Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Eva Johnson

by Steve Sparks, December 14, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, a few days after Thanksgiving, I met with long-time Valley resident Eva Johnson at the Fairgrounds in Boonville and we sat and talked in one of the rooms at that facility.

Eva was born in the town of Biggs in Butte County, California, in the Sacramento Valley. Her parents were Fred Abreu and Emma Rose. “My father was born in 1901, his parents having both come over to the States in the late 1800’s from the Portuguese Azores Islands — one from Pico, the other from Fayal. Actually my grandfather did not come of his own free will. He was shanghaied off the island as a boy and forced onto a whaling ship where he worked as a cabin boy. At some point they sailed into San Francisco Bay where he jumped ship. Some years later, he met and married my grandmother. It was an arranged marriage that resulted when she was sent over from the Azores by her father, something he did with his other daughters when they became 18 too. My father was the middle child — he had two older sisters and two younger brothers. My mother was born in Ukiah in 1895. The family had been in the US for several generations, settling mostly in the mid-west. They eventually moved out to California and homesteaded on what is now Low Gap Road in Ukiah. They traded this home for the stage stop and post office in Ukiah, owned by a Mr. Snuffin, who has a road named after him there, and my grandfather became the postmaster.”

Eva’s paternal grandfather was a carpenter at the Hearst Castle and the family lived in the East Bay. Her father vividly remembered the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the fires that he watched from across the Bay as the city burned. “At some point, when my father was a teenager, they moved to the Sacramento Valley, to the Willows area near to Chico. Meanwhile, my mother’s parents were divorced and her father, the former postmaster, took her and her two sisters and moved from Ukiah to Eureka in the far north of the State. My mother and one sister married two brothers but mother’s marriage did not work out and she left town, with her young daughter Georgia, finding a job as a cook for a work crew back in Willows. She met my Dad and they were married in February 1922 and my brother Fred was born two years later. Then there followed us five girls — Mabel, Freda, Emagene, Ethel, and me in 1934. We’re all still alive and kicking!”

The family settled three miles outside the town of Biggs and three miles from the town of Gridley, living on farming land. “My father mostly worked for other people, driving a dump truck, hauling gravel, and working with team horses. It was the time of the Depression with many things bought and sold by the barter system and we were also fortunate to have his brothers and sisters as we all helped each other with food and supplies as we had the most kids in our family we got the most generous share. Like many immigrants at that time particularly, we were very proud people and did not accept charity easily. It was said that my Dad would prefer to dig a ditch for you rather than accept something for nothing. It was the time of President Roosevelt’s ‘chicken in every pot’ plan for the poor but my family would rather do something and be paid for it rather than accept the handout.”

“Where we lived it was mainly white families, some Portuguese, and one Mexican family. My Dad was racially prejudiced but my mother, a very big influence on me, brought us up to not be like that — she always said there was good and bad in all. I did feel a little of the prejudice though — we were half-white and half-Portuguese and it was the Portuguese who we lived around who would make the racist comments. All the races worked in the fields picking fruit alongside the many migrant workers from the southwest. I went to Biggs Elementary School where my friends in1st grade were Eva Bower and a prissy little boy called Buddy Streeter. Being a real tomboy, and the devil, I’d chase him down and kiss him!”

Eva grew up in a mixed race home but the American influence was stronger overall. ‘I could speak Portuguese back then and we did have Portuguese influences with some of the food and always had wine with our meals, watered down for the kids, but my mother was the strong influence and she was American. We entertained ourselves and helped with some of the chores like the cooking and I learned many farm skills such as chopping the heads off chickens and then picking and cleaning them, chopping wood, making fires, milking cows. My brother Fred worked with my Dad, when he wasn’t picking on us girls.”

In August 1943 the family moved to Anderson Valley. “My mother’s brother was living here and building the mill that was on Hibbert Lane near to the Pronsolino home, south of Yorkville. His wife couldn’t read or write, or drive, and my mother had gone out there to help him with some things when he became ill. She loved it and the climate here proved to be very good for her health, which was never good. After her brother got better, she came back to Biggs but decided that for her own health we would have to move from the area because there was so much field burning in the Sacramento Valley at that time. So we headed out here and lived in a house near to the corner of Highway 128 and Mountain View Road, rented to us by Harwood Junes’ mother, Grandma June, who took the ‘risk’ at a time when many people were prejudiced and would not rent to immigrants like us. My older siblings attended the high school and junior high and I went to the elementary school which was then at the Veterans Building, and later to the Little Red Schoolhouse, now the museum, near to where the elementary school is now.”

