On Sept. 14, 1915, Ollie Bockee (pronounced “bouquet”), the new owner of over 500 acres in Calistoga, was charged with killing a dog on her property.
As the Press Democrat wrote of the event at the time, Bockee was “greatly annoyed by hunters’ cunning stock and game on [her] property with dogs regardless of signs prohibiting hunting and trespassing.”
Taking charge of the situation, as the women in her family would do time and again, Bockee and her son set out with rifles and shot at the interloping dog, killing it as it chased after a fawn.
This was only a year after she purchased the land from MC “Boss” Meeker, who was ready to give it up. The Petrified Forest, as the property is now called, the site of one of the largest concentrations of petrified trees in the world, is now up for sale with an asking price of $12 million.
For the past hundred years, the forest has been run solely by the women of the family. Its sale is both the end of an era for this world wonder and the family legacy of the ambitious Ollie Orre Bockee of Clinton, Iowa.
“She did her own thing,” said Janet Angell, a Healdsburg resident and one of the co-owners of the Petrified Forest, who manages the property with her sister. “She was ahead of her time.”
Charles Evans, or Petrified Charley, who discovered the first bit of petrified tree as he raked his pasture, charged the occasional curious naturalist and passer-by to view this wonder. However, it was Ollie Bockee, a tenacious marketer and businessperson before women entrepreneurs were common, who was determined to share Evans’ discovery with the world.
Always dreaming of moving to California from her small town in Iowa, after she received a huge windfall from the passing of her aunt, Bockee headed for the sunshine state. As written in a profile in 1930, Bockee found herself heading up a small and treacherous road north of Santa Rosa.
Making a Stake
Discovering a man living on the property, “Boss” Meeker, she asked if he was willing to sell his land. After some bartering, they settled on a $16,000 price. He took what cash she had on hand and told her she was due to pay the rest in the future. It was at this moment that what today is seen as the Petrified Forest began to take shape.
As Bockee worked tirelessly with her son over the next 25 years, they discovered and excavated more petrified trees on the property. It was then that she spent much of her time promoting the property itself.
Promotions were initially made by contacting university paleontologists across the country to have them visit the site in order to understand the ancient history that shaped, not only its trees, but the land itself. One such scientist of note was Ralph Chaney. A UC Berkeley paleobotanist, Chaney, after seeing the wonder that was Bockee’s property in the early 1920s, then spent much of the rest of his career studying ancient redwoods.
Bockee also realized that many might find the property a more curious place to visit if they saw pieces of its relics elsewhere. Through friends, along with in-laws such as the Hawthornes, residents of the wealthy town of Ross in Marin County, Bockee helped donate large pieces of the rocks to Central Park in New York City, along with pieces brought out in honor of the building of the Golden Gate Bridge.
And while there are newspaper records of these exchanges occurring, there is little else that proves they happened. Regardless, word was spreading and helping bring in a steady flow of visitors to the park.
But, what really helped Bockee’s Petrified Forest was the paving of the now named Petrified Forest Road, along with the building of essential bridges across the Bay Area, making the trip a much easier one.
After Bockee’s death in 1950, while each family member contributed to the property’s operation, none could compare to the initial efforts of Ollie Bockee. Jeanette Hawthorne continued her sister’s promotional efforts, and added a cafe for patrons to be served in the undeveloped area of Calistoga, where their buses would arrive and take them back to Santa Rosa, San Francisco or Oakland.
When Hawthorne was unable to continue operations of the forest, her daughters, Davida Orre Conway and Fay Orre Conway, took over until 2010, when sisters Barbara and Janet Angell assumed the lease and daily operations of the park.
The last few years have been far from easy. In 2017, the Tubbs fire, which was the most destructive fire in California history, tore through much of the property, luckily not damaging any of the main buildings at the park.
Then, the pandemic hit, which made operations of the park uncertain as the world sheltered in a new normal. Luckily, visiting the park was one of the few things people could do, and so operations continued, though on a smaller scale.
Time for a Change
Now, after such tumultuous events, even with them bearing little financial impact on the park, the two sisters (who are not the sole owners, it should be noted) are readying to retire.
The sale, however, is not only due to a desire to retire, but also to a younger generation being unwilling or able to currently take over operations.
Ultimately, Janet Angell said that the most important issue for the family to focus on is finding a quality buyer for the property.
“We’re just trying to find good hands for a good steward going forward. And hopefully, we’ll find some people who are interested in preserving it as open space,” Angell said.
Angell did note that in the past the state has tried to have them sell the property, and they are, according to her, actively interested in it, though nothing publicly has been said by the state.
“I think the state would be a great buyer,” Angell said. “But who knows; a private buyer could take good care of the property too.”
“I feel like Barbara and I have done a good job carrying it forward,” Angell continued. “And we’re just hoping that it’s preserved. But you don’t always have a choice about who the buyer is.”
While the record of the largest petrified tree is in Arizona, one, if not the longest, petrified tree in the world is the Monarch. Stuck underneath a hill, it peaks from the side. Ollie Bockee, whose legacy is now ending with this sale, worked with her son and friends to dig out the nearly 300-foot length of this Monarch tree.
The Monarch tree is not only a testament to the far away history of the Sonoma County of the Pliocene Epoch, but of the determination of a businessperson ahead of her time who, given fair warning, would shoot down a dog if its owner didn’t listen to her.
The Petrified Forest is located at 4100 Petrified Forest Rd., Calistoga. Open 9am-5pm daily.