Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Jim Clow

by Steve Sparks, June 23, 2010

I met with Jim at his home just south of the AV Grange on the opposite side of Hwy 128. He lives there with wife of over 62 years, Bernice Gaskin, who is not too well but sat nearby throughout our conversation, as did granddaughter, Alicia.

William F. Clow Jr. was born on March 15th, 1929, eighty-one years ago to William Clow Sr. and Vera Pearl Simpson, who was born in Canada. “There were lots of ‘Bill’s’ in my father’s family and when I was a kid some guy, a friend of the family, started calling me ‘Jimmy Skunk’ and soon I was just ‘Jim’ and have been ever since.”

The Clows came to the Unite States from Germany around the 1880’s, first working as lighthouse keepers in Michigan before moving out to Anderson Valley and settling into ranch and timber work at the turn of the last century when they owned one of the Valley’s early saw mills at a time when the logs were pulled by oxen. “My Dad, who was a free spirit, left the timber industry and found work on the Cloverdale-Eureka railroad. He was one of seven or eight kids, as was my mother. On her side, my grandmother, Lisa Grey, was born in Scotland and around 1890 she went to Saskatchewan, Canada to be a servant in the home of a rich Canadian family. She married a Simpson and they moved to the U.S. where they moved around a lot, working in the mines, before settling in California around Alder Point where her father became a mailman. My parents met in Eureka, were married, settled in the Valley, and had us two kids, Jack and then me seven years later.”

“We grew up on the Clow Ranch a little further down the road from the store my Dad built and opened — ‘The Valley Store,’ later becoming ‘Jack’s Valley Store’ when my brother Jack took over. I always wanted to be a rancher, a Wild West character, but we had to do all the usual chores when we were growing up — though Jack and I still found time to get into enough trouble for four! My Dad had to go to San Francisco to get his orders in for the store and I’d go with him on many occasions. It was before the Golden Gate Bridge was built and over time I saw that go up across the Bay in the thirties. We’d stay at the same hotel every time, the Hotel Spalding and then when the manager, my Dad’s friend, Lem Shibley, left and took over The Golden State Hotel we stayed there instead. I remember he bought me my first ever chocolate sundae. I also ate Chinese food for the first time and tried to buy cheap trinkets to bring back to the Valley from Chinatown. When I was ten, my parents got divorced — very rare in those days — and our father raised Jack and me. Our mother was remarried to a saw­mill man by the name of McMillan, who worked at Charles Lumber and we still saw a lot of her. I must say that when my father remarried, my stepmother, Georgie Ridley, could not have been a better step-mom. She was so good to me and kept me busy. She sure was nice”...

“I went to the Indian Creek School on Philo School Road next to Lemon’s Market in Philo — where the PG&E substation now is. There were about 16 kids in the whole school and we caught the bus into town. I can hear that old bus rattling along to this day. I was the only boy in my class all the way through until 8th grade. I went through 7th and 8th grades at the Little Red Schoolhouse, which is now the AV Museum, and then on to the high school on the sight next to where the Ele­mentary School now sits. My teachers included Blanche Brown, Miss LeBeau, Miss Mossler, and Mrs. Beth Tut­tle, wife of Walter ‘Shine’ Tuttle. My school friends included Berna Macabee (who married Gene Walker), Kay Hiatt, Barbara Crispen, the Pressley girls — Melissa and Virginia, Betty Smith (later married to Guido Pron­solino), Beverley McGimpsey, Bob Bennett, and my good friend Colin Cooksen, who died one day in an accident when he was hauling wood instead of horse-riding with me. We were close buddies, he was a good guy.”

Jim was not a good student however. “I was a screw-off and hardly made any time for my school work; I was too busy playing and at the age of fifteen had my first job when my Dad offered to irrigate a field of alfalfa and then he ‘volunteered’ me to help him. It did not do well. This is not alfalfa country let’s face it. I then got a job as a ‘swamper’ in the woods. It was a busy time in the tan bark industry and the peelers would get the bark off and I would pack it out of the woods on mules to where a truck was waiting.”

