Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Wes Smoot

by Steve Sparks, April 13, 2011

Having had lunch with Wes and his companion, Marianne, at the AV Senior Center a couple of Tuesday’s ago, we adjourned and went over to his home on Anderson Valley Way where we could enjoy a chat sitting at his dining table.

Wes was born in June 1932 at the county hospital in Ukiah to Laura Bell Price, an unwed mother of sixteen who lived with her parents Charlie and Sarah and her three older sisters in Navarro in the ‘Deep End’ of Anderson Valley. “That was the end of the road. There was no way to the coast; you had to go in land to Comptche and then out to the coast from there. There was one sawmill in town, three bars, and five hotels, mainly for the timber workers but it was the Depression and times were very hard but the family tried their best to take care of me. However, when I was a year-and-a-half old my mother met a man named Edward Hopper of Navarro and they wanted to marry but he told her he wouldn’t as long as she kept me so I was put up for adoption. The Smoots, Ray and Dorothy, took me in and I was raised and grew up with them in Yorkville. My mother would visit occasionally but she had a new family of her own and that stopped after a few years.”

Wes went through grade school east of Yorkville at the Gaskill School on Highway 128 — a one-room schoolhouse at which there were never more than twelve kids, and which still stands today. “There was one teacher for the whole school and some of the other kids there at my time were Carolyn Prather, Richard Carlson, Marilyn and Missy Hiatt, Joyce Christen, Lucille Skillman, and my good friend Stanley Johnson, who was paralyzed at a very early age but who was as shrewd as anyone and who has lived close to the school on the Johnson Ranch his entire life. I was always playing around Dry Creek, fishing and exploring, and knew the whole area like the back of my hand. I remember Stanley and I borrowed an old purse from my stepmother, filled it with paper, tied it to some wire, and put it in the middle of the road. Cars would come by, see the full purse in the road and stop. By the time they got out we would have pulled it into the bushes some way off to the side of the road and they were left standing there with nothing. We got a real kick out of that... We had all the usual livestock to live off — chickens, calves, pigs, and Dad would shoot wild goats or deer and we’d have venison. If it had not been for the venison we’d have starved to death! We canned the chicken for the winter months and the eggs were in water glasses and kept sealed to keep them from going off; we had our own butter and cream too. We would sit around and listen to the radio at night if we could get reception and my favorite show was ‘Jack Armstrong — All American Boy.’ If the radio wasn’t working well we’d read and once a month we’d get in our Model A, four-door sedan and go into Healdsburg to see a movie — normally a Charlie Chan film. This led to me forming an opinion of Orientals that they would cut you up if given the chance. As a result, when I later joined the army I really did not want to go to the Far East — guess what? — I ended up in Korea! We would go to Cloverdale for the shopping and sometimes to Boonville but not very often — there wasn’t much there. I remember a wonderful childhood and being part of a very happy family.”

In 1946, Wes began to attend the High school in Boonville, where the Elementary School is now located. “My Dad drove the school bus for the Anderson Valley school district and so I went into school with him. It was quite a transition going to this new school. Four of us graduated from the school in Yorkville. That left just two kids there, and here in Anderson Valley High there were 74 students. By the time I graduated in 1950, following the arrival of the many Arkie and Okie families, there were about one hundred and forty... I was not too fond of many of the subjects at school and my big activity there was Band where I played the tuba, never getting less than an A- in four years. We marched and played in the County Fair every year and a certain Marian McAbee played clarinet with us. Almost 60 years later we have now become companions. Others at the school during my time were people such as Gloria Ornbaun (later Abbott), Marietta Hulbert, who died last week, Johnnie Ross, Bob Paul, Eva Pardini (later Holcomb), and Edwina Knivila. The Arkies and Okies were very different people to us. Their accent was the first problem and they didn’t like us making fun of them. There were lots of 'disagreements' shall I say. Mills sprung up all over the Valley in those post-war years and depending who you talk to and how you count, there was somewhere between 36 and 54 in the length of the Valley. They used to say ‘there is a sawmill behind every tree.’ The sheep industry was in very quick decline although the apple orchards stuck around for a time.”

