A True History Of Anderson Valley

by T. Albert Strobridge, October 10, 2007

Much of the history of California settlement following the Spanish and Mexican periods has been built up around the "romantic" mining industry, which was profitable to the few rich men it produced but often tragic to hundreds of other, unrecorded, hard-working pioneers. It remained for the equally-romantic agricultural industry to produce a class of men and women who formed the background for a more reliable permanent residence in a state which now holds second place in point of national population.

This narrative has been prepared in an effort to record the history of one of the early, agriculturally minded, group settlements in California — that of Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. My knowledge of this beautiful Valley covers years of frequent visits to the Brown and Prather families, who were among the first settlers, three generations of whom have made it their home. The families of other pioneers also having long residence in the Valley, not specifically mentioned here, have had experience of equal interest. But the Browns and Prathers have generously allowed me to draw on their fund of information.

Anderson Valley occupies an area about 25 miles long, extending westerly toward the Coast from a point ten miles west of Ukiah. The earliest means of entrance, other than by trail, was a primitive mountain road about 20 miles long from Ukiah to Boonville, the principal settlement in the eastern end of the Valley. The road was used for stage and wagon transportation, but was unsafe in winter. The present highway, built around 1900, follows an old county road from Cloverdale through a chain of hills known as Dry Creek and Yorkville. It is called the McDonald-To-The-Sea highway and offers a variety of natural beauty, although the land is little suited for cultivation until Boonville is reached. The view immediately approaching Anderson Valley unfolds to an area under rich cultivation with heavy timber ranges on the south side and open sheep grazing ranges on the north, the ranges averaging 1,500 to 2,000 feet in elevation.

Wood from this section was considered the cleanest on the market and sold at top prices. Gradually the rich soil on the floor of the Valley was cleared for farming with the result that apples grown there were found to excel in variety and flavor the apples growing in other sections of the state. Few farmers are without their individuals dryers, as most of the fruit is dried before marketing. The industrious character of the farmers and the production of wood, grain and fruit made them virtually independent of the outside world except for luxuries. Some ten years ago, Mendocino County erected one of its largest pavilions in Boonville, and regular apple shows, attended by people from most of the northern part of the state are held there.

Near Philo on the south side of the Navarro River is about half a section of particularly fine virgin redwood, commonly known as Hendy Woods. It can be entered through the Gowan ranch either by ford across the river, or by a temporary bridge removed during the winter.

As the motorist approaches the ocean, along the last ten miles of new highway, he passes through forest and streams naturally stocked with trout and steelhead according to season. The road was surveyed about 1925 with the expectation that when tree life on both sides of the road resumed its normal condition an overhanging arbor-effect would develop. The expectation has been fulfilled and some of the arbored portions extend for a mile or more, leaving tourists to wonder at what they see.

Two abandoned mills with their wharves are all that remains of the once-active lumber camps that helped built the Pacific coast lumber industry. Until recent years, the Albion Lumber Mill at the confluence of the Albion (now called the North fork) and Navarro rivers was serviced by a small, narrow-gauge railroad. Closing of the mills in this area was hastened by community efforts to preserve the remaining virgin timber, their efforts being linked with the campaign of the Save The Redwoods League.

Natural mineral springs abound — not a square mile in the entire Valley is without one or more such springs. Rancheria Creek, about 15 miles in length, is the longest tributary of the Navarro River from the south, and has its sources in mineral springs of known medicinal value.

Anderson Valley and its ranges have always been the natural habitat for wild animal and bird life. In early days, residents were accustomed to join together to track down panthers and other enemies of sheep and deer. This writer has often heard of such hunts, sometimes taking days of patient stalking which seldom proved unsuccessful.

There is a rare species of grouse that has for many years lived on top of the ranges to the north of the Valley floor and when permitted to be hunted, they were found to be strongly flavored with pine, on the tender needles of which the Anderson Valley specimens feed almost exclusively. They have only a little plumage under the throat covering the drumming pouch, but the skin itself resembles newly-mined corrugated gold; and there is a dash of gold and crimson plumage on the eyebrows, which also become distended when the bird is in the act of drumming. It is thought that a complete study of this stately Mendocino County bird might yield a separate variety of grouse.

The foregoing briefly covers some of the geographic and natural history features of Anderson Valley. Now follows as summary of my interviews with Charles Brown (then 85), while I was visiting Ralph and Millie Brown in May of 1935.

