Free time in December is as rare as unsold chocolate hazelnut scones from Cheese Board. Time disappears with scheduled activities and holiday responsibilities. But wait, a dim light glows ahead—one open day.
Fancy a walk? Or several? Away from muddy trails and dripping leaves. A change of scenery, interesting architecture, handsome Victorians, a soothing river and a plethora of unique shops. One destination, all within easy walking distance.
Downtown Petaluma retains its 19th century heritage amid present day small town charm. Spared from damage from the 1906 earthquake, both commercial businesses and homes seem timeless.
Include the Petaluma River and enticing rural backroads and you’ll find a single visit not long enough.
It’s obvious that Petaluma is proud to share its attractions. Excellent visitor services make excursions a breeze. Well-described self-guided walking tours, information kiosks and directional signs are plentiful. So leave your tasks behind for a day and join me as I explore historic Petaluma.
Commerce beckoned so I headed to Putnam Plaza Park, the site of Petaluma’s birth and the first stop on the Historic Downtown Walking Tour. With bubbling brick fountain, arched entry and shaded benches this pleasant spot is a natural meeting place. As I followed Petaluma Boulevard the brochure described unique architectural features. The American Trust Building’s stone-like façade is actually terra cotta. Atop the Masonic Building pops Petaluma’s landmark clock, easily visible above the skyline. The massive McNear Building complex is eye-catching with its street-side Saloon and Dining House occupying the former Mystic Theater. From the attractive tricolor scheme of deep maroon, tan and gold to an outdoor patio and full wood interior, McNear's seemed the place to be. Too difficult was the choice between a Linguisa Scramble and a BBQ Beef Sandwich with Fries.
At B Street the route led to the Petaluma River where new construction harmonizes with the old. Arched detailing, brick walls and interesting rooflines all blend to one attractive statement. The imposing Great Petaluma Mill’s grain shoots overlook the river; inside is a complex of shops and eateries. The Apple Box proved to be the first of many browse-worthy distractions. Country-style crafts vied with appealing pastries, hand-brewed coffee and lunch specials for my attention. Brightly painted ceramics, linens and aprons would brighten any winter day. Cozy seating inside and riverside tables on the deck above gliding kayakers complete the picture of an interesting stop.
The windows at Moreda’s outdoor lifestyle store again drew my eyes away from architectural details. Attractive displays and warm staff were spot-on to what a country shop should be like. Printed flannel shirts for him, souvenir chicken sweatshirts for her, dog and horse goodies for your best pals, fishing and hunting supplies for granddad—something for everyone!
Another tribute to Petaluma’s “Egg Basket of the World” fame beckoned from Chelsea Market. Wonderful welded metal sculptures of chickens and their young’uns, some over three-feet tall, were painted in bold yellows, blues and reds. I wanted to adopt the entire flock.
Returning to the guided walk I learned that Kentucky Street also owes its existence to the booming poultry industry. Small shops, narrow tree-lined street, metal awnings, benches and flowered planters create a relaxed charm. In Copperfield Books’ children’s area dads sat atop big floor pillows, kids and books in their laps, seeming in no hurry to leave.
The buildings on Western Avenue, known as “Iron Front Row,” handsomely display their cast iron fronts, believed to serve as fireproofing in the 1880s. At walk’s end was Petaluma’s Historical Library and Museum, where it was difficult to determine what was more impressive—the exhibits or the building itself. Constructed in 1903 with donations from Andrew Carnegie, the stately exterior combines sandstone and white pressed brick, classic columns and arched windows. Center stage inside on the vaulted ceiling is an exquisite sunburst leaded glass dome in reds, gold and blue. Beautifully maintained wood paneling and shiny brass railings on the mezzanine level signal the care afforded this treasure.
Exhibits reflect Petaluma’s past lives. Poultry memorabilia occupy a good portion of floor space. I was intrigued with the Whirlway egg cleaner. With two long rollers on a wood frame farmers could wash and dry 2500 eggs per hour, important to accumulating the 600 million eggs sold every year. Alongside this stood the egg carton presser, vital to the safe transport of Petaluma’s “gold” crop. Ingenuity reigned upstairs in the floorless chicken coop. Hitched to a horse, farmers would simply move it to a new location when conditions inside warranted.
The Kickerbocker Number Five pumper, room-size looks into early kitchens, schoolrooms and sitting rooms lead me back to simpler days. Exhibits on the river’s role in Petaluma’s origin and growth and contributions by early Chinese immigrants peaked my interest and lengthened my stay.
Entering Petaluma I had enviously marveled at the wealth of showcase Victorian homes. Another self-guided walk brochure highlights a six-block area around A Street, pointing out the variety of architectural styles present in this neighborhood. From the Greek and Gothic Revivals of the 1860s through the Colonial, Georgian and Queen Anne homes of the early 1900s, there are enough columns, towers, balustrades, porticos and gables to thrill any home buff. Actually, any wander around Petaluma’s historic neighborhoods will find you admiring lovely period homes and their well-tended gardens.
At this point I knew another visit was somewhere in my future, hopefully next spring when costumed docents lead all the walks. Additional walks would await my return. The River Walk highlights the docks on the east side of the river and includes a stroll through Cavanagh Park. Four separate tours are needed to view the diversity of Petaluma’s trees, over 50-species. This alone warrants a springtime return.
Before I left Petaluma, nature’s calls and chirps directed me to Shollenberger Park. This restored wetlands along the Petaluma River attracts over 160 bird species yearly. Believe it or not, yet another self-guided tour with fifteen nature stations forms a two-mile loop. A pleasant asphalted path skirts the perimeter of dredge spoil ponds teeming with mallard, coot killdeer, sandpiper and curlew. Newly planted trees, native cattails and bulrushes, tree swallow birdhouses and benches line the shoreline and marsh habitats. While some visitors studied the trail brochure, a mini-course in wetland ecology, others came to briskly walk or jog the scenic trail. If your feet are still tapping after two miles, the Alman Marsh Trail connects to Petaluma’s attractive marina, an additional two-mile round trip.
Petaluma’s warm cheer followed me home. The feeling persisted that people enjoy residing there. Outdoor café seats and benches; attractively landscaped streets and homes; friendly voices and helpful clerks signal a pride and contentment that make Petaluma more that the sum of its parts. Walk your way around Petaluma; discover it for yourself.
Getting there: Take Hwy. 101 north and exit at Petaluma Blvd. South. Follow signs for Historic Downtown. Distance about 40 miles.
Petaluma Visitors Center: 210 Lakeville St., (877) 273-8258, www.visitpetaluma.com
Historical Library and Museum: 20 Fourth St., (707) 778-4398, www.petalumamuseum.com. Open Wed.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. noon-3 p.m.
Shollenberger Park: Take Lakeville Hwy (116) north. Turn right on McDowell Blvd. South and right on Cader Lane.
Open dawn to dusk, admission free, (707) 763-3577. www.petalumawetlandpark.com.?