The Coast News Group
Hit the Road

Discovering a new town just north of Sonoma

We are in one of Healdsburg’s several antique stores, combing through a pile of old LIFE magazines, looking for one published the week of my birth. (Let’s just say it was sometime during the last millennium.)


Holly Hoods, curator of the Healdsburg Museum, came to the town in 1996 and said she knew this was where she wanted to settle. One of her biggest challenges is to develop interactive exhibits that will make history come alive for young museum visitors who come regularly on school field trips. Exhibits change four times a year. Photo by Jerry OndashAn exhibit that ran until mid-May in the Healdsburg Museum told the story of the town’s part in the Civil War. Most visitors are surprised to find that Sonoma County was the only pro-slave county in the state. Its soldiers, however, fought on the Union side. Photo by Jerry OndashHealdsburg Museum is located in a former Carnegie Library, a neo-classical revival structure originally funded in 1910 by a $10,000 grant from wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Admission is free. It features a permanent exhibit with artifacts that belonged to long-time Disney movie and television actor Fred McMurray (“My Three Sons”), who had a cattle ranch in the area. Photo by Jerry OndashUnique items like this mid-century pink stove (sorry, not for sale) and matching mixer are common treasures found in Healdsburg’s irresistible antique stores and boutiques, not far from the central plaza. The downtown is pleasantly walkable, with restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, art galleries and more concentrated within a few blocks. Photo by E’Louise OndashAccording to historian Hannah Clayborn, trees were cut down in the town’s early days to accommodate Healdsburg’s ccommercial center and homes, but “the Plaza trees remained as a remnant of the old forest.” Some trees that stand today, like the Canary Island date palms (planted in 1897), are not native. The plaza’s fountain and old redwoods provide the perfect gathering place on a warm day. Photo by Jerry OndashIt’s not uncommon for restaurants to have their own gardens nearby where they grow vegetables and herbs. These raised planters are just outside Shed restaurant in downtown Healdsburg. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Eureka! I find one — and then another, so I buy one for a friend who was born the same week. And I can’t pass up another issue featuring 50 years of LIFE magazine covers. I’m pleased with my treasures.

We’ve been to Sonoma County several times, but Healdsburg (pronounced HEELDSburg), an hour’s drive north of the town of Sonoma, is new territory.

I’m sorry we waited so long to visit.

The town of 11,000 is a little piece of heaven nestled among the 100 wineries of Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley. If you know your appellations, you know that this is serious wine and foodie country, and we hope to learn and enjoy. We decide to ease into it and explore the town first.

Not far from the antique store is Healdsburg’s 1-acre central plaza, named by Travel + Leisure Magazine last year as one of “America’s Most Beautiful Town Squares.” We don’t disagree, but strangely, we’ve heard more than one local make the same apology for the plaza’s size — “It’s not as big as Sonoma’s,” which is eight acres.

Nevertheless, we find it completely delightful and plenty big enough.

People of all ages and colors are hanging out by the fountain, eating lunch or just lingering on one of the two dozen-plus benches. They seem to relish their moments in the shade of the redwoods and Canary Island date palms (planted in 1897).

Bordering the plaza are boutiques, restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, hotels and art galleries. I’m not much of a shopper, but find some of the one-of-a-kind merchandise in the windows hard to resist.

It was the Gold Rush of 1849 that brought Harmon Heald to California from Ohio.

Like most fortune seekers of the time, he never struck it rich.

But five years later, Heald built a general store and post office, around which a small settlement grew.

He hired a surveyor to lay out the central plaza with streets and 85 lots, and a town of 300 was born.

“Even in the very first map it was identified as a plaza, with the idea of being a community gathering place, which I think is such a generous gesture,” said Holly Hoods, curator of the Healdsburg Museum said in a recent interview. “It was his land and his idea to found a town.”

Hoods tells us more about Healdsburg history during our visit to the museum.

By the 1920s, “Healdsburg was known as the ‘buckle of the prune belt,’” she explains. “Kids would pick prunes to earn money for school clothes, and people would come for prune blossom tours.”

Hoods has worked for the museum since 1996, first as a part-time curatorial assistant.

“I drove up to the building and said, ‘I want to be here.’”

The fast romance is understandable.

The museum lives in a former Carnegie Library — a grand stone building with beautiful interior woodwork and an elegant staircase that one might not expect to find in a town of this size. Its exhibits do the architecture justice. Permanent displays tell of the town’s history, including its Native American roots. (Don’t miss the collection of exquisite handmade baskets.

We check an excellent exhibit on Healdsburg’s connection to the Civil War. The current exhibit, 19th century utopian communities in Sonoma County, runs through Aug. 3.

Vineyards surround Healdsburg and there are many tasting rooms, both in town and at the wineries. For information on the town, visit

For a “Sonomads” guide to Sonoma County and its 370 wineries, 40-plus spas and all activities, visit or call (707) 522-5800.

Super Duper Deal —Las Vegas: Ain’t It Grand Package — The old downtown Las Vegas is being transformed into a happening place.

For $170 (2 persons, double occupancy), you can stay for two nights at the completely renovated, “industrial chic” Downtown Grand (formerly Lady Luck).

Price includes two tickets to the Mob Museum, drinks in the MOB BAR (Roaring ‘20s theme), and dinner for two at Triple George Grill.

Call (855) DT-GRAND (384-7263). Package based on availability; blackout dates apply.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at