Anderson Valley was named after Walter Anderson, known as the discoverer of the Valley in about 1851, during one of his early roamings over the country north of San Francisco. When he returned to his home near San Francisco he made the statement that he had found "The Garden of Eden" and intended to move there, which he did. Settlements began to appear within a stretch of about 15 miles between Boonville and the junction of the North Fork with the Navarro River.

The following are the names of the young and old male population of the Valley at the time (about 1862) that Dr. J.T. Brown, father of Charles Brown, settled in Philo with his wife Elizabeth (Fraice) Brown and five children: J.D. Ball, Henry Beeson, Ike Beeson, Ben Bonnet, W.W.Boon, Chas Bradway, Al Brayton, Ed Brayton, Frank Buster, Mike Buster, D. Campbell, J.C. Conrad, Calvin Counts, Chas Davis, Bill Donnelly, John Eddington, Howard Fanning, John Gschwend, Joseph Gschwend, Lew Gary, John Grossman, William Hale, Jas. Hawkins, Geo. Huden, Daniel Ingram, Bob Janveter, Jack Jones, Alonzo Kendall, Sam Lawson, John Leech, J.A. McGimsey, "Port" McGimsey, "Gild" Moore, Henry Nunn, Sylvester Nunn, Alec Obarr, William Prather, Jas. Rawles, John Snider, William Stein, Jas. Wallace, Pat Williams.

Charles Brown lived to the ripe old age of almost 100 years.

Dr. J.T. Brown left Rome, James County, Iowa, in 1853 with his wife Elizabeth and three young children, Charles, 3, Oscar, 2, and Henry 1, traveling in a covered wagon with three yoke of oxen. California was reached in six months with two yoke of oxen, two animals being lost in transit. The family encountered tribes of Indians, the Potawatomi among others, and were forced to stop near Fort Laramie. It so happened that Dr. Brown was recognized by one of the Indian chiefs who had been his former playmate in Iowa. Acting on the advice of this chief, Dr. Brown separated from the rest of the caravan and continued along with his family to the Coast, thus escaping the massacre of the caravan near Laramie.

The Brown family first settled in Napa County where Dr. Brown opened a small drugstore in or near St. Helena. About this time he sold one of his oxen for which he was paid a $50 eight-sided gold coin slug. In 1862 the family moved to Anderson Valley and settled on a homestead near Philo. The names of the Brown children are Charles, Oscar, Henry, Frank (father of Blanche Brown), Kate, George, Stella, Mary, Horace, Ralph, and two others who died in infancy. Charles recalled that family attendance at church in the Valley was by ox-drawn wagon.

Millie Prather, daughter of William and Diana Elizabeth (Ingram) Prather, married Ralph Brown and both of them had been friends of mine for over 50 years until their deaths recently. William Prather left Indiana on horseback with a party of emigrants during 1853, Diana Ingram, whom he later married in California, being a member of the same caravan. They came by the main trail across the plains and took Carson Pass over the Sierra Nevada. Prather went to Solano County and learned the shoe-making trade. Immediately after marrying in August 1860, he took his wife to Anderson Valley. There were only six families living there then — or two years before Dr. Brown's family came. The names of the Brown and Prather families appear in the first register of the district, a copy of which was in Mrs. Millie Brown's library at Philo. The following are the names of William and Elizabeth Prather's children: Hattie, John T., Mary, Earl, Millie, Morris, Carl, Maud, and Eva.

At the opening of the Civil War in 1861, a vote was taken in the Valley expressing partisanship with the Union forces or with the seceding states. All but voter one favored the South. When announcement was made of the vote, the leader asked if the Union supporter was willing to show his colors. True to his stand that one man rose to his feet and, between methodic ejections of tobacco juice, said, "I am that man." Characteristic of the neighborliness that had always prevailed, no one attempted to lay a finger on the dissident voter.

Millie Brown recalled a disturbance from cattle thieves and was a witness to signal fires used to warn residents when she was eight years old. She also told of her childhood fright from the ghostly appearance of Indian faces at the windows of her father's cabin in the early evening during the Indians' annual trips through the Valley on their way to the Coast. But nothing of an unfriendly nature ever developed.

