old photograph
CES Wood and Sara Bard Field at “The Cats” in 1943, less than a year before his death at age 91. (Los Gatos Library and Museum History Project)

Valentine’s Day is the perfect occasion for a love story

But even though Los Gatos was the setting of a legendary romance that once captivated the nation, the story of Charles Erskine Scott Wood and Sara Bard Field has largely been forgotten by our community.

C.E.S. Wood (1852-1944) graduated from West Point in 1874. As an army lieutenant, he took part in the bloody campaign against the Nez Perce tribe, after which he transcribed Chief Joseph’s famous last words of surrender: “I will fight no more… forever”. After becoming disenchanted with the military, especially with their cruel treatment of native peoples, he resigned his commission and turned to social activism. Wood eventually became a sought-after progressive attorney whose clients included birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger and leading radical feminist Emma Goldman.

castle in the sky home
A rare look at the 4,000 sq. ft. main house and courtyard on “The Cats” estate, built between 1920-25.
(Sotheby real estate listing)

Wood was married in Baltimore in 1878 and soon relocated to Portland, Oregon. As he emerged as one of the most influential cultural figures in the young city, Wood’s socialist views and radical politics earned him the nickname “Portland’s Anarchist Founding Father”. Sarah Bard Field (1882-1974) was born into a devout religious family with a Quaker mother and a strict puritanical Baptist father. She was married in her late teens to Albert Ehrgott, a Baptist minister 20 years her senior. Sara eventually became disillusioned by the confines of orthodox religion and what she felt were the injustices in a capitalist system. Challenging her stifling marriage, she emerged as an outspoken advocate for social justice and women’s rights.

In 1915, Sara and two other suffragists spent 88 days driving 5,000 miles from Oregon to Washington D.C. while gathering half a million signatures on a petition demanding voting rights for women, which she then presented to Congress. Imagine the commitment they made to complete that arduous journey in an era with few paved roads, gas stations, or mechanics.

Leo and Leona have been standing guard at the entrance to “The Cats” estate for more than 100 years.
(Los Gatos Library and Museum History Project)

In 1911, Sara was introduced to C.E.S. Wood by their mutual friend Clarence Darrow. They were immediately attracted to one another by their shared worldview. Although they were married, and he was 30 years her senior, they dared to challenge conventional norms with a flagrant affair and advocacy for free love. Discovering in one another what they lacked in their respective marriages, they publicly vowed to “make almost any sacrifice on earth to establish a life together.”

Although neither was able to secure a divorce, Erskine and Sara moved to San Francisco and then to Los Gatos where they built a 34 acre “castle in the sky” where they entertained dignitaries, artists, and celebrities of their day, including John Steinbeck, Charlie Chaplin, and Ansel Adams. “The Cats” estate featured a five bedroom main house, caretaker’s gate house, poet’s cottage, and Greek amphitheater. Sara became an award-winning poet and Erskine published a satirical best seller called “Heavenly Discourse.” In 1922, Wood hired artist Robert Paine to sculpt two massive cat statues to grace the entrance to the property, feeling that the public art would be “a sort of missionary work in culture in California.” The cats, nicknamed Leo and Leona by townspeople, are still visible while driving South on Highway 17.

Prompted by Erskine’s failing health and the death of his wife, he and Sara (who had previously divorced) were married at “The Cats” 1938. He died six years later and she scattered his ashes in an oak grove on the property. Sara sold the estate in 1955 and moved to Berkeley where she passed away in 1974.

Alan Feinberg is a Los Gatos historian and founder of the LOST Gatos Project. Its mission is to reignite passion among Los Gatos residents for preserving our town’s unique character and historic treasures before they are lost forever.

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