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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Frank Wyant

by Steve Sparks, May 9, 2012

Frank was born in the town of O’Neill in northern Nebraska on February 21st, 1936 to parents Frank Wyant Sr. and Mabel Ross, who five years later had another son, Alan, and then eleven years after that came daughter Connie. The Wyant’s were originally from Germany and it was Frank’s great Grandfather who came over to the States in the late 1800’s. Frank Sr. had three brothers and two sisters and worked for a beer and ice distribution company.

The Ross family is of French/Irish/English ancestry and they originally settled in Iowa in the 1800’s where Grandfather Ross was a farmer before he moved the family to Nebraska. He had two sons from his first marriage and then two boys and Mabel with his second wife. While at high school in O’Neill, Mabel worked at a restaurant/bakery. “One day the ice man made a delivery, it was my Dad, and the two of them kinda hit it off and started dating. He took her on a delivery to Omaha — he used to go as far as South Dakota and all over northern Nebraska, and they visited his aunt in Omaha. While they were gone he asked her to marry him and she said yes so they did. He told a friend of his back in O’Neill that he and Mabel were married but it was to be kept a secret. Well the friend decided that was not going to happen and he called the local radio station and announced it on the air so that the family and most of the town knew when they got back to town!”

Frank and Mabel bought a house and Frank Jr was born a year or so later. When he was four years old Frank Sr. found a better paying job as a heavy equipment operator working for a construction company building roads in Cheyenne, Wyoming so the family moved there for a year. Then, in November 1941 he was offered a job working for Boeing, the aircraft manufacturers, in Seattle. Frank Sr. took the job and went our west to start and look for somewhere for the family to live. In the meantime, Mabel, Frank Jr., and the newborn Alan, went back to Nebraska, staying with Grandpa Ross until Frank Sr. found them a home in Seattle. “In December 1941 the Japs hit Pearl Harbor and with the talk about further attacks or even an invasion Grandpa Ross refused to let us go out west — there was a real fear of a Japs bombing the west coast at that time. Eventually he changed his mind and we lived out there for the duration of the war.”

The climate in Seattle did not suit the young family and so in 1946 they returned to Nebraska, where they lived again with Grandpa Ross and picked corn on the various farms in the area. The following spring they moved in with Grandpa Ross’ mother, eight miles out of town, where they lived for four years, working on the family ranch. At that time, when Frank was ten years old, his father fell off a wagon when the horses bolted as they crossed a bridge and he broke his back. He could no longer work in the fields so they moved to Aurora in southern Nebraska where the Wyant family owned two gas station/stores “I was sad to leave where we were, I had many friends, but the store was in a great location and the business was a success. My Dad bought one of the gas stations from his father and then a few years later had saved enough to buy one of the Ross family ranches back up north too. We moved back, to a few miles north of O’Neill, and were living on the ranch during the ‘Great Blizzard of ’48-’49’ It hit when I was at school and we were snowed in at a farm across the road from the school for two weeks. The school only had seven kids but we were all stuck there. Normally you could see for miles and miles across the plains but visibility was just a few feet. We ran out of fuel and used wood from fences. We had some chickens and a couple of cows. I never got so tired of homemade ice cream in my life!”

Frank had attended quite large schools in Cheyenne and Seattle, where they had worn dog tags like soldiers, but back in Nebraska he was at one-room schoolhouses, out on the plains. “I rode a horse to school every day. It was about four or five miles away, out on the plains, and there was a barn for the horses while we were in class. There was nothing except fields and an occasional farmhouse for as far as you could see in every direction. No trees, just wild grass, hay land. In the lower lands, alongside the rivers, there was corn, oats, barley, and alfalfa, but out on the plains, nothing. The ranch was 410 acres, less than two hours drive from the South Dakota state line on the Niobrara River, north of O’Neill, which was the Holt County seat of about 2000 people back then. I guess the nearest sizeable town was Kearney, about eighty miles away, then a town about the same size that Ukiah is today, and it was where the university was for anyone able to go to one. Quite a few girls took Teachers Ed. at the local high school and this allowed them to become teachers for a year after leaving school despite not having full credentials. I remember during 7th and 8th grade having some teachers who looked pretty good to us kids!”

