Marin County Genealogy

Marin County - Our Towns - Novato

Hosted by permission of Cathy Gowdy of the Marin County Genealogical Society.

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Novato Historical Guild

By 1890, growth was starting to center around New Town and the railroad. The Novato House was on Grant Avenue, the diagonal road at right.



Chickens and orchards

Once called "The Valley of No Regrets," the town has survived several ups and downs


Once upon a time, Novato existed as a Garden of Eden of sorts. It was a fruit lover's paradise, with thousands of trees bearing delectable produce consumed by people all over the world. Oddly enough, shortly before that fruitful time, the same area was considered so undesirable that the landowner traded it for a bunch of cows. These two different perspectives exemplify Novato's mixed history of highs and lows.
Although Novato did not officially become a city until the middle of the 20th century, its history began long before that. Between 1839 and 1845, three different Mexican governors handed out land grants in the Novato region to five recipients. Scotsman John Martin acquired the area of Corte Madera de Novato. San Jose-born Ignacio Pacheco received the Rancho de San Jose. Rancho Nicasio was initially handed to Don Pablo de la Guerra and John Cooper. Camilo Ynitia, son of the last Coast Miwok Chief Olompali, was given yet another grant, known as Rancho Olompali. (The adobe that Ynitia built remained a long-standing structure in the area.) And finally, Fernando Feliz was given the Rancho de Novato, which became Novato's downtown area.

It was Feliz who sold off the rancho in 1844 for a herd of livestock. Over the next few years, the land changed hands frequently. Finally, between 1856-57, partners Joseph B. Sweetser and Francis DeLong bought the property.

Sweetser and DeLong managed to create the fruitful partnership. At the time there was not a great deal of fresh fruit out west, but the duo planted 44,000 fruit trees. They reportedly owned the largest apple orchard in the world. The apples were exported all the way to Australia. The partnership also yielded apricots, almonds, pears, cherries and grapes.

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Novato Historical Guild

Novato's main street, East Grant Avenue in 1909: the tall building at center, once a restaurant/meeting hall called The Club is now Druids Hall.

In addition to being businessmen, Sweetser and DeLong were community leaders. They provided the land for a public highway, a railroad station and a school site. In 1879, the railroad station saw President Rutherford B. Hayes en route to the county fair in Petaluma. Upon his death, DeLong's property went to his son Frank. By 1893, Frank was forced to give up the ranch in order to cover his debts. The land was divided and sold off in 5- and 10-acre portions.

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Novato Historical Guild

Grant Avenue in 1914: New Town stopped at the Old Country Road, now Redwood Blvd., the top of the tree behind the depot at center, touches the roof of The Club.

The division of land and presence of the railroad spawned the growth of New Town around the train depot. Previously, life in town had revolved around the area near the creek when boats were used as the primary mode of transport. This early 1900s growth brought a sense of community to Novato. Peter Nave, who had purchased part of the Pacheco estate, eventually opened the long-lived Nave Shopping Center. Farmer Frank Gnoss sold fruit and eggs all over the Bay Area. When he passed away, schools were shut down to commemorate him. Another significant figure was Reverend Charles Christensen. The reverend spearheaded a civic-minded movement that led to the opening of a new community center in 1923.

Hotels, grocery stores and blacksmiths lined the new downtown. Although the 1920s saw the establishment of an official fire district, Novato boasted a saloon, wooden sidewalks and horse troughs until a late date. With a definite "Old West" look about it, the California Motion Picture Company would shoot many Westerns here.

Unfortunately, the Depression soon settled in and proved fatal to Novato. The fruit and poultry farmers went broke and the community center suffered a similar fate. Eventually, in 1947, the community borrowed money to repair their community center. Throughout the '50s, the townspeople attempted to incorporate Novato, but did not succeed until 1960.

Unprepared for the massive growth that ignited around the time of its incorporation, the city found itself, willy-nilly, developing in a hurry. Subdivisions and shopping centers began to dominate, some of them ill-planned.

Nevertheless, elements of Novato's old charm still remain. The city boasts spectacular views of hills, valleys and bay. The vistas, coupled with some of Marin's more affordable housing prices, make the city appealing. It may no longer be a land of strolling cowboys and fragrant fruit trees, but Novato still has enough to attract those looking for a pleasant place to call home.

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Novato Historical Guild

Pear pickers could still find lots of work in Novato in the 1920s; this bounteous orchard located at Novato Blvd. and McClay Rd. was owned by the Hunsinger family.

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© Copyright 2007 Ron Filion and Pamela Storm. All rights reserved.