I first became involved with what was then called Sonoma State Hospital in the spring of 1968 when, as a high school junior, some friends and I began volunteering there. In the half century since then, the Sonoma Developmental Center has been a constant presence in my life — first as an employer for a few years, and in subsequent decades as a vibrant part of the village of Glen Ellen, which I have called home for most of my life. What follows is the full text of a brief presentation given in honor of the institution, covering the history, the people, the parents, the land, and the potential future of this remarkable place.

SDC Commemoration – Nov 3, 2018 – Prepared Remarks

Ed’s Opening

SDC Commemoration Presenters - Nov 3 2018Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to welcome you to this commemorative celebration in honor of the 127 years of service the Sonoma Developmental Center has rendered to this community, and to the countless residents and employees who have been a part of its incredible story. My name is Ed Davis. I will be acting as your MC for the next hour as our presenters speak to the history, the people, the parents, the land, and the future of this remarkable place. Each of us here have a personal relationship with SDC. Mine dates back to 1968 when I first volunteered at the facility. Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge some community leaders whose relationships with SDC have brought them here today, and who will play an important role in the goal we all share, of Protecting What We Love.

  • State Senator Mike McGuire
  • Assemblyman Mark Levine
  • Assemblywoman Cecilia Aquiar-Curry
  • Supervisor Susan Gorin

Jim Shere is going to lead us off. Jim is a local psychotherapist, a writer, and the director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Sonoma County Historical Society, and cofounder of the Glen Ellen Forum.

A Place Set Aside –

For thousands of years the landscape of our valley changed very little, and then only according to the natural seasons of the year.  Then, less than 200 years ago, great changes came abruptly—sprawling ranches were established, which quickly became family farms, and a sleepy frontier pueblo became an international destination.  But one place was set aside, and remained largely unchanged.

In 1882, Julia Judah and Frances Bentley, two prominent women in San Francisco with severely disabled children needing intensive care, lobbied among the wealthy and powerful to establish an association to “provide and maintain a school and asylum for the feeble-minded, in which they may be trained to usefulness.”  Their vision was of a healthy, self-sustaining country life style, characterized by fresh food and clean air— a calm and natural place, set aside from the demands of society. 

A commission headed by Captain Oliver Eldridge was established to find the ideal place to shelter and provide for these children.  Captain Eldridge had skippered ships around the Horn from New York to San Francisco, and after retiring from the sea he devoted the remainder of his life to charitable work.  He negotiated the purchase of a ranch near Glen Ellen, and was honored by having the place named after him.

On November 24, 1891, 148 residents arrived, and a brass band met their train and accompanied their parade to their new home.  (I’m imagining the stirring Sousa marches popular at that time.)  In the early years of the new century the home grew quickly.  In 1903 the institution came under the jurisdiction of the newly formed State Commission in Lunacy, with a population of 554— more than three times the number that had arrived eight years earlier.

Told in the Drooling Ward by Jack LondonEldridge underwent many changes as perception and treatment of severe disabilities changed.  In 1909 the name of the institution was reduced from The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children to The Sonoma State Home, and the “cottage plan” began replacing dormitories to organize the population according to diagnoses and treatment modalities.

In 1918, when the Spanish influenza epidemic overwhelmed the home, killing dozens of inmates and several staff members, a new era began with Dr. Fred Butler as Superintendent.  By this time the population had more than doubled to 1,358.  Unlike his many predecessors, Dr. Butler remained Superintendent for more than 30 years.   

By 1923 there were 1,625 residents at Eldridge.  According to a report at that time, “The cannery… employs scores of the inmates, and enough canned fruit including peaches, plums, pears, apples and other fruits is being put up in sufficient quantity to supply the entire institution the year around.  The dairy is supplying all the milk necessary and the poultry farm supplies more than enough eggs and chickens for the institution.”

Throughout the Twenties the population grew, and by 1930 there were 3,500 people at Eldridge.  With this growth came the influx of several infectious diseases, and the first full time bacteriologist, Dr. Karl Meyer, was hired in 1927 to combat what was then called “the scourge of congregate living.” 

Eugenics— a highly controversial social engineering program, then and now— was introduced with the routine sterilization of those believed to be inappropriate for childbearing.  About this practice Dr. Butler wrote: “Personally, it is my view that if a child cannot be born of normal parents it were better not to be born— for the child’s sake.”

