Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Susan Spencer

by Steve Sparks, August 18, 2010

I drove up Holmes Ranch Road and on to Chipmunk Lane before arriving at Susan’s house where I was greeted by her Miniature Schnauzer, Bebe, and Wire-haired Terrier, Asta. Susan served a plate of her tasty homegrown plums and delicious aged Irish cheddar and we sat on the deck to chat.

She was born in Oroville, California in 1951, the sec­ond daughter of David Spencer and Hazel Hughes who had had another daughter, Linda, four years earlier. The Spencers were from the Midwest, mainly Missouri and Kansas, but her grandparents had split up when her father was a young child and he and his mother moved to Los Angeles, although he did keep in touch with his family back there, apart from his father. The Hughes family was Protestant Irish who originally settled in Illi­nois before moving to Washington State when Susan’s mother was a child, where her grandfather was a coal miner and later a carpenter, before they moved again, this time to California’s Central Valley where they were farmers before moving once more, this time to Pasadena.

“My parents were high school sweethearts and my Dad always said he married my Mother because she had ‘great gams’ (legs). My Dad worked for the Pasadena Star News in the circulation department while my Mother was an office worker. After Dad served in World War 2 they were married and lived in Pasadena for a time but Dad decided to move to Oroville where he could work for his uncle who was a contractor. His Uncle gave my Dad great encouragement and offered bonuses if he showed improvement so that eventually he was able to get his contractor’s license. My mother had us two girls and was a homemaker, although at various times she did work at a bank and the Montgomery Wards department store.”

Oroville was very rural and the Spencers had their own horses at their home, which Susan learned to take care of and ride. She attended the local elementary, jun­ior and high school. “I liked school, particularly the sci­ences and art, and also French, thanks to a wonderful teacher. However, my true passion was horses, horses, horses. Our whole family was into them. My Dad encouraged us all to do this and he felt it brought the family closely together. It was a very wise decision on his part and he once told me ‘the smartest thing I ever did was buy a horse’. He was gone five days a week with his various construction jobs, many of which were in the Sugar bowl/Squaw Valley ski areas where he built many fine houses. I was a pretty good kid up to a point and a good student too. During my school years I worked vari­ous jobs such as at a gas station, in a photo mat, and in a nursing home. I was also very social and while not exactly being ‘the belle of the ball’, I had lots of friends. It was the mid-to-late sixties and I was enamored by what was going on in San Francisco and began to dress like a hippy to go to school. My friends and I threw some great parties. We were a very tight group of friends, both boys and girls, and were all into the ‘peace and love’ scene. We’d even invite parents to our parties and they’d have a good time too, although they probably didn’t know we were all smoking pot in the back.”

“Then, in 1967, when I was 17 I started to get a little too wild and began dating the town ‘bad boy’ and even­tually ended up in juvenile hall. My parents were horri­fied and with my father already thinking about moving closer to his work, they decided to simply take me out of the situation and we moved to Auburn in the Sierra Foothills. Looking back, my Dad, who was friends with the local police and involved in the local community, made what was very good decision and it really helped our family. I was pretty independent and was not too bothered by moving, even though it meant leaving friends. I have always been bohemian type and had never really liked Oroville. It had a certain bad element there and was very hot and oppressive. Auburn, with its trees and water was like moving to heaven by comparison. It was so magical and good for me. I corrected myself and became very close to my mother, riding horses, going shopping together, and holding hands. That would never have happened in Oroville where I would have been grounded for life the way things were going. I was still a hippy but now really got into art seriously for the first time, although when I had been grounded in Oroville, my Dad, being a kindly grump, had bought me paint and plasterboard and told me I could decorate my room. This gave me some focus although I’m not sure if he liked the way I did it with versions of various bands’ album covers on the walls.”

Susan graduated from Auburn High School in 1968. In that final year she had been greatly influenced in her art studies by the teacher, Mario De Ferrante, who was part of the Northern California Contemporary Art Movement of the time. “I googled him and his art recently and he obviously influenced my art in a big way. He did not teach in the classical way, it was far more experimental. He led me into collage and assem­blage art.”

After graduation Susan attended the Sierra Junior Col­lege in Rocklin, California where she befriended numerous guys who had come home from the war in Vietnam and became involved in the small anti-war movement that was at the college. A year later she transferred to American River College in Sacramento, which had a highly regarded science department. “I was a bit different in that I was into my art but still had that liking for the sciences, biology in particular.”

