A proudly “authentic” corner of Marin
Photos by Tim Porter
Next time you have a “what-should-we-do-this-weekend” moment, consider Tomales. Okay, it’s a drive, but as Pogo (or was it Yogi Berra?) said, if it’s easy, everyone does it.
Recommended route: Highway 101 to the Petaluma/East Washington exit; west eight miles to the Tomales/Petaluma Road; west another eight miles, then right on Highway 1 and you’re there.
What to do when you’re there? If you’re a gardener, visit the respected Mostly Natives Nursery. Fascinated by history? Peruse the headstones at one of the town’s two cemeteries that date back to the 1700s. If a two-mile walk in the surf excites you, drive out to Dillon Beach. Want fresh-from-the-oven pastries? Check in with Cameron at the Tomales Bakery. Partial to plein air painting? Visit Jeanette at Tomales Fine Art. And if dinner and spending the night fits your mood, talk to Jen at the William Tell House, Marin’s oldest saloon (opened in 1877, spaghetti and meatballs $10.95) and let Penny at the Continental Inn (10 rooms, built new in 1989) find you a cozy room.
If you like authentic towns—ones that are pretension-challenged—you’ll love Tomales. And if you want to hear one of the town’s many male voices, say hi to Ed at Deikmann’s General Store (opened in 1869). Everything in Tomales, Marin’s northernmost village, is within walking distance.
According to 20-year resident Blair Fuller, a newcomer by local standards, Tomales was founded by Irishman John Keys in 1850. “Keys’s small schooner, the Spray, could sail north from San Francisco,” Fuller writes in Tomales Bank Robbery, 1996, “and within two days turn south into Tomales Bay and, with luck, into the estuary just hours later.” That estuary, according to Fuller, was just below the present junction of Highway 1 and the Tomales/Petaluma Road.
Blessed with this snug harbor, Keys envisioned Tomales someday rivaling the then Gold Rush–booming city of San Francisco. And by the mid-1870s it was on its way. Tomales’s town hall stood proudly downtown (it’s still standing, one of the oldest in California), population exceeded 1,000 souls, the Northwest Pacific Railroad rumbled through town, and lumber, potatoes and grain were shipped off to southern locales.
But in 1877, 1891 and 1898, fires took their toll on Tomales, and what the 1906 earthquake didn’t finish off, a 1920 downtown inferno did. Then came the Great Depression and World War II. Needless to say, this town doesn’t lack for character.
However, one of its more intriguing personalities—soon-to-be-90-year-old Lois Parks—isn’t quite what she used to be. “I had a bit of a bad spell last year,” she revealed in a telephone interview. “Now I don’t get around so much and had to resign from the history center.” For years Parks, who moved to Tomales 65 years ago, was curator at the Tomales Regional History Center (Ginny Magan now fills the spot). One outing Parks doesn’t like to miss, however, is the annual Tomales Swap Meet held on the third Sunday in September and featuring music, barbecued oysters and vendors who sell, in her words, “oh, fresh vegetables, fruits and lots of used stuff that’s pretty interesting.”
Should anyone be interesting in making a more major purchase in Tomales, like a home or a lot, a person to see is Karen Karlow at Pacific Union Real Estate’s office across Highway 1 from Diekmanns’ General Store. “Tomales hasn’t changed much lately and it probably won’t change much,” she offers. “That’s because the Williamson Act zoning and Marin Agricultural Land Trust easements pretty much surround town and restrict development.” As for in town? “That’s a different story,” she says. “A few homes and several lots are available.”
One potential change on the Tomales horizon is the 2005 purchase of the 502-acre Cerini Ranch, immediately adjacent to downtown, by John Williams, owner of the Napa Valley’s Frog’s Leap Winery. “We plan to restore the ranch’s existing houses and barns, even the tilting silo,” Williams says, “then have a dairy and cattle operation producing organic cheeses and grass-fed beef.” Assuming all goes well, Williams hopes to soon employ half a dozen farmhands, open a small retail outlet and have up to 65 head of milking shorthorn cattle on his ranch.
Meanwhile, realtor Karlow is hoping to sell the “adorable cottage” that’s listed in town for $439,000. “People love it the minute they walk in,” she says; “I just have to find the right buyer.” At the rear of the property are a seasonal creek and a small studio, and (for the green of thumb) Mostly Natives Nursery is barely a block away. One possible drawback: the one-bedroom, one-bath home is less than 750 square feet and sits on a lot that’s not quite 5,500 square feet. In comparison, a nearby two-bedroom, one-bath property on the Tomales/Petaluma Road sold a year ago for $600,000. “However, that was a 7,500-square-foot piece of property,” Karlow points out.
So if you’re facing a weekend with nothing special to do, Tomales might be the ticket. It’s a trip to the past with ample up-to-date touches and, who knows, maybe even an “adorable cottage” to get you thinking of returning for a longer stay.
Diekmanns’ General Store
Mostly Natives Nursery
Pacific Union Real Estate, Karen Karlow
Tomales Bakery, Cameron Ryan
Tomales Fine Art