EGGLAND - PETALUMA, CALIFORNIA
A guide to Petaluma, California, using California: a Guide to the Golden State (WPA, 1939) as your map.
“The World’s Egg Basket.” “Egg Capital of the World.” “Chickaluma.”
These are just a few of the historical nicknames for Petaluma, a Sonoma County town just off today’s Hwy. 101, north of San Francisco. The unusual name, which voice-activated GPS systems don’t usually agree with, probably comes from a Miwok word, in the language of the area’s First Peoples. (Farming and ranching by both Mexican settlers and, eventually, Americans, overran the original inhabitants.)
Petaluma’s story really began in the 1870s when a Canadian named Lyman Byce realized that the area was perfect for poultry and, of course, egg production. Working with a local dentist named Isaac Dias, Byce also created the first egg incubator, which sped up the process of getting eggs to market.
By World War I, Petaluma’s chickens and eggs were being promoted in sophisticated advertising campaigns, and the town was enshrined with its reputation and nickname as the capital of all things eggy. Just ask the WPA Guide to California: “Petaluma even has a CHICKEN PHARMACY, on the main street, devoted exclusively to the sale of remedies for ailing chickens.”
Modern factory farming after World War II made the chicken coops and even the old incubators obsolete, and Petaluma reverted to its original agricultural roots. Acres of flowers grown for seed companies soon flourished. And its beautiful setting on the river of the same name, plus its proximity to San Francisco, also helped make the town a magnet for families and commuters.
Today, remnants of Petaluma’s past can still be seen in a drive around town: grain elevators, old, brick buildings which used to house poultry supplies and the “Butter and Eggs Day” parade and craft fair held every April.
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Lynn Downey is an At-large Guide to the West for The American Guide. She’s a writer and archivist based in Sonoma, California. Follow on her website, LynnDowney.com.