Mendocino Talking: Michael Laybourn
by Dave Smith, November 16, 2016
Michael Laybourn is an artist and businessman living in Hopland. He grew up in Hanford, Washington where his dad was involved in Atomic Energy. He graduated from Arizona State University with BFA in Painting & Sculpture, then attended graduate school at Claremont Colleges. He worked as a laborer at Little Goose Dam in Dayton, Washington, and eventually trained as a steel detailer there, and then moved to Berkeley. Michael takes it from there…
In 1969 I was working drawing up plans for BART. One day the President came through the drafting room, pointed me out, and said, “We won’t have any beards here.” That was a little bit before the long hair era. My immediate boss gave me a drafting kit and said you can do your job at home. That job didn’t last very long after that.
I had developed pretty good skills in construction and photography and I crashed a class with Sim Van der Ryn, an architect professor at UC Berkeley. He was friends with Stewart Brand. We created an offshoot of the class called Farallon Design that gave us a chance to go to Death Valley and help design the Last Whole Earth catalog.
We went there with the Ant Farm architect artists who were the ones that buried the Cadillacs in Texas (google Cadillac Ranch). When we arrived, Stewart Brand said: “See this place? It will be cleaner when we leave than it is now.” He was a real hero of mine at that point. We put together these incredibly cheap inflatable buildings for offices. Inflateables are large bubbles of plastic supported by air (google Inflatocookbook).
After that we met some students from Stanford who had a place up in Mendocino County for a free school. I told them that I could draw up the plans, and could design and build. So I ended up here in a Ukiah commune of 12 or so people to help build and start Mariposa School out on Low Gap Road. Billy Jamison and Dan (Buzzy) Hamburg were involved. I taught there for four years. Some of those involved went on to become Doctors and Lawyers and Judges. Dan Hamburg became a US Congressman and is now a County Supervisor.
I got into the construction business for awhile and for fun Norman Franks and I started the Redwood Valley Grange dances which lasted around 4 years and helped to fund the Ukiah Players Theater. We built a small home brewery as a hobby and our bootlegged “Thunder Beer” was a hit. We would occasionally have performers like Kate Wolf, David Raitt, Holly Near, Sarah Baker, Mark Hanson, the Ford family, and Tommy Tutone. Everybody had great fun. And I met a Choctaw woman, Nancy, who became my wife.
At the same time we built a small home brewery with a walk-in refrigerator. I designed labels for our Thunder Beer and we had a small home business for awhile.
In 1976, Jack McAuliffe opened the first US Micro Brewery, New Albion Brewing Company, in Sonoma. My beer making partner, Norman Franks and I immediately drove down and befriended Jack. But he couldn’t make a go of it competing with the large, established Breweries.
Then a new law was passed to allow small Pubs to make and sell their own beer. We (founders Norman Franks, John Scahill, and myself) built and then opened the Hopland Brewery and Brewpub on August 14, 1983. I remember climbing up in the Milone Hop Kiln, drawing the structure accurately, then rebuilding it across the street. I had to do some serious study of old time, traditional San Francisco Bars which became the basis of the Hopland design.
We hired Jack McAuliffe to brew for us, went down to Sonoma and cut up his closed Brewery, brought it up to Hopland, and welded it back together. It was the first California Brewpub since prohibition, second in the U.S., licensed to sell both our own beer and food at the same location. We also brought in nationally known Blues bands on the weekend. Nancy and I figured out the other day that for 22 years we went out every Saturday night. We’re too old for that now.
While we were still brewing at home, driving through Wyoming, we heard Kate Wolf on a juke box singing “the Redtail Hawk writes songs across the sky, in the rolling, golden hills of California.” I said to my buddies, “That’s it! Red Tail Ale!” I designed the labels and that became our signature brew.
We sold the brewery, now named Mendocino Brewing Company, in 1999 and I retired from brewing. I still have stock in it and sit on the Board of Directors.
I joined the Rotary soon after we started the Brewpub. In 1985 they announced that they were going to rid the world of polio. There are only about 10 cases left now in the world… 2 of them are in Pakistan. They did that by raising money and with Doctor’s teaching people in other countries how to give shots, and they now have new inoculations that you can take orally. Bill Gates gave a lot of money to the effort. That’s one thing I’ve been pretty proud of.
For six years I’ve been bringing small business men and women speakers in to the Rotary weekly… because I’m pretty convinced that the Rotarians of this world need to talk to the rest of us and vice versa before much can happen progressively in our country.
I went solar on our house and am very happy about that. I built a rain catcher on the side of the garage for garden water. Then I got hooked into Community Choice Aggregation, which is about replacing PG&E with sustainable sources of energy like solar and wind. This started in Marin county by a guy named Paul Fenn. In 2002, California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 117, enabling Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). Not only did the Bill allow CCAs, but it mandated that customers be automatically enrolled in their local CCA, with an option to opt out. PG&E, of course, hates it.
I went down to Marin County and got to know some of the people in making that happen. They scared me because they were so smart. I got Dan Hamburg involved. I invited Shawn Marshall, one of the Marin Clean Energy founders and a former Mill Valley Mayor up to talk to Rotary and the Board of Supervisors. Sonoma County then also adopted the CCA plan. You have a choice between clean energy or pay more for dirty energy. What a choice. It is crashing the PG&E business model which is dependent on these huge projects without much payback that are funded by our taxes.
Sonoma Clean Energy provides residents with the option of using cleaner power at a competitive price from sources like solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower. On October 13, 2016, Sonoma Clean Power Joint Powers Authority (SCPA) authorized the expansion of Sonoma Clean Power’s services to the unincorporated areas of Mendocino County and the cities of Fort Bragg, Willits and Point Arena, with the start of service in June 2017.
I read a quote the other day from that Whole Earth guy, Kevin Kelly, on the back cover of the Utne Reader: “There is more God in a cell phone than there is in a tree frog.” That’s about as wrong as you can get. I’ve got a cell phone and I know there’s nothing God-like about that son of a bitch. The publisher, Eric Utne, was going on about how he did not like how technologists say they’re going to fix any problem there is, and that nuclear power is going to be okay. I agreed with Utne and think that some technology people are whacko. They believe in it like a religion. They’re nearly as bad as Christians. Colonize Mars? Who would want to go there? Why send a bunch of people up there who can’t get THIS one right? My own religion is the mountains.
(Previous Mendocino Talking interviews are here: http://theava.com/archives/category/features/mendocino-talking)