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Bill Witherell: Friend & Neighbor

This reporter and his consort arrived in Navarro on 31 March, 1971. Over prior months we had rented a small cabin above the dump on Pine Mountain, Cloverdale and spent the winter exploring Sonoma and Mendocino counties looking for raw land to plant grapes on. The Ingram Ranch, Navarro, was the only piece of ground that combined both the right climate for my ambitions and an affordable price.

I still remember much of the first twenty four hours of homelife here in Loren Bloyd's two bedroom cottage on 128 between Salmela and Ingram. First morning in 5:30 AM darkness we woke up to the sound of a constant flow of auto traffic passing by. What had happened; was I back in the city listening to the Freeway? No, later I found out April 1 was the opening morning of the abalone season.

Later that day we went out to explore the local stores. First stop was Floodgate, the bar, sawshop, convenience store and gas station a mile away. The proprietress, a handsome late middle-aged woman with a rich German access welcomed the two hippies with a warm smile of inquiry for our credentials. Later that afternoon sitting at the bar we found out she was Margaret Avery, born Steyr in Alsace, the owner-manager of the business.

A couple of hours into the morning we went down to Navarro Store in the village where we met three old ladies running this establishment, one an aristocratically gracious Betty Zanoni, German-Jewish, and her sisters-in-law Osana Pardini and Cynthia Modanesi. While we first time shoppers explored canned dinner opportunities, Betty came out of the back of the store, welcomed us to Navarro with the gift of a battered cookpot I still have on the kitchen shelf. Where have we ended up, the US or rural Europe?

By 1971 Navarro's size had considerably diminished after the mill closed back in 1928. The state highway population sign on the edge of town declared there to be 67 citizens in residence. Who knows what that meant for an unincorporated village, and today, almost fifty years later, Caltrans claims the population is still the same.

The first contacts with locals for us began immediately at the Floodgate Store bar, a key social center for Navarro and in fact the whole valley. Our pattern was a visit sometime after 5 PM, for an hour or so and a beer or two four or five days a week. Other regulars included Alvy Price, the retired tree faller, less regularly Cap Salmela, local rancher and faller.

Less frequent visitors from further away included characters like Reno Ciro from Comptche, who would get drunk, stand in front of the canned goods shelves and rave about what a gourmet delight Dinty Moore stews were. Marguerite Avery would reprimand Reno with a soft but authoritative "shut up, Reno, or go home..." No fooling around with Marguerite. Or Robin Bloyd, with Skippy and Mickey in tow. Their visits were infrequent but of long duration, three or four hours, let's say, intrusively boisterous, often to the point of Marguerite's firm expulsion order, which once included the mandate, "and don't come back, ever." Her barroom decorum standards presided.

Most exciting was the Friday afternoon after work visits from one or two of gyppo logging contractor Charlie Shuster's station wagon crummies conveying loggers from work to homes around the valley, six to twelve dusty men in cork boots exhausted from the work but ready to greet the weekend. The majority of the crews were Arkie and Okie immgrant valley folk who knew their country music and typically singing of the classics from Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams to Bill Monroe and Webb Pierce broke out under the direction of the elegant local tenor, Billy Owens.

That first summer in Navarro my consort brought her acoustic guitar down to Floodgate, Sam Avery deposited it behind the bar in easy reach of whomever needed it, and Billy grabbed it and began to play first thing he walked in the door. That late fall as the logging season was winding down, I sat down at the bar and noticed the guitar was gone. Sheepishly Sam explained that Friday nights at Floodgate was over. Turns out the crummies were proceeding from Floodgate to Janie's Place in Philo for a few more beers, then on to the Lodge in Boonville. Wives were phoning the Lodge to locate husbands late for dinner (no one was there, of course), then gyppo Charlie Shuster got wind of the crummies parked outside the Lodge after dark, and that ended Floodgate's version of Grand Ole Opry.

The first Navarro neighbor to become a friend was Bill Witherell living in a rental up Wendling Soda Creek Road. I can't recollect how we first met, but sense is that it had to do with my purchase from Sam Avery's Floodgate saw shop a key farming tool, the Homelite chainsaw.

