Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Keith Martin

by Steve Sparks, September 22, 2011

I met Keith at the AV Market in Boonville and we decided to have our chat in the relative privacy of the deck behind the ice cream store, a little further down the road.

Keith was born in Gridley, California, near Oroville, by Chico, to parents Kenneth ‘Red’ Martin and Lois Jones. The Joneses were German/English who had settled in the Carolinas in the late 1700s and were part of a farming community. His grandmother was English and grandfather an orphan who had left the region to work in the oilfields of Texas, where Keith’s mother was born.

“My father’s family is from a shady background and I don’t know much about them other than that they lived way back in the sticks in southern Arkansas. My grandfather was half-Cherokee, his mother was a squaw, which makes me one sixteenth Native American. My Dad was born in Texas, just over the border from Arkansas, and he worked in a lumber mill in Hot Springs, Arkansas.”

In the mid-30s, during the Depression, both families had moved up to California, as they followed wherever the work was in the agriculture industry, as so many people from Oklahoma (Okies) and Arkansas (Arkies) did at that time. “They were the Hispanic migrant workers of their time, going to wherever the work was, picking fruits and crops, all the way up to the Bakersfield and Fresno areas. My father’s family settled in Gridley, a farming community and County Fair town of perhaps 2000 people on Hwy 99, where my grandfather became the foreman on a large ranch. He had four sons and a daughter. My father was the oldest. The boys all went into the military in World War II, my father joining the Navy. The Jones family, who had left Arkansas in 1936, settled in Gridley in 1942, buying a small farm on the outskirts of town, between Gridley and Butte. My mother was the oldest of three girls and a boy.”

Keith’s father did not like agriculture work. He had been a diesel mechanic in the Navy but had always loved being a lumber guy and wanted to get back to the woods. He knew a family from Arkansas that had moved to Anderson Valley and acquired a mill across the highway from Jack’s Valley Store outside of Philo. They needed a truck driver and convinced him to come to the Valley. “My parents met in Gridley and were married in 1947. He was a hot-rod and motorcycle rider; she was still in high school and her family was not sure about her choice of husband. Anyway, later that year, my father, his father, and my mother’s father came out here together. My father and his father-in-law stayed, but my grandfather returned. He kept the ranch foreman job in Gridley for the rest of his life. I was born in 1948 but my father stayed in the Valley, driving trucks for various small mill companies. Then, when I was six months old, in early 1949, my mother and I came out here to join him in the log cabin he had on land way behind the Boonville Hotel, at Eason’s Trailer Park. There were several trailers and the one cabin, where we lived with no water or electricity.”

Keith’s grandmother joined the family and they all lived there for about three years. “During that time my Dad got re-acquainted with many people he had known in Arkansas. Most of the migrants here had come from the same area of Arkansas, just as most of the Mexican community have come from the same part of Mexico. News had spread back to Arkansas about all of the logging work and we had a cousin who owned a mill on Ornbaun Road. We were all connected but all broke! My family became acquainted with Cecil Charles, the grandfather of Bill and Norman Charles, great grandfather of Diana. He owned a large mill behind what is now the motel on the east side of the highway across from the Veterans Building. There were perhaps 15 houses there with a family in each and they all knew each other well. Cecil’s son was called ‘Twink’ and he became a very close friend of my Dad’s. It was Twink who called my Dad ‘Red’ because he would grow a beard around Fair time and it was red. As Cecil aged, Twink took over the business. With he and my father becoming such good friends, we moved on to the Charles property when I was about four years old.”

There was great demand for a good diesel mechanic and so Keith’s father quit truck driving and became Twink’s main guy, his Mr. Fix-it. “There was not much work for most people in the lumber industry during the winter months but my Dad never stopped and we did not see much of him. In those days, the early 50s when maybe the Valley had 1500 inhabitants, there were kids everywhere. Where there’s Arkies there’s kids! I spent hours and hours in the hills on the east side of the Valley and got to know the trails and creeks very well. I went to the schoolhouse at the Veterans Building for 1st grade, then the school in the Fairgrounds buildings for my 2nd grade. My 3rd and 4th grades were at the elementary school and my 5th and 6th in the building next door, the old high school building. My schoolmates included Charlie and Wayne Hiatt, the Tuttles, the Wellington kids, and Wayne Schoenahl, whose family had the apple orchards where Farrington Vines are now, just north out of Boonville, past the first bridge on the right over Anderson Creek. There were very few Hispanics here then, hardly any actually, and I think I only ever saw one black person — a cook at Weiss’s bar and restaurant. My 6th grade teacher was Jewish and that was unusual too.

