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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Bill Harper

A couple of Saturdays ago, and in a significant break with ’tradition’, Bill somehow managed to get an invite to my house to do his interview and after opening a couple of beers we sat down and began out chat...

Bill was born on Labor Day 1954 in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the older of two children, sister Lynn came along a year later, born to parents Wallace Harper and Doris Inez Eddings. “My father’s side were of Scottish/English descent but had moved to this country many generations earlier and around the 1870’s they had settled in the Ouachita mountain region in south central Arkansas – as a result my heritage on that side is highly dubious and I never did find out much about the curly-haired aunts my grandmother didn’t like to talk about. With the extreme prejudice of the time, people arriving in Arkansas at that time had to declare their race and they would change their racial identity designation, as there was a big advantage to be gained from doing this. My grandfather and his family settled in the Bryant/Malvern area and he worked on the Mississippi Central Railroad cutting the grass alongside the tracks with mule drawn mowers. He later became a pit boss in the clay mines where there was a brick factory — a cushy job, and my grandmother would take him his lunch and he’d often be fast asleep at work.”

On his mother’s side their ancestors were English who had also been in the country for several generations, eventually settling in the Ozark mountain area of northern Arkansas. “My maternal grandparents had a two hundred acre subsistence farm and when my mother was a child they grew cotton. It was a hard lifestyle, the ground was poor and they could not afford any workers so the children had to work. In 1908, when my grandmother, Viola Lyles, was eight years old, the family went to Oklahoma in an ox- pulled wagon to make a claim on Indian land but this was denied, as their Indian identification had not been maintained over the years. From around 1880 on, you would get $5 and some tobacco for registering in West Memphis, Arkansas but that was a twenty-day ride, you had to feed your mule, and you were probably going to be robbed. Besides, there were no other benefits in being Indian so they had not registered and now they could not get the land. My grandparents eventually moved on from cotton and when the kids grew up they had cattle that were hand-milked and the milk sold to the Kraft Company for their cheese. However, my grandfather was never willing to mortgage the farm and so they always had horses, never tractors – I learned to milk cows and hitch a team of horses when I was twelve.”

Both of Bill’s parents went to college. “My mother put herself through college at the Arkansas State Normal School in Conway, where she got straight A’s – ‘I was not going to pick cotton anymore!’ she said. She was two years older than my Dad and she graduated and got a teaching job in Rolla, Missouri, where he was attending the University of Missouri, School of Mines. They met up and were married and then my Dad got a job with the university of California in Los Alamos as a ceramics engineer working on the bomb and nuclear technology. My sister and I were both born there but when I was two, in 1956, we moved to Murrieta, Georgia where Dad worked for Lockheed developing missiles. We had a very nice lakeside home with wraparound porch, television and a maid.”

The family moved again in 1959, when Bill’s father began work at Lockheed’s facility in Palo Alto, near to San Jose in northern California. They settled there and the Bay Area and the south peninsular is where Bill went through all of his schooling, with his mother continuing in her teaching profession. “The schools around where we lived, near to Stanford University, were excellent and I did have an ideal childhood. I had the benefit of very good schools coupled with that depression-era ethics I received at home... My parents divorced when I was eight and my mother went on to get her masters in education while dad carried on ‘launching missiles, saying in his defense, ‘as soon as it is two feet of the ground it doesn’t belong to Lockheed. It is owned by the CIA, NASA, whatever. With my mother being a teacher she would have the summers off and every other year we’d go Arkansas to see family and I’d learn ‘country skills’ such as hunting, fishing, horse work, and catching hens and putting them in the stew pot. I got to eat fried chicken and sip cold sodas after catching chickens in the dark – eight at a time, twp trips back to the truck and you had sixteen in a full coop. Twelve years old and being a man – it was great! I went to lots of Giants baseball games and Stanford football, and played Little League baseball. When we stayed in the area for the summers we did not go to Arkansas, Mom would take classes through the University of California in the Sierras and kids were welcome to go too and I got a big dose of nature and the natural sciences, plus my parents had taken us camping many times. That and the summers in Arkansas, both gave me a love of the countryside, and ultimately resulted in me being here now. Those summers were great – we caught chickens and hauled hay communally; work was shared – both the labor and tools, plus we were fed really well!”

Bill attended Awalt High School in Mountain View but didn’t really like school that much. “Well, not until I had been to Europe, drank beer, and lightened up on myself and realized that I was not the center of the universe. I got over myself, I guess. There were the usual factions at school – the pot-smokers who got good grades, the lawn crawlers who smoked and didn’t. I hung out with the outdoor nerds who smoked and got A’s and my grades improved to solid B’s. I ran cross-country and that took the place of playing the saxophone, which I had done for several years. As I said, one summer, when I was fifteen I went to Europe for six weeks with a teacher and eight students from the Palo Alto School system. The Mormon Church organized these visits and students from all over the country went so we got to know kids from other states. I remember there was a questionnaire for the parents that asked if their kids could date, drink, or smoke – cigarettes that is. My folks said dating and drinking were fine; generally speaking the Midwestern kids were told they could only smoke. They couldn’t date or drink. That always amused me.”

