Recollections of 19th- and 20th-Century Communal Life

at Preston Ranch






Initiated and Edited by W.M. Sefton







Chapter 1 — 1875: The Rise of the First Community

Chapter 2 — 1968: The Advent of the Artists’ Colony

Chapter 3 — Emily Preston: Healer and Spiritual Leader

Chapter 4 — Bob Thomas and The Golden Toad

Chapter 5 — Life Under Madam Preston

Chapter 6 — The 1970s: A Look at Some Preston Artists

Chapter 7 — Madam Preston’s Community in Retrospect

Chapter 8 — Reminiscences From the Artist Era

Chapter 9 — The Death of Emily Preston

Chapter 10 — The End of Colony Life at Preston Ranch

Appendix A — Descriptions of Some Preston Buildings

Appendix B — Names of Covenanteers Buried in the Preston Cemetery

Appendix C — Some Profiles from the Artist Era







Special thanks to Lisa Ellis, Deborah Fischbach and Wendy Newell for helping put this project together. Thanks also to all those former Preston residents who shared their experiences of Preston ranch.


On a steep, wooded mountainside in Northern California, above a placid stretch of the Russian River, the remains of a small 19th-century settlement–now all but deserted–sleeps in the sun as if basking in memories of the past. The settlement was born around the charismatic presence of one Emily Preston, a faith healer who modestly professed an ability to see through the human body "as if it were a glass bottle." Emily produced and dispensed her own "medicines" containing herbs, spices, generous amounts of alcohol–and, it was later alleged, cannabis (the active ingredient in marijuana). She also dispensed religious beliefs, some of which were sufficiently obtuse to earn her the label of "Quirky Christian."

People came to Emily Preston from near and far, drawn by the tales of her strange and wonderful healings. In 1886 a newspaper reporter wrote: "She is regarded by everyone acquainted with her as enveloped in an unfathomable mystery."

The community flourished, developing its own residential cottages, school, hospital, church, cemetery and even a large and imposing Victorian mansion. It came to be called "Preston" and Madam Emily became mayor–the first woman mayor in California.

The Madam’s death in 1909 triggered a decline in the community, and by the early 1940s it had dissolved completely. But that didn’t end Oak Mountain’s allure to the off-beat. In the late 1960s a second colonization took place when a troupe of dedicated performing artists and craftspeople moved onto the land, taking over the aging buildings left behind by Emily and her followers. Music and dance dominated. Creativity flourished. These folks, by one resident’s definition, were "raving individualists," earning a living by coaxing their battered old vehicles to various parts of California to perform at fairs, city streets and other venues. Their stories depict the colorful lifestyles of the era’s roving, creative artists–even prompting a San Francisco television station to send a crew to Preston ranch to do a news spot about them.

A creative pinnacle was reached during the first years of the 1970s, after which a decline began when many of the artists moved on.

The character of the mountain changed suddenly and radically in 1988 when a fire caused by a downed power line destroyed many of the historical buildings. Long-time artist and resident Lisa Ellis, devastated by the losses, stopped by Preston’s little surviving church and casually opened an old copy of Emily’s book of sermons. There, on a randomly selected page, were words written by the Madam 100 years earlier: "The world is kind of going down hill. Now they have the mobiles and they will go faster yet. That will finish them up; and the last thing will be that electricity will set the world on fire and burn us up someday…That is the program…"


1875: The Rise of the First Oak Mountain Community

When Elisha Green was in his 80s he walked around wearing engineers’ overalls with stripes and an engineers’ hat and welding goggles. He held a paper over his forehead in the daytime to shade out the California sun.

"Elisha was one of the last of the Covenanteers still living on Oak Mountain," explained Ernie Fischbach, who met Elisha before he died. "He wasn’t sure if he liked Madam Preston because she had thrown him off the ranch when he was a kid for playing with matches and accidentally burning down a friend’s house. So he was basically ex-communicated. He moved back onto her property but only after she died."

Elisha was born during the 1880s, Ernie during the 1940s. Ernie took care of Elisha–drove him to town every day. "He liked all of us hippies," Ernie recalls. "He thought we were cool. He loved our music."

And who were these "Covenanteers"? They were the men and women from all walks of life who had flocked to Oak Mountain in the 19th century to live under the charismatic influence of Emily Preston. Elisha Green was the last of them–the final Covenanteer to live on the mountain. Ernie Fischbach was the vanguard of the Gypsy musicians. The two met in 1968.

The Prestons: Hartwell and Emily

Perhaps the first really significant date in the story of Oak Mountain’s colonizations was May 30th, 1875. On that date Emily (Lathrop) (Appleton) Burke, a twice-widowed mother of two grown children, married Hartwell Preston, a San Francisco attorney. Emily had an unusual gift (or maybe the term should be self-proclaimed capability): In 1871 she had experienced a spiritual epiphany, claiming an ability to literally perceive photographs of heaven and hell and the words of God written on walls of light in front of her. This capability enabled her to "perceive the true natures of things" and "removed a veil or something from the front of my eyes, which enabled me to read, in my real normal state, the open Book of Life–the words of God which fill the Universe…Besides the words of written language, I see infinite varieties of Photographs representing–as I am told and believe–the real realities of things in the Universe, Heaven, Earth and Hell. And it is by this Photography that I am enabled to diagnosticate cases at a distance."

Emily Preston began devoting this enhanced sight to diagnosing and treating the hopelessly ill. Her cures combined faith, exercise, herbs and minerals, spring water, and medicinal spirits. Although her father had been a doctor and she apparently had studied the subject, she had no formal education or training.

As her fame as a faith healer spread, desperate people flocked to her for cures and spiritual guidance. As "incurable" people found their health greatly improved under her care, she drew more and more followers.

It was during this time that she attracted the attention of Hartwell Preston, a Harvard graduate and successful lawyer. Preston, known as "Colonel" (possibly because of his Virginia origins), had in 1869 bought a vineyard and stock ranch two miles northeast of the logging community of Cloverdale at the northern edge of Sonoma County Aspiring to be a gentleman farmer, he planted fruit trees and built a simple, one-story wood-frame gabled cottage on the side of Oak Mountain overlooking the Russian River.

The Russian River Flag, September 23, 1875, described his holdings: "Riding out into the country a couple of miles above town we cross a well-built covered bridge, spanning the Russian River. Near the bridge is the winery of Col. H.L. Preston, a gentleman of wealth and fine tastes. He has, within a few years, added to his little ranch, until he now has 480 acres of choice hill land, more than half of which is well adapted for fruit trees and grapes. The finest Mission, Isabella and Catawba grapes we ever tasted were in his vineyard. He has in store in his wine cellar 10,000 gallons of wine, from one to three years old, and will make about 4,000 gallons this season, commencing work this week."

Nathan Bowers, who lived at Hartwell’s ranch as a boy, remembers: "The Colonel must have been vigorous, capable and possessed of vision and imagination. The land he selected, though parts of it are steep, had numerous springs and streams, sure to make it increase in value in later years. It included areas of rich land on which he planted orchards and vineyards while some was reserved for hay and grain. He must have had at least some engineering training as he surveyed and built miles of access roads connecting the developed areas."

From 1875 until 1883 Hartwell and Emily lived in the small cottage Hartwell had built. In 1883 they built a much more elaborate home: an 18-room, Italianate two-story mansion. Pictures show a roomy, impressive and immaculately-maintained structure–described by a San Francisco reporter in 1898 as follows:

Mrs. Preston’s house is on the heights that overlook the demesne of her marvelous achievements. It is a roomy structure, with a square front and broad piazzas and a dignified entrance, but investigation proves it to be a matter of growth and evolution, for following it along toward the rear one comes to a gabled portion and a lowlier cottage beginning. Outside it is white as marble. Within there is immaculate housekeeping comfort and coziness, and a skilled housewife’s perfect system. Tall trees shade it on these warm days, and a neat iron fence gives it a distinctly metropolitan air. Everything else about it is white–the stone walks; even the great snow white turkeys that strut upon the nicely trimmed lawn.

Emily Preston As Healer

Although the Prestons, both in their late middle-age, sought to retire from active public life, retirement did not prove easy. Emily believers continued to seek her out after her marriage. As written requests for aid poured in she felt she could not refuse to use her divine gift to help relieve suffering. So Hartwell built a 20-room hospital/boarding house close to their home to house patients whose illnesses required special care and close monitoring. Less severely-ill clients boarded in nearby Cloverdale or just south of Oak Mountain at Pine Grove resort, paying $5 to $9 per week for furnished cottages. In August, 1881, The Cloverdale Reveille reported that "Mr. C. Werth’s private hotel is crowded with Mrs. Preston’s patients to such an extent that he has been compelled to build four additional rooms." And by 1908 the nearby Hotel Vine and Oleander Farm resorts–both located along the Russian River and offering houses, tents and transportation to the Geysers Hot Springs, and boating, bathing and fishing in the river–were usually filled with Emily’s clientele.

Her patients included bank presidents, postal clerks, teachers, preachers, farm hands, sheriffs, millers, stockbrokers, shoemakers, editors, politicians and others. Mail arrived from as far away as Washington Territory, Oregon, and Nevada but most came from closer towns and hinterlands of Northern California. On the strength of word-of-mouth advertisement alone she developed a lucrative medicine business.

The original cottage was turned into a workshop/laboratory where she prepared her medicines. Attached to the other side of the cottage was another important building: the medicine house. This square, unadorned two-story building served as an apothecary, where she packaged her medicines for shipping and also sold them over the counter.

The Church

The decision to create a permanent community was first evidenced in the spring of 1886 by the construction of the Preston church. It was built by one of Emily’s wealthy and appreciative followers, one Frederick Hastings Rindge. Rindge’s intention to build the church was announced in the January 17, 1886, edition of the Sonoma Daily Democrat:

A gentleman by the name of Rindge, from Boston, who has been under the treatment of Madam Preston of Cloverdale for some chronic ailment, and who has been greatly benefited, is going to show his appreciation in a very substantial manner, in erecting a church where the followers of the Madam may worship. The church will be 24 by 50 feet, and will accommodate the devoted followers of the Madam, who are said to be increasing every day.

The first meeting and dedication of the building took place on Sunday, September 19. The occasion merited coverage by a Sonoma Daily Democrat reporter from Santa Rosa, who noted that the seats were all filled and there was no spare standing room.

The church, situated among residential buildings on a terrace of the mountain, would become the most significant building of the community. Called the "Free Pilgrim’s Covenant Church" and the "Covenant Meeting House" by its members, it became the hub of community life. Emily also sometimes referred to it as the "Church of Heaven on Probation." Stenciled on the inside walls were these words:

We worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We go in secret and pray; and confess our sins one and all; we meet together on Sundays and Thursdays for edification; when each in turn should lead, until we find our respective places in the Spirit. We are to live this religion everywhere and especially in our homes. Otherwise we are not of the Covenant of God and Heaven. This we voluntarily do. Amen.


Truth is our motto! Purity is our pass-word into Eternal Life. I do this day give unto God this Meeting House as one covenant to keep, and I invite you, who wish to make a covenant With God, to come and help me keep this covenant, and to place your names with mine, for strength in faith in this God we talk about, that he will bless us and take us into Heaven.


The community continued to grow. In November 1886, Emily and Hartwell sold a 32-acre tract to Frederick Rindge and granted him the rights to build a road and lay water pipes. In the spring of 1887 Hartwell built a one-room schoolhouse at the base of the hill near the church. Emily taught in the school for the first six years. Before his death in 1889 at age 69, Hartwell constructed yet more buildings: a railroad depot, general store, and a school.

Among the earliest Preston residents were William Howard, Fred Clark and Henry Hubbard–single men who came for treatment at Oak Mountain and never left. In December the Prestons leased a one-half-acre parcel each to Hubbard and Clark for $1.00. These parcels, intended for housing, adjoined the Rindge land, and all three were located along the "Front Lane" close to the Preston home. According to an 1898 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, based on an interview with Emily, "Agreeable people came to her, and she was loath to part with them and they with her, so she bestirred herself to make life agreeable for them up here, and they stayed on."

At its peak, around 1895, the Preston community existed on both sides of the Russian River. Businesses in the commercial district, on a flat just west of the river, included the general store and post office, a livery stable, a lumber/planing mill, and the bottling works of John Kolling, who contracted with Emily for the rights to pipe and bottle water from springs high in the hills over Preston.

A county road led through the business center east toward Preston’s residential district via the covered bridge over the Russian River. One-hundred yards from the bridge the road branched off to the south to serve the Preston residential district. An evenly spaced row of eucalyptus trees, planted by Hartwell, lined the road leading up to the residential neighborhood.

Preston Lake

By continuing along the road to the north instead of taking the fork up to the main residential area, travelers could reach Preston Lake, another important center of activity. This is a three-acre spring-fed lake located in the hills about two miles north of the residential district. An article in The Santa Rosa Daily Republican dated June 10, 1895, describes the setting:

By following the winding road bout two miles further up and over the mountain you come to the little valley in the center of which is Lake Preston, a body of water about three acres in area and, the people say, of unfathomable depth. Where is now the lake was sometime, perhaps, the crater of a lively volcano. As it is now, the noble heights that encircle the little valley give the place the appearance of an amphitheater, beside which in extent, the famous Coliseum would be quite inconsequential. There is a boat house on the shore of the lake and in it is a good boat which is used freely during the summer season.

Lou Tyler, who lived next to the schoolhouse and worked for Madam Preston, remembers the lake being "thick with ducks."

In 1884 Hartwell built a four-room summer cottage at the lake and, about a mile distant, a large wood-frame gabled church called "the Church of the Wildwood," built to seat 300 people. During summer, Emily’s followers would move to "Inland Camp"–southwest of the lake–for two or three months of retreat, contemplative enjoyment and prayer. She encouraged them to build their own cottages there, and if they couldn’t afford to build their own, she would have a cottage built for them. In July, 1886, Covenanteer Julia Lewis reported in a letter to her husband Charles:

I talked to the carpenter that built the houses up there. He said he would build me a good house like the rest and furnish everything for 69 dollars.

In 1898 a reporter from San Francisco noticed "about a dozen cottages at the base of the hill."

The Land

The property on which Emily’s community blossomed was favorably described in 1888 by George Baer, the publisher of The Cloverdale Reveille (Cloverdale being the nearest town to Preston):

Oak Mountain, the home of Madam Preston and her religious followers, is located on the side hill about two miles from Cloverdale. A prettier site cannot be found in California. The prominence of the location commands a view down the valley that is indeed impressive…an extensive chessboard laid out in block of orchards, vineyards and fields of green alfalfa. Extensive vineyards and prune orchards are to be found in these foothills, which are very productive under the management of Colonel Preston.

In 1875 the Preston property consisted of 160 acres. By the time of Hartwell’s death in 1889 his holdings had grown to almost 1,500 acres, extending eastward from the east bank of the Russian River up to the top of the mountain range. In the other direction it reached from Ash Creek on the north almost to Sulfur Creek, some two and a half miles to the south.

The top of the ridge is 1,000 feet in elevation, the caretaker’s house about 400 feet. Preston Lake, at 900 feet, is one of the few natural mountain lakes in Sonoma County. It never goes dry yet is not fed by a stream. According to caretaker and historian Edwin Ellis, the lake is an "alluvial slide lake" fed by springs. Normally, no water flows into it or out of it above ground–even during the rainy season. In 1980 Ellis was contacted by people from the University of California. "They came up and took core samples of the lake. It turns out that this is one of the most complete climatological records in Northern California. The core samples indicate that it is at least 1,500 years old."

At least three or four springs contribute to an abundance of water on the lower part of the ranch. In Emily’s day the water was fed from the springs by gravity through iron pipes. Situated near water (the Russian River), the mountain is a riparian habitat. In Emily’s day the river was famous for salmon and steelhead. Thus the colonists ate lots of fish–especially when the steelhead were running.

The land’s range of elevation and growth zones encourages a variety of plant species. During the era when the lake was formed the vegetation was mostly conifers, including pines and some stands of douglas fir. The current dominant species, oak and madrone, came later–as did the gray pines (sometimes called ghost pines).

The topography of the land, nestled between a high cliff and the river, provides a naturally protected area in which birds and other animals can flourish. Blue herons, woodpeckers, wild turkey and deer are frequently seen or heard on the ranch. Wildlife during Emily’s era included black bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, rattlesnakes, king snakes and other creatures.

Poison oak thrives on the mountain. One of the Preston children, Alice Elmers Theuers, remembers the summer of 1920 when her Uncle Fred came to lunch. "He discovered that we had all made walking sticks out of poison oak branches we had cut along the road. One of my cousins and I came down with a real bad case of poison oak. Our faces swelled out of proportion which left us with just slits where our eyes were. My cousin was so bad she had to be taken home. The journey was done by train and a black hood covered her head to hide her face from the curious. She remembers that awful ride home and how she felt being led around with that black hood."

Preston was a hub for the Makahmo Pomo Indians of the Cloverdale area. "This was one of the main winter campgrounds for the Indians," Edwin Ellis observed. Maps from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study indicate that several Pomo trails converged on the ranch. The discovery of Indian artifacts on the ranch support this theory.

The nearest local town of note was Cloverdale. The town is ably described in an article from The Sonoma Democrat dated March 20, 1886:

Several days spent in Cloverdale gave us an opportunity of learning many things about the place and surrounding country. This being the terminus of the railroad, the place is to a great extent kept up by the benefit it derives from the train hands and the teams and teamsters of the various stage and freight lines which connect here with the cars for various sections of the country. Nearly all of the passengers and freight for the northern, eastern and northwestern coast of Mendocino county go and come by way of Cloverdale, and people from the interior of Mendocino county speak of sixty or eighty miles in about the same way that we do of three or four. Cloverdale is also the center of a large sheepraising district, the valley and mountain land for a radius of many miles being used for that purpose. There is, however, a general complaint of hard times, occasioned partly by the drought and shortage of last season’s crops and partly by the hard times in Mendocino county. We found many new settlers in this section, and the price of land is rather tending upward, and of late quite a number of real estate sales have been made at good prices. We inspected the lumber yards, warehouses, waterworks, and paid a short visit to Samuel Larison’s winery, which is situated several miles north of town, up the river. He has upwards of fifty acres of grapes which he makes into wine, besides large quantities of grapes which he buys and makes up also. He met us in his jolly, good natured way, made us sample all his wines, and forced a bottle of choice Riesling into our pocket on leaving.

The Town of Preston

In the fall of 1889, the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad completed its rail line north from Cloverdale to Ukiah. A depot was built at Preston with a sign over the eaves bearing the name Preston. Mail trains delivered to the depot four times a day. North of the railroad station was the one-room general store which also housed the post office, Wells Fargo Express office and a telephone station. A sign at the top of the gable advertised the proprietor’s name and General Merchandise. Across the road from the store was John Kolling’s Bottling Works.

North of the store was the livery stable–a wooden barn with a false front façade. Southeast was a wood lot, an office and a planing mill flanked by two windmills. Like the store and depot, these were simple, one-story wood frame buildings with gable roofs.

With its railroad depot, post office and commercial enterprises, Preston was a full-fledged community. The Healdsburg Enterprise took notice in November 1889:

[Emily Preston] has succeeded in drawing about her, during the last few years, a community whose number may be judged by the greatly increasing pretense of their dwelling place, which begins to resemble a little city, embowered in leafy avenues and pleasant promenades at the base of the mountain upon which the Madam lives in imposing style. Already has the little town been christened Prestonville.

The Enterprise continued to take interest in Preston. In July 1891, reporter J.J. Livernash’s article touted several "wide awake" Preston businesses, including George Elliot’s livery stable, H.W. Davidson’s planing mill and Mr. Benson’s lumber yard. Livernash was particularly struck by the beauty of Oak Mountain. Surrounded as they were by vine-dotted hills, grain fields, orchards, blooming gardens and shade trees, he called the colonists’ homes "models of neatness. Verily, this must be a home for rich people."


In the spring of 1887, one and a half years before his death, Hartwell Preston transferred title to all of his property to his wife. She continued to buy property in the area for over fifteen years. In 1898, when asked by a reporter to estimate the extent of her holdings, Emily claimed that she hadn’t the faintest idea of how many acres they comprised, as she had "never counted them up." By January 1909, according to probate inventory taken after her death, she owned 2,379 acres. The estate was valued at $68,598.94.

Hartwell Preston was the first person to be interred in the private Preston cemetery. In December, 1889, his body was placed in a vault on the hilltop known as "Nob Hill," overlooking the residential area and visible from Emily’s house. Between 1900 and 1902 she had actively planned the cemetery. For ten dollars, she sold plots measuring 18 feet x 18 feet or 15 feet x 17 feet to members of the community who wished to someday be buried there.

In 1903 Emily hired one J.S. O’Neal to survey the land along Geysers Road. As a result, ten town lots were created–small, choice parcels close to the church and overlooking the Russian River. She awarded them to her most devoted followers and to her son by her first marriage, Wellington "(Wellie") Appleton.


How, then, did Elisha Green fit into the Preston phenomenon? His presence can be traced to Warren Green, one of the first patients to arrive at Oak Mountain seeking medical treatment from Emily.

Warren Green was born and raised in Ohio and moved to Marysville, California, in 1860 where he operated a very successful stage business for over a decade. He invested well and became quite wealthy. He moved to Preston in 1876 and remained a devoted colonist for twenty years. In 1880 he married Stella Morrison, also a Preston believer. They owned a ranch south of Cloverdale where they raised sheep, cattle and grain. They raised seven children at Preston including one whom they named "Emily" and one "Warren Preston."

The Greens’ first house at Preston, located a quarter mile from the Emily’s mansion, burned down in March 1903. The second house, a two-story, five bedroom Queen Anne residence built for Stella in 1904, still stands. After Warren died in 1901, Stella and Warren’s youngest son, Elisha, inherited the house.

Elisha lived there until his death–which came four years after Ernie and Deborah Fischbach migrated north to spearhead the era of the Bohemian artists at Preston.


1969: The Advent of the Artists’ Colony

The Fischbach’s arrival at Preston in 1969 marked the third significant milestone in the evolution of Oak Mountain (after Emily Preston’s marriage in 1875 and her death in 1909). Deborah Fischbach remembers the precise event that triggered the subsequent migration and colonization of the property by highly dedicated performing artists. "Ernie and I were living in Berkeley. We went to a party with an old high school friend of Ernie’s. Ernie was playing the sarod at the time. There was a guy there named Clark doing zen meditation while Ernie was playing. After meditating he very quietly said, ‘The archangel Michael came to me in my body and I really enjoyed that music.’ Clark said he had a house at a place called Cloverdale and asked us to come and live with him. Ernie and I–living in a VW bus in Berkeley at the time–were free to move. So we accepted the invitation.

"Clark lived in one of the Emily-era buildings–a Victorian mansion at the top of the old bridge. We went through a whole winter up there."

But prior to the Fischbachs’ arrival there was still the interim–the period between Emily’s death in 1909 and the arrival of the artists. Without the Madam’s pivotal leadership her community gradually diminished. The decline continued through the 1930s; by the early 40’s trains no longer stopped at Preston depot. The post office closed in 1941, and Kolling Bottling Works in 1943. These events marked the end of the town of Preston.

The Osters

The Preston estate remained largely intact until 1943, when Fred and Eugenia Oster bought the remaining 1,439 acres in order to open a boys’ school and camp. They found the mansion virtually undisturbed since Emily’s death. Her clothes were still on the hangers; her books still on the shelves. Emily’s long-time foreman Joseph Zahner had locked the house and left it intact as a shrine.

The Osters operated a working sheep ranch on the property and a boys’ camp during the summer months. The camp drew urban children to experience ranch life and rural recreation. A newspaper article dated August 17, 1944, gives the flavor of the camp:

Summer School Closes At Oak Mountain Farm

The six weeks’ summer school for boys closed Friday at the Oak Mountain ranch, formerly the Preston estate, at Preston.

Beautiful pageantry on Thursday night marked the closing. The scene was ideal–the shores of the little lake high in the hills,. A big bonfire had been built between the seats occupied by the boys and those in which the guests were seated. The affair was entirely informal, the boys being garbed in the clothing in which they had been spending their vacation in the hills, and the instructors and other attendants were similarly dressed. As the boys sang their songs, the various subjects were pictured by other boys here and there in the hills and in one of the boats on the lake. The pageantry was brilliantly illuminated by a strong electric spotlight.

A comic touch was added as the boys sang their first song. One of the burros which had become a pet of the boys during the summer was tethered in the darkness, awaiting his time to take part in one of the pageants. As the boys began their song, the burro added his voice to the chorus.

A wonderful spirit of comradery between the boys and Fred Oster, head of the school, was apparent. There was a complete absence of rowdyism and "smartness." Every suggestion of Mr. Oster was complied with immediately and gladly and as though it was a pleasure to meet his wishes.

Preceding the entertainment program a wonderful supper was served, the principal course being nicely barbecued steer meat. Many from Cloverdale were present, as well as a number of parents of the boys from distant cities. About two-thirds of the boys were from the Los Angeles area with most of the rest from around San Francisco bay.

The camp ended shortly after Fred Oster’s death in 1947, but Mrs. Oster and the family continued to raise sheep as the ranch’s primary source of income. Cottages and outbuildings on the ranch were rented to tenants or occupied by Oster family members.

In its 75th Anniversary Edition (October, 1954), The Cloverdale Reveille wrote:

Madam Preston’s own mansion looks just as it must have been when she was there herself in imported gowns and jewels. Old silver and china ornaments glint in the sunlight from the long windows, imported tiles around the fireplaces gleam, the Victorian furniture appears reassuringly usable and not just to be looked at, and the graceful plush draperies look as fresh and rich as they must have been a half century ago.

In December, 1967, Eugenia Oster sold the Preston ranch to Dr. Russell Lee, who bought the land with four partners as an investment for $189,215. Mrs. Oster moved to Santa Rosa, taking with her all of the Preston papers, furnishings and personal effects that had been left at the estate since Emily’s death in 1909.

It was Dr. Lee’s purchase of the Preston property that allowed the eventual influx of artists to Oak Mountain. If there was a single catalyst for the influx it was probably when Ernie Fischbach’s friend Clark, living in one of the Emily-era buildings when he invited the Fischbachs to live with him, decided he would like to marry his girlfriend in the old Preston church. "Across the bridge and up the hill was the Preston church," Ernie explained. "We could see the church clock from where we lived. So we asked Dr. Lee if Clark and his lady could get married in the church. But we had noticed that the church was getting run down and vandalized. Kids were coming up and getting drunk and throwing rocks through the windows. We figured eventually they would set fire to it. It was a beautiful thing and we wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t get further vandalized. We told Dr. Lee of our concerns and offered to caretake the church. He liked the idea.

"Being involved with the church, we met Harry Schumway who lived in the famous Preston mansion. We told Harry we needed our own little place. Harry said that there was a place down by the river owned by Elisha Green. It was just a little shack. Harry arranged that we would pay $20 a month. At the time, we were paid performers at the Renaissance Faire. So we moved in."

The Renaissance Pleasure Faires

The Renaissance Pleasure Faires deserve mention because they were a common feature in the lives of many of the artists and musicians who would eventually inhabit the Preston property. The Faires portrayed the period of English history encompassing the reign of Elizabeth the First (1558-1603). The Summary of Activities of the Living History Centre (1979) provides this description: "At the Faire, all aspects of the English social structure are re-enacted. The lower class is represented by the washer-women at the well, scrubbing their clothes each day with sand and singing the work songs of the period. Elsewhere there is a diorama of Elizabethan home life among the middle class. Still another activity is the Court of the Nobles, where Faire participants act out all of the major figures that may be found in Queen Elizabeth’s Court: Lord Burghley. The Earl of Sussex. The Earl of Pembroke. Sir Francis Drake. Queen Elizabeth. Each of these personages is attended by grooms, servants, and aides. The people portraying these figures have diligently researched their roles. Meticulous energy goes into assuring the authenticity of much of the Faire. Musical instruments played include the Rausch Fife, the Krum Horn, the Lute, the Pipe and Tabor, the Recorder, and various types of bagpipes."

The first Renaissance Faire was staged in Southern California in 1963. According to the program guide, "As the pipes do play to herald the call of The Faire, up the dusty lane proceed the motley bands of revelers. Jesters leap high the bright be-decked oxen pull commedia players on their cart. The procession reaches the Market Place; bells of Morris dancers jingle loudly as they raise the Maypole. All proceed to the canopied tradesmen’s stalls and each takes up the cry of his own wares. Recorder groups, round dancers and jugglers amuse all who are busy buying handmade crafts of great beauty and wide variety…"

This, then, was the domain of many of the artists and craftspersons who made their homes at Preston. They were the pipers and revelers, the jesters and dancers and craftspersons who made the Faire happen.

Musician Bob Thomas, a Preston resident and performer at the earliest Faires, shared this impression: "The early Faire was given by one branch of the freak community for the rest. It was a scene made up of artists of one kind or another and fine craftsmen who were putting on a festival for the rest of the artistic and educated and–shall we say–eccentric community in Los Angeles. It reached its peak later at Peacock Gap, a very rarefied atmosphere. Some of the finest artists in California were exhibiting their wares at that time. It was the forefront of the ethnic and folk-music scene in both Northern and Southern California–same as with the Folk-dance and exotic ethnic dance scene of those days. It was an unparalleled event. In fact, it’s because of its high artistic merit and–shall we say–incredible visage, that the Faire exists to this day."

The original Southern California Faires were so successful that in 1967 a site was found for a Northern Faire at Peacock Gap, a forest near San Rafael in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1976 the site was moved to a 237-acre oak forest site in Novato. The organizers also created The Dickens Christmas Fair, re-creating the mid-19th-century era and bringing to life characters from Charles Dickens’ novels as well as other noteworthy persons of that time.

Preston craftswoman Buffalo Larkin went to her first Renaissance Faire in 1968. "I thought it was glorious good fun. And it wasn’t until about 1975 that I realized that the real fun was had after hours when the parties are happening. So I started my funny hat business at the Faire–not to make a living, but so I could go to the big parties all the time."

Another participant, musician Mickie Zekley, observed: "To many of us the Faire was more than simply a carnival. It was an gathering that allowed us to explore our wildest creative fantasies–an extended family that was supportive and forgiving. My Faire family encouraged my projects and my dreams when the rest of the world would only laugh."

Mickie recalls that the Faires were not all serious business to the artists who performed there. "They had their share of amusing pranks. One time somebody put a carrot in the market bell. Carol Lee, from the costume department, was sent down to ring the bell to announce the opening of the Faire. And there, instead of a clapper, was a limp carrot."

"It all comes back to the Faires," musician Cait Reed observed. "It was the Faires that supported us. We were Gypsies."


It was at the 1969 Southern Renaissance Faire that Ernie and Deborah Fischbach met Bob Thomas and his partner, Wendy Newell. Ernie was still playing sarod at the time; Deborah was dancing and playing drums. Bob played bagpipes, lute, guitar, fiddle, flute, tambur, saz and Tibetan oboe. Don Brown was playing drums with Bob. Wendy, a seamstress, also played concertina.

"So we invited Bob and Wendy to return with us to Cloverdale," Ernie recalls. "At that time they were living in Bob’s 1950s Metro stepvan. This was a typical lifestyle of Renaissance Faire people. You live someplace. At Faire time you pack everything you own into the vehicle you have at the time. You migrate to the Faire grounds. As the end of the Faire approaches you start wondering where you’re going to live next.

"During the migration back to Northern California we stopped to play at a county fair in the town of Chowchilla in the central valley. I didn’t know what to play so I played the sarod and the tambourine. Bob liked the sarod but we knew it wouldn’t go with the bagpipe. Deb played the triangle. This was during the People’s Park riots in Berkeley. The riots were making news across the country but we didn’t know anything about them. In Chowchilla–a redneck town–we were considered just more of those hippies. So while we were playing in the streets the rednecks started throwing stuff at us–rocks, lighted cigars and so forth. We were prompted to get out of there faster than planned."

Drummer Don Brown remembers Chowchilla. "It was evening and we were in the middle of this huge circle. And these people were way out at the perimeter of the circle. And we were in there playing away, belting it out, and these people would be throwing money. At us! Hard!"

Ernie continues: "When we arrived in Berkeley signs of the sixties’ social upheaval were everywhere. The Mediterranean coffeehouse on Telegraph avenue was occupied by people in olive drab uniforms."

"Tear gas was drifting through the streets," Don Brown recalls. "Barbed wire and tanks. Soldiers marching. It was not the kind of situation where we would go to the Med and have a cup of coffee."

So the troupe continued northward. Their early arrival in Cloverdale was fortuitous: A message awaited saying that they had been exposed to hepatitis at the Faire. The expedited trip north enabled them to get timely medical treatment.

At Preston, Bob and Wendy parked Bob’s van on the flat where the Madam Emily’s mansion and medicine house were. In addition to these structures and the church, the buildings existing at Preston at the time were the horse barn, caretaker’s house, hospital, garden house, carriage barn, school house, teacher’s house and the lake house. [Descriptions of some of these buildings can be found in Appendix A.]

The church figures heavily in the story of the artists’ era at Preston. Cait Reed remembers that "everything down the hill centered around the church. That was where we all met to practice and play music. The church was always the space. First of all, the acoustics. And it was the meeting place. So we did a lot of rehearsing in the church."

Jeremy Kammerer lived next to the church for many years. "I would go over and walk into the dark church almost every night and light a candle up on top and build a fire in there and sit there with nothing but a candle and a fire and play music. My cat would come in if it was warm."

