When a Veteran Rocker’s Great Great Grandparents Hosted Emperor Norton at Their Sonoma Valley Ranch
In 1856, Charles Chaffee Champlin (1812–1892) and his wife, Sara Bartlett Champlin (1820–1898), bought from General Vallejo a 275-acre ranch in the Sonoma Valley, between Sonoma and Petaluma.
The same year, the Champlins built a house on that land that would stand for more than a century, until it was destroyed by fire in 1959.
In a 1955 letter to the Oakland Tribune, Charles C. Champlin (1876-1965) — Charles Chaffee Champlin’s namesake — related the story of a special guest who visited and stayed with his grandparents every few months at this house, facing Stage Gulch Road.
Here’s how the Tribune published Champlin’s letter on 20 February 1955:
The walk from Lakeville to the Champlin Ranch was a little more than five miles — which must have taken the Emperor a couple of hours, maybe a little more.
A Champlin family website includes several photographs of members of the Champlin family and views of the ranchhouse where Emperor Norton visited and stayed.
The undated photograph to the right is of Charles Chaffee Champlin probably in his 50s or 60s — so, as he would have looked during the period when Emperor Norton came calling. It’s a mystery how the Champlins and the Emperor came to befriend one another.
Below is a screenshot of a Google Maps satellite view showing 4653 Stage Gulch Road — the modern address of the Champlin Ranch — relative to San Francisco, Sonoma and Petaluma.
Here’s the Champlin ranchhouse as it was in the 1920s.
Below is the house in the late 1890s, after Charles Chaffee Champlin’s death in 1892. The online caption for this photo indicates that Sara Bartlett Champlin, who joined her husband in welcoming the Emperor, is pictured here. The figure standing at the fence is Charles C. Champlin, the writer of the letter to the Oakland Tribune.
The following photograph, taken in front of the ranchhouse in 1891 or 1892, shows Charles Chaffee Champlin (second from right), with Sara Bartlett Champlin to his left.
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The Champlin ranch remained in the family for 160 years, although, over the last generation or two, 165 acres of it was sold off in pieces to vineyards.
Two years ago, in January 2017, the last 110 acres of the original ranch — including the land where the house that hosted the Emperor once stood — was sold through Sotheby's.
Here is the "romance video" that was used to market the ranch. Watching, one can readily imagine the Emperor Norton ambling across this land with the help of one of his many walking sticks. Open the video to "full screen" for the best experience.
And, yes: For those who know their Baby Boomer rock musicians, it's that Champlin. Charles C. Champlin’s son, Malcolm Champlin (1911-1998) — who he mentions toward the end of his letter of February 1955 — was the father of Bill Champlin (b.1947), who has been on the scene for more than 50 years — both with his own band, the Sons of Champlin, and as a nearly-30-year member of Chicago — and whose birthday, as it happens, is today.
So, the Charles and Sara Champlin who bought the ranch from General Vallejo in 1856 — and who that same year built the homestead where Emperor Norton visited and stayed with them multiple — these were Bill Champlin’s great-great grandparents.
A distinguished connection that no doubt will be news to many of Bill Champlin’s fans who also salute the Emperor.
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