After 55 years of keeping up with landscaping and garden design trends and creating some of the most attractive estates, courtyards, ponds and rock gardens in Sonoma and Marin counties, John Oberg is putting his rakes and shovels in the tool shed and retiring.
The son of a lumber mill owner, John and his twin brother, James Oberg Jr., ventured into the imaginative realm of landscape gardening after their father, James Oberg Sr., cautioned there was no future in the diminishing North Coast logging industry. If their father was alive today, chances are he’d barely recognize the 22-acre parcel of land he purchased in the Denman flat area in the mid-1940s. When Highway 101 was built in 1956, his property, which extended south to Corona Road, became the Southwest quadrant of the Old Redwood Highway interchange. At the time he bought the land, he became a partner in a logging mill operating on the flood-prone property.
A native of Joplin, Missouri, Oberg came west with his wife, Christine, to see the Golden Gate Bridge. After getting a taste of California weather, they settled in Marin County. Their sons were born in 1947 in Ross, shortly before the family moved to Petaluma.
Growing up, the boys shared many hobbies and business goals. John and Jim became Eagle Scouts, won the two-man canoe portion of legendary Argus-Courier columnist Bill Soberanes’ annual boat races on the Petaluma River and partnered in several successful business ventures. Jim died in 1992.
After taking sole ownership of the lumber mill and about to expand into the hardware business, James Oberg Sr. ran a two-page newspaper ad announcing the grand opening of Oberg Lumber Company, on July 23, 1949. When the hardware store didn’t do as well as he’d hoped, Oberg rented the building to restaurateur Mel Montero, who opened Sonoma Joe’s restaurant. A few years later, Montero purchased land on the northeast side of the freeway interchange where he built a newer version of Sonoma Joe’s, now the site of 101 Casino.
After Sonoma Joe’s moved, Oberg had his employees rotate the north-facing building to the west and build a large addition. Cattlemen’s Steakhouse moved into the newly completed building in the mid-1970s. While he ran the lumber yard, his wife, Christine Oberg, worked as a sales associate at Rosenberg’s in Santa Rosa and the White House and Macy’s department stores in San Rafael. She was active in the Petaluma Woman’s Club and Sigma Beta Phi, a non-academic sorority founded for the social, cultural and civic enrichment of its members. They later divorced.
Jim and John Oberg took landscape, forestry and nursery-related FFA classes at Petaluma High, and working as the “Oberg Bros.” got small jobs as early as 1963. Two years later, Golden Eagle Milling president Dolph Hill, impressed by the boys’ energetic confidence and self-assurance, hired them to landscape the mill’s new parking area at the corner of B Street and Petaluma Boulevard North. That led to the installation of new plants and shrubs in the Purity Store parking lot. Their business expanded into Marin County where their father was building subdivision fencing. The self-taught brothers would drive through established neighborhoods gathering creative ideas.
“The hardest thing to do is to take a flat piece of ground and make it look good,” said John. “I got tired of laying sod — it was boring. I developed my own style by creating a lot of rock gardens and building character into the lot sites.”