Credit for producing Sonoma County’s first commercially produced olive oil is often given to George F. Hooper, a native of Virginia, who served as a colonel in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Following the war, he established a trading post at Fort Yuma. In 1867 he founded the First National Gold Bank of San Francisco, serving as its president until retiring to Sonoma County.
Hooper purchased an 870-acre Sonoma Valley ranch in 1872 that his second wife, Maria Carroll Hooper, named Sobre Vista. By 1873, Colonel Hooper had planted 20 acres of almonds, 15 acres of oranges, lemons, limes, Mandarin oranges, Japanese persimmons, English walnuts, pecans, chestnuts, black walnuts, and a home orchard of 10 acres. A 45-acre vineyard consisted of Zinfandel, Black Malvoisie, Flame Tokay, and several other varieties. Additional improvements included the construction of a “magnificent mansion,” a winery, and a distillery.
An olive orchard was planted around 1877 and the first bottling was made a decade later:
30 cases or 60 gallons of oil. The oil – pronounced rich, clear, and delicately flavored – won awards at San Francisco Mechanics’ Fair in the same year, and by the following year, sold for $15 a case.
In 1889, Hooper’s olive orchard contained 200 trees consisting of 150 Mission and 50 Redding Picholine set 24 feet apart and occupying fewer than three acres. The oil was manufactured on-site using a Keystone manufactured cider mill purchased at Hawley Brothers in San Francisco. Ripe olives were picked and spread to dry on the floor of a loft where air circulated freely. They were stirred and turned over from time to time with a wooden rake to prevent mold and facilitate drying. Once ground, the olives were placed in 18-inch tubs lined with coarse linen and put under a wine press. After several other processes, the oil was bottled. It took about 70 pounds of fresh fruit or 49 pounds of dried to make a gallon of oil.
In addition to the Mechanics’ Fair, Hooper exhibited and received awards for his olive oil at the Paris Exposition (1889), World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), and California Midwinter International Exposition (1894).
When the Olive Growers’ Association of California held their first convention under the auspices of the State Board of Horticulture at San Francisco in July 1891, Hooper attended as the only Sonoma County olive oil producer.
The convention was organized in response to the California State Legislature’s passage of an act to regulate the sale of olive oil, which occurred on March 10, 1891. The act’s purpose was to protect the industry from the “nefarious practice of concocting spurious oils and then branding them as pure olive oil.” The Olive Growers’ Association helped create strong public support for the legislation. At the convention, members discussed their role in seeing that the new law was enforced and shared information on topics such as medical uses of olive oil and how to detect impurities.
In 1897, Sobre Vista Ranch was sold to Rudolph Spreckels, fourth son of sugar magnate Claus Spreckels, ending Hooper’s role as a Sonoma County olive oil aficionado. Yet evidence of the trees from which that oil came remain in the albumen prints of Carleton Watkins.
Widely known for his striking photographs of Yosemite, Watkins was hired in 1887 by the Sonoma Valley Improvement Company to capture the beauty and agricultural bounty that existed at Sobre Vista and the surrounding countryside to attract real estate investors. Today his work is on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art and other prestigious museums. Following the sale, George Hooper and his wife moved to San Francisco, where he died in 1901. The only accomplishment noted in a San Francisco Examiner obituary was his reputation as an olive oil industry pioneer.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2021 Sonoma-Marin Farm News, a publication of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.