In May 1947, Ray Smoot had a heart attack and died. “I was 15 and my mother and I were notified by the owner of the ranch that we would have to move. We moved to the west end of Doby Lane, just south of Boonville, into a house owned by Bill Nunn. He was a very kind gentleman and helped us as much as he could while my mother found work cleaning rooms at the Boonville Hotel. Then we were told my father had been buried in the wrong plot and that his body would have to be exhumed. I guess my mother couldn’t face any more and in October that year I came home from school and found her in the front seat of our ’37 Sedan, dead of asphyxiation — she had run a garden hose from the exhaust into the back window. The car was still running when I found her. Arrangements were made for me to stay with my father’s sister and her husband, Naomi and Lloyd Ornbaun. I moved in and helped Lloyd with the sheep on his ranch and they took very good care of me and put me through the rest of my school years.”

After a couple of years Wes found he was not getting along too well with Lloyd so he moved out and went to live with his father’s brother and his wife — Emmit and Doris Smoot. “Emmit was a carpenter and I helped him build cabins at the mills for the workers. They were shabby looking things but they worked. I believe there is only one left in the Valley, it was Wally Weeks’ house and it was probably the sorriest one we ever built - it should not be standing today but it is. We also built barns and I gathered a great deal of knowledge from working with Emmit. I had left school by this time and the town was a very lively place with all of the new people here. There were lots of fights between the new people and us and many people would go out on a Saturday night in Boonville just to watch the fighting outside the bars — the Boonville Lodge, The Track Inn, and Wiess’s Valley Inn — it was our big entertainment for the week. There had always been a drinking scene in town. Back in the 1800s, where the Lodge is now, there was The Anytime bar. So called because you could get a drink there at 'anytime.' Then in 1906, following a ‘revolt’ by the women of the Valley who were concerned about the amount of drinking around here, there was an introduction of a local ‘no drinking’ law and the bar was closed down. However, they jacked the building up and took it south of the town limits and they called it The Anyhow — ‘cause you could still get a drink 'anyhow'! Some years later they jacked it up again and it was placed back in the center of Boonville, becoming a restaurant at that point, opposite where The Boonville Lodge is now. Finally that same building was moved to Philo in the thirties where it remained a restaurant, eventually becoming, many decades later, what is now Libby’s Mexican Restaurant, opposite where another bar used to be — The Last Resort. There have been many fights in bars over the years, and in fact Donald Pardini wrote a wonderful poem about a big one in Philo and called it ’Monkey Joe’s Ball’. If you can understand our local dialect, Boontling, it is hilarious.”

In 1951, Wes got work in the woods in the timber trade working for Tom Sterling. “I earned $1.45 hr working from 4am to noon in the summer, later in the day during the winter. I was setting and driving wedges to fall trees, swamping out brush, and measuring logs. It was quite a chore but Tom was an easy man to work for and again I learned a lot. While I was felling timber out on the coastal road in October 1952, I received a notice from the draft board to report for induction into the army. It said, ‘Your friends and neighbors have chosen you to serve in the U.S. Army.’ Along with a friend of mine from high school, Bob Paul, I reported to the induction center in San Francisco and went through basic training together before I went off to radio operator’s school and he went to the motor pool. About a month and a half later I was in Korea although nowhere near a radio as I was put in an office helping with various Army publications. Bob had gone down with yellow jaundice but I got a call from him a few months later and he was stationed just twelve miles from me. We got together for some drinks and we chased a few Korean girls but I never caught one. I did my one-year tour of duty before returning to the States and being stationed in the Presidio in San Francisco. When Bob was sent home, six months after me, he landed in Seattle where he was released from active duty. I was released the same day and he flew down to the City and I picked him up at the airport. It was November 4th, 1954 and we started a two-month long party, remaining drunk until January 1st 1955! We certainly had some great times together.”