Another building of note, remembered by most of the artists as "an incredibly special place," was the lake house. It was a 2-story square with two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs and a fireplace with a chimney rising through the center of the house. "The view was to die for," Madeleine Faught remembers. "That beautiful clear lake surrounded by a panorama of rugged cliffs, madrone and manzanita forest, and rolling meadow. Truly a divine place to live and breathe. There was a giant blue heron who was a permanent resident of the lake who also became a bit of a totem. The lake was full of catfish and since we were living on the smell of an oily rag, catfish and watercress became our staples."

"The lake house was off on its own," Ernie recalls. "We would visit the lake and fish. We could get hundreds of catfish in a minute with a safety pin."

The Artists’ Takeover

When the little troupe of musicians arrived from the 1969 Renaissance Faire there were already renters living up the hill. The Brazill family were living in the mansion and the Bodas in the medicine house. Ernie recalls, "The Bodas were an old couple with many grandchildren. It was the habit of the parents to drop grandchildren off when they were on the way elsewhere. So there were often a gaggle of unsupervised children there with bb guns. Also, Mr. Boda had pigs in the barn and chickens roaming the property.

"Wendy and Bob, camped in the gully underneath the Plantation, presented a sort of deterrent to the children with bb guns. Mr. Boda had to go by Wendy and Bob’s van when he would go from his house to the pigs. He may have figured that Bob and Wendy were there by Dr. Lee’s request to exert an influence over the children. To gain favor with Wendy and Bob he offered them eggs and a piece of one of the pigs.

"One day a eucalyptus branch dropped on Brazill’s car and crunched it. Mr. Boda went out and cut firewood off the car and took it for his own. That was the straw that did it; somehow or another the Bodas were out of there."

Jehan Paul further describes the incident: "There was this cowboy-type guy [Mr. Brazill] who systematically ripped off every structure on that property. Before he got there all the rooms were furnished with Victorian and Edwardian furniture including the coal oil lamps and every last thing. And he ripped it off and sold it to an antique shop down in Cloverdale. With that money he bought a new Ford station wagon and he and his family were going to move to Wyoming or some such place. Now, the carriage drive went in a circle behind the mansion and there were many eucalyptus trees on the outside slope of that drive. So he drove his new car around back and the family was loading everything they own into that car. And they were inside having a last cup of coffee before they piled in when they heard a tremendous crashing noise. They went out and a limb from a eucalyptus tree had crushed that car to the ground."

As the artists’ presence grew on the hill there was more and more pressure on the Brazills. Finally they were gone.

Ernie continues: "Then there was Mr. Street. He had grazing rights and ran cattle on the property. He had cattle all over the property and wouldn’t allow us to go anywhere. He ran us off with a shotgun. He walked me off with a .45 pistol in my back. He used to rent the lake house. He would get his buddies up there to go fishing. He would make them pay. So he had a whole other scene going on besides the grazing.

"Finally we asked Dr. Lee if we could have the grazing rights. We just wanted to walk on the property. He assented, so all of a sudden we had the whole ranch.

"Street was furious. He would put out poison right next to the houses. Finally we got rid of him.

"Eventually Dr. Lee said that we could rent the whole ranch for $575.00. So we rented the whole place. Everything became available. It filled up quickly. Everybody kicked in and we had the place."

Madeleine Faught has a different recollection: "There was some talk of losing the whole property. We held a casual meeting and I was elected to pay a visit to Dr. Lee in Palo Alto and procure a secure rental agreement. I think the group thought that I could charm my way into Dr. Lee’s good graces. It actually turned into a reciprocal arrangement: he charmed me and I charmed him and we settled on $150 a month for the entire property…all dwellings included! A bargain by anyone’s standards…and certainly one for we low income earners.

"I then became the rent collector every month…visiting each building/dwelling/abode to share cups of tea while I picked up the token contribution. However, it did usually take up an entire day or more to accomplish this task as it was easy to get distracted by the latest guitar or oud riff…and the customary ‘passing of the pipe’ lent itself to distraction as well…"

As places became available they were quickly rented. "Up the hill were mostly musicians," Ernie recalls. "Then the dancers came. The place became increasingly full over the years. Every single little room had somebody living in it."

But the gathering of these like-minded artists was not without its petty conflicts. Jeremy Kammerer was supposed to move into the church house. "But [Lance] Sterling was there and he was mad at me and wasn’t going to move out. He and I had words. He offered to fight me for the place. This wasn’t something I wanted to do. Cathie [Whitesides] intervened. She went and talked to him. I never asked her what she said to him, but he moved out, I moved in. He left an insult for me: the place was totally bare except there, in the middle of the floor, was a slug. Clearly, a little parting shot."

In 1975 Douglas Tharelson built a sauna for the community. At the time seamstress Wendy Newell was busily fixing up a living quarters in the barn. "During that summer," she recalls, "I was modifying the barn for Sarinda [Wendy’s daughter] and me…We needed more space, and a different space than we had in the Plantation. She was three years old and growing fast in many ways. The previous winter I had ‘bonded’ with the barn. During an intense wet spell I’d noticed the water just sheeting through the barn, flooding the space where Torchy the Magician had stored his equipment years earlier. I was seized with the urge to trench around the barn to divert the flow. It was a big, beautiful structure, made with rough hewn timbers that were pegged together. A eucalyptus had fallen on it a while back, one of the giants. You could see the effect inside: in one corner, the timber joint was a bit askew. But that was all. This was a mighty structure, but forgotten on the mansion side. The medicine house was in view but a world apart through the ‘eukies’ and the tangle of figs and natives in the ravine.

"The second story of the barn, where the hay had been stored, looked like a dance floor. It had been dry and clean for all those unused years. There were a series of large holes in this floor, on the gully side of the barn. The holes emptied into chutes to deliver feed to the horse stalls below. The seven stalls were connected by a broad corridor and illuminated by a window on one end. Clearly, there was home-sweet-home potential down here where the horses had been. There was a lot to clear out…layers of former lives. On top were a few bits left by George [Dawson] and Susie [Marceau] who camped there a while back. Then there was some real trashy stuff from the Oster era. And finally, in the walls and deep crevices, were leavings from the Preston age. Most of it related to medicines…bottles, little crocks. With the help of John and Ed, we got water and power to the barn. And, after a good hosing down, I started remodeling. Douglas had some construction of his own going on at the lake. He’d go to the burned-out house down by the mulberry tree and salvage anything with potential. On his way back to the lake he’d stop off at the barn and we’d offload anything I could use. That’s where our floor came from, tongue and groove fir. I put in a couple of windows, used scrap to panel the walls half way up their 12 feet and used the stalls as rooms. Out of respect for the barn, I didn’t want to remove its original fittings, so our needs worked around what was there. Stall #3 was Sarinda’s bedroom with her bed installed on the boarded-over feed trough. I sewed near the wood stove, by the windows in the corridor. The kitchen was very basic but somehow wonderful and comfortable, just inside the door. Beyond us, through a sliding barn door, was a labyrinth of stalls where [Bob] Collier kept his horse, Diesel. Somehow it completed life in the barn to hear the sounds of a traditional resident."


Could these Preston artists be called hippies? Could they be given any kind of catch-all label at all? "We Renaissance Faire refugees fell into the general hippie category," Wendy recalls, "but I never referred to us that way–at least not seriously. The hippie title would be a title given by outsiders who knew nothing of the talent (some more than others) and sweat (some more than others) that the individuals put out. No one was on the dole or food stamps (which I associate with hippiedom). Flower children doesn't really hit the mark either, but to me it is less negative. For me, hippie has no kind implications.....but for some stories it is the perfect word. Back-to-the-landers works for some, not at all for others. I think of Gypsies as a bona fide group of people, not a life style. Troubadours certainly can work in many cases. Artists, musicians, craftsmen....the range of people involved is so broad, there's not much chance of agreement."

Whatever they might be called, when Dr. Lee, the owner of the ranch, came to know this band of traveling artists it struck a note with him. These weren’t just vagabonds; they were dedicated artisans and musicians. He became a patron and gave them the ranch as their home for as long as he lived.

Dr. Russell Lee

Dr. Lee was a story in himself. He was the great uncle of craftsman Edwin Ellis, a long-time Preston resident during the artist era. Edwin explains: "Uncle Russ was my father’s uncle. His father was a Presbyterian minister in Utah. Russell’s first job was working as a houseboy in a brothel in Salt Lake City. He went to Stanford and ultimately founded the Palo Alto Clinic. He was an internist, general diagnostician, politician, and a cell mate of Earl Warren in the Bohemian club.

"Russell made his money in real estate. He owned Rockpile Ranch. He owned Cominsky Station. He owned Dos Rios. He owned Foothill Park in Palo Alto. He made money by selling these properties and always carrying the first. Take Rockpile Ranch–he sold it about four times.

"He had five children and all of them became doctors. One was chancellor of UC medical school. One was chancellor of USC medical school. Another was head of the Palo Alto Clinic. So they have a lot of influence."

Mickie Zekley remembers Dr. Lee as "a remarkable man in both his personality and his actions. He had a white beard and hair and usually wore a white suit. If you met him for the first time you were sure that you had just been introduced to Colonel Sanders. A true southern gentleman.

"In a sense we were on call for Dr. Lee. He would call up and invite us to his Portola Valley estate for dinner and ask us if we would be willing to play a few tunes for the enjoyment of himself and his friends. When we were leaving he would hand one of us an envelope and ask us to open it later. It always contained $600-$1000. In those days this was a fortune.

"He would come by the ranch every few months on the way home from his retreat at Dos Rios. He always stopped by my home and would ask if I would show his passengers my instrument collection. These were delightful visits which I always looked forward to.

"He didn’t condone smoking. He once said to Bob Thomas as Bob was rolling a cigarette, ‘You must be either illiterate or despondent.’

"But the doctor was an incredible friend. When George Dawson (the great but always impoverished fiddler) severed the tendons in his left hand after having a losing fight with a telephone booth, the Medi-Cal system was going to throw this brilliant man in the trash and not help him because he did not have any financial resources. I called Doctor Lee and told him of George's plight. Within a few hours we were contacted by Doctor Chase, the world’s foremost expert in micro-surgery, and told to bring George to Stanford right away. George is making beautiful music again today thanks to our patron’s efforts. May the system and those that run it be damned eternally."

(Susie Marceau takes exception to Mickie’s condemnation of the system. "George procured medical aid from the State," she recalls, "even though he never paid a cent in taxes. The State provided all hospital expenses and living expenses until he healed, and thousands of dollars in rehabilitation funds which George later squandered.")

According to Cait Reed, Dr. Lee "had fallen in love with the ranch. He’d come up to see how his tenants were. We were his patrons. We’d play for him and he would sit there with his wine and think it was great. Then he’d go on his merry way somewhere. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for him and his attitude.

"Every once in a while we would get an invitation come down to Portola Valley and play a gig. It would always involve a lot of wine. He would put on a good party. We’d show up with our bagpipes and all this stuff. And he’d always give us a tip and that was really cool. He was also a great collector of books. He was a real awesome kind of Renaissance guy."

"He actually bought the ranch for his wife," adds Deborah Fischbach. "She loved the mansions. She thought we artists and musicians were really great. One time she came up and I was scrubbing the floors in the mansion. I stopped and made her tea. We were saints after that."


Emily Preston: Healer and Spiritual Leader

The mansions so loved by Dr. Russell Lee’s wife were, of course, built three generations earlier by Madam Emily Preston. But who was Emily Preston?

A Profile

Madam Preston’s background is well delineated by Holly Hoods, assistant curator at the Healdsburg Museum south of Cloverdale, in her thesis Preston: History of a Late-Nineteenth Century Religious Colony in Sonoma County, California:

Emily Preston, whose maiden name was Emily Lathrop, was born on January 1, 1819, in upstate New York, but spent most of her early life in Michigan. This information, gained through 1820 census data (before she was old enough to have motive to conceal her real age!), contradicts her marriage certificate, death certificate, later census records, and several newspaper articles. It seems that Emily chose to intentionally shield some aspects of her personal background. Her birthplace has been variously given as New York, Connecticut, and Michigan, and her birth date ranges from 1818-1832, depending on the source consulted. Probate records specify that Emily Preston was one of six children, and that her parents, her two children, and all of her siblings predeceased her. She enjoyed a warm relationship through the mail with her brothers and sisters back east, and with her husband’s siblings as well. Aunt Emily’s nieces and nephews wrote to her and visited her frequently.

Emily Lathrop’s first marriage was to Henry Appleton, the father of her two children: Emma, born in 1847, and Wellington, born in 1850. The Appletons lived in Michigan. The marriage ended early, perhaps in divorce. In 1850, U.S. Census records showed that Emily Appleton and her three year old daughter were living separately from her husband. Henry Appleton, a 38-year-old British clerk, was living alone in Detroit at "Johnson's Hotel." The census showed that Emily and Emma Appleton were living with Emily’s older brother Andrew in Wayne County, Michigan. Her medical practice was not in evidence. Pregnant with son Wellington, (born in Trenton, Michigan that October 1850), Emily’s stated occupation was "keeping house."

Henry Appleton died in Michigan in the early 1850s. Whatever the exact state of their union had been, Emily Appleton identified herself as a widow after his death. She was listed in the 1860 census as a widow with two children, residing in Detroit. Later that year, Emily Appleton and her two young children made the long journey by steamer around Cape Horn to California. In San Francisco she soon met and married a man named Burke. The Burkes lived in Sierra County, locating in Downieville for a few years, where Emily’s healing abilities began to gain recognition in the mining areas. Based on the stamps in some of the surviving Preston books, the couple may have also lived in Bodie for a short time. There are numerous letters from Gold Country residents among her surviving correspondence, as well as at least one letter mailed in 1878 from someone who claimed to have consulted her when she was "Mrs. Doctor Burke." The marriage to Burke did not last long. By 1868 she was back in San Francisco, where she appears in the City Directory of San Francisco as "Emily Burke, widow" residing at 717 Bush. In 1870, "Mrs. Emily Burke" was living at 708 Mason. In 1874, "Emily Burke (widow)" resided at 516 Sutter. By then her reputation as a doctoress had spread across the Bay Area. That same year Hartwell Preston, attorney-at-law, was first listed as living at 418 Post. The following year they were married.

An article in The Santa Rosa Daily Republican dated June 10, 1895, described Emily Preston:

Madam Preston is about the average height. She has a strong face; one that shows originality and resolution. Her eyes are dark and piercing. She would be noticed in any crowd as a remarkable woman. She speaks deliberately and in a very subdued tone of voice, using hardly as much force as is used in the ordinary conversational tone. She gesticulates seldom and then mildly. Her people are thoroughly impressed with her sincerity and her influence over them is very great.

An excerpt from feature writer Gaye LeBaron, in The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, June 29, 1975, described the Madam as "a preposing woman, not attractive in her portraits. Those who saw her and described her wrote of her mannish appearance and her visible ‘mustache.’ She had heavy features and wore her hair in a tight, flat knot on top of her head. But her eyes were described as ‘hypnotic.’ She wore long white robes, or, while working at her medicines, a voluminous white apron. She was not an educated woman. Her letters show this clearly."

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, in its October 1, 1905 edition, described her as a "plain looking little woman with a kindly, expressive face…Madam Preston loves nature and no matter what time of the year one visits Preston the sweet scent of flowers blooming in the gardens there and the neatness on all lands is an indication of her love of the beautiful."

An article in The San Francisco Chronicle dated September 25, 1989, described her as "a native of Connecticut, that land of Yankee pluck and enterprise, and the fact that she spent most of her early life in Michigan had abated not one whit of her inheritance of Yankee energy. She was not the woman to meekly fold her hands and sit down and inertly enjoy the proceeds of her husband’s labors. Occupation she needed for mind and body, and she provided it."

Mary Mowbray, who lived at Preston for almost 60 years and wrote a memoir, remembers: "The Madam liked nice clothes and jewelry and she always had plenty of both. Every summer she had some of her girls make paper hats. She said she liked them because they were cool. She had one made for me. I wore it and liked it."

And from The San Francisco Daily Examiner, August 13, 1887: "The hold the doctress gained upon her patients would seem incredible were it not evident that her wonderful animal magnetism could be resisted only by an equally strong or a violently antagonistic nature concentrated in her eye. They hold one’s gaze with a weird but far from unpleasant fascination, and have that singular effect of following one that is often noticed in the eyes of a well-painted portrait. Their range of vision seems limitless and comprehensive. Her voice is unusually deep and mellow, while her speech is slow and almost hesitating, as if she desired before speaking to assure herself that each word has its proper place."

Emily was evidently very stubborn. "When she set her mind on a thing she wouldn’t change if for love or money," wrote Mary Mowbray. "A friend of ours met the Madam in Cloverdale one day. She told him that she made a will, wrote the will herself, and that she was leaving everything to charity. He said, ‘You can’t do that as long as you have heirs. You can only leave one third to charity.’ She said, ‘My heirs have plenty so I’m not leaving them anything.’ This man tried to convince her that she was wrong. ‘They’ll throw that will out of court,’ he told her. ‘Oh, no they won’t,’ she argued. ‘My property is my own, and I can do with it as I like.’

"So after her death her will was thrown out of court. Her heirs got everything she had. And they saw to it too that there was nothing left for charity."

Medical Practice

It is significant that as early as 1878 Emily was addressed as "Mrs. Doctor Burke." Recall that in 1871 she had experienced a spiritual epiphany, claiming an ability to "see infinite varieties of Photographs representing the real realities of things in the Universe, Heaven, Earth and Hell. And it is by this Photography that I am enabled to diagnosticate cases at a distance." Thus it was during this seven-year period that her abilities and renown as a healer truly blossomed.

Invalids flocked to Oak Mountain. From 1876 until her death in 1909, hundreds visited to consult her for medical treatment, spiritual advice, and to convalesce. Mary Mowbray recalled seeing "a lot of human wrecks" come to Emily for help. "She always did the best and tried to make them well. She had a lot of sick people come to her that were given up by the medical doctors. She cured a lot of them. Some were hopeless; nothing would help them."

Mowbray relates the following story: "My mother-in-law had a couple of shacks that she rented to those human wrecks that came here for the treatment. There was a man in one of her shacks that had tuberculosis of the lungs. In fact, he was in the last stages. He went up to see the Madam. As soon as she looked at him she knew he was a hopeless case. She told him that she could help him, but she could not cure him. He wanted to know why she couldn’t cure him. She said to him, ‘You’ve got the consumption and it’s incurable.’

"Well, he got so mad at her that he cussed her black and blue. However, he took a few treatments but he got too weak so had to give that up. I heard him tell my mother-in-law that Madam Preston was a liar and a fake. ‘I haven’t got consumption,’ he barked. ‘That woman don’t know what she is talking about. She doesn’t know anything. She’s the biggest fake that ever lived.’ He raved on and on. So finally my mother-in-law walked away and left him sitting under a big oak tree that stood in the back yard.

"Well, it wasn’t long before they took the poor man away in a box."

Musician Mickie Zekley of the later artist era has this observation: "She fancied herself a healer but did much damage to her patients with her cures. One time going through a barn we found a jar of one of her remedies. We gave it to Dr. Lee who gave some to a friend who was feeling out of sorts. The friend said later it made him feel great. The doctor later had it analyzed. It consisted of alcohol with tinctures of opium and cannabis."

Some patients–like Frederick Rindge, who built the Preston Church–felt that they owed Emily their lives. Fred Elmers, supposedly treated and cured of ‘Bright’ disease by Emily as a young man, remained at Preston for the rest of his life as caretaker of the Preston Church and ranch, loyal to Emily long after her death. Resident Julia Lewis wrote enthusiastically about her faith in her care at Preston in a letter home to Petaluma, dated July 1886:

The spring water is helping me. It is making some wonderful cures with them that are drinking it. They all say it is helping them. I went up to the campgrounds this morning and filled my jugs. When I was going past Mrs. Preston’s she came out. She said she was glad I was using the water. She said it was helping me a great deal. I took a bath in it yesterday.

Researcher Lisa Ellis studied Emily’s treatment of diphtheria, then consulted a modern medical book to determine the currently accepted treatment. "I found that she was doing exactly what she should have been doing," Ellis reported. "Paint the throat with an antiseptic solution and give the patient plenty of iron supplement (which Emily dispensed under the name ‘blood medicine.’)"

Emily was gifted with a judgment that did not limit her practice to remedies alone. Her prescriptions included mineral water, dietary restrictions, fresh air, sunshine and physical exercise to build up strength. She did not hesitate to put her patients to work. They spaded, hoed and made gardens in the warm sun. This vigorous treatment was sometimes too much for the wealthy men of leisure who were her chief patrons. "She told the men that they must saw or split wood," Mary Mowbray recalls. "It didn’t make any difference whether he was a poor wretch or a millionaire. I knew of one millionaire that went to the Madam for the treatment. When she told him to put on overalls and go out in the field and work until ‘you sweat’ he went right up in the air. She said to him, ‘If you want to get your health back you’ll do as I tell you.’ So he did as she told him. Madam Emily’s word was law."

Emily manufactured her medicines herself and kept the formulae a secret. It is known that Joseph Zahner, her trusted gardener and the driver of her pretentious carriage, searched the mountainside for wild vines and shrubs which were used in making up these medicines. She reputed used wild cucumber vines, cascara, Indian parsley, yerba buena leaves and various berries which grew on the mountain.

Emily’s mail order proprietary medicine business expanded in the 1890s, with the establishment of the Preston depot and the connection of Preston with the services of the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad and the Wells Fargo Express. Young Nathan Bowers was a helper in the Wells Fargo Express office. "It was part of my duties," he wrote, "to make out waybills for all express shipments. Those often included boxes containing bottles of her medicines, packed in excelsior and consigned to patients who were treating themselves at home after being indoctrinated at Preston."

In addition to her mail order business, Emily kept a flat on Leavenworth Street in San Francisco for the benefit patients not able to come to Preston. "She used to go to San Francisco about once a month," wrote Mary Mowbray. "Of course, she always took one of her girl servants along on some of these trips. Then they would take the early morning train."

Was her practice legal? Apparently so. Medical practice in California during this era was open to anyone, subject only to liability for damages in a case of lack of skill on the part of the practitioner. It was perfectly legal to treat the sick with their consent and with honest intention, no matter how ignorant one was of the quality of the remedies used. This allowed Emily to legally diagnose illnesses–even through the mail–and prescribe her own homemade medicines to patients without benefit of formal medical training or license.

There were five kinds of medicine, all mild in form except the "liniment" which contained iodine. The patient was instructed to apply the liniment daily until a blister formed over the affected part. A running sore would be produced that had to be kept open from two to six weeks. This unpleasant, uncomfortable "blister treatment" was a fairly common, if drastic, practice in early medicine–the idea being that internal diseases could be thereby drawn to the surface of the body and dispelled. The treatment was used for a variety of ailments including: heart, stomach, bladder, kidney, liver or lung trouble; rheumatism, and diphtheria. Some patients believed so strongly in the merits of the blister treatment that they were rarely without one or more of the running sores somewhere on their body.

A bottle of Emily’s blistering liniment with the contents and label intact was found in Elisha Green’s house after his death. The label described the effects of the medicine:

This liniment does not blister like Mustard or Croton, but penetrates the system and destroys the germs of disease and procures their discharge through the skin in poisonous and offensive matter.

Instructions were provided for the use of liniment:

Apply with a soft brush or with the hand, every day or two, upon any diseased part, and wear over it constantly a bandage of oiled silk or cotton batting until it produces a running sore. Dress the sore by cleaning it simply with a dry, soft rag as often as it may require when you wish to heal a sore, remove the oiled silk, cleanse the sore, and apply a cloth well covered with salve or mutton tallow until healed.

The prevalence Emily’s blister treatment led disparaging neighbors to dub her "the Blister Lady" and Preston as "Blisterville." Mary Mowbray wrote, "My husband and his mother had a lot of faith in the treatment. They were like the rest of the Prestonites, they thought it was the only treatment for all ills. As for myself, I didn’t want any of it. I often wondered how those people could stand them. Some of the people I knew had a blister on all the time. I knew one woman that could not live unless she had a blister somewhere on her body. Of course, it got to be a habit with some of the people. I do know that the treatment helped a lot of the hopeless cases. And let me tell you these poor wrecks were very grateful to the Madam for helping them."

Emily prescribed wine bitters and wine cordials as adjuncts to the blister treatment to keep up the patient’s strength. She used port wine in her medicine and during the 1880s-90s had ten acres planted in zinfandel vines. She had a wine cellar and a small still for distilling alcohol for medical use. A tax-related letter from the U.S. Treasury, dated 1907 (after passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act), described the preparation of her wine cordial and wine bitters:

After the fresh Must made from grapes grown by the manufacturer has been allowed to ferment down to about 12 degrees saccharine strength, a pure grape syrup is added and the wine is fortified with tax paid spirits. After fortification the wine is allowed to stand for a time for the purpose of aging and to it is added roots and herbs, the completed product being sold as wine cordial and wine bitters.

In 1903, Emily began printing a "Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them." Besides liniment, wine bitters and wine cordial–the mainstays of her practice–the list of available medicines included: blood medicine (tonic), sweet oil, cough medicine, gin and garlic, fever paste, pile remedy, asafetida pills, vagina balls, vagina wash, eye sponge, salve, fasting paste, wine bitters paste, and catarrh snuff.

Some of the instructions exhibit a considerable lack of appeal–such as the treatment recommended for croup or asthma:

Take three drops of liniment in a spoonful of sweet oil, three times in half a day, paint the throat and lungs with liniment, and take Ipecac until you vomit. Make a sore on the back, between the shoulders on one in front, over the lungs.

Emily never called on any of her patients; they had to call on her. According to writer Amy Bowers, "Mondays were set aside as reception days and many and varied were the cases which came for Madam’s diagnosis and treatment. When a new patient appeared in the room set aside for the office, he was met cordially, given a small glass of her own concoction, mostly Port wine, justifiably designated ‘cordial,’ and made to feel comfortable. Then Madam sat opposite him and looked fixedly at him for several minutes. No word was spoken. The patient in recounting his experience always admitted that he felt as if she were looking ‘right through him.’ Presently Madam would tell the visitor what she thought his illness was. Then she would tell them what to do, what medicine was needed and how to use it. In an amazing number of cases she effected cures–startling cures, where often the celebrated physicians of those days had failed to give relief."

In 1938, Joseph Zahner, then 75 years old, was asked if the Madam knew how to grow hair. He said he’d only heard her prescribe for it once. One of the townspeople was going bald and asked the Madam what to do. She advised bay rum. Later it turned out that instead of rubbing it on, he had drunk it. So she didn’t prescribe it again.

Emily did not claim to be infallible. She occasionally sent her patients to see other doctors. Julia Lewis, being treated for diphtheria, wrote to her husband about one such episode:

Last Thursday night the Madam said she did not see how I could live through it, but said that she would do all she could for me and I believe she saved my life. She wanted me to call another Doctor. She said she would not feel hurt at all. I told her that if I had to die, I was willing to die in her hands, that I was satisfied with what she was doing and that if any one on earth could help me she could.

Indeed, not all of Emily’s clients fared well under her own medical treatment. Nathan Bowers, a child of a devoted Preston colonist, recalls that his father had consulted Emily about an eye in which a cold seemed to have settled. She advised him to poultice the eye with macerated green onions. After a few days of treatment, the results so worried Emily that she advised Mr. Bowers to see an oculist in San Francisco. The oculist told him that he had poulticed the lens out of the eye and would never see out of it again. Nathan Bowers remembers that the "loss of his right eye, of course, shattered Father’s faith in the Madam as a medical advisor. However, the family did not move away from Preston. It still was in a wonderful country, we had put down roots there and it was a delightful place to live. But from then on we observed the Madam’s medical activities from the side lines, as it were."

Nathan Bowers himself had direct experience with the effects of the Madam’s blister treatment. In 1966 he wrote, "My body, more than sixty years later, still carries the marks where blisters caused by her liniment went so deep as to leave permanent scar tissue."

Sometimes Emily felt there was no hope. Occasionally she named the day for the patient’s demise, perhaps six months or a year distant. And often death actually occurred on the day she had fore-ordained. This gave her even greater standing among her followers.


On March 5, 1888, the Sonoma County medical establishment gathered in Santa Rosa to organize a county medical society and rid the county of unlicensed practitioners. Soon afterward, the State Board of Medical Examiners apparently admonished Madam Emily–who had been listed in the census as Dr. Preston–for her unregistered practice. But she had the advice of an attorney and felt secure in knowing that her practice was within the limits of the law. "The Madam was wise," wrote Mary Mowbray. "She knew what she was doing. She always kept within the law."

Artist-era musician Jehan Paul relates this anecdote: "In 1906 the early feds obtained an interview with Madam Preston. They requested–there was no law–that she stop putting hemp in her herbal preparations. She ran them off with a shotgun and they never came back. From the pictures I have seen of her she wouldn’t even need a shotgun. That gal had a lot of presence."

On occasion, letters from Emily’s mail order customers suspected jealous physicians of tampering with her mail. In one such example, customer Mary White warned that "when you send medicine to this place, please take great care in packing because one of our best physicians is deputy postmaster and Mrs. Lisson’s last box of medicine had one bottle broken."

Spiritual Leadership

As Emily Preston’s medical practice flourished, so did her spiritual influence on people. Just as she was independent and absolute in her medical practice, so was she free and uninhibited in her spiritual leadership. From the late 1870s through 1885 she and Hartwell held worship services at their home and shared their views about religion. They believed that all faiths can go to Heaven "if their hearts are right," because "truth has a voice that puts way all dogmas." They emphasized the importance of cultivating a direct personal relationship with God.

Yet Emily and Hartwell Preston did not consider themselves to be ministers. Indeed, they advocated skipping the unnecessary middlemen–ministers and priests–because:

It is all folly to say that you can get into Heaven only on a certain line. If you come in with the truth in you, and talk to God and know Him for yourself, nobody can keep you out of Heaven. You can get religion under a tree. You do not have to have a preacher say a ceremony over you. God will say it over you with His divine law. You can be a Christian in yourself and be baptized a little every day with the Holy Spirit, without going inside of a church, if you have that capacity for cultivation, and talk to God and keep it up.

The Prestons believed in meditation and the importance of prayer. Emily declared that:

Every good thought is a prayer. You do not have to kneel down here and say over a lot of words and tell God what to do. God knows better than you or I. What is the use of kneeling down and praying? Stand up and pray, and pray every way.

They invited others to join them in "living religion" on the mountain. The new faith came to be called the Religion of Inspiration. In 1892 Emily proclaimed that their efforts to spread the Religion of Inspiration were divinely led:

We have started out, and God is our captain. He has called to us and said, "I will be the Captain of your army; and I have called you Volunteers, and told you to stand up for God and Heaven, and separate yourselves from the world."

The members of the new faith became known as the "Volunteers of Heaven" or the "Covenanters." In order to become a Volunteer of Heaven you had to do five years

probation to show that you really wanted to join. At the church you were asked to sign a covenant book to freely pledge your life to God. Since Emily and Hartwell did not believe in condemning other faiths, members were not required to renounce their previous religion. Emily preferred to attract converts by example. She was certain that the advantages of living by her covenant religion would become apparent:

This religion is to make you happy while you live, and to open every door for you; and when the time comes for you to die you will not be afraid. This religion brings you everything; yet it is so little appreciated; but in time it is going to be taken up. This religion will be sought after by and by; it is going to open people’s eyes, and they will see that they must come to God for inspiration and the love of heaven.

Emily constantly stressed the importance of the heavenly plane over the earthy plane. She contended that the purpose of human existence is to prove one’s worth to join God in the afterlife, so she spoke frequently about getting into Heaven:

What have you to do to gain Heaven? Only do right. That is something you want to do every day. God’s Heaven does not cost you anything, only good works. Then pay Him homage with your life. Thank Him every day, and talk to Him every way.

As noted earlier, Emily claimed to be able to view "photographs" from God showing the true nature of Heaven and Hell. She was convinced that God’s will was revealed to her through the divine pictures and words that she saw in front of her on walls of light. She assured the Volunteers that God Himself had created this religion and had told her that He would preserve it:

Why does not some preacher or learned man come and put this religion out and stop these words? Why, he might just as well blow in the wind. They can take it up and pick it all to pieces, but God will put it together again. It is the living life-force out of the Holy Spirit that photographs in the air, and it is a living substance that never dies. This religion is genuine. Your life must be your Bible, or you have no religion.

She expressed confidence that the Covenant faith would be perpetuated after her death:

This little grain of mustard seed that God has planted on this land will go all over the world and be taken up as the religion that is going to win. This religion is to take up the weak and weary, and help them to earn a place in Heaven, and to help them to have their last days their best days.


The Hell and the Heaven

The many followers who were not able to reside at Oak Mountain year-round wrote frequently to Emily about missing her and missing the special place. Mrs. O.J. Zellner wrote one such letter to Emily from San Francisco in 1907:

The little book you sent me was received days ago and as I read it, I seemed to breathe in a divine and purer air and also new strength. Of course, to me the Mountain, the church and all pertaining to it seem a breath of Heaven.