The nearest blacksmith was ten miles away at Yorkville farm where, according to Charles, his father once sent him to have a horse shod. He was obliged to wait over a day while the blacksmith forged a set of shoes and nails out of an old gun barrel.

Indian Creek, one of the streams entering the Navarro River from the north near Philo, derived its name from the tribes of peaceful Indians who made the mouth of this creek a main place of temporary abode during their migrations to the Coast. A trivial robbery was reported by Charles Brown during one of these migrations. It seems that some of the tribe members were badly in need of clothing and a squaw appropriated a pair of Charles's corduroy pants while he was at school. Its disappearance was discovered when he returned home. Charles spread the news of the theft because he had a gold coin concealed in a pocket of the missing garment. He and a man named Jim Tinker started out on horseback in pursuit. On overtaking the Indians, Charles noticed that his pants were on the back of a squaw. Jim lassoed the culprit who surrendered the pants with the gold coin still safely stowed in the pocket.

Early settlers depended on the raising of cattle, hogs and sheep for their livelihoods. Lumber was cut largely for fence rails, while rough timber, sawed by the Valley's one circular sawmill, served for dwellings. The gristmill was a primitive affair located near Christine in the center of the Valley. It could be operated only in winter when water power was adequate. Later, another small mill was erected on Indian Creek. To my knowledge, it was still standing when I first visited the Valley in 1898, but it was dismantled soon after.

A remarkable story of the "fish" variety is told by Charles Brown who witnessed the incident. Following a long and heavy storm, the Navarro River was running in flood stage and salmon, which always appear in coastal rivers for spawning, filled the river in such quantities that one day during the run Charles saw his father throw a quantity of fish out of the river and onto the bank with a pitchfork! The story is quite plausible because it was this same winter of 1860-61 that northern California rivers overflowed and Sacramento suffered its worst flood, the effects of which were witnessed by my parents' families who were residing there. In contrast with this severe winter were the following two years of drought when not enough water was available to operate the flour mills.

With its abundant supply of mineral springs there is little wonder that the health of Anderson Valley's population has always been of the best, and in recent years a few ranchers have offered vacationing privileges to those desiring them. The Valley was without a resident physician of more than average professional ability until about 15 years ago when a graduate of a long established eastern medical school took up residence with his wife, a trained nurse, and child, in Boonville. The Valley's population of about 800 kept his practice confined within the district. It is hoped than an expert dentist will soon recognize the inducement offered for similar residence, possibly in Philo, a more central location.

About 25 years ago 20 or more families grouped together for the purpose of building a privately owned telephone system to include practically every ranch home in the Valley. In time the neighbors became familiar with coded bell-calls and one can imagine the commotion when signal rings for the doctor were heard on the line. This privately owned telephone system is now connected with the main-line office of Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company's stations in Boonville and Philo so the farmers at last have obtained connection with the outside world.

As farmers' wants expanded small community store-centers were gradually established at five mile distances beyond Boonville at Philo, Christine, and Wendling, now called Navarro. Educational and social developments began with the start of settlements, although schooling was limited to grammar school studies. As children completed those grades they were absorbed into farming activities. Parents gave encouragement to occasional social and supper-dancing parties of a highly respectable nature at which Millie and Ralph Brown invariably provided the music with a portable organ and a violin. I recall one such affair in 1902 when Maud Prather was my dancing partner. There was also the seasonal event of sheep-shearing. During the few days it lasted, the farming families vied with one another in providing their finest food for the shearing crews which were made up of the stronger young men on the ranches.

I would like to express my appreciation for the assistance in preparing this account to Miss Blanche Brown, granddaughter of Dr. J.T. Brown, and William Prather, two of Anderson Valley's earliest settlers. Miss Brown, recently retired, has been a teacher for 38 consecutive years in the public schools of this county and has at her home in Philo a wealth of historic data which some day she may organize into a paper of great interest.

This article first appeared in a 1954 edition of the California Historical Society's Journal.

2 Responses to A True History Of Anderson Valley

  1. Dena Lee-Fullbright Reply

    April 14, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Very very interesting article! I have lived in the valley my WHOLE life and would love to see more of these articles!! I met Blanch Brown when I was a young girl!!

  2. Daniel Prather Reply

    December 8, 2016 at 9:30 am

    My mother, Rose lived with Mrs. Brown when she attended Anderson Valley High. Rose said she was a very nice lady. Rose later married Harry Prather.

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