“We had met a couple of girls who happened to come from Mendocino County. After we sobered up and returned to the Valley, Bob and I arranged to take them to the movies in Ukiah. Well my girl had to work at the last minute and asked me to take her sister, Leola Drake. That was the beginning of a 52 year relationship. We were married in June 1955 and I went to work for her stepfather Harry Avila, who was a logger, and I stayed with him for three years, doing anything and everything from setting chokers to driving logs trucks. Harry had a ’48 Peterbilt that was eleven foot wide and very tough to drive on some of the narrow roads so when I got the chance to move on I did and took a job paying $2.25 hr at the Philo Mill working for Deady Farrer and Leola and I moved out from the little mill cabin at Harry’s to a house behind the Methodist Church in Philo.”

One day, Wes was hauling some logs on the Fish Rock Road when he had to stop while some County Road workers unloaded some gravel. One of them, Bill Holcomb, informed Wes that there were openings for jobs with the County. “They only paid $1.80 hr and I wasn’t going to go for that but Bill pointed out that with the County it was year-round work, whereas the logging stopped in the winter. I worked it out and found that I’d be much better off with the County and it was much easier work so I took a job and stayed for ten years as a heavy equipment operator, spending over seven of those years working on Highway 253.”

During that time Wes and Leola moved from Philo to the house on the corner of Highway 128 and the Man-chester Road and then two years later they bought a house at the corner of Hutsel Lane and Highway 128, near to the junction with the Ukiah Road (253). “It cost us $11,500 but I’d come to realize that paying rent was like paying for a dead horse. Meanwhile, at work I’d reached a situation where I could not get promoted apart from to a supervisor's position and there were too many politics involved with that so in 1969 I put in for a job with the State at the California Department of Highways — now called CalTran. I knew I could be sent anywhere in the state but I wanted a change and ended up in Willow Creek, east of Eureka, in the far north of the State... I left saying I’d never work on Highway 253 again.”

Wes and Leola found that they could not afford to keep the house up in Boonville, even with renters, so they put it on the market asking for $14,000. “I got a call saying the realtor had accepted an offer for $12,500. That was disappointing but he then added it was cash so I told him to get the papers signed quick! As it turned out, the renters, Clyde and Pat Doggett, bought the house... I hated living up there in Willow Creek but I did enjoy the work. After been there for nearly two years we heard that the operation was going to be shut down — we worked with a prisoners honor camp and they were going to close the prison. This meant that we would be dispersed around the State and I had heard that a new yard was going to be established in Covelo, not far from Anderson Valley and so I put in for a job there and began there in the spring of 1971.”

By this time Wes had become reacquainted with his mother, whom he had not seen for thirty-two years and of whom he had no memories, being less than two when she had him adopted. “Around 1966-67, Leola and I were in Fort Bragg one afternoon and I decided to see if my half-sister, Lucille Hopper, was in the phone book. She was and I went to her apartment but she was not in. However, a lady there said that Lucille’s mother (and mine) would probably know where to find Lucille and she was a cook at the old coast hospital. We went over there and a fellow worker went to get her. When she came out of the door we just stood and looked at each other for a moment and then we grabbed and hugged each other tightly and this brought tears to us both. She was busy and could not talk but we made arrangements for her to come and see us in Boonville and to bring her children with her. There were three boys as well as Lucille. This was very exciting to me — to learn that I was part of this family for all of those years and didn’t know it. We eventually got together and went out to dinner and all got acquainted. They were all very nice and we got along together. Over the next few years we would gather at mother’s place and she would fix dinner or we would take her and her husband Andrew out to a restaurant. After leaving for Willow Creek in 1969, we did not see much of them over that period but tried to get together whenever we visited the Valley.”

