Bergin University of Canine Studies buys historic Sonoma County inn for new campus
After nearly 80 years of operating as a beloved hometown eatery and then sitting vacant for more than a decade, Penngrove’s Green Mill Inn is getting a new life.
The nearly 10-acre parcel and the now-dilapidated restaurant at 10201 Old Redwood Highway were sold to longtime Sonoma County residents Bonnie and Jim Bergin for more than $2 million in May. The transaction marks the beginning of a new chapter for the storied property, which is slated to become the new home for the Bergin University of Canine Studies.
The accredited university, currently located in Rohnert Park, offers a portfolio of post-secondary education and certificate programs and trains service dogs, which perform major life tasks to assist people with disabilities.
Bonnie Bergin pioneered the concept of the service dog in the 1970s, when she was challenged by a Sonoma State University professor to identify solutions to help those with disabilities. At the time, that demographic was often institutionalized, she said.
While her classmates were suggesting adding stainless steel to hospital walls to improve the quality of life, she was reminded of the perseverance she’d seen in the disabled community during travels with her husband though areas including India, Turkey and Pakistan. She recalled, with vivid detail, watching a person with disabilities drag themselves on the ground across a six-lane freeway to get to an adjacent sidewalk.
She recounted that feat to her peers, who chastised her. Shortly after the stark rebuke, she began to think about ways to use dogs to make a difference. She reached out to existing organizations, such as Guide Dogs for the Blind, and was met with skepticism.
It wasn’t until she crossed paths with Kerry Knaus, a severely disabled 19-year-old Santa Rosa woman, that the pieces fell into place.
“She was in a powered wheel chair, her head fell, she didn’t have enough muscle in her neck and she could barely lift her arms, but when I met her, she was a powerhouse,” Bergin said.
Through trial and error, she trained a Labrador/Golden Retriever puppy to assist Knaus with basic functions, and the unlikely pair became the poster children for what would soon become an internationally-recognized concept. Sonoma County united around her idea, even creating a mural depicting Knaus and Abdul on a freeway underpass.
“The community was very responsive, they were never critical and never rejected it at all, in fact they were so openly welcoming, it was amazing,” she said.
She founded Canine Companions for Independence in 1975 in a home office and garage in Santa Rosa. The training program has since expanded across the globe, and continued under Bergin’s leadership until she left to create the Assistance Dog Institute in 1991. That school evolved into the Bergin University of Canine Studies, and Bergin was recognized with a “Use Your Life” award from Oprah Winfrey in 2001.
She hopes the move to Penngrove will expand the reach of the school, which also facilitates a medley of programs, including efforts to pair veterans with PTSD to service dogs, working with inmates in dentition facilities to decrease recidivism rates and training dogs to sniff out pests in vineyards. The university is also researching concepts such as teaching dogs to read basic commands and sense when a diabetic’s blood sugar is low.
“We’ve been looking in Petaluma for six years, trying to find what I consider to be the ideal location,” she said. “There was no such thing, so I had to pare down my dreams little by little. It’s a 10-acre parcel with a creek running through it and it’s a lot of land for the dogs and students to be able to go for walks.”
Shortly before the transaction to buy the Green Mill Inn closed, the structure was ravaged by vandals. The raid compromised the building’s structural integrity, and it’s not immediately clear if the former restaurant can be salvaged or if a new facility will be constructed.
Currently, the university has as many as 18 instructors and about 45 students in associates and bachelor’s programs, with additional master’s students who attend for short-term specialized courses, she said. The dogs will be amicable, quiet and highly-trained neighbors for existing residents, she said.
Lyndi Brown, a longtime Penngrove resident and community advocate, praised the plans.
“It sounds good,” she said. “And it’s on a bus line, which will be important for them, and it would fit right in with the agriculture in the area.”
For John Dell’Osso, whose late father owned and operated the Green Mill Inn for about 20 years before leasing it out in the 1990s, the transition is a positive one. Dell’Osso, who fondly recalled his time working in the bustling restaurant with expansive banquet rooms, said the family has been seeking to sell the land for at least a decade. The restaurant has been closed for about 15 years, he said.
First opened in the 1920s as a roadside stand that sold chicken and fruit pies, the eatery solidified its place in the Penngrove community, serving as many as 1,400 meals to hungry patrons as part of its famed Mother’s Day brunches, Dell’Osso said,
“It’s a new chapter in this history book that’s closing on the Green Mill,” he said. “At the same time, on that parcel of land, there’s a new chapter opening up. That’s just how things go, things change, and this is a big change, but a good change.”