Bill was the son of a first generation Boonville farm family whose place went from the Old Highway north of the cemetery up to the base of the hills east. Bill's dad was a typical "my way or the highway" Victorian farm parent, and he and his brother, Pete took the latter route. Bill became a skilled mill and woods heavy equipment operator, but also a self-taught master of virtually every craft that enabled country families to live sustainably off the mid-twentieth century "consumer society" grid.

When Bill and his wife Lena, born Gentile, moved to Navarro I don't know. I do remember how strong Bill understood his roots there and in the Valley as a whole were, as he regularly declared himself a homeboy who had never been south of Iversen Landing or north of Ten Mile in the county, though he did confess that during World War II the draft took him to the Army Air Corps bomber training base near Wichita, Kansas.

An odyssey which created another dramatic Bill Witherell adventure story having to do with Bill's only actual plane flight. At McConnell Airbase he was part of the ground crew whose daily job was to work in pairs preparing the parked and wheel-blocked bombers for officer flight training by starting their engines, then checking all the mechanical and electronic flight devices, steering, brakes, compass, and so on, following printed instructions. They completed the exercise with one partner's feet firmly on the brakes while the other cranked up the engine speed to the RPMs needed for a safe take-off, then winding the motor down and exiting the plane with the engine in idle.

So one morning as they worked their way through the bomber parking lot, Bill's partner started a speculation as they wound up a B 17's motor to max RPMs, "I wonder what happens if I take my feet off the brakes," and before Bill could offer a demur, he tries his experiment. The plane leaped almost straight into the air out of its wheel blocs, hurdled forward through the air about a hundred yards down the runway, and gently settled and rolled to a stop in front of the sergeant supervising the ground crews morning agenda.

After the necessary military command bluster the sergeant became appropriately forgiving of the bored enlisted men, thanked them for their good judgment in not doing anything more stupid once airborne, and Bill Witherell had for the rest of his life a wonderful story about his only airplane flight.

As we can see, Bill had an outgoing, gregarious personality with a strong curiosity about people different from him, such as hippies from the city like me. I think our first engagement was a business one having to do with solving the riddle of my chain saw flooding out. Bill was a small engine mechanic at the level of Sam Avery, the best saw filer I've met so far, but also could weld, solder, make posts and pickets with his wedge sets, fabricate small farm tools and machines in his shop, as well as being a careful home gardener and deer and robin hunter.

Our friendship evolved over that first year from small engines to his becoming my principle mentor in the skills required to build a vineyard from scratch using yourself as the sole labor force. First course was most important, constructing almost a mile of redwood post and steel stake deer fence, complete with gates. Industrial engineering of the simplest kind, but without Bill's instruction I never would have figured out the right post hole depth, soil back packing, cross bracing with wood and wire, fence stretching and hanging over ridges and across swales, and so on.

Or how to find the right kind of redwood salvage for making, instead of purchasing, fence posts and grape stakes. I can still feel the "pop" from the checker making 2 X 12" old growth boards from a log, then reducing them to pickets with the tiny wedges. Thank you, Bill, for the memories and the cost savings.

And firewood harvesting to fuel the wood stove that still heats my Navarro home. Bill taught me how to "read" a live oak tree for the straightness of the grain, ease of splitting, and the volume of wood needed to make it through a winter home heating season, what Bill called "money in the bank."

Bill the salvage expert and custom tool manufacturer also helped me lay out my first five acre vineyard bloc back in 1972 by fabricating out of scrap wood, an auto wheel and several hundred feet of woven wire a mounted "chain" with 250 feet of wire "line" wound onto the wheel, then locked in a wooden frame with handle supporting the wheel windlass. And with a soldered brass "button" every six feet on the chain to mark where to plant the grape. Half a day in his shop to complete the project, and he wouldn't let me pay him for it.

Bill the tool manufacturer had customized for his personal use a gasoline engine driven circular saw with a two foot blade, mounted on the back of a Ford Model A pickup truck. Let me explain. Bill began his firewood logging season in March, a couple of hours a week up above the dump harvesting large live oak limbs, and bucking them into eight foot lengths, all in one hardwood grove. Then one Saturday in late May, once the woods had dried out from the winter rains, he and his elite mill crew would assemble on the oak limbs log deck landing with the Model A and three pickup trucks.