Wes worked in Covelo for three years before moving on in 1974 to Mendota, about 40 miles northwest of Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. He received some intermediate promotions in the department before finally taking the plunge and going for a supervisor’s position at Chilao Station fifty miles east of Los Angeles. He got the job and he and Leola moved there in 1976. “Unfortunately, as a supervisor I was not allowed to drive or work the equipment. That disappointed me and I hated the country down there too. We lived at the yard and rarely went into the metropolitan area. However, I had a fine crew and we worked at high elevations so there was lots of snow in the winter — a whole new ballgame for me. I had been around four inches or so but this was some-where between five and ten feet deep! After three years there I had had enough and began applying for vacancies anywhere north of Sacramento. One day I received word that the supervisor in Boonville was moving away. This was Chuck Haffley and he had been there for several years. Of course I immediately set the phone wires on fire in Ukiah where the superintendent and his assistant were located who were in charge of the Boonville area. The super was Bob Elkins and I had worked for him back in my days in Covelo. I told him that I knew a fellow who knows the roads and the area really well. He asked me who that was. ‘It’s me you damn fool!’ I replied. Anyway, we heard nothing for two weeks so I called again. They called me in for an interview that lasted over an hour and in which we talked about nothing except hunting and fishing and at the end of it he told me I had got the job - we were heading back to God’s country.”

That was to be Wes’s final work move and he returned to Boonville for good in 1979. ‘We first moved into a duplex owned by Bud and Evelyn Berry and then we bought a place right next door to the state yard on the south end of Anderson Valley Way, just north of town, where there was a nice house and an acre of land. I had been hoping to find something for about $25K but everything had changed. Things were over $100K but this place we found was very reasonable at $64K and we moved in 1981. I said to Leola, ‘The first order of business — we are unpacking and we ain’t gonna move no more.”

Wes did ten more years for the State before retiring on July 1st, 1991 at the age of 59. During those last ten or so years working back in Boonville, Wes and his biological family got back on schedule once again. However, in around 1987 his half-sister Lucille passed away with cancer 52. “About three or four years later my mother came down with cancer too. She fought it for about eight years but it finally took her as well. Now we brothers have kept in touch with each other on a pretty regular basis. As for my father, well my mother took that information to the grave with her but my curiosity kept working on me and I spoke to some old-timers in the Valley and this led to some inquiries beyond the Valley which led me to the postmaster in Talmage — a woman by the name of Florence Zimmerman. I called her. She told me to get over to her house immediately and when I got there she said there was no doubt I was her brother’s son — a man by the name of Walter Miller who had died about eight years earlier. I met his four sons who all said there was a great resemblance to their father in me. Since then we have got together on occasions and I have also managed to get this side of the family together with my mother’s side and we have had some very good times together — me being the oldest of nine with my eight half-siblings.”

“Since retirement I have worked around the house and also did small engine repair for several years. Leola and I traveled but she was in bad health for the last ten years or so until she passed in 2008. I guess through my life I have managed to survive a few tragic events but the most difficult thing I had to overcome was Leola’s death. We were married for 52 years and she had stayed by my side through a lot of difficult times while I worked for the State. I managed to take care of her the best I could. After her death I could see that I could not survive in a big empty house by myself. The days got longer and the nights never seemed to end. After some time had passed I got in touch with a very lovely lady who I had known most of my life and she had lost her husband some year and a half earlier. He was Burt Crosby, a friend from my late teens and an old drinking buddy of mine and she was Marian Crosby, or McAbee as she was when she played the clarinet in the AV High School Band. We were both the same age, and as we got more acquainted we decided that what few years we had left in this life we should not go through them all alone. She is now living here with me — the house where she grew up as a girl! It is so comforting to have her here to talk to and go places with as we try to live life to the fullest. Marian has been the best thing that could have happened to me.”