The medical research that took place there— including the development of vaccines for measles and polio— was intended to benefit society; and yet ugly rumors circulated outside Eldridge, based upon a general misunderstanding of standard medical protocols, and a popular fascination with the dark and macabre.

Soon after Dr. Butler’s retirement the institution was once again renamed in 1953, this time as Sonoma State Hospital.  The practice of routine sterilization was brought to an end, and attitudes toward care of the residents began reflecting the changes taking place throughout the country, involving the civil rights of disabled people, and bringing about a paradigm shift from providing asylum for the profoundly disabled to bringing them back into the community.

During Dr. Porter’s administration the Parent Hospital Association was established, and the training of psychiatric technicians began.   When Dr. Nelson became Superintendent, the school was enlarged, and a respite program was opened to help keep children in their own homes, with their own families. 

The facility started a non-profit enterprise called Sunrise Industries, a forerunner of the recycling industry of today.  In 1973 adaptive mobility devices began being designed to give bed-ridden people an opportunity to move about, and what started as a one-man operation became Specialized Rehabilitation Services, which now produces customized shoes, chairs, and positioning devices.  

In 1980, a massive remodeling of the campus was implemented, in which dormitory-style living was eliminated, and private and semi-private dining and sleeping arrangements were provided.  The institutional look began changing to a more home-like atmosphere, and such programs as the Special Olympics and Boy Scouts were introduced.

For more than a century the facility at Eldridge had brought thousands of altruistic and caring people to live and work with the most desperately disadvantaged people in all of California.  The unique character of the village of Glen Ellen was largely shaped by these good people, many of whom have remained here after their retirement.  As SDC itself retires this year their numbers will begin to dwindle, and the place known as Eldridge will once again change— this time more deeply.  

What happened here was a great and long-standing effort, by many courageous and compassionate people, to care for the people who needed their care.  May the people who were here always be remembered— from Julia Judah, Frances Bentley, and Captain Eldridge, to the thousands of people that have lived and worked here since— in this place set aside, which now must once again change.  I wish it well.


Aleana Carreon, our next speaker, will be the last Executive Director of The Sonoma Developmental Center. She worked her way into that position from the ground up, will share some thoughts about her family’s history with SDC, her career, and her hopes for its future.

    • Thank you, Ed.  I am honored to be here today.  I’d like to tell you a little about myself and my history at SDC.  I started working here in 1976 – 42 years ago. I started as a Student Assistant then became a Psychiatric Technician, then promoted to SPT, Program Manager and continued on the promotional path to ED.


    • There have been many changes at SDC over the years.  When I started in 1976, there were over 2000 people living there on 50 residences with up to 45 people living in each residence.  During these days, there were no bedrooms, but dorms and the bathrooms and showers were not individualized. When buildings were remodeled to include private bathrooms and showers, we didn’t know how we would do our job with this new setting, but we figured it out!  We did a lot of great things during these times: we had creative activities, did frequent field trips to the community including lots of overnight trips and taught people to enjoy life and to be more independent. The staff were just as committed back then as they are today.


    • I have strong connections to SDC, not only because of my years here, but I have family connections as well.  My mother worked here, we went through the Psychiatric Technician program together (attended classes in the historic brick building).  My mother waited until she retired to tell me that she had an aunt that lived at SDC! I’d like to tell you a little about my great-great aunt Rose: 
        • She was the 11th child born to her family in 1888.


        • She was admitted to Sonoma State Home in 1932 at the age of 44 for having peculiar tantrums.


        • She lived on Hill and Walnut, both places where I worked.


        • She died at the facility in 1959 at the age of 71.


        • I learned just a couple of months ago that her cremains are buried at the SDC cemetery.


      • Her notice of death was sent to my grandmother (who died when I was an infant) by Dr. Thom Nelson.  Dr. Nelson was the Superintendent at the Sonoma State Home, which is the equivalent of the Executive Director.  The Nelson building at SDC is named after him. I was able to meet him last December when he came to visit SDC. It was an honor to talk with him and to hear his experiences.


    • On October 9th, last year, we faced the most difficult task of all.  The firestorm broke out during the night shift, with the fewest staff available.  The night shift staff did a fabulous job preparing residents to evacuate if needed (which ultimately happened).  Off duty staff started arriving early on and helped evacuate 4 homes from the north side to the south side of the facility.  Then all 241 residents were evacuated to Sonoma at the Veterans Hall and to Adele Harrison Middle School. Because the fire was approaching that area, we evacuated again to the Dixon May Fairgrounds on October 11th.  2 weeks later, we returned to SDC. The dedication of staff, volunteers, families, DDS staff and supporting agencies was amazing! This experience brought us together in ways that words can’t describe.