“I lived a typical country boy’s life. I had my chores, cutting wood, feeding the cattle — we had about one hundred plus about 12 dairy cows that had to be milked. We had chickens, about thirty hogs that we sold every year, and at twelve I was driving a tractor — before that we had horses to do all the work that the tractor did. In the winter we skated on the frozen over ponds or get a horse to pull our sled half-a-mile up the hill to our mailbox and slide all the way back down, and at night we’d sit around and listen to the Lawrence Welk show and Amos and Andy on the battery operated radio that could only pick up the station out of Yankton, South Dakota. We did not have electricity until 1952. We had kerosene at 10 cents a gallon to keep our ‘Aladdin’ lamps going; the fuel for the tractor was 18 cents a gallon… We’d fish for bass and carp and I’d set trap-lines and hunted for various animals and hope to sell their furs. Beavers were worth $50 each! Minks $35, and skunks around $3 — you were pretty smelly after skinning them. You could only kill beavers if they were damning up rivers and causing hardship for the farm and there was a limit of twelve a year. There was no deer season although we’d usually get one a year illegally and bury the hide and bones. The meat was canned — we had no freezing capability. We always sat down together for dinner at night and the Ross’s were a big family, gathering together a couple of times a year for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

In 1951, Frank graduated from grammar school and went to Lynch High School about ten miles north. “I was fourteen and my Dad had bought a car for the family —a 1940, four door Sedan, and even though I did not have a driving license I was allowed to drive it to school. Most of the roads at that time were still just gravel, in the towns and on the highways.”

Franks’ mother had visited her brother in Weaverville, California and found the climate to be very much better for her health than living in Nebraska. As a result, following Frank’s sophomore year at high school, in the summer of 1953, the family, with newborn baby girl Connie, moved out to the west coast. “My brother and I did not like the idea, we had a great life where we were and I guess we thought it would be tough but it was a new experience and we soon got to enjoy it.”

Weaverville was in California’s Trinity County, a logging town between Redding and Eureka about the same size as Cloverdale today. Thanks to his uncle having some contacts, Frank Jr. was promised a summer job for the forestry department at the campgrounds in Willow Creek so when they arrived in Weaverville he was packed off to the job. However, he was soon missing his family and quit. That fall Frank went to Weaverville High School where he finished his final two years of schooling. “I made friends easily and soon settled in. Some of them got jobs the following summer with the forestry department but because I had quit the previous year they refused to take me back so I worked in construction instead.” Frank enjoyed school overall and his favorite subjects were Geography and Math. He did not like English. He had played football at the school in Nebraska but once he moved California at sixteen it seemed like he was more interested in girls and he stopped playing sports.

Frank’s father worked at the sawmill with Frank’s uncle and there were other families who had moved out from Nebraska who they knew. They would socialize with these families, playing pinochle, fishing, panning fro gold, and having parties at which Frank’s buddy, Gerald Bailey would often entertain everyone. “He was a gifted musician and could play many instruments.”

“Before my senior year began, Gerald, who was dating a girl I had known in Nebraska, introduced me to his sister who was visiting from Texas where she lived with her mother. The girls name was Jo Ann and she was staying with her father and Gerald in Weaverville. Anyway we went together for that year and Jo Ann did my English homework for me! Just a week after graduation in 1955 we went to Reno and got married. I had got a job with the phone company but had only been there a week and had not even got my first check so I had to borrow $100 to pay for our trip!”

Frank’s family soon got over the initial shock and accepted the marriage. Frank and Jo Ann moved into an apartment in town, then they bought a trailer before selling that and buying their first house. “Jo Ann worked two nights a week at the library and I worked for a private phone company for $1.50 hour. The house cost us $4000 and we paid a mortgage of $30 a month. We didn’t have a car but our family was close by — my uncle was right across the street and we were just down the road from my parents’ house. The phone company laid me off after a year or so and I found work as a laborer in the tunnel at the Trinity Dam. Jo Ann’s father worked for the state in the winters and a foreman friend of his suggested that I take a Class 2 license to drive a truck and apply for a job with the Division of Highways. I did this but there was a waiting list so after finishing at the dam I worked in a gas station for a time. We had started a family by that time with Cathy being born in 1956.”

