Historic Ranch Houses
Built in the Civil War era, they’re still occupied
By Jim Wood
(page 1 of 2)In West Marin, a wooden structure built 150 years ago is hardly a rarity. Drive the back roads and you’ll see several. However, most likely they’ll be skeletal barns or shaky outbuildings slowly crumbling into eternity. Here are three sturdy exceptions: ranch homes, built in the 1850s and ‘60s, that are not only standing tall but still harboring descendants of the families who lived there during the Civil War.
The Gale Ranch in Chileno Valley “Charles Martin, my great grandfather, bought this property from Henry Halleck in 1862 when Halleck left West Marin to become President Lincoln’s chief of staff in the War Between the States.” So begins the saga of the Mike and Sally Gale Ranch on Chileno Valley Road, as related by great granddaughter Sally Gale.
Martin, a Swiss-Italian immigrant originally named Carlo Martinoya, added an Italianate Victorian main house to the original ranch cottage in 1883. He and his wife, Katarina, had seven children. The youngest, Anita, married Peter Dolcini, from a well-known (and today still prominent) West Marin ranching family. “Anita and Peter had six children,” says Sally Gale, “among them my mother, also named Anita, who is now 90 years old and living happily in Novato.”
The Martin family occupied the property until 1917; then, through two world wars and the Great Depression, it was rented to a ranching family named Bravo. Those were reportedly prime years for dairy farming and cattle ranching in West Marin.
For the next 30 years, until the mid-1980s, a caretaker named Mr. Shanks tended the Martin-Dolcini ranch home. “He really just lived here,” Sally Gale says. “People in the valley knew him as the ‘nudist who made wine.’” After that, the classic Victorian home was boarded up for seven years while Sally and husband Mike lived on the Big Island of Hawaii. “But as our family grew older, we felt the ranch pulling us home,” Sally recalls. And in 1993—more than 100 years after her great grandfather first improved the ranch house—Sally’s mother, Novato’s Anita Dolcini, took her to see what had become of the family property. “It had literally fallen apart,” Sally says. “It looked like a bedraggled child no one wanted.”
However, Mike and Sally Gale wanted it, badly enough to begin a complete restoration that would consume five years and much of their life savings. “We lived for two rainy winters under tarps and in half a house,” says Sally, “but now it’s worth it. Our home is beautiful and still very comfortable.” In 1997, the Gales’ restoration received an Award of Great Merit from Heritage Homes of Petaluma, and their 160-year-old barn and organic apple orchard serve as settings for summer weddings and parties. The 586-acre ranch is also home of Chileno Valley Natural Beef, a direct-to-consumer grass-fed beef operation run by Mike Gale.