The Model A became a mill when the rear axle was raised off the ground about four inches onto steel feet he'd put legs on and hinged onto the auto frame. Then steel rollers at either end of the saw axle were screwed down to make contact with the rear tires creating the sawblade drive line. The saw was mounted at waist height at the right end of the axle just outside the trucks's right tire. So when Bill put the gear box into second the saw ran at about 600 RPMs. Then on the back of the truck there was also a steel feeder table about a foot wide and maybe six feet long that was joined to the truck rear frame with very strong shock cords.

This was the order of battle for the milling workday: Bill turns the starter key, the mill fires up to a soft low hum. Bill, Brad and Bill's neighbor and woodsman companion, Leith Johnson, take turns lifting the long logs onto the table. One of us then feeds the limbs, with the assistance of the shock cords, firmly into the circular saw creating a non-stop pile of firewood on the ground to the right of the blade. The crew not feeding limbs was busy loading in turn the pickups, then driving down the hill a quarter mile to Bill's garage, the "bank." No stacking that day, just a quick unload then getting back on the hill.

The fourth member of the crew, Bill's brother-in-law, Danny Gentile, a gracious diabetic alcoholic, was charged with mill maintenance, which meant standing at the front of the Model A and slowly feeding its radiator with a coffee can of water to compensate for its irreparable leaks.

And so went the morning. Start time at 6 AM in the cool of the day, twelve loads of firewood probably 8 to 10 cords, at the garage by 11:30. To celebrate the success of the day Bill's wife, Lena, would serve up her gorgeous polenta, usually combined with either deer or robin meat in tomato sauce and pasta. Another Great Day in Navarro depositing "money in the bank."

The social side of my friendship with Bill was deer hunting. Like many Anderson Valley "old-timers" Bill had a respect for the law, but on his terms. Deer was a part of the family food source, and two a year was sufficient for their needs, including those of his son Don's, a teamster living in Napa town. And the hunting was divided into two segments, April through early August, the "early" season, and from September on until the ground was too wet to drive the 1946 open cab Ford jeep we used for transportation.

But hunting with Bill was more than for sustenance. It was also an exploration of local woods and streams and a story-telling and philosophical meditation event. Here's an extreme example. It's early June, going to be a warm day, so we depart my house here on the hill about 6:15 AM, head out south to Floodgate Creek, then to the main river and up to Clark's Crossing, try the gravel bed for safe vehicle fording across to the west side, decide not to head upstream to Hendy Woods today.

Back down the river, we head northwesterly to Cape Horn, then on to Mal Pass, down into Tramway Gulch, arriving at 128 at milepost 10.26, no gates, no locks. From there we go back to the Masonite Road at the North Fork, up that for three miles or so, then into Bob Dutchman Creek headed to Keane Summit. At Keane Summit we pick up the Albion Branch railroad right-of-way and head west, through the tunnel, cold and very damp, and on for miles til we notice the soil and tree cover begin to change.

The roadway gets closer to no grade, the soil is less humus, redwoods disappear and are replaced with hardwoods and Douglas Fir. Then on the right we see fifty feet in to the brush a lilac bush in bloom. We always explore the site again, an abandoned homestead with some myrtle and a couple of Digitalis plants (household remedy) around a wood house foundation, stone chimney remnant, and a septic system or outhouse hole and some rotting plumbing. We know we're close to our destination for the day.

Another hundred feet or so on the left and down on the flat sandy banks of Albion River headwaters, a shallow gravelly creek at least fifteen miles from home, is the sacred White Pumpkin Patch. Apparently the homesteader had planted and irrigated his squash here alongside the tiny stream way back when, probably no later than the 1920s. As the abandoned garden reseeded itself each winter, the hybrid squash, including acorn and banana, had reverted to being a soft, yellow/grey white. Magical.

Driving on another quarter of a mile took us to the end of our trail and at the headwaters of Albion River, now a gravelly stream with sandy shores, about ten feet across, maybe a foot deep and five miles from Highway 1. A taste of the water and it's time to turn around for home.