The Second World War was raging and as a result there were few men around. “Mrs. Zigler would come to the schoolhouse at 7am and build a fire to warm the building up and at lunch-times the students would do any necessary janitorial work. Our bathrooms were only slightly better than outhouses. I was shocked having come from a modern school with a janitor, a furnace, a cafeteria, and decent bathrooms. The school bus here had seats that ran along the side of the vehicle, front to back, rather than from side to side with an aisle. The kids would slide up and down when breaking and accelerating. I was certainly very sad to leave my friends and my school to come to this place where most people did not want us and which seemed so far behind in many ways.”

“My brother was 19 but because he suffered from a double hernia he was classed 4F and could not serve in the military. He had to deal with many comments and innuendos about that. We had lived three miles from the school in Biggs and would walk one way and pay 10¢ for the bus back. We would often go to the movies in town too. Here I was suddenly 21 miles from the nearest town, Ukiah, and because the road was just dirt and gravel, and very narrow so you had to wait as cars maneuvered past each other, it would take well over an hour to get to town. It was not paved until the logging boom after the war. Speaking of the war, the newsreels told of the Japanese concentration camps where they would torture prisoners of war. We were now fairly close the coast and supposedly there were Japanese submarines lurking in the ocean out there. With my wild and vivid 10-year old’s imagination, I thought the Japanese would land and capture us and then torture me by poking bamboo slivers under my fingernails! It was a tough time for me. I kept asking myself ‘Why are we here? Why? Why?’ I thought it was hell on earth!”

Eva also found herself a year ahead in terms of schooling. The teacher, Blanche Brown — “a wonderful teacher” — would not move kids up a class. “I therefore became very lazy and was an average student after moving. I did not like some of the teachers who were prejudiced against us newcomers. I played basketball and baseball where I played third base or in the outfield because I had the hardest throw. Not as hard as Arthur Knight, though. He hit me with a baseball once so I know! I was a tomboy throughout my childhood and always enjoyed sports and being outdoors.”

Following the War, the logging boom kicked in and many folks from the southwest moved up to the timberlands of northern California for work. “In 7th and 8th grade we suddenly had well over twenty kids in each grade — all in the same school room — I don’t know how we all fitted in. In 1947 I started at the high school and was joined by many kids from Arkansas and Oklahoma. I felt close to their community because I knew what they were going through as immigrants to the community. The Valley was a wild place at that time — every night was Saturday night in Boonville, with the three bars all packed full of many folks who loved to drink. The three main ones were The Boonville Lodge, Weiss’s Valley Inn, and The Track Inn. We moved to Navarro for a year and rented a place there but then returned to Boonville where my parents bought their first house — behind where the Hanes Gallery now is, in the middle of town.”

“Despite all these wild men from Arkansas and Oklahoma out on the streets at night, I didn’t worry about anything. The town was hopping but they did their fighting and carousing at the bars and never bothered us teenage girls. In fact, more often than not they were very polite, with a ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am’ if you spoke to them. These rough and tough guys lived very sparsely and most of them were really good people, although of course they had a fierce rivalry with the young men of the Valley who had grown up here, fighting guys like Jack and Delmar June. Fortunately the local girls generally stayed with the local boys. My mother was shocked that women went to bars at all. She occasionally drank a small glass of red wine at the most and continued to take us to Sunday school. She was very reserved and was a powerful influence on us girls. We were well behaved most of the time but I remember once I skipped class with Lovella Canevari and another girl and we were sent to the school office where the Principal, Denny Willis (Beth Tuttle’s brother), told us off. I sniggered and then really got it. He made me cry but I think he then felt bad because I was a good kid most of the time.”

Eva, who since her sophomore year had been dating a young man by the name of Floyd Johnson, who was two years her senior, graduated in 1951 in a class that included people such as Edith Hiatt, Tom Burger, Virgil Senn, Julia Pinoli, John Childers, Laura Foster, and Barbara Fashauer. The Johnsons had been in the Valley for a couple of generations and young Floyd worked for his uncle on the Johnson Ranch at the corner of Highway 128 and Highway 253 on the outskirts of Boonville. He left there and worked on the Bradford Ranch for a time before he and Eva were married in April 1953. They lived with his mother and stepfather in Boonville at the two-storey house where Eva’s grandson J.R. and his wife Kati now live, opposite the Farrer Building in downtown Boonville. Floyd was drafted into the army in August 1953, towards the end of the Korean War, and he was sent to Fort Ord then Fort Lewis but the war came to an end and he was discharged.

