Highway Robbery In Comptche

by Earl Thurston, October 21, 2009

Back in the days when the West was wilder, there was a way station on Orr Springs road three miles west of the junction of the Low Gap and Orr Springs roads.

Called the Halfway House, it was a stopping place for stages running between Ukiah and Fort Bragg. Here passengers would debark for food and rest on their dusty journey, and the tired horses would be exchanged for a fresh team.

A little girl lived there who is still alive today.

She loves to tell stories of the days when those stages were the prey of robbers and bandits on the long lonely journey from the valleys to the coast.

She is much older now, of course, but her stories offer ample indication that the wild west of horse opera fiction is something close to fact — if not something milder than fact.

Mrs. Edna Oppenlander, of Comptche, is now in her 80s.

She is one of the old time residents of the coast area, and loves to tell of one attempted stage coach robbery in particular that left a lasting impression with her.

It was the day when frightened horses pulling a careening stage coach raced up to the way station where she lived.

“We were at the house when they came,” she said. “We could hear them a mile away coming down the road at a terrible pace, and knew something must be wrong.”

When the stage came into view, they could see the horses had been shot.

The driver was still in the seat but the messenger was missing.

“The horses ran right down to the door like they always had and stopped,” Mrs. Oppenlander remem­bered.

The driver leaned down and handed little Edna a Wells Fargo money bag and gasped to her to hide it.

Farther back, at the scene of the holdup, the mes­senger lay in the road, where he had dropped, shop and killed by the bandits.

During the uproar at the shooting the driver ducked down in the seat and the horses bolted, racing out of control to the way station because the reins had been shot away.

The driver and passengers could do nothing but hang on, hoping the horses would stop when they reached the way station.

The bandits were never found, but the money was safe. And Edna Oppenlander had an exciting story to fascinate her grandchildren.

She has an extensive American heritage.

She was born in Massachusetts, but spent most of her life around Comptche.

Her father homesteaded what is now the Sky ranch, and he also operated the Halfway House.

She is not only an early pioneer of Mendocino county, but also part of a family tree that dates back to Priscilla and the Mayflower of Pilgrim days.

Her ancestors fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

She is related to the famous Copeland family of Massachusetts.

Her husband, E.C. Oppenlander, owned and oper­ated the Comptche post office and general store.

His father worked in the woods when he first came to Mendocino, and in 1867 took up the present Oppenlander ranch, near Comptche.

E.C. Oppenlander was Comptche postmaster from 1911 until he died in 1937.

Mrs. Oppenlander helped mind the store and pinch-hitted for her husband behind the mail counter.

When E. C. Oppenlander died in 1937, Mrs. Oppenlander served as postmistress until a daughter, Eileen Gummerus, moved out to Comptche from Fort Bragg in 1938.

Eileen is still postmistress, but Mrs. Oppenlander still helps mind the store and pinch-hits at the mail counter.

It is a little country store, common in days gone by, but unique in this age of supermarkets.

Customers come in to get their mail, shop for gro­ceries, exchange news and pass the time of day.

Mrs. Oppenlander is still active and takes a keen interest in community affairs.

She loves to pass the time of day with friends who drop by and is a living link with the colorful history of coastal Mendocino county.

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