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Up Close With History: Special Collections Visits the Modini Ranch

Photograph of a cow's skull hanging in a barnSSU’s Special Collections department has been working on digitizing a collection of 46 handwritten journals gifted to Special Collections by Audubon Canyon Ranch (ACR). The journals belonged to Jim and Shirley Modini, Sonoma County ranchers who lived on their ranch in Pine Flat, out past Healdsburg. The two ranchers wrote in their journals for 70 years, from 1935-2005. The Modinis were passionate about keeping the land they loved safe after their deaths so they signed their land over to ACR, a preservation organization, to keep the land wild and free from development. Judy Johnston, the Modinis’ beloved neighbor, is taking care of their estate and gathering personal items for the Modini Legacy Exhibit, to be shown this fall in the Modinis’ Healdsburg town home, now ACR’s Modini Stewardship Center. Johnston and ACR were so thrilled with the work Special Collections is doing to digitize the journals that they invited the department out for a rare tour of the Modini property and a chance to discuss the Modinis on a personal level with people who knew them.

The Special Collections crew working on the Modini Journals Collection, library digitization assistant Amanda Cronkright and student assistants Nick Heitkamp and Natalie Sampo, journeyed out to Pine Flat in June for a chance to discover more about the Modinis, whose lives they have been working so closely with through the process of digitizing the journals:

We started at Judy Johnston’s house for introductions. Diana Ruiz, a Ph.D. student who became close to the Modinis while working as their caretaker, was our guide for our tour around the property. Joining us from ACR was John Petersen, Hugh Robertson, and Scott Artis.

Our group set out for the Modini ranch home, where the Modinis lived all of their married life together. In the lower yard we could see vegetable garden beds and flowers, and to the side of the house was Shirley Modini’s rock garden. We learned from Diana that Shirley had collected unique rocks from around the property for years. We piled into a vehicle and headed to the barn, a large red building down the road from the house. The barn was still full of personal artifacts from the Modinis’ time on the ranch, including a very sweet personalized calendar full of pictures of Jim and Shirley, and the real life skull that Jim Modini had drawn in one of his early journals. A thumbnail picture of the skull drawing is being used as the Modini Ranch Journals Digital Collection icon on Special Collections’ Digital Collections home page. Pictures of local wildlife hung along one side of the barn; Jim was an avid wildlife observer and frequently mentioned the activity in his journals.

Our group continued to the campsite where the Modinis and numerous friends and family came to camp throughout the years. Situated next to a beautiful creek, the campsite holds relics from the Modinis’ time on the land, the most noticeable a shed with Shirley’s name on it. It was quite amazing to see the campsite in person, nearly every single book made some mention of camping there. We toured through more of the property and landed at the original homestead site of Timothy Ingalls, Jim’s relative on his mother’s side, who originally settled the land that became their ranch. All the original brick from the homestead was moved by the Modinis to the site of their ranch home.

Diana eventually led our group back to Judy’s house for some lunch and storytelling. We were regaled with stories of each person’s experience with the Modinis. It was a very endearing and enlightening afternoon that helped make these two ranchers real, give them substance and personality beyond what we had read in their journals. It became obvious the Modinis were two very loved people, and they were very loving in return. Our crew got a sneak peek at some of the Modini Legacy Exhibit items, an exhibit that will take place this November at ACR’s Modini Stewardship Center in downtown Healdsburg.

We left Judy’s house with our notebooks full of new information and many of our questions raised while reading the journals answered. Our adventure ended with a stop at the Modinis’ town home in downtown Healdsburg, now the Modini Stewardship Center, and a visit to the Modinis’ graves to pay respects.Photograph of the campsite on the Modini Ranch property

This trip was invaluable and all of us at Special Collections will continue work on digitizing the Modini journals, now with a much more human and personal insight into who the Modinis were, how much they loved their land, each other, and everyone around them. And how much they were loved and respected in return.

Journals 1-20 are available online now at:

Journals 21-30 should be ready to upload soon so stay tuned.