She was at American River for two years during which time she met and, in 1973, married Paul Crosby who was attending Sacramento State University. Around 1976, Paul, who was licensed to teach autistic kids, applied for a job at the Clearwater Ranch School here in Anderson Valley as a speech therapist. “I had never heard of this place but he got the job and we moved to Boonville where we stayed at the south end of town in a hotel/motel, which is now those apartment buildings opposite the Fairgrounds. We stayed there for several weeks until moving into a house we rented from Joan and Lauren Bloyd, next to The Floodgate Store owned at the time by Sam and Marguerite Avery, a kindly French woman who would sometimes feed us. Paul soon began to make friends with his co-workers such as J.R. Collins, Flick McDonald, and Linda Baker. We had very little money and it was tough at first and we lived off oatmeal. I remember one day that a load of corn and zucchini fell off the back of a Gowan produce truck and we lived off that for a while too. I still owe them for that! Finally Paul’s first check arrived but I needed to get a job too so I drove out to Fort Bragg on the coast and pretty much told Ralph, the owner, to give me a job at his restaurant, Captain Flint’s, even though I had no experience of res­taurant work. He gave me three days a week and I’d drive out there in my little Volkswagen. There is still a picture on the restaurant wall that was taken one day when it was parked outside.”

It was a very tight crowd at Clearwater and Susan and Paul were soon part of the group. “I like to say that they were the ‘second wave’ of back-to-the-land’ers to come here. Everyone contributed to any event we went to, sharing whatever he or she had. We were all going to live off the land - we didn’t know much about doing that other than it was what we wanted to do... Meanwhile I did like my job and the tips were good and so we moved to a better place in Navarro — The Deep End. It was very different down there even though it was only a mile or so away from Floodgate. We were now in the Italian region of the Valley — Iteville as locals call it.”

In 1978, with Susan now working at the Valley’s Bachmann-Hill School for wayward boys and girls, Susan and Paul were able to buy 20 acres on Holmes Ranch subdivision in which they went into partnership with J.R. Collins. “It was, and is, all on a handshake — very unusual these days of course, but it has always worked very well for us. I was at the school working as an aid in the classroom and teaching a little art here and there, which I had also done a little of at Clearwater. Our son Nathan was born in 1980 but we did not move on to the property until 1982 with Randy Falk and Butch Paula hauling the mobile home on here. It was a tough job and Randy told us to never ask him to move it out!”

Susan and Paul raised all kinds of animals — goats, pigs, rabbits, chickens. “We were killing so much of our own food that we referred to it as ‘the killing fields.’ However, after several years that got old and we were so done with it. During that time my art was on hold as we were just too involved with the animals and subsistence living. Socially I had become friends with other ‘hippy mamas’ such as Denise Mattei (Lawson), Judy Nelson, Annie Steele, Ellen Ellison, Susan McClure, Suzanne Thurston, Susan Apfel, and Diane Paget, my midwife. Then when Nathan was three I became the Director of the Peachland Pre-School and did that for a year or so. Around that time I began to offer rides to the kids of these mamas, plus a couple of adults too — Sue Chiver­ton and Joanie Williams. Nathan got a pony at five and the lessons took place at our corral here called ‘The Pony Paddock.’ I had six or seven horses and in those days you could ride all over the hills around here. I would meet the school bus at Lemons in Philo, collect three or four kids, bring them here and it would take fifteen min­utes to saddle up and then we’d go on a forty-five minute ride. The Moms would then pick them up. It was a great time and we had so much fun.”

Over time there was not enough room on the property so the horses were moved to The Fairgrounds in Boon­ville and the lessons continued out of there. Susan’s time was now taken up with horseshows and lessons for kids such as Sophia Bates, Lily Apfel, Essie Baltins, Sarah Bennett, Christy Charles, Naomi Boutillier, the Mize kids, and many others. Paul was at that time working for Jerry Blattner at the Unicorn Ranch School for older wayward boys and Paul’s son from a previous relation­ship, Matt Williams, often lived with the family off and on for several years, becoming an older brother and very close to Nathan. However, Matt tragically passed away in 1994.

In 1995, Steve Williams offered Susan barn space on Mountain View Road just outside Boonville, which she grabbed immediately. “It was not easy dealing with The Fairgrounds and they had just raised my rent for what were very small stables. For the next few years I contin­ued the horse lessons, which become my life, and I met many more nice parents and kids. Then, in 2000 while walking the dog on the road up here, Paul collapsed and died of a heart attack at the age of 52. His father had passed at 54. If someone you know is not feeling well with certain symptoms, do not let them walk the dog. I had told him that if he ever died I would leave the Valley but I realized that there was so much for me here, a huge ‘family’ and I couldn’t leave, although what followed was a fuzzy, messy year with lots of drunkenness.”

Nathan and partner Deanne lived on the property for a time in what was the former horse barn. Susan had been cutting back on the horse business a little and had begun to work part-time at Husch Winery since 1999, where she still does one day a week. “After Paul died I did keep the horse business for a year or so. My two horses kept me going during those dark days — Jabbar, who is now 30, and a marvelous, fabulous horse, and one white pony from the old days of lessons,Roxy who is now 35. So many kids in this Valley learned how to ride on her. I also had Mr. Peanut until he was 52!”