The book was probably The Hell and the Heaven, published in 1902. Emily explained in the preface, "as I have never written or advertised, some might wish to read the book to learn what I have been talking about all these years." The work represented something of a response to her critics. It consisted of one "discourse" by Hartwell Preston, dated June 12, 1887, one essay about Hell and Heaven, and 30 selected "Inspirational Messages" she delivered between 1887 and 1902. These stressed the importance of living well in the earthly life in order to earn a place in heaven, and standing up to criticism. "A man who lives this religion would not be false to another, nor want to hurt anybody. If he lives this religion he is a man and a gentleman; nobody can call him anything else; you need not be afraid of him" Many of the messages were titled in the form of a question: "Do We Want to Visit the Art Galleries of Heaven?" "What Do We Expect, and What is Our Religion?"

The book apparently met with less-than-universal approval. Mary Mowbray recalls a friend’s opinion. "It’s the worst book I ever read. Nobody but an illiterate person would write a book like that."

"Now this woman didn’t know the Madam," Mowbray explained. "Of course, I didn’t care for the book. It was all religion. In fact, there was too much religion for me. However, the Madam thought it was all right. She expected her followers to buy the book. She sold a few for three dollars per book. The rest of them went begging."

In 1903 Emily placed copies of the book together with her medical brochure, "Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them" in the Sonoma County Library and the Library of Congress. She clearly did not want her religion or her medical practice to be forgotten.


Bob Thomas and The Golden Toad

While Emily Preston was clearly the ascendant force in the first Oak Mountain community, the subsequent artist colony had no such dominating central figure. There was, however, a leading inspirational figure in the personage of one resident artist: Robert Donovan Thomas–bagpiper, lute player, instrument maker, graphic and fine artist, historian, storyteller and more.

The Man

Bob Thomas was born in Hollywood in 1938. His father was a Rosicrucian working in the film industry in Los Angeles; his mother an educator at UCLA. On leaving high school, Bob attended the U.S. Naval School of Music, Georgetown University and the Corcoran Gallery School, all in Washington D.C. After leaving the navy in 1958, he returned to the Los Angeles area where he attended UCLA and the Art Center School. He pursued a musical and artistic career in Los Angeles through 1966, giving many concerts and exhibitions. Moving to Northern California in 1966, he followed similar artistic pursuits until leaving for a two-year stint in England. There he performed as a musician with the National Theatre of Great Britain and accompanied traditional country dancing at the Cecil Sharp House. Employed as a restorer by Mr. Tony Bingham, an antique musical instrument dealer at the Sign of the Serpent shop, Bob started making bagpipes. A number of his bagpipes are included in the collection of the "Museo de la Gaita" in Gijon, Asturias, Spain. Still others are maintained in private collections around the world.

After returning to Northern California, he performed on his instruments at the Renaissance Faires, the Dickens Christmas Faires and various other events. Together with friend Richard Chase he recreated the English Morris dance ritual at the Faires.

Bob is most recognized for his famous logo (skull with lightning bolt) he designed for the Grateful Dead rock band. Other of his artistic achievements include:

· Album covers for the Grateful Dead including "Live/Dead" and "Bear's Choice";

· The logo and name for the non-profit organization, Institute for Traditional Studies;

· Logo for Alembic;

· Thomas Piper, a book on bagpipes of the world that he wrote and illustrated.

Bob had a vision of recreating early California music in its traditional style. In 1968 he and Mickie Zekley began teaching the dances and music at the Sweetsmill music camp in the central California foothills near Fresno. They called the band and its music "Los Californios."

Mickie considered Bob an authentic Renaissance man. "Not in the new sense" he wrote, "but in the true Renaissance of 400 years past. He not only played bagpipes from every country, lute, guitar, all manner of fiddles, saz, folk oboes and flutes (and much more) but was a world class painter. His artistic background ran the gamut from restoring icons in Mexican cathedrals to designing album covers and the logo for the Grateful Dead.

"He was also one of the world’s great scholars and storytellers. He spent his life trying to unravel the mysteries of the ages, finding no difference between the natural and supernatural."

Ernie Fischbach recalls when he and wife Deborah first met Bob at the Renaissance Faire. "I was sitting around with this dulcimer I had made that had sympathetic strings. This guy walks up and says, ‘That’s pretty nice.’

"I said, ‘Yeah, nothing like this has ever been made before.’

"He said, ‘I’ll be right back.’ And he came back with this book full of old musical instruments. There were five or six versions of my dulcimer. ‘Nothing you can make hasn’t been tried before,’ he said. And that was how I met Bob Thomas."

Lisa Ellis remembers how she first met Bob. "I was walking to the Faire and I heard this sound–like an organ or something. I didn’t know what it was. So I followed it and came around the corner and there was this guy with skinny legs playing the weirdest looking bagpipe I ever saw. I was only seventeen and I didn’t know there were other kinds of bagpipes than Scottish ones. It was so cool!"

Mickie Zekley remembers how he first met Bob: "When I was 18 years old Charley Chapman and I took to haunting the pawn shops of Old Town Pasadena trying to find old musical instruments. On one of our old banjo safaris I found a shop with a sign reading The Catacombs and an arrow pointing down a flight of stairs going to a basement. We walked down only to be greeted by the walls moving in undulating colors. My friend wanted to leave but I wanted to see what this weirdness was all about.

"I met the proprietor, Bob Thomas. In his office were all manner of antique flutes, strange stringed instruments, bagpipes, unusual ethnic drums and much more. Bob had taken on the project of researching and restoring all of these and, even more amazing, learning to play them all in their traditional style. He would take some of his antique instruments–an ancient set of bagpipes or a lute–out to the Renaissance Faire, dress up in Elizabethan costume and charm everyone."

According to Mickie, Bob expected people to keep their word and would sometimes take drastic action if they didn't. "Once when he went into his bank and asked the teller to withdraw his funds from his savings account he was told that he would have to wait two weeks. He grabbed the teller’s necktie, pulled the knot up tight around his neck until his face turned red, then dunked the end of the tie in an ink well. He got his money at once–and never banked again.

"On another occasion he was playing a gig at Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley. The band was promised a gourmet meal half way through the gig as part of the deal. The restaurant owner kept putting it off. At closing time, after eight hours of steady playing, the band was starved. When Bob was told that the restaurant was out of food he exploded and broke up the restaurant’s office."

"Bob was very intelligent and articulate," Ernie Fischbach recalls. "He was brought up in special schools to be a teacher but finished college with a degree in graphic arts. I remember the day we were walking around in a Safeway supermarket. Bob said, ‘See all the pickle jars and everything around here? I designed almost all of those. They paid me a lot of money, but I’m really ashamed of them.’"

Bob was one of the 1960s’ classic dropouts. "I went to work everyday and I came home and I had a beautiful daughter and a beautiful son and wife and they would be sitting there watching TV. I would say, ‘Hi, I’m home.’ And they would sit there watching TV. This went on month after month and finally I came home one day, took the TV and threw it out the window. It went down two stories and disintegrated. My wife said, ‘I’m divorcing you.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine, I can’t take this any more.’ And I was out of there."

"Bob was a tuba player in the military," Ernie recalls. "He was in the military marching band for Washington D.C. He got in trouble with the admiral’s daughter–they rolled in poison ivy and didn’t know it."

Ernie remembers Bob as a "fabulous lute player. He played old lute music from the 17th century. He played lots of John Dowland. But he was never a percussionist. His rhythms were not solid. Deb and I always covered for him.

"He used to think about what music really was. He tried to re-create it. And I was the only person he could find who was willing to go there with him. So he would give me an instrument that I hadn’t the slightest idea how to play. But I had a good ear and I could follow him.

"When he came back from London he had all these bagpipes. And each bagpipe had an oboe. He said, ‘Okay, we’re going to play these tunes. Here’s the oboe.’ And he was so happy that he could find someone who was willing to take a chance. I had no idea what the fingerings were going to be. So we would just leap into these tunes and I would play them all on the oboe. Bob would say, ‘This is great!’ So we re-created many kinds of music, including the music they were playing at the Renaissance Faire."

Ernie gives this account of one of the many adventures he shared with Bob over the years. "After the 1969 Renaissance Faire, Bob, Wendy, Deb, Don Brown and I went to Yosemite park and rented a couple of parking places. We woke up in the morning and the park rangers were furious with us. They wanted us hippies out of there.

"So the ranger said he was going to wake up Bob and I said, ‘You better let him sleep and let him have his coffee before you talk to him.’

"‘We’ll wake him up now,’ he said.

"‘That would be a big mistake,’ I said.

"So he wakes him up and Bob comes out with gleaming fangs yelling, ‘Give me a ticket, give me a ticket!’

"The ranger puts his hand on his gun…

"So we pack up and leave. The rangers followed us out of the park."

Buffalo Larkin remembers another "don’t-wake-up-Bob Thomas" story. She and Don Brown were living in the barn at Preston. A friend in Australia, Wolf Ownsbey, called them collect during a raging storm one morning at four a.m. wanting to talk to Bob. "Don and I both lay there waiting for the other to get sick of the phone ringing and get up and answer it. Finally Don got up and answered it and it was Wolf saying, ‘Go and get Bob Thomas. I’ve got to talk to him. I’ll call back in twenty minutes.’

"Well, you don’t want to wake Bob Thomas up in the middle of the night. But Don got dressed and went to get Bob. Bob said, firmly, ‘I’m going to do this once. Wolf will not call back.’ So Bob talked to him. And Wolf never called back."

Deborah Fischbach remembers when a pair of old-time Appalachian musicians–Don Minnerly and Heath Curdts–came knocking on the door of the Green Tortoise. "We were in there passing the pipe. They said, ‘We’re from back east and we heard that you guys were really great musicians. We don’t have much time and we’d really like to hear you play.’

"So Bob sticks his hand out and says, ‘Twenty dollars.’ And they said, ‘What?’ And Bob said, ‘Look, we play when we’re ready. If you’re willing to wait, we’ll play.’

"’We don’t have time,’ they said. And they left, never hearing us play."

Bob inspired many other artists, including bagpiper Alan Keith: "Bob and I were acquainted as fellow bagpipe enthusiasts since 1969, having first met at the southern Renaissance Faire. Bob, with his talent as an ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist, actually got me interested–and subsequently started–on a lifetime of world bagpipe collecting, study and performance. I spent many happy, interesting, and informative hours ‘at Bob’s knee,’ gleaning bits of piping and other music information–given out between his folk yarns–and historical tidbits and biographical cameos. (There were always a number of ‘leg-pullers’ and even a few ‘whoppers’ added to test his listener’s knowledge, intelligence and sense of humor.)"

Lisa Ellis remembers when she bought a cabrette Bob had made. "We were playing at music camp and this cabrette was not staying in tune. It was slightly flat. And I kept on complaining to Bob about it. Finally Bob got really pissed and said, ‘You just don’t know how to play it.’ And I said, ‘I do know how to play it. Let me try yours.’ So he said, ‘Yeah, right. Here.’ And he handed me his cabrette.

"I played for half an hour or so. I just played the hell out of the thing because I was pissed. I played brilliantly, totally outplaying Bob. So after the set was over I said, ‘Yeah, this one works really good.’ And he said, ‘Okay, okay, I’ll fix yours.’"

Dancer and musician Jason Adajian has this memory of Bob: "Around 1983 or 1984 the Mendocino Brewing Company started make their Red Tail Ale and the only place you could get it at the time was at the little pub in Hopland, above Cloverdale. There was something going on in that beer because if you drank some of it there was a psychedelic reaction. One time Bob was so drunk he was crawling on all fours to the bar, like a turtle. And someone said, ‘Oh, can we get you something, Bob? Are you okay?’ And he said, ‘I’m fine, I’ll get to the bar myself.’ And he actually made it to the bar, got a beer, and came back."

When Bob and long-time friend Mary Vander Ploeg moved to their larger house at Preston he put up a pole for his a little "visitor" flag. If the flag was flying, that was a day you could knock on the door. If the flag wasn’t flying it was an ‘artist’s free day’–you didn’t dare come knocking.

Trent Anderson recalls one of Bob’s favorite jokes: "He would look at you and everyone there and hold up his little finger on one hand and say, ‘Do you know why the Chinese never use this finger?’ Everyone of course would shake their heads ‘no." And he would pause a moment and then smile and look around and then reply, ‘because its MINE!’"

Bob played for many years at the Renaissance and Dickens Faires but, like many Faire musicians, was repeatedly fired at the whim of the organizers on the pretext of "lack of money." "The first time was at the first Dickens Faire," he recalled. "In fact, they sacked virtually everybody at the first Dickens Faire. There was a big meeting. Security, part of the crew, and entertainment were all on the verge of walking out. Both Richard Smith and I delivered an impassioned spiel, saying, ‘Think of the craftsmen!’ So, for our trouble in stemming the strike, we got sacked. The management of the Faire has always been very ‘kind’ in that way.

"Richard got hired back again. So did I. Then I got sacked again when Ernie and I were dealing with Earleen, the entertainment co-ordinator at that time. We were a trio at that time–Ernie and I and Lory Gilkerson. We had our own little European music bit. Ernie and I were going to be the oboe players in Jamila's Belly-dance orchestra. She had three or four drummers, and Ernie and I played the oboes. Earleen said ‘Oh, yes, that's cool. I'll tell Phyllis [the Faire director].’ She went out promptly that evening and got herself broken in small pieces in an auto accident. The last thing she would have thought of to do was to remind Phyllis that Ernie and I were working two jobs. So we were making about eighty-five dollars a day.

"One has to remember that in that period gold was about seventy dollars an ounce, so it was excellent money. It was well over an ounce a day. We were playing on the main stage, and Ron and Phyllis were walking up and down kind of looking abstractly at all the hootchie-coo dancers. They did a really comedy double take. They marched back around when we came off and Phyllis said, ‘Fischbach and Thomas, you're fired! That's too much. You can't work two jobs in the Faire. You're fired!’

"Jamila says, ‘Fire my musicians, fire us all!’

"And with that, Phyllis had to backtrack. But once the Faire was over she sent Ernie and me letters with Ron's signature that said we were sacked. I didn't mind too much because I went to England after that where I worked for the National Theatre Company. On coming back all was forgiven, of course, and I was hired back at a very reduced rate for the Dickens Faire.

"The last time I was fired was at the Dickens Faire. I arrived at work one day and was told that my services were no longer necessary. It would have been nice to have a post card or something. But unfortunately, that's the way the Faire has always done business. They sack you on the spot and then when they want you to come back again they send you a form letter."

When he had finally left the Faire scene for good, Bob was asked, "How do you feel about the Faire now?"

Bob replied, "It’s like viewing an old girlfriend who one still loves very dearly but, due to the rocks and shoals of life, you have separated. There you are, standing, and you look at her. She's beautiful and she's alluring, but there's no way to get it together again."

"Do you have any regrets?"

"Do I have any regrets? Yes. In the words of Alexander King, ‘I should have kissed her more.’"

Bob Thomas died on December 17th, 1993, from problems associated with a case of the flu. Living in San Miguel, California, the site of an historic old mission, he was in a weakened state from the physiological effects of lifetime tobacco and alcohol use. Trent Anderson recalls: "I had the good fortune of being with him for a night in San Miguel just a few days before he passed on. Gilkerson had flown out here from Nova Scotia to visit an old tall ship that he was writing an article about. So I volunteered to pick him up at the airport and drive him there, and we decided to pay a visit to Bob. We had a grand evening, Mary Vander Ploeg was there of course, we had a fine dinner, got drunk as lords, played music, visited the old mission the next day, I took a bunch of pictures, and all in all had a very fine time. He died about a week later."

Mickie Zekley recalls the morning of Bob’s death: "Early that morning I awoke into a bad dream. A telephone call from Deborah Fischbach sent me out of bed and into my car to drive the 400 miles to the small central California town of San Miguel and the house that belonged to Bob. I called Mary, Bob's long time partner and lover, so that she would tell me that this was a bad rumor, a falsehood, a lie. ‘He passed away in his sleep in the early morning,’ she said.

Mickie remembers Bob as being loved and respected by more people than anyone he ever met. "No one who met him walked away untouched–whether by an incredible insight that he allowed you to glimpse or the worst insult of your life, you would walk away changed.

"What's it like to lose your best friend? Where there was a solidity and a richness there were now memories and emptiness. Inside his home, Bob’s recent paintings spoke to me at once of the tranquillity he had found in San Miguel. The lute on the wall no longer sang his tunes. The pipes he played so well no longer made the feet dance. I knew he was dead but a part of me kept waiting for him to walk in the door and expose this as another one of his pranks.

"It was like him to just go off and leave in this fallow time of the year just before the winter solstice–a time that he held magical. Is his soul playing music between the legs of the Sphinx again? Or is he serenading Zeus? Has he gone back to concertize in the ruins of the an ancient temple? Or has he finally taken Isis as a lover? Has he gone back to restore more icons in the cathedrals of old Mexico? Or is he now amongst those saints and angels with his pipe and tabor? Or is he now truly playing with the Grateful Dead?"

The Golden Toad Band

One of Bob’s artistic accomplishments was the formation in 1965 of a music ensemble he called The Golden Toad. The "Toad" became such a focal point in the story of Preston in the early 1970s that it’s hard to imagine one existing without the other.

The original Golden Toad was a street band consisting of himself on bagpipes and friends Will Spires on fiddle and Don Brown on bass drum. They were appreciatively known for their two mottoes:

· "We perform the music of your ancestors, whoever they were" and

· "Style, not quality."

Bob explained how The Toad came to be. "It's a bit of a story. In the first Renaissance Faire that I did, I just played the lute. But, soon after the first Faire, I found a bagpipe in a pawn shop. Will Spires came back from Florida and his friend, Charles Perry, gave him a violin. My wife at the time, Julia, was drafted into playing the drum. We appeared under the name ‘Pro Arte Submarine Band.’ The reason for this was what we did in the Faire was our Pro Arte bit, and the submarine band was a jug band that played sort of low level blues.

"It was at the Fifth Faire (or the one after that) that Don Brown joined up. We really needed a drummer, and he looked exactly like a drummer. We got him the largest, most awkward bass drum in all of Christendom.

"At the first Northern Faire, Carol La Fluer, who was then the entertainment director, suggested that we needed a name rather than just appearing under our own names. So after wrangling and fooling around I recollected a silly symbol from an alchemical book that I'd been reading, The Golden Toad. I suggested it, we agreed, and that was the end of that–we were The Golden Toad from thence forth.

"In fact, like warts, it's hard to get rid of that name. So we appeared as The Golden Toad, which was a quartet which usually appeared as a trio because one of the members was usually on the outs with the others."

(Accordionist Jehan Paul has a different version of how The Golden Toad got its name: "At the time–the mid-to-late sixties–a lot of us lived in Berkeley. We liked to hang out with our friends Bill and Kathy Blair. One night Ownsbey had dropped over. Will Spires, Bob Thomas, Don Brown and me were there. Someone suggested a name for the band and Spires said, ‘Oh that’s the stupidest name I ever heard. Why not just call it The Golden Toad?’ And everyone thought that was really stupid. So the hours pass and it’s two or three in the morning. Everybody was really out of it and the proposed names were getting worse and worse. Bill and Kathy had gone to bed long before. So Bob finally says, ‘Well, no one has come up with a name in the last ten minutes. What’s that name you came up with, Will?’ Will says, ‘What name?’ ‘Something about a toad.’ ‘The Golden Toad.’ And that’s how the group got its name.")

Bob Thomas continues: "It went along like that for awhile. For the earlier Faires, both in the north and the south, we handled all the fanfare and rattling drums, crashing cymbals, bagpipes for dancing, and generally did all of the loud, out-door sounding music at the Faire. In fact, we were the only musicians there capable of handling loud instruments–having the necessary vigor and blow."

With its unusual and spirited music, The Golden Toad became a magnet for other musicians. After Jehan Paul, who came to be known simply at J.P., another early member was Ken Spiker on guitar. The band began its most serious expansion at the 1969 Renaissance Faire when Bob met Ernie and Deborah Fischbach. That’s when Bob and Ernie decided they could really make music together.

Ernie remembers hearing Bob, Will Spires and Don Brown playing at that Faire. "Don played the drum but he played it badly. And Bob couldn’t keep the beat either–he played just like Jehan Paul does. So finally Bob took the bass drum away from Don and gave him a snare drum. I got the bass drum. I worked out a couple of songs to sing with the bagpipe while I was playing the drum. So I’d march around singing while playing this bass drum.

"At the end of the Faire Bob said, ‘Okay, anybody here want to go on the road and play?’ He had in mind playing in county fairs and so forth. So that’s when I joined The Golden Toad."

The Grace Cathedral Gig

A Toad milestone occurred with the arrival of artist Bill Gilkerson. Bill, working at the time as a staff writer/correspondent for The San Francisco Chronicle, initiated the idea of having a Golden Toad show in the city’s Grace Cathedral, a noble structure high atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill. When he convinced the bishop to allow this "raggle taggle band of street Gypsies" to do a performance at the cathedral they began rehearsing in the Preston church.

On June 21st, 1970, the troupe–17 performers in all–did the summer solstice concert at Grace Cathedral. Performing as The Golden Toad Minstrels were:

Charles Ewing: guitar

Ernie Fischbach: sarod and drum

Deborah Fischbach: tamboura

Bill Gilkerson: voice and narration

Lory Gilkerson: dancer

Elliott Gould: drum

Leslie Gould

Wendy "The Camel" Gousla

John Patterson: dancer

Lance Sterling: assorted horns

Bob Thomas: bagpipes, oboes, flute

"Auxiliary performers" included:

Trent Anderson: torchbearer

Sue Draheim: fiddle

Bob Elliott: torchbearer

Steve Loher: organ

Cathie Whitesides: fiddle

Mickie Zekley: sas and viheulla

Mickie recalls the Grace Cathedral gig as the most important milestone in the history of The Golden Toad. "The show was a costumed extravaganza of music, dance, story and magic from many exotic places. When lights went out, twelve robed and hooded monks carrying large racks of elk horns materialized to the throbbing boom of Deborah's bass drum and the ancient sound of the Abbot Bromley's Horn Dance–played by Cathie Whitesides on the fiddle–with light provided by eight hooded torch bearers.

"All of us gathered to close the evening with our Tibetan ritual orchestra. Joe and Bob played the 6-foot Tibetan horn (dong), Bob later changing to the eerie Tibetan shawm to the accompaniment of drums, bells, and Kangling horns."

He adds: "The only limits imposed by the church were that no one was allowed to pee on the altar."

Trent Anderson appeared a one of the torch bearers. "Another fellow, an old friend of mine from Tucson named Bob Elliott, had just returned from Viet Nam. So when Bill asked me to perform, he also asked if Bob Elliott would perform as a robed torchbearer. Elliott willingly agreed, and that afternoon, before the performance, we did a dress rehearsal. When we finished, Elliott came back outside of the Church and stuck his flaming torch in a fountain of water. I, on the other hand, just let mine sort of burn out, as it was just a rag soaked in gas. Well, that evening, as the ceremony began, Elliott grabbed the torch that I had been using, and I ended up with his…wet. It would not light and I ended up humiliated at having to carry an unlit torch down the aisle. And of course Gilkerson made some pompous remark from the altar as he narrated the proceedings…like "some whose light will not be seen" or something like that. Anyway, the program was still a great success."

Ernie Fischbach recalls: "Gilkerson bought a hot-air balloon. He thought it would be a great idea to use the balloon to advertise the concert. So Gilkerson, Bob, Deb and I had our long signaling trumpets. The idea was to go up in the balloon, over the cathedral spires, and blow our trumpets to announce the concert. We filled up the balloon in the parking lot. Joe Moir and a couple of other people were there with tethers. Up we go in the balloon, blowing the trumpets. When get about level with the spires we realize there’s wind up there. It starts to pick up the balloon. It would only be a matter of seconds before we were carried out of there. Gilkerson freaked out. Luckily we didn’t get blown away. It was very close.

"At the concert we played music of the world. I accompanied Bob–who played bagpipes and lute–on oboe, bass drum, pipe and tabor. I also led the group, playing saz, sarod, and cumbus. Deborah danced and played tamboura, dumbek [Turkish drum] and other percussion.

"We had John Patterson and David Barnard doing the dervish. John was one of the lead dancers for the San Francisco ballet. He came to the Renaissance Faire and danced with The Toad and soon thereafter dropped out of the San Francisco ballet. And David had been doing costumes at the opera. He was a wonderful dancer and choreographer for one of the San Francisco avante guard dance companies. He choreographed the whole Grace Cathedral production.

"It was pretty phenomenal. The costumes were astounding. We did a lot of folk dances. Wendy and Carla and Deb did line dancing, a little Yugoslav, a little Macedonian. Carla did flamenco dancing as part of Los Flamencos."

Cait Reed considers the Grace Cathedral gig "the pinnacle of The Golden Toad. We had to carefully practice and rehearse for that gig because we weren’t very good. Some of us had never been on a stage before. In the end, something about it and about the personalities came together. It was all about mystique. We were not the greatest musicians, but there was this magic that happened. I played the conch and when you play the conch you get hyperventilated. That might explain some of it. It was pure spiritual energy.

"That music was about oneness–specifically, the Tibetan horns. Something happened with the Tibetan music that went beyond what anybody thought would happen. It wasn’t anything we did–it was something about staging. I was playing a conch, Deb was playing the cymbals. It was this haphazard, rag-tag thing but in the end it was awesome.

"We were so arrogant as to think we could do Tibetan temple music. But it worked. The Tibetan horn portion of the Grace Cathedral gig was a musical orgasm. What happened was that we were coming up on the last note of the concert–it happened to be a G or a D or whatever. And when this note came up they instructed the organist to just crescendo on the chord. So the organist hit this chord and crescendoed to the very end. And the cathedral is like this big instrument. To me that last note was the pinnacle moment of The Golden Toad.

"That music changed me. It had nothing to do with technique. It was about spirituality. I became a Buddhist after that."

In the aftermath of the Grace Cathedral gig a television crew visited Preston to do a news spot on The Golden Toad. "The hippies in the woods," Deborah Fischbach says with a chuckle. "They did it in the church. We were sitting in there and they would take individuals–like me or Wendy–and ask us dumb questions. When they were through with their filming, Bob and Elliott and Ernie got out the gazach horns. Bob said, ‘We’re going to play for you.’ The gazach horns were these big long things–fake horns that MGM used as movie props. They sounded like horrible farting things. So Bob says to the TV crew, ‘Do you want to hear our great trumpet fanfare?’ And when they heard all these farting sounds with the gazach horns their faces dropped and they put away all their equipment and left."


The Golden Toad continuously changed. "Every Toad has been fired and every Toad has quit at least once," someone said. And there were the usual personal conflicts. Ernie remembers when Gilkerson told Bob Thomas that he, Ernie, couldn’t hold rhythm on the drums. "Then he threw me out of The Toad," Ernie said. "I went to Bob and I said, ‘Are you going to let him do this?’ and Bob said, ‘Yeah.’ It didn’t really make any difference because at that point it all disintegrated anyway."

But it would be hard to imagine the Golden Toad without Ernie. "Ernie was huge in The Toad," Cait Reed observed, "because he was such a good musician. He had studied with Ali Akbar Khan so he had really good chops. He is a magical musician and always was. He was kind of like the singing bird in the group. But Ernie and Deb eventually got into other stuff and stayed in what Bob Thomas liked to call the ‘red wine’ music. We were still doing ‘beer’ music."

The Golden Toad’s gigs included many performances at venues other than the Renaissance Faires and Grace Cathedral. Bookings included, among others, the California State Fair, the San Francisco Zoo, the Desert Gypsy Festival in Tucson, Arizona, a Bastille Day celebration in San Francisco and a college appearance in Santa Cruz.

The Diorama Of The Earth Gig

Mickie Zekley wrote this account of one of The Toad’s more memorable gigs:

"One day Bob Thomas received a letter from the director of the art department at Sacramento State College inquiring about hiring The Golden Toad for an event of great magnitude. We replied with our conditions and soon received a telephone call informing us that this event was so important that negotiations needed to be made in person.

"A few days later I was standing in the doorway of my home which a hundred years earlier had served as a school house on the Preston ranch. I noticed a gray car, obviously an official state vehicle, winding its way through the oak trees up the twisty and dusty road to my house. At first I thought it was the tax collector but it turned out to be the art professor and his prized young student.

"So Bob, Cathy, Cait and I gathered around the kitchen table to drink coffee with our guests and discuss the requirements for our upcoming performance. We learned that the purpose of the event was to impress a noted art writer by the name of Janson who had written the art history textbooks used by every college art student from coast to coast. Another purpose was to unveil the masterwork of a brilliant young student who accompanied our good professor on his journey over the mountains to Preston.

"The young artist was described as a modern day Michelangelo and his work to be unveiled was a diorama of the earth as seen by beings from outer space. We were assured that this painting was one of today's most important works. The piece was to be revealed in a candlelight ceremony for which we were to play Tibetan ritualistic lamasery music with 8-foot horns made of copper and bronze incised with magical symbols, oboes with silver rings inlaid with precious stones, short horns of brass and copper made to the likeness of a dragon and with bells and drums to invoke spirits of the other world. This holiest and most mystical of musics was the only thing that would be worthy of this young man’s fine art work.

"The day's events were to start with a Bacchanalian feast. We were to play the music from the homelands of Caesar and Nero while the horde reveled and feasted. When this orgy of food and distillation of the grape ended Bob was to lead our host, his wife, the art staff of the college and our special guest Janson down gentle paths through sylvan glades to quaint sailing vessels awaiting patiently their cargo of merry makers. Bob was to play the bagpipes of ancient Rome and lead this worthy group much as the Pied Piper led the rats from Hamlin to drown in the river.

"On the banks of the lake all were to board these sturdy ships for a leisurely cruise to the far shore where we were to meet them with music ready. On landing we were to spring from the bushes playing Bulgarian bagpipes and lead the procession to a country gravesite to illustrate that all good times must end someday.

"After these events everyone was to return to the professor's mountain chalet on the banks of the lake to feast and party and await the coming of darkness for the unveiling of the aforementioned masterpiece.

"At this point, still sitting around the kitchen table, we were overwhelmed with the importance of the event. Our good professor pulled out a photo album to show us photos of past events of his sponsorship. We set the book on the table and opened it only to observe stark naked, embarrassed art students in various outdoor settings performing various red-faced activities. That’s when we were told that we were expected to render our services at this event without clothing. Bob Thomas pushed his chair back from the table, rose to his thin but 6-foot visage and said, ‘Does this mean I have to take the cover off my bagpipe too? I'm never naked. I even shower with my clothes on.’

"After a few hours of our potential employer trying to convince us of the artistic merits of nude pipers and fiddlers he agreed that we could perform clothed. (Bob did offer to take the cover off his bagpipes.)

"The night before the event, we–Cait and I, Bob and Cathie, and Joe and Marcia–caravaned to ground zero. The Ruptured Duck (an old Chevy camper mounted on the frame of a quarter-ton 1962 Chevy truck), and the Green Tortoise (a Divco milk truck) and a refugee from the U.S. Postal Service fleet served as our wagon train. After many dirt roads and wrong turns we found our benefactor’s estate. We were greeted by a dozen screaming peacocks, and Joe was almost eaten by the resident St. Bernard. We entered the house to find a motley crew of art students making signs for the next day's event. Bob, a consummate artist himself, took one look at the shambles they were making of these signs and took over the project himself.

"We decided that we should settle financial matters that night as per our original agreement. We stated clearly that we were to be paid in cash; but instead we were handed a check. Bob, being a firm believer in coin of the realm, suggested that if cash was not delivered the following day we would load our vehicles with antique furnishings from the house in lieu of proper payment.

"Morning finally came. We dressed in our costumes left over from the Renaissance Faire and followed the path to the Bacchanalian feast to tune our instruments. The feasting table turned out to be card tables set on a downward sloping hillside. The tables were covered with paper cloths, paper plates and plastic utensils. The feast consisted of one large bowl of potato salad, one large bowl of cole slaw, several loaves of white bread and a fine selection one-gallon jugs of Red Mountain wine.

"Our host forgot to provide us with chairs so we had to play sitting on the ground. Cathie played the cello, Cait the fiddle, Bob the viehuella (a Portuguese guitar) and I played the small harp. Cathie is tall and made a great picture sitting on the ground with the cello. At last Mr. Janson, the good professor, arrived with wife in tow. The complete art department of the college also arrived and were seated. Immediately someone uphill from the ‘banquet’ table knocked over one of the jugs of wine and a river of Red Mountain flowed from one end to the other.

"The sun was nearing it's zenith and the temperature was at least 100 degrees as the last of the ‘feast’ was consumed. It was time for the guests to be led to their surprise cruise. Bob bravely inflated his lovely olive wood Roman bagpipes and began leading the group down what was described as a ‘gentle path.’ This ‘gentle path’ would have been a challenge for a mountain goat and almost impossible for a marching bagpiper with entourage. Fortunately no one fell or was injured.

"The trek ended at the lake shore. Three boats were waiting. The ‘quaint boats’ promised earlier turned out to be plastic dinghies with sails. With the 100-degree weather and no shade the boats were like floating frying pans–with humans as the main course. And with no wind the ten-minute trip took an hour and a half. Refreshments for the voyage consisted of more jugs of Red Mountain.

"Meanwhile we musicians were instructed to drive around the lake and prepare ourselves to lead the procession of ‘Death in Arcadia.’

"While Bob disappeared piping down the steep trail with his entourage in tow, Joe, Cait, Cathie and I piled in my van and drove to the other side of the lake to prepare for the arrival of the sailors. The boats were supposed to arrive 15 minutes after they set sail, but due to the lack of wind they were over an hour late. It was still over 100 degrees and we had to wait on the beach without the benefit of shade. Other people began showing up, some walking into the brush on the hill behind us to seek relief from the heat.

