Any serious legal researcher or historian visiting the public offices of the Sonoma County Recorder will be grateful for the State of California’s carefully preserved extensive historical and legal records of births, deaths, marriages, and land ownership. This extensive collection of land maps and deeds extends from the earliest recorded Spanish Land Grants to the most recent purchase of a suburban lot. And, like a bank which is eager to provide convenient service to its customers, the recorder’s office is physically designed, managed, and staffed to serve the convenience of lawyers, real estate agents, and private citizens who have the need for documentary proof of their birth and/or their rightful ownership of property.
From within the legal and cultural frame of reference of the Unites States and the State of California this collection of documents makes sense. It echoes, albeit at a different scale, the essential Western cultural belief expressed by the Mayflower compact and the U.S. Constitution – the simple legal notion that reality can be defined and determined by a collectively signed document backed by military force.
But from a different cultural point of view this entire expensive collection of maps and documents is most notable not for what it contains and asserts but for what it represses, erases, and omits. Nowhere in this collection is there any recognition of the history of local Native Americans and their habitats. It is as if the state has eradicated the historical memory and record of local native people as part of a general public policy to avoid any moral embarrassment for the state’s participation in the genocidal eradication of native people and the theft and destruction of their habitats. If one cannot conceal one’s possession of stolen property perhaps the next best thing is to deny the existence of the previous owners. Since it is obviously impossible to conceal the state’s taking of native property perhaps just claims for compensation can be obstructed by denial, suppression of evidence and the loss of historical memory.
Hence land which was not mapped and assigned ownership by European Sovereigns or Republican Governments was designated by the state maps as “wilderness.” And native inhabitants were treated not as the rightful “owners” of this “wilderness” but as merely the users of its seasonal natural resources, somewhat analogous with a species of bears which harvests salmon and berries and survives by “hunting and gathering.” All of which suggests that the omission of native land use history from the state’s legal records office might be associated with a much broader and deeper Western cultural prejudice which separates and segregates what is civilized, rational, and Christian from what is savage, chaotic, and pagan.
However, telling that story would take us into a broader history of Maxwell Farm and the cultural historical context of the myth of the Western frontier. That story must be postponed for another time. Here I can only lightly suggest the contours of that broader narrative by focusing on a few concrete details of Ruth’s struggle against the county.
As an undeclared monument to Ruth’s struggle, the above photograph of a large cement foundation, (photo credit, Davis, 2013), represents for me the interruption and discontinuity of Ruth’s life which occurred when the county appropriated her picnic grove and thereby destroyed her self-made opportunity to create a sanctuary and memorial to her family heritage. This brief case study uses Foucault’s method of discourse analysis and the significance of subjugated knowledges as tools for criticizing the power/knowledge nexus of the rationalized violence of Western logocentric cultural institutions, including economic, governmental, and educational institutions as well as the more overt expressions of power involved in police and incarceration.
Fight Interests the Nation
The Letter That Started a Lot of Fireworks
The following letter, read July 5 at a hearing before the county board of supervisors, caused considerable consternation and subsequent action and counteraction over a broad front. It was read by Mrs. Denny and brought forth immediate denial from Supervisor James F. Lyttle that there was ever any graft in the board and that “I’ll lose more votes than I’ll ever gain in this bridge matter.” He added that the new location for the bridge was decided upon as a safer and more economical site, and that the welfare of the general public was the only matter considered.
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, July 4, 1949
Santa Rosa, California
The sacred flame of Liberty and Justice which was kindled on the first 4th of July is constantly being re-fueled by patriotic citizens all over the country. But the followers of political corruption and domination are still working hard to destroy our principles of Democratic Government. We have this same problem right here in our midst: political plunder and vote-getting destroying our natural resources and freedom of enterprise.
