There was so much history at the Old Adobe, and so little time left for its builder’s descendant to return to it.
He arrived on a breezy, sunny Monday afternoon – a stocky and bearded man leaning heavily on his cane, inching his legs forward from a rented car only as fast as his failing heart would allow. Slowly he made his way to the porch, a female caregiver close by his elbow, before easing his frame to a seated position in front of the walls of brown mudbrick.
Napa was the city where his life began nearly 67 years ago, the place where he had grown up, even if little trace of his boyhood memories could be seen amid the auto showrooms, chain restaurants and the four-lane traffic rushing past.
But he knew the town from the time before this modern panorama had existed. His forebears’ roots ran deeper still, to the very beginnings of the settlement – all the way back to this, the oldest building in Napa.
The home raised by his great-great-great-grandfather, Don Cayetano Juarez. The man whose landholdings had become part of a frontier town in a newborn state.
The past – his family’s past – was nearly gone, but not quite. And he had come to see it, in what he was sure would be the last year of his life.
“I’m sad, yet honored,” Roy Cayetano Juarez Stephens said finally. “It’s still here.”
Before words like Cayetano and Juarez and Tulocay were the names of streets and graveyards little noticed by passers-by, they pointed to the earliest years of settlement in what would become eastern Napa.
Don Cayetano Juarez, a soldier serving the Mexican government that then controlled California, received the Rancho Tulocay land grant in 1840, more than 88,000 acres east of the Napa River. Around 1845 he built a house of adobe on his landholdings, using the labor of Native Americans who put up other structures that perished with time. This mud-walled home would become the last surviving structure in the city-to-be from the days before the Mexican-American War.
By the time Roy Stephens was born in August 1951, five generations removed from his ancestor, his family’s home was no longer at what had become known as the Old Adobe, but a less remarkable Muir Street bungalow he shared with his parents and two brothers.
Though Cayetano Juarez and his 11 children had lived for years in their adobe home, by the 1920s it had become home to a series of roadhouses, bars and restaurants that would occupy it for generations.
Even so, young Roy still had relatives close by in Napa, even more than a century after Cayetano Juarez had established his estates.
“My great-aunt’s house, you could smell it a mile away for all the olive trees there,” he remembered of her home near Trancas Street to the north. “And it was all Mexican food there – she’d spend all week getting the place ready for her next get-together.”
Family legacy aside, Roy’s childhood passed much like those of others growing up in the smaller and slower-paced Napa of the 1950s and 1960s. He made friends at Phillips Elementary School, graduated from Napa High in 1969, then did a two-year Navy tour as a medic supporting Marines deployed to Vietnam.
But while he came home to Napa in 1971, work and love eventually would lead him away. A brief first marriage took him to nearby Sonoma before a truck-driving job led him over the Interstates to Texas, Illinois and New York. A second marriage uprooted him from the North Bay altogether, as he followed his spouse to her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
Stephens’ reminiscences were interrupted by the arrival of a visitor. A dark-haired man not quite half his age strolled toward the Old Adobe porch and introduced himself: Justin Altamura, whose developer grandfather George had bought the landmark four years earlier.
Asked by Stephens what the building might become once the work was finished, the 31-year-old Altamura volunteered that a restaurant could move in, or perhaps the office of a group like Napa County Landmarks. But whatever its future tenant, he quickly added, he promised to keep the place looking fresher – and more original – than it had in decades.
Since taking charge of the Old Adobe, a team of workers had removed additions to the building, exposed original wood beams and even painstakingly mixed mud-based mortar to shore up the bonds between the aging bricks. Whitewash coated the outer walls; inside walls were plastered in mud, sand and pine needles.
“I want it to stay the way it is,” Altamura told his visitor. “I don’t want others to mess with it.”
What Cayetano Juarez’s descendant returned to was a landmark brighter, cleaner and truer to itself than it had been for decades. Gone, above all, was the dilapidation he remembered with some bitterness from unhappy long-ago visits to the watering holes that had filled the space.
Worse than the shabbiness that had set in, in Stephens’ eyes, was the lack of any acknowledgement of his ancestors who had built the place. Surely a plaque or marker could be installed let those walking in know who its builder had been?
Altamura readily agreed with that sentiment.
“People my age, it’s not even registering what they’re looking at, how old it is,” he said. “I hope that now, people will start asking about why this building is how it is, start asking about its history.”
Nebraska had become home to Roy Stephens, but in 2008, time began to run out on him. A serious heart attack was followed by a quintuple bypass and three aortic aneurysms that “I should not have made it through,” he said.
“Now my heart is on its very last legs – I can’t even have anesthesia,” he said. “The doctors say I’ve got six months, maybe eight at the very most. I can feel it slipping away now, every once in a while. My balance sucks. My memory’s going. I’ve become one with my recliner and DirecTV and Netflix.”