In 1970, with the Vietnam War still raging, graduation was still two years off yet Bill’s mother was already looking into jobs in Canada. “I only found that out ten years ago. It was a tough time in this country obviously – watching the life go out of people as their kids and loved ones didn’t come home. Around then, they ended the college deferment and the lottery began. I graduated early, in January 1972, and decided to go and see my Dad in Europe where he was bumming around after being laid off work. I had no real plans. I had maintained a B-average – that was fine withy me. I have always settled for that kind of performance – if I finished fortieth in a race of eighty that would be fine with me. I am certainly not an over-achiever. Anyway, my Dad had been absent during my adolescence – a period of low self-esteem. I had issues at that time but was now much improved and he was now more involved – he would lend me his Porsche and give me a six-pack of Lowenbrau beer to go with it and have fun... We traveled in Britain and France, drinking beer together, and I developed a palate for better beers on that trip.”

On his return to the south Bay, Bill was pleased to discover that the High School Ecology class had taken off and was now involved in recycling materials for the city of Los Altos so he took a truck driving job with them while taking classes in geology and anthropology at Foothills Junior College. “The recycling business took off and was very lucrative. I moved into a house with friends, cycled to work and after a few months we were able to give ourselves a raise as well as donating money to ecological causes. It was a collectively run business and I was one of the main five people involved – the principal truck driver and mechanic... Around that time, following my trip to Europe, I taught myself to make beer and made some at home, which was actually before Governor Reagan changed the existing law and made it legal to do so... Then in late 1972, the driver whose job I had taken over wanted some help building a house up in Comptche, beyond Anderson Valley. I had been to Ft. Bragg as a youngster, camping with my parents and riding the Skunk Train so I was vaguely familiar with the area. I started to come up on weekends and help with the house on Orr Springs Road and during this period I began to think seriously about moving up this way.”

Meanwhile, back in Los Altos, the garbage company was angry with the recycling company for taking their business and some stores were canceling the garbage company’s service. “I went out one morning at 3am and caught the garbage company taking cardboard left for us at the back of a store. We had a showdown meeting and we won the right to continue. I had decided I had no use for further schooling at that point – I had a well-paid job and was doing something worthwhile. However, by this time I really wanted to move to the countryside and lots of my friends were moving away from the city area. I went to Arkansas for six months and built a house for my Mom on the backside of the family farm so that she would have somewhere to live close by to her mother, as she got too old to look after herself. I then spent the next five years working a variety of blue-collar jobs in northern California – a forklift driver, in a motorcycle shop, a property manager, driving a tractor – mostly unskilled labor jobs. One of the jobs was part-time at the Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico on their bottling line – not because I knew how to make beer however... I had enough money for a down payment on a house but never a steady, reliable job. My mother aid she was going to retire in a couple of years and said she would pay for me to go to college then or the opportunity would be gone.”

As a result, in 1982 at the age of twenty-nine, Bill started at UC Davis studying Viticulture. He graduated in 1985 and went to live and work in Napa where he was a vineyard technician for a couple of years. “I had studied the grape and making wines and found myself in tasting rooms and on bottling lines at some really nice wineries, which was fine for a time but I could never have afforded to buy property there. Then in 1987 the parents of a friend of mine from college, John Farrington, bought some vineyards just outside Boonville (Farrington Vineyards), the vineyards towards the hills on the right as you first leave town heading north. They needed a vineyard manager and I took the job and moved to the Valley... This was the Farrington’s first vineyard and my first management job – it didn’t work out – barely for one crush/harvest. I quit... I bounced around on a few people’s couches but decided to commit to living up here even without a job and rented a place in Comptche in the fall.”

In January 1988 the Anderson Valley Brewery opened its brewpub doors as The Buckhorn Saloon in the heart of Boonville. “I was talking to one of the new owners, David Norfleet, and the other one, Ken Allen, had been talking to the people at Sierra Nevada Brewery and the guy there mentioned that there was ‘one of our guys’ now living in Boonville. He approached me and I took the job as brewer. Even if I so say myself I do have the knack or the touch for brewing beer... This move was very good for me. I am a ‘hermit’ to some degree and this new place was the only show in town apart from The Boonville Lodge so I got to meet many people. Apart from having a drink after work I also took on the coast sales route twice a month and got to know people out in Mendocino, Elk, Little River, and Albion too.”

The business went very well although there was a big turnaround in staff at the restaurant. Bill continued to meet people and was soon friends with those involved with the Magic Company – particularly Henry and Rainbow Hill and also the group that played ‘Jungle ball’ at the Cheesecake property. “The Grange had burned down and people across the whole spectrum of the Valley came together to rebuild it. I began to get a real sense of the community, with different kinds of people getting together for the communal good, and decided to buy ten acres on land in the Rancho Navarro development where I put a trailer to stay in. I had grown up with that sense of community in Arkansas and it was happening here.”