Here in our community, the new bridge problem is very simple when solved with reason and common sense by the people. The answer is: a new bridge at the same location with road curving into present road. But when the politicians tackle the problem, it becomes warped by their needed votes and graft. So the Supervisors’ solution to the same problem is their proposed plan cutting through and destroying the Picnic Grove, building a new road, and grabbing five acres of land to ownership of which they have no right whatsoever. The graft comes through putting our Picnic Grove out of business, construction of a new road and also maintaining the old one, condemning five acres as grazing land and re-selling it at a higher price, or making a county park to replace the one destroyed. This creates many votes, because the politicians figure that their use of this five acres will induce patrons of nearby resorts and others to vote for their benefactors in the county’s development of the land. They claim the scheme will also protect these resorts from the building of competitive business where the 5 acres is.
But why should the Supervisors be so tender-hearted in championing the cause of these resorts which have been paying taxes by present owners for about five years or more, when the Maxwell family have paid taxes on this 100-acre Conservation Center for 90 years. If their consideration were genuine in the bridge problem, they would make every effort to preserve the beautiful old trees at the Picnic Grove which can never be replaced: for the benefit of local people, city recreation-seekers, and future generations. But talking about preserving the beauties of nature for the people is a foreign language to them. They do not understand or heed such arguments. One might as well talk to fence posts. The only two words that make sense to politicians are votes and graft. These are both planned for in the five-acre plum and the grove destruction. We need straight politicians much more than we need straight roads. These scheming politicians are the termites trying to destroy our Democratic Government. We should all work to raise their salaries, so they would not have to fight for the crumbs and nuggets of graft in county, state, and national government. Give us more statesmen and less politicians.
This planned destruction of the Picnic Grove and the approach to the Centennial Bowl would do irreparable damage to the community. The Conservation Center is a project which will not compete with the business of local resorts. It will benefit the whole community and traveling public through future educational facilities of this Maxwell Memorial Foundation. Local property owners and taxpayers will not tolerate having elected officials committing political sadism and mayhem on our natural resources preserved for years as sanctuary groves for recreating, education, and attraction for the traveling public.
Yours very truly,
MRS. RUTH DENNY
Printed in Valley of the Moon Review, July 14, 1949
Index Tribune, July 15, 1949
Irate Owner Thinks Up One To Stop Construction Of New El Verano Bridge
There is one Sonoma Valley property owner who really gives a dam when a county bridge is to be built across her property. The woman is Ruth Maxwell Denny, four acres of whose El Verano farm was condemned to build the new El Verno bridge. $4,000 was the appraised price.
She was slow to arouse, but once convinced that the new bridge would destroy the beauty of some trees on her property she got busy. Although the time had long passed for formal protest, she called a mass meeting, petitioned the Board of Supervisors, got signers on a petition and sought to halt proceedings.
This failing, she halted the bridge contractors and their bulldozer when it arrived to start operations Monday and had encroached on her land. When the contractors decided they had better hew to the line, Mrs. Denny thought of something better.
“Still water runs deep” and she had to bridge that gap between determination to halt operations and the return next day of the bulldozer.
Whether she “stood on the bridge til midnight” thinking up this one is unknown, but the following day she had hired a bulldozer and crew of her own to throw up a dam near the new bridge site—“just for ducks” she explained “as I have done every year;” but “Operation Mallard” or what have you did the work. The bridge contractor’s crew was flooded out and the district Attorney was called on by Supervisor James Lyttle to rule on the ruse. He said, it was no “duck soup.”
Mrs. Denny hired her own construction workers, admittedly threw up the dam on Sonoma Creek and gave ‘em the works!
So what? Will the supervisors capitulate or will work proceed? It is anybody’s guess.
The Denny dam is described as 100 feet down the creek from the new bridge site. It is 150 feet long, seven feet high and eight feet thick at the base, three and a half feet at top level. The water backs up several feet deep covering the bridge site’s beginning.
Charles J. McGoldrick, District Attorney,
Joseph Maddux, Assistant District Attorney,
Santa Rosa, California. July 23, 1949
I have received your letter of July 22, in answer to my letter of July 20 to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors: which they delegated you to answer.