"The moment the boats arrived with their cargo of half-baked art teachers, 200 naked and embarrassed art students rushed out of bushes, startling everyone including themselves.

"We inflated the Bulgarian bagpipes and began beating the drums to lead this motley procession to an old country grave where our naked host and his wife waited. The organizer of this event, holding an old tree branch that vaguely looked like a scythe, gestured at the grave to show that there was death even among all this beauty.

"The guest of honor took one look at this scene, shook his head, took a long draw on a jug of Red Mountain and burped. It was clear that he was looking for the ‘exit’ sign. I was the only one with a vehicle–everyone else either arrived on the boats or walked a mile and a half around the lake–so I offered to rush this man back to the house. He accepted this invitation gratefully. Upon our arrival at the house he thanked me for the lift, rushed to his car and drove off at once–delighted that he had escaped. When our hosts, the other art teachers and the now-clothed art students arrived they were disappointed that their guest of honor had fled.

"We spent the rest of the afternoon eating coleslaw and potato salad left over from the ‘feast’ and listening to bad rock-and-roll mixed with the sound of a generator down the hill.

"Dusk was coming. It would soon be time to play Tibetan ritual music for the candlelight unveiling of the ‘Diorama Of The Earth From Outer Space.’ We were given directions to the site of the event.

"When we started down the hill Bob nearly tripped over what appeared to be a paint-splattered drop cloth laying on the ground. We might have considered this simply a reject from a house painter's work kit but it turned out to be the purported ‘art work of the decade.’ Bob looked carefully at the situation and realized that the Gods of the ancient Tibetan lamas would curse us if we played their music for this event. He felt that the only sensible thing to do was to make a run for our vehicles and leave. Joe brought up the unpleasant fact that we hadn't been paid yet; if we wanted to our money we couldn’t leave. So in a stroke of genius Joe suggested that he play his odd-looking Welsh bagpipe and the rest of play marching band cymbals and chant nonsense in hopes that our employer wouldn't notice the difference.

"Darkness finally came. The candlelight ceremony was about to begin. A group of 70 candle-holding art students made a circle around the masterpiece. It was windy and no one could keep their candles lit, so the ceremony became a one-Coleman-lantern light ceremony.

"Finally it was time for us to play our Tibetan ritual music. Joe blew up his bagpipe (which smelled like a dead goat–probably because it partly was) and started playing the Mickey Mouse theme song while we banged on our cymbals and chanted, ‘Oh money, give me some.’ Our cultured audience didn't know the difference.

"Finally the farce was over, we were paid and we drove off into the night."

The Eight-Minute Fanfare

The Golden Toad was justifiably famous for outrageous fanfares. Bob Thomas described the one triggered by the famous rock and roll star "who gave us our first toot, and none of us really had any idea of how much one was supposed to do of that sort of material, so we did a lot, and then I thought I would just take the last edge off of the jar which was adhering before screwing the lid on, and managed to get most of the contents of the jar in my nose on top of that.

"Fanfares are something to aggrandize, to inflate the ego's of great princes or those who wish they were. But where there is a fanfare of aggrandizement there must be a fanfare of derision. Our fanfare of derision was supplied by our dear friend, Elliott Gould, one of the drummers for the band. He'd gone to an auction and purchased what was billed in the catalog as ‘Roman military trumpets.’ He bought four of them. These things appeared to be more on the order of brass lamp stands than musical instruments, being very short and having a steep conical bore and a curiously configured mouthpiece that your entire mouth would fit inside. The tone quality was described by Mickie as a ‘mastodon farting.’

"The day came at the Southern Faire. It was about 137 degrees, as it usually is. No sun-shade–you could melt lead on the stage. In those days the sheriff was L. Sprague De Campe, and he used to have the symbol of the yellow boar. I remember him well. He was a kind of oily, bristly man of powerful visage. He was announced, we were cued, and we proceeded to let off about an eight-minute fanfare. We had four trumpeters and eight percussionists. We cut loose on these instruments that sounded like–my God! The entire Abyssinian Camel Corps, both man and beast, being fed on beans for eight months.

"Rolling raspberries! Blazing farts! Terrifying sounds came out. We enjoyed it so much that we couldn’t stop. We were possessed! The Devil was driving us forward! Ron Patterson [the Faire director] was on stage jumping up and down and giving us his not-very-sotto voice, ‘Cool it, damn it! Stop! Stop!’ Finally some of the sheriff's men clambered over the railing and were making for us. So we beat a hasty retreat down the side stairs and menaced them with our gazach horns from a safer position."


Although he was certainly the focus of much of Preston’s musical activity, Bob Thomas not a leader in the sense that Emily Preston was. "He only took the lead when it was absolutely necessary," Deborah Fischbach recalls. "For example, one time we were at the Faire. The Toad was huge at the time–maybe 18 people or something like that. It was after the Grace Cathedral gig. We were getting paid quite a bit of money by the Faire. And I, as usual since I joined The Toad, was in charge of the money. I would get all the begging money, too, and divide that. Bob knew I meticulously fair and liked the fact that it was all being taken care of in a fair manner. So I had all this money from the Faire and from begging and I passed out everyone’s share to them. I gave Bob more money than I gave Gilkerson because Bob always brought in more begs than anybody.

"One morning we all get up and Gilkerson starts bitching at me about his pay. So when Bob gets up there’s this bitching going on. And here I am, probably the youngest of the bunch, getting bitched at. And Bob says, ‘Gilkerson, don’t you ever, ever bother Deborah about money…especially before coffee!’"

By any measure The Golden Toad was a notable musical force in its time. The group even had its own stationary (created by Bill Gilkerson and Trent Anderson). Yet they–and the other musicians living on Oak Mountain–rarely gave concerts locally. They played primarily at fairs (state and county fairs in addition to the Renaissance Faires) and on the street. "So life at Preston would be routine for awhile," Mickie recalls, "and then a fair would happen and a bunch of the musicians would disappear for awhile and when the fair was over they would return and resume their lives on the hill."

Torchy the Magician

At one point The Golden Toad even had a magician and fire eater. "Torchy was from the old school of magicians," according to Don Brown. "He had stuff that he’d learned from Dante and the masters. He had a nice waxed mustache and a curly goatee. He’d be eating fire. I remember one time when his beard caught on fire. He just turned around and kind of smothered it with his forearm. It was very theatrical. When he came back up again it was all put out. One time I called Torchy, ‘You old reprobate.’ Torchy replied, ‘I’m mortally insulted by that! Go look that up in the dictionary. You don’t even know what you said!’ So I looked up reprobate in the dictionary. Sure enough–I was right."

Ernie Fischbach remembers Torchy as "definitely of a different mindset than the rest of us. He was a professional showperson. But he felt that real magic only occurred when he was high on LSD–which made for some really interesting experiences. Like when he decided he could fly. He went out in front of the Family Dog and took a flying leap off the wall. Shattered both of his knees.

"I met Torchy before I was in The Golden Toad. We had the A Cid Symphony at the southern Renaissance Faire. So we’re playing and this guy shows up wearing this beautiful robe and sits there and meditates during a whole set of tunes. When he gets up he says, ‘I’m a fire-eater.’ Later, Bob said it would be neat if we had a fire eater and I said I knew this guy Torchy. So we put him in the show.

"One day he did his fire-eating act and got lighter fluid all over his beard and caught fire. We kept playing away and he takes his torch and goes to his face and it catches on fire again. By the time he’s done he’s clean shaven. He has no eyebrows, no mustache, no beard.

"In one of his acts he comes out and blows this giant fireball and it goes way out and this guy in the audience has a really hairy chest and it lands on his chest and sets it on fire.

"He was also a magician–one of the last great illusionists. When he came to Cloverdale he had Houdini’s big glass tank, some of his trunks and some of his robes.

"He also did levitation acts. Trent [Anderson] was the guy who cranked the machine that elevated the lady. One time her dress got caught in the apparatus so it didn’t look too slick."

Mickie Zekley recalls this episode: "One year the Faire carpenter built a very fancy and complex stage for our shows with all of Torchy’s magical devices built in. It was Trent’s job to operate the equipment for the levitations. But that was the year Torchy and Trent were not getting along. So during the middle of the show Trent started jerking the controls so that Diane (Yogala) floated in starts and stops and almost fell off the machine. We surmised that Torchy wished he could make Trent disappear permanently."

Trent remembers when Torchy hired him to be his assistant. "It was at the 1969 Renaissance Faire. I ended up dressed in a green robin-hood costume, replete with green tights, and the green-man style shirt, etc. One of my jobs was to operate the levitation machine that Torchy somehow had acquired from who knows where. He told me it belonged to Blackstone the Magician. Anyway, this was a fine, precision machine. It had a large round metal wheel with a handle on it, and one would stand there and crank it and that would operate an intricate set of heavy metal gears. Then there was a very heavy, large flat base, upon which was connected a tall steel track about 10 feet high. Connected to the track and gears was a metal rod about an inch in diameter, and it came out from the apparatus about 2 feet, then curved and was shaped like a huge paper-clip. It was shaped in such a way, so that when someone (in this case Yogala, dressed in her finest hippie sarongs and shawls) laid on it, the audience of course could not see the metal paperclip rod that she was lying on; and, the rod was twisted and bent in such way that Torchy could stand in front of her as she ‘levitated’ and pass back and forth over her a large ‘hula-hoop’ like ring. He would not pass it all the way from one end to the other, but the construction of the paper-clip platform allowed it to go well over half way in each direction. The illusion was that there was nothing, not below NOR behind her that was supporting her. And it worked!

"Now the metal paper clip rod was painted black, and it stuck out between the two black velvet curtains that we had hung up as the backdrop on the stage. And, or course, behind the black velvet drape stood…ME! I would, upon his magical command, begin to crank the wheel and Yogala would begin to rise.

"Well, one day, right in the middle of the show, two young kids from the audience had managed to slip back behind the stage and suddenly there they were, peeking through the back curtain, watching me as I cranked the machine. It was like in the Wizard of Oz, when the Lion or Tin Man discovers the Wizard operating the machine that made the face appear and mouth roar in the Emerald City. There I am, trying to crank the machine, and hold the curtain behind me closed, shushing the kids, digging in my pouch for some change to bribe them to go away. God I wish I had that scene on film."

Another one of Trent’s duties was to fill Torchy’s little cigar tubes with white gasoline the night before a performance. "He kept these strapped to his waist," Trent recalls, "in a leather pouch that Sterling had created. When he did his fire-eating act, he would turn his back to the audience, mouth the gasoline from the tubes, then turn around and blow the gas into a lighted torch, thereby creating a huge, noisy fireball, which of course would astonish the audience.

"One night, he drank a bunch of tequila and took LSD. As the evening wore on, he became totally bizarre and out of control, and for some reason, fired me. So, fine, I was fired. No more cranking the levitation machine. The next morning he stumbled out on the stage to begin his act. After parading around for a while, it was time for his fire-eating act. He reached for the two cigar tubes in the pouch, pulled off the top and….what? The look on his face–you could just see the wheels turning as it all came back to him…I fired Trent…he didn’t fill the tubes…oh shit. Then he spied a red can of Coleman’s fuel sitting on the stage where Yogala had left it earlier while fueling her little stove for breakfast. He ran over, grabbed the can, and took a big swig. Problem was, he swallowed it. Then his eyes began to bulge, he was coughing and hacking…while, of course, the audience sat there just stupefied. Suddenly, he spotted the small table off to one side, where there was a little tiny fishbowl full of water and one lonely goldfish swimming around. If I recall, he used to cover that with a cloth and do some magic and make it disappear. He lunged for the bowl, grabbed it and drank the entire contents, including the poor little fish. Then he stood up straight, looked at the audience for a while, and bowed. Every one applauded as he left the stage, undoubtedly thinking that that was his act. Unbelievable!"

Torchy caused an uproar at the California State Fair, Trent recalls. "He left his live pigeons on a serving platter under a silver hood out in the Sacramento sun. Part of his act was to release the birds by mumbling some magical phrase and lifting up the hood. Well, of course in the 100-plus degree heat in Sacramento, the poor things had perished."

Mickie pointed out that Torchy’s fireball finale–where he would take a big swig of white gas, spit it out across a lit torch and shoot a giant ball of fire into space–would disable his taste buds for a week or two. "So one day someone replaced the white gas with water. Torchy–with non-functioning taste buds–couldn’t tell the difference. When he tried to do the fireball act he blew out the torch instead. He was stunned but nevertheless managed to take a bow. He turned around and tripped over my koto (I was his musical accompanist), then fell through the side stage curtain on top of Joe Moir, knocking him over and breaking his clarinet.

"Torchy always was an adventure."


By necessity, any money they could solicit was important to the musicians of The Golden Toad. Mickie Zekley remembers when he, Bob Thomas, Cathy Whitesides and Cait Reed were hired to play street music at Cal Expo, California’s state fair. "Bob and I played Scottish bagpipes, Cathy the fiddle and Cait the tenor field drum. We were allowed to play music and pass the hat anywhere we wanted for 20 days. This was a first for this event.

"We set up camp in the rodeo parking lot. Cait and I were staying in the ‘Ruptured Duck’ a funky camper. Bob and Cathy stayed in the ‘Green Tortoise,’ a refugee from a milk company.

"We found a good spot to play–by the exhibit halls. We spent most of the day standing in this spot playing and passing the hat. At the end of each day we would walk away with a shopping bag full of money.

"On the third day of the fair we noticed a small black boy about nine years old intently watching us. Over the next few days we continued to notice the boy in our audience. But he wasn’t watching us anymore; he was watching our hat. We realized that if we didn’t take some action he would eventually grab the hat and run.

"So when our little friend showed up the next day I told the rest of the band to keep playing while I took a walk. I went around the back of the crowd until I got behind the boy. I leaned down right next to him and whispered in his ear: ‘Do you see that guy with the bagpipe?’

"He said, ‘Yeah.’

"I said, ‘See that leather pouch on his belt. He has a gun in it.’ (Of course, he really didn’t.) ‘If anyone grabbed our money hat he would shoot them.’

"’Ooooh,’ cried the boy.

"We didn’t see him the next day but on the day after that he was back, still trying to figure out how to get our money. During our break I walked up to him and gave him a harmonica. He took the instrument and ran off. Five days later we saw him at a corner of the fair playing a simple tune on the harmonica with a hat full of money in front of him. Bless free enterprise!"

It was during this same fair that Mickie invented The Contest. "We would lay a tightly tensioned drum on the ground, draw a line about forty feet back from it, then loudly announce that there was going to be a contest with a prize: land a coin on the drum head. The victorious contestant would win a tune named after him or her. People would get so excited at the idea winning something that they would start throwing handfuls of coins at the drum. But the money would only bounce off the tensioned skin. Eventually someone would win and we would play some obscure tune, announcing it as their name. The winner was always delighted."


Life Under Madam Preston

The lives and adventures of The Golden Toad musicians and other artists living on Oak Mountain in the 1960s and 70s were clearly less orderly than life at Emily Preston’s community three generations earlier. Emily’s was a family-oriented colony centered around medical, spiritual and agricultural pursuits.

Emily As Leader

Because Emily owned all of the enterprises in town she was the main employer. She hired men and women to cook, clean, care for the sick and labor on the ranch. Female employees lived with her in the mansion; the men had a bunkhouse over the wine cellar opposite the big house.

The Madam was strict with her help but fair. Lisa Ellis remembers meeting 96-year-old Lou Tyler, who worked for Emily when he was twelve years old. "She paid him ten cents an hour–a good wage for the early 1900s," Lisa said. "That’s what a grown man would make."

Emily’s importance is illustrated by an episode that occurred one day when she was embarking on a trip to the flat she kept in San Francisco. Mary Mowbray wrote about the incident: "I recollect she came down to the station one morning and discovered that she didn’t have the keys to her flat. She sent Joseph Zahner, her coachman, back to her house to get the keys. In the meantime the train pulled in to the station. She told the conductor about the keys. He held the train until Joseph came back with her keys. Holding the train was something unusual. And they never held a train for anyone but the Madam."

Mowbray also notes Emily’s punctuality. "The Madam had the most wonderful system of any woman I knew. There was a time and place for everything. She had a big bell on top of her house. And that bell rang just as regular as clockwork, and when that bell rang for meal time, all the men dropped their work and rushed to the house for their meals. She told me once that her meals never varied two minutes one way or the other. She believed in early-to-bed and early-to-rise. When any of her help stayed out after eight o’clock in the evening they were locked out. She was like that–everything on her place was run like clock work."

Emily expected residents to abstain from liquor, allowing no alcohol on her property except that which she prescribed. She had strict rules against pastimes she considered to be frivolous or wicked. These included gambling, dancing, card playing and indulging in gossip. She wouldn’t even allow her followers to keep a deck of playing cards in their homes. She readily criticized bad behavior and would scold misbehaving individuals publicly (in church). "It’s a fact," wrote Mary Mowbray, "she could rake people over the coals and they never talked back. It seemed like the more she scolded them the better they liked her. One Sunday in church Madam gave one of the men a terrible lecture about his children not getting enough to eat. She pointed her finger at this man and said, ‘You are starving your children. Look at them. How thin and sickly they look. It will take a barrel of medicine to bring back their health and strength. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You have plenty of money, but you are to stingy to buy enough food for your children.’ That man hung his head and never said a word."

Some offenses–including gossip and fornication–were punishable by banishment from the group. She expected celibacy of her single residents but strongly promoted marriage. "Madam was a great match maker," wrote Mary Mowbray. "She wanted all the young people to marry as soon as they became of age. She sent back east and had two of her nieces come here. Now these girls were as poor as church mice. They were here but a short time when the Madam found husbands for them. One married a millionaire and the other married a banker. As far as I know they were well mated."

According to Mowbray, for years Emily wanted her son, Wellie, to marry and settle down. "She picked a banker’s daughter for him. One day he told his mother that he was willing to marry Jessie if she would deed him a piece of land with a big house here in Preston. So she gave him a lovely home, all furnished. Then he married the rich girl. They hadn’t been married more than six or seven years when he dropped dead in his own home. That was in 1902. His death was a great shock to the Madam. I know she never recovered from that shock."

Mowbray recalls that Emily was always ready and willing to help the youngsters, but some were apparently so headstrong that she had a hard time with them. "I remember the time she put Lee Green in the store. Lee was about seventeen then. Now that boy had to tend to the store, express office, post office and had to meet four mail trains a day. At that time the Greens lived on the mountain. It was a good mile from the store.

"Lee had his breakfast and supper at home. Then the Madam got to worrying about his dinner as it was too far for him to go home for his dinner. He had to go without.

"One day Madam came rushing over to my house. She wanted to know what time I had dinner. I said, ‘We always have dinner at twelve o’clock noon.’ Then she asked if I were willing to let Lee eat his dinner at my house. I said, ‘Yes, if he wants to.’ She said ‘I want him to have a hot dinner at noon. And it’s too far for him to go home for dinner.’ Then she asked me how much I would charge for the noon meal. I told her my price. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘I’ll go over to the store and tell him to eat his dinners here with you.’

"Then one day she came to the house and asked me if Lee came on time for his meals. I said, ‘Some days he don’t get here until two o’clock and later.’ She said, ‘You must tell him that he must be on time for his meals.’ I said, ‘I told him but he don’t pay the least attention to me.’

"She went right over to the store and gave him a good lecture.

"She was the ‘boss’ among her people," Mowbray continues. "When she told them to do a thing they did it. Her word was law. She was very stubborn. She was a woman of few words but when she said a thing she meant it. She hated to give in."

But Madam Emily did on occasion have to give in. Mowbray writes of this revealing incident: "Years ago there was an old couple living on the Mendocino coast. They had a Chinaman working for them. One night the Chinaman killed the old folks, stole all their money, then skipped out. Anyway, that Chinaman was never caught. In fact, he was never heard from. Of course, the people were up in arms about it. Then the ‘big wigs’ in Sonoma County decided to run all the Chinamen out of Sonoma County. And no one was allowed to hire a Chinaman. And those that did have a Chinaman got orders to get rid of him at once.

"The Madam had a Chinese cook at that time. So she got a warning that she must get rid of her Chinaman. But she paid no attention. Then someone sent her a box of matches with a note saying, ‘If you don’t get rid of that Chinaman you’ll be burnt out.’ She got more threatening notes but she was so stubborn she wouldn’t give in.

"Then my husband went up to her house and advised her to send the Chinaman away before somebody set fire to all of her buildings, and that the people of Sonoma County weren’t going to allow any more Chinamen in this county. ‘So you better send him away and play safe,’ he told her. The Madam got mad and told him to go home and mind his own business, that she hired the Chinaman and was paying him, and for other people to mind their own business and that she was going to keep the Chinaman as long as she wanted to and didn’t want anybody to dictate to her.

"Then one evening a mob walked up to her house. When the Madam came to the door, the mob leader said, ‘This is the last warning. If that Chinaman is still here by tomorrow night we are going to burn every building on your place.’ I never knew where the mob came from. (There were a few Prestonites and my husband was one of them.)

"I don’t remember what she told the mob. But the next morning her foreman, Joseph Zahner, took the Chinaman down to the station and put him on the train bound for San Francisco. Well, that was one time the Madam knew she was licked. So for many years the Chinamen were kept out of Sonoma County."


Emily could be an intimidating figure to the colony’s children. They grew up witnessing the authority she had over their parents, and lived by her rules on land that belonged to her. On one occasion, when she took into her house a whole family whose home had burned, Mary Mowbray remembers: "There were seven children. She kept this family up there for weeks, fed them and gave them clothes and did what she could for them. I went to her house one day while this family was there. The youngsters were running around having a good time. Madam said to me, ‘There is one little girl that don’t want to mind me, so I keep a switch behind the kitchen door. I have to switch her now and then.’ She looked straight at me and said, ‘They have to do as I say.’"

Nathan Bowers, a child at Preston during the 1890s, labeled as "apprehensive" the reaction of the kids to Emily’s once-a-month Sunday Inspiration Meeting, where she read a personal message for each of them "out of thin air." What she might say could be embarrassing, and it was said with an air of total finality. They were all "relieved" when an Inspiration Meeting was finally over. Mary Mowbray observed, "These youngsters didn’t want to be tied down to this religion. They wanted more freedom. Some of the people here thought the Madam was a little too strict with the youngsters. Well, I often thought that myself."

Mowbray remembers when Emily had to close her school for lack of pupils after the colony’s own children had grown. "There were quite a number of children here that were of school age (that didn’t belong to the colony). We mothers decided to get a public school here, as we didn’t want to send the little tots to Cloverdale as it was too far for them to walk. So we got up a petition and sent it to the head of the Sonoma County schools and demanded a public school for Preston. They promised us a school but as there was a lot of red tape we had to wait and wait. Some woman suggested we rent the Madam’s school house until we got a school of our own.

"So one day I went up to her house and asked her if she would rent us her school house until the county built us one. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to rent it, but you are welcome to use it until you get your own.’ We used the little school until ours was finished."

Except during the scheduled spiritual retreat, Emily had no special rules for dealing with outsiders and did not require community members to renounce outside relationships. Residents could travel from the colony freely and were encouraged to maintain memberships in other churches.

She was very fond of horses. "She always kept from four to six on the ranch," Mary Mowbray recalled. "And she had all kinds of vehicles–everything from a buck-board to a canopy top. I used to see her nearly every day on her way to Cloverdale to do her shopping. I said to Frank once, ‘Where on earth did that woman get all those rigs? Every time I see her go by she is riding in a different buggy.’ Frank said, ‘She bought a livery business in Cloverdale for Wellie [her son]. But he spent too much time gambling. Didn’t attend to his business. Went flat broke. So she had to take the horses and rigs up to her place.’

"And she had a lot of pet deer on her place. She didn’t want any of them killed. Frank used to sneak up there on her land and kill a buck whenever he got the ‘buck fever.’ I said to him once, ‘You have no right to kill the Madam’s pets.’ And he said, ‘The deer don’t belong to her, they belong to Uncle Sam.’ I said, ‘But she feeds them so she has something to say.’"


At its peak in the mid-1890s the community was home to an estimated 100-150 people, including children. Residents hailed from all walks of life. There were rich and poor, educated and uneducated. Resident Julie Lewis was one of the not-so-well-to-do. In a letter to her husband, Charles, (dated March 16, 1887) she wrote: "Well, Charlie, the reason I wrote you this evening is that I asked Mrs. Mc today if she would rent me this house and let me furnish it myself. She did not like to at first but finally she said she would. So she rents me the house and stove and all the things to wash with it for 7 dollars a month. That is 5 off from what I have always been paying here so I thought that would soon pay for furnishing our own things and then they will be our own. If I had done that in the first place I would have had enough things to keep house with comfortably but it is better late than never I think."

Most residents felt themselves lucky to be part of a particularly blessed enterprise in beautiful country and willingly made many sacrifices to live there. Nathan Bowers described the sentiments of his neighbors: "These people were obviously grateful for being alive, for being members of this community and especially for the privilege of living here on this mountain."

Although Madam Emily could be strict with the youngsters, the ranch was nonetheless a magical place for children. Nathan Bowers observed, "Imagine the reactions of a child whose only place to play outdoors was in city streets where he would be limited to contact with cold, inanimate concrete or asphalt, often swept by chilling winds and sometimes dampened by fog. Then take this child to a county cottage where fragrant honeysuckle bloomed beside a door that opened out to fields and woods where bright, warm sunshine coaxed wildflowers to bloom and birds to sing–a veritable fairyland to a youngster eager to explore and learn…

"I fitted into whatever plan of life was followed by my elders. There were chickens to feed, cows to milk and stables to be cleaned out–daily chores that all boys accepted as a part of country living. By the same token, there usually were riding horses available when some mission or hunting trip called for something more than the over-useful bicycle."

Mary Mowbray recalled the only time Emily ever talked to her about her own children. "It was a warm day, and after walking up that hill I was glad to sit down and rest. ‘I’ll give you a drink,’ she said, then went into her medicine room and brought out two glasses of peach cordial. She said, ‘I made this myself. It gives you strength.’ So we sat there a while and talked. ‘You know,’ she began, ‘my daughter used to lie in bed in the morning while I was out making money. Lots of times I made ten to fifteen dollars before she got out of bed.’

"When I asked where her daughter was, she said, ‘She died twenty five years ago. She is buried in Oakland. But some day I’m going to have her body brought up here and put in my vault.’ It was the first time she ever mentioned her daughter to me. I didn’t ask her any more questions as I could see she was very sad.

"She never brought her daughter’s body up here. And I thought it strange, as it wasn’t like her to put things off. But she was getting old and was always busy with her patients and so on. So I suppose she put it off until it was too late."

Mowbray remembers when the Rindges and their children would come to Preston to visit the Madam. "They had three children–two boys and a girl. Whenever they were due to arrive, Madam would send her foreman down to the station with the old lumber wagon to bring their baggage up to her house. We had a standing ‘joke’ here about all the luggage they brought with them. I remember I was at the station one time as the train pulled in. I heard somebody say, ‘Here come the Rindges with their seventeen trunks.’ It’s a fact that old lumber wagon was always piled full of trunks when the Rindges came to town.

"Mr. Rindge used to pass our house on his way to the post office. One day I was out in the front yard when Mr. Rindge came walking along when he saw me he stopped and asked me if I was Mrs. Mowbray. Then he said, ‘I have a brand new suit that I can’t wear. It’s too small for me now. If you can make a little suit for your boy you can have it. I’ll bring it down tomorrow when I come for my mail.’ So sure enough, he brought the suit to me the next day. I thanked him. He smiled, then went on. So I made my boy a cute little sailor suit."

Mowbray considered some of the Covenanteers "a little weak-minded. When I first came to Preston," she wrote, "I called on one of Madam’s followers. She was a gray-haired woman and as ignorant as an old cow. So here is what she told me. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘the Madam can see right through you.’

"‘Nonsense,’ I said, ‘nobody has that power.’

"‘Oh yes,’ she went on, ‘I’ll tell you of a man that went to her for medicine. When she told him how much it would cost he said he was a poor man and didn’t have any money. Then the Madam said, "Oh yes, you’ve got twenty five dollars in gold, right in your pants pocket." Then the man took twenty five dollars in gold out of his pocket and gave it to the Madam.’

"‘See,’ she said. ‘The Madam could see the money. She is a wonder.’

"I said to this woman, ‘I don’t believe that. And I never will believe such ridiculous yarns.’ And I walked off."

Mowbray remembers other "silly" stories, this one told to her by her mother: "A man was chopping wood about five miles north of here. He was bitten by a scorpion. It was on a hot day. He was so frightened that he ran all the way down the road to Preston then up the hill to the Madam’s place. When she opened the door he told her what happened and asked her to give him some medicine. She looked at him, then said, ‘I can’t help you. You are a dead man now.’ And he dropped dead at her feet.

"Now I know that Madam Preston wouldn’t be so foolish and tell a man he was dead when he wasn’t. She would do anything in the world for a person that was in trouble. I heard plenty of these silly stories, but I never took any stock in them."

Emily encouraged community members to build their own houses and cottages but did not require them to live there. She retained possession of the land–and land ownership was something she apparently kept an interest in. Mary Mowbray recalled when her mother-in-law had been ill and, needing money, decided to sell her mountain ranch, "Buzzard’s Roost." "When Madam Preston heard about it she rushed down to our house one day and said, ‘I want to see Janie Mowbray. I must see her.’ So I showed her the way to the bedroom. She went in and stood by the bed. Then I heard her say, ‘I hear you want to sell your mountain ranch. How much do you want for it?’

"‘Twelve hundred dollars,’ I heard my mother-in-law say.

"‘I’ll take it. I’ll bring the money down tomorrow morning.’ So the next morning Madam was right on the dot. She came in and sat down by a small table in our dining room. She took the money (all twenty-dollar gold pieces) our of her hand bag and stacked the money on the table. Then she got up, smiled, said a few words and left. She was as happy as a child with a new toy.

"I had never seen so much gold money at one time in my life. I heard my mother-in-law calling me. I went in her bedroom. She said, ‘Mama’–she always called me Mama–‘I wish you would count that money and see if it is all there.’

"I don’t remember how many times I counted that money. And every time I counted I found twenty dollars too much. I went in and said to my mother-in-law, ‘She gave you twenty dollars too much.’

"Then she told me to bring the money in and put it on her bed. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘we’ll both count it.’

"So we did. ‘You are right,’ she said, ‘she gave me twenty too much. I want you to take that twenty back to her and tell her about the mistake.’

"So the next day I took that twenty dollar gold piece up to the Madam’s house. When she came to the door I said, ‘You gave my mother-in-law twenty dollars too much.’

"‘Oh, did I?’ she said. She took the money and laughed. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘the joke is on me. I didn’t miss it.’

"After she thought it over, she said, ‘Are you sure that I gave her twenty too much?’

"When I told her how many times we counted that money and that we always found twenty too much, she smiled and said, ‘You must be right.’ She was so honest herself that she expected everybody else to be honest."

(Mowbray later wrote that the Buzzard’s Roost property was the "jinks." "Madam Preston sent me and Mrs. Howard up there to take care of the place. Well, it wasn’t long before a forest fire broke out. Mr. Howard fought the fire until he was exhausted. Anyway, somebody found his burnt body under a tree. Madam deeded a four-room cottage to the widow. Then she took her up to her house and gave her work.")

Mowbray recalls another of Emily’s purchases. "A few years after Frank’s grandfather’s death the Madam bought the Larrison ranch. She took Lee [Green] out of the store and put him on the ranch. She tried her best to make a farmer out of him. but she soon found out her mistake. Well, he was simply hopeless. She found that out soon enough. He didn’t want to be a farmer. So that went on the rocks. Then she sold the ranch and I think that was the last time she tried to help him."

Holidays at Preston Ranch

The Covenanteers’ biggest holiday of the year was Fourth of July, celebrated with a picnic, boating, bicycle races and games at Preston Lake. An excerpt from The Cloverdale Reveille, dated July 8, 1893, describes a Fourth of July at Preston:

The people of Cloverdale who had the pleasure to attend the celebration at Preston Lake will long remember the day as one of rare enjoyment. The weather was all that one could desire, a nice cool breeze was moving all day making it pleasant to all who joined in the merry making. A more beautiful place to celebrate the Natal Day we doubt can be found in the county

All visitors were cordially welcomed by Mrs. Preston and her people, and the day was pleasantly spent in games, boat riding, walking and conversation. One of the features of the day was bicycle racing, a number of the young ladies and gentlemen of that place participating in the contest. The circular drive that surrounds the lake was used as a bicycle track. Good time was made, three prizes of $5 each being given for the fastest riding by lady and gentleman and one to the most graceful rider; the winners were W.F King, Miss Ethel King and Miss Mary Pool.

Mary Mowbray wrote that "we enjoyed every minute. Sometimes the young people would run races around the lake. Madam would stand on the edge of the lake and watch them. Then she would clap her hands and laugh. She enjoyed these outings as much as the rest of us. She kept a small boat on the lake. Some went rowing, while others played games and so on. When the picnic was over everybody went home satisfied and happy."

