Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Billy W. ‘Bill’ Holcomb

by Steve Sparks, March 3, 2010

I drove above Ornbaun Road to meet with Bill at the house he and wife Eva have called home since 1976. We sat down with some coffee and a plate of Oreo cookies and began our chat.

Bill was born in 1933 in the very small west Texas town of Rule, about 150 miles from the nearest big town, Abilene. “We lived on my grandfather’s large cattle ranch and my parents were Ed Holcomb and Susie Spradlin. The Holcomb’s were from England and Germany and my mother was born in the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. She was born in a covered wagon there, her grandmother being a full-blooded Cherokee. Her father was a widower at a fairly young age so he would travel around in his job as a wood cutter bringing his two daughters along with him — my mother and my aunt.”

Bill is the middle child of five born to Ed and Susie — with an older sister and brother and two brothers who are younger. “My parents would feed the two little ones and I’d have to fight the older ones for food, so I didn’t get much!”

Bill’s father was the black sheep of the family and was always moving around for work, not content to stay on the family ranch. “He was the ‘hippy’ of the Holcombs. This meant that times were very hard for us as he constantly looked for work. We were always moving; I’d change schools sometimes three or four times a year, not good for a little brain like mine! My uncles and aunts all seemed to have money and my cousins seemed to do well too, but my brothers and I all worked from an early age to support our family. When I was about seven, with World War II approaching, Dad moved the family to Oakland, Cali­fornia to work as a boilermaker for $1.50 an hour. We lived in San Jose. I still remember the address, 71 North 9th Street. Mother worked at the Cannery with Dad in the Oakland shipyards.”

When Bill was about 12, his father was seriously hurt in an accident at work, breaking his back, some­thing certainly not easy to treat back then, and he was unable to work for four or five years afterwards. “We moved to Tulare in the central valley, south of Fresno, for his rehabilitation and the family found agricultural work there. We picked fruit and I found a job stocking shelves in a store when I was in high school. By my sophomore year I got a job in theater maintenance, working at night in the local cinema after the shows, repairing seats, fixing anything that needed it, but by my junior year the manager had taken a liking to me and offered me the assistant manger’s job at the ‘2nd Rate’ Theater in town. In those days you had three dif­ferent cinemas. The first rate showed the best new films and was often quite a grand building, the second rate had the next level of movies and was a decent place, then the third rate had the bad films and was not that nice a place. We showed lots of Mexican movies. There were lots of Mexicans in the area working as farm laborers. Some weeks we’d get about 700 people in there for three nights in a row. And in those days the Mexican films showed a lot more than the Ameri­can ones did, boobies and legs, I mean. I liked the job.”

In 1951 the family moved to Mendocino County con­tinuing to work in the fruit picking business. Times were very hard for them and their living conditions left lots to be desired. However, Bill remained in Tulare for his senior year, living alone in the family house with an uncle next door. “I continued to work as much as I could — I always have, as long back as I can remem­ber.” He graduated in 1952 and was earning 75¢ an hour plus 15% commission on candy sales in his theater management job but his brother told him he could earn $1.50 an hour driving trucks in San Jose. “I took my tie off and threw it away, moved to San Jose, and became a truck driver hauling fruit and vegetables for a few months.”

At the end of that summer he came up to Mendo­cino County to see his family who had moved here a year or so earlier, again to pick fruit. Bill checked out Anderson Valley and decided to stay once he’d found work at Weeks Planeing Mill, situated behind the Fairground buildings. His family joined him and they all lived in a house for the mill workers on the company property. “The mill was going twenty-four hours a day and I was now earning $2 an hour tallying lumber. We had cheap lodgings. Most of the mills provided some housing for some of their workers, just basic two-room cabins, there were several on the property.”

This was the time of the Valley’s timber boom and lots of young men, and sometimes their families too, were pouring into the Valley, primarily from Arkansas and Oklahoma. “They were earning more than twice as much here in California for the same work as they were doing back home, and many of them were now able to send money back to their families. Similar to what I understand many Mexican workers in the vineyards do here today. I found the Valley to be a very friendly place and soon made many friends among the locals. I got extra work in the woods and then leased the small gas station, now defunct, next to Rossi’s Hardware Store in Boonville. In the summer of 1953, a very pretty local girl began working at Rossi’s to earn money for college and I would see her all the time, working just next door, and we started to date. Her name was Eva Pardini and she did not go back to school. We were married the following year, certainly one of the best things that ever happened to me.” Over the next few years a son Bill and daughter Palma were born, the lat­ter marrying Valley construction contractor Dennis Toohey and providing Bill and Eva with their two grandkids, John and Ben.

