Arrested Development -- Elmira Enjoys Unfettered, Quiet Life
By Barry Eberling
An old Ford truck finds its resting place in rural Elmira. (Gary Goldsmith/Daily Republic)
Editor's note: Solano County in the late 1800s had a half-dozen additional towns trying to become the next Big Thing, only to disappear or enter long twilights. But these towns are more than colorful stories from the county's Wild West past. Some linger today as peaceful places threatened by subdivisions creeping from nearby cities. Others are remote and all-but-forgotten, yet are still candidates to play in important role in the county's future. This series is about Solano County towns that disappeared or faded. Today's installment looks at Elmira.
ELMIRA - Lupe Torres is a newcomer to one of Solano County's rare old towns that through the decades neither grew rapidly to become a city nor faded into oblivion: Elmira.
He's worked at "The Cabin" bar for seven years, but only in December 2005 did he move to Elmira. He preferred the quiet, small town to the bustling suburbs.
"I lived in Vacaville, but it's getting too crowded over there," Torres said recently as he did maintenance work on the roof of the bar, one of Elmira's few businesses. "I found a place over here. I jumped at the chance."
He now lives in a town without sidewalks, where one yard has roosters strutting through it and another stores a rusty Ford pickup so old the headlights are mounted on the fenders. He's joined about 300 other Elmira residents.
"I like it the way it is," Torres said from his rooftop perch. "But it's going to change. The way it's going now, it seems the houses are coming out this way from Vacaville."
Torres and other Elmira residents would seem to have reason for concern. About a mile of flat fields dominated by sunflowers separate Elmira from Vacaville. It almost looks as if Vacaville is chasing Torres, with its fast-growing subdivisions and business parks.
But Vacaville can't leap all the way into Elmira. The city has an agreement with the Solano Irrigation District that bans growth onto prime farmlands more than 1,700 feet east of Leisure Town Road through at least 2050. Vacaville got SID water for homes and businesses elsewhere in its borders out of the deal.
So Elmira is a rarity in Solano County - a slice of the area's semi-rural past surrounded by a growth force field.
Yet that greenbelt agreement also has a clause permitting Vacaville and SID to change the growth boundary to 4,000 feet east of Leisure Town Road, should they desire. That's about two-thirds of a mile, almost to the entrance of Elmira. Vacaville still couldn't swallow Elmira, but it could grow to the town's front doorstep.
It's a possibility that weighs on the minds of some residents in the small town.
Sue Johnson has lived in Elmira for 21 years. She works at what might be Elmira's heart-and-soul, the town's post office. The Postal Service doesn't deliver to Elmira homes, so residents have to stop by the post office to pick up their mail.
People from eastern Vacaville also stop by the modest, wooden, 1986 building that houses the post office.
"It's close. There's no wait. There's no crowd. We're also friendlier out here," Johnson said as she stood behind the counter.
Like Torres, she moved to the town from Vacaville, in her case to find an affordable house. Like Torres, she sees Vacaville looming nearby and wants the big city to keep its distance.
P.J. Huffman moved to Elmira 15 years ago to start an auction business.
"I had a small business going then and it got me out of Vacaville," Huffman said. "(Vacaville) was too strict and wouldn't let a little man in . . . so I went to Elmira, started my business and went from there."
He likes what he found.
"It's small and everybody keeps to themselves, but they kind of look out for each other," Huffman said.
Elmira is governed by the county Board of Supervisors and is under the rules and regulations for the unincorporated county. Huffman sees these laws as less onerous than those in cities, such as Vacaville.
"If you don't make waves, they let you alone," Huffman said.
But sometimes the outside world intrudes on Elmira. Then Huffman and other Elmira residents are willing to make waves.
In 1996, Elmira residents learned that a regional, underground fuel pipeline was leaking near the railroad tracks. Residents feared the fuel would poison their water supplies. About 280 residents joined a lawsuit against the pipeline owner. Huffman kept an eye on the pipeline, looking for more leaks and investigating how the pipeline was operated, becoming what he called "a junkyard dog" on the topic.
The message is clear: Don't tread on Elmira. This quiet place can make itself heard, when the need arises.
Torres thought of only one downside to Elmira. Over and over again each day, trains rush down the tracks in the town, passing a rusty water tower left over from ages ago. Each time they come, they let out a loud warning on their whistle.
It's a clamor that conjures up stories of Elmira's birth. Like many a Solano County town, the railroad made Elmira.
Stephen Hoyt, the town's founder, is among Solano County's pioneers. He came to the area in 1853 and raised barley. In 1868, he drew up the map for a town on 40 acres he owned along the new California Pacific railroad line.
People called the new town "Vaca Station." It was renamed "Elmira" in 1871 after the town of Elmira, N.Y. That was the birthplace of a prominent town citizen.
By 1879, historian J.P. Munro Fraser could describe Elmira as a "thriving little town" with 500 residents. It had two general merchandise stores, three blacksmith shops, two warehouses, a lumber yard, a livery stable, two hotels, churches and schools.
A series of fires in the 1890s hurt Elmira. Then, around 1915, the state highway was built several miles to the west through Vacaville and that hurt even more. Autos and Vacaville thrived in coming decades, while trains and Elmira fell into decline.
Yet it's that very state of arrested development, that very feeling that Elmira has somehow escaped the growth spurts and associated headaches of nearby communities, that makes it attractive to some people. This is that rare Solano County town where change comes slowly, rather than seemingly overnight.
The growth force field formulated by Vacaville and SID will remain in place for the foreseeable future. That means that, barring some new direction by the Board of Supervisors, Elmira's future should be much like its recent past.
Next Monday: The towns that disappeared.
Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at email@example.com.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
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