    • Every major event in my life has somehow been connected to SDC.  When I got married in the 80s, my coworkers celebrated with me. When my son was born in the 90s, premature and hospitalized, I remember the support I received from the staff members.  When my parents became ill and subsequently passed away, the caring words I received helped me through this. During good times and hard times, it helped to be at work in a place that I loved.   The staff and residents of SDC have become an extended family for me and I’ve made lifetime friends during my time here.


    • When I was growing up, my parents took us camping and hiking in beautiful areas.  When I came to work at SDC, I fell in love with the beauty of the property. I have walked and hiked around it over the years.  These last couple of years, I’ve done more exploring and have found trails I hadn’t experienced before. I spend almost every lunchbreak on trails enjoying the beauty, the birds, hawks, bobcats, deer, turkeys, squirrels and rabbits.  


    • I am retiring on December 1st and I look back on my career, it has been an honor to be the Executive Director at SDC during this closure.  I am so thankful for the hundreds of thousands of employees, past and present, who chose to serve people with developmental disabilities. My dream is to be able to return to the property to continue enjoying the beauty and memories that surrounds it.


    • I love the theme of today’s event “Protecting What We Love”.  SDC will always hold a special place in my heart.


  • Thank you.

Kathleen Miller. In her role as PHA President. Kathleen Miller is an advocate for the Sonoma Developmental Center residents. She also supported families in their role as advocates for their family members as they transitioned from SDC to community homes. She believes each former SDC resident deserve the supports they need to have a rich. and full. and safe life.

She continues in her advocacy and support for of those with disabilities and their families today.

Thank you, Ed, and thank you Alena. I also want to take a moment to thank the dedicated and professional staff who for years cared for those we love.

I know I speak for our families when I wish them well deserved happiness and success.

Good evening. I am going to begin tonight with a short poem:

    • The bustle in the house
    • The morning after death
    • Is solemnest of industries
    • Enacted upon earth


  • The sweeping up the heart
  • And putting love away
  • We shall not want to use again
  • Until eternity
  • Unknown author

For some of us gathered here tonight the closing of Sonoma Developmental Center is akin to the passing of someone close to us. The loss may not be unexpected, but it is a deeply felt loss just the same. It was parents, two mothers, who years ago saw to the founding of the Center and it is fitting that the descendent organization of families who now mark its end.

But the time for looking back must give way to the need to look forward. First, we must protect the SDC site starting with the protection of the open land. That open space is critical; home to wildlife and an important source of watershed and water supply. It is also a respite for many who seek out its quiet, natural beauty.

Also, as we have heard, SDC has a rich history, including the history of the Center and those who lived and some who died there. It is a history that must be honored. To honor it we may choose to begin with the cemetery, by working together to see to improving this long forgotten and neglected site where some 2000 former residents are buried.

Camp Via was a place where the disabled of past generations could enjoy a natural setting and it should be restored so future generations, both those with disabilities and without, can enjoy it as they have done in years past. Camp Via needs to once again be a place where people can learn about and enjoy nature.

There needs to be an SDC museum, where the past is recorded for us to revisit and learn from. But the more recent years of SDC must also be recorded; up to and including the closure.

SDC also neighbors the community of Glen Ellen, a community that is more than a tourist destination.  It is home to those who live and work and raise families. Whatever happens on the SDC site affects them and their community; their home. They, along with others with ties to SDC must have a voice in what happens there.

Then, there are the former residents of SDC. We of PHA are not just about protecting what we love, but who we love; our friends, our brothers and sisters, and our sons and daughters.

I hope you have taken a moment to enjoy the incredible photographs taken by Christian of some of the last SDC residents and their families. Notice how in these photographs the differences and disabilities seem to fade as the connection between the subjects become the focus. Whether they depict residents simply enjoying a gentle touch or a laugh out loud or simply smiling into the camera along with their family, the photographs capture the love and highlight our common humanity.