For more than a year he dreamed of heading west one more time, to reconnect with what roots remained of his hometown and his family. But the money for such a journey was nowhere to be found, not for a dying man who needed someone caring for him at his side.
Napa had moved on in his absence, becoming a hub of the valley’s winery tourism. House prices and rents had moved on – upward – even faster.
“Even if I wanted to come back and spend the last few months here, I couldn’t afford to live here,” said Stephens. “That’s one of the saddest things I can think of – that I can’t even afford to live in my own hometown.”
Then, unexpectedly, the chance came.
A care manager for the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging, who was working with Stephens, set up a call to him by the Dreamweaver Foundation. Created in 2012 by Ron and Jeanie Carson, the Omaha-based nonprofit uses donated funds to fulfill the wishes of lower-income seniors with terminal illnesses.
By early December a Dreamweaver coordinator, Ashley Weirich, was on the phone with Stephens and his caregiver Julie Choma to hear their story and learn what his final wish would be. Of more than 100 seniors the group has aided, some had asked to see the ocean or take an Alaskan cruise, while others too frail to travel had been treated to a fancy banquet with up to 50 family members flown into town – new suits, ties and all.
“He served our country and was on front lines, helping people medically, so we wanted to do something for him,” recalled Weirich.
“She asked me: If you had one wish, what would it be?” said Stephens. “And I said, ‘To go home.’”
Dreamweavers would indeed make Stephens’ wish come true, footing the $5,500 bill in airfare, room, board and a rental car – and even new clothes – for him and Choma to return to the Bay Area.
Stephens had barely five days to tour his old Napa home turf, which three aunts and several cousins still call home, before he and his caregiver had to fly back to Nebraska.
Some of the family guideposts were gone, like the house his grandfather, father and uncle had built on First Avenue in Coombsville. Others had survived, like a photo album he thumbed through while visiting the Phillips school, even if he could no longer recognize which boyish face had been his. A few old hangouts were as vital as ever – “I miss Butter Cream after all these years and they tell me it hasn’t changed one iota!” he said.
But Monday was a day for Stephens to go back to the source of his family, and of his hometown.
“That’s what I came back to see,” he said afterward of his visit to the Old Adobe. “I wanted to touch my roots again.”
Deep in thought outside the abode his forebear had built more than 170 years before, he had let his mind backtrack to family get-togethers, school chums now dead, and the simple pleasures of going into the fields with cousins to drink, sing, strum guitars and, in his cagey words, “create havoc.”
Then he had felt something in his eyes, and it wasn’t smoke.
“I didn’t know it was going to hit as hard as it did,” the scion of Don Cayetano Juarez said. “I had to keep wiping my tears away.”
The trains at the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society are still running and, despite the looming threat of eviction from their location at the Napa Valley Expo, visitors are still enjoying them.
The 4,600-square-foot property is one of 4-year-old Chase Thomas’ favorite places to go.
“He is a train fanatic,” said Joel Thomas, Chase’s dad, during the society’s open house on Saturday. “For him this is like a huge treat. If we let him, he’ll spend two hours here just to watch the train go by.”
Wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt, a conductor’s hat and light-up blue shoes, Chase stood just a few feet into the model railroad station leaning on the wall around the tracks for the first 15 minutes. He was mesmerized by the trains coming by and waited anxiously to see if the train gates would go up.
With encouragement from mom, Kelly Thomas, Chase went a little farther into the building, looking at the tracks to his left as he walked. Then he saw it.
“Oh! Look at the Napa Valley Wine Train,” he said excitedly pointing to the miniature model. As the train traveled through tunnels and over bridges, Chase followed eagerly.
Chase knows the real Wine Train’s schedule, so on weekends, he goes outside to watch it go by.
Kelly Thomas said she doesn’t know if it was Thomas the Tank Engine or the Wine Train that caught Chase’s interest first, but he loves all things trains, including the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society.
“Its super fun – I came here when I was a kid,” Joel Thomas said. “We’re really gonna miss it if it goes away.”
Donal O’Briain said his 2-year-old son loves trains, too, so when news of the open house event popped up on Facebook, he decided to bring him and his sister.
“It’s hard to believe that a bunch of people threw something like this together to keep the locals entertained,” O’Briain said. He’s been keeping track of what’s going on with the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society since visiting it during the Town and Country Fair last summer.
“We’ve been signing the petitions and all that because the kids love it,” O’Briain said.
The Napa Valley Expo has been trying to evict the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society from its building at the Third Street facility, but the society is fighting it. The Expo board approved ending the train group’s lease last July, arguing the society’s $180-a-month rent is well below market rates and its building has issues with fire safety, code compliance and accessibility for visitors with disabilities. The site is slated to become a parking lot.