Bill was a workaholic. He hired a kid, not much younger than himself, to work the gas station from 7am to 1pm while he was peeling lumber in the woods, then Bill would work the rest of the day and night at the sta­tion, from 1pm to 11pm. “The town and the Valley as a whole was full of people, business was good even late at night. There were three bars in Boonville — The Track Inn, The Boonville Lodge, and Weiss’s, then there was The Last Resort in Philo, and the Pardini Hotel and a couple of beer bars in Navarro. There was virtually no television, just one channel if you were in the right location, and for entertainment you went out into the towns. There were dances all the time, big parties, bbq’s, and a huge July 4th event for the whole Valley at Hendy Woods every year, and of course the County Fair, at which there used to be a dance on all three of the nights in the old days — Friday, Saturday, and Sun­day. After some initial mutual distrust and several ‘incidents,’ the locals and the newly arrived Okies and Arkies began to accept each other and the social scene was very busy most nights of the week. Today it’s much quieter, with fewer places to go than we can ever remember.”

In 1954 Bill started to work for the County on road maintenance. He was to be with them for over 30 years. A year later he and Eva built a home on her fam­ily’s land on Fitch Lane, the building where the Life­works Group Home is today. “I had taken carpentry at school and had some help with the labor. My father-in-law, Ernest Pardini was good friends with the owners of Cloverdale Lumber and Supply so we got a great deal on the materials.”

Bill received benefits with his job at the County and with his strong work ethic he gradually moved up, eventually becoming the Superintendent of Roads for his final 17 years until retirement in 1985 when he was offered a very good ‘golden handshake.’ Nevertheless, through many of those years he still worked as a mechanic in the evenings at various times for both Hiatt Logging and Apollo Trucking. “I guess my poor upbringing drove me hard towards trying to obtain a more comfortable life for me and my own family. The job with the county was good enough to live on but to actually get ahead I felt I needed extra work. At one point we bought ten more acres on Fitch Lane off Anderson Valley Way and had plans to set up a mobile home park. We got what they call an ‘open’ permit which meant the work could be stopped and changes made at any time. Some people did not want us to do this project so we decided they might prevent it hap­pening by challenging the permit so we decided not to go ahead and sold the land. I had bought the equip­ment to do this job so instead I now used it to put in septic systems in the Valley. There were lots of new­comers needing such work, and this was a business I continued to do when I left the County. I did that on my own, along with two or three employees, until finally quitting in 1996. Retirement was tough. Being someone who loved to work meant that retirement bothered me and it took me several years to get used it.”

Bill sold most of his equipment at that point and spent quite a bit of the money over the following years in pursuit of his favorite hobby: collecting and restor­ing vintage cars, something he does to this day. “It is an expensive hobby, but it keeps me busy. I also very occasionally help out if my nephew Danny Pardini needs some work done with his heavy equipment but I have cut back on much of the stuff I used to do. Hey, I’m 76 years old. I am still on the Fair Board, on which I’ve served for 18 years, and Eva and I have been in The Lions Club for 30 years or so. We still help out with the Catholic Church’s fundraisers — the Barn Sale and the Crab Feed, and try to attend as many social events as we can — the Saturday evening live music events at the Navarro Store in the summer, the County Fair, the bbq fund-raisers at the Fairgrounds, etc, etc. We used to like going to The Boonville Lodge for dinner and were saddened to see it close recently. It had been a watering hole for Valley people for decades. I was never a really regular customer but I have been going there for nearly 60 years. I hate to see such a part of our community disappear like that. Other than that, the big thing Eva and I have been doing is watching the high school football team coached by our grandson, John, and some of the Pop Warner football games coached by our nephew, Tony Pardini.”

“These days I walk the two miles or so to the Red­wood Drive-In in town most mornings and meet up with friends and family for coffee. The same guys go most days — The Pardini’s — Donald, Robert, Danny, Eddie, and Ernie, Emil Rossi, Wes Smoot, Bo Hiatt, Wayne Hiatt, Ed Slotte, Rick Adams. We’ve been doing that for years; so long that Eva’s brother, Robert, has a key to the place! Eva picks me up and brings me home and then sometimes I’ll be there in the afternoon at about 4pm with a different group — Gene Walker, Frank Wyant, Harold Hulbert, Wes Smoot again, etc. We have all known each other for many years.”