On May 26th, 1958, Frank was called in to their Woodland office by the Division of Highways (later Cal Tran) and hired. He was given the choice of three places to work. “Well Colusa was always flooded; Woodland too busy for a country boy like me; and so I chose Esparto, which was almost two hundred miles to the south” (in Yolo County north of Sacramento). “Jo Ann, Cathy, and I moved there, with Jo Ann pregnant with Rick. It was a tough pregnancy so Jo Ann and Cathy moved back to Weaverville to live with my mother and her grandmother but after Rick was born later that year they all returned to Esparto. Bryan was born there two years later in 1960.”

Frank and the family stayed in Esparto for eight years. During that time he continued to work for the highways department and Jo Ann worked as a manager for the local drive-in in Esparto. He worked mainly on road maintenance on Highway 16 between Rumsey, Guindo and Capey. Jo Ann worked five days a week starting at 4pm each day, so they would get a baby-sitter for half-an-hour, and then Frank would get home from work at 4.30pm and have the kids in the evening. “She then moved to the camera department at a supermarket and after that at the check-out in a grocery store. Most of our time was spent raising our family and working, although we did love to go camping at the weekends whenever we could.”

Frank had applied for various promotions and, in October 1964, he took a temporary promotion, until May 1965, working on a crew on Donner Summit, high up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. He returned from that job and completed two more years in Esparto before interviewing for a job in Boonville in June 1966. “We had camped once in Ft. Bragg and had driven down to Bodega Bay on Hwy 1 along the coast, but we’d never come along Highway 128 through Anderson Valley. The countryside looked real good and there were no big freeways — that suited me. Four days after the interview I was hired. The family stayed in Esparto while I came over to look for accommodation. I stayed in the motel that used to be where the apartments are now — across the road from the Senior Center in Boonville. I found a place up on the Greenwood Road near to the rock pits and the state paid for the family to move over. Our neighbors were the Pronsolino’s and me and Angelo Pronsolino, who worked on the highways also at that time, would take it in turns to drive us to work. We stayed there for about a year but with the kids all in school we wanted to move into town, near to the schools. We rented the house that was in the spot behind Weiss’s restaurant before Weiss’s burned down. It’s still there — behind what is The Buckhorn now. There was no restaurant there at the time we lived there, just a big cactus patch.”

“In 1969, we visited Dan Godfrey and his wife on the new development on Estate Drive, just out of Boonville by what would later become the airport. It was mostly fields back then. They told us they were moving out and were selling for $22,000. We had put our place in Esparto up for sale, after renting it out for a couple of years, and had to wait for that to sell before we could finance any new house. It soon did sell and when we came back to them a month or so later, we got it for $19,500 — property was not moving at that time. It was a four-bedroom house — which was just as well because soon afterwards our fourth kid came along — Renée! I think it was 1969 — I didn’t keep a track of that stuff, Jo Ann did! I could have thrown Jo Ann off a bridge when I found out she was pregnant again. Or even jumped off myself!”

Frank and Jo Ann were kept busy raising the four kids, particularly with the two boys heavily involved in sports. “All of us would go to the games, including baby Renée — hey, she had come to live with us, that is what we did so she had to come along! Cathy and Rick were also really into 4H and we certainly had a very busy life for quite a few years. During this time Jo Ann worked at the post office in Philo with Thelma Pinoli on Saturdays and so most of our camping trips stopped. She also worked at the Redwood Drive-in and briefly at the AV Market. But most of the time she was being a mother.”

Frank ran a crew as the lead worker, mostly on Highway 253 over the hill, to Ukiah, nineteen miles away. “After a time I found myself all over the area, along Highway 128 and out to the coast and Highway 1. Going out to Point Arena was not going to work for me so for a couple of years or more I worked on a special striping crew out of Ukiah, doing stops and lines from southern Mendocino County all the way up to Leggett in the north and across to Lake County. I was able to plan my own schedule — it was a good job and I really liked it even though it involved lots of driving. Eventually the driving was too much and after Johnnie Pinoli retired I returned to Boonville. I felt like a dog who was tied up after running loose for a long time but I knew all the guys and gradually accepted it and stayed here.”