“The Valley was still apples and sheep mainly, with very few vines. The bars and restaurants did well. Weiss’s, that was owned by old folks who were like my grandparents; The Boonville Lodge, a scene of many conflicts in the days of the early Okie and Arkie settlers; The Track Inn down the street, and the bar in the hotel. We didn’t go to any of these places that often, preferring to visit family in their homes, up and down the Valley, instead. I was not very good at school. I didn’t care about it until I had left. I would much rather be exploring the hills with the Rossi kids. We were always on their property, next door to the Charleses. I would help their family during the harvest of the hay and my Dad built the bridge to their house across the creek. He also helped put in the firewater pond on the property — used to spray the logs with water in the summer. For us it was a great big swimming hole.”

Keith had two brothers – Teryl born in 1952 (who died in a auto accident in 1972) and Scott born in 1957, and a sister, Helen, born in 1959. “This was a unique place in the 1950s because the poor roads kept it isolated and therefore resistant to change. It was paved only from the CDF station, just south of Boonville, to Flynn Creek Road. It was dirt road to the coast from there. The local people were expected to help with the road maintenance. The county didn’t do much. My Dad helped on that, both with the road to Cloverdale, Hwy 128, and to Ukiah, Hwy 253, which was also a dirt road before then, when it took an hour to get to Ukiah with so many bad potholes in the road. Boonville was really off the track back then and tourists had to make a big effort to get here. Hendy Woods was not a State Park, it was privately owned and you could drive in there from behind where the Farm Supply is now, across a ford over the river to where the parking lot for the park now is. The park is where the community used to meet for the July 4th Picnic. My parents both played music and would perform up and down the Valley at various places from Cloverdale to Navarro, often at Weiss’s. I have many fond memories of being there.”

Keith’s mother was a regular at the Valley’s Baptist Church, in the Fairground building, and then by the mid-50s on AV Way next to the Prather house. His father was a member of the Odd Fellows Men’s fellowship who met in the building behind the Ambulance building in town — the building that’s soon to become a medical marijuana dispensary. “He was President for a couple of years and would organize the July 4th Picnic and dinners at The Fairgrounds which the Odd Fellows would sponsor. My Dad still had his interest in hot rods and would build cars to race around the track at the Fairgrounds. It went outside the rodeo arena but is no longer there. I spent less time around town than many kids. I was a loner up in the hills, sometimes with Bill and Norman Charles. I would see my Dad maybe for an hour or so a day. He was always working. My mother raised us and she loved the outdoors and taught us a lot. She was our ‘teacher’ but was not very strict with us and, as we were in the town, we did not have many chores to do like some kids who lived on the farms and ranches.”

In 1960, the family went to Gridley for Thanksgiving, as they did most years. Both sides of the extended families still lived there and it was an occasion everybody looked forward to. They were gone for a couple of weeks or so and when they returned to the Valley the mills were closing everywhere. “It was incredible! Within a year most of them had gone! The Charles Mill closed up and my Dad had no job. His brother was in Sacramento, working for Aerojet General, in the new space-related industry and my Dad found work there and we moved to Folsom where I went to a new school, which I did not like at all. We moved to Orangevale after a couple of years where my parents bought a house and I attended Bello Visto High School, from which I graduated in 1966.”

Keith did not like his high school years. He was a “nerd” who was only really interested in science stuff — the space race was on! “I was an outsider but through my Dad I met a guy who worked at Aerojet who had worked with the German scientist, Werner Von Braun after his move to the States. I was only 15 but we started a ‘rocket club,’ building rockets in Sacramento and transporting them to Nevada and setting them off. We would go to the Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man Festival is held these days, and send these 15-foot rockets up into the sky. In 1964 we went to New Mexico and let off rockets and met with astronauts who were attending a conference, including Robert Goddard, a famous space and rocket engineer. I was only interested in this kind of stuff, or electronics at school. Then, in my senior year, I was to be the assistant to the audio-visual teacher but he died just a few weeks into the first semester and I got to run the small department with virtually no supervision. I got to build a lighting system for the drama department that was quite impressive. It was a big deal and made the local press.”