One evening in 2001, Susan had finished dinner at Lauren’s Restaurant and needed to walk off the wine so she and her friend Janice went down the street to The Buckhorn for a beer. “I went to the bathroom as the bar­man said he’d get me a drink. When I came out there was a man sitting next to my purse at the bar. He thought he’d like to meet a woman who had drinks bought for her. His name was Michael Wilson and we chatted for a time and he then walked me to my car and opened the door for me — very polite. We started living together a week later! When I got home that night I turned on the radio to listen to KZYX and there was a guy, a jazz pianist, who had stopped by to talk to Mary Aigner and now he was on the air talking about how he’d just met a woman in town called Susan Spencer! It was Michael.I couldn’t believe it. A few days later my pony was very ill and I wanted to put it down but Nathan was dead set against that. He had lost his father and stepbrother in recent times. It was a traumatic day and in the evening I decided to go into town to meet the guy Michael again. He was a volunteer at the Wild Iris Music Festival that was in town and after his shift we went for drinks at the Boonville Hotel. We had an intense talk and learned so much about each other in a very short time. Lily Apfel was working and she bought us a drink/ Again Michael was impressed. Two days later he had moved out of his place a few miles outside Ukiah and was camping at the Dimmick campgrounds. We had a dinner date and I asked if he was homeless. He said he pretty much was so I asked if he’d like to move in with me. I shocked myself. I called my Dad and he told me to go for it. Michael and I have been together ever since.”

With Michael’s encouragement, Susan began to do her art once more. He signed her up for a show at Glad’s Café in Boonville without her knowing but she did it and gradually came more on board with pursuing her art once more. Then when Nathan and Deanne moved to Florida she converted the barn into an art studio. They are still there, where they have about twenty horses and Susan now also has grandson, Finnian Bryce, who is 18 months old. Her art has moved from working with watercolors to assemblage work, collages in 3-D, and she has done shows all over the County at various galleries and of course she always has some pieces at Husch Winery. Michael has now joined her in this hobby.

“I love the Valley. The Redwood trees are so special and the whole community here seems to be like one big family. I have known many of them for thirty years now and even though I may not see them for long periods I still count them as my very best friends... Michael and I are quite reclusive although we do get down to the live music in Navarro sometimes and attend some of the Valley events. My art is displayed at a gallery co-opera­tive in Ukiah and we try to get over there quite often and I am now also taking pottery lessons with Alexis Moyer at The Pot Shop north of Philo.

“One thing that bugs me about the Valley is that I can’t get off a flight in San Francisco and be home. There is still that three hour car journey to make. Of course our isolation keeps many people away so that is the trade-off I guess, but it does bug me that our access to public transport is limited.”

I asked Susan for her response to some of the Val­ley’s issues.

The Wineries and their impact? “I’m not really happy with them as I question how many of them the Valley’s resources can support. Of course many winery owners care about the Valley but some are only interested in the bottom line and their corporate practices and attitudes are not to my liking. The monoculture nature of the winery business here is not good and the number of absentee owners is an issue for me.”

The AVA? “I have always enjoyed the paper’s local perspectives although I have sometimes questioned the editor’s justification for selling papers without always presenting all the facts. It’s fun to read as long as you’re not the one being affected unfairly.”

KZYX&Z local public radio? “I listen when I’m in my studio. I like the ‘Jazz on the Wharf’ program.”

Changes in the Valley? “The climate here has changed a lot in the last 30 years. We often used to have fogs as the redwoods brought in the weather system from the coast. Fewer trees, less fog. It’s something I miss.”

The school system? “I’m not involved anymore but with Nathan, who had some problems, the teachers such as Jim Tomlin, Val Muchowski, and Wendy Patterson did a great job.”

Drugs in the Valley? “I’ve seen it go from marijuana, to cocaine, to methamphetamines — very nasty stuff that effects the Valley in ways we do not know yet. Ways such as waste that seeps down into the water table from the meth labs. I do not drink water that has come from anywhere on the Valley floor. Some of the wineries too, with their spraying, may be doing some sort of harm to our water supplies at this point.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest and asked for her replies off the top of her head.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Being exposed to exciting art.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When people are too quick to judge others’ actions or their art. I do it sometimes and don’t like it in myself. With art, I do not like to hear people’s creativity being criticized.”

Sound or noise you love? “Owls at night.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Machinery running at night.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “My Mom’s cherry pie and ice cream.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Louise Bourgeois, an assemblage artist — my idol. She did that big spider in Jack London Square in Oakland. She always said what she felt. I can’t wait to be like that one day.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A good book to read; an artist’s sketch­book; and a box of good #2 pencils.”

Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “A book would be some sort of fantasy. The Dragonriders of Pern’ by Anne McCaffrey perhaps; a film is ‘Grand Canyon’ starring Danny Glover and Steve Martin — a powerful human condition film; and a song would be one written by Michael called ‘Pacific Valley’.”

Smell you really like? “Honeysuckle and lavender.”

Favorite hobby? “Gardening.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A forensic scien­tist.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Some asshole’s sec­retary.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The day my son was born.”

Saddest day or period of your life? “When I lost my stepson.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I am so enthusiastic about learning. People probably get sick of me at times when I am talk­ing about something I have learned or am in the process of learning.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I think if he said ‘Nice job’ that would be good. It’s better than ‘Nice try’ anyway.” ¥¥

(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 the Val­ley’s ‘Mr. Fix-it’ — Mike Crutcher.)

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