History of Armstrong Redwoods SNR
In 1860 R.B. Lundsford established a lumber camp on the north bank of the Russian River which grew with success and was later know as “Stumptown”. In 1867 a 25 year old Swiss immigrant, George E. Guerne, arrived in Stumptown. Guerne purchased land in the area and laid out a subdivision which became know as “Guernewood Park”. Guerne also built and operated a sawmill in Stumptown. Before long, Stumptown was renamed for its most important resident and has been known ever since as Guerneville.
In 1867 Thomas H. Stone and A. E. Laude established claims on 240 acres of valley property 3 miles north of Guerneville. These 240 acres are the heart of what is now Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. This property and 200 adjoining acres were eventually consolidated under the ownership of Colonel James Boydston Armstrong in 1875.
Armstrong was born on August 29, 1824, in Waynesburg, Ohio. His career had included journalism and surveying in his native state and elsewhere. During the civil War, Armstrong had been commissioned a Colonel in the Union Army – a title he would be known by ever after. In 1874 Armstrong relocated permanently to Sonoma County from Ohio. Armstrong’s business ventures were many, and one of them involved him in the Guerneville lumber boom of the 1870’s. Armstrong logged and also owned and operated a sawmill site north of Guerneville. This mill produced approximately 5 million board feet of lumber per year. His other business interests included subdivisions in Santa Rosa. He sold lots to homebuilders at bargain prices and encouraged the new owners to plant French prune and Gravenstein apple trees. Armstrong was keenly interested in crop plants and experimented on different species in nurseries he established in the Santa Rosa area. His interest in this field led to his friendship with another Santa Rosa resident, Luther Burbank.
In 1878, Armstrong made a gift deed of the 440 acres mentioned previously to his daughter, Kate Armstrong. The price recorded for this transaction was “in consideration of one dollar, love and affection”. It had been Armstrong’s intention for this property (an old growth, redwood grove) to be preserved and eventually be operated as an arboretum. The Colonel worked long and hard at assuring the preservation of the grove. In 1891, he attempted to establish an administration for the grove patterned after Stanford University’s, with Luther Burbank as the chairman of its first committee. Unfortunately, Armstrong was unable to realize his plan as it required a special act of the State legislature and such support did not exist at the time. Despite this defeat, Armstrong continued to work and plan toward the realization of his dream, the preservation of his beloved grove of redwoods.
Armstrong suffered serious financial distress due to the failure of a Santa Rosa bank. His daughter Kate was a life long invalid and her health went into a further decline as did his own. As a consequence of family pressure, 190 of Kate’s 440 acres were deeded to her brother, Walter. This parcel was later purchased by Armstrong family friend, Harrison M. LeBaron. Kate Armstrong died in 1898 and the Colonel passed on in 1900 after a series of incapacitating strokes. The struggle to preserve the grove was left in the capable hands of Lizzie Armstrong Jones – Armstrong’s surviving daughter – and the LeBaron family. They mounted an energetic campaign which used public meetings, rallies, and car-caravans to direct public attention to the need to preserve this last remnant of the once mighty redwood forest.
Their efforts were finally rewarded and in 1917 the County of Sonoma passed an initiative to purchase the property for $80,000.00. This purchase was contingent on a agreement that Lizzie and the LeBaron family each put up $5,000.00 of the purchase price as a donation – not an empty gesture when you consider what value a 1917 dollar had against today’s.
The grove was operated by Sonoma County until 1934 when the State took ownership of it as part of the financial arrangement whereby Sonoma Coast State Park was purchased. The grove was opened to the public as Armstrong Redwoods State Park in 1936. In 1964 the grove’s status was changed when a greater understanding of its ecological significance prompted a more protective management of the resource. Since 1964 Armstrong Redwoods has enjoyed the status of State Natural Reserve.
The story of Armstrong’s grove continues – it’s as dynamic as all living entities. But most of all it is the people who use it, enjoy it, manage and protect it who affect it the most. Recent changes and resulting conflict centered on different perceptions may be felt by the persons involved as either minor asides or major issues in the scope of their lifetimes. In the much grander panorama of the grove’s lifetime, human actions may have long range consequences unknowable to short-lived individual human beings. It is therefore only right that people of integrity and good will speak for the grove, for she can only talk to our hearts.
(Information provided by the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve unit historian and by other works, materials and records, including information by Historian John McKenzie)