The local school district started a program for students gifted in certain areas and with Keith showing great promise in the new and relatively simple computer world, he was able to spend half of his senior year at school in one of these programs, thus skipping lots of the regular schooling which he did not enjoy anyway. “I was the teacher’s pet and I’d get to visit various company’s computer systems and check out their processes. I got to meet a professor at U.C. Davis who taught me a lot and when I graduated in 1966, the Bank of America asked him and others to ‘help this kid out.’ They sponsored me and I received an education sort of unofficially, by visiting places such as Pacific Telephone, IBM, and BofA, in the mornings after they had processed their data at night.”

After graduation, in 1966, Keith had returned to Anderson Valley and got a job at Philo Lumber for a year, pulling green chain — taking finished lumber off the conveyor belt. “That was dangerous work but it gives you great muscles! It was well paid too. Our whole family moved back and Dad went to work in the woods once more. We lived in the yellow house that is on the edge of Hendy Woods, owned by the Gowans, a family I had known fairly well. My Mom had worked in the apple sheds for Cecil Gowan and I had helped her when I was at school here. Later that year, I moved on to Hollow Tree Lumber Company off Fish Rock Road where I ran the log-kicker but I then had a 20-foot fall and had to quit the woods and returned to the Sacramento area.”

To earn a little money when not studying computers, Keith worked at Rico’s Pizza and by 1970 had become “their sort of adopted son.” He learned the business from Rico himself as they expanded into twelve pizzerias. His parents had moved to Placerville with his Dad once more working in the woods and when the opportunity came along to open a pizzeria nearby, in Camino, with Rico’s blessing, Keith was given the chance to run it. “That was good for a time but after visiting a friend of mine in the town of Helper, in southern Utah, I found that I really liked it there and, with Rico, we opened three restaurants in the area and moved there for a year or so. On our return to California, I moved in with Rico and his wife to their home in Eldorado Hills between Sacramento and Placerville and embarked on a series of restaurant ventures in the area. It was a crazy time and at one point, with Rico and his wife getting old, I was running four places.”

In 1972, he met Diana and they were married several months later. “She didn’t want to work and thought I was rich. Not true. She had to work with me. For two years we ran a restaurant in Chico before selling up and returning to Sacramento where she got a job as a legal secretary for the California Department of Justice and, after one last go in the restaurant business — at The Sutter Club in Folsom, a restaurant/theater venue for six months — I decided to go into the world of computers. In 1974 started my own programming business dealing with business payrolls. At some point I met a guy who had a telephone answering service for about 2000 doctors. We became partners and by 1978 had combined our businesses into a computerized answering service. I took over the retail part of the business. This was the time that Radio Shack’s computer line was starting up and small computers were being introduced and I specialized in networking these computers.”

Keith stayed in the computer business for about 20 years. When not working, he and Diana, who had son David in 1974, liked to camp and would often come to the Anderson Valley area to do so. “The Valley always kept drawing me back and we’d camp at Hendy Woods. The Valley was home.”

In 1985, his wife’s friend, who worked at a bank, told them of a restaurant that the bank had foreclosed on and they decided to take it over. “It was in Cameron Park, near the airport. It was a big operation, a classy restaurant/bar. We got it for $5K but it was a lot of work and we sold it a few months later. No more restaurants! I was strictly in the computer industry from then on, as a consultant contract programmer by 1990.

“A couple of years later, with my interests going one way and Diana’s the opposite, we divorced and I moved to downtown Sacramento, after always living in the suburbs. One of my clients was the title Company where Diana worked. I did a little work for them where I met Mike. He liked camping too and over the next few years, along with a group that grew to about 20 folks, we’d sometimes come to the Valley. In 2000, we were here and I told him how this was where I had grown up. In 2002 we were here once again and I noticed that the restaurant at The Boonville Lodge had closed. We checked it out and the owners, John and Candy, no longer wanted to run the restaurant part of the business. They just wanted the bar. It was a fantastic deal. I could not help myself and we opened Lumberjack Pizza a few months later. I wanted to do take-out only. That was enough for me and all that it was intended to be, but I just fell into the restaurant thing once again. We did not want to do six days a week, just three days of take-out. It did not turn out that way.”

“We lived on Ornbaun Road for a couple of years and then moved to John Scharffenberger’s property on Hwy 128 just north of Philo in a renovated 1947 apple dryer where we have been for seven years. It’s like living in a park and we love it there. We made a living at Lumberjack for a time but the real problem was that we did not have our own lease and when John and Candy sold the business the new owner, Tom Towey, wanted to have the restaurant to be part of his business. We had to get out.”

