‘One foot in the past, one in the future’
The city of Petaluma was still in its infancy when Joan O’Brien’s maternal great-grandparents — pioneer settlers Richard and Mary Kelsey — arrived here from Nevada City in 1873 and began farming a 360-acre ranch at the corner of Adobe Road and East Washington Street on property that eventually became Prince Park, Rooster Run Golf Course and Science of the Soul.
Five years earlier, in 1868, O’Brien’s fraternal great-grandfather, Lakeville dairyman Battista Gambonini, came from Switzerland. His daughter Olivia married Attilio Dado, a descendant of another pioneer family. Their son Vernon, born in 1910, was O’Brien’s father.
Her mother, Edwinna, attended Heald Business College in San Francisco after graduating from Petaluma High in 1933. She worked at Poultry Producers of Central California before meeting Vernon at an ice-skating rink in Santa Rosa.
Joan was born in 1937, but Edwinna died in childbirth and Joan was raised on the family ranch by her grandparents.
“Growing up, I remember the city ended at the fairgrounds,” O’Brien said. “Next to that were the Kresky walnut orchards. A lot of the houses along Washington Street are now gone.”
Edwin Kelsey grew hay, vetch and walnuts, in addition to raising sheep. He was active in the community and became one of Petaluma’s prominent citizens.
Emily Light Kelsey’s family came west from New York in 1850, opening a hotel in Placerville. They later operated hotels in this area, including the Petaluma House. She attended St. Vincent’s Academy and worked at the Petaluma Incubator Company and at Camm & Hedges Lumber before marrying in 1915. In 1958, Emily served as a director of the Petaluma Centennial Corporation.
At Petaluma High, Joan played clarinet in the school band, participated in student government and earned a lifetime membership in the California Scholarship Federation Honor Society.
“I chose teaching and began my career at Old Adobe Union,” said O’Brien. “After two years, I decided I needed to spread my wings, so in 1961 I accepted a job teaching second grade in Napa. While there I went on a blind date with Jim O’Brien, who co-owned the A&W Root Beer franchise in Petaluma. We met in February, 1962 and married in November. We were married for 51 years before his passing.”
Jim O’Brien was a native of Washington state who worked odd jobs before coming to California in 1950 to join his brother, Dan, in the construction trade, until serving in the Army during the Korean War. He then worked at various jobs in California and Oregon before partnering with his brother, in 1960, to buy the A&W Drive-In at East Washington and Wilson streets.
After their marriage, Joan said, Jim decided to lease the Hickory Pit in San Rafael. The couple lived in Fairfax and she taught in Greenbrae for a year until Jim had the urge to move to Lake Tahoe. There he got a job at Harvey’s, while she worked at Harrah’s.
“Jim and Dan were always looking for deals,” she explained. “When he wanted to move back to Petaluma, I got a teaching job at McDowell School. He was working at Sonoma Joe’s when he learned the restaurant, bar and banquet facilities at the Holiday Inn under construction in Santa Rosa was looking for someone to sublease it.”
He and Dan revived their partnership and opened the Three Lions restaurant.
“The Holiday Inn was in a poor location but we built up the business for the lunch crowd and Jim developed a thriving bar business that featured musical entertainment,” she said. “We ran it for nine years. I did the scheduling, kept the books, hired the waiters and served as hostess. During that time, we built a home on my grandparents’ ranch and began raising our children Kerry and Tim.”
After they left the restaurant business, the couple bought a camper and a small boat.
“I was working as a bookkeeper at the Washoe House,” she continued. “Jim had experience in fixing bankrupt properties, so when he found a seasonal RV Park with 50 spaces available in Lund, British Columbia, we bought it. We were open from mid-May through August. We loved it up there. It was a very positive experience for the kids. We ran the RV park for nine seasons.”
After selling the park, Jim and Joan began traveling. Over time, they wore out four fifth-wheel trailers on their journeys to British Columbia, driving the Alaskan Highway and trips to Arizona. In 1989, Joan began volunteering at Petaluma’s Kaiser Permanente Medical Offices, amassing thousands of volunteer hours in addition to writing and producing a weekly newsletter for the volunteers. With COVID-19 restrictions in place since 2020, the volunteers have only recently returned to their desks.
“Another hat that I’ve worn,” Joan begins, “is my longtime interest in computers. I bought my kids a Commodore 64 when it first came out and I’ve been a board member and membership secretary for the North Coast Macintosh Users Group since 2000. I’ve worked for Brian Sobel Communications for 32 years and with my knowledge of desktop publishing I’ve written three books on our family history and building our post adobe house. I’ve always been known as the family paper shuffler.”
In her spare time, she knits Teddy bears that are given to kids in the emergency room at Kaiser Santa Rosa.
“I often say that a person is the sum of their parts,” said O’Brien. “I would say that my parts aren’t anything special, but they represent the various people who came to Petaluma for a variety of reasons in the 1800s and put down roots. They contributed to building the community, providing labor and knowledge to establish the foundation of Petaluma.
“Having lived with my grandparents and listening to the people they knew,” O’Brien concluded, “I feel I’ve always had one foot in the past and one foot in the future.”
Harlan Osborne’s “Toolin’ Around Town” runs on the second and fourth Fridays of the month in the Argus-Courier. Contact him at email@example.com.