Home & Garden Columns

Step Back in Time at Ardenwood Historic Farm

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 14, 2006

Down a tree-canopied lane bordered by lush fields of lettuce, corn and pumpkin. Through a filigreed iron gate and white picket fence. Past goldenrod Arden Station where Tucker waits to pull a visitor-laden rail car to Deer Park Station. Drop out of the frenzied pace of modern life. Get lost in the country estate of a wealthy 20th century farmer, a place caught in time. Visit Ardenwood Farm. 

At the historic home of George Washington Patterson the clock appears to have stopped 100-years ago, when simple pursuits occupied one’s day. Watching clear water burst forth from a bright red pump, tasting cookies baked in an outdoor wood-burning stove, changing straw in the stalls of draft horses, milk cows and woolly sheep, harvesting, shucking and grinding corn and making dolls from the husks, forging horseshoes from black iron. Though life has moved on, activities such as these make for a relaxing day “down on the farm.” 

In 1849, gold fever enticed George Washington Patterson west to San Francisco and California’s gold fields. After eighteen months, sick and out of funds, Patterson turned to his area of expertise, farming, using his wages to acquire land, one piece at a time. By 1877, the time of his marriage to Clara Hawley, his 6,000-acres made him one of the area’s richest and most respected men. Today, 205-acres remain, as if preserved in amber, functioning as a working farm. From the handsome butter-yellow mansion trimmed in brown and landscaped with a Victorian garden and lawn-side gazebo, to a massive hay barn, tank house, blacksmith shop, animal pens, orchard and fields of crops, Ardenwood Historic Farm captivates the imagination and tantalizes collective memories of a simpler life. 

On a beautiful fall weekday I toured Ardenwood, map in hand, surrounded by groups of delighted school children. Amid chattering voices sprinkled with bird song I headed first to the Farmyard, the heart of a working farm. At the imposing grey and white Hay Barn I ambled past a wheeled version of the farm’s history. Here all manner of vehicles reside, from a vintage wooden buggy suitable for Sunday drives, to a more recent John Deere tractor. 

In the Corn Room, windows open to the breeze, I watched the corn shucker and grinder reduce dried ears to cornmeal. Outside, a stately black draft horse basked in youthful admiration while contented cows drowsed in the shade on thick beds of clean straw. The Blacksmith was kept busy with orders of personalized horseshoes from an enthusiastic group; numbers steadily increased from six to eight to ten. As he wrote down names and collected payment his assistant shaped iron in the heat of glowing coals. 

Towering above hundred-year-old trees, the weathered windmill-topped Tank House is now under restoration by volunteers, as a future water museum. At the Country Kitchen stood a cream colored Monarch wood burning stove, protected from the elements beneath a sturdy wood overhang. Here pots bubbled and bread baked, aromas wafting through the yard. Nearby, the Laundry occupied center stage in an expanse of green. A big cast iron pot rested above a ring of smooth river stones with a corrugated metal and wood washboard at the ready. 

Something fresh from the oven lured me to the Farmyard Café. I passed up nachos and hot dogs in favor of a warm pumpkin nut muffin and coffee. At an oilcloth-covered picnic table beneath spreading oaks I lingered, enjoying my repast and the life of the farm. Around me squirrels scurried, their cheeks bulging with walnuts plucked from the orchard nearby; peahens and peacocks foraged for orts around the picnic area; kids took turns flexing their muscles at the farmyard pump giggling amid the splashes; the alternating pounding and tapping of the blacksmith mingled with the smell of burning coal. Ardenwood is no ‘model’ farm; everything here is life size and substantial, seemingly rooted in the ground and in history. 

Sated, I was ready to tour the house and gardens, home to three generations of Pattersons. Passing through the Kitchen Garden I admired shiny green bell and jalapeno peppers, royal-purple eggplants, plump heirloom tomatoes and massive heads of parsley, all organically grown. In the Flower Garden wooden posts and white ropes separated beds of colorful cosmos in shades of pink and magenta, golden marigolds and vivid dahlias. 

Surrounding the mansion, the Victorian Gardens are an eclectic mixture of long-standing flora—redwoods, palms, maples, eucalyptus, sycamore and three red-hued sassafras trees bordering the house. Across the lawn, within an encircling hedge and sheltered by light-filtering foliage, sits the white-trimmed Gazebo with open lattice, turned posts and a peaked, domed roof, ready to hear whispered gossip and squeals of childish delight. 

Volunteers are critical to Ardenwood’s operation and appeal. My house tour was lead by Joann, a docent for 20 years, in part because she loves to dress up. In her attractive black-and-white blouse and skirt and black hat, she enthusiastically talked her way through rooms and family history. My group was regaled with the Pattersons’ stories and a glimpse into their era. In his fifties, George Patterson wed a young woman of twenty; his gift the Queen Anne addition to the old farmhouse. From the Romanesque arches and Queen Anne corner sporting curved glass windows to the rare sycamore wood used within, the Patterson home spoke of wealth and prestige. 

Lovingly restored, with almost all original furnishings, the mansion is a cornucopia of a busy family. Behind massive doors opened only for guests, the front parlor shines with parquet floors and stained glass windows. The guest bedroom occupies the premier location and the Queen Anne corner. In the master bedroom, an Italian blue tile fireplace and a mattress stiffly stuffed with horsehair, collected from the farm. On the wall, behind glass, human hair keepsakes, woven into intricate patterns and braided into bracelets and necklaces. A young gentleman’s bedroom furnished with fishing gear, tennis racket and a Stanford football photo from 1904. Another photo testament to the dances once held in the attic. Hidden below the dining room carpet, a buzzer used to summon the cook for more biscuits, freshly made. 

Still buzzing with echoes from the past, I headed to Deer Park Station to board the railcar pulled along the tracks by Tucker, a Herculean Belgian draft horse capable of towing three laden cars—90,000 pounds. Through a Monarch butterfly-festooned eucalyptus grove, we meandered back to Arden Station, leaving behind the simple life but anxious to return again at a new season, when the rhythm of life on the farm changes but continues. 



Getting there: Take Hwy 880 south to Fremont. Exit 880 on Hwy 84 toward the Dumbarton Bridge. Exit 84 at Ardenwood/Newark Blvd. Go north on Ardenwood Blvd to the park entrance. Distance 30 miles.  


Ardenwood Historic Farm: 34600 Ardenwood Blvd., Fremont, 796-0663, www.ebparks.org/parks/arden. Open year-round Tues.-Sun. 10-4 p.m. Entrance fees vary by day of the week. Adults $2-$5, seniors $2-$4, children 4-17 years $1-$3.50. 


Photograph by Marta Yamamoto 

The fully furnished Patterson Mansion artfully combines a country farmhouse with an elegant Queen Anne addition, a wedding gift from George Patterson to his bride.