History
September 21, 2018
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From the Archives VI-2008

By: Irene Hilsendager
June 15, 2018

In the archives, we are guarding an original silk screen Rohnert Park flag from 1996, donated by Ann and Ron Rasmussen. Flags, banners and signs are important to the identity of a community.  They inform the public, create unity and most of all, say, “welcome” to newcomers. Rohnert Park has always been conscious of how they lay out their welcome mat.

With that in mind, perhaps part of the 2012 50th anniversary celebration could be the creation of a commemorative banner for the occasion. Whatever the motif, it seems important that the sweet pea be kept central to the design.  

Let us look back as to how this small item became essential to Rohnert Park’s development. The story goes that the Rohnert Seed Farm in Hollister, California, contracted with C.C. Morse Company.

“Originally part of C.C. Morse, Santa Clara pioneer breeder in sweet peas, established the C. C. Morse & Co. in 1877. The C. C. Morse & Co. was the successor to Cox Seed Co. in San Francisco.  Morse’s son Lester L. Morse, born in 1870, continued the development of the sweet pea and he wrote guide, “Field Notes on Sweet Peas.”   

In 1930, the company was merged with the D. M. Ferry & Co., Detroit, Michigan to become the Ferry-Morse Seed Company. The Pacific Coast operations were under the direction of Lester L. Morse. Lester’s son Charles C. Morse continued the development of flowers. 

In 1929, Hollister farmer Waldo Emerson Rohnert decided to expand his seed farm operation and purchased 4,000 acres from former Rancho Cotate, owned at that time by McNear Land Company.  

With his degree in agriculture from Michigan State College, he may have been overly optimistic that he could develop the tough adobe soil into profitable farmland. His workers labored hard to till the tough adobe soil, often breaking metal hoes, to make it produce vegetable seeds. They dug mile-long swales, fifty feet apart, four feet in height. Half the land was used for agriculture, while the other half rested as “vernal pool.”  Flooding was always a problem. They then concentrated on enriching the soil.  

But the most popular were the sweet pea seeds. Doris O’Dell tells this story in her 1960 book, “History of Cotati”:

“(Waldo Emerson) Rohnert devised a system to drain the fields…mustard, radishes, garlic, onions, lettuce and carrots were grown in the fields, but the crop that most people remember best is the sweet peas. Nick Wodrich, who worked for the Rohnert farm, remembers that in 1939 there were seventy acres, all in multi-colored sweet peas. Trains full of sightseers would come up from Sausalito and travel at about five miles an hour – a man could walk alongside the moving train – just so people could see and smell the blossoms. They’d go to Santa Rosa, then turn around and come right back, breathing deeply all the way. On a hot day, the seeds would pop open and it sounded like a field full of firecrackers.”

The farm was eventually sold to Maurice Fredericks and Paul Golis in 1956 and a city blossomed where sweet peas once grew. The city was incorporated in 1962. A special 1987 flag was designed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the city’s founding, featuring sweet peas under a rainbow.

In the early 1990s, clothing designer Vida Jones was asked by the Founders Day committee to design a T-shirt with sweet peas in the logo. She then spearheaded a public relations campaign to add sweet peas to city signs.  She outfitted a young girl in a pink dress and fancy curls and sent her to a city council meeting, along with vases of sweet peas for each member. Jones worked with middle school drama teacher Gary Reiss, who taught the young girl Victorian elocution to use as she recited John Keats’ 1884 poem “I Stood Tip-Toe Upon A Little Hill”, which included this stanza:

“Here are sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight;

With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white,

And taper fingers catching at all things,

To bind them all about with tiny rings.”

During the discussion and ensuing favorable vote, there was “no contest.”  

Community Voice writer Jud Snyder lobbied and won a change in name of Northwest Boulevard. to Seed Farm Drive.

In 1996, the Founders Day committee, led by Lew Keuhm, initiated a contest to design a new flag for Rohnert Park, with a prize of a $100 Savings Bond. The design contest began shortly after a flag enthusiast came through town, promoting a Sacramento exhibition of city flags from all over the country, asking for Rohnert Park’s entry.  

Donna Collodi, a resident since 1976, won the contest, and was also honored as that year’s Parade Grand Marshall. Her husband Pete described her as “an eternal doodler” and recalled that, “She doodles while she’s on the phone – drawing bottles, cups, all kinds of things.”  

Her original design was a picture of bright purple sweet pea blossoms, held by hands from two different races.  The idea was revised, with four clasped hands, representing four major ethnicities.  

While I admit that I have failed to grow any sweet peas at all in Rohnert Park, many have succeeded. A 50th Anniversary festival could be almost entirely centered around sweet peas, if not from fresh flowers, then photographed and painted ones. We now have a Sweet Pea craft shop in the Codding Center and there are all kinds of products made from the sweet pea, from soaps to perfumes and baby balms and even songs (How about Tommy Roe’s “Sweet Pea” as a theme song for a sock hop?) A sweet pea festival might be just the focus for Rohnert Park’s 50th Anniversary. It certainly appeals to the senses while honoring a valuable facet of the town’s heritage.

Irene Hilsendager’s column each week touches on moments in the history of Cotati, Rohnert Park and Penngrove.