“Not long after Floyd’s discharge from the army, we moved on to the Johnson Ranch. It was Dec. 12th, 1954, and we lived in the house on the property where Floyd was born. I’ve been here ever since, apart from a ninth-month period when we moved up to the Palmer House on top of the hill during the winter of terrible flooding in 1963/64. We ran sheep and drove a truck hauling livestock, hay, and feed and started our family. Janese was born in April 1955 and then Gary in November 1958. Floyd worked the ranch and I raised the kids and ‘held down the fort’ as Floyd would say. We became good friends with Donald and Donna Pardini and Bob and Barbara Canevari and ever since high school we would go to many gatherings at my mother-in-law’s with our friends, where we’d play poker, dice, and other card games. Gambling was frowned upon by some but at least the parents would know where their kids were!”

“At that time there was a bunch of us parents with little kids and we all gathered and ate Donald’s wonderful spaghetti with everyone bringing a dish. We would also go out dancing — at The Grange Hall in the Valley but also in Ft. Bragg, Cloverdale, and Ukiah, with Jim and Bernice Clow and Austin and Sylvia Hulbert. Jim was a guitarist and singer of tongue twisters! I loved to dance and had learned how to by going to the Portuguese fiestas. Janese was a school cheerleader and Donna Pardini and I were room mothers helping at the school for Gary and Donna’s daughter Julie all the way through their school years. Gary was a baseball and football player and Julie was ‘his’ cheerleader. I did the books for the ranch and often helped with the sheep and cattle. Many was the time we had to bring them in when it was dark, although Floyd had dogs, one great one called Tip. He was also on the School board for 17 years and I could not help but get involved in all of that. When Janese was in the 6th grade, in 1966, I remember she came home one day and said she did not like her new teacher. I said give him a week or so but then she said she still didn’t like him. He was a fake and tried to ‘buy’ loyalty and friendship, she said. It was Jim Jones, later of People’s Temple fame, who taught at the school for a couple of years until the School board, thanks to the insistence of Floyd and Paul Titus, finally got rid of him in 1968. We all know what happened ten years after that.”

“Of course, as many people know, the Valley has had far more than it’s fair share of bad guys. Charles Manson lived down there on Gschwend Road with his gang and all their girls and at some point gave an Arkie schoolboy some LSD. The boy’s father formed a vigilante force of local guys and went down there — he was so mad he probably would have killed Manson that day but he wasn’t there and never came back, fleeing the Valley after his place had been destroyed. This is a remote area where people can come and hideout. The mass murderers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng ran the Philo Motel here, now the Anderson Valley Inn run by Bob and Lydia, Lake’s wife worked at the Elementary School and they had a hot tub where they would invite teachers to join them. There was the child kidnapper, Tree Frog Johnson and that guy who kidnapped and abused those young boys Steven Stayner and Timmy White, and others I cannot recall now.”

In 1967, Eva and Floyd, with their friends Donald and Donna Pardini, bought the Redwood Drive-In. “I was over-ruled on that! It was a diner without the mini-mart and gas pumps that are there now. We bought it from ‘Twink’ Charles, Chili Bates, and Bob Rawles and basically it was Donna and I who ran it for twelve years. We had good staff — Bea Coffman, Bev McGimsey, Ruby Rosenthal, and there were always some high school girls working there part-time too, plus Janese and two of the Pardini kids — Ernie and Julie. It was a lot of work and we always just got by — not unlike ranching! We sold it to Karen Ottoboni in 1979 after Donna became sick but I was ready to leave anyway. I took a little time off before getting a job as a nutrition aid at the Elementary School — helping in the cookery classes and teaching the kids about nutrition. I was there for a couple of years before leaving and concentrating on helping Floyd with the ranch over the next decade.”

On Jan 12th, 1992, Floyd passed at the age of 61. “On New Year’s Eve he had a serious coughing fit. He had been a big smoker but had quit five years earlier. He had said ‘if I die from it, I die from it.” I thought it was pneumonia but it was congestive heart failure which led to a heart attack a week or two later. It was a genetic condition and he had very high cholesterol. He had had a stroke four years earlier on New Year’s Eve when he was out on the ranch with Gary. He told Gary that if he had to die there and then, ‘What better place to go?’ He pulled through on that occasion but it left half his body numb. To look at him you’d think he was fine but after that day he said it felt like he was always ‘almost out of the effects of a Novocain injection, but not quite.’ Floyd was gone but, as you have to do, I ‘tied a knot in the rope and carried on.’ I was not going to put the ranch on the market. It has been in the family for about 100 years. Sure, there have been times when I’ve said to my son, ‘What the hell are we doing here, Gary?’ but selling it is not an option. Floyd was a very capable person, and could have done so many other things but at the end of the day he said he had always wanted a ranch and that he’d done what he wanted to do. He was a real hands-on person who only regretted not going to college because it may have helped him with some business skills, not in any other qualifications. He loved ranching and he loved farming and got to do both for virtually his whole life.”

