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LeBARON: A blast from Santa Rosa's beer past

  • Eric Stanley, curator of history at the Sonoma County Museum, holds the Grace Brewery whistle in front of the museum in Santa Rosa on Friday, April 26, 2013. The Grace Brewery whistle for decades marked the passing of the day for Santa Rosans, sounding off at noon and 5 p.m. ((Scott Manchester/The Press Democrat))

It is, you might say, a blast from the past.

A couple of weeks back, a man stopped in at the Sonoma County Museum and left a package with a letter addressed to me.

This was no small gift. Inside the box was a 15-pound brass steam whistle, 16 inches tall and 4 inches around, with a 7-inch long arm with a hole in the end for the rope or chain that makes it go.

It was, the letter told me (wait for it!), the Grace Brothers Brewery whistle.

To say that I was touched is not adequate to describe how I feel about this unusual gift — and how it came about.

The letter came from a man who signed it simply, “Gary.” It was his “humble confession,” as he put it.

When the 94-year-old brewery closed for the last time in 1966, Gary was a 14-year-old student at Herbert Slater Junior High. “The word was out at school,” he wrote, “that you could explore the inside of the buildings. Not wanting to miss the potential excitement, explore we did!

“The inside of the brewery I can still see, with all of its huge copper vats, copper piping and large machinery. We climbed around everywhere until we reached the gable at the top of the bottling plant. ... And then I saw the whistle way up on the roof pinnacle. I decided I should be the one to have it.”

He climbed to the top and shinnied along a pipe to reach the rope and removed the whistle.

“That was 46 years ago,” he wrote. “I have always thought about returning this treasure and never thought of selling it.”

He said he knew that I would know best where the whistle should go. And he told me he felt guilty all these years for the theft.

I, on the other hand, consider him the hero of this adventure, not the villain. If Gary hadn’t kept this whistle safe all these years, the Sonoma County Museum, which I consider the best place for it, couldn’t already be planning to make it part of the permanent history exhibit in the Old Post Office when that building becomes a history-only exhibit space.

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