The Petaluma River flows beside the historic downtown.
The nostalgia of a store that smells exactly like your grandparents’ house.
The thrill of finding the type of flowered glasses you drank orange juice from as a child. The satisfaction of discovering that perfect cookie jar for your collection, or the colonial wooden chair from back East, or simply an old, wire egg basket.
These are just some of the reasons antique-hunters go poking through Petaluma, roughly an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Petaluma runneth over with antique shops—31 in all—with many of them concentrated in the historic downtown. These shops, enhanced by well-preserved homes and buildings, a wealth of restaurants, and bucolic rolling hills, make this corner of Sonoma County ideal for indulging sentimentality.
The nostalgia ripens within the dozens of antique collectives in Petaluma. Some stores, like Fraley’s, gleam with fine Victorian furniture and porcelain. Bargain hunters sift through overstuffed stalls at the flea market, held weekends at the fairgrounds. Several of the shops, located in venerable buildings along Petaluma Boulevard and Kentucky Street, provide more than the usual trove of musty collectibles. Chelsea brims with a mix of art, decorative items, and old furniture with chipped paint in Martha Stewart colors. The recently opened Sienna offers a rustic, European twist—vintage Mediterranean posters, furniture, and household items. Everything from 1960s Bay Area art to 16th-century trunks fills Vintage Bank Antiques, once a Wells Fargo branch. On Kentucky Street, The Roost showcases colorful kitchen items of the 1920s and 1930s (only ceramic hens in this roost). For a complete list of antique stores, pick up the Petaluma Visitors Guide.
Browsing in the shops, as well as around town, you can’t escape Petaluma’s agricultural heritage. A "Fresh Eggs" sign propped in an antique-store window. A chick painted on a brick wall. Poultry farming displays at the Library Museum. In 1898, more than half the eggs shipped to San Francisco came from Petaluma. By the 1940s, the town’s chicken farmers produced 32 percent of the state’s eggs. At one time, Petaluma not only boasted a chicken pharmacy, but carried the title "The World’s Egg Basket."
The success of the egg and dairy industry derived, in part, from the Petaluma River. Beginning in the 1850s, the river provided a transportation outlet for local goods—primarily dairy, eggs, lumber. The expansion of nearby Highway 101 in the 1950s, along with the decline of the egg industry, robbed the river of its prominent role. The formerly prosperous downtown deteriorated. The grand homes were eventually abandoned.
Local preservationists came to the rescue, getting 65 structures in Petaluma on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, antique dealers and restaurant owners took advantage of vacant buildings and low rents. They opened shops and eateries, ultimately rejuvenating the downtown area. Main Street, a section of Petaluma Boulevard curving through downtown parallel to the river, bloomed again. Today it provides a quaint Americana setting, one appreciated by movie directors (remember the cruising scenes in American Graffiti?).
Self-guided walking tours lead people past sites where other movies have been filmed (Basic Instinct, Inventing the Abbots, and Peggy Sue Got Marriedare just a few). Other walking and driving tours, available from the visitors center, touch on everything from heritage homes and historic buildings to the types of trees shading downtown. Docents in Victorian costume lead weekend tours, telling stories while passing iron-front buildings and landmarks.
Even restaurants transport visitors back through sepia-colored time. Old Chicago Pizza serves yeasty deep-dish pies in the second story of a 123-year-old building. A clamorous atmosphere and extensive menu of bar food awaits visitors down at McNear’s Saloon. The River House, a Queen Anne-style house perched next to the river, serves elegant Sunday brunch, lunches, and dinners.
Amidst the antique shops on Kentucky Street you’ll find New Marvins, which has bottomless cups of coffee, fresh-squeezed juice, fluffy omelets, and blue corn pancakes with applesauce. Nearby, Buona Sera fills later in the day with people dining on upscale Italian pasta, chicken, duck, and seafood. Overall, Petaluma’s 142 restaurants run the gamut from mom-and-pop delis and family-style eateries to Mexican, Thai, and seafood restaurants.
Petaluma nightlife offers theater and music. The Cinnabar Theater, in a former schoolhouse, presents plays and musicals featuring local talent. The Mystic Theater offers live music for the younger crowd; Kodiac Jack’s attracts the country-western set.
Small-town advantage—catching up on sleep. The Cavanaugh Inn, set in two houses built by a local lumber baron, wraps its guests in warm redwood paneling and Victorian decor. Guests crawl into feather beds at night and then wake up to sumptuous breakfasts the next morning.
When visitors tire of antiques and historic this-and-that, they can try a few luxuries the 1800s egg ranchers never dreamed of: botanical-based skin and body treatments at Dom Ivana’s or a massage at Soft Shell. For something completely different, a spot of tea and some dainty scones at Maria of London Tea Room may revive you. Located in "The Palms" heritage home, the tearoom features owner Maria Warren-Tarabbia, properly English and dressed in a 19th-century waitress uniform.
