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Anderson Valley in the 1950s

When I was about eight years old and living at Brown's Mill Camp, I kept begging my parents for a bicycle for my Christmas present. They told me they couldn't afford such an expensive present. I believed them because I knew they couldn’t. Still, on that wonderful Christmas morning in 1950 when I woke up and went into the living room, I saw a beautiful new shiny red Schwinn bicycle. It was the best Christmas of my life.

My mother told me later, “I went to the store with Cloi Burchfield and ran my face for the bicycle. The store owner asked me what kind of car I had and I told him what it was. He put the make of the car and its year on a card and asked me to sign my name, which I did. We took the bike outside and tied it to the top of the car to take it home.

 “Mary, do you know that you mortgaged your car to buy that bicycle?” Cloi asked.

Mary said, “No.”

But Cloi assured her, “That's what you did so don't miss a payment.”

“I was scared,” my mother remembers, “because we had to pay $10 a month for five months to buy that $50 bike. But, your daddy and me were both happy we got the bike for you when your face lit up so happy that Christmas morning. You rode that bike all day and went to sleep hanging on to the bike beside your bed each night for about three weeks.” 

In 1950, the Holcombs moved to Anderson Valley from Tulare in Central California. Bill Holcomb stayed in Tulare with family friends and worked at the Tulare Theater to pay his way through his remaining junior and senior years at Tulare High School. He told me recently, “Ken, my family had moved around so much and I went to so many schools I wanted some stability. I wanted to stay with the friends I had made and finish high school where I had started. Bob Mathias and Simm Innis were seniors at Tulare High School when I was a freshman. And, both of those guys won gold medals in the 1948 Olympics. Bob won the decathlon event (twice) and Simm won the shot put competition.”

“As it happens,” I replied, “Simm Innis and I became friends when I coached at Porterville College because we worked in the same PE Department and I taught his granddaughter Sally Berra how to play tennis. Isn't it a small world sometimes?”

Bill Holcomb came to the Valley in 1952, and in a couple of years he married the beautiful Eva Pardini. Bill and Eva Holcomb have always been a positive influence in Anderson Valley. Bill's grandsons, the Toohey brothers, were fine football linemen at AVHS. And Bill’s younger brother, Gerald, was a fierce defensive tackle at AVHS in the 50s. Gerald married Betty Standridge from Arkansas. 

Charles “Chili” Bates was another Arkie who moved to Boonville in l947. Chili, too, first worked in the mills in the Sierras near Nevada City before moving on to Anderson Valley. He’d fought in WWII as a sergeant in the Air Force in Europe. Chili was an excellent poker player and had won $5,000 playing cards in Europe, which he sent home in $100 increments to his family to save for him when his enlistment was over. The military only allowed a limited amount of dollars to be sent home at one time. 

Chili quickly met another WWll vet in Anderson Valley named Bob Rawles who had been a captain in the Army. The two men worked for Bob's father, Robert Rawles, in the grapes then being tried out on a fairly large scale in Boonville on what is now the grounds of Anderson Valley High School. They drove trucks filled with grape stakes and helped to pound the stakes into the ground. Chili Bates and Bob Rawles were as close as brothers for the rest of their lives.

In 1954, Chili married Peggy Hollifield who was from Hopper, Arkansas (Hollifield country), and Chili was from Norman, Arkansas. Peggy's father, Claude Hollifield, was Buster Hollifield's brother. Claude operated a plainer mill near Buster's mill two miles north of Philo. 

Soon Chili put his $5,000 to work purchasing logging equipment and Peggy Bates became our highly esteemed post mistress.

One of our Valley's best musicians and most loved characters is Billy Owens who may be from Arkansas or Oklahoma, depending on who you talk to, including Billy himself. He set chokers for Chili, a tough and dangerous job that involves wrapping a haul chain around a downed tree wherever it might be. In those days, Billy worked hard on weekdays and partied hard on the weekends. And every Monday morning, Billy would tell Chili, “I don't feel like working today — I quit.” 

Chili would say, “It’s OK to quit Billy. But, you can't quit in the morning. You've got to quit in the evening.”

Billy would work all that day and, of course, after Monday, he would be in good shape and raring to go and work very hard until Saturday came. That would be Chili's and Billy's weekly logging routine until the rains came ending the logging season for the year.

Billy Owens was the finest, the most excellent beer drinker I have ever known or, in fact, have ever heard about. And, he was a very mellow drinker. One time in the early sixties, I had heard that Billy Owens could chug a six-pack of beer in one minute, but, I doubted that he or anyone else could do that. I once challenged him. “I’ll bet you six beers that you can't drink them all in one minute.”

Billy, without hesitating, confidently replied, “Line the beers up on the counter.” 

I bought the beers and lined the filled glasses up on the bar. Billy seemed to inhale those six beers in much less time than the minute allotted to him, celebrating his easy victory over skeptical me by walking on his hands all around the bar.

