by Malcolm Macdonald, December 18, 2013
It has been a cold, cold December by California standards, though by the time this is read nighttime temperatures should return to seasonal norms. What is abnormal is the lack of autumn rainfall. Walking upstream alongside the Albion, there are still many places where the river can be hopped over with a single bound. One of those areas exists on the “forty” that has been in our family’s possession for a century, but is separated from the home place by about a half mile of corporate, logged over, timberland. At the eastern edge of that “forty,” on the south side of the river, stands a blackened redwood stump with the remote scars of something once having been wrapped around it. That something was a cable, but not for logging purposes.
A century back my father’s youngest maternal uncle, Will Robertson, constructed a narrow swinging footbridge above the Albion River there. He used this swaying boardwalk to go to and from Bill Donovan’s place, which adjoined the southeast corner of our “forty.”
Bill Donovan was a Spanish-American War veteran, whose benefits helped him purchase his own forty acre parcel. Donovan used the footbridge to access the railroad, which brought him supplies from Albion, his daily mail, along with providing passenger and freight service.
Will Robertson made ties on Donovan’s place and farther up the hill toward Albion Ridge. The ties were carried across the river, either by tromping through shallow water or on the swaying footbridge during winter high water that occasionally slammed damaging driftwood into the bridge.
Uncle Will labored at various alternatives to woods work. He planted three fields of ginseng at Donovan’s, from expensive mail order bulbs. He tended the crop inside pole fences for three years (ginseng takes several years to mature before it can be harvested), only to have it all eaten in one night by deer.
Will Robertson also traveled up a wagon road from the upriver “forty” to Albion Ridge where he sometimes split ties with one of his nephews, Albion Ernest Anderson, in the years immediately preceding World War I. Later on, during “the war to end all wars,” Ernest (as he was known to nearly all) cut pine trees to be used as fortifications in the trenches.
Where the wagon road reached the ridge lived a family named DeRosier. Annie and Henry DeRosier’s daughter, Dorothy, married into the Hulbert family of Anderson Valley (no relation to my Andersons of Albion). In the early 1920s one of the DeRosier sons, Emil, drove what must have been an old Ford that gathered up fellow students on the ridge, depositing them in the town of Albion where they transferred to Mr. Alinsky’s hog truck. The hog truck drove up the coast from Greenwood (Elk), eventually carrying twenty or more students to Mendocino on bouncing benches in the vehicle’s bed.
That footbridge over the Albion also led Will Robertson to another Albion Ridge work partner, George Bailey. The two of them trapped furs for a living for a number of years. We still have one of his large spring loaded traps tucked away safely in the corner of a garage. With only a few years of formal schooling, Will Robertson essentially educated himself. He possessed and read large volumes on a variety of subjects, including comprehensive tomes on moths and butterflies. He planted mulberry bushes to attract them then collected an array of specimens as well as selling them to other collectors.
For the last four decades of his life Will Robertson made the Macdonald Ranch his home base. When here he lived in a cabin originally constructed for his father (John Robertson) by his brother-in-law, John Macdonald. Well into his sixties Great Uncle Will fought fires for what was then called the Division of Forestry.
The following is a letter he wrote when he was sixty-three to his sister (my grandmother), Lillian Robertson Macdonald. Many of the names and locales should ring bells with far flung readers in this county as well as help us appreciate how long these firefighters spent away from home.
“Division of Forestry, Gualala Supp. Camp, Oct. 22, 1936
Dear Sister: Your letter of Sept. 8th received while on a fire back of Iverson’s Landing south of Point Arena on Oct. 16th… the dispatcher wrote me a note of apology. They are sure some careless. We have been on 14 fires up to date. The largest 3,000 acres on the North Fork of the Gualala River and another one of 2,000 acres near Yorkville and Henry Hickey’s mill. Been lucky so far as only one small house was burnt on the Zeni Ranch. Tell John [his brother, John Finley Robertson] we were on a fire at Camp 11 on Alder Creek near Frank Piper’s. We suppressed this fire and I gave him a permit to burn 200 acres on Adams Ridge…
Cha’ Sparks and Buff Mallory [real name: Lester – Lester Mallory was married to the sister of Will’s ridge cousin Albion Ernest Anderson] were out near here on a fire on Maguire Ridge near Wes Rickert’s place and stopped with us two nights in our tent. Lester and Sparks are sure tired of so much fire fighting as well as the rest of us. If it doesn’t rain soon don’t know how long the fire[i]season will last. Hope the rain comes soon. Lester wants me to go on a goose hunt with him and his dad the first of next month…
With love, W.C. Robertson”
To say that history is an important part of my family is an understatement. When I visit Lester’s now elderly daughter, Lois, in Fort Bragg, she can still ramble on about “Buff’s” long ago hunting trips. Perhaps if I listen closely I’ll even learn a thing or two new about our shared great uncle, Will.