Jim’s big passion was sports; in particular baseball, and he became a very good pitcher at one point. He also loved horse-riding, fishing, and hunting deer. ‘We were little outlaws, always up to mischief, throwing spears at the fish there were so many, and as I said, much of the work in school did not appeal to me. I did like history though and then for a couple of years in high school we had two new teachers who taught agriculture, one of who was Russell Miller. I learned more from him than all the rest of the teachers put together and when I went on to college much of what he had taught me had stuck and was very useful. Guido Pronsolino and I learned a lot and Mr. Miller certainly earned our respect. He told us he did not give ‘A’s as nobody was perfect so Guido and I set out to prove him wrong. We worked our tails off. Guido got an ‘A’ and I got an ‘A-‘ and Mr. Miller admitted that he had to go back on his word. I got to tell his widow that little story. The man was a big influence on me and I had been a real knucklehead before he arrived. He even checked in on me many years later to see how I was doing as the County Fair Manager!”

Jim graduated from high school in 1946 and attended Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo — a well-know agricultural school, or ‘Cow College’ as it was known. It was an all-boys school and many young men went there at that time after serving in the war. “I did like it but after just one year I came home to get married, which I did on Novem­ber 15th, 1947. Bernice chased me ‘til she caught me!” Jim added with a big grin. “I played college baseball and maybe I could have been a good player. I still love watching it to this day on the television. I had a tryout with the San Francisco Seals, many years before the Giants came to town, and got to pitch at Seals Stadium in the City. I was a good pitcher and they offered me a contract. I accepted and went to Amarillo, Texas to the minor leagues. I didn’t like it there; it wasn’t a good fit for me and I quit and returned home. I played on our local Boonville team that was backed by some mill own­ers and also for the Eureka Crabs, a semi-pro team. It was before the black players were allowed in the major leagues and most of the teams we played had many really good black players and were from the Bay Area.”

Bernice’s family moved left Oklahoma following The Depression of the 30s. “She was the original Okie from Muscogee here.” They settled in the Valley in 1942 when she was 13. Bernice added, “I hated it here. I told my mother I would be going back to Oklahoma when I was fifteen but I’m still here at eighty-one. One day I was getting supplies at The Johnson Store in Philo (now Lemons’) and this guy came by on his horse. He tried to make friends with my brother so he could get to talk to me. I was not impressed. He was a ‘smart Alec,’ show­ing off on his horse.”

Jim went on, “Some locals had given the Okies a hard time when they arrived. They had been treated badly and she was very wary. They were good people though and very hard workers, just like the Arkies some years later who were also not welcomed by some. My Dad liked her though and he thought me seeing her was a very good idea. He became very fond of her; she was his favorite. Anyway, I returned to the Valley and we were married in the Boonville Methodist Church. For the first three or four years of our marriage we lived in one of the old houses back on the Clow Ranch, nine miles out of town up on the Peachland Road and I started the sheep ranching. I ran many sheep and had some of the best dogs helping me that I ever had. The McNab breed was very well-suited to that terrain up there. It was home­steading and we’d come into town on horseback for the stuff we couldn’t get back in there. The road was too bad for vehicles. But we did have a beautiful garden and Bernice could can anything, and there was lots of water out there.”

Jim and Bernice started their family in 1950 when Bill was born, followed in 1954 by Lindsay, who was nicknamed ‘Smiling Jack.’ “Living so far out of the way was not ideal for the new family and it was time to get the wife and kids off the mountain. My cousin Arnie ‘Fat’ Clow, kindly offered to buy this 55-acre property for us but I eventually found the money myself but always remembered his kind offer. This home was built and I did lots of work on it. I planed the wood, then hauled and stacked every board you see here. So much so that I would really never think about selling. It’s not very much but I helped to put it up and it’s a part of me. We later bought another 57-acre parcel right across the road and I had a flock of breeding ewes, 850 at one point. They were a nice flock of Marino sheep originally then later I got tied up with Targees that were a real pain in the rear. I bought some good rams that Floyd Johnson picked up for me and for some years it was a good busi­ness.”

