Mendocino Talking: Katy Tahja
by Dave Smith, April 15, 2015
You must sometime experience the irrepressible charm and extensive knowledge of Katy Tahja if only to stand around pretending to look at the books of the Gallery Bookshop in the town of Mendocino while she sits at the cash register talking to friends and visitors. But there are better ways to know her as she gives a variety of local history presentations around the north coast on a regular basis... as she has been doing for many years.
With local family roots going back generations, formal degrees in both Journalism and Library Science, and a love of history, she also started writing local history books about 15 years ago. She has done a history of Comptche, photo histories of the early Mendocino Coast, Humboldt State University, Logging Railroads of Humboldt & Mendocino Counties, a trackside guide to the Skunk Train, and several fundraising publications for the Comptche Volunteer Fire Dept.
As a reader of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, you may recognize her byline as a regular contributor.
My husband’s grandfather shoed the oxen pulling the timber wagons in the woods of the 1880’s here on the Mendocino coast. We were lucky the family has held on to the ranch he built here in Comptche. My husband and I met each other in Humboldt County in the early 1970’s and joined the back-to-the-land hippie migration and we came back to the family ranch here in 1975 and raised our kids Matti and Fern. We now have had five generations on the ranch with the arrival of grandson River as Fern and family live here too.
My father was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy so I grew up a Navy brat, born in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital shortly after World War II. I attended high school on the island of Coronado across the bay from San Diego. And then, because I always loved the out-of-doors, I moved up to Humboldt County so I could attend a State University that specialized in the out-of-doors and also be as far away from my parents and still stay in the California State education system. I arrived in 1967 and graduated with a degree in Journalism from Humboldt State University in 1970, then went to the University of Oregon in Eugene and got my Masters Degree in Library Science. My first job after graduating was back in Humboldt County out of Willow Creek becoming the Bookmobile Librarian on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, driving the Bookmobile to two-room schools with Kindergarten through 8th grade.
While there, I took the opportunity to study with the Elders both their language and the uses of native plants. Librarians are always telling stories and I first got into story telling and the research needed to tell stories because we were surrounded with a world of plant materials that filled every conceivable purpose for native populations… and all that the kids were getting in school was about the use of acorns. It was my first, and my fondest, story-telling gig. Interspersed with the plant stories I told were north coast folklore stories like “Why Coyotes Howled at the Moon”, “Why Salmon Have a Hook in its Nose”, and “Why Buzzards Have No Feathers on Their Heads”. I have been giving presentations on the native uses of native plants for schools, state parks, campfire programs, living history demonstrations, elder hostels, etc. for the past 25 years.
For 20 years I worked part time in the Mendocino Middle School Library, and now 26 years working part-time at Gallery Bookshop. I also had the wisdom and good luck to spend 8 years on the school board in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
I’m very active with the Kelley House Museum (kelleyhousemuseum.org) and I had decided that if I was going to portray somebody out of the history in Mendocino, I was not going to be a Presbyterian Church lady. So I adopted the persona of Madam Kate, the retired senior madam of the whorehouses in Mendocino a hundred years ago. I had all the resources of the Kelley House including 150 years worth of copies of the Mendocino Beacon Newspaper that enabled me to go back and look at the role that the working girls played in Mendocino history. There were establishments and ladies of negotiable virtue for every wage scale of worker on the Mendocino coast. No, there never was a Madam Kate, but people like her did exist. When I do my Madam Kate presentations I say that every story I tell is based on history and oral history interviews with memories people had of working girls on the coast from here to Eureka. I don’t need to look like a sweet young thing because I’m playing an OLD business woman.
So I do my Native American story-telling and I do Madam Kate, and now I’ve added to my historic personas a lady Lighthouse Keeper. Most people don’t realize that there were lady Lighthouse Keepers all around the United States. There was one in Providence, Rhode Island that was so well respected that as the years went on with her doing such an exemplary job that when she retired the community gave her a teak rowboat with gold oar locks to thank her. At Point Pinos down in Monterey, the Lighthouse Keeper was a social maven by the name of Emily Fish who raised full-size poodles and always wore red shoes. When the Great White Fleet [see Wikipedia] came through, she was the social director for all of the activities for the cruise. She knew people from all over the world. Her daughter became a Lighthouse Keeper and was on Angel Island during the 1906 earthquake. She would tell tales of losing power and standing there with a hammer next to a bell and being the fog signal for 2 days at a time, beating the proper rhythm on the bell so the ships at sea could hear it and know the lighthouse was there but without a light. The woman who ran the Santa Barbara lighthouse left her lighthouse only two times in 40 years for more than a day to get her children married. They usually inherited the jobs from their fathers, brothers or husbands, but once they got them they did not let go.
Returning to life here on the coast a hundred years ago, there is a familiar photo around of an offshore island, fairly close to where Glass Beach is now in Fort Bragg, that had a whorehouse on it with a suspension bridge out to it. It was open 24/7 because there was so much activity at the mill that they were taking care of people before work, after work, and on their days off. When someone finally fell off the bridge and killed themselves, the town fathers decided that it was a good time to take the bridge down and clear the island.
