Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Christine Clark
by Steve Sparks, October 21, 2009
A couple of weeks ago I visited Christine at her Clark Road home, generally believed to be the oldest house in the Valley. Along with a cup of coffee she also gave me some delicious homemade rhubarb and sour cream cake, saying, “Well I read the interviews every week and you seem to be well fed on your travels so I couldn’t just give you an Oreo cookie could I?”
Christine seems to be recovering well from her recent hip operation and we sat down to chat in the old living room surrounded by trinkets from her many travels, paintings by local artists, and among the original structures from a house built in the early 1850s, not long after the first white settlers arrived.
Christine was born in the early 40s, the only child of Earl Clark and Esther Reilly and they initially lived in a cabin on the Reilly Heights Ranch along Highway 128. The Reilly family came over from Ireland in the mid-19th Century and the three brothers headed west, with two settling in Anderson Valley in the late 1850’s. James Reilly (Christine’s great-grandfather) built the Reilly Heights House in the 1890s, but unlike many other houses built at that time it had a good foundation and therefore the majestic three story red house survives to this day.
James Reilly married Christine Gschwend, who was the daughter of Valley pioneer John Gschwend and was the first white child born in the Valley on August 23rd, 1857. She had a long life, dying at 103 in 1960, and Christine remembers her well. James and Christine had a son, Joel (Christine’s grandfather), who married Winnie Atkinson and they had two children, Stanley Reilly, who married Donna (Christine’s aunt Donna Reilly, who is still here also), and Esther Christine Reilly, Christine’s mother who married Earl Clark in the 1930’s. “My mother was a real tomboy. She had ridden an Indian motorcycle to school and she rarely wore shoes. Her feet were as tough as leather.”
As for the Clark side of the family, Grandfather Thomas Clark was a doctor in Oakland and in the late 1910s he purchased a summer home here in the Valley on Indian Creek south of Philo. In 1920, he bought the Navarro Fairhills Ranch on what became known as Clark Road. Christine’s father Earl had gone to UC Davis agricultural school and worked the family ranch with plenty of help from wife Esther. Over time Earl became the main apple producer in the area, managing and marketing orchards at various locations throughout the Valley and packing them at the large packing barn on the ranch. He was part of the Sebastopol Co-op of apple growers and when that enterprise failed the apple business went down quickly. “My Dad would turn over in his grave to see so many grapes here today. When he died our ranch was still full of apples but now we have had to plant grapes, in partnership with the Roederer Winery, and they are my livelihood. We only have about ten acres of apples left and that is just for sheep feed - our other business, one that has also undergone a great decline.”
Christine’s earliest memories are of growing up in the house where she now lives. “My parents were married for ten years and then they had me. Being an only child, my closest companions were my dog and my horse, who was a cousin to the famous Sea Biscuit from the Howard Ranch in Willits. I went to the one-room schoolhouse in Philo at first and then to the Elementary School on the sight of the current school. We had some wonderful views from this house all the way down the Valley but in the late forties and early fifties the Okies and Arkies came to the Valley and suddenly, almost overnight, there were tens of mills here and there was so much smoke you couldn’t see more than a mile or so. The newcomers just took over the Valley and the children of these new families were at our school and I started to talk like them. My parents didn’t like that so they sent me to stay at my aunt’s in Orinda in the East Bay. I did not want to go but it was a good school, although it was hard for a hillbilly girl like me to adapt. However, I did, and I also started to play tennis both at school and at a nearby country club and soon became a good player. I was at school down there for about three years but in 10th grade I broke my ankle in a horse accident and returned to the Valley and went to the High School at what is now the Elementary School site and then the ‘new’ high school — which they tell me is showing it’s age. I graduated in 1960.”
“Growing up I was certainly a Daddy’s girl and a tomboy like my mother, rarely wearing shoes or combing my hair, and when I wasn’t in school I was always on the tractor or the fruit trucks with my father and I learned to drive on the ranch. Family was very important and with my grandparents we’d all have meals together every night and then on Sundays go to Navarro, to The Pardini Hotel, for a family-style Italian dinner. They had a bar and a restaurant with a big dining room with long tables and a scary bathroom upstairs! Sometimes, rarely, we’d go to Fort Bragg to watch a movie on a Sunday. My cousins and I would swim in the Navarro River back at Clark Hole behind our property here. I learned to swim there at five years old and got $5 from my grandfather when I could get across to the other side. I went to 4-H Camps and when I was a teenager I got a summer job as a wrangler and cabin cleaner at the Tumbling McD Ranch — a dude ranch owned by the McDougalls. I loved my horses and would ride to Floodgate in the middle of the road as a child. There was so little traffic.”