Frank likes to be social and shortly after arriving in the Valley he joined both the AV Lions’ Club and the AV Grange. Meanwhile, Jo Ann found an outlet with the Boontown Players, a group who regularly played music and put on plays and skits — people such as Emil Rossi, Eva Holcomb, and Dick Sand. “I actually appeared once — with Smokey Blattner and Dick Sand, performing a ballet dance in a tutu!… As I mentioned earlier, 4H played a significant part in our lives, with many of our friends’ kids also involved. I taught a ‘small engines’ class in 4H and Jo Ann was a Cub Scout den mother along with Betty Pronsolino and Berna Walker. The Lions did many events — they still do, and we’d often end up at The Boonville Lodge bar afterwards, dancing and drinking, before staggering home — that was when we lived closer to town at the Weiss’s place, which was very handy.”

By the seventies the Okies (from Oklahoma) and Arkies (from Arkansas) had been settled for a generation. “Quite a few had left though. The work in the woods was still good but it was definitely going down. The hippies and back-to-the-land’ers were arriving in numbers, and many are still here — they’ve cleaned up quite a bit by this time though! Most of them lived in the woods back then and would bathe in the river and hang out on the sand bars — lots of them. Johnnie Pinoli, Jim Clow and me would take our breaks down by the river and take a look at the naked girls while we were there. Paul Titus and Donald Pardini would join us sometimes. I remember once we were there and Donald and Johnnie decided to go for a closer look at the girls. Donald left his lunch with us — it had a fruit pie in the box and we ate it. When they returned he was mad and asked who had eaten it. We all denied it but Donald looked at Paul Titus and said, “You lying sucker, it’s all over your cheek!” And it was! I had lots of fun with those guys but we always did our work, in all weathers, and we did it well.”

As far as a social life in the Valley, the Lodge was the main place through the seventies and early eighties. The Track Inn had closed by then, as had The Last Resort in Philo. “I think I went to the Boonville Hotel once, after it had been re-modeled. They made it clear that it was not built for locals — and we have always obliged them… I have socialized with the same people for over forty-five years — Gene and Berna Walker, Wes Smoot, etc. I remember when I used to make out the time cards for the crew how there seemed to be so many Italian names on them — some of them are still here, of course. When I first started here most of the guys were older than me and I was a little nervous at first. They knew the area better than me and after a day’s work sometimes I would get them back late to the yard. That was not good and I learned quickly not to do that!”

Frank retired in at fifty-eight in November 1994. “I received a lump sum of vacation pay at my retirement and invested most of it. A few years later, when my mother passed, I invested more money in municipal bonds and they have done very well. For years, every time I received a pay raise I would put it in a 401K plan and later used that money for vacations after retirement. We had some great vacations for thirteen years or so. That is a good lesson for young folks I think. Put money aside for your later years and enjoy them. Two of my grandsons, Renée’s boys, Garrett and Drake, have planted garlic here in my garden, maintained it, harvested it, and sold the crop at market, with the money being invested in mutual funds. They will thank me one day.”

All four of Frank and Jo Ann’s kids went through the Anderson Valley school system and they have each gone on to have families of their own. Cathy was married to Jamie and they had Trevor and she is now married to Frank Keach; Rick married Schevilla and they have Jennifer and Clinton; Bryan married Diana and had son Derek and daughter Ashley before getting married to Elizabeth; and Renée was married to Angelo and had the two boys Garrett and Drake before marrying Kevin Lee. Frank also now has four great grandchildren.

Frank continues to go to lots of Valley events and be involved in many activities. After retirement he joined The Fair Board and continues to play a role for The Lions and The Grange, for whom he was on the building committee when the old Grange burned down. He and Jo Ann went on many vacations together in the time following his retirement, before her illness and then her untimely passing in 2010. He remembers each of them vividly and with great fondness. “We went to Yellowstone National Park and on to Texas and Colorado; drove to Alaska with our trailer; took a cruise to Alaska; went with the Walkers to Ft Lauderdale and then a cruise through the Panama Canal; another cruise from Los Angeles to Hawaii; virtually every winter we’d go to Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada with the Walkers; Death Valley, Oregon, Montana, Idaho… We took Garrett and Drake to Yellowstone and on to Mt Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument and then to Nebraska — we took all our kids back there at some point — I still have some cousins there. It was quite sad — our ranch was bought and most of the buildings are gone and it’s not been kept up.”

