Historic Fort Ross still reigns above the Pacific Ocean on the rocky Sonoma coastline 80 miles north of San Francisco. In 1812, decades before the Gold Rush, the Russian-American Company established the fort as a fur trading post.

The name comes from Rossiya, a variation of Russia at that time. For three decades it served as the southernmost base for the Russian empire’s vast trading operations.

On Saturday, October 26th, visitors can enjoy a Harvest Festival organized by the Fort Ross Conservancy, a non-profit group, officially termed a state park cooperating association.

Festival activities will start in the historic Russian orchard located near the fort. “We will gently harvest the apples, since these historic trees deserve care,” says Conservancy President Sarah Sweedler.

Visitors will hear an internationally acclaimed women’s vocal ensemble, Kitka, singing traditional Eastern European songs amid the apple trees. “Singing will help honor the sacred element of the harvest,” Sweedler notes. Kitka singers will perform inside the chapel, within the stockade and on the bluff overlooking the ocean on Saturday. They’ll give one final performance on Sunday morning.

Members of a Silicon Valley-based cultural organization, the Russian House Kedry, will be among the festival participants. Throughout the day, they will demonstrate handcrafts and cooking styles of the past. They perform traditional dances and historical re-enactments.

“Russian families are keeping Fort Ross alive,” Elena Saydakova said. She is one of the parents who travel here with her children from the Bay Area to share Russian traditions.

Elena and others will dress in period clothing of the early 19th century. She will show children the process of felting by guiding young hands as they shape and press loose wool into small objects, such as coin purses.

Inside the official barracks, one of the original Russian-era structures, volunteers will demonstrate the traditional making of piroshky, a meat-filled pastry. Outside, the scent of food cooking over an open fire will drift through the air. Dark red borscht will bubble in black cast iron pots.

Local vendors will offer an array of different ethnic food choices. Check the Fort Ross Conservancy website for a special dining option that is being planned, a four-course Sonoma County chefs’ luncheon with wine pairings. The basic entrance fee on the day of the festival will be $15.00 per car. Wine tasting and the four-course luncheon are extra.

The Harvest Festival will close at 4:30 on Saturday with a songfest called an “Ocean Calling.”  On the grassy area above the Pacific Ocean, Kitka singers and Kedry families will lead a ritual of singing to the sea. “The singing will celebrate the ocean’s abundance,” Program Director Hank Birnbaum said.

While organized by the Conservancy, the Harvest Festival is fully funded by the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, a non-profit associated with Renova, a private conglomerate headquartered in Russia. Sweedler notes, “Generous donations from this Russian foundation are also used to rehabilitate buildings and maintain the historic clothing collection.

Currently, because of state budget cuts, Fort Ross State Park is open to the public only on weekends throughout the fall and winter months. It’s our hope that one day the park can be open to the public seven days a week. We greatly appreciate all the support we receive from the public in reaching this goal.”

For a listing of all events and times for the Harvest Festival activities, visit www.fortross.org.


A Brief History of Fort Ross

The original occupants of the Fort Ross area were Kashaya Native Americans. Their descendants live around Fort Ross, Sonoma County and the San Francisco area.

The Russian part of the Fort Ross story began when a member of the royal Romanov family, Tsar Paul the First, gave the Russian-American Company a monopoly over all Russian enterprises in North America.

Alexander Baranov, the Russian-American Company’s chief manager, sent an assistant to establish a trading base in California. The Russians built Fort Ross in 1812 as a fur-trading post and as a source of food for the company’s Alaskan colonies. They built a formidable enclave that kept away the nearest settlers, who were the Spanish at the Presidio in San Francisco.

Essential to the fort’s defense were its two blockhouses, from which attackers could be showered with a deadly barrage of firepower. If the 12-foot stockade wall was breached, defenders could retire to the interior of the blockhouses.

The Russians armed themselves so well that after viewing the fort, and hearing rumors that it was fortified with 40 cannons, the Spanish decided not to attack the Russians and simply left them alone. Hence, those cannons were used for ceremony, but were never fired in anger during the Russians’ stay.

By 1816, hunting had decimated the sea otter population, thus ending the lucrative trade of the marine mammal’s soft warm pelts. Having less use for Fort Ross, the Russians turned it into a cattle farm and orchard operation. Siberian contract workers named Promyshlenniki as well as Kashaya and Native Alaskans toiled at the settlement.

When the Russians pulled up stakes in 1841 they sold their equipment to an American entrepreneur named John Sutter. At the time, he was building his own fort on the Am erican River and less than a decade away from permanently entering the history books, when gold was discovered on his land.

In 1873, rancher G.W. Call bought 2,500 acres of Russian River area property, including Fort Ross. He soon built a home for himself and his Chilean wife Mercedes Leiva. Their nine children grew up in the house. Descendants of the original occupants lived in the home until 1972. The Call House museum is now open to visitors on the first weekend of each month.

For nearly 100 years after the fur-trading era, it was believed that the otters that once thrived near Fort Ross were extinct. Then, about 30 surviving otters were discovered at Bixby Creek during the construction of the Highway One in the 1930’s. The number of southern otters has now bounced back to about 2700, according to scientists.

The Fort Ross Conservancy invites the public to assist in monitoring the health of the marine mammal population on the Sonoma Coast. Interested individuals may participate in counts that are done at pre-designated days, which are posted on the Conservancy’s website. The times are selected for the presence of extreme low tides, which provide the best opportunities for viewing the seals that come ashore.

Fort Ross Conservancy, 19005 Coast Highway One, Jenner, CA 95450,  707-847-3437,  info@fortross.org, www.fortross.org.

Kristine_Mietzner_PhotoKristine Mietzner is a writer who lives in northern California.