Man on a mission

Gordie Stedman is a docent at the Sonoma Mission, volunteering to give tours to visitors for at least six hours a month. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Gordie Stedman, a retired Santa Rosa firefighter who frequently dons period clothing to recount historic tales of the Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, will tell you flat out that he has neither a fascination with history nor any thespian talents.

But what he does have is the urge to educate and give a little bit of his time.

“After retiring, I decided to give something back to the community, so I started doing this docent work,” he said.

Six hours a month, Stedman volunteers his time with Sonoma State Historic Park, which includes the mission, the Sonoma Barracks and the home of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. He recounts the rich history of the mission to groups of students, seniors and tourists.

“It’s a good feeling to pass on the information,” he said. “I try to have some kind of anecdote from virtually every corner of the mission.”

His costume includes a loose-fitting shirt worn over Levi’s. He has a band of red tied around the waist and the shirt hangs over the pants to hide the historically incorrect rivets on his Levi’s.

The clothes, though far from authentic, set the stage for the history he conveys in anecdotes.

Stedman points out that San Francisco Solano, the last of the California missions, was founded in 1823 as a military outpost by Mexican authorities to counter the Russian presence at Fort Ross.

The area had become part of the newly formed Mexican Empire after Mexico gained its independence from Spain two years earlier.

“The major purpose was to make sure the Russians didn’t encroach on the newly obtained territory,” Stedman said.

General Vallejo’s story illustrates the transition of the North Coast from Spanish to Mexican to American territory.

When construction of the mission was completed in 1834, the mission was placed in the control of a young Vallejo.

But Vallejo, an admirer of the “great Republic” of the United States, soon realized that Mexico would have a difficult time holding onto California and eventually threw his lot in with the American expansion.

Stedman, 73, has been volunteering at the historic Sonoma park since 2003. He also was a docent at the Petaluma Adobe until the Adobe’s operating hours were cut significantly as part of state budget cuts.

He still is part of the Petaluma Adobe Living History Day, helping kids make candle holders for candles they make. He performs similar volunteer work at the Victorian Christmas day at the Vallejo House.

Stedman was born in New York and came with his family to California when he was an infant. The family moved from Burlingame to Sonoma Valley in 1948, when he was a fifth-grader. He attended El Verano School and Sonoma High.

He was a Santa Rosa firefighter for 30 years, 23 as a deputy chief. After “retiring” a couple of times, Stedman finally ended his department duties in 1997. After that, he worked as the administrator of the local Moose lodge until 2001.

Two years later, he learned about the docent work and took a training course.

“I’m not a historian,” he said. “It was there and someone needed to do it, so I decided to help out.”

Stedman said he likes “to pass on information,” as well as trying to “make the mission come alive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.