful to establish a place to “provide and maintain a school and asylum for the feeble-minded, in which they may be trained to usefulness.” Their vision was of a healthy, self-sustaining country lifestyle, characterized by fresh food and clean air – a calm and natural place, set aside from the demands of society.
A commission headed by Captain Oliver Eldridge was created to find the ideal place to shelter and provide for these children. Captain Eldridge had skippered sailing ships around the Horn from New York to San Francisco, and after retiring from the sea he devoted the remainder of his life to charitable work. He arranged for the purchase of land near Glen Ellen, which became what we know today as Eldridge.
On Nov. 24, 1891, 148 children arrived by train, and a brass band accompanied them to their new home. In 1903, when the population had reached 554, the institution came under the jurisdiction of the newly formed State Commission in Lunacy. As perception and treatment of severe disabilities began to change, the name of the institution at Eldridge was shortened from The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children to simply The Sonoma State Home.
By 1923 there were 1,625 residents. According to a report at that time, “The cannery… employs scores of the inmates, and enough canned fruit, including peaches, plums, pears, apples and other fruits, is being put up in sufficient quantity to supply the entire institution the year around. The dairy is supplying all the milk necessary and the poultry farm supplies more than enough eggs and chickens for the institution.”
Throughout the Twenties the population grew; by 1930 there were 3,500 people at Eldridge. With this growth came the influx of infectious diseases, and a full-time bacteriologist was hired to combat what was then called “the scourge of congregate living.” Eugenics – a highly controversial social engineering program – was introduced by the routine sterilization of those believed to be inappropriate for childbearing. Dr. Butler, superintendent at that time, wrote: “Personally, it is my view that if a child cannot be born of normal parents it were better not to be born – for the child’s sake.”
The medical research that took place there – including the development of vaccines for measles and polio – was intended to benefit society; and yet dark rumors circulated, due to a general misunderstanding of the standard medical protocols of that time. Soon after Dr. Butler’s retirement, the institution was again renamed in 1953, this time as The Sonoma State Hospital. The practice of routine sterilization was brought to an end, and attitudes toward care of the residents began reflecting changes taking place throughout the country, involving the civil rights of disabled people.
A significant paradigm shift took place, from providing asylum for the profoundly disabled to bringing them back into the community. The Parent Hospital Association was established, the formal training of psychiatric technicians began, and a respite program was developed to help keep children with their families, within their own homes. Sunrise Industries – a forerunner of the recycling industry of today – was created, and adaptive mobility devices were designed to give bed-ridden people an opportunity to move about.
In 1980 the campus was massively remodeled, transitioning from dormitory style living to more intimate dining and more private sleeping accommodations, providing a more home-like atmosphere; and such programs as the Special Olympics and Boy Scouts were introduced. In 1986 the name of the institution at Eldridge was finally changed to the Sonoma Developmental Center – or SDC.
For more than a century the facility at Eldridge has drawn thousands of caring people to live and work with the most desperately disadvantaged people in all of California. The unique character of the village of Glen Ellen has largely been shaped by these good people, many of whom have remained here after their retirement. As SDC itself retires this year, their numbers will begin to dwindle, and this place known as Eldridge will once again change, as will Glen Ellen and the Valley of the Moon.
What happened here was a great and long-standing effort, by many courageous and compassionate people, to care for the people who needed their care. May the people who were here always be remembered – from Julia Judah and Frances Bentley to the thousands that have lived and worked here since – in this place set aside. I salute them.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.