Sometimes our saga also included turning north onto a spur west of the tunnel and driving the right-of-way down to Melbourne Station, Tunzi Ranch along the Mendocino/Comptche road. That building, waiting and baggage rooms is a work of exquisite nineteenth century all wood rural American Gothic architecture today in excellent condition and converted into a home.

So by noon, we would be back in Navarro ready for lunch. A whole morning, at least thirty miles of travel, hours of rumination and reflection about life in Anderson Valley and perhaps other places in the world, and not a shot fired. Next time.

A closer and very efficient hunting destination at the end of the "Late Season" was the Reilly Place at the top of the hill northeast of Navarro village. A short drive, another old family farm featuring open pasture lands, house and barn today still standing, and a classic three acre apple orchard, stocked with about twenty different old New York State varieties from Gravenstein early on to the later Pippins, Baldwins and Macs, no fences.

And what views of the Valley and Greenwood Ridge west from up there. Plus beside our own shopping needs for apples for table and storage, there were the deer with weeks of fattening up on the grounders under every tree. Typically the hunt lasted five minutes, one shot and a swift field dress for transport down the hill to the hanging cooler, then an hour wandering around studying the artifacts of farm life in the earlier age, enjoying the Valley views, and wondering what the neighbors are up to from Salmela above Navarro to Rossi way out on Signal Ridge.

Bill and I were close friends and neighbors for over ten years. We worked together at the Philo Mill in 1972, he running the diesel crane that unloaded logs from trucks and stacked them in the log deck south of the head rig. He was the only person in the Valley who knew how to run the fifty year old machine, so job security was his. And his log deck was so beautifully constructed, about twenty feet high that the lunchroom he built out of a few offset logs seated six or eight employees and was naturally air-conditioned to 72 degrees when the temperature in the yard was one hundred.

Bill retired from the mill sometime in the mid-seventies, and immediately had a stroke that left him physically incapacitated, including some speech disability. We still enjoyed one another's company sitting on his front porch thinking about things, listening to Lena excoriate any passing neighbors' character, and having a glass of apple juice. Another stroke led to Bill and Lena moving from their Navarro rental home and living with his daughter-in-law Wilma on Fitch Lane, Boonville, the other side of Witherell Creek from where his life started on the family ranch.

I did visit Bill up there from time to time but with diminishing frequency. You know how far away from Navarro it is, and how those Boonters look down their noses at us Iteviller natives. And of course I think about him all the time as I go about my work here on the farm, or tell stories to my city friends and relatives about the Good Old Days. On the ranch road up to the vineyard there's a redwood tree planted in his honor fifteen years ago next to an empty Tokay Pop bottle he tossed out of his jeep one hunting morning back in the seventies. The accompanying Historic Site marker mounted on a grape stake reads "Friend, mentor Navarro Neighbor, 1971-85." Bill was all that and more.

Later on, as I thought back over the texture of our friendship and my gratitude for it, I also realized that there were perks in it for Bill too. One piece I mentioned earlier. It was a way for him to learn about elements of the larger world outside Anderson Valley via friendships with City People like me. And also there was the status among his local associates to have as a friend his very own loyal Pet College Kid, a rarity here in the Valley in those days.

Next week: The Rest of Navarro, Betty, Osana, Cynthia, Angelo, Emil, and the Navarro Inn.

Postscript: Thank you to the local reader who posted the letter in last week's Advertiser describing the Navarro "Ice House" cottage as having that name because it had once been a butcher shop with block ice stored somewhere in the building. That's the kind of shared recollection needed to reconstruct our heritage here in Anderson Valley in am also in pursuit of.


  1. Tom McFadden June 24, 2020

    Brad, this is really great. I came in 1973 and knew all these people, although not as well as
    you…Tom McFadden

  2. Ralph Witherell June 24, 2020

    Loved this recollection. My grandpa, Ralph Witherell, was Bill’s oldest brother. I visited the valley in my childhood, met the old timers from my family but never learned as much as I wish I could have about them. Your story touched me. Thanks!

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