“I still see many of the other old-timers either at the Redwood Drive-In or the Senior Center. I used to go to the early morning gathering at the Drive-In but now I do the 4pm ‘meeting’ where I regularly see Donald Pardini, his son Ernie Pardini, Frank Wyant, Gene and Berna Walker, who is Marian’s sister, Howard Morse — we call him Mouse, Mancher Pardini, Mary Ann Kinnion, Harold Hulbert, and others.”

I asked Wes for his brief opinions on some of the various Valley issues that are frequently discussed around here.

The wineries and their impact? — “I was against them at first but now I think they are doing a pretty good job and are good for the Valley — there was going to be nothing else. They provide jobs and bring in the tourists but I do think they should contribute more to local causes. Some do, but some don’t.”

The AVA? “I like it although the editor gets kind of radical at times. He has rounded on me bad a few times and people asked me why I didn’t offer a rebuttal. I figured there was no need for both of us to show ignorance. I did once ask him why he didn’t have me on the front page and only on page two or three. As for the rumor that the stretch of Highway 128 that has remained a ‘Rough Road’ for so many years was called Smoot’s Sink because I worked on it, that is not correct. It was called that way before it became a problem because it was right where my Uncle Emmit Smoot lived — as simple as that, not because I couldn’t fix it, although that is funny of course.”

The school system? “There is a lot of room for improvement. We went to school for education and learning in my day. I kinda wonder if that is the case now. We were very concerned about the future and saved for everything we got; this generation seem to get what they want when they want it and have no worries about the future — they should have.”

The changes in the Valley? “Well the biggest change has been the influx of the Mexican population. We old-timers had to get used to that and they do the jobs that others will not do. It is a very different culture to ours but we are getting used to it and apart from the noisy kids taking over the Drive-In after school so that we can hardly hear ourselves talk, it is OK.” I do think we need to get some of the visitors to stay here in the Valley but despite all the new wineries there is nowhere for them to stay — something to think about.”

Law and order in the Valley? “Well it seems to be going downhill pretty rapidly. We certainly need two deputies to work here.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Birds singing on a clear and warm day.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Rain, rain, rain.”

Sound or noise you love? “Western music.”

Sound or noise you hate? “A bunch of motorcycles raising Cain.”

Favorite food or meal? “Venison and gravy.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Ray Salatina — an old deer hunting buddy and co-worker.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “A couple of my special guns, my gold collection, and my historical photographs of the Valley

Favorite hobby? “Well these days I am making bolo ties and working with rocks, although they say it’s about the end of the line when you start working with rocks!... I picked up Boontling, our local dialect or language, and joined the Boontling Club. Many people knew it in the old days and in my day the main speakers were Donald Pardini, Leo Sanders, B.J. Adams, Bobby Glover, Eva and Floyd Johnson, and now their son Gary. My Boont-ling name is ‘Deacon’ which comes from the fact that I was quite shy and was always looking around at what was going on without really saying much — ‘to deek’ is ‘to look at or stare’ in Boontling. Bobby and I appeared many times on television speaking Boontling. It is one of the few pure American dialects, although many of the words are about sex and women and not for translation in respectable places.”

Profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do any-thing? “A guide at a hunting lodge maybe.”

Profession would you not like to do? “Working at a highway rest area.”

Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “Getting re-acquainted with my mother.”

Something you’re really proud of and why? “I am proud of as far as I got in life. I could have done a lot worse. I could have become an alcoholic pretty easy and then it would have been pretty hard to sober up after that.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Oh, I guess the day I retired.”

Saddest? “When my wife passed away.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “Well I guess you could say I done pretty well for myself, and that I like to talk and share stories. Also that I like to help people and have respect for others.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Come on in, Wes, ‘cuz lots of your friends are in here too.’ That kind of reminds of the joke about what three guys would like to hear people say as they are viewed lying in their caskets. The first one says he would like to hear people say that he was a good family man; the second one would like to hear people say how he helped many people; and the third guy says he’d like to hear somebody say, ‘hey, he moved!’”

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To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be AV High School Art teacher, Nadia Berrigan.

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