Billy told me and “Mouse” Morse at the Redwood Drive-in about a month ago that he felt his best drinking feat took place at the Floodgate Store many years ago. Billy said, “I ate one dozen boiled eggs that were peeled and drank a six-pack of beer poured into glasses in 59 seconds. And, quite a few people saw me do that.” Billy continued, “The trick was to crunch the eggs quickly and keep inhaling the beer to wash down the eggs so I wouldn't choke. You have to take lots of deep breaths and let the air out like deep sea divers and then open your throat and suction the beer in.”

This is a remarkable man, and I haven’t even talked about his music. 

After a few years of logging, Chili sold his logging equipment and he and Bob Rawles and mill owner Twink Charles joined forces to form C.B.R. (Charles, Bates, and Rawles) which became a powerful local realty company. Twink Charles owned 50% of the company, Chili Bates 25% and Bob Rawles 25%.

It was Twink Charles who insisted that they build the Boonville Airport in 1961 because Twink had a plane and loved to fly. C.B.R. purchased property and subdivided the property and sold the lots all over The Valley. They did right well by themselves and us, having created many of today’s Valley neighborhoods.

When the men in The Valley decided they were going to bring television in they had to raise funds to pay for the necessary equipment. Chili Bates and Buster Hollifield went to Twink Charles' lumber mill office and told Twink they needed a donation from him “to do some good for all the Valley people.” Twink didn't ask a single question about his donation. He just told his secretary to write out a check for $5,000. And, that was the first donation that was given to bring Channel 13 into Anderson Valley in the early 1950's.

The equipment was installed far up on a ridge of the Johnson Ranch almost due east of Eva Johnson’s house at the intersection of highways 128 and 253. Buster Hollifield, Smokey Blattner, Chili Bates, and many other Valley men did the work. From the Valley floor, you can often see the afternoon sun glint off the roof of the structure housing the equipment. A few years later, a second channel was fed into the Valley and squabbling over what program to watch began to be heard in more than a few Valley homes.

My dad could never explain to me (to my satisfaction) how a picture could come through those lines and bounce from the television transmitting equipment on the mountain above Boonville into our TV. He grew frustrated trying to explain the phenomenon. “I’m not talking about it any more. And I wish we only had one channel so you couldn't argue about what to watch.”

Buster Hollifield owned an airplane before Boonville had an air strip. He kept his plane in Gowan's barn near where the Anderson Valley Farm Supply is located now. One of the first times he landed the plane was almost the last time he landed it. Buster put down in the field just west of the Horn of Zeese, but the wheels of the plane got caught in the grass and it flipped over. Buster wasn't hurt and the plane only needed to be tipped back to its upright position by some of the men watching the show from the highway. After straightening out a few crooked angles, Buster flew off again.

Often, when the spring grass was high on his unofficial landing strip, Buster would  land his plane on the straight stretch of the highway in front of (now) Anderson Valley Farm Supply and taxi on it to Gowan's barn.

Buster was also the first man in the Valley to purchase a powerful bow and arrow set because hunting regulations allowed an archer to start his hunting season a few weeks earlier than the rifle hunters. Unknown to the men who frequented The Last Resort saloon in Philo, Buster had spent some solitary time target practicing with his bow and arrows. One Saturday afternoon, Buster strolled into The Last Resort with his quiver of arrows strapped on to his back and his bow in his hand and ordered a beer. Some of the men said, “Buster, you ain't going to get a buck with that thing 'cause the arrows won't go straight enough. There was a thin metal plaque hanging on the back wall at one end of the saloon. Buster pulled an arrow from his quiver, threaded the arrow into the taut string, pulled hard on the string and drove an arrow straight through the metal plaque, nailing it dead on to the wall. The plaque with the arrow through it were still hanging on that barroom wall when the place closed for the last time.

To prove that his indoors bowmanship wasn’t simply a lucky shot, Buster then walked out on to Highway 128 and silently pointed to a telephone book hanging down from the pay phone at what is now Lemons’ Market. With his audience from the bar looking on,  Buster fired an arrow across the highway, putting it right through the telephone book and pinning it to the corner post of the store. “You boys don't have to buy me a drink for the show, but one of you ol’ boys are going to have to replace that phone book.” 

It seems that Buster never did shoot a deer with his bow. He explained to me that “When you get close enough to kill a deer with a bow you can see into its eyes, and it was just too personal.”

The men of those days were working hard in the mills and the woods and playing hard too. Sawdust was flying all over the Valley, mixed with the smoke and soot from the lumber mills' big burners where the slag heap waste and bark from the logs met their ends in the constant fires in the pits of the huge burners. In the mountain timber, the cats gouged out dirt roads and the dust rose in heavy clouds that coated the cat skinners and choker setters while they worked. At the end of the day, the faces of the workers from the woods would be layered with so much dust only their blinking eyes and wet lips were visible.