“The Valley is very different these days. For a very long time it was all fruit and sheep, then came the lum­ber years and the arrival of the Okies and Arkies in the 40s and 50s. This lasted for quite a few years then with the mills all closing things changed quickly. First it was hippies and Back-to-the-Landers in the 60s and 70s. It was that group that voted down the mobile home idea and also the plan to build a dam on the river to provide more water for the Valley. The ranchers certainly wanted that but the new majority of residents rejected it. Over time, we may not have liked it either, but I do think that many of the proposed changes here have been turned down simply because of the fear of change held by some residents. The wineries also started to slowly arrive in the early 70s. Before that there was just one Mexican family — the Vargas family. But since the early 80s, the wineries have increased a lot and many more Mexicans have arrived so that now at the Catho­lic Church there are just a handful of white folks in the congregation. That’s fine of course, and we all work together for the church and its community. It just clearly shows the change in the population of the Val­ley over the past 20+ years.”

“The Valley was, and maybe still is in some ways, a great place to raise a family. It is so much friendlier than when I grew up and that makes a big difference. This place has always felt like home to me and even though I had offers to move away for better-paid work, I never really considered going. I love the Valley and the people here, it must be one of the most wonderful places in the world to live. I was very fortunate to end up here. As I said earlier, I came from a very poor background and had to work even as a child to help the family. My Dad being the black sheep and deciding not to have the benefits of staying at home with his family, meant life was hard for us growing up. My brothers and I speak about this today, now that we have all done quite well. My parents did their best for us but it was not easy. My father died when he was 65, my mother at 86. She had kidney problems and in the end willed her­self to die. She was ready to go. She simply stopped taking her treatments, got all us kids around her in the home in Ukiah, and passed away.”

I asked Bill for his brief comments on various Val­ley issues and topics.

The wineries and their impact on Anderson Valley? “I think that the Valley would have been worse off without them. They provide work for many and keep it very pretty and clean around here. The old ranchers could not have afforded to do that. I think that per­haps more of the wineries should support the Valley a little more, although many of them do already. The sheep and apple industries were dying so what else could have come in here. It would have been a dead Valley.”

The AVA? I like it and look forward to reading it every week. It is the ‘gossip’ column for the Valley so it keeps me up with things. Bruce does a good job and I like him telling it like it is.”

KZYX public radio? “I am not a radio listener.”

Law and Order in the Valley? “I am thrilled we have two deputies in the Valley, one is not enough. The Sheriff should be commended for getting us Deputy Walker and the plan to get him a dog, which is some­thing various Valley groups are trying to pay for, is a good move.”

The school system? “I think there is too much emphasis on getting the kids into college. Not all kids are gifted in that way. Those kids should be offered more vocational training to become mechanics, electri­cians, etc. Not everyone can be a white-collar worker or professor. I also think the teachers should be more involved with the sports programs, the kids would respond well to this. I don’t see many teachers at the games. Having said that the school today is much bet­ter than at sometimes in the past. There’s no more Jim Jones of People’s Temple fame teaching there! Eva did not like him at all; he made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. He was very slick and a good talker. He gave the kids too many A’s and B’s. Now not all the kids were that good, even our own! He was very con­vincing about things so some people said she was over-reacting when she took Billy out of his class but she knew otherwise. It turns out she was right, didn’t it? On that subject we have had more than our fair share of bad guys here in the Valley of course, apart from Jones. There was mass murderer Leonard Lake; child kidnapper Tree Frog Johnson; and Charles Manson and his gang a few years before they committed those murders in Los Angeles. They were on Gschwend Road having wild parties until some locals got together and basically told those guys either leave or die! They left.”

I posed a few questions from a list devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotion­ally? “Beautiful old cars.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotion­ally? “As I have always believed if you work hard you will get ahead, I find it depressing if people do their best and work hard only to then fall on hard times. I hate to see hard workers fail in their goals.”

Sound or noise you love? ‘The wind blowing through the firs and redwoods.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Too many people talking at the same time.”

Favorite curse word? That’s probably ‘bullshit’ or ‘oh, shit’.”

Favorite hobby? “Well for most of my life it would have to be work. That’s all I ever did and I loved working with the heavy equipment in particular. These days it would be the vintage cars. Oh, and I do enjoy peeing outside, but that’s not really a hobby is it?”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt? “I always wanted to be a commercial airline pilot. My son did that for a time. He lived my dream, and since then he has been a CHP officer for over 20 years.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Anything involved with crawling in mud underneath vehicles. Or working under buildings or in small tight places.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? “When Eva and I got married at Philo Catholic Church in 1954. We were the first couple to marry in that church.”

The saddest? “Probably when Eva’s Dad died, Ernest Pardini. He was a great guy and we got along real well.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself, physi­cally/mentally/spiritually? “That I’m just wonderful, I’m sure! No, seriously. That I was a tireless worker and could be relied on to do a good job.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Something like ‘Welcome, Bill, you were a good man.’ I am not very religious but I do believe that if you are a good person you will end up there even if you don’t go to church very often.”

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be June Lemons.)



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