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Yountville story: Martha Van De Leur’s roses

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Long before Thomas Keller came to Yountville, back in a time when people would have thought The French Laundry was a place to get your clothes cleaned, there was a woman named Martha Van De Leur who taught school and tended roses. This is her story.

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It is not big as far as stories go, and it begins in the 1800s when Martha’s parents, Matthias and Johanna, left their native Ireland to come to America. Eventually they settled in the Napa Valley in the tiny farming community of Yountville, which consisted of a few homes, buildings, dusty roads and little else. They ran a railroad line through there after the Civil War, which pepped things up a little, but not much. It was about as sleepy as sleepy can get.

Since her father was a schoolteacher (and later superintendent of Napa County schools), it made sense that Martha Van De Leur would want to become a teacher too. And she did. She taught farm kids (every kid was a farm kid back then) in what was no doubt a one-room schoolhouse setting. She became an elementary school principal.

Martha loved gardening almost as much as she loved children. And today, in fact, you can still see some of her gardening handiwork—pink climbing roses she planted herself in the 1920s. They’re easy to find. Suppose you’re standing in front of The French Laundry on Washington Street and a friend of yours is outside another Thomas Keller restaurant, Bouchon, also on Washington. If you walk south on Washington while he walks north you’ll both meet in the center at Van De Leur Park where the roses are. It’s not more than a couple blocks in either direction.

This well-tended little park is named after Martha and her family. In the center is a fountain dedicated to Yountville’s firefighters, “the courageous men and women” (as a plaque reads) who dropped everything they were doing to rescue a neighbor’s house or barn from destruction. Not only were they courageous, they were unpaid; Yountville’s fire department was all volunteer the first century of its existence. Van De Leur Park also features a charming ceramic sockeye salmon sculpture from the town’s art walk and there are plaques in honor of George Yount, its pioneer founder, and the Wappo Indians who also predate the establishment of The French Laundry (which, by the way, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year).

Rose bushes are all around the park but the ones that Martha tended with her own hands are nearly all gone. There is only one small section left, which is marked by a boulder and a plaque. “This beautiful ancient pink climbing rose is the last of her roses,” it says, poignantly. We should all have such epitaphs.

After cultivating her roses so faithfully and for so long, Martha gave them to the residents of Yountville, who in turn have preserved them as a living piece of their town’s collective memory. It is a pleasant place for a stroll before or after a nice meal. And you don’t need reservations to go there.

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