Caspar’s Tale

by Stephanie Gold, February 17, 2010

“The heartbeat of Caspar has stopped,” a grand­mother grieved, when the Caspar Lumber Company mill closed down. But the 1955 report of Caspar’s death was premature. Caspar’s heart lay not in its mill but in its community, a long dormant force that flamed back to potent vitality when sparked by a real estate crisis in 1997. The predicament began when 300 acres of Caspar went on the market. In response, a cluster of concerned residents gathered, and at their invitation, a Berkeley professor of Landscape Archi­tecture & Environmental Planning brought his gradu­ate class 150 miles north to Caspar to study their options. Randy Hester was the professor, a man whose life-work has been the pursuit of community values and the revival of town hearts.

The resulting consensus-based, community-plan­ning endeavor has thus far succeeded in purchasing and preserving their beloved headlands and beach, turning an abandoned schoolhouse into a community center, establishing a community garden, building a postal pavilion, installing a children’s playground, and, in the process, rediscovering the richness of commu­nity.

The Caspar Dilemma

When the mill closed on the Mendocino coast, the families who had formerly been employed by the mill sought work elsewhere. The newcomers who arrived to fill the homes left vacant by the loggers were hippies, artists, and back-to-the-landers. There were doing their own thing; there was little sense of community.

The only time that Caspar came together back then was when tackling a perceived threat. There was the Redwood Summer fight in 1990 to protect old-growth redwoods, for instance, and the Ocean Sanc­tuary fight in 1992 to stop offshore drilling. Caspar residents honed their savvy and their organizational skills and developed an impressive reputation as spoil­ers.

Then in 1997, the Caspar Cattle Company put 300 acres of prime Caspar on the market, and the groundwork that had been laid in community organ­izing was in demand once more. The land was a major chunk of the village, stretching from the beach, creek, and headlands to Highway One and beyond, cutting a giant swath through town. The potential real estate transition inspired both fear and hope. Some were afraid the acreage would be parceled into splendid homes or a fancy hotel. Others feared the land might be turned into a campsite tent ghetto, or worse yet, a golf course. There were others in Caspar, though, who viewed the land as an opportunity, who thought, “Hey, let’s make something great happen!”

An early meeting to discuss the situation took place at the home of the Tarbells. Jim and Judy Tar­bell had moved to Caspar in 1987. So had two writers for The Muppets, Jerry Juhl (who died in 2005) and his wife, Susan Juhl, who got involved despite themselves. “We were hermits,” said Susan. “We didn’t know any­one for a year and a half. On purpose. We’d drive rather than walk to get our mail because we didn’t want to meet any neighbors.” But even the Juhls joined in. But though people came together, it wasn’t a cohesive group; there was no leadership to move it forward, just a bunch of scattered ideas, everybody wanting their viewpoints heard and afraid someone else might take power. The primary motivation to attend meetings, at first, was to make sure no one else’s bad ideas held sway. Fearing a tyranny of the majority, they decided not to vote but to work by consensus instead, so as not to quash any dissenting voices.

They soon found themselves stymied, though, by dissent. Should the center of town be near the old schoolhouse and Jewish Shul, or up where Highway One crosses Caspar Street? Where should the town square be? “Everybody was willing to die for the cor­rectness of their answer,” remembers Michael Potts, who’d moved to Caspar in 1972. “It did not bode well for us to ever do anything.” So Judy Tarbell asked, “What if we have someone come in from the out­side?” The Tarbells had known and become friends with Hester since 1984, when he and his wife, Marcia McNally, had written a piece about small town tour­ism for their Ridge Review magazine. And that’s how Randy Hester entered the scene, environmental plan­ning class in tow.

The Randy Hester Story

Randolph T. Hester, Jr., a founder in the Participa­tory Design movement in landscape architec­ture, studied sociology as well as landscape architec­ture back in the 1960s. The dual major convinced Hester that the two disciplines were inextricably linked.

Soon thereafter, Hester did a project at his son’s daycare center in urban Cambridge. The initial survey results were surprisingly suburban, and Hester asked the parents if they’d mind re-answering the same questions under guided fantasy. Those results turned out entirely differently. “It was like two different sets of people,” remembers Hester, “one that was value driven and one that was status driven.” He became determined to get at those values. So Hester devel­oped a 12-Step process for landscape architects who were interested in a community development perspec­tive. The essential step involved listening to the resi­dents, and then listening some more. The idea was that by getting people to express their values, they’d uncover the soul of the community and enable people to consciously choose their own future.

For Hester, it’s all about the process. Articulating the values of the community, he’s convinced, is a method that works. “At the same time that you build the physical community,” Hester says, “you build a sense of community, and that is completely universal. Whether you’re doing it in Berkeley or Los Angeles or in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, it’s exactly the same. The nuances in how peo­ple relate and interact may be different, but the proc­ess, getting people to express what they really value, is applicable everywhere.”

