Abandoned Garden Tells Tale of Early Napa

On a hillside above Redwood Creek, surrounded by native Douglas fir and nearby coastal redwoods, a giant sequoia tree is shooting for the sky. It’s one of the few remnants of a large and beautiful garden full of fountains, exotic plants and trees planned and planted more than a century ago by an immigrant named Herman Hudemann.

How a tree native to the Sierra foothills came to grow above Redwood Creek is a story that begins in the mid-1860s.

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This hand-tinted photograph taken in 1869 reportedly shows Herman Hudemann, right, and an unidentified woman looking downhill from his front yard to the first spout pond (the spout has been enlarged by the handtinter). The photo was taken before much of the hillside garden and fountains were developed. (Photo courtesy of Helene Belz)

“Like a trick of enchantment”

“I am so sorry you left California without having visited this beautiful place,” a woman wrote her friend in the East about gardens near Napa in 1879. “Imagine the wildest and most romantic mountain glen, in the midst of which, like a trick of enchantment, you suddenly find yourself … amidst vines and rare flowers of every variety and description, a fountain sparkling in the sunlight and rendering the air cool and pleasant, a running rippling brook, making music as it goes.

“Through dense shade and flickering sunlight,” the writer continued, “paths lead still further down the glen to a lake surrounded by flowers, tropical fruits and masses of shrubbery, which combine so naturally with the native growth that it is impossible to tell where nature ends or art begins.”

German immigrant brings mining windfall to Napa

The garden at the Spout Farm, named for the four water spouts that shot up from four circular ponds, was the work of Herman Hudemann.

A native of Holstein, Germany, Hudemann came to Napa in the early 1860s, with — rumor had it — $60,000 made from Mexican mine speculation. He bought more than 2,500 acres that stretched from Redwood Creek south nearly to the end Henry Road in the Carneros. He settled at the northern end of the vast property, above Redwood Creek and near a large spring.

Hudemann develops the property

Hudemann built a Victorian gingerbread-style house, along with barns and sheds, and started a farm and a ranch. He planted grapes and fruit trees, and bought cattle and sheep. He dammed the spring’s creek downhill from his house, creating a large pond, and began the long work of establishing the pioneer garden.

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Taken in 1867, this steroscopic image of Hudemann’s main pond and flowering trees was taken in 1867 by a San Francisco photographer as part of a Pacific Coast travel series. The spout is barely visible on  each side of the center white stake on the opposite side of the pond.fid4

He started with a small stone-walled pond next to the larger pond. Over the next 10 years, he built two more smaller ponds up the hill, on line from the lower pond to the front porch of his house. Finally he built a larger circular pond outside his dining room window. All four ponds spouted water into the air. A rustic path, lined with local stone, was built down the hill. Through all of this, his employees began the work of filling it all in with annuals and larger plants. Near his cottage, among other exotic trees and plants, he planted the giant sequoia.

“It is impossible to describe,” the letter writer observed, “the mingled charm of water, sunlight and shade, the fragrant air cooled and freshened by the play of water from a graceful jet, rising perhaps 50 feet from a fountain in the midst of the lake and falling in silvery spray; the soft undulating weeping willows trailing their branches in the water … and the pure white water lilies floating on the calm surface of the waters.”

During these years, Hudemann opened a small cabin and tent resort. He also built one of the first recorded wineries — albeit tiny by today’s standards — in the Napa redwoods, where he made wine for friends and for service at the resort.

The garden becomes a destination for Napans

As Hudemann’s garden matured and grew, he and it became a fixture in Napa and for the German community in the Bay Area.

An 1873 article in the Napa Reporter described the arrival of 82 members of the Harmonie, a German singing club, who traveled by steamboat from San Francisco: “Preceded by a band of five performers, they marched through Main Street to G. Barth’s (saloon), where they refreshed themselves with lager and the crowd with music such as Napa has never listened to before.”

The next morning, 30 horses drawing stagecoaches “conveyed these seekers after pastoral delights to that paradise of Napa County, the ranch of Mr. Hudemann.”

By 1876, the property had become a Napa institution, a place to picnic in spectacular gardens the likes of which most residents had never seen. “This lovely place is so familiar to Napaites,” wrote the Napa Record in 1879, “that it seems superfluous to give a description of it, yet there are numbers, doubtless, who know of it only from hearsay.”

But less than one year later, Hudemann lost all of his property, including his beloved garden, to foreclosure. By then he had acquired nearly 6,000 acres in the Napa Redwoods and on Atlas Peak.

According to Rudolph Jordan Jr., whose family purchased the Spout Farm property two years later, acquaintances told him that Hudemann was financially “nearsighted and good natured and intent on having a good time at his home place, and so became a victim of fraud.”

“Friends had arranged to call for [Hudemann the day he was to move out],” Jordan wrote, “but he had left the place during the previous night, being unable — as he is reported to have said — to part with it in full view of all its beauty and its charms.”

Hudemann moved to San Francisco and found work as a clerk in several kinds of business. The bank owned the land for two years, maintaining the vineyards and gardens. When the Jordan family purchased it in 1884 as a private family vineyard and working farm, management fell to the 22-year-old Jordan.

Eight years later in San Francisco, on July 2, 1892, friends who had come to plan an “outdoor adventure” for the Fourth of July found Herman Hudemann dead in his bed. The Napa Register relayed the news: Hudemann, the paper added, “was known as a great-hearted, open-handed man.”

Hudemann was buried in an unmarked grave in the Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco.

“It was a forgotten grave,” wrote Jordan, who visited it in 1894, finding it only by the number on the curb. Jordan’s family had owned the farm, renamed “Lotus Farm” for the lotus flowers Jordan raised in the pond, for 10 years. But by the time of the graveside visit, the financial panic of 1893 had ruined any future chance for the Jordans of capital improvements.

“Like a great work of nature herself”

A year later, the family leased the farm and Jordan moved back to San Francisco. Standing in front of the anonymous marker over Hudemann’s grave, Jordan could likely well understand Hudemann’s sense of loss at having to leave the Napa Redwoods. Jordan considered bringing Hudemann’s remains back to the ranch for burial and even selected a small hill that had overlooked the ponds. But the rest of the Jordan family did not agree.

Jordan said, “I felt sorry to be compelled to say ‘Lie in peace in a forgotten grave far away from the scenes of your creation.’”

Jordan never forgot his gratitude to Hudemann.

“To this day,” Jordan wrote much later in life, “I regret not being able to pay this tribute to the genius who laid out a home and a park that seemed like the great work of nature herself. In its simple harmonious plan and beauty; the park with its slopes and paths and roads was as fine a piece of landscape gardening and work of art as can be found anywhere.”

Today, the house and most buildings are demolished. The gardens are gone but for stone remnants of the ponds and scattered plants and trees. On privately owned land, it’s not open to the public.

“The most fitting monument to his memory,” Jordan wrote in 1930, “remains the Sequoia gigantea, a very stately tree which he planted in front of the old dwelling.”

That tree still stands now, nearly 150 years old, nearly 8 feet in diameter at the base, and 100 feet tall.

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This article originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register on June 5, 2010. Sources for the story came from the William F. Heintz Collection at the St. Helena Public Library, the District Archive at De La Salle Institute and in interviews with Helene Belz and Virginia Chomat, grandniece and great-grandniece of Rudolph Jordan Jr.

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