In 2006, Mike went to the AV Brewery and in February 2007 Keith to the AV Market general store in Boonville. “Mike did not like the restaurant business at all, and I was definitely done this time, or so I thought, once again. In early 2009, The Highpockety Ox, formerly The Buckhorn Saloon, closed after being unable to pay the high rent to the landlord Ken Allen, owner of the AV Brewery. Ken decided he wanted to open it once again. He had built the original brewery there and had run the brewpub in its early years of the late 80s and early 90s. He offered me 25% of the business if I ran it. I agreed, but had nothing on paper. There were many problems with the building, he hadn’t spent any money on it for years, and for a few months I fixed the place up, everything from the plumbing, to the heating and air-conditioning, to the flooring, and the beer system. We had an opening date set, May 10th, 2009 — Beer Festival weekend. I had even ordered the food. Then with one week to go Ken backed out and pulled the plug on the whole thing. I went to see him and he just said ‘No!’ I was left with nothing and just an hour or so later Ken was already walking through the building with a local real estate agent.”

Keith returned to his job at the AV Market. “I never really liked the business side of the restaurant business. My grandmother taught me how to cook and that is what I liked to do. I sat down one day and worked it out. I have been the owner or part-owner of 16 restaurants! Sixteen too many I sometimes think.”

I asked Keith for a verbal image of his father. “A stranger. He was always helping others, not us. It is a big regret of mine that I did not get to know him better, although we did get some time shared together in his later life. I have perhaps done the same thing with my own son, David, who is Chico with his mother and we are not in contact.” His mother? “A teacher. I learned a lot from her. Everything I like is thanks to my mother’s input. My love of music came from her mainly. I played the piano and learned the accordion when I was six. I still have one.”

What does Keith like most about the Valley? “I love the pace of the Valley – slow. And that you know everyone and that people care about each other. It is paradise” Dislikes? “The prejudice that still exists here, I’m sad to say.”

I asked Keith for his brief responses to various Valley issues.

The wineries and their impact? “Some good, some bad. I don’t like the absentee owners but have no problem with those who live here and contribute. If it wasn’t for the wineries this place would have dried up and blown away after the apples and sheep were done. I guess I view it as a necessary evil — the same way as I see the lumber industry. If done right it is fine, if not then that’s not good for the Valley.”

KZYX radio? “I haven’t listened for years.”

The AVA? “I read it every week. Bruce McEwen’s court reporting is the first thing I read.”

Marijuana? “I’m not going to judge. I couldn’t care less if they legalize it; they probably should. As for the new dispensary planned here in town, I think that is nuts. There is no money in it here and it’s a bad location they have chosen because of all the controversy being created.”

Changes in the Valley? “Well, fifty years on since I lived here growing up, I have to say I liked it more back then. It has sort of gone downhill but I am glad there are still some of the old families here.”

I posed a few questions to Keith.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “My dogs – Milo and Bo, a chihuahua/pug mix and a terrier/Jack Russell mix.”

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

Sound or noise you love? “The wind blowing through the Redwood trees.”

Sound or noise do you hate? “Loud trucks or motorcycles. That reminds me — in the late fifties the Hell’s Angels came here two summers in a row and tried to take over the town.”

Favorite food or meal– “Prime rib. I ate it every night when I had that restaurant in Cameron Park!”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Robert Goddard, the pioneer of rocket science.”

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 picture my grandmother painted on a piece of wood; my computer – too much stuff on there to lose; photos of growing up.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “A film would be ‘The Sound of Music’; the tune would be something by Beethoven; I don’t read much. My Dad was the reader. When he wasn’t working he would be reading. Perhaps a science fiction book by Ray Bradbury.”

Favorite hobby? “Now it is working with stained glass – making model ships primarily. It used to be science or music growing up. I did get a senior letter for football but I never liked sports.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “Probably something to do with the legal profession. I would like to have been a judge!”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Anything that involves manual labor.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “That would be with my wife to be when I was about 25. Before then I was too involved with my computers and nerdy stuff and those things didn’t match with dating.”

Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “Everything! I wish I had known better certainly.”

A memorable moment; a time you will never forget? “The first time I flew a rocket that I had built.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “Well, maybe proud is not the right word but the smartest thing I ever did was to get married.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “That I am a ‘jack of all trades.’ That I am a loyal person.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Go and give it another try.”

To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives here. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Bob Klindt of Claudia Springs Winery.

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