In West Marin, a wooden structure built 150 years ago is hardly a rarity. Drive the back roads and you’ll see several. However, most likely they’ll be skeletal barns or shaky outbuildings slowly crumbling into eternity. Here are three sturdy exceptions: ranch homes, built in the 1850s and ‘60s, that are not only standing tall but still harboring descendants of the families who lived there during the Civil War.
The Gale Ranch in Chileno Valley “Charles Martin, my great grandfather, bought this property from Henry Halleck in 1862 when Halleck left West Marin to become President Lincoln’s chief of staff in the War Between the States.” So begins the saga of the Mike and Sally Gale Ranch on Chileno Valley Road, as related by great granddaughter Sally Gale.
Martin, a Swiss-Italian immigrant originally named Carlo Martinoya, added an Italianate Victorian main house to the original ranch cottage in 1883. He and his wife, Katarina, had seven children. The youngest, Anita, married Peter Dolcini, from a well-known (and today still prominent) West Marin ranching family. “Anita and Peter had six children,” says Sally Gale, “among them my mother, also named Anita, who is now 90 years old and living happily in Novato.”
The Martin family occupied the property until 1917; then, through two world wars and the Great Depression, it was rented to a ranching family named Bravo. Those were reportedly prime years for dairy farming and cattle ranching in West Marin.
For the next 30 years, until the mid-1980s, a caretaker named Mr. Shanks tended the Martin-Dolcini ranch home. “He really just lived here,” Sally Gale says. “People in the valley knew him as the ‘nudist who made wine.’” After that, the classic Victorian home was boarded up for seven years while Sally and husband Mike lived on the Big Island of Hawaii. “But as our family grew older, we felt the ranch pulling us home,” Sally recalls. And in 1993—more than 100 years after her great grandfather first improved the ranch house—Sally’s mother, Novato’s Anita Dolcini, took her to see what had become of the family property. “It had literally fallen apart,” Sally says. “It looked like a bedraggled child no one wanted.”
However, Mike and Sally Gale wanted it, badly enough to begin a complete restoration that would consume five years and much of their life savings. “We lived for two rainy winters under tarps and in half a house,” says Sally, “but now it’s worth it. Our home is beautiful and still very comfortable.” In 1997, the Gales’ restoration received an Award of Great Merit from Heritage Homes of Petaluma, and their 160-year-old barn and organic apple orchard serve as settings for summer weddings and parties. The 586-acre ranch is also home of Chileno Valley Natural Beef, a direct-to-consumer grass-fed beef operation run by Mike Gale.
The Burbank Ranch in Tomales “It began in 1855, when George Walton Burbank settled on the property,” says great granddaughter Georgia Burbank Marino, who’s also great grandniece of famed botanist Luther Burbank. The two Burbank men, along with their brother David, came west from Massachusetts in the 1850s. Construction of the large home, known to family members as the “home ranch,” began in 1863 and was completed in 1867.
Three identical homes (two still standing) were constructed from the same set of plans. “All together, there were four of them, all alike, scattered between here and the Sonoma County town of Bloomfield,” Marino says.
Today the Burbank family ranch sits proudly on a secluded rise off the Petaluma-Tomales Road. “We have an idyllic setting,” says another great granddaughter, Annette Burbank, who lives in and cares for the 140-year-old Italianate Victorian home ranch.
“Basically, the house and most of the furnishings are as they were over a hundred years ago.” The home was built mostly of
redwood hauled in by horse cart from the town of Bodega and set on a slate foundation from nearby Roblar Quarry. Original furnishings include a golden oak player piano, an ornate chandelier and a six-foot-tall portrait of George Walton himself staring down from the marble mantel over the fireplace.
According to Annette’s brother Bob, who like his sisters was raised on the ranch, the home’s water cistern is also “pretty much as it was in the beginning,” as is the electricity. “Initially, there was a Delco copper plate battery system,” he says. “Eventually that was changed to PG&E, but all the switches and plates are the originals.” Even most of the heat is still supplied by a Monitor cast-iron wood-burning cookstove that “used to make the best damn biscuits around.”
At first, potatoes and wheat were grown on the Burbanks’ 300 acres, but over time, farming gave way to ranching. “We ran mostly cows,” recalls 83-year-old Gwyn Walton Burbank, son of George Walton Burbank, who was raised on the ranch and now lives close by. Proud as he is of the property’s ranching past, it also has a more distinctive historical claim to fame: “It’s always been occupied by a Burbank,” he says. “It’s probably the oldest ranch in Marin that’s been continuously occupied by a family with its original name.”
The Parks Ranch in Tomales Lois Parks believes the home she lives in was built in 1853. And as a longtime docent at the Tomales Regional History Center, she takes local history seriously. “We think the home was built for Dr. George Washington Dutton,” she says, “who was the brother of Warren Dutton, who along with John Keys founded the town of Tomales.” The 375-acre ranch property, which sits off Highway 1 north of town, came into the family of Parks’ late husband Roy in 1883. “That’s when Henry Goudy, my husband’s grandfather, bought it and right away added six rooms plus a bathroom to the original three-bedroom cottage.” The home’s plumbing, electricity and heating are now relatively modern, and Parks has no complaints.
Portraits of several generations—from Henry Goudy to Roy Parks—hang on the walls of Lois Parks’ ranch house today. She’s sure those walls “have ears,” given all the history that’s transpired there. Asian artifacts from her childhood years abroad are also on display: her parents were Baptist missionaries in China during the 1920s. An intriguing photo taken sometime in the 1920s shows tracks of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad going directly across the property’s front yard. “I guess it passed through on the way to Cazadero,” Parks says with a laugh.
Her favorite memories of life in the ranch house—apart from raising a daughter and three sons—are from the 1950s, when classmates from University of Redlands Class of ’42 held reunions there. “Many of my friends lived in cities, and they’d enjoy gathering eggs, feeding the sheep and picking blackberries,” Parks recalls. For years chickens, sheep and beef cattle were raised on the ranch, with only the help of a single hired hand. “Now we only run beef on the ranch,” she says.
Yet it’s her garden that most enthralls the 87-year-old and still very active widow these days. “I grow peonies given to me by my father 40 years ago, dahlias as wide as dinner plates, roses the deer like to eat, and five-fingered ferns down by the fish pond.” As for Tomales, where she’s lived since 1943, “this town hasn’t changed much at all. It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven. I love it here.”
Note: All three ranch properties described here are protected from future development, thanks to conservation easements purchased by Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).