As Madam Kate, I always enjoy sharing a Mendocino Beacon front page story from a hundred years ago politely written about a fallen sister. There was a lodge meeting going on in town with everybody’s horse-and-buggies tied up in front. One of the fallen sisters who had imbibed too much Fort Bragg "Blue Lightning" was having a hard time getting back to Albion, so she decided to grab a buggy and take off for Salmon Creek. Someone looking out the window told Nathaniel Kent, who owned Kent Ranch outside of Little River, that someone had just stolen his buggie. A report was called in to the Sheriff who headed into town in a motorized vehicle. Some people got on horseback, some got their buggies, and along with the Sheriff, raced down the highway after her. She gave up after a mile or so and moved off the road. Mr. Kent decided not to file charges because of her drunkenness, but they had to bring her back into town and the only vehicle they had was the mail wagon. But she weighed 300 pounds and broke the mail wagon’s springs. Her fallen sisters came to get her and they were told that she would be held responsible for its repair.
Another woman of negotiable virtue had a touring car, Madam Kate relates, that had a bed and shades to cover the windows. The comment in town was if the car was parked by the side of the street and it was rocking, you best not disturb.
There were 40 logging railroads in Mendocino and Humboldt counties back then. Their only purpose was to bring the logs out of the woods to the mills on the shore. The oxen were pretty much gone by the early twenties… the railroads were used in the teens and twenties and into the thirties but the depression put an end to a lot of it… and then after WWII it was all by truck.
If you were in Mendocino a hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have had a view of the ocean out the window of the bookstore like you have now… you would have seen forty-foot high stacks of drying lumber. To learn more about the coast during logging decades, the Mendocino Coast Model Railroad & Historical Society has done an incredible model train layout of what the Mendocino Coast would have looked like 150 years ago. And on the website you can call up any lumber company, town, shipping point, or railroad on the coast for its history [virtual tour: mendorailhistory.org/panoramas/barn.htm].
If you saw the Julia Roberts movie, Dying Young, you would have seen the big beautiful Victorian mansion that they built there just for the movie. When the movie production was over, they announced that they had to have that house down to bare dirt the following Monday morning… and if you showed up with a pry bar, a hammer, and signed their insurance waiver, you could help tear the house down and take it home. Saturday morning, 50 people showed up with their gloves and hammers and it was gone that afternoon.
My husband David has been a Comptche volunteer firefighter for 40 years. No matter who you are or where you live you need fire protection. You need to know that if a fire is burning on your back forty, somebody’s going to show up and fight it because it is going to take CalFire a while to get there. The thing that brought the Comptche Volunteer Fire Department together and made it such a successful organization compared to some others was the blending of hippies and rednecks. In the seventies we had people with hair down to their butts, and we had people with crewcuts. But everybody wanted to live in a safe environment and wanted to know that when the pager went off at 3 o’clock in the morning, or if their car was off in the ditch by the side of the road, or if somebody’s burn pile got out of hand, there would be people who would turn up and could act right on the spot. That is what blended our community and made it so cohesive. We are blessed to have a very active church in Comptche dedicated to community service, and we have managed to keep our 2-room school.
There is a lot of action in the community right now because Mendocino Redwood Company has practiced “hack-and-squirt” [chemical tree removal] on thousands of acres surrounding the community and wants to do more [see deadforest.org]. They’re trying to make nice by offering the fire department things like tanks for water storage, but it would be much nicer to not have to worry about having a standing dead forest in our backyards.
In 2012 a fire came through here that burned 200 acres and took out 20 acres of timber on our own property. It was the first time since I have lived in Comptche that I watched a fire burning a few hundred feet from my house of forty years. I expected it to burn down. I had to figure out quickly what I was going to take. One of my neighbors came over, I loaded up my photograph album, took my computer and the cash I had in my safe, and grabbed a good bottle of single-malt scotch because I figured if I was going to be miserable I was going to have some good scotch to be miserable with. I had my car loaded and parked next to the county road, and CalFire came up the driveway and asked where the propane tanks were and what I wanted them to save. I pointed out the barn and the houses we wanted saved and where the propane tanks were… and they kept the fire out of the yard. But as it burned east, I said to the CalFire people in the yard “Do you guys realize that you have thousands of acres to the east of standing dead timber right over there? Do you have anyone making sure that the fire doesn’t jump the Philbrick road?” They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a day and a half making sure that that 200 acres of fire did not get into the standing dead timber because they knew that it would burn all the way to Ukiah. Luckily there were no other fires going on at the time and they could dump all of their resources into it.
The lumber company’s reasoning, as they explained it recently, is that if a fire starts it will just crawl along the ground through the dead standing timber… it won’t go up those trees. Well, excuse me. On my property I watched green redwoods going up in flames from bottom to top in less than a minute.
There are four things that everybody can do in the terrible fire-potential we have right now:
1. Do you have a number on your property that can be seen easily from the road?
2. Can a fire truck drive onto your property and can it turn around? Are there locked gates?
3. If you have a water tank or water system, do you have a hydrant on it that a fire truck can connect to?
4. Have you cleared defensible space around your house?
I’m very respectful of Ted Williams, the fire chief in Albion/Little River because he is pointing out to the timber company that as a Fire Chief he doesn’t want to endanger his firefighters to wildfires acting strangely. His firefighters know how to go into the redwood forest and fight fire, but what is happening in the forest right now, because of the drought and the hack-and-squirt, is unlike anything we have seen before.