East Marin stories tell what could have been on the coast

Courtesy of Bob Hough/Kentfield-Greenbrae Historical Society.
A dairy operated on the hills of Greenbrae for about 80 years before its owner sold it to developer Niels Shultz, who preserved many native trees and avoid the monotonous feel of many developments.. Many mourned the loss of the beautiful ranch and the sale of it and other ranches in eastern Marin led to the movement to save West Marin agriculture.

In the 1860s the unincorporated town of Kentfield, which sits in the lower Ross Valley, was affectionately called Tarantulaville by locals. The name comes from men who drank “tarantula juice,” a former slang term for subpar whiskey. According to historian Dewey Livingston, it was a rag-tag settlement populated by “hardworking, hard drinking gang[s] of men” who felled trees and loaded them onto schooners at the landing on Corte Madera Creek. 

Back then, the area—where now nary a home sells for under $1 million—looked a lot like West Marin, with its many saloons, farms and cattle and its undeveloped landscape.

Mr. Livingston traces the evolution of Kentfield and nearby Greenbrae—evolutions in development and subdivisions that West Marin largely escaped, and evolutions in property values, which it did not—in his new book, In the Heart of Marin: The History of Kentfield and Greenbrae, California

Some residents formed a nonprofit in 2012 to raise the funds for a history of the two unincorporated towns. They enlisted Mr. Livingston, a soft-spoken man with a neatly trimmed beard who is known in Point Reyes as the local historian, though he has undertaken histories around California and other western states. It took him just shy of two years to complete. 

Mr. Livingston himself lived in Kentfield as a teenager in the early 1970s, but in the course of his research he discovered the two towns possessed a richer, more distinctive identity than he pre-

viously realized, though they are quite different: Kentfield is one of the oldest European settlements in Marin, and Greenbrae one of the youngest.

The tiny village that became Kentfield was officially called Ross Landing in the 1860s, when British immigrant Peter Smith, who could be called the father of the town, arrived and started the first real commercial establishments. He helped the village transition into a more respectable area, although it retained its rougher elements for many decades.

The landing there was also used to transport timber and dairy from the holdings of James Shafter, who owned thousands of acres in West Marin.

The silting of Corte Madera Creek by the end of the 1860s diminished the town’s importance as a port, but wealthy San Franciscans and artists re-envisioned it as an idyllic retreat as early as the 1880s. There they could bask in the summer sun, as Mount Tamalpais blocked the coastal fog. They also built estates: some were large and ostentatious but others were relatively modest, the latter including the estate of the famed Kent family. 

The Kents were not particularly wealthy, and patriarch William Kent gave away much of the land he owned for conservation. But the family legacy lives on, not only through Mr. Kent’s conservation efforts—protecting Muir Woods and leading the effort in the House of Representatives to create the National Park Service—but also in his family’s estate, which eventually became Kent Woodlands, one of the priciest parts of town today. The family at the time fought over the subdivision, but did so for financial reasons and tax issues after Mr. Kent’s passing. (They probably could have done without their name being so prominently used in Marin. “I have documents of the Kents complaining that too many things were being named after them,” Mr. Livingston said.)

The very earliest subdivisions of estates started in the late 1880s, but the trend accelerated in the 20th century, transforming the area from a swath of country estates to a residential neighborhood that housed a mixed-income community. “Developments put in there tended to be small and affordable,” Mr. Livingston said. “Local people trying to develop wanted to make it a respectable community, but not necessarily a wealthy community.”

“Development” and “subdivisions, “which can sound like dirty words in West Marin, eventually took over the vegetable farms and fields of wheat that had served Kentfield residents for decades, but they also created communities. “Of course I don’t want a subdivision on Black Mountain. But you go in to these towns and meet people in these communities, and these are neighborhoods,” Mr. Livingston said. 

And through those communities swept the temperance movement of the early 1900s. The Kentfield Improvement Club was founded to battle debauchery and the saloons in town. Those establishments closed in 1919, when prohibition became the law of the land, though speakeasies likely still operated. In the late 1920s many in town continued to work to remove these unsavory elements, feeling that they gave the town a poor reputation.

Some old-timers lamented the modernization. One man told Mr. Livingston he left Kentfield in 1946 because it was changing too much. Although for many years a mix of working-class residents and well-to-do professionals lived there, starting in the 1960s, a number of families moved to Novato and Petaluma because of rising property values.

Although Mr. Livingston concludes his history of Kentfield’s development around this time, those values only continued to climb, as they did in the rest of the county, which is now considered one of the most expensive places to live in the nation. 

Greenbrae’s history of development is shorter. Until World War II, it bore many similarities to West Marin. It began as a 900-acre dairy ranch in the 1860s, and its picturesque vistas attracted hikers, artists and photographers. 

But in the 1940s, both a demand for housing and the G.I. Bill, which provided veterans with money to purchase homes, led to the end of the dairy. The Archdiocese of San Francisco, which owned the ranch, sold it to a local developer, Niels Schultz. Advertisements broadcast that the community was “in the sun” and just 22 minutes from downtown San Francisco.

At the time, it was the largest development in the county, and many people “mourned the loss of the beautiful Greenbrae Ranch,” Mr. Livingston wrote. 

The sale of Greenbrae and other ranches in East Marin ignited a drive to save agriculture and freeze development in West Marin. Still, Mr. Shultz went about development in a gentler way than some. He preserved native oaks, bays and madrones, and many lots were left for people to build houses themselves so that the town escaped the cookie-cutter fate of many subdivisions.

Like Kentfield, Greenbrae was not intended to serve as an upscale community; in fact, many San Franciscans moved to Greenbrae in part because of the high expense of city living. 

The extent of development in these communities is pretty much set, given the lack of available space. But, subject to real estate demands in Marin and the Bay Area at large, Kentfield and Greenbrae—as well as most of Marin itself—have only become more and more pricey. The mixed-income community that lived in Kentfield for over 50 years is mostly gone, and some people are now trying to remove older homes and build bigger ones.

Mr. Livingston said that although the area has morphed significantly, the people who live there today are still a community, particularly when it comes to rallying around their schools, which residents revitalized in the 1980s. And, despite the many changes, nothing can change the area’s almost poetic locale, he said. “I like the physicality of it, there in the shadow of Mount Tam, where the bay meets the mountains and the creeks coming down.”


Mr. Livingston will give a talk about his new book, In the Heart of Marin: The History of Kentfield and Greenbrae, California, on Monday, April 28, at 7 p.m. at the Point Reyes Station branch of the Marin County Free Library. He will share just what he’s been up to for the past two years, relate some of his favorite parts of the history of the towns and draw comparisons and contrasts with West Marin.