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LeBARON: A blast from Santa Rosa's beer past

Eric Stanley, curator of history at the Sonoma County Museum, holds the Grace Brewery whistle in front of the museum in Santa Rosa on Friday, April 26, 2013. The Grace Brewery whistle for decades marked the passing of the day for Santa Rosans, sounding off at noon and 5 p.m.

(Scott Manchester/The Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.

It is, you might say, a blast from the past.

A couple of weeks back, a man stopped in at the Sonoma County Museum and left a package with a letter addressed to me.

This was no small gift. Inside the box was a 15-pound brass steam whistle, 16 inches tall and 4 inches around, with a 7-inch long arm with a hole in the end for the rope or chain that makes it go.

It was, the letter told me (wait for it!), the Grace Brothers Brewery whistle.

To say that I was touched is not adequate to describe how I feel about this unusual gift — and how it came about.

The letter came from a man who signed it simply, “Gary.” It was his “humble confession,” as he put it.

When the 94-year-old brewery closed for the last time in 1966, Gary was a 14-year-old student at Herbert Slater Junior High. “The word was out at school,” he wrote, “that you could explore the inside of the buildings. Not wanting to miss the potential excitement, explore we did!

“The inside of the brewery I can still see, with all of its huge copper vats, copper piping and large machinery. We climbed around everywhere until we reached the gable at the top of the bottling plant. ... And then I saw the whistle way up on the roof pinnacle. I decided I should be the one to have it.”

He climbed to the top and shinnied along a pipe to reach the rope and removed the whistle.

“That was 46 years ago,” he wrote. “I have always thought about returning this treasure and never thought of selling it.”

He said he knew that I would know best where the whistle should go. And he told me he felt guilty all these years for the theft.

I, on the other hand, consider him the hero of this adventure, not the villain. If Gary hadn’t kept this whistle safe all these years, the Sonoma County Museum, which I consider the best place for it, couldn’t already be planning to make it part of the permanent history exhibit in the Old Post Office when that building becomes a history-only exhibit space.

History curator Eric Stanley is already scheming ways to make it blow, and record it so it can be played inside at far fewer decibels for those who have never heard that sound and those who would love to hear it again.

THERE IS NO better way to describe the town that Santa Rosa used to be than to talk about that whistle and how the townspeople set their clocks by it and, in some cases, ran their lives by it.

The sound of the whistle — a sound I would (and have) called a “hollow hoot” — has been a staple of the occasional Old-Older Game we’ve played for years. It is the perfect object with which to begin a discussion of change.

Perched atop the brewery, which occupied the block where the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel stands today, the whistle blew at noon and 5 p.m. on weekdays for the first half of the 20th century and a decade beyond.

It signaled lunchtime, but more important, quitting time. It was a signal to workers at its industrial neighbors, like lumberyards, the ice plant, the cannery and the monument company where our tombstones were made, to head for home — or to the brewery’s Tap Room, to wash the dust of the day from their throats with a tall glass of GB or Happy Hops.

Housewives set their clocks by the whistle. School lessons stopped and noon recess began. Some of the clerks from the downtown stores — Corrick’s, Mailer-Frey Hardware, Hardisty’s, Keegan Brothers — walked home for lunch.

Youngsters were told they could roam at will — catch crawdads in the creek, climb the hill to Dynamite Cave or wander into Townsend’s to just look at the candy — so long as they came home when the brewery whistle blew.

Before Gary’s time — and mine — it was an important part of Santa Rosa’s self-reliance. Before the wonders of transportation (think Golden Gate Bridge), small cities had their own woolen mills and flour mills and shoe factories and cracker bakeries and — yes — breweries.

Most of these ventures did not survive the expansion of commerce, but Grace Brothers did — for several decades.

At the peak of production in the 1930s, before beer “traveled well” and eastern brands like Schlitz and Budweiser were considered exotic, the three top beers in California were San Francisco’s Acme, Sacramento’s Buffalo, and, yes, Santa Rosa’s Grace Brothers. For a time, the company had a second plant in Los Angeles and ran both plants on a 24-hour schedule.

As the second generation of Grace brothers died in the 1950s, the brewery closed for a time. The survivor, Tom Grace, reopened it in 1958 and ran it until it sold to Meier Brewery of Los Angeles in 1966.

That’s when it closed forever. And sat empty for several years, offering opportunities for kids like Gary — and more serious scavengers. By the early ’70s, all the buildings had been razed and the lot was empty — and stayed that way until the new century, when Vineyard Creek opened.

PRESENT-DAY Santa Rosa is once again a favored place for beer drinkers. Russian River Brewing Company’s artisan ale known as Pliny the Younger has been named the world’s best beer three years in a row now by the website BeerAdvocate.

The title comes as a result of the site’s analysis of reviews by beer drinkers — many of them with the palates of experts.

This coveted brew, one of many produced in the company’s downtown Santa Rosa quarters, is released every February. The supply is so limited that beer-drinkers from all over the country (and the world) stand in line for hours for a small glass of this hoppy treasure.

This year, the line stretched from the brewpub on Fourth Street around the corner on D Street and onto Fifth. For several days.

It has definitely put us firmly back on the beer maps.

Now, if they only had a whistle ...

On the other hand, I’m sure there’s a city ordinance that prohibits such noise.

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