“It’s such a shame,” said Gary Valentinsen, who is a member of the rail society. Although he has a nice model train setup at home, he said, he enjoys interacting with the public and educating them about the impact that trains have had on California.
“I think I got into trains when my dad put the one around the tree when I was 3 years old and I never stopped,” he said.
Valentinsen came up with a scavenger hunt type of game for children to play while visiting the tracks. They have to check off a list of things they have seen on the model including a Coca Cola truck, an orange bus and a drive-in movie. To make the list, Valentinsen said he walked around the track on his knees to make sure that he didn’t put anything on it that kids wouldn’t be able to see.
Graeme Cevallos, 14, said he has been at the rail society for four years, but has had trains at his house since he was 5.
“I’ve always liked trains,” he said. “It gives me something to do because there’s not a lot in Napa to do for kids.”
“Keeping it would be a good idea,” said Ralph Schroeder of Calistoga. “I think it’s good for young people and people who are interested in this kind of thing – there are a lot of train enthusiasts.”
Schroeder and his family had never been to the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society before but decided to go on Saturday since it might not be around much longer. Although the building could use some updating, he said, the tracks are well laid out with a lot of clever designs.
“They paid such attention to detail so that it’s a miniature version of real life,” said Bernadette Cerney, who is friends with one of the members. Cerney said she thinks the track is an asset to the area and it is a nice, free thing for people in the community to come to.
“It’s just nice to have things like this,” she said. “When you keep eliminating things like this, it takes its toll.”
CALISTOGA — The city’s only golf course, which has been closed for about five months and continues to be a point of contention within the golfing community, is slated to reopen on April 1, officials say, with money coming from a reserve account to fund operations.
“As we had discussed in as far back as December, and then our January board meeting, and again on Thursday (Feb. 1) at our planning session, it is the intent of this board to reopen the golf course,” said Carlene Moore, CEO of the Napa County Fairgrounds, at the Feb. 8 regularly scheduled board meeting.
In order to operate the Mount St. Helena Golf Course, the Napa County Fair Association will need to pull $60,000 from its reserves and hope that an additional $35,000 is raised from donations, memberships, grants and other sources.
The operating plan includes finding 30 people who would be willing to pay $1,000 for a season pass; $500 of which would be considered “support” of the course, the other $500 would be the value of greens fees. Greens fees would be set at $15 for nine holes of golf, $20 for 18 holes, and $10 per person per cart.
Taking a new tack on the value of the golf course, Moore and NCFA board member Bob Beck referred to the golf course as “green space,” a valued commodity for the residents of Calistoga and visitors alike.
“It isn’t just golf as a recreational program, it’s also the green space, and the maintaining of that, the value of that to the community in the way of effluent water that we discharge on behalf of the city,” Moore said.
The City of Calistoga pumps over its excess partially treated wastewater that the Fairgrounds uses to water the Mount St. Helena Golf Course at the Fairgrounds. Neither the city nor the Fairgrounds exchanges funds in the transfer of water.
The golf course was closed because of debris from the October windstorms that led to the Tubbs Fire and other wildfires in Wine Country. Due to the widespread range of destruction, Moore had difficulty finding a tree service company that would come out and tend to the tree-related hazards on the course.
But the operation and condition of the course have been frustrating golfers for several years, leading to the organization of a committee of golfers who worked with Moore to improve communications between management and the golf community and ultimately help to restore golf course conditions. The golf group also pressed Moore and the board to lower greens fees to reflect the quality of the course.
An assemblage of volunteers have maintained the course fixing things along the way as they could. But the course needs more than a Band-Aid, critics say, and it will take more money than what the NCFA has available to put the golf course on the right track. Some charge that the course should stay closed until enough money can be put into it to bring it up to a standard competitive with other area courses. Others want the NCFA board to do whatever it takes to open the course so locals can play.
It’s a conundrum Moore and the board ponder as they wait for the fate of a proposed Joint Powers of Authority to be decided by Napa County and the City of Calistoga, the two government entities that are poised to take over management and operation of the Fairgrounds where the golf course is located.
“We wanted to put together a proper operational plan for (reopening the course),” Moore said. “This isn’t a plan of just operating. This really is a plan of helping to ensure this open, green, valuable space” is guaranteed to hold over “long into the future, (and) that there is something of value to hand over, as part of your legacy as a board to the next governing body that takes over that really can devote the energy and resources to the long-term solutions for the golf course.”
The plan is already under way, she said, to reopen on April 1, which is also Easter Sunday.
“We have some promotional opportunities around that,” Moore said, but between now and then the focus will be on getting the course ready to open.