The little town of Graton is undergoing big changes because a few people had dreams and, more importantly, a lot of patience.
Years ago people drove through Graton holding their noses because of the odors that emanated from an apple drying plant. The town had declined.
There were just two thriving businesses, a dive bar called Skip’s, and Baker’s Lunch where apple growers met for breakfast. As the apples turned to grapes, the apple plant closed down. Graton was no longer smelly.
Then developers Orrin and Terri Thiessen came to town in the 1990s. Their concept of development meant looking back, not just forward. The decaying storefronts were restored to the glory of their early 20th century look. Skip sold out, and Underwood, definitely not a dive, took its place. New businesses moved in.
Right from the start the Thiessens planned to build housing and create a park. But the world changed. A recession and bankruptcy put dreams on hold.
Melo’s dream: Renovating the old fire house
In the meantime, the Graton Volunteer Fire Department outgrew its aging firehouse, and the new Department of Homeland Security helped make some money available for a new fire station. The GFD put the old property up for sale.
George Melo who had been running a mail business in Graton for five years was interested in buying it, but because a community group wanted to create a park and use the building that sits beside a popular bicycle and hiking trail, he waited. When the Thiessens came back to Graton to finally build new housing and create the park in a different location, Melo bought the firehouse and began realizing his dream of transforming it.
“It’s got a dual personality. Half of it, the older part built in 1949, was a railroad depot on a train line that connected Graton and Petaluma, and then a Spanish-style structure was added to it,” Melo said.
He is attempting to honor the history of the building as he restores it. He has added decorative corbels to the older half of the exterior to make it look more like a depot again. On the other side he has brought in tiles and is using them to create the color scheme for the building. On both sides he has fire engine red garage doors to honor its service as a firehouse.
The building is going to be under reconstruction for a year or two longer. Right now, Melo is looking for a small engineering company to do the exterior infrastructure.
He also wants to add a patio. Eventually it will house a coffee shop in the depot half and a restaurant in the Spanish half, hopefully a European Spanish one. In between Melo has let the old fireman’s metal training ladder stand and has even installed a huge fire bell.
Melo was born in Portugal and emigrated to the US as a child, but has stayed in touch with his Portuguese family. He and wife Lisa vacation there every year. The couple met while attending Analy High School in Sebastopol. They have been a formidable team ever since.
“We have been self-employed for 35 years,” George Melo said. Lisa has an elderly care facility. Their four children have inherited their parents work ethic. Their youngest son Luke is part owner of the award winning Three Disciples Brewery. Another son is a painter and is lending his talents to his father in the restoration process. The Melos have six grandchildren.
“I retired and then I took on my biggest project ever here. I can play. Lisa’s still working and that enables me to do this right,” he said.
“I have three goals: one, to have this be a place where the community can gather; two, it be family friendly; three, to serve the bicyclists that use the trail. Once a year, I want to hold a bicycle safety and repair event for kids.”
Move-in date near for homes
In the meantime, Melo’s future customer base is expanding as the Thiessens’ housing development becomes a reality. People will begin moving into some of the finished homes in December. There will 10 homes, seven of them with granny units, so the finished project will provide 17 badly needed living units.
The homes front on the park which has a grassy lawn bordering a seasonal creek.
“Next year we will add a playground and a small garden,” Orrin Thiessen said.
One of the community leaders who worked to create the park, Ellen Kaplan, died recently. Her husband, artist Chris Cheek, has built a memorial bench in her honor and the artistic creation is the centerpiece of the new Graton Green park.
So in another year or two, Graton will be transformed with new neighbors and old buildings lovingly transformed.