“I had a lonely childhood but it suited me and I grew to enjoy it very much. I never knew anything different. I even hid from my cousins when they came to visit. My father was always working, at the packing shed or taking crews to various orchards in the Valley, or driving the produce to Sacramento or Los Angeles. Tommy Burger was his driver for a time. I would go with him sometimes to Oakland, arriving at midnight, the busiest time of day in the produce business. My mother was a homemaker and kept a pristine garden, canned tomatoes and fruits, but she did socialize and played Bridge quite often at one of the clubs that were going in the Valley at that time. She could never go to bed when my Dad was out working and waited up into the night for him to return, working on her woodcarvings.” (Some of which hang in the room where we sat).
Upon graduating in 1960, Christine couldn’t wait to get away for a time. She went to Santa Rosa Junior College but then things went a little askew in her life. “Like so many others in their late teens I mistakenly thought I had all the answers.” She married and moved to Nevada for a time. The marriage did not work out but a son, Justin, was born and she stayed there for three years working at a cattle ranch and entering barrel races for fun in Fallon. “It was in the middle of nowhere. My parents were very upset. I’d had plans to go to UC Davis to be a vet. I finally got some sense and returned to California to go to the Empire Business College in Santa Rosa which led to me getting a job for a law firm where I stayed for twelve years. I got married again but realized I was better off on my own and we split up, getting divorced in 1989. We had bought a house in Rohnert Park in 1973 when that area was nothing at all. I was on the Commission of the Park and Recreation Department for seven years during that time and also got to play a lot of tennis, representing the Sonoma State team for a time and I visited the Valley all the time and played in local tennis tournaments with people such as J.R. Collins, Flick McDonald, Gene Herr, and Darren Edmeades. I eventually got tired of the same old office routine and my parents were getting older, so I chucked it all in and returned to the Valley in 1989, moving into the Reilly Heights house which was vacant but still in the family, as it is today. My son and his family live there now.”
On her return to Anderson Valley, she soon got into the local scene with Gene Herr talking her into joining the Community Services District (CSD) and Eileen Pronsolino (Christine’s babysitter as a child and part-time employee at Greenwood Ridge Winery), telling her of a job at the winery. “Arlene Young was Allan Green’s (the owner) bookkeeper and she was moving to Alaska to open another radio station with Sean Donovan, who had opened KZYX public radio here. I couldn’t even turn on a computer and then on my very first day I had been to Reno and got snowed in and couldn’t get back for the new job. Not a good start but I’m still there to this day! It’s been a great job for me, two days a week, and Alan is a wonderful boss. He would do anything for you. I love it.”
Christine lived at the Reilly Heights house until she returned to the family home on Navarro Fairhills Ranch on Clark Road in 1997; after her mother had sadly ended her own life. “My father had been very ill and I think my mother basically worried herself to death about what was to become of us. He finally passed away following a heart attack about a year after my mother.”
Christine was left with two ranches full of apples, an industry in decline. She went into business with Roederer Winery who replaced the apple trees with vines — 100 acres at Navarro Fairhills and 35 acres at Reilly Heights. “We make money from the vines and we still have our sheep but that is not a money earner despite all the work we put in — Justin and me mainly. With sheep if something can go wrong it will. The market for our lamb is OK and we send them to Texas and Colorado along with the few remaining sheep ranches left in the Valley — Sam Prather, the Pronsolinos, the Johnsons, and the Pinolis. It is certainly a dying industry. The predators and the laws that protect them have made it impossible, not to mention attacks by domestic dogs. A couple of years ago we lost 36 sheep in one night to two of those. That was terrible thing to go through. There was so much suffering. We now have about 160 sheep and will keep going as long as we can. I am already prepared for the lambs that will be arriving in the next few weeks. We will get some mothers who cannot raise their lambs so I’ll be doing it. I have the blankets ready and if necessary will put them in a sink of warm water and even the oven to revive them and then hope the mother takes them back. If not, it’s down to me and Justin.”
Christine joined the Lions Club in 1989 and has now been the President for the past 15 years. “I joke that it’s my ‘life sentence’ but the work we do is so important for the community in the Valley with our various fundraisers and sponsorships for the high school students. I also go to Mexico every year with the ‘Lions In Sight,’ a group that takes glasses/spectacles to remote villages in Mexico. Judy Long and Joanie Clark go with me from our branch and this will be our eighth year. It’s amazing to see people’s gratitude when they get to see their grandkids properly for the first time, to read the Bible, to be able to sew once again. Never throw away your old glasses — contact us.”
Christine is also a member of the Independent Career Women, the Unity Club, the Garden Club, and she found time to get her pilot’s license thanks to the program run by Joe Fox. She used to be an EMT and on the Ambulance Service for many years and she is now on the Cemetery District Board — “from the living to the dead!” — and is a board member of the Historical Society. She continues to play a little tennis at the high school court where in the past she gave tennis lessons to various children as part of the Recreation Department’s program. “Hey, there’s not much in the Valley for the kids to do unless adults take the helm of something.”
“When I was growing up I couldn’t get away fast enough but I am now tied to the land here in many ways and it is important to me to be here. Ranch work is never all done. I just look out of the window and see things that need to be done. As my mother used to say, ‘Living on a ranch, the only way you know it is Sunday is because the Sunday paper is here.’ I have my family nearby — Justin and his wife Christy and my grandson Tristan — and that is very comforting.”
