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Architectural Excursions: Beltane Ranch: From ‘Dusty Place’ to ‘Mammy’s Place’

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday July 09, 2009 - 10:13:00 AM
The Southern-style house built by Mary Ellen Pleasant at Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen is now a bed-and-breakfast inn.
Daniella Thompson
The Southern-style house built by Mary Ellen Pleasant at Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen is now a bed-and-breakfast inn.
The Beltane Ranch living room.
Daniella Thompson
The Beltane Ranch living room.
The dining room retains much of its original flavor.
Daniella Thompson
The dining room retains much of its original flavor.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two articles on the Sonoma County village of Glen Ellen. 


Before there was a Glen Ellen, much of Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon was part of the 18,833-acre Rancho Los Guilucos. The rancho—its name was later corrupted to Guilicos—was granted in 1837 by Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado to John Wilson and his wife, Ramona Carrillo, sister-in-law of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. 

In his book California Place Names, Erwin G. Gudde asserted that Guilucos is derived from the name of an Indian tribe, mentioned in 1823 by the missionary Padre Juan Amorós as la nacion Guiluc. In the language of the Lake Miwok tribe, the word wíilok meant “dusty.” 

Wilson, who never occupied his rancho, sold it in the 1850s to the merchants William Hood and William Pettitt. Hood’s brother-in-law, James Shaw, settled in the Valley of the Moon in the 1860s, establishing Wildwood Vineyard (now Kunde Family Estate). In the late 1870s, Shaw acquired a neighbor in the person of Captain John Hamilton Drummond. 

Drummond’s history is shrouded in haze. His stepson, UC Professor of Viticulture Frederic T. Bioletti, wrote in the Cyclopedia of American Horticulture (1909) that Drummond was born in Ireland about 1850. This version is borne out by the 1880 U.S. Census. Later accounts by other biographers maintain that Drummond was a Scotsman born in 1830. 

According to Bioletti, Drummond “was the second son of David Drummond, a well-known banker and merchant and philanthropist, of Dublin, Ireland. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He served in the 34th regiment of the regular English army in England and India until 1877, when he came to California and became a sheep-raiser in Sonoma County, near Cloverdale. Soon after, he purchased the Dunfillan Ranch, near Glen Ellen, Sonoma county, and was very active in importing new varieties of wine grapes from France, and of table grapes from English hothouses. He was one of the first to graft over the old Mission vineyards with fine varieties. He did much to improve the quality of California wines.” 

In the 11 years during which Drummond engaged in viticulture (he died in 1889), his Dunfillan Vineyard acquired national prestige for its high-quality wines. Drummond planted the North Coast’s first documented Bordeaux vineyard in 1878. He imported Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings from Château Margaux, Château Lafite Rothschild, and the Hermitage in Bordeaux. His 1882 Cabernet Sauvignon was the most admired wine at the California Viticultural Convention. 

Drummond imported several varieties of Pinot noir and made a blush wine called Oeil de Perdrix (eye of the partridge). He was one of the few early winegrowers to show an interest in Chardonnay, which he imported in 1880. He introduced Merlot in 1883. In her book Wines and Vines of California (1889), San Francisco Examiner writer Frona Eunice Wait called Dunfillan “one of the finest vineyards in America.” 

When Drummond died in December 1889, a neighboring vintner, Kate Warfield of the Ten Oaks Winery, was made executor of his estate. She, however, appears to have mismanaged the affair and was replaced the following year. It was perhaps the lack of proper management that brought about the sale of the Dunfillan vineyard. 

At the time of Drummond’s death, Glen Ellen was “the heart of the wine section of the county,” wrote Frona Wait, adding “the hills for miles on both sides of the valley are clad in vines.” Seven years earlier, the San Francisco & North Pacific Railway Company had extended its narrow-gauge line from the town of Sonoma to Glen Ellen, making the area attractive to vacationers and triggering a resort boom. 

When Drummond’s land was sold, it went not to a winegrower but to the wealthiest black woman in San Francisco, Mary Ellen Pleasant, widely known as “Mammy” Pleasant. Born a slave about 1814, Mary Ellen spent her youth as a bonded servant in Nantucket. Twice married, in 1852 she arrived in San Francisco, passing for white. She quickly became a celebrated cook to the town’s elite and shrewdly took advantage of business tips she heard discussed by her employers. Soon she acquired a string of laundries. 

During the financial crisis of 1858, Mrs. Pleasant traveled east, where she befriended abolitionist John Brown and is believed to have financed his failed Harper’s Ferry raid. Escaping back to San Francisco, she avowed her race after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Several years later, denied permission to board a streetcar, she sued the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company in a landmark case that eventually marked her as the “Mother of Civil Rights in California.” 

Mrs. Pleasant had a taste for intrigue and always kept her fingers in multiple pies. She owned boarding houses and possibly brothels, invested in mining operations, and backed speculative business ventures at home and abroad. For nearly 40 years, her fortunes were tied to those of Thomas Bell, a Scotsman who amassed great wealth through banking, mining, and brokerage. Some say she was his advisor. He married her protégée, Teresa. 

It was Mary Ellen Pleasant who built and furnished the 30-room Italianate mansion the Bells occupied with their six children and numerous servants at 1661 Octavia St. She lived there with them, running the household with an iron hand. 

In June 1891, Mrs. Pleasant purchased a 985-acre spread in Glen Ellen that included the 150-acre Drummond vineyard and surrounding homesteads. She named her new property Beltane Ranch, and it became a weekend home for herself and the Bells. 

The following year, she built on the ranch a two-story, Southern-style house with wraparound balconies. Teresa and the children spent much of their time here. But country living wasn’t cheap, and Mary Ellen was forced to sell some 200 acres and eventually signed the deed over to Mrs. Bell. 

In June 1893, a report to the Board of State Viticultural Commission stated that the “former J. H. Drummond place of 150 acres, once planted to superior foreign varieties and noted for its vineyard,” was “now badly infested by phylloxera, half the vineyard, or 75 acres, being entirely gone, and the other half near the end of its existence. It is proposed to clean up the entire vineyard after this year and use the land for other purposes.” Mrs. Teresa Bell was named as the owner. 

Thomas Bell died in October 1892 after falling over the stair balustrade in his Octavia Street home. The ensuing years saw Mrs. Pleasant and the Bell heirs increasingly entangled in sensational lawsuits. The newspapers took delight in publishing lurid stories about the devious, controlling “Mammy,” while the Bell mansion acquired the moniker “The House of Mystery.” 

Mary Ellen Pleasant was declared an insolvent debtor in 1898. Her creditors alleged that she had deeded the ranch to Mrs. Bell in order to avoid paying her debts. By the following year, her friendship with Teresa Bell was at an end, and she was forced out of house and ranch. She died in 1904 and was buried in Napa. At her request, her gravestone bears the epitaph “M.E.P. She was a friend of John Brown.” 

Beltane Ranch did not revert to vineyards until the 1970s. The house that Mary Ellen Pleasant built is now a charming bed-and-breakfast inn, set amidst flower gardens and ancient oaks. The ruins of the Dunfillan winery can be seen on the grounds of the neighboring Kunde winery.