By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
In Brief: With its 19th-century town plaza and its somewhat remote location, north of the main Bay Area urban growth, Healdsburg remains a satisfying glimpse at a quieter, rural-based California. Healdsburg is a progressive little town, but not swept up with modernization.
The Historic Story: Harmon Heald founded a trading post and store at the site that was later named after him. It was he who laid out the town in a grid pattern, allowing for the central plaza that unifies the place.
When the railroad arrived in 1871, Healdsburg became a major produce and canning hub. The agricultural base of the region can still be enjoyed on drives around the region or at the Farmers’ Market held on the plaza. The railroad also brought the first tourists here, who came to appreciate the Russian River, which flows through the area.
The classic Spanish-style plaza is the heart of the town. One block east of the plaza is the Healdsburg Museum, founded by William Langhart, which showcases exhibits on the pioneer and agricultural heritage. The museum has 19th-century clothing, firearms, and Pomo Indian baskets. More than 8,000 photos of the pioneer period are a special part of the collection. The museum building is a restored Carnegie Library, another little gem of Americana preserved.
Trees are a special pleasure of Healdsburg. You might be able to get a copy 0f the “Tree Walk of Healdsburg” booklet from the Chamber of Commerce. It will guide you to the many species planted in the plaza and in the surrounding streets. In the southwest corner of the plaza, where Center and Matheson streets meet, there is a tree story that every explorer of California will enjoy. On one side of the walkway is a coast redwood, readily identifiable, planted in the late 1800s. As many travelers know, the coast redwood also has an inland cousin, the giant redwoods of the Sierra foothills. However, the tree planted opposite the coast redwood is yet another long-lost cousin, known as the dawn redwood.
Botanists knew that the two California redwoods had a distant relative, found only in fossils. In one of the major botanical surprises of the 20th century, these “fossil” dawn redwoods were found to exist in a remote region of China in 1944. This dawn redwood on the Healdsburg plaza was planted here in 1953.
The Bradford pear trees planted along the west side of the plaza are a particularly effective street tree, with leaves brilliantly colored in the autumn.
With the booklet copy in hand you can make a pleasant walk around the town, looking at the specimen trees, which are wonderfully mature.
Historic homes of Healdsburg can be part of the same walk, so pick up a copy of the historic homes flyer at the Chamber of Commerce also. For example, The Adna Phelps House at 68 Front Street is an Italianate structure from 1875. It was built by Adna Phelps, a one-time carpenter, who later became involved in local wineries. He sold to Peter and Guiseppe Simi, Italian immigrant brothers who founded the Simi winery.
Antiquing is a popular activity here. There are a half dozen major antique complexes in the streets around the plaza. Many of the antique shops are clustered together in collectives, such as Plaza Antiques (44 Mill St.). Fourteen shops can be seen at Healdsburg Classics (226 Healdsburg Ave.). Shoffeitts off the Square (208 Healdsburg Ave.) offers one location with a number of dealers. Antique Harvest (225 Healdsburg Ave.) is one of the oldest shops. Two times a year, on weekends close to Memorial Day and Labor Day, there is an outdoor antique fair on the plaza.
Meandering through the rural-based agriculture, especially vineyard and winery complexes, is an interesting outing from Healdsburg. There are vineyards in all directions, with more than 100 wineries and six different “appellations,” or designated wine districts, to visit. The Dry Creek region to the northwest, Alexander Valley northeast, and Russian River southwest are the three main options. One pleasing trip would be a drive up the Dry Creek valley to Lake Sonoma, with a few stops at wineries. Dry Creek Vineyard, 3770 Lambert Bridge Road, has picnic tables. At the end of the road is 2,700-acre Lake Sonoma, open to the public for fishing and picnicking. Maps with winery locations are readily available from the Chamber of Commerce.
Getting There: Drive north from San Francisco 65 miles on Highway 101 until you see the Healdsburg turnoff, north of Santa Rosa. Turn east on Mill Street to reach the plaza.
Be Sure to See: The plaza is worth some time. Sit on a bench, browse the shops and antique stores, perhaps have lunch at Costeaux French Bakery near the plaza. Check out the Healdsburg Museum (221 Matheson St., 707/431-3325, www.healdsburgmuseum.org/visit). Walk the town to see the magnificent trees and early architecture (aided by information from the Chamber of Commerce), and conclude with an excursion into one of the adjacent wine regions, such as Dry Creek.
Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good for Healdsburg. For a small community it has an unusually large number of local festivals. The Antique Fair in early June and late August or the June Jazz Festival would be congenial times for a visit.
Lodging: Honor Mansion is an example of the way B&B owners have restored Victorian structures and turned them into first-class lodgings. The proprietors have carefully nurtured the restoration of this 1883 Italianate home. Honor Mansion is at 14891 Grove St. (800/554-4667 or 707/433-4277, www.honormansion.com).
Dining: Healdsburg has many good restaurants around the plaza or just nearby. The Parish Café (60A Mill St., 707/431-8474, www.theparishcafe.com) is a good spot for a New Orleans-style lunch. The Costeaux French Bakery (417 Healdsburg Ave., 707/433-1913, [email protected]) is a spacious restaurant popular with visitors and locals alike.
For Further Information: Contact the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau (217 Healdsburg Ave., 707/433-6935, www.healdsburg.com).