The mill workers' hands would be stained purple from handling the raw redwood lumber. The workers from the mills and the timber would meet at the saloons and down a couple of cold brews and leave quickly for home to do chores and eat meat and beans for dinner and then fall off in an exhausted slumber — tomorrow would come early and they’d have to do it all over again.

Chili Bates lived through WWII, won $5,000 as the war wound down playing poker, then drove to California and won the hand of his Peggy. He was successful as a logger, a businessman, a father, and a husband. Within a decade of his arrival in Anderson Valley, he had metamorphosed from a grape worker to a land developer with his good friends at C.B.R. Like Buster Hollifield, Chili had vision and skill and luck. Also, as Buster's wife, Ruby, was his perfect partner, and Peggy was Chili's perfect partner. Chili's $5,000 poker winnings combined with his guts made Chili's trip from Norman, Arkansas, to Anderson Valley toward a golden California dream a reality.

Chili and Peggy Bates were married for 47 years before Chili's death three years ago. These days, Peggy helps care for her next door neighbor, Barky Rawles Korpela, who was Chili's best friend's wife. Chili and Peggy raised two successful sons, Clay and Gary. After I got my red Schwinn bicycle, I became a bike rider every day. I would put my little dog, Gussie, that Sam Adams had given me at Merritt's Mill, beneath my tightly belted shirt, and take off on long rides. When I saw an interesting place, I would take Gussie from beneath my shirt and we would explore the streams and deep woods. 

From Brown's Mill located near the very end of Ornbaun Road, we school kids would walk the road that then led from our mill camp across Anderson Creek to what is now Anderson Valley Way but what used to be the highway through the Valley where we caught the school bus. The road is now a private lane at Steve and Pippa Hall’s place. Across the street are the homes of Peggy Bates and Barky Rawles. In the late 1950s there was a bridge across Anderson Creek that connected Ornbaun Road to Anderson Valley Way; it was destroyed in the great rains and floods of 1964.

When we crossed the creek in those days between the mill camp and the highway that is now Anderson Valley Way, we would have to place piles of stones strategically in the creek so we could use wooden planks to stretch to the stone piles that would allow us to walk and jump across the water to keep from getting wet. 

In the winter my dad was almost always the first person to try to drive across that high water creek. Often we would get stuck and have to be towed out. My mother would always get mad at my dad for the annual folly, but he loved to try to cross that creek when the water was up. If the water was too high in winter, Brown's Mill kids would have to walk to Mountain View Road to catch the school bus.

When springtime arrived, there were Indian red peaches in a tree at the bus stop on Anderson Valley Way and another tree laden with green sour cherry plums. The deep red fleshy peaches were the best peaches I’ve ever enjoyed.

At the Elementary School there was a Mr. Coffee who taught (I think) eighth grade. Mr. Coffee once informed my mother, “Mary, there are some of these old time families who don't want you outsiders in this school because they feel you haven't paid taxes. But you have. Every time you buy something, you pay a tax. Don't you let anybody tell you different. As long as I am here, all of you folks will be treated well.”

“And he was right,” my mother recalled. “When you went to elementary school and junior high school, we couldn't ask for a better group of teachers.”

I loved school, and I loved my teachers. Any trouble I got into was my own fault. And I did stand with my nose in a chalk circle on the blackboard fairly often when my humor wasn't funny to the teacher. I was the class clown. I remember with amazement hearing late in my life that Elinor Clow, one of my teachers, was legally blind. I remember whispering something to a friend; Mrs. Clow somehow heard me, instantly appeared at my desk, grabbed me by the ear and hauled me on tiptoe to the blackboard and made me write 100 times: “I will not talk in class.”

I recently told Norm Clow about his mom’s remarkable vigilance. “Oh, so now I know where she got her practice; she would sure find my ear too.” 

In the summers, I’d get my red Schwinn and put my dog Gussie under my shirt and go blackberry picking with two half gallon lard buckets, one on each handlebar. At first I would get all the that were visible and easy to reach. As the summer wore on, I would put wooden planks on the vines to get the berries deep in the patch.I would pick two buckets in the morning for Mrs. Weise to make blackberry cobbler or pie in her Boonville restaurant. In the afternoon, I would pick a bucket for Tony who had the little store named Tony's just north of the elementary school. (I think his name was Tony Parducci.) I sold each bucket (except at home) for 50¢ and made $1.50 per day. I would read comic books at Weise's Restaurant (Batman was my favorite) and I would always buy a root beer float at Tony's. After picking blackberries, I would always go swimming with Gussie in the river with my Levis on, then take my shirt off after the last swim and dry off in the wind and the sun as I pedaled home.

One Comment

  1. George Hollister January 27, 2020

    Ken, good piece, even if it was written 20 years ago.

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