SUISUN VALLEY — A few slight nicks and a groove or two in the sturdy stone of the beautifully maintained 153-year-old Ramsey-Nightingale house may be the last evidence of one of the last altercations of the Civil War.
It happened shortly after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, when someone told the Union Army at the Benicia Arsenal that landowner Charles Ramsey and his sons were celebrating the president’s death.
“We hear it is reported that some foolish individuals have even ventured to publicly rejoice at the assassination of President Lincoln. Such damnable wretches should have the benefit of a little judicious hanging,” The Solano Press reported.
It is such history that makes the home’s current owners, Jerry and Beverly LeMasters, love living there so much.
“Legend has it, there are bullet holes,” Beverly LeMasters said.
The three-story residence behind a grape vineyard on Green Valley Road is one of the best-preserved examples of a special collection of stone buildings that were built in Green Valley and Suisun Valley shortly after the gold rush from stone that was often quarried on the same land where the homes were built.
That collection also includes the chapel in Rockville Cemetery, the Martin house across from Solano Community College, the Granville Swift mansion that is now the Green Valley Country Club, a horse barn next to the cemetery and a couple of ruins.
As equally cared for as the LeMasters’ home is the stone mansion built in 1861 by pioneer Swift, who made his fortune as a gold miner on the Feather River in 1848 when he lived on a Glenn County ranch, running one of the largest cattle operations in the state.
“He had a fortune in gold and built a mansion of rock,” said Suisun Valley historian Clyde Low in a 1986 interview. “A number of pioneers made their fortunes from gold and had the money to build substantial houses.”
The mansion was originally a massive three-story Renaissance Revival-style home that passed into the hands of farmer and orchardist Sidney Jones, who was supposed to have declared that while the hill lands were useless, the bottom land was perfect for the cherry orchards he planted there.
“At one time, they tried their hand at wine,” said Thomas Snell, who now manages the Green Valley County Club, referring to the remaining cellar of a winery building that once stood behind the mansion.
The Jones family stayed in the home for four generations, with one member reportedly being born on the building’s back porch, according to the club history.
After World War II, the family sold the mansion to the fledgling country club, which has since gone to great lengths to preserve the building’s interior the way it was in the 1800s, according to Snell.
“It is marvelous. We love the history of the building. She is beautiful and we love coming to work,” said Snell, whose office is in one of the second-floor bedrooms. “When guests come here, they are astounded by its beauty.”
A nearby source of good rock from several quarries, the rich farmland found in Suisun Valley and Green Valley and access to skilled German and Irish immigrant labor helped cluster the stone houses in this area, according to Low, who studied the houses extensively before he died in 2009.
The stone, tufa rock, a form of compacted volcanic ash, was easy to cut and hardened on exposure to the air. All of the buildings share the perfectly cut rock. Snell said the hardened stone “. . . has allowed our building to weather some pretty serious quake activity.”
The name of Rockville comes from the fact that two of the quarries, which can be seen from the road between Rockville and Green Valley, were actively operating from the 1850s through the 1870s with much of the stone shipped out from wharves in Cordelia and Suisun City by bay schooners.
“It encouraged the pioneer settlers to build in stone rather than wood, which would have required hauling lumber many miles from the nearest source, which was the upper Napa Valley to the west,” Low said.
When Jerry LeMasters married Beverly on the steps of their home, he said he was impressed with the perfectly cut stone construction made of foot-thick stone blocks, but didn’t know its history.
Now knowing its heritage, Jerry LeMasters appreciates his home even more.
It was built by Ramsey in 1860, after he came west from Pennsylvania with his family to make his fortune on the American River before moving here to become a large landowner and livestock rancher.
“The stone was supposedly quarried right on the Ramsey property,” Beverly LeMasters said.
He sold the house to Lewis Pierce in 1877, who then sold it to Andrew Sweetzer in 1879. Sweetzer sold it to John Nightingale in 1894, according to a history obtained by Jerry and Beverly LeMasters.
In 1977, Bill Maher bought the land the house was on and chipped in an extra dollar more for the house itself, according to Beverly LeMasters, Maher’s daughter.
Betty Maher, Bill Maher’s wife, added to the house’s heritage by bringing in a menagerie of animals that ranged from llamas, buffalo and white deer to white swans and Brahma bulls, which give the place the nickname, “the zoo.”
“It was quite a variety of animals,” said Beverly LeMasters.
Jerry and Beverly LeMasters significantly renovated the house and two years ago replaced the original porch with a wrap-around porch.
They appreciate the compliments they get on the house, but point out that it is on private land and discourage people from coming onto the property uninvited to take pictures. It is a common concern that other homeowners of historic buildings share.
“You need to understand that it’s our home,” Beverly LeMasters said.
The stone construction has made the house cooler in the summer, “and we don’t have to turn on the air conditioner often,” but it is harder to heat in the winter. Three of the home’s five stone fireplaces are still in use and the kitchen still has its original floor, even though it was covered over in a remodel.
“You could see where they traveled in that kitchen,” said Jerry LeMasters.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.