Founded: Faith healer Madame Emily Preston experienced a spiritual awakening in the early 1870s, and by 1885 she'd conjured a thriving village on Oak Mountain, outside of Cloverdale, centered around her Christian-tinged "religion of inspiration."
Beliefs: An all-seeing "X-ray eye," alcohol-rich herbal tonics and a direct personal relationship with God were all part of the Preston way. Less a utopian community than a health-oriented religious colony, Preston attracted people nationwide to experience the Madame's healing powers; some stayed to worship at the altar of the Free Pilgrim's Covenant Church. Critics called it quackery, but they had obviously not partaken of those magnificently potent medicinal spirits.
Unraveling: While numbering 150 at its peak, the population of the village began a steady decline into obscurity after the death of founder, prophetess and major employer Emily Preston in 1909.
Remnants: Most of the buildings—including an abandoned mansion long used as a party pad for Cloverdale teenagers—were destroyed in a fire in 1988. The church still stands, along with a few of the houses, and restoration efforts have been made by the Preston Historical Society.—L.C.
Founded: In 1875, Thomas Lake Harris brought his Brotherhood of the New Life colony from the East Coast to the foothills north of Santa Rosa. He called the place the "Eden of the West" and soon amassed dozens of followers, drawn by the British spiritual leader's mad charisma.
Beliefs: Cosmic sexuality, breath-work called "divine respiration," extraterrestrial beings and Jesus as benevolent hermaphodite were all part of Harris' wild cosmology. He believed that fairies were real, and liked to reside in the female bosom. Partakers of wine as a "divine and celestial substance," the Brotherhood cultivated acres of vines, producing some of the country's best wine.
Unraveling: With his reputation shot to tatters by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter's accusation of sexual advances, Harris abandoned the commune. He left it in the hands of Kanaye Nagasawa, who successfully ran the winery for 40 more years.
Remnants: The ruins of the winery still exist, just off Round Barn Boulevard. Graffiti-covered wine casks and collapsed roof beams guard larger rooms strewn with debris, rat-droppings and remnants of the just-passing-through, whether those looking for a place to lay their heads, or the ghost of Jane Lee Waring, who was known in the 1880s for wandering the property in Turkish garb, smoking a pipe. A park named for Nagasawa opened nearby in 2007.—L.C.
The Icaria-Speranza Colony
Founded: In 1881, French immigrants moved to Cloverdale to begin a colony inspired by Etienne Cabet's Travel and Adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria. The Icarians planted vineyards, wheat, fruit trees and flower gardens on 885 acres and set about making real Cabet's enlightened communist utopia.
Beliefs: An agrarian-based community, these communist comrades believed in cooperative living based on solidarity, peace, equality and farming.
Unraveling: One of the last-standing Icarian settlements in the United States, the stridently anti-capitalist group was doomed by financial struggles. After a grape harvest failed to produce anticipated profits, the colony was dissolved by court order in 1886 and the property was liquidated to pay off creditors. Also, as with modern-day communist groups in the United States, they had a damn hard time with recruitment.
Remnants: None of the original buildings remain, but a historical plaque sits on the former site of the Icarian schoolhouse, on the west side of Asti Road, approximately two miles north of Asti Post Office Road.—L.C.
Founding: Led by Unitarian Rev. Edward Biron Payne, the Altrurians bought 185 acres of farmable land six miles northeast of Santa Rosa, off Mark West Creek, in 1884. They were inspired by A Traveler from Altruria by William Dean Howell, which details the story of Mr. Homos and his evolutionarily superior homeland. Goodbye unfettered capitalism, hello spread the wealth!
Beliefs: With an eye toward creating a completely equal society, the group of artisans and idealists believed in a government run by the people, suffrage for all, no private ownership of land and a 10-hour work day.
Unraveling: According to an 1896 San Francisco Chronicle article, the "character of the soil and inexperience of the members in farming" led to the demise of this rural utopian enclave. The community debt was exacerbated by a failed effort to build a hotel on the site. Altruria dissolved in 1896, after operating for less than two years.
Remnants: The property was bought by Dr. W. P. Burke in the late 1890s and transformed into a "medical and surgical sanitarium." Later, the doctor was imprisoned for murdering his mistress by dynamite and arsenic at Burke's Sanitarium. All that's left of Altruria now, according to legend, is an oak tree and a fire pit.—L.C.