Christmas was also festive. Every year Emily would have a big Christmas tree in her school house. Mary Mowbray: "One day she sent for me. She wanted me to come up to her house. As I walked up the hill to her place I wondered what on earth she wanted with me. I was all set for a lecture but when I came to the house she opened the door and smiled and said, ‘Come in. We’ll go in my office. Then I will tell you why I sent for you.’ She brought two chairs, so we sat down by hr desk. Then she said, ‘We are going to have a big Christmas tree in the school house. And I want to know if you can help Bell Howard trim it. Can you help?’ I said I would be glad to help her. I could see she was quite pleased.

"We sat there for awhile and talked about different things. She was very sociable that day and wanted to talk to somebody. So when I was ready to go back home she said for me to be at her school house the next afternoon at about two o’clock. ‘Bell will be there. And be sure you bring the children Christmas evening.’ Then she added, "Myrtle is making a big Santa Clause and all the children that speak a piece get a present. And the child the speaks the best piece gets the big Santa Clause.’ So I promised her I would bring the children and went on home.

"The next afternoon I walked up to the school house and helped Bell trim the tree. I believe it was the biggest tree I ever saw. We had to stand on stepladders and chairs to reach the top. Well, I wasn’t there long before the Madam came. She was all smiles and started to give us orders about this and that. And when we finished she smiled and joked like she always did when she was in a good humor. And that was the first and only time that I took orders from her.

"Before we parted she said, ‘We’ll start at seven so we’ll be through by eight.’ She was like that–everything was planned ahead and everything was ‘on the dot.’

"So Christmas eve all of the Mowbrays went to the big show. Ross was five and Geneva two. Frank put Geneva in the baby buggy and wheeled her up to the school house. My mother-in-law taught Ross to speak a little piece. ‘Now, Ross,’ she said, ‘you must show the Madam how nice you can speak your piece. Now don’t be afraid.’

So when the other children were through speaking the Madam said, ‘Now let the little Mowbray boy come up on the platform and say something.’ And he walked up to the platform like a soldier. Then he said, ‘I had a little dog. His name was Rover. And when he died, he died all over.’

"Well, I thought the house was coming down. Everybody yelled and cheered. The Madam shouted as loud as she could, ‘The little Mowbray boy gets the Santa Claus.’ Of course, Ross was tickled to death. He begged to carry Santa Claus home, but it was to large for him. he couldn’t even lift it. So we put the Santa Claus in the baby buggy. I wheeled it home. And Papa Mowbray carried our daughter home. Everybody had a good time and all were satisfied. And it all ended at eight o’clock, just as the Madam said."


Emily encouraged musical abilities, even hiring a music teacher from Healdsburg to give lessons two days a week. According to Lisa Ellis, the Madam played a small pump organ. (An 1887 interview from The San Francisco Examiner describes her in her house singing and accompanying herself on her little pump organ.) Group singing was a major part of all church services. The school, too, had a music program. If a child couldn’t afford an instrument, Emily made sure he or she got one. One of the early newspaper reporters visiting Preston described walking up the road and hearing music coming from every house.

Resident Julia Lewis wrote in a letter dated Nov. 10, 1886: "The children go to school every day and are getting along very nicely. Mabel is taking music lessons. When you send anything again please send my music book for her. Lizzie is not going to take lessons because I don’t think she is strong enough to pump the organ and her other lessons are enough for her."

Eventually the settlement had both a community orchestra and a women’s orchestra. Each gave regular concerts in the church and special concerts on holidays. An article in The Santa Rosa Daily Republican dated June 10, 1895, praises the musicians:

One of the most pleasant features of the service held at the [inland] camp is the music furnished by the young ladies’ orchestra. There are three violins, violincello, double bass, a piano, flutes and other instruments and they are all well played. The closing piece Sunday, a sacred medley, was unusually good, showing a rare degree of proficiency on the part of the young ladies.

Orchestra musicians used the church for practice, just as The Golden Toad musicians and their friends would–three generations later.

Inland Camp

Although the colony did not promote communal living and had no common dining hall, it afforded many opportunities for bringing people together. Aside from the school and the Church, there was the annual gathering at Inland Camp. This was a campground a mile south of Preston Lake where the Covenanteers gathered during the summer months. An article in The Santa Rosa Daily Republican dated June 10, 1895, describes the camp:

The camp is located in one of the loveliest spots in that picturesque region. In going there you pass Madam Preston’s palatial home, her laboratory, barns and many fine residences belonging to other members of the Preston community. The road winds in and out with an easy sinuosity that reminds one of the road to the Geysers. It is also up and down, but in no place is it precipitous or dangerous. When you come to the end of the road you are at the camp, which is scattered over a number of prettily wooded acres on the mountain side. Only a hundred yards from the entrance gate is the well with a force pump to drive water into the baths. No pleasanter drink comes from the earth than comes up from that well. It is reported that one day Madam Preston went down to the spot where the well is, blessed the ground and told the people to dig, promising that they should discover a splendid well. They dug and the well was found.

Every summer the people at Preston go into camp for two months. There are a number of board cabins located in various shady nooks and into these the people move and remain in comfort and contentment. The "meeting house," or church will seat about three hundred and is cool and comfortable. Every Sunday Madam Preston delivers a message to her people from its pulpit. Her people say she never makes any preparation for these sermons; that when she arises to speak she sees the "message" written on the wall and she at once proceeds to deliver it unaided by notes or references.

This summer period of spiritual renewal was a fundamental component of religious life at Oak Mountain. Each Sunday Emily was driven to camp, usually by Joseph Zahner or Fred Elmers, to lead the services in the camp chapel–known as Church of the Wildwood. She entered by her private door in back of the platform and her dramatic arrival on the platform was the signal for the opening hymn. Nathan Bowers remembers: "Her usual custom was to give a ‘message’ which she read just as she said she saw it in the air over our heads. She would walk back and forth on the platform, her eyes sweeping some distant scene that we could not see and she would describe beautiful colors accompanied by soft, sweet music which came to her from a great distance."

A San Francisco Chronicle reporter visited and wrote about the camp in September, 1898:

[Emily Preston] has arranged a summer camp on a place on the road to Preston Lake, where exist some spring waters of a peculiarly bitter taste and medicinal value. Here she has built a church and there is also accommodation for the school and the public baths, and for two months in the year all of her people betake themselves thither to drink and bathe in the waters while education and worship go on uninterrupted. A nice garden and miscellaneous orchard supply the wants of the summer guests, and everything is as free as air to members of the settlement.

Resident Julia Lewis continued her frequent letters to her absentee husband, Charles, from inland camp. Here are excerpts from three of those letters:

"I am sitting in the hammock writing this to you. This does seem a little like camping. I spent the day here yesterday. It is very pleasant here. I bathed in the water. The night before last when I went to bed I felt a great deal better in the morning. Better than I had before for some time. I think it is going to help me. I bring up my jugs and fill them with the water to bathe in. The Indians are washing for me. I left Lloyd to cook dinner for them. He has fixed him a camp in back of my house with blankets tacked to the trees and mattresses on the ground to sleep on. It is beginning to look like campgrounds down here by the spring. They are cleaning it up in spots and putting up hammocks all around here. It gets quite lively in the afternoons down here. There are four hammocks up already and Mrs. Preston came up to the grounds this morning and brought up a lot of hammocks. And the boys are going to clear up places and put them up for every one to use. I think she is real good to do that, don’t you?" (July 8, 1886)

"I moved up here last Monday. I like it here oh so much. I have a very pleasant room to sleep in and a kitchen. I bought a second hand second-hand stove from Mrs. Cameron for 5 dollars. It is a splendid stove to cook. I like it very much. I have a good place fixed for the horse. Mr. Heald brought up my hay Friday. He charged me a dollar for bringing it up. The little stove had no kettles with it so I had to buy some. Well, about the water. I forgot to tell you. Father bought a sugar barrel over in town and made a trough for the water to run in into the barrel from the tank for me and then made a path down a steep bank about as far as halfway up to the shop from the house would be. Then as much further to the house he said it would cost him about 5 dollars to lay pipe to the house. When I asked him to he wanted to lay lead pipe but I would not let him. I wanted iron pipe. So rather than fuss I told him to put the barrel in so he put it in. Well, after he put it all in Mrs. Preston sent a man up with some iron pipe and he laid it from the tank over to the corner of the house for me for nothing. Wasn’t she good? Oh she is so good to me in so many ways. I have a water closet also with one hole to it. A very small on. I shall be so glad when you come up to see me. I think the spring water is helping me already. Mrs. Preston lectured today here for the first time this year." (June 5, 1887)

"It is just splendid here. The madam lectured today. We all went. The baby is pretty well again. The madam was on the grounds the other day and she saw Mabel and Lizzie down at the school and told them to tell me to put pounded onions on the baby’s stomach and back. I did and it helped her right away. The horse is running out in Mr. Preston’s hayfield. Mrs. Preston told me to put him out there now they have got the hay off. They had oat hay on the field. His man put water over in the field running into a water trough. There is another horse in there with him so he is having a pretty good time running. Mrs. Preston is oh so good to me. The best friend I ever had on earth that is sure. She told me after Father had gone that she seen I could not pack water up that hill so she had it brought to my door for me. She was up to the house here a week ago yesterday. She said she came up to see if I had everything fixed up comfortably. She told me I will get well this summer. Wasn’t that encouraging? She wants me to drink all I can of the water. And Mabel and Lizzie. But not to let baby have much of it for she is cutting teeth and it physics her so bad. And today she told us to bathe in it. Mrs. Preston says I would have died and I believe it for none realized how bad off I was more than I did. If I did not say much I felt that my last chance was to get up here to Mrs. Preston and if I had not been up here by here and she so kind to rub me when I needed it most I don’t think I could have got well then. I say from the bottom of my heart God bless her for she does nothing but good for all the world. She has helped many a poor soul." (June 19, 1887)

"The people on the camp or in the covenant and friends are going to have another picnic over to the lake. I think that will be just splendid. Everyone can fish that wants in the lake. We are all to take out lunches as we did before and the girls are delighted as there are a great many young folks here on the camp. Mrs. Elliot and all her children are here. Mrs. Clark and Hattie came last Monday. Mr. Green’s family came yesterday. Miss Bell Jones came Friday from Chico. Mrs. Coddington is here. Mrs. Mowbray and Mrs. King moved this week. Mrs. King furnishes the milk on the camp this year. Mr. Dixon is running a team this year the same as last. The girls are very anxious that you should come as I told them they could not fish unless you come and cut them some poles and brought some fishhooks and lines. They do love to fish but I don’t know anything about it." (June 24, 1888)

As camp director and host, Emily set special rules for life at Inland Camp. Days were to be spent in contemplation, seclusion and prayer. Meat consumption was limited to once a day, and no servants were permitted to attend the colonists. Another reporter was intrigued by camp life as experienced by males (1887):

To appreciate the petty trials of woman’s life, man must share them, even to the extent of sharing household duties and caring for refractory infants. If a man be without personal responsibilities he must share those of his neighbor and his neighbor’s wife and even his neighbor’s small children. This is admirable. It teaches man humility, and explains to him why so many sweet tempered maidens become peevish and fretful housewives.

Gossip was expressly forbidden at Inland Camp. In May, 1887, The Cloverdale Reveille observed:

Preparations are being made for the camp in Inland Valley on Oak Mountain. Mrs. Preston announced in her last message that a prize would be awarded to the one who minds his or her own business.

The first time Emily caught somebody gossiping she would scold the person in private. The second time she would scold him or her in public. The third time she would expel the person from the ranch.

Most of the summer campers were families. Nathan Bowers remembered Inland Camp: "Here all were encouraged to, and many did, build very rough, simple cabins. The degree of simplicity may be judged from the fact that there were no facilities other than running water and this was limited to one faucet per cabin. Drinking water often was carried in pails from a very special spring in the lower area of the camp grounds.

"After an unusually warm day, an exciting item of news to be circulated from group to group after chapel, might be a report of the highest temperature recorded by the thermometer on Mr. Clark’s porch. Mr. Clark was a much-loved man who always was in camp in my time. He had to hobble about on two canes and hence had his cottage built just behind the chapel so he could get to the daily and Sunday meetings. His shaded porch was accepted as the coolest spot in camp. I suspected that some of the visitors who stopped by during the heat of the day to read the official temperature might have been attracted, at least in part, buy the cookies, cakes or other delicacies he seemed always to have at hand for visitors."

To Nathan Bowers, the important event of the day was the gathering each evening at the Church of the Wildwood: "This was, in truth and in fact, a ‘sweet hour of prayer.’ It was a pleasant and refreshing release from the customary day-long seclusion and quiet. There was little news to share, of course, but there was a fine spirit of friendliness and everyone seemed to have an abundance of love and good will toward all."


The 1970s: A Look at Some Preston Artists

The musical tradition Emily Preston had established at her community on Oak Mountain carried over in full swing with the arrival of the Bohemian artists in 1969 and the months and years that followed. "Preston was a music colony, that’s what it was," Cait Reed observed. "If a person wasn’t a good musician when he or she got there, he became one really quickly. Because that’s all you did–every day. That’s how we all got good so quickly–we were immersed in it. We couldn’t get away from it even if we wanted to. Another reason was that there were no radio and TV sets. So every night we played music."

A continual migration of artists flowed into and out of Preston ranch during this era, leading to much idle speculation about who were "residents" and who were merely "visitors." If one defines residency as "living at Preston for 30 consecutive days or more," then it’s possible to compile a list–however incomplete–of artists who may be considered as residents during the late 60s and early 70s.

Trent Anderson — cook/drums/photography

David Barnard — dancer/costumer

Don Brown — poet/drums

Chris Carnes — flamenco guitar

George Dawson — fiddle/banjo

Sharon Devlin — harp

Edwin Ellis — woodcrafts

Lisa Emmonds — bagpipes

Patty Farber — dancer/seamstress

Tom Faught — potter

Solomon Feldthouse — saz/guitar/cumbus

Ernie Fischbach — sarod/guitar

Deborah Fischbach — drums/dancer

Sean Folsom — bagpipes/saxophone

Marlena & Paul Gagnon — Faire crafts

Pat Garford — singer

Elliott Gould — saz/drums

Madeleine Harris — multi-artist

Jeremy Kammerer — flute/banjo/concertina/guitar/pennywhistle

Buffalo Larkin — wearable crafts

Susie Marceau — mime/dancer/cellist/leatherworker

Freddie Mejia — flamenco guitar

Wendy Newell — seamstress/concertina

John Patterson — dancer

Jehan Paul — accordion

Cait Reed — fiddle/drums

Dave Ricker — fiddle

Suzy Rothfield — fiddle

Will Scarlet — harmonica

Catana Sanchez — dancer

Nino Sanchez — dancer

Sharlyn Sawyer — dancer

Will Spires — fiddle/guitar/singer

Lory Stark — belly dancer/singer

Lance Sterling — leather crafts

Bob Thomas — bagpipes/lute/guitar/fiddle/flute/tambur/saz/Tibetan oboe

Eric Thompson — guitar

Mary Vander Ploeg — artist

Pat Vasaleros — dancer

Carla Waldo — dancer

Cathie Whitesides — fiddle

Mickie Zekley — guitar/saz/sitar/bagpipes/flute/banjo/lute/pennywhistle

Sharon "Huggy Bear" — artist

"Torchy" — magician

Along with The Golden Toad and a small Irish music element, the music scene at Preston included the "flamencos," musicians and dancers who performed the traditional flamenco music of Spain. These included guitarists Freddie Mejia and Solomon Feldthouse and dancers Carla Waldo and Catana Sanchez. (Don Brown remembers Catana as a very dedicated dancer, typifying the professional level of artistry to be found at Preston. "You could hear her going every day for a least a couple of hours even if nobody was playing for her. She was a good as they come.") Perhaps the most notable of Preston’s flamenco artists was guitarist Chris Carnes, widely known as one of the foremost American guitarists of the pueblo style of Gypsy flamenco.

Ernie Fischbach became an admirer of flamenco. "When the real Gypsies–these were the real guys from Spain–visited, they had to show you they knew what they were doing. They would see that you knew a little about it and they wanted to show you that they knew a lot more. They let you have it. They would let everybody else do all of their stuff until three in the morning and then they’d play. They would always wait until the crowd was gone. They were so good at it that you couldn’t even approach them."

Not everyone at Preston accepted the flamencos whole-heartedly. Cait Reed recalls that they "had a whole scene up at the mansion. I was always a little bit afraid of them because they were so wild. That’s another reason I didn’t go up the hill that much. Their music is so hot-blooded. But they played great music. I saw some incredible dances."

Buffalo Larkin remembers: "At midnight a carload of people would show up and Don and I would hear what sounded like a carload of woodpeckers. We were living in the barn and I didn’t know what it was at first. Finally Don said, ‘They’re doing flamenco over there.’ And they’d do flamenco music until four in the morning and then the carload of Gypsies would leave."

Jehan Paul relates this story: "One night they were playing flamenco in the living room and kitchen in the mansion and I think just about everyone was there. The floor was tiled with one-foot-square linoleum tiles. So Nino was dancing and he danced the tiles right up off the floor. He kept dancing and they kept coming up and getting shuffled to the side. He danced maybe a dozen of them up. Or more than that."


The anecdotes below give a glimpse into the lives and adventures of some of the artists who lived at Preston.

Don Brown, Drummer

Don, a Muslim, was the original drummer for The Golden Toad and for many years operated a coffee house at the Renaissance Faires. According to ex-wife Buffalo Larkin, he sometimes posted a sign on his coffee house that said no dogs or christians.

Don knew the Gypsy life. "There were seven years of my life where I didn’t have a place to live," he remembers. "I just tried to be a good guest. I just had a car and my backpack. I didn’t want to stay anyplace too long and wear out my welcome. I had my pack frame, the I Ching, some yarrow stalks, a drum and a reed pipe and a guitar."

Bob Thomas observed in an interview: "Don and I were regulars on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, playing some type of bagpipe and Don’s gigantic bass drum. It was the largest, most awkward bass drum in all of Christendom. Don would surely be stoop-shouldered from carrying it. One day we noticed a large crowd gathering and thought we could do very well busking the crowd. I tuned my pipes and we proceeded towards the crowd–only to be tear-gassed during a free speech movement rally. Don made quite a sight running down the street with his bass drum."

Jehan Paul recalls the afternoon at Preston that Don decided he would burn all the old eucalyptus stumps and limbs lying around behind the mansion. "Some of them were quite large. Someone said, ‘Look, Don, it’s kind of late in the afternoon, don’t you think?’

"And Don says, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine.’

"So he gets a fire going in a circle about four or five feet across in an area about eight feet across–caddy corner behind the mansion on the driveway about 25 feet from the corner of the kitchen. It’s doing pretty good and it’s getting later and later and finally it’s dark. And the wind comes up and starts blowing the ashes. Of course, everything is tinder dry. The flames are about eight feet high. So everyone’s standing around the fire and people are saying, ‘Gee, it’s getting awfully big.’ So I said, ‘Don, I think we ought to put it out.’

"He says, ‘Aw, no, we’re not going to put it out.’

"I went over and felt the corner of the mansion wall and it was hot to the touch. By this time it must have been 6 o’clock or so. So I went to get what a mounted to a fire hose and started spraying the fire. At which point Don tries to grab it from me. We both end up on the ground rolling over and over and wailing on each other. Finally we sort of end up in the fire. Don’s clothes were smoking. Probably mine were too. So we got out of there. But we had at it for about a minute or whatever it took. In the end Don left and I put the fire out."

Chris Carnes, Flamenco Guitarist

Chris was widely known as a consummate musician. "I didn’t realize how brilliant he was," said long-time Preston resident Edwin Ellis. "I remember I was at Lark Music Camp and Chris began to play. And I realized there was a genius sitting here playing. A master. The genius. Even the Spaniards felt that Chris was the genius. They didn’t ask Paco to play for the singers–they asked Chris."

Edwin remembers that Chris lived on "sort of a zen level. At Preston we would go out walking together whenever we got a chance and look for flowers. Sort of like an Easter egg hunt. No specific goal. Just observe the flowers as we were walking."

Jehan Paul offers this recollection: "Chris lived across from the mansion in a nice little house and he grew hemp in the front yard that was 10 feet high. He would go out there and play flamenco to it. And when you walked in through it, it was like all the plants were singing. I heard it. And I said, ‘Chris, these plants are all singing.’ And he told me why. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I play flamenco to them.’"

"I never found anybody as good in the old style," Ernie Fischbach observed. "Chris had lived with the Gypsies in Spain for many years. He always said, ‘If you want to do Gypsy music right you have a Gypsy in the band. They never lose the rhythm. You could lose it. But they won’t.’ A lot of flamenco musicians lived in and around the Preston property because he brought them.

"At Preston, when he moved into the scoutmaster’s house, he and I became great friends. When he had the chance he would go to Morocco and Tangiers. And there were all these nifty little nightclubs. And I’d never heard Moroccan music before. Moroccan music was very special, very different. At first it sounded busy and I didn’t know how to take it. So Chris and I would sit and try to learn tunes from this music.

"There was a big blackberry patch between the chicken coop and Chris’s house. He had hollowed out an area in the thicket of berries and that’s where he grew his patch of marijuana. Those of us who lived next to the blackberries didn’t even know it. Then the helicopters came and caught him in his patch. So he decided to grow it in pots on the roof of the mansion because he wanted to make money to go to Spain. After a while he started growing it in one of the upstairs bedrooms. There was a kind of porch there and that’s where he grew his dope."

Trent Anderson recalls Chris’s horticulture experiences slightly differently: "If I recall correctly, Chris’s plants were on the roof of the mansion when the helicopters came. He came over to my place kind of freaked out and so I suggested we move them into the garden behind my place and mix them into the corn which was growing there at the time. Of course, it could have been the other way around, but I do know there were helicopters and pot plants."

Ernie remembers when Chris decided he was going to be a bee keeper. "So he got three or four hives and he set them in the back of the scoutmaster’s house. There was a kind of chicken coup that got turned into a house and in back of that he set up three or four bee hives that he’d gotten in the mail. They came in these little things with screens and there was maybe 300 bees in them. I said, ‘Chris, this is kind of bizarre.’ And he said, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to have this honey.’

"So one day I was up there with him and he says, ‘I’m going to sit and meditate in front of my hives.’ I said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ So he sat down and he was there for maybe five minutes and BAM!–one of the bees flew out and stuck him right in the forehead.

"He liked to fish in the lake. So we would go fishing and we would bring in buckets of catfish. So we decided, ‘This isn’t fair’ and we crimped over all the ends of our hooks so they could get off. And we caught them anyway. So we started using safety pins. And we caught them anyway. We even tried pieces of ribbon and we still caught them. It was ridiculous. We ate hundreds and hundreds of them. They were from about six inches up to sixteen. And they weighed maybe half a pound up to two pounds."

George Dawson, Fiddler and Banjoist

Before he came west, George Dawson was a musician on the east coast where he was well known as "Smoke" Dawson. (The nickname came from the way he moved when he played music–like a wisp of smoke.) Mickie Zekley recalled when George showed up late for a bagpipe performance "with another one of his incredible ‘you wouldn’t believe what happened to me’ tales. He supposedly was busking in full highland regalia near the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market in San Francisco when his pipes stopped working. His only choice was to head to the local Scottish import store to get some new reeds. Before he could get through the front door of the shop a fellow in a fancy dress suit grabbed him by the arm and demanded that George play the pipes for him. George said that he couldn’t play right now because his reed was broken. The fellow reached into his pocket and came out with a $100 bill, tore it in two, gave half to George, told him to blow up his pipes in the lobby of the Fairmont hotel at 10:00 a.m. the next morning and play the ‘Cock Of The North.’ The fellow then turned around and walked away before George could say a word.

"George arrived at the Fairmont promptly at 10:00 a.m. He looked for the man who had accosted him but he was nowhere in sight. Afraid of what might happen to him, George pulled out his pipes and blew them up. Within 10 seconds he was descended on by numerous bell captains and desk clerks trying to stop him from playing. Before they could silence him the mysterious gentleman arrived and waved off the hotel staff who disappeared instantly. George played for an hour, then was treated to two orders of eggs benedict and handed the other half of the $100 bill.

"It was shortly thereafter when George showed up late at the Renaissance Faire with this unbelievable story.

"By the next day I forgot about George’s story, which I felt was yet another figment of his fertile and amazing imagination. We were once again standing on the wagon trying to convince the crowd to pay the piper and then come into the Faire when a chauffeured limousine pulled up in front of us. Out stepped George’s mythical character with a package wrapped in beautiful highland tartan material. He walked directly up to the wagon and handed it to George. Wrapped in the material was a beautiful Brian Boru keyed bagpipe chanter. Evidently George’s benefactor went to the Scottish shop and asked what the piper wanted for Christmas. The man got back in his limousine and drove off, leaving Cait and I staring at each other in disbelief and George smirking.

"On another occasion George was playing pipes in downtown San Francisco and thought that he had finally reached a new peak in his playing. The music was great. He played with his eyes closed and was sure that people were filling his hat with vast sums of money. When he ended his tune he opened his eyes just in time to see a gang of children running down the street and dropping coins they had liberated from his hat. He never played on the street with eyes closed again."

Mickie has still more recollections: "One evening George, Cait and I met up at a favorite North Beach spaghetti joint. While swapping stories about our latest street adventures, George told us of a recent foray into a restaurant with several bagpipers. A fellow eating at a table heard the pipes, started to scream, shook his fist, then punched a hole in the wall.

"Then there was the time George was arrested for piping on the streets of Sausalito. He was jailed for a few days then told to get out of town.

"Some people spend their lives searching for the holy grail. Some spend their life looking for the perfect fiddle (and complaining about the one they have). Cait Reed was on such a quest. ‘This one has a wolf note.’ ‘This one has a weak bass.’ ‘I can’t keep this one in tune.’ ‘This one doesn’t respond.’ One day she was bewailing the lack of virtue of a fiddle when George said, ‘Let me see it.’ He took the glass of wine he was drinking and, before she could say a word, poured it in the instrument’s f-hole. It was amazing. It must have had some effect because she didn’t complain about her fiddles for a long time afterward."

Lisa Emmons, Bagpiper

Buffalo Larkin observed that "Lisa is an old-timey kind of person who does everything the hard way. All of her cooking is done on a wood-burning stove. Her preference when shooting is black powder, which means you only get one shot and you better make it count. She goes by the name Poison Oakly at the black powder shoots."

Mickie Zekley remembers busking at the Cannery as a bagpipe duo with Lisa–alias Delicia Toad Feathers–"the delightful and diminutive lady bagpiper. An annoying young man started to try and get Lisa’s attention and flirt with her while she was playing. When she wouldn’t stop and acknowledge him he kept on hassling her and eventually reached out to touch her bagpipes. Lisa and I were playing a sprightly duet at that moment and without missing a beat she kicked him squarely in the shins and laid him flat out rolling on the ground and went on playing."

Patty Farber, Dancer and Seamstress

Deborah Fischbach remembers Patty as a fabulous folk dancer from Yemen to all over the middle east. "She knew it all. She was also a fabulous seamstress and creator of ethnic extravaganza." Sharlyn Sawyer adds: "Patty directed a fantastic elaborately costumed Balkan and Mid-East folkdance group. Between that and her fashion design business she managed to keep many of us young artists employed year round."

"I remember when Patty was doing a fair," Deborah adds, "and she needed lots of stuff to sell. So we all sat down and they gave me a sewing machine and said I could make a flamenco dress if I wanted to. I figured it out and put together a flamenco dress. I sold my flamenco dress for 75 dollars at Patty’s store."

Madeleine Faught, Visual Arts

Madeleine penned this background to her stay at Preston. "When I first moved into the mansion I was working as an airline stewie. I wasn’t really ‘straight’, but I wasn’t totally ‘out there alternative’ either. Probably my greatest contribution to the group at that point was bringing home live lobsters from Maine, or sake rice wine from Japan. But I soon succumbed to the power and presence of Preston and its inhabitants, threw away my polyester uniform and wings, and made a definitive left turn. I couldn’t ‘not work’, though, so I sort of apprenticed myself to lots of people, acquiring bits and pieces of everyone’s skills. Wendy Newell took me under her wing and taught me sewing. Deborah Fischbach and I danced our way through many wee hours, swooning to some primal rhythm. David Barnard gave me a blank book and pens and convinced me that I had drawing talent (I’d never tried anything artistic before in my life…it was exciting to suddenly discover that I had quite a bit of natural ability! At that point, there was no doubt in my mind that I had been destined to live at Preston). Eventually I settled on cloisonné enameling, a bit of belly dancing (thanks to David Barnard), and a well-developed curiosity for exploring my emerging creative self."

Madeleine loved the mansion. "The mansion, in the Rose Room…the room of a thousand and one roses a la vintage wallpaper…The brightness and lightness of it. It was a decidedly joyful room. I hung crystals in all the windows and the room fairly danced with prisms throughout each day. I learned to meditate in that room. I learned to love and appreciate myself in that room. I’ll always honor that room!"

Solomon Feldthouse, Multi-Instrumentalist

Ernie recalls: "When the Irish musicians threw me out of their band I asked Solomon to teach me how to play middle eastern music. And he did. We would sit down in the basement of the mansion and would listen to the music of jujuka. Neither of us could figure out what the hell they were doing–period. I still can’t.

"Solomon started teaching me how to play the dumbek. So after three or four days he says, ‘Okay, we have a gig. Let’s go.’ So me and Deb and Wendy and Solomon went to San Francisco. Suddenly I’m the drummer for Solomon. He would do sneaky stuff. He’d teach me a saz tune and I’d get it all down perfect and then in the middle of a gig he’d change the key and look over with a grin.

"Solomon used to go down to the airport in Cloverdale and take flying lessons. One day he came back and his face was all green. ‘He took me to 5000 feet,’ Sol said. ‘Then he put it into a spin and said, "Get out of this." ‘Oh, shit! Eventually I got out of it…but I don’t feel too good.’"

Paul Gagnon, Craftsperson

Ernie remembers Paul as a Canadian Indian who "sneaked into the country illegally. He was an interesting person who was able to do lots of crafts. And he was very good at it. He had a candle-making scene on the porch of the plantation He set up a whole bunch of bins and filled them with sand. Then he would wet the sand and make patterns in it and pour wax in it. He’d pour colored wax on top. He’d make star patterns and flower patterns with scented wax and so forth. He would take them to the Renaissance Faire and sell them for anywhere from 5 to 15 dollars apiece. He made a great living."

Elliott Gould, Drummer

Mickie Zekley recalls this incident that took place one day at mealtime. "Joe Moir is one of the slowest and inattentive eaters that was ever born. It’s amazing that he doesn’t starve to death while eating dinner. One day we were all sitting around and enjoying our meal. Joe was very excited, talking to everyone and barely touching his food. Bob Thomas was seated on his left and Elliott Gould on his right. Joe was steeped in a deep and lengthy conversation with Bob about the virtues of Bulgarian bagpipes. Finally he went to take a bite and brought his fork down to an empty plate. While he was gabbing Elliott ate all the food off his plate."

Mickie also tells of having Elliott and his dancer wife Leslie over for dinner. "Cait had baked a beautiful chocolate cake for a party the next day. Elliott sat next to the cake and kept running his finger through the frosting and licking his fingers. I asked him to stop many times because he was ruining the cake. Eventually my patience ran out and I picked up the cake and smashed it into Elliott’s face. Elliott said, ‘Zekley I’ll get you someday when you least expect it.’"

Elliott remembers the story differently: "Mickie’s mother had sent him a ‘care package,’ an enormous box of baked goodies from one of those incredible Jewish bakeries in Southern California. My wife and I had come over to Mickie’s house for dinner and there on the table, rather like a centerpiece, was the prize package from L.A. ‘A package from my mother,’ says Zekley, ‘help yourself.’

"My eye immediately fell on the cake. ‘Let’s have some of the cake.’

"’No, I’m saving the cake for last, but help yourself to anything else that you might fancy.’

"I whine and snivel–what I really want is the cake. Mickie remains unmoved. The cake is the cherry on top so to speak; we will eat it last. ‘But please help yourself to anything else that you might like.’

"OK, the cake is definitely not happening, so I look into the box to see what consolation prize I might find and lo and behold there are my all-time favorite chocolate chip rolls. It’s been a year or two since I have had one of these morsels so I eat one and it is delicious. So I eat another, and another. At this point Mickie becomes concerned that perhaps I am going to eat all of the chocolate chip rolls and says, ‘That’s probably enough of the chocolate chips, have something else.’

"’Mickie, there are ten or twelve left. I wasn’t going to eat them all, but that’s alright, I’m no longer hungry.’

"’Elliott, there’s tons of stuff, have something else.’

"’I’m not hungry.’

"’How about one of these lovely raspberry cookies?’

"’I’m not hungry.’

"’How about some of these delicious short breads?’

"’I’m not hungry.’

"And no matter what he offered, the answer was ‘I’m not hungry,’ and with each ‘I’m not hungry’ Mickie became more and more agitated until finally, ‘At least try one of these nice raisin jobs.’

"’I’m not hungry.’

"And Mickie reached into the box, took out the cake and smashed me in the face with it.

"I did say, ‘Zekley I’ll get you someday when you least expect it.’ And I did. At the first Dickens Fair. On stage. A pie in the face."

Freddie Mejia, Flamenco Guitarist

Freddie was one of those "wild" flamenco musicians that frightened Cait Reed away from the mansion. He played "cabaret" style flamenco which, according to Edwin Ellis, "is interesting and very good and very dramatic."

