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Fort Ross: Rotchev House

The buildings at Fort Ross State Historic Park on the Sonoma Coast are restorations of how they looked when the area was a Russian colony, except for one original structure: the Rotachev House.

Built in 1836 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was the home of the settlement’s last manager, Alexander Rotchev, who lived there with his family until 1841. 

It’s easy to imagine the manager of an isolated frontier outpost in the early 19th century as being rough-and-tumble and graceless. As for his wife, who was doubtless over-worked from heavy labor, how could she possibly summon up the smallest degree of charm? 

Yes, it’s easy to imagine – but completely wrong. 

Alexander and Elena Rotchev, née Gagarina, were well-educated and, for their time and place, quite glamorous. Numerous accomplished and aristocratic visitors to Fort Ross during their tenure write of their hospitality and charm, the fine French wines they poured, the excellent conversation, Mozart pouring from Elena’s fingers at the pianoforte, and the library of good books. 

The son of a sculptor, Alexander had been educated at Moscow University and then made a living as a journalist and translator. Elena, the daughter of one of Russia’s oldest families, spoke fluent French (as did Alexander); she was skilled at playing the pianoforte, at sewing, and had many other skills.

Alexander and Elena met, fell in love, and wanted to marry. The only sticking point was her family, who considered Rotchev to be far below her social standing. She married him anyway, and was immediately disinherited. The couple lived on Rotchev’s translation and other work, but eventually he took steady employment with the Russian-American Company in St. Petersburg, ending up as the Fort Ross manager.

Today the Rotchev House has become a “house museum,” with carefully-researched and period-appropriate furniture and artifacts to reflect the Rotchevs’ tenure. The house contains an entrance hall and six rooms: dining room, study, parlor, two bedrooms, and a servant’s room.

All the rooms are fascinating, but only the parlor seems to welcome company. That’s because, back in the day, it was the epicenter of Rotchev family life, and the spot where guests could relax and have fun. The tea samovar, the symbol of Russian hospitality, is all set to pour … if you could just step back in time, that is.

Fort Ross was the site of California’s first windmill, and a replica of this landmark structure was built in the park in 2012, as part of a bicentennial celebration. The park museum provides details about the three main eras of Fort Ross — Kashaya Indian, Russian, and Spanish rancho. The park hosts an annual Cultural Heritage Day with candle making, musket and cannon firing, and other reenactments; as well as a Christmas bird count in December for kids.

Fort Ross State Historic Park (19005 Coast Highway One, Jenner, 707-847-3437). Entry fee: $8 per vehicle; $7  seniors. Fort Ross is open daily, sunrise to sunset; closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Dogs are only allowed in the main parking area, and must be leashed at all times; service dogs are allowed in the buildings. To schedule a private tour, contact the Fort Ross Conservancy.

A few minutes south of the main fort compound (but still part of the state park), Reef Campground offers 21 primitive campsites. Open from April to October, camping is on a first-come, first-served basis (no reservations required or available), for up to eight people per family campsite.

Other activities in this scenic coastal area include wine tasting, beach walking, hiking, picnicking, and more. Nearby Stillwater Cove Regional Park (22455 Highway 1, Jenner, 707-847-3245) offers pleasant campsites with more than two miles of easy trails. And a few miles north of Fort Ross, the Timber Cove Resort (21780 Highway 1, Jenner, 800-987-8319) features a 93-foot obelisk sculpture by renowned artist Benny Bufano.

Find more info about things to do in Sonoma County.