The latest historic building slated for preservation by the City and the San Ramon Historic Foundation is the Harlan House, built in 1858 by valley pioneers, Joel and Minerva Harlan.
The history of the Harlan family in California dates back over a decade before the stately structure was built.
I had the pleasure of meeting recently with Walnut Creek resident, Bill Harlan, who has compiled a detailed account of his ancestors' journey to California, entitled, The Great Trek. Bill Harlan is the great, great grandson of George Harlan. His great grandfather, Elisha, was Joel Harlan's brother.
From Harlan's research, we learn that in 1845, after reading Lansford Hastings, The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, George Harlan, a Michigan cattle rancher, became fascinated with the Golden State. The following year, he and his wife, Elizabeth set out on a 2,500 mile journey westward from Niles, Michigan with their six children.
The grueling trip across the Midwest plains was made all the more difficult by the 80 head of cattle Harlan brought along. When the party reached the Colorado Rockies, they met up with another wagon train of travelers, the Donners.
The Harlans' decision to remain on the more well-traveled, but longer trail proved to play a major role in their safe arrival. The Donner party opted to take a shorter cutoff trail, ultimately leading to their ill-fated journey.
The family's first winter in California, spent in the abandoned mission at Santa Clara, proved particularly harsh. Elizabeth Harlan died of typhoid that year. Soon after, George moved his family to what was then Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, where he ran a dairy (started with the seven head of cattle that survived the journey west) and a livery stable. It was while living here, that son, Joel, traveled with his cousin, Jacob, to Calistoga where he met Minerva Fowler, who would become his wife in 1849.
When word of the discovery of gold reached the Harlans, Joel and cousin Jacob, bought up supplies they thought the miners would need, traveled to Coloma and opened a prosperous general store. The young men soon learned that life in a mining town was difficult, especially for raising children. After only a year in the gold rush town, the cousins had made enough money to move their families back to the bay area.
George Harlan died in 1850, and was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Livermore.
In a 1966 edition of the publication, "Historic Spots in California," by Mildred Brooke Hoover, Hero Eugene Rensch and Ethel Grace Rensch, we learn about Joel and Minerva Harlan's move to the San Ramon Valley.
In 1852, the couple purchased a parcel of Rancho San Ramon land, on which they built a modest home. Soon after, when the new county, Alameda, was established from land in Santa Clara County to the south, and Contra Costa County to the north, the Harlan property straddled the new county's northern border.
The home they had built on this parcel became one of the points that defined the boundary line between the two counties. Despite the awkward position of the property, Harlan always insisted that the house was situated in Contra Costa County.
Four years later, the Harlans added 2000 acres to their estate, purchased from the Norris' Ranch, another pioneer family, and in 1857 moved their house north about 3 miles from the county line. The following year, Harlan built the stately Gothic revival home he and Minerva would call El Nido (The Nest). The original house was integrated into a wing of the new two-story building. The Harlans became prominent ranchers in their time. They had nine children, Elisha, Anna, Laura, Mary, Horace, Helena, Henry, Fred, and Adeline, all raised at El Nido.
During the interview, Bill Harlan shared with me this tender story about his valley ancestor. Sometime after establishing his ranch in San Ramon, Joel learned of a small band of Native Americans living on a corner of his property.
"He went out to the creek bed and found a campsite where they had been camping. It appeared they had fled quickly, and that the family had left behind a baby," said Harlan. "Joel took the child back and raised him on the ranch. And he was always introduced as one of Joel's children. I think this speaks to the fact that, for people who were living in a time that was fairly intolerant, we were a family who found ways of reaching across the social lines," said Harlan.
Joel Harlan died in 1875, and Minerva in 1915.
The property passed through the generations and, ultimately into the hands of the Geldermann family, beginning with daughter, Adeline's marriage to Frederick Stolpe. The Stolpe's daughter, Carmen, married Alfred Geldermann. Carmen and Alfred's son, Harlan Geldermann, is the father of Joel Geldermann, who currently manages the Geldermann Trust, which oversees El Nido.
It is the goal of the city of San Ramon and the San Ramon Historic Foundation to relocate the Harlan House near Forest Home Farms, to be incorporated in the historic park depicting life in San Ramon during the pioneer days.
Thanks to Bill Harlan, and the volunteers at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley for their assistance in the research for this story.