Ernie Fischbach tells this story about a Jehovah’s Witness visit to Oak Mountain one day. "They would drop in on the ranch all the time. One night we had a long night of partying at the mansion. In the morning we were all out on the porch playing English dance music. And suddenly here comes the Jehovah’s Witness guys with their briefcases. We see them and we just keep playing. Freddie comes out in his underpants. This is when he wore his hair in a huge afro. In fact, if you stuck a bone in his nose you’d think he was a head-hunter from New Guinea. (Freddie’s origin is Mexican and Filipino and he is brown-skinned.) He had a big gap in his teeth and he looked pretty scary.

"The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t see him. They’re standing there waiting for us to stop playing so they could give us their little magazines. Out of the corner of our eyes we see Freddie walk up with a shit-eating grin. Suddenly he’s standing behind them, breathing on one guy’s neck. And the guy’s getting a little nervous. All of a sudden Freddie gooses the guy. And the guy turns around and he sees Freddie and jumps four feet into the air. They run to their car and never come back."

Originally the artists kept no horses on the ranch. At some later point they ended up with a pony. Ernie remembers: "Nobody could catch this pony. So one day Freddie said, ‘Hey, I know how to lasso.’ And I said, ‘So do I.’ So we went into the corral to catch this pony. Well…four hours later we’re still trying to lasso him when, finally, he gets so exhausted he can’t run any more. Freddie and I had literally run him down until he ran out of steam. So he just stood there while Freddie and I put the noose over his head. We had finally lassoed the pony."

Jehan Paul, Accordion Player

Jehan Paul recalls this story: "There was a horse corral up the hill past the mulberry tree, on the right. One day I was standing there at the corral, not too far from the gate where you would take your horses in and out. One of the two horses ambled over to me and I began petting it on the nose. One of the gals came by and saddled the other one and took it out. So I’m petting this horse and it’s looking and me and then it realized that the other horse got to go for a ride and it didn’t. So as I’m petting it the soft brown eyes turned into rage. It lifts its head and bites me right across the second knuckles of my fingers. Hurt! You can’t imagine! It only bit for a moment. Then it stood back and looked at me as if to say, ‘By God, I could have bitten you harder!’"

Jehan Paul–more widely known as J.P.–was well known among the residents as what Trent Anderson calls a "champion punster." Trent penned this story, a typical example: "I was cooking for a huge party. Ernie, Deb, Solomon, Sharlyn, Freddie, Ed and Catana, etc. were all there, the whole place was filled with people drinking, playing music, whatever...and there was a barbecue going on just outside of the kitchen door just across from Ed and Catana's, and it was fairly frantic, fun, laughter. Trying to finish up whatever it was I was cooking, I suddenly hollered out, ‘Where are the ladles?’ (the kitchen spoons for serving), and J.P. nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh, they're upstairs putting on their makeup.’"

Cait Reed and Mickie Zekley, Multi-Instrumentalists

Like many of the couples at Preston, Cait and Mickie lived the poor artists’ life during their early years as performing musicians. Mickie recalls a time at the first Dickens Faire in San Francisco. "Cait’s clothes had reached the stage of being rags. She desperately needed some new warm clothes. About a year earlier we found a Turkish import store and had purchased many Turkish drums (dumbeks) at a very good price. When people from our audiences would ask, ‘Where did you get those beautiful drums?’ we would say, ‘I would be glad to sell you this one.’ They were a good seller and we made a good profit. When it was time for another drum, off to the import store we went.

"The shop owner was unpacking a new shipment direct from Turkey including some beautiful white sherling sheepskin coats. Cait instantly fell in love with the coats. I asked Myra how much she would sell a coat to one of her ‘very good customers.’ She said that business had been slow and that she would be delighted to sell us a coat for $40. A great deal!

"The next stop was to North Beach to buy Cait a warm blouse. While she was looking at clothes I noticed the storekeeper admiring her new coat. I struck up a conversation and asked him if he wanted to buy a coat. I quoted him $80 and he said that he wanted to buy three. One quick trip across town for some more coats and we made $120–a blessing because we were broke. We went back to the import store and bought more coats with our profits and made even more money selling them to our friends at the Faire. It was just before Christmas and we started selling coats on the street in the morning before the Faire opened."

Cait later observed that "for Mickie, selling things is like falling off a log–it’s just part of his make-up. He was always trading. Even when he was a kid. His mom would go through the want ads and circle things he might want to check out so he had quite a collection of stuff before we got together."

Dave Ricker, Fiddler

Dave, a former drill sergeant in the marines, was lead musician for Newcastle Country-Dance, playing fiddle for the dance at the Renaissance Faire. After his death on January 17th, 1993, a wake was given at the Café Cocomo in San Francisco. Appropriately, it was an event filled with the music and dance that Dave had taught to those who performed.

Among his fellow musicians, Dave was a controversial figure–which may explain why stories about him continue to surface. Jeremy Kammerer recalls that Dave "had this kind of annoying conversational way. He was intelligent but there was something that wasn’t always smart about his conversation. He would be stubborn and at some point in the conversation would piss you off. He had these language quirks. He simply annoyed everybody. He was a really good musician. He won the fiddle contest in Cloverdale one time. He turned into a dragon and played ‘Yellow Barber.’ He played in gorgeously.

"Dave was a legendary doper. In the early days when I first moved to Preston he was still with his wife and would have parties. There was this one party and he had baked up some brownies. I had just a small one but I went home after that and the walls were crawling and the bed was swimming and tossing. And it was like that all that night and all the next day and the next night. One of the other legendary dopers–I forget his name–later said, ‘Ricker, there was too much dope in those brownies!’"

Musician/dancer Jason Adajian recalls: "Many folks liked him; many folks didn’t. I think that he liked provoking strong reactions. Half the time I think he was farting through his mouth just to see how folks would react."

Drummer Tim Meighan met Dave in 1979 at the southern Renaissance Faire in Agoura, California. "My then-fiancée Sue was a member of Newcastle Country-Dance, and I was a drummer for several groups–but not Newcastle. Mitchell Sandler–then entertainment coordinator of the Performing Arts Department–approached me and asked if I would be willing to drum for Newcastle’s next show. I didn’t want to do it. I was already drumming for another dance troupe and knew it wouldn’t work very well, as I wasn’t familiar with the music or the dances. But Mitchell cajoled me into it. He then took me to meet the lead musician, Dave Ricker.

"Dave had all of his hair then, which was dark brown. His beard was just starting to go gray. He was wearing one of the most disreputable-looking leather hats I’ve ever seen. He was a little taller then, too.

"‘Dave,’ said Mitchell, ‘meet Tim Meighan. He’s going to fill in for the drummer at the next show.’

"‘Oh, no he is NOT!’ cried Dave.

"Mitchell pulled Dave aside for a moment, and there was a whispered interchange punctuated by an occasional ‘Oh Christ!’ from Dave. Then they came back.

"‘So that’s all settled then! Knock ‘em dead!’ Mitchell said, and cheerfully went his way.

"The stage manager shouted, ‘Newcastle–places!’

"As we shuffled up the backstage stairs, Dave turned to me and said, ‘I don’t think you’re any good. I didn’t want you up here, and if you make one mistake I will publicly throw you off stage. Is that clear?’

"Dumbfounded, I nodded.

"‘Good. Let’s go.’

"That was my introduction to Dave Ricker."

Dancer Bryan Krol recalls visiting the northern Faire during the Weekend of the Ale, and "Ron honored me with the privilege of dancing with Pipe and Bowl during one of their afternoon shows. This particular show was on the Ben Jonson stage. I was dancing across from Jason in Young Collins at the top of the set, and during one of the clashing sequences, Dave was walking through the set–a prototypical Dave Ricker maneuver that I’ve seen him do many times before. When he got to me and Jason, I was supposed to strike Jason’s stick at the very end of the chorus. Since he was right there I didn’t strike Jason’s stick. I held back–paused–and when the chorus was over I just went on dancing.

"When the dance was over, I was leaning up against the lip of the split-level of the stage, next to the pirate boat built into the stage. While someone was announcing the next dance, Dave walked up to me on the second level. He stood over me, got right in my face and told me if I ever wussed out like that again he’d kick my ass (or something to that effect). He told me in no uncertain terms, waving his finger straight in my face, that when he’s walking through, I am to strike like normal and he’ll take care of the rest. The chewing out was hardly at all traumatic; he had a smile on his face the whole time. But, I tell you, I’ll never hold back again! I told someone off stage about what happened, and I believe the response was ‘Welcome to Pipe and Bowl.’

"Now, for those of you who don’t know me, I am a large fellow. When I look back at that show, and picture this little old man, in a big dumpy hat, pointing his finger and yelling at this large, blond kid I start to smile."

Edwin Ellis remembers having a party up at the Preston Lake. "Actually, it was an after-Faire party. It was about one or two in the morning and everybody wanted to go out and float in the lake. We had an armada of rowboats and canoes on the lake at that time. We had a game with this one particular canoe–to see if you could paddle across the lake before it sank.

"So at one point Dave said, ‘I’ve got to go get a beer.’ Well, he got the last beer, so everybody wanted him to join them in their boat. He said, ‘No, I’m going to get into a craft I understand.’ So he pushed off in this canoe and suddenly rolled over. I remember seeing his greasy hat floating out in the lake."

How did Dave Ricker come to be called "Uncle Stinky?" According to Buffalo Larkin, "a whole bunch of the Morris dancers were in Brian’s camper shell and Brian and Dave were in the front. There was a window between the front and the camper shell. They were driving down this dark winding road and all of a sudden the vehicle lurched as if Brian had lost control. One of the Morris guys opened the window to the cab to find out what was going on. A terrible stench came back through the window. Dave had let one of the grossest, smelliest farts known to mankind–so intense that it caused Brian to swerve the truck. They didn’t shut the window fast enough, so the whole back was gassed. Dave hated the fact that everybody called him Uncle Stinky after that.

"We had a Thanksgiving one time and Dave insisted that nobody throw away any of the bones. They all had to go into this stew pot that he kept on the stove for days at too low a temperature. The following Saturday morning there was an ungodly stench in the kitchen. We were all sniffing around and the garbage was taken out and buried but the smell was still there. Somebody finally opened the lid of Dave’s pot of stew. It was ghastly. So they went out and buried it and cleaned the pot as best they could."

And how did Dave’s false teeth end up in Buffalo’s abandoned Mitsubishi in the Sweets Mill parking lot? Buffalo explains: "When Dave’s belongings were being given away nobody wanted his false teeth. They were in this little Tupperware tub and nobody wanted them. So I grabbed them because I wanted to rebuild Dave from the ground up using cooking utensils. And I had horrible things to use for parts. I figure a colander for his head and an old mop for his hair–and, of course, the false teeth. Lisa wanted to have some sort of cord we pulled so the false teeth would open and close and go ‘quack.’"

Sharlyn Sawyer, Dancer

Sharlyn had been a director and choreographer for her own dance companies from the age of eighteen. She recalls living in most of the Preston houses at one time or another. "At one point I was living in the plantation with Patty Farber and a few other folks. Between Patty, Wendy Newell and David Bernard, who went on to do wardrobe for SF Opera, they really taught me all I needed to know about costume building. That education has served me all my life.

"The best times for me during that particular period of time at Preston were when we would play host to the entire Baba-ganoush folklore group for two or three weeks of rehearsals before Northern Renaissance Faire. Production work is thrilling, the push, the adrenaline and the deadlines. Between the total immersion and the music…it was heaven. Then to balance it all out there was the mountain, the gardens, chickens and horses. I have spent my entire life since that time trying to recreate that balance."

Lory Stark, Singer and Dancer

Lory Stark, singer and one of Jamila Salimpour’s prize dancers, appeared with The Golden Toad Minstrels at the celebrated Grace Cathedral gig in 1970. Much later, at the Caffe Trieste coffee house in San Francisco, she would absorb the audience with her powerful renditions of Grand Opera arias and classical Italian songs in several languages.

With The Toad she mainly danced. "She was skinny," Deborah Fischbach recalls. "I remember seeing her sing opera somewhere in Mendocino. I said, ‘Oh, that dress is lovely but your breast bone is sticking out.’ She said, ‘Yes, I’m looking for a very rich patron and I thought if I showed some ribs he would feel sorry for me.’"

Mickie Zekley remembers a Toad concert at the Presbyterian church in Mendocino. "We were all encamped at Bill Gilkerson and Kerstin’s ‘Swedish Paradise,’ an idyllic hideaway in the primeval northwestern redwood rainforest. Lory–our combination belly dancer and opera singer–got up early the morning of the show and set to work making two beautiful pies. Both Bill and John Patterson–our ballet dancer–had been hard to deal with the past few days. So close to showtime, while we were next door getting ready, Lory let John and Bill have it–a pie in the face each. The rest of us got the fallout: they threw the scraps at us."

Deborah Fischbach remembers that it was Bob Thomas–not Bill Gilkerson–was received the pie. "Bob and John, probably the quietest and most gifted artists in the whole Toad, had been bickering like a couple of old ladies. So Lory made two beautiful lemon meringue pies. They were works of art. We had a gig where we all danced on stage. At the end of the gig we were in the hall and out came the pies. As Lory was coming at Bob with a pie Bob screamed out, ‘Oh, no!’ and started backing away. But Gilkerson held him by the neck and he, Bob, got the pie."


Could the artists’ community at Oak Mountain be called a hedonist colony?

"No," Mickie Zekley says, "because nobody had luxuries. We were really focused a lot on learning. It was almost like a university in some ways. Everybody there was really devoted and focused on learning music and dance and all these various art forms. The living situations were minimal. There were no orgies. But people did smoke a lot of dope and take other drugs. I don’t believe it was a hedonist colony but I guess it depends on your own personal definition of hedonism."

Cait Reed observed that the community "was a bit incestuous–but no more than high school."

Jehan Paul’s response: "No, we weren’t a hedonist colony. We were a bunch of raving individuals who had moved in together and were like a colony of ravens or something. We jockeyed around and had our little squabbles and fighting and pecking and so forth. We had utopian ideals in an intellectual way but still, we were a bunch of raving individualists."


Madam Preston’s Community in Retrospect

When looking back at Emily Preston’s settlement on Oak Mountain the word utopian inevitable comes up. One M.J. Votruba called the period from 1875 to 1909 "a utopian dream come true." But historians may forever debate whether Preston can be considered a true 19th-century utopian community. One argument–that belief in the wisdom and power of Madam Preston provided the necessary unifying theme–says yes, it does. On the other hand, many observers point out that her followers did not "join" anything and that no property was held in common. Holly Hoods, in her thesis Preston: History of a Late-Nineteenth Century Religious Colony in Sonoma County, California, wrote that, "In the final analysis, Preston fits the definition of a sect rather than a utopian colony. One characteristic of a sect is that it is generally a small, exclusive group which the members join as adults. Another characteristic is that religious authority is usually attained by personal charisma. Sects commonly are tightly organized, with explicit rules. All of these characteristics apply to Preston. Sects also tend to emphasize their differences with other established religions. Although Emily Preston was willing to work with other faiths, there was a certain amount of repudiation of established churches preached in her messages."

Holly continues: "Emily Preston’s role within the Free Pilgrims Covenant Church was as both founder and prophetess. The founder of a religious sect is typically a dominate personality around which the religion is based. The prophet or prophetess is usually the one to convey holy messages to the group. It is common, with new sects, for the two roles to be held by the same person. Emily filled both roles within the Preston Church."

As one might expect, the Madam’s breakaway colony attracted a good deal of attention in Northern California during its existence. Newspapers and county publications of the day provide not only scenic descriptions of the settlement but also reveal clues about attitudes toward Emily and her followers. One reporter from The Sonoma Democrat wrote in an article after a November 1886 visit to "Prophetess Preston":

It is generally known that she performs her treatment from directions given from an unseen power, and which she terms as "faithcure." Mrs. Preston has become very wealthy in a few years from her practice, as it is claimed she was comparatively without means when she came to Cloverdale. She is regarded by everyone acquainted with her as enveloped in an unfathomable mystery. She has patients from nearly every part of the civilized world. Most of them are very wealthy, and while she talks religion she is looking after the dollars and cents with a practical and businesslike manner.

Some writers were particularly intrigued by Emily’s achievements because of her gender. An article in The Healdsburg Enterprise, headlined "A Woman Builds a Town," exemplifies the pro-feminist stance of some of the coverage of the Madam by newspapers in the 1890s:

Woman’s activities in this progressive century are practically uncircumscribed and unlimited, yet such an accomplishment as the founding and building of a town by a woman seems almost an impossibility. The impossible, however, has come to pass in the steady growth and prosperity of the little town of Preston, Sonoma County, California, which came into existence through the work of Mrs. H.L. Preston, formerly a Connecticut woman, who upon the death of her husband, less than a decade ago, found herself the owner of the homestead, a prosperous fruit farm.

Possessing natural qualifications as a nurse and physician, Mrs. Preston had acquired something of a reputation in that line and many persons came to her for treatment. The necessity of providing for them suggested the idea of building a town, and a number of houses were put up. Then Mrs. Preston built a school house, and for six years taught the children herself. A church was built and she became the preacher. The needs of the little town drew mechanics and merchants, and though Mrs. Preston doesn’t care to sell property, tenants are given a life tenancy free. No liquor is sold in the town. Mrs. Preston has had bridges constructed, the roads kept in order and new ones made at her expense. In the summer, her tenants go to a lake resort she owns in the mountains, comprising a lake and ten acres of land, where camping facilities are furnished them free of charge.

The little community is prosperous and happy and apparently appreciative of the genius and generosity of the woman who has created the ideal conditions under which they enjoy life. It is doubtful if Mrs. Preston’s success as a founder of a town has been equaled by any man or company of men, especially as contributing so satisfactorily to the comfort and general welfare of all who live within its boundaries.

During her lifetime Emily was contacted by at least one published author, William Cubery, of Cubery and Company, San Francisco. He offered in 1904 to produce the definitive biography of her because she was "one of those fortunate persons who has made a great success of life." Mr. Cubery’s flattering letter was saved among Emily’s correspondence but there is no record of her response and no evidence that a book was ever published.

She did, however, receive fan letters from admirers. A Professor D. McLean of Temperance House in Santa Rosa called her "a worker for Humanity." McLean, who signed himself, "Astral Seer, Practical Healer, and Pathfinder for the New Land and Labor Universal Suffrage Practical Reform Movement à la Australia, my native land," extended greetings to Emily in 1904 in the hope that "we may be able to co-operate some day in the work of enlightening the masses, practically, upon the sovereign subject of Spiritual Science."

But there were less positive responses to her work, and she endured skepticism on a variety of fronts. Various critics and skeptics dismissed her medical practice as "quackery," and her religious visions as either occult spiritualism, proof of a delusional mind, or altogether fake. Others observed the number of wealthy individuals at Preston, and made insinuations about her finances.

In November, 1889, a reporter from The Healdsburg Enterprise noted that there were probably very few people in Sonoma County who had not heard stories–some true and more that were greatly exaggerated–about Madam Preston:

Who wields a strong influence over affairs in the northeastern corner of the county. While she is called an imposter and an ecclesiastical mountebank, there are not a few who ascribe to her a power all but divine. Those who would condemn her as an imposter on the strength of her pretense to divine inspiration and direct communication with the ruler of the universe, consider the good results of her teaching among those who believe, and are silent.

Emily was well aware of the skepticism and controversy that swirled around her, despite being surrounded by devoted followers. She spoke of feeling misunderstood and misjudged. But she was nonetheless committed to her calling. In some of her earlier appearances she expressed discomfort in the role of prophetess. In 1884, in a speech to an audience at the Metropolitan Temple in San Francisco, she admitted that it seemed strange to appear in public, but:

I promised the Great God that, if he would spare my life, I would read His messages to the people, here and in every part of the world, at His command. He had told me for more than a year past, that I must go and tell the world, that there is a Hell, and there is a Heaven; and I have seen photographs of Heaven and Hell. I have been shown all the different conditions of people, for every grade of life has been laid open and plain before my sight, and having the Sight, I am responsible if I hide myself away from the world.

Convinced that she was fulfilling a sacred responsibility, Emily began speaking regularly. A recurring theme in her messages was maintaining faith and composure in the face of rejection: "If you are a Christian and people look at you ever so wrongfully, if you are right it does not hurt you."

She was ridiculed for her occasional tangled syntax and incorrect grammar. Lisa Ellis, who has examined many original documents from Madam’s era, considers her handwriting "hideous" and her spelling "atrocious." Skeptics snidely asked why she, Emily, made grammatical errors when she was supposedly reading the perfect words directly from God? She declared to her congregation:

There are people who talk about God more than I can, and tell more and know more than I do, and speak grammatically and I do not. That is a great thing. Yet where is it? Have they spent twenty five years to help the people in the world, and have they ridiculed you and made fun of you and then come in and talked to you again? There is nobody but will have somebody against them. If you go forward and do right, it does not matter than you have little funny ways that do not suit other people.

In messages to the church congregation she regularly addressed the charges that she and the followers of her religion were "queer": "If everybody would look at what we are trying to do, and how we are trying to live, and what our object in life is, they would not want to ridicule or make fun of us. They would say, ‘I would like to know how that is. I would like to feel that on me. That brings something good to a person’"

She welcomed visitors to her church in the spirit of fellowship, but not to come and spread rumors or gawk:

We do not condemn any religion or any good way in the world. We come hand in hand to help them do right. We ask all the world to come and help us to be good and do right. If anybody wants to come and worship God with us, they are welcome. We do not want to put anybody off.

She urged her followers to remain spiritually strong in the face of disparagement:

This religion is genuine. Your life must be your Bible, or you have no religion. It has been talked over and over for many years by me, in such an imperfect manner, but always trying to do my best. I would think so much of what the world would say, and my pride would hurt so much sometimes, that I would think I could never talk again, for I could see what they thought of me. The people do not understand my way, nor the meaning of what I say."

Whether journalists approved of Emily or not, nearly all of them were struck by her personal magnetism and influence over her followers. A full-page illustrated spread in The San Francisco Chronicle published in September, 1898, bore the headline:

An Extraordinary Russian River Settlement. A Woman Owns All the Property: Is Director, Teacher, Preacher and Ruler

Is there anyone who will credit that somewhere in the world there is a woman who not only owns a townsite, but runs every enterprise of importance in it; who is Mayor and Council and School Board and preacher, who owns the water supply and provides work and wages for the inhabitants, who is their medical adviser and cemetery association and their spiritual guide; who develops their mental resources and directs their aesthetic tastes, who superintends the design and construction of houses and plans all their amusements and recreations? She has been found in California. As a matter of course, she could scarcely exist elsewhere.

Did the artists who colonized Oak Mountain three generations later share an appreciation for the unique era of Emily Preston? "Absolutely," says Mickie Zekley. "Everyone was fascinated by her, discovering different things that were on the property and trying to make sense of them. They liked to hear the stories. They looked to her as a kind of idol in some ways–because she gathered a community of like-minded people together to do whatever she did and that’s what was happening with us. There was even a picture of a Madam Preston band in the church with all their instruments–just like us when we would play in the church."

Jehan Paul adds, "Everyone had their own level of interest in the history of the place. Mainly we were there having a good time but we were very sympathetic to what had gone on there before."

Sympathetic, indeed. The telephone on the porch of the Plantation was listed in Emily Preston’s name.


Reminiscences from the Artist Era

The stories and anecdotes collected here are intended to give a further glimpse into the lives and adventures of the Preston artists.

Wendy Newell penned this contemplation of summertime at the Preston ranch: "Summer sizzles on the hill. Count on a week of 110+ degree days, divided into two or three heat waves. Even if the mercury rises to a mere 105, the wise adjust their activity schedules. In the two-story structures, the mansion, medicine house and barn, life within could continue with a little adjustment. But serious measures were in order for the Plantation and other single story structures. The ‘siesta’ was a natural solution for the season. Rather nice to shut down and perhaps even nap during the three hottest hours. When it was time for afternoon tea, make it iced and start another day. The twilight hours are rich with fragrance and a sense of survival, a favorite time to water the garden. There was another solution which many always took, and all took sometimes: Sand Banks…or to some, Sandy Banks. This well named access to the Russian River was a mile or so up the highway. There would be a casual sweep when someone was taking a car to the river; you pretty well knew who wanted to go and who didn’t. This car pooling was taken to a higher level in 1975 when Douglas was living at the lake. Certainly the lake house was the coolest place on the hill, and if that weren’t enough, there was always a dip in the lake. But Douglas was a social guy, and he had a fabulous old flatbed truck. He’d come down from the lake, park at the mansion for a few minutes, gather the day’s river rats, and off he’d go. Usually a few would fit in the cab, a few lounged on the flatbed. By today’s standards, this is a totally unthinkable, dangerous ride. But it was the 70’s, we were young and daring, and Douglas took it real easy down the hill and along old highway 101."


Not every artist living at Preston supported their neighbors’ musical interests. Ernie offers this remembrance: "When Mickie, Cait and Jeremy [the resident Irish musicians] moved onto the Preston property I decided to learn Irish music. I got a little tenor banjo and Jeremy was very nice about helping me learn Irish music. Kevin Keegan and Joe Cooley thought I was cool–they really liked me.

"After Deb had Melissa [our daughter], Mickie said, ‘Professional musicians don’t have children because they don’t have time to raise them. You can’t be a part of this Irish band because you don’t have time for it.’ The Irish band at that time was Mickie, Eric and Sue Thompson, Cait and another Kate. So they threw me out. I got depressed, walked out the door and walked down the road to Solomon and Wendy’s where they were living outside the mansion. They had a little campfire and I told them what happened and Solomon said, ‘Well, it’s about time.’

"’What do you mean,’ I asked.

"He said, ‘Who wants to play that crap, anyway?’


"In the mansion there were fireplaces in every room. So we had fires going everywhere to keep the place warm. We were using the kitchen and dining room for a bedroom. After a year or so we discovered the mansion had a furnace. So for 75 bucks a month we could flick the thermostat and heat the whole place. We put covers over the fireplaces so they wouldn’t suck all the air out. Sol and I had our jewelry shops down in the basement. So our workshops in the basement were like the Bahamas and we would work down there with our shirts off."


Trent Anderson recalls the many parties at the mansion: "We had wonderful times there for quite a while. I would get to cook for the group and for parties off and on. Ed Lynch and Catana were living in the caretaker’s house next door. Ed and [Lance] Sterling did not always get along, and sometimes even Ed and I would go at it…over what I can’t recall.

"Sterling had a wonderful old goat with a set of big curly horns, named Rasputen. It lived in the pasture directly across from the mansion and across the little road that ran by my place. One day for some reason, Ed either stole Rasputen or gave it away or sold it to someone–whatever…because for some reason it annoyed him or it smelled, or something, and Sterling was gone a lot and did not care for it that much. So one day Sterling came up for his daily drink of vino out of my fridge on the porch, and I complained that Ed was upset at me about something, and Lance said, "Trent, don’t let him get your goat." To which I replied, "Why not, he’s got yours." Sterling would not speak to me for a week.


The Preston musicians had very little to do with the local town of Cloverdale. Jeremy recalls: "I never related to Cloverdale at all. They had this Citrus Fair. I guess there was a drought that killed all the trees or something but they still called it the Citrus Fair. But there was something else–some kind of Italian-related dinner thing once a year. Cathie had some real nice Italian tunes on the accordion and mandolin. I would play the guitar with her. We heard about this Italian thing and we went in and asked if they would like us to play some Italian tunes for it. They said, ‘Well, sure.’ So we went down one evening and played for an hour or so and then stopped to eat. And not a single person even looked at us or stopped to say anything. Absolutely zero. That was Cloverdale."

The Irregular Preston Fusiliers

The Preston artists were capable of setting their art aside and rising to the demands of unexpected situations. Ernie remembers this episode: "The local townfolks called us the ‘hippies on the hill.’ Once, on a shopping trip to town, a local shopkeeper told us that he overheard some young redneck punks saying that they were going to burn out the hippies on the hill that night. We went home very upset and called the police. But they weren’t very interested in our problem. So we took matters into our own hands. We gathered together all the old rifles and shotguns, swords, knives, fire hoses, rakes, fire tools, walkie-talkies and more that we could find plus some other surprises for our expected guests. At about 10:00 p.m. they pulled up our road in three pickup trucks–only to be greeted by us standing in the middle of the road with our guns and Bill Gilkerson’s cannon (which took a 3-inch ball) all pointing directly at them. You never saw human beings move as fast as they did going back to town. We had no further trouble and became the town heroes and they became the town joke."

Here’s how Cait Reed describes the incident: "The people heard some people talking down at the local bar near the mill which was just across the river. Somebody overheard some people grumbling and the grumbling was getting more and more explicit that they didn’t like the hippies on the hill and they were going to go burn them out.

"So we sprung into action. Everyone got the word and we staked out the perimeters. Some of the guys really got into the militaristic side of it and had guns and stuff. Gilkerson got his cannon. We were on 24-hour watch. I was freaked out–I was just 19 or 20 at the time."

Jeremy Kammerer notes, with no pun intended, "The cannon episode took real balls. They had no help from the cops."

Buffalo Larkin also remembers the incident: "There were some rednecks who didn’t like the hippie-artist element for some reason. One of the guys was psychotic and said, ‘I’m going to get some gasoline and burn you guys out.’ So Bill Gilkerson happened to have a cannon on wheels. The guys hauled it to the top of the driveway and pointed the barrel down the driveway. And this person who had threatened everybody came driving up the road and saw that Bob was standing there with a cannon pointed at him and had a torch in one hand. They’d never seen a guy back down a driveway as fast at that guy did. There was no more trouble from him. That was the beginning of the Irregular Preston Fusiliers."


There was a surprising incongruity at Preston–in Cait Reed’s words, "a kind of violent thing going on. I remember Scotty’s suicide. Scotty was a cool guy. He got along great with us. While he was caretaker he committed suicide. He was staying in Palo Alto and shot himself. I don’t think it had anything to do with Preston–but who knows?"

Trent Anderson also remembers "some crazy guy living in the caretaker’s house who got drunk and whipped out his pistol and shot himself in the foot." He also recalled the time he himself procured a gun. "It was an AR-15 semi-automatic army rifle that they used in Viet Nam. Ernie said, ‘You should go deer hunting some time.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve never really liked killing things. But I’ll try.’ So I’m sitting up there by the graveyard at the top of the hill and I see these deer and BAM! They ran off and I said, ‘Oh shit.’ And I went back home. Pretty soon the guy living on the next ranch over came by all pissed off and said, ‘You crazy son of a bitch, was that you up there shooting at that deer? Well, you got that deer right through the mouth and he went running through my yard with half of his jaw hanging off.’ That just broke my heart ‘cause I didn’t want to do that."

Jeremy remembers one Bob Collier: "Collier had this really mean pit bull. I was coming down the road one day and here comes this dog of his. Didn’t know its own territory. I didn’t know what to do. I pulled out my Swiss army knife and stood there and tried to walk around it. Anyway, Collier came out and called it in. I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t come out.

"One day I heard a shot. Collier had gotten drunk and shot his dog dead."

Jeremy also recalled an incident involving his pet cat. "Every once in a while some wild cat would come into the neighborhood and start raping my cat and beating her up. I would get very defensive and would go up to Edwin and Lisa’s and borrow a .22 rifle. This one time there was this ruckus and my cat was howling. I grabbed the gun and went outside and there was this tearing chase, under the church and up the huge oak beside it. My cat was way out on one of the limbs and he had followed her out and was doing every mean thing he could think of to her back. They were so close together I was afraid of hitting her. But I nailed him. I got him through the head and he fell out of the tree.

"Much later, after all of us were gone, there was somebody up there doing caretaking who got shot. Some townies had come out and were growing a patch of pot there. Somebody living in the church house became aware of it and had raided them a time or two. So he went up to get some and the townies caught him and shot him dead. He’d gone up with his buddy and when they got surprised his buddy turned tail and ran but they caught this guy and blew his head off."


On the lighter side, Edwin Ellis offers this reminiscence: "One night, right around Halloween, there was a big full moon. All the women were putting on masks–they decided they were going to go haunt everybody. As the evening wore on they’d rattle one house and get the people from that house to join and then go to the next. Finally they had this mob. When they visited our house we joined.

"The last house visited was Tom and Dana’s house. They were inside watching some horrid movie. We all came running down the steps and scared the hell out of them."

Edwin also recalls having a bottle of one of the Madam’s elixirs. "We were having this wonderful party up at the lake and everybody was smelling it. And Trent walks into the room and says, ‘I want to try some of this, too’ and takes a hit from it before anybody could stop him. He later said it was ‘a real purge–coming out both ends.’"


From Buffalo: "Mr. Street ran cattle on the ranch. Apparently one of the cows fell off a steep incline and died. All of the enterprising hippies who were hungry thought, ‘Wow! Steak!’ They did considerable work to butcher it and haul it out of the gully and had a magnificent feast for awhile."

Don Brown remembers the incident: "So we went down there. It was pouring rain all the time. We slaughtered him at the bottom of the creek and then walked down to the road, slipping and sliding on the creek bed. We hung him for a day or two then quartered him so we could carry him.

"Douglas [Tharelson ] said, ‘It’s better if we don’t keep the hide because then we’d be witness to the fact. It would be better if the cow just disappeared than it be known that a bunch of hippies rustled him and ate him.’

"I don’t know how much Douglas was encouraging that cow to go down that trail. But it was the best meat I ever ate."


