Toolin’ Around Town: Meeting old friends at PHS class of ‘50 reunion

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Jeanette Sjosten Sutton is a family historian who can trace both sides of her ancestry — from her maternal great-grandfather, William Homer Hamilton, who fought with the Illinois Calvary during the Civil War and was injured in the Battle of Vicksburg — to her fraternal grandfather, Axel Sjosten, who immigrated from Sweden in 1883 and operated a streetcar in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century.

Family history has played a key role in Sutton’s life.

Recently, she reminisced about growing up on her family’s rural property in the 1940s, and her good fortune to still be living there, at a reunion of Petaluma High’s class of 1950, an event that drew about 30 former classmates for the 68th anniversary of their graduation.

I’m among those who feel no other social gathering compares to the warm and friendliness, and the chance to renew old acquaintances, like a high school reunion. At this one, open affection and camaraderie were clear from the smiles and tender embraces between old friends and classmates, most of them 86 years old, reminding me that childhood friendships can last forever.

Contagious joy and laughter spread throughout the room as each person summarized what’s happened in their lives, telling stories of accomplishments and travails, great-grandchildren and 65-year marriages.

The 12-acre parcel on which Jeanette Sjosten was raised was purchased from George P. McNear in 1935 by Axel Sjosten from G.P. McNear. Sjosten, had been living in San Francisco. He, his wife Jane and their children Vincent and Ruth, moved to Petaluma following the 1906 earthquake. Pioneer settler J.G. Stadler, was the original property owner.

“As kids,” Sutton recalled, “my brother Leonard and I hiked and explored Wilson and Marin creeks that ran through our property. We were like goats, roaming all over the place.”

Vincent Sjosten, Jeanette’s father, was a graduate of Heald’s Business College, and worked at Grandi’s Store in Point Reyes Station. He was employed by Union Oil in 1929 when he married Frances Hamilton. Their two children were Jeanette, born in 1932, and Leonard, born in 1934. His sister, Ruth Sjosten, was 22 when she was crowned Egg Day Queen in 1926, chosen to reign over Petaluma’s eighth annual Egg Day celebration, focusing on the city’s growing prosperity from the egg industry.

While seeking an affordable way to build a two-car garage and workshop on his property, Vincent Sjosten - on a visit to the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island with his family in 1939 - met a contractor who taught him how to make adobe bricks. Despite working five-and-a-half days a week, he found the time and, with the help of an old chicken feed mixer, made hundreds of 5-inch thick, 12-by-18 inch, 80 pound adobe bricks, which cured for one year before use. When the garage-workshop was near completion, he decided to add a second story and turn the adobe building into their family home.

With World War II closing in, supplies became scarce, forcing Sjosten to adapt. Unable to obtain steel nails, he bartered with fishermen for copper nails and obtained needed lighting fixtures by trading fresh eggs for them.

“My father was a dynamo,” marveled Sutton. “I don’t know where he found the energy to do all that hard work. When the house was finished, he built a walnut dryer.”

In Petaluma - where the population was just over 10,000 in 1950 and the high school’s senior class numbered 123 - Sutton was editor of the twice-monthly student newspaper, the Trojan, was a member of the Honor Society and participated in after school sports.

After obtaining her teaching credential from San Jose State, she taught at Two Rock Union and Wilson School for a combined seven years. She and her husband Jerome Sutton were married for 25 years and raised two children, Chris and Amy, before divorcing in 1983. She made a career switch and became a supervising clerk in the Sonoma County public works roads department.

Sutton is a former board member and volunteer of the year with the Wilmar Volunteer Fire Department, where she solicited donations and baked cakes for fundraising events. Some of her neighbors are lifetime friends.

Cheerful, sharp-witted and an active bridge player, Sutton is grateful for the aortic heart valve replacement surgery she underwent several years ago, and the help and support of Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS).

Other attendees at the reunion were Harold D’Ambrogia, whose family owned the ranch property that later became Two Rock Ranch Army Station; Bill Potter, who recently pinned captain’s wings on the uniform of his Air Force Academy graduate granddaughter; Joan Stimson, daughter of revered Dr. Clement Stimson; Mason Gilfry, a former Navy jet pilot who made over 1,000 carrier landings; Bob Myers, who served 32 years in law enforcement; Harvey and Jacquie (Koehnke) Christensen, married for 65 years; and Rita Della Maggiora, married to former Petaluma postmaster Dick Dunbar for 67 years.

(‘Toolin’ Around Town,’ by Harlan Osborne, appears every other week. You can reach Harlan at

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