Randy Hester in Caspar

Though Hester’s invitation to Caspar stemmed from conflict, what he recalls most strongly of his time there was Caspar’s impressive unity. “I think the reason they were as successful as they were in their early years,” says Hester, “was that they were so clear, almost unanimous, about the things that were most important to them.” As he usually did, Hester had asked them what ecological niche they lived in. “In most communities, they look at you like you’re from outer space. But in Caspar, they just loved it.” Every­one knew about their riparian zone, how important it was ecologically, and how they loved walking there. “People knew that on the south side of Caspar Creek, it’s the farthest most southern zone of white fir. Peo­ple knew that!”

Hester always starts a project with listening one-on-one. He and his students (who did most of it) put in some 80 hours of listening to the individuals of Caspar. When asked what was sacred, Hester recalls, Caspar’s answer was clear: “Caspar Creek and the beach were sacred. No question. Then that piece of the headlands, no question. And that little dippy duck pond that has no ecological value.”

Hester came to Caspar three times, first with the environmental planning class and later with his citi­zenship participation classes. On the first visit in 1997, they nailed down the sacred places and the master plan, including where the town center should go (peacefully resolving the initial dispute), but at that point the entire focus was the headlands, so they put off spending any more time on the town center until Hester’s next visit. In most cases, Hester says, the community relies on him to finish the project, but Caspar worked it themselves, reaching out to every­one in the community, getting them involved. Once the core Caspar group started planning public meet­ings, they got mailing lists of all the residents and landowners in the Caspar and sent out newsletters. “We had consensus on a plan back then,” says Judy Tarbell. “I’m not sure we would now. But when Randy finished, we all said, yes definitely.”

Hester concurs that the plans have been difficult to see through. He thinks they’re much better at pro­tecting the land than at development. Hester sees this as stemming from their consensus-based decision-making, because it only takes one person to say “no.” Though Hester believes the consensus model hin­dered their plans, Caspar residents agree, unani­mously, that consensus got them their headlands, because by time they started negotiating with Trust for Public Land (TPL) they were united; they’d already spent several years figuring out what they wanted and incorporating dissent into their proposal. They wanted the headlands to be open space, and they got support from the California State Legislature at the peak of the Internet bubble, when California had a little extra dough. “We were one of the first groups in California to use the Internet as a major force,” says Potts. “We deluged the legislature with emails, hundreds of emails from people all over the world, saying yeah, that land’s a treasure.”

The Caspar Headlands State Reserve dedication took place in 2001. The success was heady. “The best advocates for making this a state park,” says Potts, “were the people in Mendocino.” They told the state, “We don’t want to look across the bay and see some­thing like us!”

The next triumph was the Community Center. After the purchase of the headlands Caspar was full of community zeal. It seemed obvious that they needed a community center. According to Potts, it’s a lesson in being careful what you ask for. “Our community, which had been very future-oriented, suddenly became property owners. Forget preserving the Cas­par quality of life, we had to decide what color to paint the building. And it had to be a consensus color! I didn’t want to be on the Board anymore,” said Potts. “I didn’t give a shit what color they painted it.”

Dalen Anderson is the Community Center Direc­tor. She and her husband, Paul Schulman (the Presi­dent of the Board) moved to Caspar in 2000. By that time, the headlands deal was all but done. “Buying the Community Center was the next thing rolling in,” says Anderson. “There was this feeling, we get together and we make it happen!” It didn’t happen by magic, though. Sorting through all the paperwork and loans took commitment and a lot of work As payoff, the Community Center has been one of Caspar’s great achievements. It’s a gathering place, a festive hub for the community, and a venue for performances of all sorts. They opened a little library there, and in the dining room they host their ever-more-popular Fourth Sunday breakfasts.

Mike Dell’Ara, who’d moved to Caspar in 1996, had been skeptical at first about bringing Hester in, but he now believes Hester lent crucial credibility. Judy Tarbell concurs. She was among the group that took the master plans to the TPL office. ‘We unfurled our plans on the long table and talked about our dreams. And the people said, “Oh my God, you guys are really together!”’

When Hester arrived, Caspar was struggling for a sense of what it wanted to be. His visits helped them clarify their relationship to the land, not just for a few years but for 100 years and beyond. But thorny chal­lenges persist.

Caspar Today

As for the elephant in the corner, 130 acres con­tinue to be up for sale, and the price has climbed to a daunting $11 million. It’s still a major piece of Caspar, and it remains to be seen what will become of it. The discussions always comes back to jobs and housing, which comes back to sewage and water. There has been talk, though, of a community land trust. Jim Tarbell is researching how Caspar could buy the land — the financial complexities include borrowing many dollars from private investors plus possible partner­ships with conservations group and/or hospitals and school districts. The ultimate goal is for people to own their homes but not own the land, thereby mak­ing low-cost housing available and avoiding specula­tive increases in price. The careful baby steps con­tinue.