Over the years Jim gradually cut back on the sheep as the problem with predators, coyotes, got worse and worse. “We just couldn’t get a hold on it. One year I had 350 lambing ewes and only 40 lambs made it! I sold the range sheep and eventually there was no money in it at all and Mrs. Raglan bought up the rest of the flock. I miss the sheep. I loved working the dogs on the sheep and had some great ones in my time — Bonnie, Fly, and then Freddie who was a good cow dog who would often get visitors on the leg too... Yeah, give me sheep over cattle every time. I always got a kick out of the sheep; cattle can put a hurt on you. Plus the wife and me dearly love mutton and lamb, and boy, can she cook it. We’d butcher two-year old wethers (castrated males) and they were delicious. I learned how to butcher them from a guy called ‘Bluey’ Wahl, on account of the fact that he was a redheaded guy. He was from New Zealand and could do the whole thing from the kill to the hanging in ten min­utes! Anyway, the sheep were gone and after I quit the everyday ranch work Lindsay took over the farm and it’s cattle around here now. I did get into the horse thing for a time — the world’s biggest mistake in my case. You can lose your shirt in that business. We have had some very nice horses but it is not a good investment.”

While working as a sheep rancher for many years, Jim also had a job at the saw mill for extra income and he adds that “we could not have survived without all the hard work of ‘The Boss’ (Bernice) — she worked and worked, raising the family and doing all the running and jumping that was needed to support me, as well as the bookkeeping when I tried my best to go broke many times! We were very social in those days and were friends with just about everyone in town. I never saw anyone I didn’t like. Once the house was ready we had people over all the time and on that first night I remem­ber they drank five gallons of coffee. That was all the water we had. We’d go to square dances, and events at The Grange and in Boonville. Once in a while I’d go to The Boonville Lodge. I got to sleep on the front lawn after one night down there because I was late home and got locked out. It was an accident of course! The Lodge was certainly a wild place in those early days of the tim­ber industry after the war and in the fifties. There were some tough, tough guys here then and you’d see fights that would turn your hair, big fistfights, and sometimes with knives. The Arkies came here and were not accepted at first in the mills. They were often single men, drinking liquor, and with just one or two women around, the situation was like gasoline with matches. Yes, The Lodge was rightfully known as The Bucket of Blood back then, and the other bar in town, The Track Inn, was called The Cess Pool. Weiss’s was the other bar and it had a good restaurant and soda fountain. There was the occasional ruckus there too but nothing compared to the others. Then there was The Last Resort in Philo where many of the Arkies drank. I had some good times there. Those guys were very comical. I never laughed so much in my life as I did around some of those clowns. They were good, good people. Clark Golden and Buster Hollyfield are two I can remember very well. I’d also sometimes hang out at Floyd and Beatrice Kaufmann’s gas station, which was next to the Valley Store and sit there for hours, and never quit laughing. There were so many mills back then — Salsig and Perkins, Burns Lum­ber, the Charles’ Lumber Mill. Old Homer Charles came here with $10,000 and made a pile; many people made a lot of money, old families and the new guys too.”

In the 70s, the County Fair Board Manager, Dick Win­kler, made it known that he was ready to retire. “I didn’t know anything about running a big event like that but I had some time on my hands after cutting back at the ranch so I applied and got the job. I really got into it and although that first one was tough for me I had lots of great help and in the end I held the job for seventeen years. People who helped me so much were Archie MacDougall, Kay Hiatt, Fayne Hanes, John Hulbert, Austin Hulbert, Guido Pronsolino, and the first woman on the Board, Berna Walker (born McGimpsey), who was a day younger than me and we are related. Yes, lots of us are related here in the Valley. You may have noticed how many of our foreheads are just an inch or so high: lowbrows! Anyway, The Fair Board manager posi­tion is year-round and it just about paid for itself and I went in five days a week and did a full day on most occasions. I had office staff - Beatrice Rawles and Cecilia Pardini, and a maintenance crew of Bill West, Ern Waggoner, Jim Wellington, and Larry Liebeg.”