As migrating performers, the artists living on Oak Mountain were often gone for a time and then would suddenly return. As people came and went, some stayed in the community for days at a time, some for weeks or months. Buffalo recalls Preston as being "on the way to everywhere. We were on highway 101 so everyone going anywhere would stop off for the night and play music. There was always something going on."

Cait Reed recalls that "a lot of people were living in their vehicles. Visitors would park their cars and get out their cooking stoves."

Friends from the Renaissance Faires would visit the colony. Jason Adajian was one of them. "We [the Morris dancers] tended to stay in a pack," he recalls. "We were like a cluster of beavers or something. We’d occupy whatever space might be available at the time. There were nine or ten of us dancers, plus the musicians, plus the girlfriends. So we amounted as a group to about 20 people. Right up the hill from the mansion was a little shack that had the tiniest little loft and didn’t even have cold water. It was so small you couldn’t even park a car in it. We’d all pile into the loft and spill out into the sides."

One of the longer visits occurred when Buffalo and Don Brown were forced to leave a tarpaper shack they had been living in. According to Buffalo, "Edwin [Ellis], who wasn’t married at the time, said that we could come up and visit him in the lake house until a place opened up for us to live in. So we visited him. We all did our work where we could. The kitchen table was used a lot and was buried in projects. We stayed for two years."

Ernie remembers a fellow named Charles, a friend of Chris Carnes. "He was a young guy, real sweet. He was a flamenco guitarist. He lived in the front little room of the plantation. He stayed there for a couple of months. It turned out that he was a multi-millionaire. By the time he was ready to leave there was a pile of stock reports from the Wall Street journal about a foot and a half thick all the way around the room. He was living like a rat in a nest among these stock reports, practicing his flamenco."

Some visitors to Preston were famous, including flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and world-renown Irish musicians Kevin Keegan and Joe Cooley. Cait Reed remembers these visiting Irish musicians: "The Irish had a tradition called the lost weekend. They’d all live in Dublin and they’d go back to their old home place once or twice a month for a weekend bash. So Preston was a perfect escape place for the San Francisco Irish musicians. They would come and we would put everybody up. Nobody slept. Of course there were tons and tons of booze.

"I remember one particular weekend. We were stirring in the morning and we heard a pop-top being opened. That meant Joe [Cooley] was awake, because they put a beer by his bed. Then Patricia had to go to mass. So they went to the bar and drank and then picked her up from mass. We all ended up at a little café on the north end of town.

"The Irish have another thing: the big ‘fry-up.’ The one thing that seems to work really well as an antidote to a lot of drinking is grease. So we had the fry-up of lots of bacon and eggs at this café. When we came out Joe said, ‘Let’s play a tune, right here.’ So right there on highway 101 we’re playing and there’s Patricia dancing."


One of Ernie Fischbach’s early friends at Preston was Harry Schumway. "Harry kept the church clock running. He had a daughter who was our age. They were respected members of the local Cloverdale community. His daughter was involved with one of the local townsfolk. One time when the locals decided they were going to burn us out the sheriff and the fire department came up. They were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and just hanging out with us. We were all waiting for these local guys to come up and burn us out. We hung out all night together–smoking, drinking coffee and doing the guy thing. They noticed that we hippies were okay guys. After that everybody in town was real nice to us. They looked at us as a bunch of cool musicians and artists and dancers instead of just plain hippies."


"There was a guy named Richard Chase who was teaching Morris dancing to the kids at the Faire. They were 10 to 13 years old. Bob and I were playing the music for the dance lessons. Richard would chase them around when they weren’t doing right and he would hit the stage with his cane–BAM!–and say, ‘Don’t think, dance!’ and scare the crap out of them."


Mickie remembers when San Francisco’s Christmas shopping season was in full swing and he was playing his bagpipes on the street. "The Dickens Faire was being held at the Cannery and I got a hired as a piper. The gig consisted of playing bagpipe duets with George Dawson, accompanied by Cait Reed on the field drum, while standing on an old horse-drawn dray wagon in front of the Faire to attract a crowd (the pipe music could be heard for at least two city blocks even with lots of traffic noise) and then to try to get the audience to come into the Faire.

"We approached our performances a little differently than our employers intended. It was a fantastic opportunity for busking. Having our very own stage on Fisherman’s wharf and being paid to panhandle the crowd was a miracle.

"About the third day of the Faire the proprietor, Ron Patterson, came out front to see how his musical shills were doing. At that same moment I was trying to convince the crowd to fill our hat with money. I glanced over to my right and saw Ron in his burgundy Dickensian velvet suit and top hat rushing towards us. I instantly realized that the jig was up.

"The only thing I could think of was to quickly hand Ron the hat before he could say anything to stop us and loudly announce to the crowd of about 100 people that our friend was going to come around to collect donations. He looked at me in horror then looked at the crowd watching him, shrugged his shoulders and walked around passing our hat. It was obvious that he was very frustrated because we were emptying the crowd’s pockets before he got a chance to. Worse, he was even helping us."


"There was this fellow Scotty. He was a caretaker appointed by the Lee family, who were very sympathetic to everybody there. He was living in the teacher’s house. One day Scotty came to me and said, ‘The Lee family says we have to charge rent. What should I charge?’ So I told him what to charge. I said, ‘Don’t charge over twenty dollars for any building.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ So we all paid about twenty bucks a month to live there. I had actually set the rent that went on for years–until after Dr. Lee died."


Don Brown liked the low rent. "It’s what kept many of us at Oak Mountain. We had a system where we threw everything into a pool so everybody was paying 25 bucks a month. Then it went up to 30 bucks, depending on how many people were there. From this, the rent got paid and the utilities got paid. The system eventually broke down because people didn’t pay."


Trent Anderson remembers another communal scene going on in the Preston area. "It was Riverbend and the potters and artists that lived there. I met Richard Henderson and Ron Bonan, Mimi, etc. and all of the gang there, and soon I was asked to come to work for them…both as a cook and to manage the gallery. This proved to be not such a good thing. There was an artist named Tom Faught living there, and he was a good-looking character with a good personality. One day I took Madeleine up there and she and I went down and went swimming it the Russian River across the highway, and lo and behold here comes Tom with another girl he was dating, and before I knew it, Madeline had swam off with Tom and, well…boom! She’s dropped me like a hot potato and moved with him up to the Lake House at Preston."

The Lake House Resurrected

Madeleine recalls being the first of the artist-era residents to move into the lake house: "I fell in love with Tom Faught from Riverbend," she recalls. "We decided to cohabit and took a look at the lake house. It was pretty derelict: rotten shingled roof, no glass in the windows (no window frames!), no doors, no running water, no toilet. Our lusty enthusiasm turned it into a wonderful project, though. We stretched (and stapled) plastic on all of the windows. We stretched plastic all over the roof and battened it down with odd battens of wood. We found a door or two. We fixed a few floor boards, turned a 50-gallon drum into a wood stove, and voila, home! We still needed to deal with the water situation, though. The bog/spring behind (and below) the lake house bubbled with pure fresh drinking water (it also was absolutely covered in the most delicious watercress!). We scored an old two handled hand pump somewhere and then purchased a child’s small plastic wading pool, some black plastic, some black rubber hose and lengths of plumbing pipe. We put the pool on the top floor of the house, ran the rubber hosing from the pool to the hand pump down near the spring, stretched a black plastic cover over the pool and then pumped the pool full of fresh water. We then drilled a hole in the floor, ran a pipe through it, and gravity fed the water to the kitchen sink on the ground floor. The whole system worked like a charm, and we only had to pump every couple of weeks. I still miss that fabulous drinking water. It was the best I’ve ever tasted….rich with minerals and sparkling clear.

"Our ‘make do’ alternations lasted very well, but eventually the roof became a real problem. By this time we had established an extremely good relationship with Dr. Lee and he became a visitor to the property. On one of his visits, Tom complained about the roof, how it was leaking, how cold it got in winter because of all the gaps. Now Dr. Lee liked us, but he wasn’t exactly what I would call ‘generous’…at least not with his money. So Tom struck a bargain with him. If Dr. Lee would pay for the roofing tin and materials, we would do all of the labor. Eventually the deal was consolidated, and the lake house got its new roof. It saved the building. It had been deteriorating so badly. The new roof became its ‘glue’ and allowed the building to live on for some time without major renovations.

"When our first springtime in the lake house rolled around, we discovered that we were not the only inhabitants of the house. A rather large nest of rattlesnakes was living under the house. Every time one of us walked outside we heard that distinctive rattle as we came face to face with those impressive snakes. As we had an outside toilet this became a bit too much of a game of chance…we had to do something. Grant Nelson (a wizard of a man who made fine paraphernalia out of ivory and silver, fabulous tools, and could re-build an MG engine in no time flat) made us a trident spear and we killed every one of those snakes. We had ethics, though, and could only justify this killing spree if we utilized every bit of those snakes. So we ate the meat, stretched and tanned the skins, and then traded them to people who made belts and hat bands. I can’t remember what we did with the rattles…maybe they went to a musician?? During the summer months, that trident spear was extremely active, and we subsequently played host to numerous catfish and rattlesnake barbecues for everyone on the land. Many good times were had by one and all."

Ceremony for Sarinda

"I was mad for Wendy’s daughter, Sarinda," Madeleine recalls. "She was such a beautiful baby with her soft baby curls and huge dark eyes. Consequently I would regularly spend days with Wendy and her, sitting in the small garden outside their room in the Plantation. Wendy would have the proverbial sewing project in her lap, the tape player would be emitting some Bulgarian folk song or another, and I’d be down on the ground with Sarinda…rolling around in the sunshine, digging in the earth, smelling and oooh-ing over flowers….playing baby games with a delightful, laughing baby.

"One day, when Sarinda was about nine months old, she was extremely ‘out of sorts’. She couldn’t seem to get comfortable and was twisting this way and that. When Wendy went to change her diaper, we were all shocked to see that it was full of blood. A quick call to the Santa Rosa hospital and we were packing Sarinda into her car seat and on our way south. I tried to distract and soothe Sarinda while Wendy drove as fast as was safely possible. Still, I think we got to Santa Rosa hospital in record time.

"The doctors rushed Sarinda off for an examination and then returned to tell us that she would have to have immediate surgery. Now Wendy is forever the stoic, but still, the shock was plain to see…her face went very white and I could see her wrestling with her growing emotions. The surgeon told us that he suspected a twisted bowel and that Sarinda was an extremely sick baby.

"I have no recollection of how long the surgery took. It seemed like many hours later when the doctor came to us with his news that Sarinda’s bowel had telescoped back into itself…a condition seemingly caused by a virus. The doctor said that while she had survived the surgery, her condition was serious and her chances of recovery were 50-50. He said that it was all up to Sarinda at that point in time. She either would or wouldn’t survive the night. He told us to go home. Reluctantly we left.

"Naturally everyone at Preston was anxious for our return and to find out what was going on. Quite a few tears flowed for our darling Sarinda, but then emotion gave way to resolve. Ernie suggested that we hold a special ceremony for Sarinda in the church. A Tibetan temple ceremony. Everyone agreed.

"That night we congregated in the church. We placed candles around the walls, then each of us took up an instrument: a bell or drum or horn or cymbal. We stood in a great circle that virtually filled the church, candlelight dancing off each anxious face. We shared a silent unified thought for Sarinda, and then Ernie lifted a horn. A single discordant note filled the space between us and hung in the air… powerful, meaningful…and then we began.

"There was no established ‘script’ for our playing. The music swelled and abated and then swelled again. Drums were pounding. Cymbals were clashing. Bells were ringing. The music throbbed and pulsated its way into and behind each breast bone. The music became us…and we became the music.

"This deafening cacophony continued for some time, and all the while we focused every bit of our combined energy on Sarinda and making her well.

"Wendy came over to the mansion first thing in the morning to use the phone. My knees were shaking once she got onto the doctor. She kept saying ‘I see’ and ‘yes’ and ‘of course’. Finally she put the phone down, spun around and announced (with a glorious smile) something akin to ‘It seems that Sarinda was very ill for the first part of the night and the doctors had been seriously concerned, but then she suddenly made a complete turn around and started gaining strength. The doctors are quite amazed. She is definitely out of danger and is going to be fine!!’

"Tears of relief and joy…no one doubted what we had accomplished."


There was a big mulberry tree just above the old schoolhouse on the driveway leading up to the mansion. Deborah Fischbach remembers picking the berries as they ripened in the warm month of August. "We liked to make mulberry ice cream and mulberry pie and have mulberries with whipped cream. But the mulberries stained your clothes so badly that there was no way to remove the stains. So some of us would go up there and pick the mulberries without wearing any clothes at all."


"Every once in a while a bottle of Madam’s liniment would turn up somewhere. When you went past the barn there was a little gully, a little wooden bridge that you crossed and then a creek that came down there. And down in there were all these bottles. I got the impression that it was an old trash pile but these were the old medicine bottles that Madam put her elixirs in.

"Somebody once stole a skull out of the graveyard. There was a tomb up there–some sort of a walk-in thing. Some kids got up there and took the damn skull out of the coffin. Then you could look in the coffin and see the bones but the skull was missing."

According to Buffalo Larkin, "The local yahoos kept stealing Madam’s head from the graveyard and leaving her on fenceposts. I heard that Sharlyn decided to scare the snot out of them one time. She had a white outfit and got on a horse and when she heard people up there she galloped out of the gloom and fog and scared them off. That’s a story I heard. I never asked Sharlyn about it.

"On another occasion Pat Rolfe wanted to get even with somebody who had gone out at night to the ‘outhouse’–which was basically a hole in a board out in a blackberry bush. While they were out there indisposed Pat put on a hairy outfit with big feet and did a Bigfoot impersonation to give them a little bit of a jolt.

"At Preston we all had cats–which we really needed to protect us from the vast hoards of mice. One time, when we were living in the barn, Don’s cat fell down one of the hay chutes. It was at the head of our bed. We tended to pile books on top of it. We heard this noise that sounded like something trying to get their claws into something unsuccessfully. And we heard this YEOWW. And then we heard the sound of claws all the way down. So we finally got all the books off and opened the lid of this thing and here’s Don’s poor cat–a normally shy cat–covered in cobwebs and looking really irate. And he wouldn’t let us near him and wouldn’t come out of the bin. So we put a chair in there so he could get himself out. And after that he would never come in the house again.

"We had a fair number of possums who would come in the cat door to eat cat food. We didn’t have much in the way of a raccoon problem, but skunks were prevalent. And there was a considerable problem with wild pigs because in the old days someone had decided to release Russian boar stock to have pigs to hunt. One of our neighbors used to jog along the high road to the lake and one of them chased her. It was in the morning just before daylight and she never ran so fast in her life.

"On another occasion someone was driving down the hill from the lake and he thought he saw a white Volkswagen parked in an odd place up the hill. And then it started moving in an odd fashion and he suddenly realized it was an enormous white sow–the size of a Volkswagen–with a bunch of piglets."


Sharlyn Sawyer has this fond recollection: "One fine spring day myself and about fifteen of the other resident artists were picnicking on the west shore of the lake under the oak trees. Food, musical instruments and blankets were spread in the shade. Chris Carnes was playing guitar and others had taken to the water on the various water craft, which included a beat up surf board and an old boat. As I remember the boat was ideal for fishing even if it listed a bit to starboard and only had a 2x4 for an oar. Lulled by the tranquility and the music to a state of complete bliss we were surprised to hear Chris’s little black and white dog, Mimsy, from the mountain above the lake in full throated cry.

"There were very few dogs on the ranch, and Mimsy was a real favorite with us all. She was known to love chasing rabbits and although we couldn’t see her we all assumed that she was hot on the trail of one now. We could track her rapid chase through the woods on the other side of the lake by the sound of her yelping excitement but I’d never heard her in this much of a frenzy. Well she rounded the lake and flew into the open about 500 yards down the meadow from where we were lounging. There, in front of the dog, going about thirty mph and taking leaps of at least 25 feet, was what looked liked the biggest jack rabbit that ever hopped on the face of the earth. They were both headed straight for the picnic. On they came …we all stared open mouthed in shock…like Moses and the red sea a kangaroo sent picnic, instruments and young children flying sideways and leapt at full speed into the lake with little Mimsy hot on her heels. The kangaroo was now swimming for dear life and the dog was gaining on her.

"I like to think that artists, living for the most part in a creative and imaginative environment, are less shocked by this kind of surprise…well whatever, we recovered our wits fairly quickly. As I remember Freddy Mejia was in the boat in the middle of the lake fishing and I grabbed the surf board and we converged as rapidly as possible on the swimming pair. Due to Freddy’s handicap of the 2x4 oar I was first on the scene. Made it just in time to grab the dog and kept pushing her off each time she made another attempt on the poor panicked kangaroo. By this time I’d abandoned the surf board and Freddy had just about arrived. Being young and foolish at the time and not knowing too terribly much about kangaroos, I hugged it from around the back and attempted to load it into the boat…as the kangaroo tried just as hard to keep from being loaded by kicking its powerful back legs against the side. All the while Mimsy continued to come at us reluctant to give up her catch of a lifetime. We did finally manage to get the exhausted kangaroo in the boat and safely to shore. It turned out that she was an escapee from a family down near the Russian River. She had been on the lam for about two weeks before her swim and was returned safely. Kind of glad she didn’t kick me underwater. It was, all in all, an unforgettable experience."


Fire was a daily concern during the hot, dry Preston summers. Wendy Newell remembers one early summer evening in 1973 when a fire occurred at the medicine house. "Paul and Marlena were living there at the time. They had put their daughter to sleep and lit a candle. A nearby curtain caught fire. John Wozniak and Freddie came charging out of the mansion because they had a bottle of propane in the medicine house that they used as part of their craft. I don’t recall if they had any clothes on. John grabbed the bottle, ran downstairs and threw it into the adjacent gully. Paul and Marlena were hosting a visitor–a piano player–at the time. He wanted to save the piano. So as the house burned and people were rushing about with hoses he moved the piano out onto the lawn between the medicine house and the mansion. When the fire department arrived, there he was–playing rags and other happy tunes while the house burned."

John Wozniak remembers the incident. "It was nighttime–dark. I was in bed in the southeast upper room of the mansion. I rolled over and looked out the window and there were flames coming out of the window of the medicine house. I jumped up and ran–stark naked–down the stairs. I got down the stairs and ran about 30 feet across the yard to the door of the medicine house. I ran through the door and up the stairs. Freddie was already there (having been ‘visiting’ Marlena while Paul was away). As I reached the top of the stairs Freddie grabbed a 5-gallon propane tank and tossed it to me. I caught it and went down the stairs and threw it across the yard.

"When Freddie came downstairs–he was then wearing clothes–he insisted on going up on the roof of the porch with a garden hose. So I boosted him up onto the roof and handed him the garden hose. He broke the window and started to spray, then fell off the roof, and then went back up.

"Downstairs, I ran around the back and shut off the electricity and the gas. Then I helped somebody move the piano out from the lower floor of the building. So he starts playing it! Then the fire department shows up. I ran up to the fire chief and said, ‘Okay, I shut off the gas and I shut off the electricity and there’s water over here.’ The guy’s looking at me funny. I looked down and realized I didn’t have any clothes on–not even shoes. So I went back inside and got some clothes.

"The next day we all left for the Faire."


Jehan Paul recalls the time–"probably in 1976"–when the water started tasting funny and people started getting little gastric upsets. "Finally Eric Thompson led a party up to the main water supply tank–a big concrete tank taller inside than you were. When they took off the old wooden cover they found a dead raccoon floating face down in the water. When they tried to pick it up with sieve it oozed through. So they drained the tank and Cloroxed everything and prayed for the best."


Iory Allison contributed a poem he wrote while living at the mansion. "It sums up my whole experience there although it is probably somewhat mysterious so a little explanation is in order.

"First of all, at that time the mansion compound was encircled by tall mature eucalyptus trees and the driveway was also lined by them. I assume that Madam Preston planted these trees. I understand that both the trees and the house were burnt as result of a fire set by the construction of the highway the bottom of the hill. Secondly regarding my roof terrace, I had created a container garden on the roof of the veranda that encircled two sides of the house. The roof was brown rusted tin and my second floor bedroom had a door that opened out onto it. As to the rest of the poem it was as I have said. I set out to sweep the leaves but I was too fascinated by the pattern of their haphazard flight and resting position to sweep them away."

Here’s Iory’s poem:

Red wings, ocher crescents

eucalyptus leaves fall on brown rusted tin.

My roof terrace littered, the gutters blocked

The broom locked within my hand

minding the order of chaos.


Wendy Newell writes: "There were times, everyone has a tale, when we were not as separate from the Madam’s world as one would assume. It was part of the 60s and 70s…reaching into the occult, with an acceptance of the paranormal…testing the boundaries of reality. If ever there was a place with a presence of the past, it was Preston. I personally think that our lives without TV, radios and telephones allowed us to more easily sense these phenomena.

"Most stories, mine included, are of hearing someone walk up the stairs. (Are there any stories of someone going down the stairs?) I heard someone going from the second story up to the roof. When we were first on the hill, camping below the Plantation, I would see apparitions in the gully by the car barn."

Many other former Prestonites have ghost stories. Trent Anderson penned this memory: "Back in the early days, around 1972 I think, while I was living there with Madeleine, I did have a rather scary experience. I returned home there from somewhere, Madeline was off on a trip, and NO ONE else was there…no cars, no people, just me. Well, that was the only time I had ever experienced being alone there, and at first it was not bad. But as the day wore on and the sun went down, it got a bit freaky…especially being stoned, which was the case pretty much all of the time.

"I remember making something to eat, and going into the living room and building a small fire. I remember thinking that this won’t last long, as there was only a couple of old newspapers and only one little log of Eucalyptus wood. We wuz out of firewood. I sat there for a while and finally fell asleep, I woke up about 11 p.m., the fire had gone out and there was no more wood, and it was getting a bit cold. Of course there was no central heating in the building There was a furnace I believe in the basement, but it did not work.

"So, I went on upstairs to bed…and again, there was no one else there, no cars, nothing. I fell asleep right away, and about 1:30 a.m. something woke me up…couldn’t say what…but suddenly I was wide awake and feeling very strange and eerie. I got out of bed, turned on the light and put on a robe or something and went downstairs. As I reached the bottom of the stairs and turned to the right into the living room, I really freaked out. There was again NO ONE else there, but there were several huge logs in the fireplace BLAZING away. I have no idea how this occurred, as again there was no firewood around anywhere, only the small log that I had burned earlier…and again, no one was around. I stayed up all night and waited until the sun came up and someone came home before going back to bed to get some sleep."

Jehan Paul was climbing the stairs in the mansion one night and "the closer I got to the top the more the hair on the back of my neck went up and the colder it got. It was not evil. It was just what you would expect from something other-worldly. I didn’t see anything but it was strong to the point of being certainly tangible. I sort of loitered and dithered for a minute and then I went into my room."

Buffalo Larkin heard the following story from both Don Brown and Bob Thomas: "Bob said he was in the mansion and decided to have a nice bath. He knew everyone had left and that no one was coming back until the next day. There was something going on that everybody else had gone to.

"So he was in the bathtub upstairs and he heard the front door open and close. So he’s a little bewildered and thinks that maybe a stranger had come in. So he wraps up in a towel and, dripping wet, runs out into the hallway. There’s the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs and coming down the hall toward him but nobody was there. He felt an ‘icy chill’ as they continued on to the room that the footsteps always seemed to go to. Everybody tells the same story: the front door would open and close, the footsteps would go up the stairs and go to this room.

"Don said that he was in a similar situation. He was in bed in the room that the footsteps always seem to come to. Everybody else was gone and weren’t due back. He was lying in the dark. When the footsteps got to the door and it seemed like the handle was turning he yelled, ‘No!’ and there was dead silence. And he finally got up the nerve to get up, go over to the door and turn the light on. And there was nobody there and no sound of anybody sneaking away or anything like that. On that old wooden floor nobody could have crept out without a creak or two.

"On another occasion–years later–I was in the mansion. Catana was giving one of her belly dance classes. Bob Thomas had a studio upstairs. I heard the door open and close and footsteps and I figured that Bob was going upstairs to his studio. Catana, however, was much more familiar with the place and after a while she thought she’s go up and see if Bob was up there. There was no sign of Bob anywhere. And there’s no other way out of the upstairs unless, with lots of noise, you climbed out onto the roof or something.

"Sean Folsom’s son was very sick one night and was in the room that the footsteps always went to. He had a dream of a Victorian woman coming in and laying her hand on his forehead. And when he woke up he was completely well. Later, they were getting out pictures of the old days and Madam Preston’s picture was there and the boy said, ‘That’s the woman from my dream.’ He had never seen her before."

According to Buffalo, on stormy nights, at the bend in the driveway, more than one person had seen a woman in Victorian dress with a lantern.

She continues: "The other ghost was in the lake house. On windy nights you could hear footsteps coming up the first flight of stairs to the landing and then they’d stop. And then they’d start again at the bottom. And you could hear these footsteps all night long.

"While Don and I were visiting Edwin [at the lake house], George Dawson and Susie Marceau were also visiting from their small Airstream trailer which they had pulled over to the other side of the lake. When the weather was bad Susie would come over and do leather work on the kitchen table. She swears that there was a poltergeist in that house. She said whenever the phone rang you could never find a pen. And one day she was in the kitchen and she had a pen that she was using to draw her patterns. And the minute Edwin put down the phone to find a pen she swore that she saw the pen move underneath her paper so it couldn’t be seen."

Madeleine Faught wrote about this episode: "When Tom and I were living at the lake house we had very little money. We would use our wiles to wheel and deal with people, bartering our skills and goods for their goods (a common practice amongst everyone at that time). This arrangement worked well for us at the local Cloverdale hardware store which was run by the Schieeny family (not sure about this spelling at all). Mr. And Mrs. S. were fascinated by our life style and how we made do on so little. They were lovely people; warm and genuine, and quickly became good friends.

"After hearing all of our tales about surviving on catfish and watercress, not to mention our wonderful water system, they were keen to see our place so we invited them to come for dinner one fine night. It was a beautiful, still night. Not a breath of wind.

"They arrived just at dark and were enchanted by the place. As we had no electricity, the main room of the lake house that we lived, ate, and slept in was bathed in the soft glow emanating from our seven old glass kerosene lamps that ‘lived’ on the mantelpiece (the fireplace itself was not functional, but we did have our 50 gallon drum situated on the large brick hearth so that its flue went up the existing chimney). Over the mantelpiece hung an absolutely huge ‘work in progress’ painting of Tom’s…a colorful journey through his mind that measured about 6 x 8 feet in size…the painting, not his mind…(although sometimes I did wonder). Anyway, the whole scene created a charming tableau really, with all of that redwood (the floors, walls, ceilings) reflecting the gold from the lamps, and the painting, and our homemade-homespun style of living.

"We popped the cork on their bottle of red (local Hopland brew, I believe) and gathered around our sole table to chat while the catfish slowly simmered on the camp stove. Mr. And Mrs. S. started asking questions about Madame Preston and the history of the property and we started relating all that we knew. We told them about her reputation as a ‘matriarch’ who named all the local babies, arranged all the local marriages, and led all the church services. We went on and on about her dominating powers and spiritual healing connections. The stories held all of us enraptured until suddenly we heard a slight noise from the direction of the fireplace (we had no fire that night…it was springtime). We all turned just in time to see Tom’s huge painting slide straight down the wall and fall forward, taking all seven of the lit kerosene lamps with it.

"There was a moment of seemingly ‘slow motion’ when none of us knew whether to jump forward and try to save the painting or the lamps, or to jump back as we knew that once those lamps hit the bricks and then the wooden floor we’d be engulfed in a fire ball.

"The painting fell. The lamps fell. The crash echoed through the night. And then, darkness. Total darkness. No fire. Not even a spark. Each and every lamp extinguished itself upon hitting the floor.

"We were all frozen in place. For what seemed like an eternity, no one spoke. I think everyone was aware of the ‘other presence’ in the room. It was a palpable presence.

"When we finally regained our composure and found some matches, we discovered that none of the lamps were broken…well, one lamp had a crack in its glass chimney, but other than that, they were all intact, lying sprawled in spreading pools of kerosene. Amazing, really. And the painting was fine. No rips or bruises. More amazing. We giggled nervously and asked one another if Madame Preston had been angry with us for talking about her, or had she been pleased and just wanted to make her presence known. We laughed at ourselves for being so ridiculous. Ghosts weren’t real. Obviously the nails that held the painting had come loose, or the wind had blown the painting…but there wasn’t any wind.

"We then got our flashlight; quickly. We shone it up on the wall where the painting had been hanging. The three large nails (with substantial heads on them) that had been hammered in at severe angles to ensure that the painting was safe were all still there…not one of them was bent or even loose. And the cord attached to the painting was fine, too…

"The remainder of the night was spent quietly pondering over what had happened. We licked the meat off those catfish bones in silence, each of us lost in the power of that unexplained moment.

"The next day we did laugh about the incident as we related it to the mansion dwellers and Wendy, but the laughter was not so much from disbelief as it was from awe. We absolutely knew that Madame Preston had visited us and left her calling card…we wondered where she would appear next."

Ghosts were also associated with the church. According to Cait Reed, "There was always a presence in the church. I think everybody agreed on that. You definitely got the feeling that her intentions were around."

The Madam’s presence was even felt off the ranch. Lisa Ellis tells the story of a visit to Sharon Devlin’s home when Sharon lived on the Mendocino coast. "Sharon pulled out her harp and started playing. I was just sitting there on the couch with my eyes closed. I had the sensation that Madam Preston was sitting next to me. It was the damndest thing–because we weren’t even on the ranch. The music was heavenly. Sharon finished playing and I was just sitting there in tears because it was so beautiful. And Sharon said, ‘What do you think of that?’ and I said, ‘Sharon, it was beautiful.’ And she said, ‘I wrote it for Madam Preston. Do you think she would like it?’ And all I could say was, ‘Yes, she does.’"


The Death of Emily Preston

The artists’ perceptions of Emily Preston’s ghostly presence on Oak Mountain and elsewhere turns one’s attention to the most mournful day in the history of her colony, described here by Mary Mowbray: "I’ll never forget that 22nd day of January, 1909, when word went around that Madam Preston dropped dead in her kitchen while washing dishes. All the people were shocked. Her followers just couldn’t believe it. No, that couldn’t happen to their great leader. They couldn’t understand why that had to happen to the great Madam. Of course, her followers had such faith in her that nothing could happen to her. I really believe that all those people thought she was immortal. And her passing was a great shock to them."

On January 23rd The Cloverdale Reveille reported Emily’s passing:


Expires at 8:15 O’clock Friday Morning.

Death of Aged Lady Regretted by Many Friends

Mrs. Emily Preston, the aged head of the Church of the Covenant at Preston, is dead. Mrs. Preston expired suddenly at 8:15 o’clock Friday morning while engaged in wiping dishes at her home, falling over without warning, presumably from heart disease. Dr. C.F. Grant was summoned from Cloverdale, but as he had not been attending Mrs. Preston recently he could not sign a death certificate. Coroner Blackburn was notified and will come on the evening train and hold an inquest. The news of Mrs. Preston’s death was heard with profound regret in Cloverdale. She was highly esteemed and for many years had been a resident of the community that bears her name. As the Reveille went to press on Friday afternoon no arrangements had been made for the funeral.

By the time of her death Emily had won over most of her critics and was respected and honored in Sonoma County society. The funeral was simple but impressive, with an enormous crowd in attendance. Describing the service, The Healdsburg Tribune paid editorial tribute to "Emily, Founder of the town of Preston and of the Preston Sanitarium." The newspaper offered high praise: "Mrs. Preston has made the world happier and better for having lived in it. She rests from her labors and her good works do follow her."

On January 30th The Cloverdale Reveille ran this story:


Madam Preston Was A Much Beloved Woman

At 12 o’clock last Tuesday, at the Church of the Covenant at Preston, the funeral services of the late Mrs. Emily Preston were held. Besides practically the entire Preston community, there were many other friends present to pay the last tribute to the memory of this highly respected woman. The church founded by Mrs. Preston was beautifully decorated with the choicest flowers obtainable, many of which had been sent by friends from a distance upon learning of the death of their leader. Members of the Cloverdale Congregational Church assisted the congregation in the singing and V. Giorno gave a vocal solo, "When I Shall See Him Face to Face." Rev. Reuben H. Sink, pastor of the Congregational Church at Stockton, for many years a friend of Mrs. Preston, preached the funeral sermon…The remains were deposited in the large family vault at the Preston cemetery.

"When they brought her body in to her church," wrote Mary Mowbray, "everybody was crying. She looked so natural and peaceful in her lavender casket that is was hard to believe that she was dead. People came from far and wide to pay their last respects to that grand old woman."

Emily left as a "will" an undated, unsigned, and unwitnessed testamentary document which bequeathed her entire estate to her church. The Cloverdale Reveille, on February 6, gave it this coverage:


Decrees That Relatives Get $1 Each If They Present Claims

A "testamentary paper" found in the deck of the late Madam Preston, head of the Free Pilgrims’ Covenant Church and founder of the Preston colony, was filed for probate in the superior court today. It decrees that her $125,000 estate at Preston shall go to the church. She names Mr. And Mrs. Parley Green and Mrs. F. Rindge as trustees. She decrees that if any of the numerous heirs of her family, the Lathraps, or her dead husband’s family, claim anything from her property they shall get a dollar each. She prescribes the form of worship she wished followed in the church at Preston and urges that only devout members of the church be permitted to speak at the services. She advises against "hiring preachers, as that is a bad thing."