By 1992, it was time to move on from the Brewery. “In some ways it was not easy working there. I found a much more lucrative job on the bottling line at Navarro Vineyards — better paid than the brewing position at the Brewery. I liked wine and although I continued to drink at the brew pub, this was a good move for me.”

Bill became vineyard manager and stayed at the winery for three years before deciding to move on again for various reasons and he found work at different construction sites. By 1993, he had become involved with the Magic Company’s shows and by 1994 he had a shell of a house on this property and socially, He had also been making beer at home with a brewing and wine-making partner, Bill Rafael, with whom he also dove for abalone. Then he moved into vineyard management with Steve Williams for a year and was also hired to run the local recycling center at the high school, which effectively led to the County being “shamed into picking it up at the County Dump.”

In 1997, Bill decided to help some contractor friends out in San Francisco on various building projects and for a year or so he was splitting time between the Bay Area and his “bachelor shack” in the Valley. By this time he had paid off his mortgage and decided to travel in the southwest (Utah, New Mexico, and Texas) and southern California, which he has tried to do every spring since, while supporting himself with odd jobs in the Valley. In1999, with gas so cheap at the time, he traveled even more in that area and joined a desert hiking/activist group.

“We do 100-mile back packing trips into the desert. In 2000 I met Robyn on one of the easier trips and we began to date. She was living in Castroville by Santa Cruz and we took a number of long vacations together. I had become involved in the Variety Show in the Valley by that time and doing odd jobs to bring in a little income, but basically doing what I wanted to do for the past ten years or so. We got married in 2008 and in 2009 she retired from her social services job in Gilroy and moved up here full-time, which she likes very much. Her moving in led to lots of upgrading at the house in the last two years to a nice home from its previous bachelor pad status...She has been through a tough few years with both parents and one of her two sons passing over a relatively short period of time. She has become involved in a number of Valley organizations and I have followed her. We are in the Lions Club, The Grange, and behind the scenes in the Variety Show and Magic Company.”

Bill has also become a passionate desert activist in recent years particularly, writing letters to the Bureau of Land Management protesting the plans to install solar facilities in untrammeled desert areas. “They plan to disturb vast areas of land covering seven western states. These are public lands and the wildlife and ancient trees will be destroyed. It is basically a big land grab by the likes of Chevron, BP, etc, etc. These installations will be triple the cost of roof top solar, the charges will be passed on to the consumer, and the land will be destroyed forever.”

I asked Bill what he most liked about life in the Valley. “The people and their attitude – not everybody but the vast majority certainly.”

Anything he didn’t like? “Well there seems to be too many people with too much silly money but that is the same story all over the country at this time, while many others go short.”

How about an image or memory of his parents? “Well I can vividly see my Dad at our wedding in his cowboy hat. That will always be with me. And I have a very strong memory of my Mom driving the Studebaker across the desert and at the same time reaching into the back seat to slap us kids in the back seat.”

What about the wineries and their impact? “The sheer volume is the problem. There is no diversity now but they are doing more or less the same as other industries before them. Besides, the solar panels and dope growing have enabled as much tree felling and water extraction as them and the large-scale marijuana growers are just as destructive in terms of the environment.”

The AVA? “It is a necessary evil. I meet many reporters on my travels and in my dealings as an activist and every one of them has heard of it.”

KZYX radio? “Well it sure needs some fresh something. I don’t like its general direction and it seems like there are fewer and fewer local people with programs.”

The local school system? “We just don’t spend money on schools like we used to. Having said that, do we need to give money to the knuckleheads in charge?”

Drugs in the Valley? “We’re American; drugs are us.”

Changes in the Valley? “The Hispanic influence has been a part of my life always so that is no different for me. I’m not so sure about the British, French, and German though!” (Bill was chuckling loudly at this comment.)

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on television’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? “A cup of coffee in the morning.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Well I try very hard to not think about the negative...”

Sound or noise you love? “A faint breeze through the trees.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Rich people whining.”

Favorite food or meal? “Real Texas pit bar-b-q.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Derham Giuliani — the entomologist, naturalist, and all round desert rat.”

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? – “Some naturalist books; some beer and wine; and a pipe-load perhaps.”

Favorite word or phrase? “Thank you.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “No problem.”

Favorite hobby? “I don’t have one. That’s a problem. I used to dabble in model railways and making beer and wine. Not any more, although I did run the still with David Norfleet a year or so ago and we made some plum wine, cider, and some eau de vivre/water of life. You know what I mean…”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “A real field entomologist or naturalist.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “In the defense industry, making the machines of war.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “It was on that trip to Europe in 1969 when I was 15. I took a girl from St. Louis to a led Zeppelin concert in Frankfurt, Germany.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I wish I had kept up my saxophone playing, or the piano.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Getting married.”

Saddest? “When the children of friends have died.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “My sense of humor. I try to keep things light.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well I think he’d order an emergency gate closure in the belief that the database had been compromised. But if I did get to talk to him and ask a few questions I’m pretty sure I’d soon be looking for a bus going the other way.”

To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Judith Dolan, Director of the AV Health Center.



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