Minding the Stewarts Point Store
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Photos by KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Stewarts Point is one of the more remote coastal areas of Sonoma County, below the cosmopolitan Gualala/Sea Ranch area and north of Fort Ross and Timber Cove. When Herbert Archer (H.A.) Richardson brought his Yankee business acumen from New England to California in 1876 it was the hub of a thriving community.
He started the Stewarts Point Store, which is still operated by his descendants in the same building, making it the oldest such business west of the Mississippi. That’s according to Charles Richardson, the fifth generation to run the venerable and colorful store.
Back in the 1800s, H.A. also had a hotel next door that was a stage stop, a building now settling into picturesque decay. He employed 100 people and had nine steam schooners hauling lumber to San Francisco from the doghole cove (“too small for a dog to turn around”) below Stewarts Point, mostly for railroad ties. About 300 people lived at Stewarts Point back then, and they were served by a one-room school house, currently rotting away nearby.
By 1885 the clever Yankee businessman had become a millionaire with 30,000 acres. People traveled great distances to ask H.A.’s business advice.
From H.A., the store went to his and his wife Althea’s two sons Font and Archer Herbert, then down to Archer’s sons Don and Bus, then to Bus’ son Archer James.
“I bought the store from my Uncle Arch Richardson in 2004 so he could retire,” said Charles Richardson. “He had the store from his dad, Bus.”
(Keeping the lineage straight in a family with so many Dons and Archers can be challenging, but family historians point out that Charles and Arch are actually second cousins. Charles’ father Chet is Arch’s first cousin.)
Bus Richardson, a local character and for decades the local postmaster at the tiny Stewart Point Post Office, passed on in 2006. Before he died, he arranged to make the 870 acres he owned part of a land trust currently managed by a nonprofit.
To this day the Richardson family owns about five miles of Sonoma County coast as well as many inland acres. Charles, 44, lives on hilltop property he owns across the road from the store, but keeps a second home in Santa Rosa so he can spend weekends with his 9-year-old daughter Hailey.
In 2006, he had a foundation put under the old building and did some renovations, including creating an elegantly rustic meeting/wedding venue upstairs.
“I tried doing a restaurant up there just one day a week, and we would get booked up three weeks in advance. It was a lot of work, and I just got burned out,” he explained. “So now I just rent it out.”
The renovations also included putting a modern deli in the back of the store. Up front, no one would ever notice any changes.
Old work implements and family mementos hang from the rafters, including Charles’ grandfather’s baby carriage, the first Chinese wheelbarrow on the coast, an oxen yoke used to haul the timber out of the hills, old farm tools, gigantic abalone shells and old photos, including one of H.A. in a horseless carriage loaded down with deer that was shot in what is now Sea Ranch.
The store does a thriving business most of the year. It’s such a landmark, the building itself is a tourist draw. In the three coldest months, Charles still does enough business to have three employees in addition to working full-time himself.
People come from southern Sea Ranch, Timber Cove and the Kashaya Pomo reservation to buy their necessities and fill their gas tanks. The store upgraded its gas service to comply with underground tank requirements when many country stores opted out of paying for the expensive upgrade. It’s a real necessity on that remote stretch of coast.
Back in 1951 there was some local excitement when a Japanese freighter, the Ken Koku Maru, went aground at Stewarts Point. Locals took in the stranded sailors, feeding and sheltering them until the vessel could be pulled off the rocks weeks later.
“I heard a sad story,” said Richardson. “The captain of the ship was so humiliated he committed hara-kiri when he got home to Japan.”
Since then, things have been relatively quiet at Stewarts Point.
Asked how he feels about carrying the weight of all that history on his shoulders, Charles replied, “There’s a sense of being rooted here. I know it’s rarer and rarer these days. It’s special.
“But there is no guarantee, so every day is a bonus.”
See BBC footage of the shipwreck at bbcmotiongallery.com/gallery/clip/48050309_3600.do.