Jo Ann was seventy-three when she passed in 2010. “She had had heart issues since her thirties — she had no artery on one side of her heart, just a vein. Then, following lower spine problems and a mistake in the surgery that followed, there was a blood clot in her lungs. Some of this was dealt with but not all of it and it hit her heart, maybe it stuck in the small vein, and she died. I saw her on the Friday in hospital and said I’d be back on Sunday. She died on the Saturday — October 31st, 2010 — Halloween…… That was a rough old pill to swallow. It was very lonesome after fifty-five years of marriage. I started to go to the Senior Center more often but it was not the same without her. I was getting lonesomer and lonesomer. I went crabbing with my son Bryan in the November and then the whole family was around for that Thanksgiving but it was just not the same. I had this big family giving me love and support but it was in my mind that perhaps I would like to have a companion from my generation — the walls don’t talk to you. I think the same happened to my friend Wes Smoot after his wife died. I believe you have to move on and continue a life. I will always have Jo Ann — she is with me every day.”

“Then one day, a few months after Jo Ann’s passing, I drove into the parking lot at the Center and Joy Fraser was in the car next to me. I had known her for many years but we’d never really talked much — she and her husband Don had not been part of our group. He had passed in 2008. I asked if she’d like to go out to dinner and a show and she agreed. We went to Ukiah and ate at the Calpella Club and saw a movie — I can’t remember which one. We had a few dates and then I took her on a trip to Reno. It was not easy on the family perhaps — so soon after Jo Ann’s passing, but they came to accept it. We then went on a vacation with Bryan and Elizabeth and at one point the two of us went on alone. People were wondering where we were and when we were coming back home. Joy had never really been anywhere and we were enjoying each other’s company. Joy has been a wonderful companion and we enjoy ourselves together. We plan another trip this fall to Philadelphia, Niagara Falls, and into Canada. I like to spend my money on vacations — I earned it.”

I asked Frank what he most liked about life in the Valley. “The people here and the country atmosphere.” And dislike? “All the grapes, but I can’t do much about it. It was much prettier when it was apples and sheep, more natural looking.” I inquired if he’d ever thought about leaving the Valley. “That first winter there was 68 inches of rain and I thought about moving if we had another one like it. But soon the kids were into their schools and the thoughts went away.” And what if he was the Mayor and had some political power? “I think a water system for the Valley would be good. In 1967 this idea was in the works, and the state would have funded it, but the apple growers and hippies didn’t want it.”

I now inquired about Frank’s thoughts or comments on some frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation.

The Wineries? “They look nice and they bring in people and their money.”

The public radio station, KZYX? “I’ve listened may be five or six times. That’s it. I have my radio set for Ukiah’s western station, KUKI, 103.3fm”

The AVA Newspaper? “I’ve nothing against it but they should have more local stuff.”

The School System? “I used to be very involved and go to every school board meeting. Not anymore. They’ve done a good job overall.”

To end the interview, I posed a few questions to my guest, some of which are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? “I’m just glad that I wake up every day!”

What annoys you; brings you down? “Parents who do not correct their kid’s manners. And cashiers in stores who do not count out the change back to you.”

Sound or noise you love? “Equipment running.”

Sound or noise you hate? Groups of kids shouting and being rude.”

Your ‘last supper’? “Steak.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “My Mom and Dad — they both had pretty sound advice for us.”

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? “The urn with Jo Ann’s ashes, family photographs, my guns.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “The South and the Carolina’s.”

Favorite hobby? “Gardening — it’s when I relax; or in my shop doing my woodcrafts.”

Favorite word or phrase that you use? “Well from my son I got ‘Busha-busha’ — it means hurry up. I like it.”

Profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “A pilot of some sort.”

Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “Hindsight is great of course, but I would have bought some lots here on Estate Drive. And I wish my kids could have experienced a farm life like I did. It was not always fun at the time but looking back I have many good memories.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “I am proud that I gave Jo Ann a nice home to live in — she was from a broken home and had nothing. I am proud that I worked hard to ensure we could raise a family and then have time together to travel when I retired. Jo Ann and I worked hard as a team, saved hard as a team, and played as a team.”

Favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? “I was always taught that your words are worth more than your money and I’ve tried to live up to that. I hope I have succeeded.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I hope he’d see my good qualities, I assume I have some, so ‘Welcome, come on in’ would be fine with me.”

If you would like to read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. In two weeks, in the 4th issue of the month on May 23rd, the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Marvin Schenck.

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