Your reply to my question as to why the B.S. is condemning and appropriating the (approximately) 5 acres of land belonging to the Maxwell Farm and at its north border, between the present county road and the road proposed by the B.S. is evasive. Apparently you have no respect for the truth.
The statement that the “Board found and determined that the public interests and necessity required the acquisition for highway purposes of all the lands therein described” is merely a smoke-screen. When corrupt politicians hide behind the petticoats of the Victorian Eminent Domain to carry on deceit, misrepresentation, fraud, and mistake, it becomes the duty of honest citizens in a Democracy to protest and see that justice is done.
It is well known in this locality that the following are some of the real reasons for putting the road thro the middle of the Picnic Grove, and cutting off the approach to the Centennial Bowl: (this is your information, in case you do not know already.)
- To force the Maxwell Farm to subdivide or “open up the place” by certain well-known real-estate concerns: when the property has been preserved intact for years as an eventual Conservation and Education Center.
- To “protect near-by resorts from competitive business projects on the 5 acres.”
- To put the Picnic Grove out of competition with others in the Valley.
- To let the Greyhound bus use the old bridge when the new one is being constructed. Also other traffic.
- To establish “a free county park” to replace the one destroyed.
The fact that a large majority of the people in the valley are in favor of having the new bridge in the same location as the old one, was misrepresented to the Board of Supervisors by local member. This is proven by the Public Hearing before the Board on July 5, by the petition of over 200 signatures which the Board refused to accept, and by the meeting of the Board and the people in the Picnic Grove on July 20.
By the time the following items are paid for, the new proposed bridge and road would cost much more than the new bridge in the present location:
- $6,000.00 fill and about 1/4 mile of new road.
- Maintain new road and old road.
- Build and maintain “free county park.”
- Damage to Conservation and Education Center, banks of creek, approach to Centennial Bowl, business and equipment at Picnic Grove.
The rickety foundation of falsehood on which the Board of Supervisors build the claim of Eminent Domain falls apart under the search-light of Truth. It makes their claim for condemnation and appropriation of any part of the Maxwell Farm: nil and void.
Yours very truly,
Mrs. Ruth Denny
Sonoma, Sonoma Co., Calif., Friday July 22, 1949
CONTRACTOR FIGHTS DAM WITH DAM!
Come H — Or High Water That Bridge To Be Built
Come H— or High water, the new El Verano bridge will be built, if contractor Louis Bormolini has his way.
Following property owner Ruth Maxwell Denny’s damming of Sonoma Creek, forcing a lake of water over the new county bridge site, the contractor decided to fight dam with dam and has built one of his own, a “coffer dam” box structure which is placed over the foundation site and sunk down through the river bed as gravel and rocks are scooped out. The interior of the coffer dam is pumped free of water while the foundation is done.
Wednesday morning a delegation of county supervisors, headed by James F. Lyttle attempted to amicably settle any controversy with Mrs. Denny. However, at the conclusion of the meeting—held in the shaded picnic grove to El Verano, Mrs. Denny was still determined that the Bridge should not be built at the site chosen by the supervisors. Engineers have insisted that the proposed site is the most economical.
Supervisors who were present at the meeting Wednesday, in addition to Mr. Lyttle, were George A. Kennedy Richard C. Miller, and Joseph D. Cox. Also present were four members of the Sonoma Vista Improvement Club, adjoining El Verano. They were Mike Miesner, Mrs. Emma Finchman, Mrs. Myrtle Bowie and Mrs. Byrle Hodley. Several El Verano citizens also were there.
P.O. Box 502
August 3, 1949
Board of Supervisors
Santa Rosa, California
In the conspiracy to destroy the Maxwell Memorial Grove, you have betrayed the wishes of most of the tax-payers and voters.
All connected with the building of the bridge and the road thro the Grove are under a curse, because this Grove is an Indian Burial Grounds.
Yours very truly,
Mrs. Ruth Denny