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Petaluma...gather a picnic as you tour the old side streets.

Petaluma . . . gather a picnic as you tour the old side streets

There's plenty of there there: you couldn't mistake Petaluma for anywhere else.

It's a more-than-pleasant place to spend a leisurely day--and less than an hour north of the Golden Gate on U.S. Highway 101. We suggest, as an excuse for several stops in town, progressively gathering ingredients for a picnic, then making your way to the historic Petaluma Adobe, just east of town, for a late, relaxed lunch under tall shade trees, amid oat grasses and roosters. Along the way, you can tour a dairymen's cheese-making co-op, buy salami at a 1920s speakeasy, and stroll residential and commercial blocks of great architectural interest (Petaluma even has its own iron-front district). Or just lean on a bridge, musing on time and the river. If you plan appropriately, you can also visit a miniature-horse ranch.

What makes this town so appealingly itself? A comfortable, fog-moderated climate; rich soil, fine trees, and agricultural hinterlands that form a dairy-studded greenbelt around the settled area; a river that labors, at its turning basin, to spell its own initial in the heart of town; splendidly upright commercial buildings; handsomely aging, lawn-surrounded homes; and townspeople willing to take a stand (Petaluma was the first community in the nation to attempt to control its own growth, and won a U.S. Supreme Court case on the issue in 1974).

The town's silhouette is mostly Victorian-ornate. But the imposing industrial shapes of grain elevators and silos add a steeply vertical dimension. Open spaces and small parks, accommodating activities from livestock auctions to Little League playoffs, break up any blockiness in a downtown that escaped the 1906 earthquake and stands, now, in unique coherence.

Petaluma's a small town (38,000); the hardware store has a bridal registry. But local ambitions are expansive, ranging from wrist-wrestling championships to the staging of original opera. The attitude is can-do.

Local ambition and pride-of-place are part of the reason why Petaluma was just chosen to participate in California's brandnew "Main Street' program, under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Local planners are already at work on downtown revitalization--and will soon have guidance from specialized National Trust consultants.

A river town begins to reclaim its river

As often happens, a bend in a river made a town begin. But in the century since its heyday as a grain-shipping port, linking San Francisco to the south with Sonoma County farmlands to the north,

Petaluma has literally turned its back on its river. It's gone from grain to chickens to dairy, from steamers to railroads to trucking.

With the demise of the chicken industry came suburbia and light industry. U.S. 101, which for the first half of this century ran through town, parallel to the river, moved east. Petaluma had been linear; it now began to sprawl eastward.

Present plans, a design known as "River Walk,' call for reclaiming the riverfront. The design is posted right near the river, in the shopping and dining complex inside the Great Petaluma Mill (at the foot of B Street), so you can conveniently trace the projected improvements. Where railroad tracks now prevent public access to the riverfront, a boardwalk promenade is proposed. Water Street, running along the river's west bank in the oldest part of town, is eventually to be closed to motor traffic, and the old brick buildings along it--now facing upbank, toward Petaluma Boulevard--are to be reoriented and opened toward the river.

Building your day in Petaluma

It takes a little longer than going all the way on U.S. 101, but we recommend you fork northeast on State 37, then take the old Lakeville Highway into town. This way, you follow the river in from San Pablo Bay, through an agricultural, 19th-century Petaluma alive today (though not unthreatened). You'll pass hayfields and dairy barns, fog-damp grasses stirring with redwinged blackbirds. You'll find Holsteins at home in a broad, creek-laced valley crossed by eucalyptus windbreaks.

Just after you pass 101, look right for what appears to be a redbrick factory from 19th-century New England. This is Sunset Line & Twine, originally built to manufacture thread from Chinese silk and today producing nylon fishing line.

Cross the river on the D Street drawbridge; if a boat's going through, you get to stop 8 minutes and watch the bridge in operation. Follow D Street past Walnut Park about as far as 10th Street; this is Petaluma's finest residential neighborhood. Exploring side streets, thread your way over to Western Avenue, enjoying the numerous carpentered curlicues en route.