Following Floyd’s passing, and with Gary running the ranch on a day-to-day basis, along with his wife Wanda and also Janese and her husband David Summit, Eva took a job with ‘Mysteries by Mail’ through Soda Creek Press — selling mystery and romance books over the phone. She did this for five years part-time during which time she was a constant baby-sitter and cook. ‘I believe that if people work for you then you feed them as well as play them.” Following her stint at the bookselling, in 1997, Eva became the Executive Director for the AV Senior Center. “I enjoyed that but eventually I was burned out and it became too much, so I resigned. I also knew many of the seniors who passed and that was difficult to constantly deal with.”

In 2004, Eva noticed an ad in the AVA newspaper for tasting room help at Roederer Winery. “I applied and Sharon Sullivan hired me. I had been there just a couple of days when someone left at their ‘sister’ winery, Scharffenberger in Philo and I was asked to help out there for a time. By coincidence, the tasting room was in a house where I’d been many years earlier — for Floyd’s aunt and uncle’s Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1954. It was like I was coming home! They asked me if I wanted to go back to Roederer and I said ‘No, thank you’ and have been at Scharffenberger ever since. I like it very much, meeting new people everyday, and I get to talk about the Valley history with the visitors.”

As for family, Eva has Gary and Wanda’s two children as her grandkids — J.R., who as mentioned earlier is married to Kati, and Nichole, who married a young local man Derek Wyant earlier this year at a wonderful event on the Johnson Ranch, and two more, Laura and Lane, who are Janese and David’s children. The ranch is 1800 acres with cattle and about three hundred sheep which Gary works, when he is not being one of just two County Trappers, with help from the family too.

I asked Eva for a verbal image of her father. “I remember him teaching us how to play cards, and cooking his delicious eggs with onion dish. He was a very hard worker, and a hard drinker. He was gone often when we were kids, often in the woods. He was ambidextrous, able to pitch a baseball equally well with either arm.” And her mother? “Her health was not good and she was ill a lot. She taught all of us girls how to sew, embroider but I had no patience with much of that stuff. She felt it was important for us to go to Sunday school for religious training and education in general. She had a beautiful voice and loved to dance.”

I also asked Eva for her thoughts on various Valley issues and institutions.

The Wineries? “I’d rather see them than houses and people. As for the ponds they have, were it not for them we’d have floods as we used to have, which most people here today have never experienced.”

KZYX radio? “I don’t listen — I can’t get it at the house.”

The AVA? “I read it sometimes. I believe it used to be so negative that it turned me off. There was a lot of B.S. that was unnecessary and sometimes cruel.”

The schools? “Why did they let the Elementary School get into the current state of disrepair?”

Changes in the Valley? “Well I was glad that the marijuana dispensary idea went away. That young woman should do such a thing in her own backyard. If the federal government says it is illegal then the State should follow suit. And I hate all these big fences around town. We all know what is behind there and nothing is done about it. Medical marijuana? We can all have a bad back but some of us have consciences.”

Tourism? “Good and bad. The Valley is not too accessible and so there are limits to it getting too many visitors and I am glad for that.”

I posed a few open questions to Eva.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing, spiritually, emotionally? “The sunshine; looking outside and seeing the livestock on the ranch.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The smell from the brewery across the road.”

Sound or noise you love? “Birds singing.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Trucks using their noisy jake-brakes at 4am in the morning as they pass the house.”

Favorite food? “Spaghetti dinner with good friends.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, for a conversation, who would that person be? “Floyd.”

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? “Well, I went through this once and went for Floyd’s gun collection, my Dachshund dog, Czena, and family photographs.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “The film would be ‘Gone with the Wind,’ the song ‘Goodbye my Friend’ by Linda Ronstadt, and the book — ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.”

Favorite hobby? “Reading — mainly mysteries and romance, which I had to do as part of that job.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “A trapeze artist in a circus.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Someone who had to empty the chamber pots of a bed-ridden person.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was 13. His name was Oscar Price from Navarro and he was a year older. He came to see me and we held hands.”

Something you’d do differently if you could do it over again? “Probably not.”

A memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “I’ve had too many to pick just one.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “My family, the kids, the grandkids.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “That I am dependable, hard-working, and a pain-in-the-neck!”

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Welcome! Step right up, young lady. You deserve to be here!”

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 Susan Newstead.

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