Jim and Bernice used to visit her family in Oregon but other than that he has no desire to travel apart from seeing his six grandchildren — five girls and one boy, and now one great granddaughter who generally come to see them for visits and for small family gatherings on holidays. He has loved his life in the Valley and these days he continues to enjoy the climate and the people here. “Many of the ‘new’ people we met are now becoming ‘old-timers’ themselves. I like most people I meet although I do not like those that put on airs and show their hind end to us sometimes — people who are part-time up here and who don’t listen to our advice.” Jim’s brother Jack sold the store and moved to Sacra­mento but not long after he suffered a heart attack in 2005 and continues to be greatly missed. “He never smoked, never drank, and he could have been a preacher based on the words he used. We were very close. Fought like cats and dogs. I guess that’s why we were close.”

I asked Jim for his responses to some local issues.

The wineries and their impact on the Valley? “Well, they are certainly better to look at than a bunch of houses or motels. However, with the amount of water they use up you could float the Queen Mary. That is an issue. All the streams used to have water dogs (lizards) in them. None are left. There used to be lots of fish and frogs. No more. What about the effect of the chemicals they spray? I think there should be more checks and balances on the wineries here in the Valley.”

The AVA? “I pick it up most weeks. I like Bruce. Sometimes he has acted like a horse’s butt, but he’s a good guy. Even if what he writes sounds outrageous there is always a thread of truth there somewhere. His wife is a very nice lady.”

KZYX&Z local public radio? “I don’t listen that much. I watch television more these days, particularly sports, baseball mainly but also some horse racing.”

The changes in the Valley? “I’m not wild about all the tourists. I liked it more when the Valley was a sleepy place. The winery scene is too busy with traffic. I can remember when you drove through town and had to drive round Maurice Tindall’s old dog if he was sleeping in the road. I hope it never gets to be like Napa or St. Helena. There is a lot of craparoo down there.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on TV's “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Coffee in the morning; helping Lindsay around the ranch a little, looking at the livestock.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “I hate to get up to a rainy, windy day. I known it means I’m in for some cabin fever.”

Sound or noise you love? “It used to be western music on the radio but not so much now... The birds singing is a favorite...”

Sound or noise you hate? “The horns of the cars as they go past on Hwy 128. I could cry sometimes.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Leg of lamb. I’d trade that for all the tea in China. I could eat it three times a day, then make a stew and take it to bed, and make a sandwich in case I wake up in the night.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Horace ‘Ban’ Burger — a terrific sheep and dog man who knew and could talk about the country and the old days as well as anyone. He was a funny man too and I loved his stories.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, with unlimited provi­sions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “I would have to have my best dog with me (I let lifetime shepherd Jim have this ‘possession’, despite my normal ‘rules’ about living beings); a 30-30 rifle; and may be a book: the biography of Patton.”

Favorite song/book or one that has influenced you? “Several of Willie Nelson’s songs; or Marty Robbins’ ‘West Texas town of El Paso.’ As for a book, maybe ‘Smoky the Cowhorse’ by Will James, a wonderful depiction of the West. I read it in school and never forgot it. As for a film how about ‘The Outlaw Josey Whales’ or ‘Dances with Wolves’?”

A smell you really like? “Not perfume, that’s for damn sure. A roast lamb cooking. Now you’ve got me thinking about it and I can’t get my mind off it!”

Favorite word or phrase? “Goddamn son of a bitch.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “The four-letter word.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A game warden, a wildlife conservationist. I enjoyed hunting, sure, but I was always very selective.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “I’d hate to work in the woods, hated every minute I was there.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The day I mar­ried Bernice.”

Saddest? “Believe it or not, the day my Uncle George Clow died. He was very good to me and he was the dog man I learned alot from.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “My wife gets mad at me because I am a lit­tle too giving in some respects. I guess it means I am a compassionate person.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Good job, Jim. Come in and bring your leg of lamb with you.” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the ar­chives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Octoge­narian George Bennett, father of The Philo Pottery Inn’s Beverly Bennett.)

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