Grizzly bears and elk once reigned supreme in Woodland, finding food and shelter in its huge oak forest. In time they were joined by the Patwin, native peoples from the north, who came to this valley Approximately 2,000 years ago. The Patwin lived well in this mild climate. In the woods and streams they found plenty of acorns, berries, roots, fish, ducks and game to eat, and in the vast marshlands to the east, abundant tules to use in building their homes and gathering places.
Only occasional visits from other native peoples disturbed the peaceful existence of the Patwin here until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Then, Spanish explorers came, following old Indian trails from the south and west. American, French and British trappers followed, sailing up the Sacramento River and Cache Creek in search of a fortune in beaver and otter furs. Finding what they sought, they soon moved on, but they left behind a fever, which in 1833 virtually decimated the Patwin.
A few Americans moved into the lower Sacramento Valley in the early 1840’s, settling on land granted to them by the Mexican government, but none of them came to what is now Woodland until after 1850, the year California became a state and Yolo County was established. By that time, many of the 49ers who had come to California to mine for gold were leaving the hills to try their luck at farming in the valley. The Kentuckian “Uncle Johnny” Morris was the first to come to Woodland. In 1851, he and his family settled on what is now the corner of First and Clover Streets. He was followed two years later by Henry Wyckoff, who built a store he called “Yolo City”. Yolo City might have remained a general store if it had not been for the Missourian Frank S. Freeman. Freeman arrived in Yolo County in 1857, bought Wyckoff’s store, acquired 160 acres of land, and began developing a town he dreamed would someday be a trading center for one of the richest grain-growing counties in the nation.
Freeman first petitioned for a U.S. Post Office, which his wife Gertrude wanted to name Woodland “on account of the wooded country about.” The Woodland Post Office was established in 1861, and Freeman was appointed Postmaster. Then he busily promoted his town by building shops and businesses which he leased or sold to enterprising merchants. And his town began to grow. Conveniently located at the crossing of two roads going north along the west side of the valley and road running east to Sacramento, Woodland was also on high ground. This was an important advantage, for Cache Creek and the Sacramento River regularly overflowed their banks, flooding the level plain. In 1862 a mammoth flood inundated the valley, flooding the county sear at Washington (now West Sacramento), and the seat of government was moved permanently to safety in Woodland. Freeman, now convinced that his town’s future was secure, filed a town plat in 1863, and deeded a City block to the count on which an imposing courthouse was built.
Families began moving into the new city, and they built homes, schools, churches and a cemetery. In 1861, a private secondary school, Hesperian College, opened on what is now Bush Street for the teenage children of the town’s prosperous farmers and business people. By the mid-1860’s, Woodland was the most important commercial center in the county, and its business district boasted two county buildings, the courthouse and county hospital, a steam flour mill, brewery, livery stable, two blacksmith shops, wagon shop, two hotels, drugstore and six other stores. There was also a newspaper, the Woodland News, the ancestor of today’s Daily Democrat.
What literally put Woodland on the map was the arrival of the railroad in 1869. The tracks were originally laid west of town (near present College Street) and the town, which had first developed north of Main Street, began spreading south and west. Woodland was formally incorporated in 1871, and the next year the railroad tracks were moved to their present location along East Street. Connected to the outside world by regular train and telegraph service, Woodland residents soon enjoyed a full range of city services-gas, water electricity and telephones, streetlights and graveled streets. Main Street bustled with new stores, hotels and restaurants, and, most importantly, banks to handle the ample accounts of local business people and farmers. In 1888 Woodland was called the richest town in the U.S. in proportion to its population, with an accumulated wealth of $2,108,829.
The City of Woodland had arrived, and its new buildings were tangible evidence of civic pride. Many of the homes on this historical tour were built between 1873 and 1899, as were substantial school, churches, community halls, and an impressive opera house. But tragedy struck on July 1, 1892, when a fire started in the Chinese sector of Dead Cat Alley and raged for hours, fanned by a hot north wind. Flames destroyed a large section of Main Street, the opera house, and nearly a block of homes. Reconstruction efforts ere hampered by hard times caused by a nationwide depression, but by 1896 Woodland had rebuilt its businesses on Main Street, and a handsome new brick opera house was the symbol of the town’s recovery.
The new century ushered in a new era of optimism for Woodland. The town’s businessmen organized a chamber of commerce in the1900 to boost the town’s advantages. Women, too, worked actively for their town, and their efforts resulted in the establishment of the library, City Park and cemetery. In 19010, Woodland was the largest city in the county, with a population of 3,187. For the next 40 years, Woodland remained a remarkably stable community, growing slowly but steadily in population, businesses and industries. Its industrial plants were principally agricultural, and three rice mill, a sugar beet refinery and tomato cannery were built during this period.
The post-war period meant explosive growth for California and for Woodland as well. Between 1950 and 1980, Woodland’s population tripled, and the town today is growing faster than ever. Industrial plants and distribution centers have grown up in the northeast, and there are new subdivisions and shopping centers around the town’s perimeter. Since the late 1960’s, there has been a resurgence of interest in preserving the town’s historic building, and an impressive number of them have been restored for use as homes, offices, stores and museums. In 1989, the Woodland community began celebrating its architectural heritage by staging the “Stroll Through History”, a full day dedicated to walking tours of historic neighborhoods and selected open homes for viewing. Now an annual event, the Stroll takes place in September.
Prepared for the Residential Walking Tour Booklet by Shipley Walters,
Yolo County Historian and author of Woodland City of Trees