But the testamentary paper had no date and was not witnessed. It was contested by her relatives and subsequently dismissed in court as improper. The judge appointed Emily’s nieces, Augusta Knight Green and May Knight Rindge, as administrators of the estate. In October, 1911, they placed it up for sale to the highest bidder, including all personal property–described as "wearing apparel, personal ornaments and jewelry, a miscellaneous lot of household and kitchen furniture, besides other and different property."

Bidding was lively at the estate sale. From an opening offer of $11,500 the price of the 1,430-acre property quickly rose to $19,000. It was purchased by Frederick and May Rindge’s 16-year-old daughter, Rhoda Agatha Rindge of Santa Monica, a grand-niece of Emily and already a mature and wealthy businesswoman. (Rindge never lived at Preston and never profited from the purchase of the estate. Presiding over the ranch as an absentee landlord, she paid Joseph Zahner to continue to maintain the property as ranch foreman and caretaker for the next 20 years. Eventually overcome by financial troubles, she sold some of the easternmost property to Moulton Hill Ridge Winery and gradually deeded the commercial holdings near the railroad. Eventually the bankruptcy of her family’s Marblehead Land Company forced her to sell the remainder of the ranch, including the church and mansion.)

The Demise of Preston as a Colony

From Emily’s death and through the 1930s the community gradually diminished. Most writers have concluded that the community lacked commitment or cohesiveness without the Madam as the pivotal figure. But other, more mundane factors contributed to the decline. Emily had been the major employer of the rural village, and without her industries the local economy would suffer a huge blow. Thus some of the colonists–not all of whom were independently wealthy or retired–were forced to live elsewhere to find work. Cloverdale, two miles away, had few employment opportunities to offer.

Preston also lost members through attrition. Many colonists were older adults with preexisting health problems when they moved to Oak Mountain in the 1880s and 1890s. As these members aged and died in the first decades of the 20th century they were not replaced with new members.

Another major loss were the children who attended the school in the 1880s and 1890s but chose not to remain. They came of age, went to college and/or married and moved away, raising their children under a less restrictive lifestyle than what had been offered at Preston.

The colonists who did remain at Oak Mountain did not break faith with the Covenant. Alice Elmers Theuer attended services at the church from 1919 to 1935 during visits to her Aunt Nettie and Uncle Fred Elmers on the mountain during the summer. She reported that the regular congregation "was made up of the folks who had stayed on the estate as had Uncle Fred." There was no minister. One woman played the organ for the singing of several hymns. Mrs. Theuer described the church service as "a gathering of the folks who, each in his own way, stood and offered a few words of prayer. They were all very sincere and enjoyed their weekly meetings."

In "The Colorful History of Preston" (June 7, 1988), Rosemond Hale summarizes the demise of the Emily Preston era:

Against sound advice, she had drawn up her own will without consulting an attorney, in which she stated that she wished to bequeath her money to charity and her land to the community. The will was contested by two nieces, thrown out of court and the estate of Emily Preston was in 1912 sold in probate for the sum of $19,000. The life tenancies granted by Madam Preston during her lifetime were honored, with the stipulation that the grantees and their descendants would live on the land and continue to hold meetings in the church, which they did until the early 1940’s. One by one the people died or drifted away. They had no claim to the land and without the wages from the orchards, vineyards and the manufacture of the Madam’s wine bitters, liniment, lotions and other medicines and remedies, the community’s economy collapsed.

After Emily’s death the mansion and the surrounding buildings were locked up, remaining vacant and deteriorating for 34 years. She had left 85 cartons of supplicating letters–each one, presumably, answered with her aid.

In 1938 reporter Veronica Ives described the mansion in an article for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat:

We pushed open the gate and walked through the ruined garden. The house is white and colonial-looking, with a porch clear around it, and dark green trimmings. It looks as if it died long ago everywhere leaves and debris and loneliness. Beyond it tumble-down outbuildings that must have been servants’ quarters. Not a soul, not a sound. We were startled to find three bright silk cushions piled on the step, as if just set there–we went closer and saw they were oriental pottery work. We walked up to the front door and knocked. No answer. We peered through a hole in the shutter and saw a stuffy Victorian parlor, completely furnished, with a paisley shawl on the table and an old-fashioned phonograph with a brass loudspeaker. We knocked and called, but still no answer. We knew someone must live there because there was a pile of fresh-cut manzanita wood in the yard, and we hoped the someone wasn’t watching us from inside the locked house.

…And now, all quiet, all fallen away. Nothing left but the ghostly, shuttered house, the century plants, the wind in the eucalyptus.


The End of Colony Life at Preston Ranch

Just as the Emily Preston era went into decline and eventually became a chapter of Sonoma County history, so did the era of the Bohemian artists. But in the case of the Preston musicians, dancers and craftspersons, the cause of the decline was not the death of a respected and cherished leader. Preston musician Jeremy Kammerer believes the latter demise began when Bob Thomas ran afoul of the law and went to jail. "Bob was the starter of it. Preston was formed around him. He was the man. When he went to prison the band was gone and the gigs were gone."

But Ernie Fischbach and other artists believe the decline of their tenure began when some of the dancers brought in their boyfriends. "The boyfriends weren’t musicians," Ernie noted. "They were low-life guys. They had no talents. Ed Lynch was one of the boyfriends. He was just hideous–just horrible to deal with. He liked the music but didn’t have much respect for the musicians. Finally Chris and I told him we couldn’t take it. We told him we would teach him how to play music. So we gave him some lessons on the Turkish saz and he realized how difficult it was and he became a really nice guy.

"John Wozniak came with Carla, a flamenco dancer. John was hiding out because he was a military runaway. Carla was very young. She eventually threw him out and brought in these greasy Chicanos. One of them was very dangerous. He’d been in the Viet Nam was and was not stable. The other was just a sleazeball. He was her boyfriend. Things began to get weird. Pretty soon the musicians began to start sliding away."

Buffalo Larkin also remembers these friends of Carla’s. "One of the boyfriends was so crazy that the dancer moved out and left the boyfriend there. He was doing things like chopping wood on the second story landing in the mansion and destroying the old wood floor. And he’d shoot pigs from his front porch. He had moved into the mansion and had a weasely sidekick. The two of them were very dangerous. He was a Viet Nam vet and crazy and violent."

So in 1974 Ernie and Deborah Fischbach packed up and left Preston ranch. By then the campground church, school, boat house and cottages at Preston Lake had burned down in several separate fires. But the worst was yet to come.

The Fire of 1988

A final devastating blow to communal life at Preston ranch occurred in June, 1988, when a fire caused by a downed power line burned 100 acres of Oak Mountain. Destroyed were the mansion, the school house, the medicine house, the Plantation, and several other buildings. Fortunately, the seven residents on the property at the time escaped injury.

Valuable private belongs were lost. Bob Thomas, for example, lost his landscape paintings of the ranch and his 30-year collection of antique and unusual folk instruments.

Here’s how The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported the fire:

End of a Classic Mansion

Cloverdale–As flames devoured the white Italianate mansion with the green trim Tuesday morning, Edwin and Lisa Ellis could only watch from highway 101 as the classic house was reduced ashes.

"We were hoping to get it all preserved. It is an incalculable loss," said a visibly downcast Lisa Ellis.

The Ellises were caretakers of the mansion.

The mansion was completed in 1873 and was home to Madam Preston and her husband Hartwell Preston.

The structure was the focal point of Preston ranch, a self-contained religious community led by the remarkable Madam Emily Preston for years until her death in 1909.

Madam Preston served as a sort of mayor, spiritual guide, and healer to up to 200 people in a thriving utopian community 100 years ago. There was a post office, general store, and train station nearby, and the community even had a women’s orchestra.

"She was on of the most remarkable women that ever lived, period," said Lisa Ellis, who has intensively studied the history of the Preston ranch the past two years.

The home was undergoing rehabilitation before fire destroyed it. The roof and ginger bread had been restored, and new wiring had been installed.

Repairs were being done to the side of the house, and the Ellises were hoping some foundation work would be next on the long restoration list.

Edwin Ellis said the mansion was built in stages prior to the early 1870s, starting with a cottage in the middle of the structure. The center of the structure, where Madam Preston made medicines to treat her patients, was taken out in the 1940s, leaving two buildings.

The two-story mansion had 17 rooms.

The structure sat vacant for 34 years following Madam Preston’s death. The last time someone lived in it was a year ago.

When Fred Oster purchased it for a boys’ camp in 1943, the Madam’s clothes were still in the closet, her books on the shelf, her pill roller and medicine equipment on the work bench.

Although several of the Preston properties are now only charcoal remnants, Lisa and Edwin Ellis hope to microfilm 80 boxes of documents on the Preston community, including 10,000 letters.

"We want to know all there is to know because it’s so fascinating," said Lisa Ellis, who has amassed a stack 18 inches high of historical documents on the Preston era.

"It was a cultural center and probably ahead of it’s time. She was boss but everybody respected her because of her good judgment," said Edwin Ellis.

Buffalo Larkin remembers Lynn Gilman calling at 4:30 in the morning and telling her to get dressed and get out. "The phone rang 15 times before Don and I got out of bed. I used to leave my Chile pepper lights on as our night light. I didn’t know the power had been cut because the whole room was still glowing red. And also the fact that the phone rings at four in the morning isn’t necessarily an alarm because our friends in Australia used to call us collect at four in the morning because that’s when the pubs closed in Australia.

"We were living in the Plantation at the time. Don tried to call Ed [Lynch] and Catana but he was so flustered he was actually calling the lake house. And they can’t hear their phone at night. I managed, in the dark, to grab my money and three books. Don went back in the house to get something. I had grabbed our cat. Don was taking a bit of time and I thought, ‘He’s gone in there to get shoes on. He decided he wasn’t fleeing for his life barefoot.’ So I leaned on the horn and started honking and that’s what woke up Ed and Catana. Don thought he had called them and that they had already gotten out.

"The cats all ran into the house when Ed and Catana came out. Only one of them survived. It had curled up on the block of one of the dead cars.

"We couldn’t get out the gate because it was locked. I had to drive at high speed up the winding dirt road to the lake house. They had locked the gate that was a quarter of a mile from that house. I had to climb over the gate, run up the road, scream at them to come down and unlock the gates.

"The next day there was nothing but a smoking pit where I had lived. All of us lost everything we owned except what we were wearing."

Jeremy Kammerer remembers Lance Sterling "knocking on my door at four in the morning and saying, ‘The place is on fire. Get up and save yourselves.’ I looked out across the creek bed just ten feet from the bedroom window and there was the fire. I got all flustered and it took me about two minutes to figure out what pair of pants to wear.

"I had been very careful to do fire prevention work every year. When the fire came, even though it was burning just ten feet from my house, I had cleared those ten feet. So the whole yard was cleared. It was easy. Everything was burning all around but around my house it was just short grass. I was there with the hose."


Jason Adajian remembers being at the ranch right after the fire. "Bob was having his 50th birthday party. They had it up at the lake house, at Lisa and Edwin’s. People camped out because there was nothing left. But a few of us went on the road from the lake house to the mansion. It was like a trip to the moon. At Bob and Mary’s house there were gray, ash-colored books laying on the ground. And if you looked at the side where the pages come together you could see the lines that you see when you look at any book edge on. But it you touched it crumbled completely away. There were bits of flutes and Irish bagpipes and all kinds of things. The weirdest thing was the mansion itself. There was a hole in the ground where the basement was and two tall chimneys. They were leaning a little crazily. That was it. You couldn’t even see any burned beams or anything down in the basement. There were just mounds of ash. There were five or six of us and I don’t think we said more than two words during the hour we were walking around the place."

"After the fire," Buffalo adds, "in the paper it said ‘well-known artists’–and named us all by name–‘had lost everything.’ And Lance Sterling turned to me and said, ‘Well, all it took was a little fire to make us all famous artists.’"

Preston After 1988

Having survived the fire, the Preston church was eventually designated a Sonoma County Landmark. A Preston Historical Research and Restoration Fund was subsequently created to preserve the memory of the town of Preston (1875-1941) and its people, to restore photographs, and to protect and microfilm documents.

In 1989 the Stagecoach Development Company, a corporate land development firm, bought the Oak Mountain property. The absence of full-time caretakers resulted in major problems with trespassing, poaching, marijuana growing, violence, and vandalism to the remaining historic structures–particularly the monuments and vaults at the remote cemetery. The neglected buildings fell further into deterioration. Ultimately the property reverted to the Bank of San Francisco in foreclosure.

In 1994 the property was subdivided into seven parcels and offered for sale by T.J. Nelson and Associates of Santa Rosa. Richard Winterhalder bought Lot 2, and still owns the 120-acre Preston Lake property containing the lake house and carriage house. Dominico DiDonato, of DiDonato International, bought Lots 3,4,5, which included the cemetery. Michael Kiser bought the lower ranch lots which included the church and the caretaker’s house (and formerly included the mansion, school, teacher’s house, medicine house, Plantation, horse barn, cattle barn, garden house and the homes of at least four Preston residents). In 1997 Kiser entered into a 10-year contract with the county to render the open land an "Agricultural Preserve."

In 1998 the DiDonato property was sold to Codorniu Napa Incorporated–a winery.

The Institute for Traditional Studies, a non-profit educational corporation, is leading an attempt to designate the church and surrounding community buildings–including the cemetery–an Historical District.

Today the homes of Wellington and Jessie Appleton, the Stella (Mrs. Warren) Green family, and William and Isabel ("Belle") Howard remain largely intact on adjacent parcels on Geysers Road, downhill to the southwest of the church. These buildings, in addition to the church caretaker’s house, the lake house and the cemetery, are the only surviving historic buildings and sites which remain to commemorate the significance of the Preston colony. Lisa and Edwin Ellis, the current caretakers, are safeguarding the surviving buildings by maintaining firebreaks, keeping trees trimmed back, and keeping the Seth-Thomas 8-day wind-up clock wound.

Otherwise, on the sunny slopes of Oak Mountain, all is quiet.





Appendix A

Descriptions of Some Preston Buildings

The Church

The most prominent surviving symbol of the Madam Emily era is the Preston church. The gabled wood frame structure was built in the unadorned style of a New England meeting house. The building’s channel rustic siding has always been painted white. The exterior is weathered, but the redwood interior is in excellent condition.

Three one-over-one double-hung sash windows pierce the building’s east and west elevations. The windows were originally ornamented with shelf decoration on top and shutters; some of these are missing or damaged. Two small, fixed rectangular windows flank the chimney on the north elevation. Directly opposite these windows are two fixed triangular windows which flank the square steeple, accentuating the intersection of the steeple with the building’s gable roof. The roof is covered with composition shingles.

The two-story square bell tower faces south, and is centered in the front façade of the building. A pair of double-paneled wood doors is centered in the front of the bell tower. The tower is flanked on two sides by a single one-over-one double-hung sash window at the first and second floor. The tower is topped by a square, louvered cupola from which the bell tolls on the hour. Engraved on the bell are the words, "Let this ring out God’s glory, not ours," and "Troy, New York, 1886." The Roman numeral clock still operated today, its mechanisms located inside the second story of the tower. The face of the clock is worn and missing some numerals. Added sometime later was a simple shed-roofed wooden porch with two sets of stairs shelters the entrance through the front doors.

The placement of doors and windows in the interior of the church is symmetrical. An anteroom, which likely served as a cloakroom, precedes the entrance. A ladder leads to an attic where the clock mechanism is housed. Two doors lead from the anteroom into the main room, flanking a raised platform and altar. The floors, walls and ceilings are made of bleached redwood, giving the room a warm glow. The interior paneling consists of long, narrow, bleached redwood boards applied horizontally to the upper 2/3 of the wall. The walls are divided in two sections by a wainscoting of short, vertically-applied bleached redwood boards that sheath the lower third of the wall. At the four corners of the room the horizontal boards meet the ceiling in the form of a curve (rather than joining it at right angles). The doorways, the top of the walls and the top of the wainscoting are trimmed with horizontal redwood boards which are darker and wider than the main bleached wood paneling. The redwood sash windows match this dark trim.

The building was originally lit by kerosene lanterns, and had decorative sconces on the east and west sides of the room. (All but one of these light fixtures have now disappeared.) At the rear of the room is a brick fireplace, unusual in a California church, but typical in New England architecture.

The Mansion

The other prominent symbol of the era was Emily’s home–the mansion. The front façade of the building was symmetrical, with one-over-one double-hung wood sash windows and tall, narrow shutters. The house was clad with channel rustic siding which extends to the cornice, a two-board horizontal frieze with interspersed decorative brackets. The all-white building was later trimmed with color; the shutters were painted dark green, matching the church and schoolhouse. The windows and doors were decorated with triangular pediments with dentils and brackets; the windows on each floor were in symmetrical alignment. The verticality of the building was emphasized by tall, thin vertical corner boards from the first floor to the cornice. A two-story veranda encircled the building’s front façade and eastern elevation. The veranda was supported by nine slim columns that connected a first and second story porch. To the front and side of the mansion was a small green lawn surrounded by a low cement wall, and steps that led down to the driveway and barnyard. The top of the wall, level with the lawn, was topped with ornamental wrought iron fencing.

Other Buildings

The two-story horse barn was sturdily constructed using mortise and tenon joinery and had a shingled gable roof and shiplap siding. On the first floor of the east end of the building, two double-hung sash windows provided light. On the second floor two small square windows flanked a double-door hay mow. The building also had a double-wide sliding door on the south and featured hand-forged hinges and five hay chutes. This was musician Jeremy Kammerer’s favorite place on the ranch–"a beautiful old barn with a hayloft. A really nice building."

The caretaker’s house, facing west-northwest on the east side of the road, was a simple one-and-a-half story wood frame building painted red and with a medium-pitched gable roof covered with composition shingles. It was clad with channel rustic siding and had double-hung wood sash windows throughout.

The two-level hospital/bunkhouse–which came to be called the Plantation by the artists–was a rectangular building with a gable roof. The main level was clad with channel rustic siding and had an attached three-sided, hip-roofed screened porch. The north side of the porch was supported by vertical 2’ x 4’ boards resembling stilts. On the ground level was a stone basement used as a wine cellar. In Emily’s time the building housed male workers.

The garden house was a simple one-room wood frame building clad with channel rustic siding. Like the hospital building, it had a shed-roofed screened porch encircling the building on three sides.

The carriage barn was a single-story structure with channel rustic siding and a medium-pitched, shingled gable roof. Two double-hung sash windows on the north and south walls were built so that the entire window could be pulled up inside the wall to freely admit air within the building. The barn was later converted for use as a garage, and a gravity flow gasoline pump was installed next to the building.

The schoolhouse was a 16-foot-tall one-story wood frame building with a gable roof and channel rustic siding of rough boards. The building had six 15’ x 36’ double-hung sash windows. In 1898 it was described by a San Francisco reporter as "one of the prettiest little country school houses, shining white, like [Emily’s] own home, and bordered in green foliage with green blinds to shut out the sunshine when it grows too strong." Musician Mickie Zekley remembers it as "a little old white country school house. It had a little dirt circular driveway with oak trees in the front yard. You went in through an entry way that had a screen door and a regular door and it had a boot room where you would put your coat and your boots. Then you came into a central room and there was a wood stove in there and there was a little kitchen around to the side. There was a little alcove there that probably would have been the teacher’s office. In the back was a little add-on where the kids must have done their crafts. And there was a little bathroom tacked on to it. It was a beautiful idyllic little building. It made a wonderful place to live."

The teacher’s house, built a few years later, was similar in size and construction to the school. Also painted white, it was clad with channel rustic siding and had a gable roof. Three double-hung wood sash windows pierced the northern and southern elevations.




Appendix B

Names of Covenanteers Buried in the Preston Cemetery

Records of the names of those buried were secured by Edith P. Merritt and Edith W. Merritt on August 8, 1950:

Jessie L. Hubbard Appleton

Wellington Preston Appleton

Edgar B. Clark

Eliza Clark

Fred Clark

Thomas Cottle

Albert Davidson

Warren Green

William Maitland Howard

Adaline Hubbard

Henry Hubbard

J.B. Hyatt

Margaret J.B. Hyatt

Stella Morrison

Emily Preston

Hartwell L. Preston

Capt. Thomas Stinson

Herbert Wilhelm

Joseph Zahner

The dates of death range from 1890 to 1919 with two exceptions: Stella Morrison died in 1939 at the age of 80; Joseph Zahner died in 1944 at the age of 81.

Appendix C

Some Profiles from the Artist Era

Many of the musicians and artists who lived at Preston went on to become well-known career figures in the world of art, music and dance. The community was, in the words of dancer Sharlyn Sawyer, an "arts incubator. The rest of the alumni and I often say that we owe a huge part of our success as artists to those early years at Preston and the collaborative support of that community at that time."

The following are brief profiles of some of these artists.

Chris Carnes

Chris, a student and teacher of Andalusian Gypsy flamenco guitar, specialized in the accompaniment of singers and dancers. He was well known throughout the Bay Area and around the world as one of the foremost American guitarists of the pueblo style of Gypsy flamenco. In the 1950s he was a familiar figure in flamenco circles in Los Angeles. After traveling to Mexico City in 1960 he met legendary Gypsy flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya. His first job was playing for a flamenco ballet company featuring some of the Amaya family members.

Subsequently Chris traveled to Spain to search out true Gypsy flamenco. He met the renowned master teacher Diego Del Gastor in the small pueblo of Moron De La Frontera. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Chris was absorbed into Diego’s Bohemian flamenco lifestyle and honed his skills with artists such as Joselero, La Fernanda, and Anzonini.

Chris also studied the Lebrija style of Gypsy guitar under Pedro Pena. He was further influenced by his artist friends Pedro Bacan and Miguel Funi of Lebrija. He performed in many weddings, fiestas and fairs in Lebrija, Moron, and around the "flamenco triangle" in Andalucia, Spain. In Sevilla he played with artists such as Tia Juana La Pipa, La Chicharona de Jerez, Antonio Mairena, Miguel Funi, El Chocolate, El Farruco, El Terremoto, Carmen Montoya, and many more.

In 1989 Chris hosted The Gypsy Flamenco Hour on public radio station KZYX in Mendocino County, California, a program nominated for the National Public Radio Golden Reel Award. In 1990 the Spanish government officially invited him to play in the Bienal of Sevilla. He also played on a 90-minute documentary for French national radio.

Chris died on Tuesday July 25, 2000. He is survived by his daughter, Carmen, of Fairfax, California.

Sharon Devlin

Sharon, an American of Irish descent, is a mother, a weaver, an Irish civil rights activist, a nurse and a player on the Irish harp. When she became interested in her Irish roots, she took up weaving and harp-playing.

Sharon was the founder of the Irish traditional music group, Sheila na Gig. She researched and made the costumes for the group in addition to playing harp, drum and singing. They performed at the Renaissance Faire from 1976 into the 1980s.

An announcement for a St. Patrick’s Party stated:

From 4:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. the piper Sean Folsom and his wife Sharon Devlin will entertain the audience. Sharon will have you captivated with her lovely singing and enchanting harp music. This will be an afternoon of entertainment you won’t want to miss with these two gifted performers.

Patty Farber

Patty led a troupe called the Baba Ganoush at the Renaissance Faire. The troupe did belly dance and Turkish folkdance for the first half of a show then finished with Macedonian folk dancing. The group’s costuming, folksy, colorful and bright, came from Margalee Vescarch from the UCLA ethnomusicology department.

Baba Ganoush came to an end when Patty dropped her dancing and focused on a clothing business.

Solomon Feldthouse

Solomon is a jeweler, metalsmith and multi-instrumental musician. Born in the U.S., he moved to Turkey with his family when he was ten years old there he began to play the Turkish saz, oud, and flamenco guitar. He traveled to Spain as a teenager where he studied flamenco guitar and was introduced to the flamenco way of life. He spent the early 1960s singing and playing in folk clubs throughout Europe. When he returned to the U.S. he co-founded with David Lindley a rock-fusion group called The Kaleidoscope. The group recorded five albums and a soundtrack for Walt Disney studios.

In the early 1970’s Solomon began hand crafting jewelry and metal smithing at the Renaissance Faires. During this time he also performed at the Faires with Jamila Salimpour’s belly dance troupe and Los Flamencos. In 1972 he and Armando Mafufo co-founded Sirocco, a middle eastern group dedicated to playing live music for dancers. They have performed throughout North America for the past 27 years and recorded four tapes and CDs.

Solomon continues to hand-craft zills, design jewelry and perform and record with Sirocco and as a flamenco artist. In addition, he works as a session musician and is a member of the Lian Ensemble, performers of original Persian and flamenco music.

Ernest Fischbach

Ernie–singer, voice-over actor and "eclectic musician with a flair"–includes in his musical education the Ali Akbar College of Music (North Indian classical music), apprenticeship with folklorist/musician Bob Thomas, and The San Francisco Voice Factory. He has studied and composed music from many cultures including: Gypsy flamenco, Moroccan, many forms of belly dance music from various Middle Eastern cultures as well as French, Portuguese, English, Italian, Greek, American blues, rock and more. His main instruments are; sarod, mandolin, Middle Eastern oud, violin and zurna (oboe), English pipe and tabor (one-hand flute and drum) and bagpipes from northern Spain. In 1966 he recorded an album with fellow student Charles Ewing who had studied flamenco and classical guitar in Spain. The album and the band were called A Cid Symphony. After meeting Bob Thomas at the Renaissance Faire he joined Bob’s Golden Toad minstrels. From 1969 to 1973 he led the band and composed for Jamila Salimpour’s belly dance troupe, Bal~Anat. In 1996 he joined family and friends to record a CD of early California dance music.

Sean Folsom

Sean was born in Berkeley, California in 1949 and grew up in the Monterey Bay area where he studied music with Francesco Lucido at the Academy of Music. At the age of 18 he began his career as a professional musician and has since become a music historian, a restorer of ancient instruments, a reed-maker and music educator.

While honing his early skills on modern instruments Sean became fascinated with traditional ethnic music and its associated instruments and became a pioneer in the revival of ethnic music and its instruments. His research carried him to the British Isles and Europe, where he has since returned a number of times both to study and to perform. When he became captivated by the bagpipe he began his career as a piper.

Over the years Sean has acquired a large array of wind, string and percussion instruments and has assembled a large collection of matching costumes that he integrates into his appearances.

Jeremy Kammerer

Jeremy discovered and fell in love with traditional folk music during his college years. In London in 1970 he found Irish expatriates playing Irish dance music in the pub scene and began to learn their music. Returning to San Francisco he met master button accordion players Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan and began playing with them and other Irish and American musicians. After Joe’s and Kevin’s passing he took up the button accordion.

Freddie Mejia

"Freddie" (Federico) has played flamenco guitar since he was nine years old. He has performed extensively, including many years at the famous Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco and at the Renaissance Faires in California. In New York he played flamenco guitar in Man of La Mancha on Broadway. He has performed regularly at the Hyatt in Hawaii, El Meson in San Francisco and many other venues throughout California, Hawaii and New York. He plays harp on the Luis Agujeta CD Entre Tu Tierra y La Mia.

Jehan Paul

Jehan, well-known west coast performer of song and the button accordion, has been making music since 1962. Fellow musician Alan Keith points out that Jehan has been a prominent figure in the traditional and folk music scene in the Western U.S. for many years. "A truly inspirational source of tunes and technique."

Cait Reed

Cait has been interested in traditional Irish music since 1970 when she learned from the late Joe Cooley (who was living and playing in San Francisco at the time). She has since performed in many bands, on numerous albums, and has opened for Van Morrison, The Grateful Dead and The Violent Femmes. Her music and screen credits include Patriot Games, Murder She Wrote and Shaughnessy. She was Madeleine Stowe’s fiddle teacher and coach in the movie Blink.

Cait plays and teaches Irish and Scottish fiddle, viola, mandolin, mandola, tenor banjo, flute, tin whistle, bodhran, and back-up guitar. She is the founding chair for the non-profit Celtic Regional Arts Institute of California and is co-founder (with Mickie Zekley) of Lark in the Morning instrument retailers. Her band The Gold Ring performs Irish and Celtic dance music and song at festivals and performance halls as well as weddings, dances, wakes and parties.

Suzy Rothfield

Suzy studied classical violin as a child. At age 18 she became interested in traditional American fiddle music and began specializing in older blues- and ragtime-influenced styles. In 1973 she became active in the Berkeley, California, folk music scene. In 1976 she helped form the Any Old Time String Band. During that same year she became interested in Cajun music. Several visits to Southwest Louisiana culminated in an NEA fellowship to study with master Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa in 1981. Other mentors include Canray Fontenot, Wallace ‘Cheese’ Read and Dennis McGee.

From 1978 to 1981 Suzy played fiddle in the Backwoods Band. Returning to California she formed the Blue Flame String Band which ultimately evolved into the California Cajun Orchestra with accordionist Danny Poullard. She appears as a sideperson on albums by the Klezmorim, Laurie Lewis, Rinde Eckert, Frankie Armstrong, Sukay, and the Savoy-Doucet Cajun band, among others. Since 1994 she has been a fiddle instructor at Augusta, teaching advanced Cajun fiddle during Cajun-Creole Week and blues fiddle during 1997 Old-Time Week. She has also been an instructor at Port Townsend Fiddle Tunes Festival, Ashokan Southern Week, and Lark In the Morning. In 1994 she represented the United States on a Masters of the Folk Violin tour in Scotland and England.

Sharlyn Sawyer

Sharlyn has been an active professional dancer and performing artist since childhood. Although her early dance training included both Eastern and Western dance forms, her artistic focus for the past 20 years has been women’s dances of Central Asia, where she has lived, performed and traveled and studied and taught the traditional dances of the various regions. Her study abroad has been augmented by years of work with artists from immigrant communities in the United States.

In 1986 she founded Ballet Afsaneh, Dance, Music and Poetry of the Silk Road–a professional nonprofit performing arts company–for which she has choreographed dozens of new works and expanded traditional Central Asian dance forms to contemporary choreographic and theatrical venues. She designs and creates many of the elaborate costumes worn by the group.

Sharlyn has received cultural achievement awards from the Persian Center, the Iranian Society of New York, the Society of Iranian Professionals, the Turkish American Association, The Society of Afghan Professionals and other San Francisco Bay Area Iranian American and Afghan cultural organizations. For the past five years she has received yearly grant awards from the California Arts Council, Arts Council of Silicon Valley, the Marin Arts Council and the City of San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs.

Eric Thompson

Eric took up the guitar as a teenager in Palo Alto, California, in the early 1960s. Among his earliest bands were the Black Mountain Boys (with Jerry Garcia and David Nelson) and Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. He quickly became nationally known as an exceptional lead flatpicker, winning the World Championship Cup at Union Grove, North Carolina with the New York Ramblers (which also included David Grisman and Winnie Winston) and then flying to Nashville, Tennessee, to record Beatle Country with the Charles River Valley Boys.

During the 1970s Eric played tenor banjo and organized the Graineog Ceilidh Band around Irish accordion players Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan. He spent six months in the west of Ireland, visiting and learning from older traditional musicians there. In the 1980s he toured and recorded with the Blue Flame String Band and the Backwoods Band, traveling to southwest Louisiana between tours to pursue his newest interest, Cajun music. In 1983 he formed the California Cajun Orchestra which became a vehicle for his newly-acquired skill on the electric guitar.

Eric appears as a sideman on recordings by Mike Seeger, the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Mac Benford, Jody Stecher, Jane Voss, and Frankie Armstrong, among others. He has been a staff member at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, Port Townsend Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp and Lark In the Morning music camp. His three guitar instructional videos are distributed by Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop. He is featured in the recent Mel Bay publication Flatpicking 2000 and has been writing columns for Flatpicking Guitar and Acoustic Guitar magazines. His first solo LP, Bluegrass Guitar, included all-star musicians David Grisman and Tony Rice.

Cathie Whitesides

Cathie plays Celtic, Anglo-American, Eastern European and her own original music on the fiddle. In San Francisco in the 1970s she played regularly in Irish bands with Kevin Keegan and Joe Cooley, recorded Cape Breton and Irish music with Barbara Magone, Slavic and Romanian music with Hatsegana, and toured Russia with the American Dance Friendship Tour. Since 1980 she has been involved in country dance music, playing for contra and square dancing, English country dancing, and step dancing of several styles. After years of cross-continental music making she settled in Seattle, where she continues to play for dances and concerts throughout the United States and Canada.

Cathie has performed at Bumbershoot, Victory Music concerts, the Heritage Festival, and for the Ethnic Heritage Council, as well as faculty positions at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop and Brasstown Appalachian Week.

Mickie Zekley

Mickie began playing guitar as a teenager and quickly became interested in other instruments. Before the age of 20 he was playing fretted instruments of all kinds and had studied sitar at Ravi Shankar’s Kinnara. Soon he was playing the flute and bagpipes and has since become accomplished on many wind instruments. His eventual focus on Irish music was inspired by Irish accordion players Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan with whom he performed for many years.

After studying music at Sonoma State in the mid-1960s, Mickie joined The Golden Toad street band in San Francisco.

Mickie has become even more widely known for his founding of retail store Lark in the Morning. During a trip to London he met Tony Bingham, a British dealer in antique musical instruments. Bingham offered to send him instruments when he returned to California "and you can flog them to your buddies." So Mickie became a retailer and, in 1974, began traveling the world searching for hard-to-find instruments. When he established a reliable corps of suppliers he opened Lark in the Morning. After opening three retail outlets on the west coast, he sold the business in 2002.