Mon 14 May 2012
With a parade, music, historical exhibits, and sunny weather, Nicasio residents on Saturday celebrated the 150th anniversary of their township’s founding on May 12, 1862, and of their school district’s founding a day later.
An antique paddy wagon in Saturday’s parade.
Although only 96 people live in Nicasio, according to the 2010 census, a variety of businesses have always faced the town square, which is surrounded by prosperous ranches.
The town is at the geographic center of Marin County, and this led its merchants in the 1860s to press for Nicasio to become the county seat with the square to be the site of its Civic Center. Luckily (as is obvious in hindsight) Nicasio lost out to San Rafael because the little town was not easily accessible from the rest of the county.
Its square was subsequently used as “a hayfield, a baseball field (semi-pro and Little League), a pasture, and sleeping quarters for one Nicasio resident, Louie DiGeorgio,” notes Around the Square, an historical pamphlet compiled for Saturday’s celebration.
DiGeorgio “lived there with a bed and other pieces of furniture until the parish priest told him it was inappropriate.”
St. Mary’s Catholic Church was built in 1867 of redwood cut and milled in Nicasio.
St. Mary’s suffered a “near catastrophe” (above) on Christmas Day 1921 when “a severe windstorm blew the church off its foundation and toppled the steeple,” Around the Square notes. However, “repairs were made promptly.”
These days the quaint little church is the subject of more photographs and paintings than any other building in town.
In 1867, construction of the Nicasio Hotel began. It was to become the grandest building in town.
“The hotel in its early days,” notes Around the Square, “was equipped with the latest and best in furnishings for the guests’ use in all areas, including the bar, parlor, dining room, ballroom and guests rooms.” It had “an outdoor dance floor and picnic area.”
On Dec. 15, 1940, a discarded cigarette in the parlor started a fire that destroyed the hotel. “John Mertens, who had purchased the hotel just three months prior to the fire, built the Nicasio Ranch House Restaurant in 1941 on the old hotel’s site.” In 1943, it was renamed Rancho Nicasio.
Taft House on the south side of the square was built around 1867 by William Miller, who also built the Nicasio Hotel.
Hiram Taft and his family were apparently Miller’s first tenants. Around the Square says, “On April 18, 1870, the “Nicasio Post Office was established with Hiram as the first postmaster.” He also worked as stage driver and Wells Fargo agent from this house.
The Wells Fargo stagecoach in Saturday’s parade.
“When the narrow-gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad was completed from Sausalito to Tomales [in 1875], a station was established in San Geronimo Valley called Nicasio Station, and stage driver Hiram Taft would now meet trains in his wagon to bring people, mail, and freight to and from Nicasio….
“The house has been owned and occupied since 1943 by four generations of the Dinsmore family.”
Unfortunately for Dave Dinsmore, who now lives in there, the house has periodically had to contend with speeding southbound vehicles. Coming at the end of a long straightaway into town, Nicasio Valley Road’s 90-degree turn in front of the house has sent nighttime speeders flying off the road and into his fence and porch.
The building that once housed the Druid’s meeting room was built in 1885. It included on the ground floor a general store that sold “groceries, clothing, over-the-counter remedies, buttons, ribbons, tobacco, cigarettes, candy, soft drinks, and in later days ice cream,” Around the Square notes. The Druid’s meeting room was on the second floor. “There was a very small but active saloon in the back of the first floor,” the historical pamphlet adds.
This photo of Hank LaFranchi in the general store was among dozens of historic photos on display Saturday.
Nicasio Post Office operated in a phone-booth-sized room at the front door of the store from 1885 to 1952. The telephone switchboard for the Nicasio area was on the opposite side of the door. In 1952, a fire that resulted from a short circuit in a fuse box razed the store.
By then, the Druids had (in 1934) built a separate building for themselves next to the store. It was damaged in the fire but was quickly repaired.
A retreat for Ladies of the Night — just north of the square on the west side of Nicasio Valley Road is Madame Labordette’s House mostly hidden by foliage.
Madame Labordette’s house was built in the 1860s, and for “many years around the early 1900s, this was the country home of Madame Marie P. Labordette, a French woman who owned a ‘house’ [brothel] in San Francisco,” Around the Square says.
“According to locals who remembered her, Mme. Labordette would bring her ‘girls’ to Nicasio for a rest, arriving with her entourage, which included a cook, servants, and her business manager.
“Her Nicasio country home was a proper, prim place, and she was a very proper and well-liked heavy-set woman, elegantly attired and covered in diamond rings.”
Saturday’s sesquicentennial celebration was a project of the Nicasio Historical Society. Around the Square: a Walking Tour of Historic Nicasio Town Square was written by Joe McNeil with Elaine Doss and Dewey Livingston.