To savor the rural flavor of the area, explore by car or bicycle. Head west on Western Avenue, past creameries and hay trucks, toward Helen Putnam Regional Park for hilltop views of dairy farms, cattle, and undulating pastures. Cheese factories, such as the Marin French Cheese Company southwest of town, provide samples of what those cud-chewing Jerseys and Guernseys can produce. Other nearby attractions include Bodega Bay and the coast to the west, the wineries and champagne caves of Sonoma to the east.
Petaluma puts all its eggs in one basket the last weekend in April. Butter and Egg Days, held April 24 this year, features a parade of floats; children dressed as chicks, eggs, and pats of butter; and dancing papier-mâché cows. The same day, a procession of decorated boats observes the Opening of the Petaluma River. On April 25, more than 300 antique vendors bring out their collectibles and wares for the Antique Street Fair. Definitely worth crossing the road.
Stuck on Stickers
By Amy Graff
If Mrs. Grossman were to stretch the rolls of stickers she produced last year across the country, she’d have to travel from San Francisco to New York four times,” says Devon McDonald as she leads a tour of the country’s largest sticker factory, Mrs. Grossman’s Paper Company, founded by Andrea Grossman in Petaluma, Calif., in 1979.
“That’s a whole lot of stickers,” the kids in the group, prompted by McDonald, shout in unison. Later, she says the 10-color presses turn out 5 million stickers an hour. But the kids, distracted by the millions of stickers around them, forget to yell their line. No matter. It’s all fun in sticker heaven.
Even those who have never traded a sparkly star for a paisley heart will find a visit to Mrs. Grossman’s worthwhile. The tour includes a guided walk through the plant, a museum that chronicles Mrs. Grossman’s creations, and a sticker art class at tour’s end.
Here, everyone gets a packet of stickers and follows McDonald’s instructions to make a postcard. Steven, a 7-year-old boy, excitedly blurts out, “I like stickers because I can stick them on me.” How many stickers would it take to cover Steven? He’s not sure, but he knows it’s a whole lot of stickers. Information and reservations: (800) 429-4549.
Photography courtesy of Anlace/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in March 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Use AAA’s Petaluma map. Information, including a listing of
restaurants, antique shops, walking tours, and other local attractions,
is available from the Petaluma Visitors Center, 799 Baywood Drive; (707) 769-0429. The area code for all the following phone numbers is 707.
Where to stay
Check the AAA California/Nevada TourBook for information on local lodging (Best Western, Quality Inn). Cavanaugh Inn, 10 Keller St., bed-and-breakfast, close to downtown shops, 765-4657.
Eating and drinking
Applebox, 224 B St., coffee, espresso, pastries, 762-5222. New Marvins, 145 Kentucky St., breakfast, lunch, 765-2371. Buona Sera Ristorante, 148 Kentucky St., fine Italian cuisine, 763-3333. Dempsey’s Restaurant & Brewery, 50 E. Washington St., specialty microbrews, eclectic cuisine (pork chops, wood-oven-baked pizza, hand-cut fries), 765-9694. Maria of London Tea Room, 2 Liberty St., tea and pastries, open year-round, by reservation, 762-5251. Riverhouse, 222 Weller St., contemporary cuisine, brunch (the braised short ribs are popular), 769-0123. McNear’s Saloon, 23 Petaluma Blvd., BBQ, 765-2121. Old Chicago Pizza, 41 Petaluma Blvd., deep-dish, 763-3897.
What to see and do
Free, docent-led walking tours leave the Library Museum at 10:30 a.m. on weekends, May 1 through Oct. 31; 778-4398. Self-guided walking and driving tours of local scenic, cultural, and historic treasures are available free at the Visitors Center. Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, 3325 Adobe Rd. (3 miles east of town); General Mariano Vallejo’s 1840s ranch; picnic area, living history days; reopens late spring, 762-4871. The Petaluma Library Museum, 4th & B streets; this 1906 Carnegie Library has poultry industry relics, river history, rotating exhibits, and lectures, 778-4398. Helen Putnam Park, Chileno Valley Rd., rural hills and trails.
Nightlife Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd., 763-8920. McNear’s Mystic Theater & Music Hall, 21 Petaluma Blvd., live rock, blues, and jazz, 765-6665. Kodiac Jack’s Honky Tonk & Saloon, 256 Petaluma Blvd., country music, dancing, 765-5722.
Events Butter & Egg Days, April 24, 762-9348. Antique Street Faire, April 25 and Sept. 26, 763-7686. For other events, such as the World’s Wristwrestling Championship, "Cruising in the Summer" car show, quilt show, pumpkin patch and cornfield maze, and holiday attractions, contact the Petaluma Visitors Center, 769-0429.