What was once a community of 35-year-olds has somehow become a group that’s closer to 65, but there’s a sprinkling of young families, and the play­ground that was barely under discussion when this article was first researched is now a reality, because the goal of making Caspar hospitable to new genera­tions is one that the older generation takes very seri­ously. So they persevere, through a bog of septic details.

It’s been years since Hester came to Caspar, but he stays in touch with his friends and continues to take an interest and harbor opinions. He thinks the community can’t be sustainable if it doesn’t get a critical mass of people. “In my mind,” he says, “there would be nothing wrong with some industry, some­thing compatible with the area, that would employ local people.”

To refocus their energies, Rhoda Teplow organ­ized Caspar 2020, an event that drew 14 people to spend a sunny, chilly March Saturday sitting in a cir­cle, envisioning the future. It was reminiscent of the guided fantasy Hester conducted with his daycare project, decades ago. Charles Bush, the moderator, calls his technique “backcasting.” The idea isn’t to make plans or pop anyone else’s balloon; it’s an exer­cise in creative fiction, where people spin stories “remembering” the wonderful things they’ve achieved in their rich fantasy future. Not surprisingly, the Cas­par participants had a blast. They “recollected” fanci­ful solutions to real problems, such as goats chomping up the invasive headland gorse, and just-for-the-hell-of-it piffle, like gopher holes opening to a time-space continuum. It was play therapy for adults, with power­ful results: through the merriment, themes kept sur­facing, such as the community land trust housing idea, which seems to be the start of Caspar’s next major effort. “It’s like breathing,” says Potts. “We’ve been breathing out for a few years. Maybe this Caspar 2020 is the beginning of an intake.” And so they commence once more, to research options, hammer out propos­als, wrangle, spar, and start the slow march to consen­sus.

When Randy Hester heard about Caspar 2020, he exulted, “They’re at it again!”

Caspar Now & Then

Sandwiched between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, with a population around 500, Caspar is a breath-taking place to live, but the commercial entities in town these days are few. There’s the Caspar Inn (the oldest roadhouse in Northern California), and there’s The Old School Studio, housed in the former Caspar Lumber Company Store. That’s about it. But back in the day, Caspar was a sawmill dynamo. In the late 1800s, the Mill sawed 16 million feet of lumber and employed 300 men. There were masked balls and social hops, horse racing and a beloved baseball team (the Caspar Nine), a Billiard Saloon, a Literary Club, a Company store and a general merchandise store as well. In the 1940s, though, power saws replaced hand­saws, and by 1947, Caspar had dispatched most of its virgin timber and begun on second growth trees. So they sold 47,500 acres to California for $1,500,000, for a parcel that’s now Jackson State Forest, named after the founder of Caspar Lumbar Company.

The Caspar Lumber Company sawed up old-growth redwoods by the ton, using its location at the mouth of Caspar Creek to ship massive boatloads of lumber via coastal schooners (first by sail, then by steam) 160 miles south to the Bay Area. Their lumber rebuilt San Francisco following the 1906 quake. Cas­par Lumber employed state-of-the-art technology (for the time) to haul the giant trees — often as large as 20 feet in diameter and 350 feet tall — from inland forest to Caspar millpond. Initially powered by bull teams, the Caspar Company laid tracks, and in 1875 they became the first coastal operation to retire the mules in favor of steam-powered locomotion. What started as a mile-long wooden rail had graduated by 1924 into a 30-mile network with seven locomotives serving 80,000 acres. But by 1944, only two locomotives remained in service, and two years later, the railroad was derailed for good. The Caspar mill remained steam-operated to the day it closed, the last steam mill on the California coast.

Casparados & Other Sound Bites

Caspar’s story has inspired a lot of sound-bites. There’s Caspar the Friendly Ghost Town, an easy pleaser for those of us of a certain age. There’s the Caspar is a State of Mind concept. And there are the Casparados, with as much made-for-media-appeal as a super bowl ad. Though one resident claims the term goes back 100 years to Caspar’s wild lumber days, most agree it was coined in the 1990s and pedaled as a sumptuous morsel for the press. The media-savvy nature of many of Caspar’s residents is a double-edged sword, because while Internet use was a strong factor in their ability to preserve the headlands, gaining the small village far more media ink than many a town in distress, the slogans do justice to neither the com­plexity of their challenges nor to the hours spent at meetings. Exploring the fine points of septic regula­tion minutiae is a lot more tiresome than the dashing image conjured by the rebellious Casparados as they save their Friendly Ghost Town.

Caspar’s Challenges

Not surprisingly, there isn’t full consensus, but some of the contenders include:

• The Edifice Complex — organizations mired in building-related minutiae.

• Unelected Town Board — a board that isn’t elected has no teeth.

• Sewage — without a septic solution, there’s no development.

• Endless Meetings — going blah blah blah blah blah.

• Ruffled Feathers — if you try to make things hap­pen, be prepared for headaches.

• Land Values — if the young are driven out, Cas­par will become an old folks ghetto. ¥¥

(A slightly different version of this story ran in Cali­fornia Magazine in December, 2009.)

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