Due to heroic efforts of many, some in this room, most former SDC residents have the support they need outside the Center. Those lucky enough to live in Sonoma County receive their medical care in a clinic that has a specialized focus on former SDC residents. Most former residents are doing well in their new homes; a few continue to struggle. Now former SDC families join with the rest of the community families who have a sibling or son or daughter who is born different; with autism, or a developmental delay or a series of complex health issues. We will share in the struggle to care for those we love or to obtain the services needed for their care.  One thing is clear: We are facing a new and untested system of care for California’s disabled with a state whose role in their direct care is greatly diminished. We do this in a world where changes are happening with increasing intensity and speed. Protecting our disabled loved ones will be more challenging now than ever.

For now we all need to stay involved, pay attention and stay focused and stay strong if we are going to have a chance at protecting what we love.


Dave Koehler, Executive Director of the Sonoma Land Trust, will speak to this incredible natural resource, and its vital importance to all of us.

Everyone has a fascinating family history rooted in special places.  For more than one hundred years, Eldridge has been a very special place indeed–one that’s in the hearts of the people that lived and worked at Sonoma Developmental Center.  

The relationship of Sonoma Developmental Center to the land was special from the start and that connection will endure. Locating SDC in these beautiful woods of Sonoma Mountain was not an accident.  The founders of SDC knew the land was therapeutic.

Residents and their families, doctors and caregivers, building and grounds workers, administrators and program staff— these individuals are not only connected in place and time, but through shared experiences that have created a bond that the wider communities of Sonoma County could not imagine.   The very core reasons why people become connected to a place are heightened here—spiritual, shared experiences, and a history of events.

In just a minute, I’m going to pause for a few seconds and ask you to create a mental map of the special outdoor places you’ve enjoyed at Sonoma Developmental Center.  For just a little while, let your mind step outside and go to the special places on this land that you’ve enjoyed over the years.

So, pretend you’re outside on the land of SDC, and at that spot that’s very special to you:

    • Your spot might be just sitting in a chair under a majestic oak and noticing a flash of yellow feathers the little warblers are sporting as they dart from tree to tree


    • Or it might be hiking on the trail to Fern Lake or Camp Via to explore the forest and historic orchards on Sonoma Mountain


    • Perhaps it’s a stroll to Sonoma Creek, where you hear the babbling flow of water over rocks and might even see salmon this time of year as they build their redds


  • Or maybe you like to go down to the farm, where the horses, chickens, and carrots hang out

Wherever your favorite place on the land is, go there right now.  I’m going to pause and give you a few seconds, so you can get there in your mind, place yourself on the land, and bring all of its surroundings into focus (5 seconds of silence).

All these special places have tangible characteristics of plants, animals, rocks, and soil; and are complete with sights, sounds and smells; while the natural beauty and cultural values of it all are intangible.  It is this combination of the tangible and intangible that makes the land so important to us.

The journey ahead for the land of the Sonoma Developmental Center is a call for stewardship.  Stewardship of the land and the stories of its people. This is public land, owned by the people of California.  Going forward, on whatever path we may take together, we are and will remain stewards of this beautiful land on Sonoma Mountain.  

We are fortunate that we have leaders in the community that call for the preservation of SDC’s open space, leaders like the Sonoma Ecology Center, and others.   Let us remember that the future is not promised to us, we must work to protect it.

One hundred years from now, when future generations gather to commemorate the history of Sonoma Developmental Center, the measure of our stewardship success will be that these special places and the stories of the people have been preserved.

On behalf of my colleague, John McCaull, and all of us at Sonoma Land Trust, we want you to know that it is an honor to stand with the SDC Coalition and all those that also see this land as a community to which we belong and have used it with love and respect.


Steven Lee, of the Glen Ellen Forum, will take a look ahead at what the future may hold for SDC, and the ways we can all take part in Protecting What We Love. Steve grew up here, shares a property line border with SDC, and has a keen interest in the property on multiple levels. He is speaking on behalf of the residents of Glen Ellen.

My name is Steven Lee.   I grew up and live on property adjoining SDC.  The open space, the wildlife corridor is my backyard, my playground.  I know and love every inch of it.

Growing up next door, my memories of the residents and the employees of SDC are deep and profound.  John Mesa. David and his friends, with their Giants hats and their giant smiles. Bruce with his ticks. Buck. All the nameless faces on walks down the Arnold lane looking up at those tree branches and leaves. The security staff; the fire department staff who have all been wonderful through the years.  Probably half the kids I went to Dunbar with had parents that worked at SDC. What’s your Dad do? Duh, he’s a Psych Tech! For decades, this place provided hundreds of middle class jobs for hundreds of middle class families.

