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Olompali docent Joan Lujan knows her history


For the past 16 years, Joan Lujan has cheerfully worked as a volunteer docent at Olompali State Historical Park. She’s especially valuable on Saturdays, when the largest groups of curious visitors descend on the former Miwok village, asking myriad questions that require an understanding of the region and the park itself.

Cheerful and energetic, the 81-year-old Lujan patiently and expertly answers every question she can, or graciously explains how to find it. While some visitors walk away marveling at her keen sense of history, those that know the native-born Petaluman’s background and wealth of historical knowledge agree that the fifth-generation descendant of Gold Rush-era pioneers, has even more to share.

Lujan can keep an audience in stitches with humorous and uplifting stories of her spirited family members who’ve called Petaluma home. The most colorful characters would surely include George Faith, an uncle who lost a fingertip in a barroom fight and died three days later, Catherine “Kitty” Rodd, an aunt, who died and left her estate to her cats, or her grandfather, Lewis R. Barber, a tempestuous inventor who prohibited conversation at the dinner table.

Delving into the past, Lujan might cite any number of prominent positions her family members have held. Among the most notable would be her great-great-grandfather Charles Blackburn, Petaluma’s first undertaker, who arrived here in 1852 in a covered wagon, and Blackburn’s son, Frank, who was the Sonoma County Coroner in 1906. Her great-grandfather, Samuel Rodd, was a prominent contractor who built many of Petaluma’s Victorian mansions. Lujan’s grandmother, Dorothy Rodd, was a gifted musician and beloved piano teacher for over 50 years.

Born in 1936, Joan was the daughter of Jane and Art Spolini. Her mother, who worked at the L&M Drug Store soda fountain, the PHS cafeteria and Rex Hardware, was one of five children born to Dorothy and Lewis R. Barber. Valley Ford native Art Spolini, who once served as Grand Marshal of the Petaluma Parade, was a superb athlete at Petaluma High where he played tennis, ran cross-country and captained the 1928 championship B-class basketball team. Well-known for his public address announcing of local functions and sporting events, he’d worked for ice cream man Hubert “Daddy” Chandler and candy maker Pete Fundas before embarking on a 43-year career at the Petaluma Co-operative Creamery.

Joan, along with her brothers Warren (known as Butch) and Bobby, enjoyed a normal childhood, attending Lincoln Primary, St. Vincent’s Elementary and Petaluma Junior and Senior High Schools. Active and ambitious, Joan had been a cheerleader at PJHS and was competing for a similar spot at Petaluma High when she was stricken with polio. Coincidentally, her brother Butch was afflicted at the same time. Despite the debilitating challenges facing her, she continued to attend school and took a job at U.S. Bakery, where she learned cake decorating. Possessing uncanny fortitude and perseverance, Joan faced her difficulties head-on before surrendering to eight years of wearing leg braces, depending on canes for support and using a wheelchair. It was during this period that she took painting lessons from art teachers Frank and Pat Marshall.

In the mid-1950s, while living in San Francisco and learning to become a PBX operator, Joan met New Mexico native and Korean War veteran Toby Lujan. The couple married in 1956, and after living in San Francisco for five years, moved to Petaluma, where Toby attended night school to learn carpentry. Raising a family that grew to six children (Monica, Ramona, Toby, Lisa, Andy and Roberta), the Lujan’s went shopping for a larger house.

When she was shown 245 Keokuk St., Joan immediately knew it was the house she wanted.

Not only did it come with a big basement that would be perfect for her husband’s wood shop, it also came with a historical pedigree, having been built in 1906 for Ira B. Raymond and his wife Minnie. Raymond, a pioneer businessman who established the Racket Store — before partnering with his brother, Henry, in several dry goods and apparel stores, and later a furniture and household goods store — owned 56 houses in Petaluma, and was the developer of Raymond Heights. Raymond’s daughters, Ethel and Edith, were both married in the house in 1921, and Edith continued to live there. In 1963, the Lujan’s became just the second owners of the six-room cottage, after purchasing it completely furnished, for $16,000.

An avid roller-skater and ice-skater as a child, skating was the one thing Joan missed the most while afflicted with polio. After persevering through her illness, Joan was able to skate once again, and in 1974, while she was working as a teacher’s aide at McKinley School during the gas shortage, she donned her roller skates and began skating across town to work every day.

Like many long-time Petaluma residents, Joan meets with a group of her former classmates for lunch once a month. Originally 15 members, there are still 13 women from the PHS Class of ’54 who regularly meet together, and all but one of them have lost their husbands. As the baker in her family, whose specialty is desserts, Joan always brings a sweet treat to the luncheons.

(Harlan Osborne’s column ‘Toolin’ Around Town,’ appears every two weeks. Contact him at harlan@sonic.net)