Cars, Trucks & Tractors

by Marshall Newman, March 27, 2014

Pretty much like today, those – like me – who lived in Anderson Valley from the 1950s through the 1980s depended on cars to get around, pickup trucks to handle hauling (except for logs, lumber and apples) and tractors to farm. Public transit back then consisted of a Greyhound bus that ran from San Francisco to Fort Bragg once a day, five or six days a week. The Greyhound route to Fort Bragg is long gone and the only current mass transit options I found from San Francisco to Anderson Valley are Greyhound bus to Ukiah and Mendocino Transit Authority over the hill, or – for those crazy enough to try it - a three-bus, 21-hour marathon (with plenty of layover time) that includes rides on Golden Gate Transit to Santa Rosa, Mendocino Transit Authority from Santa Rosa to Gualala and a second MTA bus from Gualala to the valley.

In 1957, when my parents bought El Rancho Navarro, the resort they turned into a summer camp, it came with a pickup truck – an early 1950s Willys, made by the same folks who made jeeps. Four-wheel drive made it a pretty good ranch vehicle: the short, narrow load box not so much. In truth, it was an odd pickup, with squared-off front and rear fenders and a spare tire bolted on a bracket right behind the driver-side door. I know it lasted only two or three years, to be replaced by a blue Chevrolet long-bed pickup. The Chevy had a four-speed manual stick shift and no four-wheel drive, but it managed our roads and tracks fairly well, and had plenty of capacity for hauling camp goods, firewood and hay.

My parents had two cars when we arrived in Anderson Valley: a 1951 Dodge sedan and a 1952 De Soto station wagon. It was the era when cars were almost exclusively American made, rarely lasted longer than 10 years or 100,000 miles, included no safety features or air conditioners and developed maladies now rarely seen. For us, for some odd reason, the malady was overheating. We were returning from Ukiah on some errand and had just hit the flat section at the top when the radiator went dry on the De Soto. The temperature gauge became pinned on “H,” the interior began to smell of hot metal and scorched antifreeze, and my older sister, who was driving, kept asking how we would know when the engine block cracked. Amazingly, the car survived. My father, brother and I also overheated the Chevy pickup hauling 4-H project cattle to the Lake County Fair in Lakeport. Fortunately, there used to be a little roadhouse at the summit on Highway 175 and it saved the day.

The Dodge, being the older of the two cars, was relegated to use around the property during the winter months when we had no car access. One night in the early 1960s, when my father and older sister were taking it down to our footbridge on their way to engagements in town, both the brakes and the clutch failed. The car careened down the hill, couldn’t negotiate the hairpin turn at the bottom and careened off the road. Instead of landing in the Navarro River 30 feet below, which was running high, it hit – virtually dead center on the front bumper - the only large tree within 20 feet. My sister cut and bruised her forehead, and left hair in the shattered windshield: my father was unhurt. The Dodge was totaled. We were lucky.

As cars tend to do, the De Soto died at the most inopportune moment possible; with my mother on a solo trip to Petaluma. When she phoned my father with the news, he told her to buy a used car. She returned home with a mid-1950s Simca sedan. It was a small, underpowered car from France with an 84-horsepower V-8 engine. My father permanently bent the gas pedal the first time he drove it. The interior was tiny, but I remember all six of us squeezing in for winter outings to Fort Bragg and Mendocino. My sister Carol tore up the differential shifting gears on a hill perhaps a year after we got it. The make was so obscure, it took nearly three months and a teletype search request (new technology back then) to junkyards to find a replacement – in Nevada! We got rid of it soon after.

We had a series of cars after the Simca, including a Chevrolet van, a Ford Fairlane, a Dodge station wagon, a Dodge Dart and a Chevrolet Suburban. The Fairlane failed while car shopping and had to be pushed into the used car lot. The Suburban was a great camp vehicle; big and sturdy, it could carry lots of kids. It had a close call near Mendocino during a non-camp trip, when a Porsche slowed abruptly for a left-hand turn without signaling. The Porsche almost became a hood ornament, but my dad somehow avoided the collision.

Through it all, our blue Chevy pickup ran and ran. The paint faded in the sun, the wood bed cracked and buckled, a major portion of the left rear side panel rusted away, but it endured. Its demise came in the late 1970s, when a large Douglas fir crushed the cab after being blown down in a windstorm.

If memory serves, Anderson Valley had a couple of idiosyncrasies regarding cars during our early years there. The California DMV opened a field office once a month at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds so locals could get or renew licenses without having to drive to Ukiah. Also, there was an unwritten agreement senior citizens could drive locally without a license so long as they did not leave the valley, enabling them to run local errands. Hopefully someone a bit older can confirm or rebuff these admittedly vague memories.

It also had at least one idiosyncratic driver. J.T. Farrer, who was probably in his 70s or early 80s at the time, used to drive a Ford Model A pickup (I think) on Highway 128 between Philo and Boonville really slowly. The old 128 – much of it has been replaced on this stretch in the years since - had few safe places to pass, so everyone in the valley followed J.T. as he unhurriedly drove (I think his speed topped out at about 30 miles per hour) to town. Often the caravan behind him grew to several cars.

A word to young readers. Getting carsick on local winding roads isn’t unusual. I did as a child and so have many others. It does get better, usually as soon as you become the driver and stop being a passenger.

We had one tractor during our 30 years in Anderson Valley; a little Ferguson 30 from the early 1950s that came with the property. It had front lift with a bucket, a power takeoff on the rear axle that powered everything from a mower to a circular saw, a six-volt power system and the most bizarre starting method I’ve ever seen – after the key was turned to “on,” the starter was engaged with the gearshift. When they were needed, we would get parts from the recently closed Lampson’s Tractor in Geyserville. My brother hauled little tractor to his home near Petaluma when we left Anderson Valley in 1988 and he continues to use it today, 60 years after it was built. Now that’s quality!

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