WHERE HISTORY IS HER-STORY
If the land of Beltane Ranch could speak, it would have rich tales to tell, tales of powerful women who have ruled the roost, so to speak, for over a century. The historic ranch, winery and farm stay inn tucked along the southwestern base of the May-acamas range in Glen Ellen reinforces the belief that certain places are predestined to host certain narratives—in this case a distinctly feminine narrative.
“We have a history of forceful women here, to say the least,” says Alexa Wood, 67, who became the matriarch of Beltane Ranch last spring when her beloved mother, Rosemary Wood, died at the age of 93.
The ranch’s distinctly female legacy began way back in 1892. That was the year Mary Ellen Pleasant—a mysterious and, by all accounts, extraordinary woman—and her business partner, Scottish banker Thomas Bell, purchased the property. Pleasant was born to slaves in Louisiana, worked with abolitionist John Brown, guided on the Underground Railway and through astute real estate investments and business and financial dealings became one of the most successful female historical figures in the American West.
Pleasant and Bell purchased the former Drummond Ranch from pioneer viticulturist and winemaker John Drummond and re-christened it “Beltane,” which likely refers to both Bell’s name and the Celtic festival of spring fertility. A main house was constructed in Victorian style in a nod to Pleasant’s roots in New Orleans, and she and Thomas Bell’s wife, Teresa Bell, introduced hospitality—of varied persuasions, it is rumored—to what had previously been a working ranch. By 1900, the newly raised barn on the ranch hosted local dances and, up until the Great Depression, horses raced in the front fields while visitors from San Francisco arrived by train at Beltane Station, which stood at what is now the entrance to the property.
Fast-forward to 1936, when Effia and Ralph Heins, Alexa Wood’s great-aunt and -uncle, purchased the property and began raising cattle, sheep and turkeys. The Heinses also planted a large garden, including a raspberry patch that to this day provides copious berries in season. According to Alexa Wood and her daughter Lauren Benward Krause, Aunt Effia was the quintessential “force” behind the ranch, both emotionally and physically.
Wood recalls being a young girl and watching her aunt hand-make small harnesses for young turkeys with broken wings. “Effia and Ralph had moved here and bought this place after the Depression, so every animal was precious,” she says. “Those little turkeys wouldn’t dare die on Aunt Effia’s watch!”
Alexa’s mother, Rosemary, was Effia Heins’ niece, and it was she who had the vision to invite guests back to the iconic yellow Victorian. Rosemary had married and raised children in the Midwest, but was “completely devoted” to the ranch and moved back west to Beltane full-time in the late 1960s to help her mother Geneva (Effia’s sister) and Effia run the ranch.
“My mother started cleaning things up at that time,” says Alexa. “She started on projects: building stone walls, fixing up the rooms one by one. She knew she wanted to create vacation lodging of some sort.” Over the course of the next decades, Alexa, a young mother at the time, stepped into the line of female stewardship as she became involved in Rosemary’s projects. “Lauren was just a crawling baby at my feet when I began sewing bedspreads for the guest rooms for Mom,” she says.
The crawling baby being Lauren Benward Krause, now 37, who has added her own creative vision to her family’s land and legacy of hospitality. In 2006, after a career in fashion design and publishing in New York City, Lauren saw an opportunity to use her communications and business-development skills to expand her family’s enterprise and she returned home. She and her photographer husband, Steven Krause, are raising their two sons on the ranch and she has partnered with her brother Alex Benward and their mother to operate the ranch and inn, hosting weddings and events, as well as managing the ranch’s orchards and gardens and producing and marketing Beltane Ranch wine and olive oil.
Like her mother and all of the women in this family tree, Lauren Benward Krause is simultaneously elegant and strong, gracious as she hosts farm dinners, and sturdy as she moves cases of wine or oil. She was the first to smell the smoke of the Nuns Canyon fire that almost destroyed Beltane last October, and she worked through the night beside her brother and local firefighters to evacuate family and guests and to save their animals and historic buildings.
“We come from a line of women who are not shy,” says Lauren with a sly smile. “In defense of bossy people ... you have to get it done! Sick turkeys, fixing fences ... we have all always been handson women.”
Case in point is one of the key moments in Beltane history, when in 2004 Alexa sold 1,300 acres of the ranch to the Sonoma County Preservation and Open Space District for conservation, allowing the Woods-Benward-Krause branch of the family to hold on to the smaller historic section of the property and create a viable business.
“My mother made this all possible by making that happen,” says Lauren. “When she did, that was when I saw how I could bring my ideas and creativity to the ranch.”
Both mother and daughter speak of their family legacy as what fuels them to make the Beltane enterprise work, to put exacting personal care into each bouquet in each room, careful thought into each dish on the menu for each brunch and dinner. “We have a legacy to look back to,” says Lauren, who points out that if they had ever dared not to compost they would have been in huge trouble with her grandmother Rosemary.
Alexa recounts that it was her mother’s job as a child to sit on the back porch and straighten nails for reuse. “In many ways we have simply brought things full-circle, to the way things have always been done,” Lauren adds. Newly hyped “sustainable practices” are, in fact, longtime Beltane traditions.
The ranch also evokes a strong sense of familial love and connection that extends to the employees, most of whom have been at Beltane Ranch for over 20 years. On the day of my visit, Lauren’s 2-yearold son happily makes his way from the arms of his mother, to his grandmother, to Angie Hurtado, longtime head of housekeeping and guest services. Both of Lauren’s sons have attended the preschool run by Evelia Torres, the wife of Garden and Produce Foreman Victor Torres, and Evelia has also served as a chef for the ranch’s Sunday farm dinners. There appears to be an easy fluidity of responsibilities amongst the family and staff , everyone doing what is needed, as needed.
“This land has a life and the ranch has a history of its own. We follow that path,” says Lauren. “It is not always the most efficient path, but it is the most meaningful, so it is how we do things.”