I walk or drive around the facility now and see all the empty buildings, the empty yards.  The beautiful faces of the few remaining residents here…

This place is a huge part of the soul of our town, our valley.  Its history is our history. No matter what transpires, the closure of SDC will leave a big gaping hole in all of our hearts and souls.  The question is: how big?

Ask anyone from around here and they will tell you their biggest concern with respect to the SDC closure is the protection of the open space; making sure these lands aren’t sold off to the highest bidder and developed into even more estate parcels.   But, as was found in recent surveys by the Sonoma Ecology Center, the biggest concern people have in our valley generally is jobs and housing for the middle class people who grew up in Sonoma, but can no longer afford to live here.

My family has always figured this place would end up as a college campus.  UC Sonoma! It would be a lot easier to convince students and faculty to come here than a UC in Merced!  It’s not that I want a bunch of students running across my property! But the jobs and economic output of a university combined with the singular-entity infrastructure that exists at SDC, the incorporation of the open space into a UC preserve, made it seem like the best overall fit.  I still think so. Regardless of what happens, this closure will create negative consequences for my family and I. Even if the open lands are transferred to State Parks, that will mean more people riding or hiking past our place; a loss of privacy and security. But this is all going to be complicated and no one is going to get everything they want.  Compromise will be key.

It is true that some would like to see buildings demolished and the property return to some pre-Columbian ideal.  Most long time Glen Ellen folks don’t feel this way. We are sentimental about this place, its people and its neglected old buildings.  What we do want is a voice in what happens here to ensure it remains part of our community; a positive part of our community. We’d hate to see the campus, its buildings, its greenways lie fallow.  It is going to take some time to figure out how to move forward. In the meantime these spaces should be USED…in ways that benefit our people and our community.

For me, this closure is bitter.  But sweet is the opportunity we have to create a future for the SDC property that helps to heal some of what ails our valley and helps to keep the soul of our community intact.  We need middle class housing; middle class jobs. We need middle class people! Without us, this town and this valley will continue down the path of bipolarity and sickness. We need green spaces, and recreational opportunities.  I cannot wait to play softball in a reignited softball league on the campus fields. We need non-vineyard agriculture, in keeping with the history of sustainable agriculture at SDC. We need open space. So do the deer, the bobcat, the mountain lion. We need water storage, water infiltration, floodwater retention, healthy streams.  This place has provided these things for generations and it can do so for generations.

The future here can be beautiful…as beautiful as all those faces that have departed, or are about to depart from this place.  I hope we honor them in the choices we make. I hope they come back to visit. When they do, I hope they recognize this place as home.  I wish the same for my daughters.

May the 5:00 whistle sound forever!


The Valley of the Moon Threshold Singers will now perform “We Shall Be Known”


Please join me in welcoming the Reverend Katherine Speas, Protestant Chaplain at Sonoma Developmental Center, who will now give the blessing.

The future of the Eldridge landscape and the community that has been nourished and inspired by these magnificent hills lies beyond our imaginations.   Whatever we are envisioning right now as “what they ought to do with the former SDC property” is, by definition, incomplete, too limited.  And there is no more “They.”  OUR imaginations are just beginning to shape the future.  OUR hands are just beginning the long work of transforming SDC.

I am inspired by the words of the 20th century philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr who said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.  Therefore, we must be made whole by HOPE.  Nothing which is true, beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history.  Therefore, we must be made whole by FAITH.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.  Therefore, we must be made whole by LOVE.”  

We go forward motivated by love for the land that has been our sanctuary, and love for the men and women whose unique histories have brought us to this point; sustained by our faith in each other and in all who will take part in shaping the future; and filled with hope for the awesome potential of all that this landscape and its people can ultimately become.  


Ed’s Closing Remarks

I would like to extend my personal thanks to each of our presenters, and to each of you for attending today. The presenters will be available for questions for the next hour or so, so please feel free to seek them out.

It was the Roman philosopher Seneca, who famously said “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” In Jim’s presentation we have heard how, 127 years ago, SDC began. It falls to us, here today, to both bear witness its end, and to herald its new beginning, one in which we all have a role to play in Protecting What We Love.

Thank you

Great American Amtrak Book Tour – April 2022!
Check to see if I am Coming to a town near you!

Amtrak Tour Map

Please provide a valid email address.

Thank you, your sign-up request was successful! Please check your email inbox to confirm.