Mon 1 Sep 2008
Tomales again this weekend showed it’s a town that knows how to party. The 2000 census listed Tomales’ population as 371 (the third smallest of the 14 towns in West Marin, ahead of only Dillon Beach, 319, and Olema, 245). However, the few folks who live in Tomales are known for hosting notable bashes — from a 200-biker Hells Angels’ barbecue in 2004 to its yearly Founders’ Day.
Although a wine-tasting booth in the town park was doing a brisk business Sunday and the beer booth sold out its entire inventory, the William Tell bar was crowded inside and out. In front of the bar, a band played, and some folks danced.
Tomales on Sunday resumed its annual Founders’ Day celebration, which includes a parade up Highway 1 through downtown followed by a picnic in the park, complete with food, beer, and wine booths. Last year the celebration couldn’t be held because the town park was in the midst of an improvement project.
The project isn’t finished yet, but already new restrooms and new playground equipment are in place. The park is bordered with a new — but rustic — fence. Using split railroad ties, volunteer Bill Jensen built a fence like those traditionally found on local sheep ranches. Stabilized with handsome retaining walls made of stone, terraces — where families now picnic and children play — have been dug into the hillside. And therein lies a story.
Because many of Tomales’ ranching families have lived there for generations and care about its history, the town maintains an ambitious Tomales Regional History Center. Syndicated cartoonist Kathryn LeMieux, who lives in Tomales, is a volunteer at the museum, as well as a former member of its board, and one day during July 2007, she received a call from contractor David Judd, who’s in charge of the park renovation.
Kathryn ought to come down to the park, he said, and “look at all the old things we’re digging up.” David said he’d have the bulldozer work elsewhere for a while to give her a chance to sift through dirt that had been moved, and Kathryn immediately became fascinated with what she found. In the top four feet of soil were old bottles, Miwok arrowheads, and broken China. A year later, Kathryn is still inspecting dirt in the park and, in fact, found obsidian from an arrowhead on Sunday.
Townspeople were captivated by the trove of archeology Kathryn (seen above with Bill Bonini) revealed in the town park on Sunday, and it was one of the highlights of Founders’ Day.
Along with dozens of arrowheads and pieces of China, Kathryn has collected numerous bottles from the beginning of the last century. She even found an automobile-dealership license plate from 1919, a year before the dealer’s home apparently was destroyed in a town fire. (Back then Tomales was considered sufficiently populous to warrant its own dealership.)
Just south of Tomales, Highway 1 runs alongside Walker Creek, and it happened that last Thursday when I drove this stretch of road, I came up behind a car that was barely moving. Looking around to see why it had slowed, I spotted two deer wading across Walker Creek. So I pulled onto the shoulder and watched. Eventually, the water got too deep for the deer, and they had to swim the last 50 feet or so, coming ashore no more than 25 yards upstream from me.
Once the site of a Miwok village called Utumia, present-day Tomales was founded by Warren Dutton, who began building settlements in the area during the 1850s. The town gained prominence in 1875 when it became a stop on the new narrow-gauge railroad, which ran from Sausalito across Marin County to Point Reyes Station and then north to Cazadero.
Before long the town was home to 11 saloons, which may have been where ebullient residents hatched an unsuccessful campaign to have Tomales named the countyseat despite its remote location
Tomales, however, is a town that has had to keep rebuilding itself, for it has been struck by one disaster after another. Town fires in 1877, 1891, and 1898 each destroyed numerous buildings, as did the 1906 earthquake and yet another town fire in 1920. In 1930, the last train pulled out of town, just as Prohibition and the Great Depression were also dealing Tomales economic blows.
Tomales’ population today is about 40 percent below its peak a century ago, and its largest employer is merely good old Tomales High. Nonetheless, townspeople have persevered, and the Founders’ Day crowd sounded almost giddy as they admired the work being done (much of it by volunteers) at their park — and the antiquities being unearthed.