Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Elwin Maxey
by Steve Sparks, November 11, 2009
When I met with Elwin Maxey for lunch at The Boonville Lodge a couple of weeks ago, his granddaughter and caregiver, Dee Gowan, accompanied him. Elwin is now 93 and he and Dee live together in the home behind the AV Farm Supply that is owned by Elwin’s daughter Nancy and his son-in-law, Dave Gowan.
Elwin was born in Redding, California, on Feb 16th, 1916 to parents, John and Eva Maxey and he has one younger brother, Herbert. The Maxeys were originally from Oklahoma and were the neighbors on the farm next to that owned by the family of Jesse James, situated alongside the Platte River, outside the town of Coffeyville close to the border with Kansas. ‘My Dad knew Jesse a little but it was his brother, my Uncle Claude, who knew him a little too well and actually rode with the James Gang. He did a few bad things but after they held up a train and shot the conductor he quit.”
The family raised thoroughbred horses and a few cattle in a small town but the temptation of another Gold rush, that of the 1890’s in the region a little further north than that of 1849, led the family to leave and move to a small town called Ono, near to Redding, where John Maxey went to work in the gold mine at Harrison Gulch. Elwin attended a small grade school with just seven other children and then went to high school in Watson Gulch (not far from Redding) where he played baseball while enjoying a lot of fishing and hunting when not at school. “A river flowed through our property and we’d catch trout and hunt for all sorts of animals. We had a family farm and raised cattle and horses, with our own vegetables and many fruit trees. Ono was very small and had just a gas station and a post office but I liked it more than the big town of Redding. Then when I was sixteen, in 1933, we moved to Anderson Valley where my Uncle Art (Ragland), my Dad’s brother-in-law who had married his sister, owned the Big 4 Ranch down by Yorkville. My Dad worked on the ranch and also helped the Government Trapper catch mountain lions that were killing so many sheep. I went to the high school in Boonville for my senior year. Others who are still around here from my graduating class are Austin Hulbert, Shine Tuttle, and Charmian Blattner.”
Elwin soon had a high school sweetheart — Bernice Gowan — and not long after graduating in 1934 they eloped to Reno and got married, leaving James Gowan, Bernice’s brother of Gowan’s Oak Tree fame, to tell her family what had happened. “Yeah, I got mixed up with them Gowans at an early age,” said Elwin with a big grin on his face. “It was not much of a honeymoon though — I was ill the next day and thought it was food poisoning from eating some pumpkin pie so we came back but then I was taken to hospital in Ukiah and it turned out I had to have my appendix out! We were married for 69 years until Bernice passed away in 2003 — that’s along time to be with one woman and we had our ups and downs believe me!”
For a time after getting married they lived on the ranch in a small cabin but then an opportunity came along to move to the town of Upper Lake in Lake County and have a ranch with about 70 dairy cattle along with fields of alfalfa and pear trees. “I did not think it would be nearly fifty years until I would live in Anderson Valley again. When I wasn’t working in those days I loved to ride motorbikes. I had an Indian motorcycle and rode all over the State on it, and down to Mexico too. I damn near got killed a couple of times so I moved on to car racing — the midget cars. They were small but could go 100 mph. You might say they were too fast but I drove them in races all over the place — Stockton, Sacramento, Reno — and had a couple of accidents. I was OK both times but the cars were wrecked. Finally, Bernice said, ‘Either stop racing or we get a divorce — I figured it was cheaper to stop racing!”
While he was racing Elwin had a job in a glass making factory. “It was hotter than hell in there,” he said, before he quit the sport and the job and turned his attention full-time to the dairy ranching. “We sold our dairy products to Clover-Stornetta who distributed it all over the region. We also got to house horses there. One of them was called Nevada Boy, who was to become the famous Seabiscuit.”
Over the next few years they had three children — Nancy, Jim, and John — and during the Second World War they moved to the Bay Area where Elwin worked as a machinist making landmines for the government and was therefore given a deferment from joining the military.
Following the War, in 1945, they sold the ranch to Clover and moved to Lafayette, at that time a rural community in the East Bay, and Elwin joined the Fire Department. He was there for 18 years and for many of those years he was the Assistant Fire Chief. Over that time he and Bernice would often visit Anderson Valley to see relatives as most of her side, the Gowans, were living here. “The Valley was changing very quickly at that point — mills everywhere.” During those years he also worked for the Government as a trapper, dealing with the ongoing mountain lion problems for ranchers with sheep, cattle, and domesticated hogs. At some point Elwin hurt his back and the injury eventually brought an end to his career as a firefighter so in 1963 they moved once again, this time to Placerville, California, where they built a home. Their kids attended the local schools (with both sons eventually joining the Air Force and going to Vietnam), and Elwin began work as a welder in equipment maintenance and also a grader for the County Road Department. “I became a very good welder, eventually quitting before I went blind, but I continued to work on the grading of many of the roads in the Lake Tahoe area.”
