James Knight mentioned in his recent article about Buena Vista Winery the fact that a colony of feral cats lived on the grounds for generations (Swirl, March 27). But the story of that colony is missing, and there is one glaring inaccuracy.
The origination of the colony, or "clowder," can be found in the museum of neighboring Bartholomew Park Winery, where there are displays about the history of the cat colony and pictures of the cats in the home of Robert C. and Kate Birdsall Johnson, who built a monstrous Gothic Victorian "castle" on the property in 1880.
Kate Johnson would today be considered a cat hoarder, but at the time, as she was rich, she was considered "eccentric." Mrs. Johnson had a home in which she could easily accommodate and properly care for several dozen Persian and Angora cats; in fact, they occupied one entire floor of the mansion.
Local legend had it that Kate hoarded as many as 200 cats, but according to F. Turner Reuter Jr., author of Animal and Sporting Artists in America (2008), "at the time of her death [she] had thirty-two cats and may have had as many as forty-six at one point." Reuter wrote about Austrian artist Carl Kahler, a cat and horse painter of international reputation who was commissioned by Kate for $5,000 to paint a portrait of her 42 cats in 1891. Kahler was living in San Francisco from 1890 to 1893, and his portrait was life-sized, measuring 6-by-8.5 feet, and is titled My Wife's Lovers.
To "amuse" the cats, Kate Birdsall also kept parrots and cockatoos, and even housed on the property "donkeys imported from Jerusalem, said to be descended from the one that Christ rode."
Her husband preceded her in death in 1889 (leaving her in his will half his estate and the castle), and their adopted and disabled daughter, Rosalind, died of tuberculosis in 1890. All alone in the castle now with her cats, Kate stipulated in her own will that the castle and a full third of her estate should pass, upon her death (which occurred in 1893), to the local Roman Catholic archdiocese to be used as a home for disadvantaged women. But she also bequeathed $20,000 to a distant relative to use to care for the cats in perpetuity.
The relative took care of the cash, but the cats may have been left to care for themselves. The church let the property sit untouched until 1920, at which point it was sold to the state of California, which used the so-called Johnson Castle as the "State Farm for Delinquent Women," namely prostitutes, drug addicts, con artists and petty thieves. One of the "wayward women" supposedly torched the mansion in 1927. It burned to the ground, and the Johnson cats were forced to live in the wild on the property as a feral clowder.
Now, as for Fluffy, the last member of the Johnson clowder to survive on the property, Mr. Knight reports that Fluffy "passed away only months ago." This is incorrect.
I used to visit Buena Vista Winery four days a week when I was hosting tours aboard the Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley. Fluffy and I became friendly, and I often told the staff that one day I should take her home to live with me and my husband and our cat and dogs. When the winery's renovation began, staff members came to me and said, "Jean Charles [Boisset] said we have to get Fluffy off the property. Will you please take her home?"
So, as a matter of fact, Fluffy Birdsall Johnson, the last surviving member of the historic Johnson clowder living ferally on the former Buena Vista Ranch and Bartholomew Park, is still alive and well, living at my house in Petaluma since Jan. 16, 2012.
Thank you for your attention.
I just read Christopher Linnell’s letter to the editor and then checked out the original Buena Vista Winery article by James Knight. I know something about the history of Buena Vista Winery as I was a co-author of the winery’s National Register Nomination (1986) and historical consultant to Bartholomew Park Winery in 1994 when they created their museum. I have been researching Kate Johnson’s life for many years. I would like to make a few corrections/additions to the submitted information. Robert C. Johnson and his father, George C. Johnson, were investors and trustees of the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society; Robert Johnson’s purchase of Buena Vista in December 1879 was directly related to recovering that investment. (The historical significance of the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society (1863-1879) is described in the National Register narrative; Agoston Haraszthy’s active role in the BVVS corporation lasted only three years (1863-1866).)
The Johnsons’ primary residence was in San Francisco but they owned extensive properties elsewhere, including a suburban retreat in Menlo Park. Robert Johnson turned his attention to building a mansion at Buena Vista in the early 1880s. His idea was apparently to build a country estate similar in the style of other wealthy San Francisco "capitalists." He was also interested in pure bred animals, keeping several "blood" race horses on the ranch.
Mrs. Johnson was known to have kept a favorite cat most of her life, but her cat "collection" appears to have started around 1883 when she began buying Angoras in Europe. She did indeed leave $20,000 to Helen Shellard to care for her cats but there was some delay in the legal transfer. The Sonoma Index-Tribune (Dec. 15, 1894) reported “the thirty Angoria (sic) cats that belonged to the late Mrs. Johnson are snugly housed...on Telegraph Hill, San Francisco.” In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle (March 13, 1894), Miss Shellard explained she had visited Buena Vista after Mrs. Johnson’s death and found the “valuable Angora cats in a sad state of neglect.” She brought 32 cats (not 200, she emphasized), to her home, spending part of the inheritance converting rooms for the animals. There is no indication in either newspaper article that any cats were ever set free on the grounds in the interim. Because the Kate Johnson estate remained in probate for several years, the residence property was used first by family members, then as a resort. In 1906, all of the remaining property was sold at auction. A sbsequent attempt to create a real estate subdivision failed and the remaining owners, Henry & Augustine Cailleaud, sold a large portion to the state of California in 1920.
When Kate Johnson died in December 1893, one third of her estate was willed to the Catholic Church to found Mary’s Help Hospital in San Francisco, now the Seton Medical Center in Daly City. Mrs. Johnson had researched the latest innovations in health care and hospital architecture, made recommendations concerning the original hospital board and staff, and designated certain income producing properties to be used for financial support. A highly intelligent woman, it’s unfortunate that she has been labeled an eccentric. Kate Johnson’s charitable and cultural contributions to the Bay Area were significant.
I was enjoying the latest issue of your publication until I read "The Cost of Privilege" by Carl Patrick (Open Mic, March 13). The article was all right, until I got to the last sentence. His statement that "it's time to get free of capitalism" bothered me. Yes, capitalism isn't perfect, but you wouldn't have a newspaper without capitalism. If I were an advertiser of yours I think I would be upset that such statements are made in the Bohemian.
Hi Rick, thanks for writing. Open Mic is an op/ed section where readers are free to express their opinion.—The Ed.
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