- Mendocino County
- Anderson Valley
by Steve Sparks, March 2, 2016
Many locals were saddened to see the demolition/rennovation job that is taking place at the Live Oak Building in downtown Boonville over the past week or so. Previous work had apparently gutted the famous old structure interior and now the outside has undergone a similar fate. It is hoped that the new owners, who run Balo Winery, will have been able to maintain something of the building’s history and integrity.
Meanwhile, here is a brief history of this well-known Valley landmark (from the book ‘Then and Now - an Anderson Valley Journey" by Wes Smoot & Steve Sparks: available at local stores; all proceeds from sales go to The AV Museum and Historical Society).
In the early 1920s, with the rapid increase in the number of automobiles, trucks, and farm machinery, there became a much greater demand for a place to repair these items. On the outskirts of Boonville at that time there was a large barn that stood next to the road on the northeast corner of the junction of the Ukiah road and the main highway through town. This barn belonged to Charles Albert Tarwater, or as he was better known ‘Cat’ (CAT), who decided to convert the barn into a repair and a blacksmith shop. It was an instant success. By 1924, the repair business had grown to the point where Cat needed help so he hired Glenn McAbee, who was a good mechanic and welder, along with Sam Fitch, who was well-versed in the blacksmith trade. This made a trio of expert repairmen. Cat named his successful business “The Live Oak Garage,” surrounded as it was by those so-named trees. The unique photograph below was taken during the winter of 1924-25, one that saw significant snowfall in the Valley. A year later Cat needed to expand his business so he constructed a new building in town.
Today, the spot of the original Live Oak Garage is on the grounds of the Anderson Valley Brewery — in an area on the edge of the brewery’s disc golf course. How times have changed!
The original Live Oak Garage had been a great success, but being on the outskirts of town meant it was not realizing its full potential. As a result, in 1926, Cat and his wife Marie purchased a piece of ground in town and constructed a new building in the heart of the business district. This served as a repair and machine shop as well as having new gas pumps installed, along with an oil storage room and other necessary items to be a full service station. The building was located directly across from the Mendocino County Fair building and it kept its name “The Live Oak Garage.” As can be seen in the photographs below (taken 85 years apart), it was in the heart of the business district, and has remained there ever since, with several stores and businesses in close proximity.
After Cat passed away in 1946, Glenn McAbee, who had worked for Cat all of these years, took over and ran the business for Marie. Around this time, Glenn’s son, Richard (Dick), got out of the service after World War II and went to work as a mechanic with his father. In 1962, Dick quit the garage and went to work with the California Division of Forestry as a mechanic. After Glenn passed away in 1965, Marie closed the shop, and sometime later she sold the place. It was initially converted into a private school, but for many, many years it operated as a church, right up until a couple of years ago.
Recently the building was bought by a winery and is rumored to be the future location of various retail outlets - tasting room/deli/gift shop???. We shall see, but whatever it may be, let’s hope that the new owners are able to leave some semblance of this grand old building standing - as long as that happens then the name of “The Live Oak” will live on….
PS. The unusually shaped hill, with tentacle-like ridges on every side, about a mile north of Boonville, clearly visible on the east side of Highway 128, is Tarwater Hill, named after Cat’s father, Henry ‘Tommy’ Tarwater who had lived on the hill at least as far back as the 1920s. Valley old-timers will not hear of it being referred to as “Octopus Hill,” a name that arose following the “hippy invasion” of the late 60s and 70s for reasons that are vaguely understandable if you stare at it long enough and are perhaps ‘under the influence’!
(NOTE: The unique logo on the building’s front was added in the 1980s by those two buddies and “partners-in-both-‘crime'-and-art,” Wayne Ahrens and Tom English. Photographs were recently taken of this artwork before it was unavoidably destroyed and it is hoped that, despite Wayne’s passing (in 2001), it can be replicated by Tom, Wayne’s sister Cindy Hollinger, and perhaps his other sister Patti too, and returned to the building’s exterior facade at some point).