In 1976 Elwin retired from the Road Department and, with a number of others, he and Bernice formed “The Placer Panners” and they and their friends began to travel all over California in their house trailers for a couple of years. At one point their group/convoy consisted of 17 trailers.
Eventually, in 1978, Elwin and Bernice settled in Fort Bragg on the coast but Elwin still maintained a busy lifestyle by buying a boat, “Big Mac,” and doing some commercial fishing. “Bernice said it was the perfect job to get me out of her hair.”
In 1983, Elwin and Bernice finally returned “home” to Anderson Valley. Their daughter Nancy had married Dave Gowan and they had started the Anderson Valley Feed and Supply in Navarro, at the Floodgate location before moving the business to its current location just north of Philo on Highway 128. Elwin and Bernice moved into a mobile home on the property, behind the store and barns, where they lived together until Bernice passed away in 2003. He has four grandchildren: Dee, Mark, Andy, and Kelly, and five great grandchildren with another on the way.
Over the 25 years that he has been here in the Valley, Elwin was kept pretty busy until his failing health finally slowed him down in recent years. His excellent welding skills have been in much demand and an example of his handy work can be seen at the gates to the Roederer Winery that he made and installed with help from Butch Paula. With his machinist skills he also installed the bottling line there and has helped out when needed at the Farm Supply, including hauling feed up from Santa Rosa and delivering hay to customers.
He has also kept busy by attending as many of the social events as he can, depending on his health. He used to be in a group for men called The Old Codgers, who would talk about their farm equipment etc. But that no longer exists. He loves the annual Crab Feed and the various tri-tip barbecues that are held in the Valley and tries to go to the Senior Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays whenever he feels up to it. “Most of my old friends have passed on now and I guess I’ll join ’em one of these days. I just don’t think he’s ready for me yet and anyway he’ll probably put me to work welding something when I get there.” He particularly likes to go out to the coast and have some seafood for lunch at Captain Flint’s in Fort Bragg, close to where he had kept his fishing boat, and another favorite spot is Hendy Woods where he can be pushed by Dee in his wheelchair among the redwoods. “She is wonderful, but I try to push her buttons when I can.”
Elwin has traveled quite a lot over the years including trips to New Orleans, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Europe — “I saw the Queen but couldn’t understand her English,” Mexico, and a cruise to Alaska. However he loves it here in the Valley the most. “It is beautiful here. In many ways it is still a quiet little town but it will change I’m sure. In the next 15 years or so you will hardly recognize the place but I won’t be around to see it.”
For a year or so Elwin was in Brookside Care Home for the Elderly in Ukiah but he never settled. “There were many elderly people and I had my own apartment there so it was OK I guess. But it still seemed like a jail to me and I couldn’t wait to leave. My health suffered there too. I caught everything that any of the others had.” He has been much healthier since he left there a year ago and has had Dee as his caregiver on the property in Philo. Dee tells me that he is strong as an ox some days, but like most people at that age he has good days and bad.
I asked Elwin for his opinions about some of the issues that concern Valley folks these days.
The Wineries? “Well they had to do something to get money here and that seems to be the best option. But there are too many now and I think they will have problems down the road. It’s sad that the apples and sheep are no longer here. There have been some big changes in the Valley and I think there are more to come.”
The AVA local newspaper? “It’s good. Dee reads it to me every week. I like hearing about the people I know.”
The tourists? “It’s OK as long as they don’t drink too much when they’re at the wineries. One of them hit our car last year.”
I posed a few questions from a list devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert,” Bernard Pivot, featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”
Favorite word or phrase? “Well I probably have a few but saying ‘I just don’t know what they’re doing’ is one of my favorites.”
Least favorite word or phrase? “When someone tells me that another person ‘should go to hell’.” And I don’t like some of Dee’s phrases like ‘whatever’ or ‘talk to the hand.’ I don’t know why I should talk to her hand.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Seeing friends and talking about the old days. Going for rides in the car and checking out the places that have old memories for me.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “I don’t have an answer for that.”
Sound or noise you love? “Music — country and western music.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Dee scolding me,” he said with a big smile on his face.
Favorite curse word? “Whatever comes to mind first.”
Favorite hobby? “I like football. The 49ers especially, although they had better get their heads out of their ass. I like to watch ‘Law and Order’ on television or old western movies with John Wayne and those guys.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “A pilot of some kind.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “Outhouse cleaner.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “When World War II ended and I knew my family and friends were coming back home.”
The saddest? “When my Dad died. We were close.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “That I took the opportunities that were offered to me and that I traveled so much with Bernice.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well I’d like to say to him, ‘I hope to have as good a time here as I had in the place I just came from.’ And hopefully he’d say, ‘You’ve done well — I can grant you that’.”
To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Doug Read.