I asked Christine for her responses to some of the current issues confronting Valley folk.
Changes in the Valley? “Well the increased drug presence does concern me. It is getting out of hand. We find it on our land and just rip it up. People never used to lock their houses and cars around her and now many do.”
The School System? “My grandson is just starting pre-school and I am concerned about the future of the school with these drug issues. I hope Beth Swehla can continue with her Ag Program. It is important that we keep that going in this Valley. I support the School Sports Boosters personally as well as with the Lions. I think sports are important in teaching team spirit and camaraderie.”
The Wineries? “I can’t say anything bad about them. They are my bread and butter and they are certainly better to look at than condos or a golf course. Logging, fishing, apples, and sheep have all virtually gone. I guess we should be grateful for the wine tourists for our incomes these days. This land has taken care of six generations of our family but who knows about the future? Wine seems to be the only answer at this point.”
The AVA? “I don’t buy it but get it off Christy every week. I like it and it has always been very good to me — and they finally spell ‘Reilly’ correctly. Bruce is generous in his comments about the Lions Club and his wife Ling was very helpful to me when I was on the CSD. I only read items about the Valley or things written by people in the Valley.”
I asked Christine whom she would vote for Mayor if such a position existed. “Well most of the candidates I would pick have passed on. I’ll go with Bill Holcomb. He has the car, can certainly talk, and I believe he would see both sides to most discussions.”
Over the past 20 years Travel has played a large role in Christine’s life. “I have been to many places around the world, mostly by myself with an organization called Overseas Adventure Travel — in groups of no more than twelve, staying at little hotels often off the beaten path. Sometimes I have gone with friends such as Joanie Clark or Eileen Pronsolino. I have been all over Western Europe, parts of Africa, India, Australia, Russia, South America, the Caribbean, Cambodia — the killing fields, and China. I’m off to Belgium and Holland next March for a river trip with Eileen Pronsolino. In the States I have not traveled as much. I do go to the Columbia Sheep Association annual meeting every year, wherever that may be. I’d like to go to South Africa and Antarctica would be great too. Knowing I am able to travel makes me feel good. I know I have the freedom although only for two weeks at a time. My mother’s big journey was to Jack’s Store this side of Philo.”
I posed a few questions from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert” Bernard Pivot, featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”
Favorite word or phrase? “I can do it — I will do it”:
Least favorite word or phrase? “That would be the opposite — saying ‘I can’t’ doesn’t sit well with me.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Nature. Looking out of the windows here and watching it all. The changing of the seasons. Animals in general inspire me, reviving an almost dead lamb is a wonderful feeling. I should have been a vet. I guess I am as I do all that around here. I also often cherish just being alone. I entertain myself.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Loud noises. Too many people talking is annoying. I enjoy social groups but like knowing I can go home and be alone. I do not have a cell phone.”
Sound or noise you love? “The wind in the trees, running water — not a leaking pipe though.”
Sound or noise do you hate? “Cell phones ringing; that ‘bumble bee’ noise of small motorcycles; a jet ski on a lake disturbing a nice picnic; traffic at night if I am away. I am not used to it and it is very annoying; oh and the awful, ungodly sound of a coyote making a kill.”
What is your favorite curse word? “Growing up on a ranch alongside my Dad, I know them all but I never use them in front of other people. However I do swear with the best of them to myself. Sheep will make you swear too.” Christine then shared her favorite curse word/phrase with me and told me I was probably the first person to hear her say that for years, except the sheep of course!
Film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “Well what has influenced me in the last few years is the work of artist Georgia O’Keefe. I am fascinated by her and will definitely go and visit her museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico and take a class there of some sort.”
Favorite hobby? “Traveling is certainly my favorite, and then when I am in the right place I just love to snorkel. I never want it to stop, it’s incredible. My favorite spot is Roatan Island off Honduras but I have also done the Great Barrier Reef in Australia where the Giant Clams were amazing, and I’ve seen stingrays in the Caribbean, and swam alongside seals off the Galapagos Islands in the south Pacific. That is when I am happiest. I don't watch much television but when I do I like to watch the nature and travel channels. My favorite is Anthony Bourdain’s travel and food program. I like his attitude and personality. I’d like to go and see him in Santa Rosa when he comes.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “A vet. Helping animals in some way.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “A dairy or chicken farmer.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “I am happiest right now, at this time of my life. I love what I do each day and have my family here.”
Saddest? “The deaths of my parents.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself — physically/mentally/spiritually? “That I feel I can do anything I want to do if it presents itself to me. That I am self-sufficient and very resilient and not a whiner. There is nobody to listen anyway.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “‘Hi and welcome, Christine.’ And I would say, ‘Hi, now where’s the tennis court and Libby’s restaurant? And please don’t show me the sheep barn, I’ve done enough of that’!”
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Pete Boudoures, patriarch of the Valley’s Boudoures Family.)