At the California Cooperative Creamery (Western and Baker), you can view a short film and join a cheese-making tour. The creamery's pleasant retail shop can help with lunch supplies.

Three blocks east on Western is the chamber of commerce (314); pick up a flier describing a self-guided downtown walking tour (weekends, get it at Markey's Cafe, next door). Park free in the new garage; upper floors allow longer parking. Walking downhill, you follow the Golden Concourse (the name is incongruous now, but River Walk envisions big changes here). You'll pass several bakeries; buy bread at one.

You'll find the walking tour brochure generally interesting. But don't follow it to the letter: it has a maddening habit of directing you to what are now merely "sites' of past glories alleged in the text. The oldest street is Water, a service alley from docks to warehouses; Petaluma Boulevard--built, as locals say, on "river money'--and "egg money' Kentucky Street came soon after. It's a fine old downtown, with a rich stock of significant buildings--even an iron-front district. In the 1880s, elaborate cast-iron facades were bolted to buildings on the south side of Western between Kentucky and Petaluma Boulevard; individual structures elsewhere were also completely or partially iron-faced. More iron waits, presumably, under newer false fronts.

Next to the Great Petaluma Mill, linseed fumes may entice inveterate refinishers into an old post office building, just converted to an antiques collective; have a look.

Going north on Petaluma Boulevard, walk up to Hill Plaza Park, greenly nestled between Mary and Martha streets, for an overview of town and a close-up of the outstanding Julia Morgan-designed residence across from the park on Martha.

A stop at Volpi's (124 Washington Street; closed Sundays) can reward you with lunch meats, the famous (and fatiguing) Rosen's cheesecake, and a glimpse at the dimly lit, respectfully populated "back bar,' an institution since Prohibition days.

Drive west on Bodega Avenue. Johnson's Oyster (1105) sells fresh seafood cocktails; you'll also pass a serviceable fruit stand. After a few blocks, turn right on Thompson Lane (passing a mushroom farm at 782), then right again, following Skillman Road across Petaluma Boulevard into Corona Road. Notice, on Corona, the remarkable concentration of old chicken coops.

Turn right on Adobe Road and drive about 2 1/2 miles to Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park (open 10 to 5 daily). There are shade trees, rest rooms, tables. Relax; then visit the adobe (50 cents) and see the version of "Main Street' that General Vallejo developed with his Indian laborers in 1836.

Take Adobe Road a few miles southeast to State 116 and the Lakeville Highway. Winners' Circle, a miniature-horse ranch, is at 5911 Lakeville; shows ($2 to $5) start at 11 and 2 Wednesdays through Sundays.

Photo: Heading south on Kentucky Street, pedestrians look downhill, downtown. Some storefronts have tenants, some don't. Squarish Mutual Relief Building stands out against low hills

Photo: Iron facing was thought, in 1880s, to fireproof buildings. Look closely for details like moustachioed faces over windows

Photo: He's not very tall, and not very old. Three-week-old miniature horse at Winners' Circle Ranch requires seated pose for petting

Photo: Nudging interest is expressed by resident goat as picnickers unpack at shaded Petaluma Adobe table

Photo: Creamery tour (top) reveals a world of white curds and stainless steel. In retail shop, approachable mouse offers cheese samples

Photo: Enter town from Lakeville on D Street; park in garage at Keller and Western, in Old Town (west of river). Take Washington to Adobe, or do loop drive we suggest

Photo: Tied by history, boats dock at riverfront restaurants in pre-1906 brick buildings, near old grain elevator. New promenade is planned here

Photo: Taking a grassy break in Hill Plaza Park to check tour map, walkers rest near elegantly proportioned colonial revival house designed by Julia Morgan in 1930s
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Sep 1, 1986
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