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Fountaingrove: Santa Rosa's Utopian Experiment

Thomas Lake Harris

Nineteenth-century America saw a host of religious and utopian experimentation, and Sonoma County’s Fountaingrove was part of the trend. Though many in Sonoma County associate the name with an existing housing development, Fountaingrove was originally a utopian community founded by Thomas Lake Harris, leader of the Brotherhood of the New Life.

Harris came to Santa Rosa in 1875 with the “modest life’s mission as a seeker after truth and a savior of mankind,” according to Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron in her article, “Fountaingrove: An Old Winery’s Link to Eden.” Called “Father Faithful” by his followers, Harris believed in perfect, celestial mates, celibacy in this life, and immortality, a belief ultimately disproved by his own death. Harris, an avid poet, believed that his poetry was dictated to him by angels.

The community thrived in Santa Rosa in large part due to the success of the Fountain Grove winery. Fountaingrove did not see truly troubled times until 1891, when San Francisco Chronicle journalist Alzire Chevallier infiltrated the group and wrote a scathing exposé that alluded to perversions in the community. “He is the greatest imposter of the age,” she wrote. “I shall use every endeavor to expose him and break up his community.” Though defended by Santa Rosa city leaders, Harris eventually left the area. The community was then headed by Kanaye Nagasawa, Harris’ right hand man, until it disbanded upon Nagasawa’s death in the mid-twentieth century.

Kanaye Nagasawa

Known as the Japanese Baron to locals, Kanaye Nagasawa was an influential member of Fountaingrove. He was one of the “Kagoshima Fifteen,” a group of young Japanese who were secretly sent abroad to study Western culture in the 1860s, when Japan was still closed to Western visitors. The mission was dangerous and, to protect his family in Japan, he changed his birth name, Hikosuke Isonga, to Kanaye Nagasawa. Though he is today most known for his integral role in the Fountaingrove community, Nagasawa was one of the first Japanese immigrants in America and an important member of the Japanese American community of Sonoma County. 

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