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Toolin’ Around Town: Petaluma’s Tresch Dairy boasts stellar views, event center and an epic ‘Man Cave’

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The countryside surrounding the Tresch Dairy is strikingly similar to the way it looked when Swiss immigrants Julio and Maria Nonella — accompanied by their two daughters, Olympia and Rose — bought the ranch property in 1905, paying $20,000 in gold. Aside from a few modern buildings, the gently rolling hills and pastureland appears timeless as it transforms from emerald green in the springtime to golden-amber in the summer.

The ranch has evolved in many ways as it passed through four generations of ownership over the past 118 years, but the family’s commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship, begun many years ago, has steadfastly remained in place. Significantly, the ranch has grown to many times its original 320 acres, and in 1998 became the second organic dairy west of the Mississippi River.

Not long after the Nonellas bought the property, Robert Tresch, a ranch hand, caught the eye of Olympia Nonella and eventually won her heart. After marrying, the couple took over the ranch where they raised their three sons, Albert, Lawrence and Robert Jr.

Robert Jr. bought the business from his grandmother around 1965, the year his son Joe, the current owner, graduated from Petaluma High School. A hard-working farm kid and dairyman who developed uncanny physical strength at an early age, Joe Tresch played tackle on the Trojans’ dominating 1964 football team, which finished the season with a 9-1 record. He still recalls Coach Don Read cautioning his defensive unit to contain Drake’s speedy halfback Dean Lazzarini, who was instrumental in handing Petaluma its only loss of the season. In 1967, Tresch powered his way to winning the lightweight division (under 175 pounds) championship at the World’s Wrist Wrestling championship at the Veteran’s Memorial Building.

In college, while taking business and forestry classes at SRJC and at Chico State College, Joe was unsure if he wanted to continue his family’s farming legacy, or work for the U.S. Forestry Service. But after graduating in 1970, he realized, as he recently put it, “The rest of the world didn’t look half as good as it did back on the ranch.”

Joe took over control of the ranch after his father’s death in 1978. He recalled working 19 straight years without missing a day of milking. During that period he remembered the many stories his grandmother had told him about ranches she could have bought. Heeding her advice, whenever nearby ranches came up for sale, he bought them, adding to his overall acreage.

One such acquisition came after some heated and contentious wrangling with the city of Santa Rosa over its intention to extend a wastewater plant into an area Tresch was leasing from the University of California. The Tresch family prevailed and the beautiful valley is now the site of Olympia’s Orchard, home to thousands of apple trees, 50 different varieties, planted by Joe’s wife, Kathy. Her certified organic apples are sold directly to the public from a roadside stand near their Walker Road ranch.

In 1976, Joe granted permission to Bulgarian- born artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, who were proposing a 24.5-mile work of art consisting of 2,050 panels of woven nylon supported by 21-foot high steel poles placed 62 feet apart, traversing parts of Sonoma and Marin counties and crossing 55 parcels of land. Christo’s beautiful Running Fence graced the Tresch ranch and many others for about two weeks before it was taken down.

The Nonellas’ original property became Olympia’s Valley Estate, an event center with the original 1865 Victorian homestead, historic barn, hilltop areas, meadows and a pond set among weeping willow trees, offering a scenic background for ornate and elaborate weddings and social events. Operated by Kathy Tresch and daughters Lydia and Lindsay, and Lindsay’s husband Tyler, Olympia’s Valley Estate is available for public rentals.

On the private side of the ranch, where the family once hosted an outdoor centennial celebration of the property — inviting 500 guests, many of whom arrived in Jeeps or on horseback — is Joe Tresch’s grandest showcase of all, his Man Cave.

While the term is open to interpretation, to this city dweller, Joe’s Man Cave resembles a hunting lodge or museum. First conceived as a place to display his collection of antique rifles, early California spurs, Native American artifacts, saddles, and old west memorabilia, Joe’s home-sized “cave” — with its wide veranda, stone fireplace and numerous 19th century relics, separated by swinging saloon doors that open to an Old West bar where Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty would feel at home — outgrew its original plans.

Tresch easily offers the history behind his collections, but is reluctant to call the place a museum.

“When you have a museum,” he said, “good intentioned people are always bringing you more stuff. I have all I need.”

Most notable are the oversized hand-carved front door and huge, 8-foot high, 25-foot wide mural, a high-relief maple carving of a six-horse Wells Fargo stagecoach like the one that galloped across his ranch on the way to the coast many years ago. The piece is the crowning achievement of woodcarver and chainsaw artist Deyvon Harrison of Petaluma. Farm implements, sawmill blades and wagon wheels of all sizes are displayed around the property.

Joe and Kathy Tresch have planted more than 10,000 native plants and trees on their property and were named the Sierra Club’s Environmentalists of the Year in 1996 and have won awards as Stewards of the Land. If things go according to plan, their son Joey, twin brother of Lydia, will someday become the ranch’s fifth-generation owner.

(‘Toolin’ Around Town,’ by Harlan Osborne, runs every other week. You can contact him at harlan@sonic.net)