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Navarro, 1971: The Rest of the Cast

Though in my last I described The Store as the geographical, economic and social center of the town in 1971, my consort and I soon learned to value the rest of the local inhabitants for what they gave us in the way of insights into their heritage and the craftsmanship of daily life in rural industrial America.

I've already memorialized my friendship with the woodsman Bill Witherell in a previous article.  Bill, fifty-five years old or so, and his wife Lena lived in the rental cottage up the Dump Road and across the street from the Counts School.  I described previously his workshop converted from a one car garage.  That place was also a museum to home craft tools, a bench mounted electric drill, wood-working lathe, electric soldering and welding devices, saw sharpening tools, and the smell of dust and oil.  And with the garage doors thrown open, it was also a social center, easily accommodating three or more other locals bent on exchanging the latest on the weather, too wet or dry, hot or cold, the idiosyncrasies of the local neighbors or of the latest newcomers from The City.

Next door up the hill in the Doctor's House, the three story, wooden pile, lived another kind of clan, the Jehovah's Witnesses.  I have forgotten their names and number, but they were three generations of kin, parents, children, a grandparent or two all presided over by this Old Testament Prophet of Fear patriarch who was also the Head of the Witness church in Boonville.  Today there are no Jehovahs left here, all died out, but in those days we in Navarro were afraid of them and never even made eye contact with them when encountered.

Except for a mother and daughter, Liz and Rebecca Tyler, what I called a Jack-Jehovah or late-comer to the community.  Liz was a charming blond single parent, living in an uninsulated, two story tumbledown wood-butcher shack along the highway next to the current David Dart's Luthier studio, raising her daughter with no visible income.  Liz had joined the Jehovah community church, it appeared to me, for social reasons rather than spiritual, to be part of a community kind in its way to lonely people.

My consort and I got to know Liz because we had inherited for a year or two her pre-teenage half-sister Rebecca, whom we parented and sent to local schools, much to our own pleasure and learning.  Rebecca and the daughter became good schoolfriends, including sharing overnights together, as kids that age still do.

One evening in May my consort and I took the risk of permitting the ten year old kids to "camp out" in the old Guntly barn along the highway.  They set up their campground in the horse stable area at the barn front, complete with sleeping bags, a dinner, and for illumination candles.  Apparently one of the Jehovahs drove by the barn that evening and noticed the candle array through its siding cracks.  A couple of days later The Prophet showed up on our doorstep to advise us Rebecca and the Tyler daughter were no longer to be friends; as it appeared the were conspiring to practice voodoo crafts in the barn.  We never did find out whether the Prophet had consulted with Mrs. Tyler before visiting us with his banishment decree.

Right behind The Store in downtown Navarro was the Mabery compound, a couple of cabins where lived an extended family presided over by the widow matriarch, Gladys, and included her children, some cousins, relationships I could never keep straight.  Gladys was the wife of a woodsman whose ancestors had migrated up The River from Hop Flat to Wendling/Navarro when the mill was in full operation.  The husband died before we came to town.

Gladys was a polite, kind person whom we got to know no more than to say "hello, how are you," when we encountered one another in The Store.  I did get to know her bachelor son, Dale, a logging company catskinner (tractor driver), partly at the Floodgate Store bar, partly in my first Anderson Valley poker club, which included, episodically, Bernard Avery, Skippy and Mickey Bloyd, David Pronsolino, Dale and me.  Our Club was over at Norris Pinoli's house near Christine Woods, rented by one of the bachelors I played cards with.  Very subdued, gossipy games, low stakes and lots of stories about the Valley's prominent characters.

One time on a Friday afternoon I was on my way to Jack's Valley Store to shop groceries for the weekend.  Entering the flat at Edmeades/Johnny Williams Ranch, now Navarro Vineyards, driving too fast, I see Dale's 1970 khaki-colored Ford station wagon lying upside down facing north in the Johnny Williams Ranch (now Navarro Vineyard) rams pasture.  And there's Dale standing on the road shoulder next to the guardrail hole his car had made in its flight into the field, dressed in a tee shirt, shorts, carrying a six pack of beer.

I pull off the road on the turnout space below Josie Brusa's house,  jump out of the car, and demand of Dale, "get in the car, be careful crossing the highway."  Dale shakes his head, so I cross over to his side and begin a dialectical discussion about driving and drinking.  Dale explains don't worry, the accident happened an hour ago, he'd gone home, taken a shower, changed his clothes, bought a sixpack at The Store and hitched back to wait for the tow truck to show up.

I won the argument though, repeating the get in my car argument, saying I'd call Kenny Maddux's garage in Philo and explain Dale's absence from the accident scene, and cover him with the CHP if necessary by taking responsibility for removing him from it for fear of concussion or other head injuries.  Reasonable soul that Dale was, he got in my car and we opened two beers and discussed the physics of that curve at Johnny Williams at 55 miles an hour.

Next to and behind the Mabery compound was and is a lovely two story wood frame house that literally straddles Wendling Soda Creek.  The building's origins go back to the early mill days, around 1906, according to Bobby Glover, local oral historian, and was both a home and a commercial photography  shop supported by the community.  When my consort and I arrived in Navarro the house was occupied by the old bachelor woodsman, also gifted oral historian, Alvy Price. Alvy was born in 1900 at Hop Flat down the River and migrated with his parents to Wendling when the mill opened.

We got to know Alvy early in our first year, as he as well as we was a regular patron at the Floodgate Store Bar.  In fact Alvy was the most regular patron at Floodgate we ever encountered.  More specifically each day at exactly 5:00 PM summer and winter, Alvy's 1970 half ton Chevy stepside pick-up passed by our house on the highway at precisely 35 miles per hour headed for Floodgate.

Alvy was a person, among other qualities, of orderly and disciplined lifestyle.  He only dwelled on the first floor of his home.  The kitchen and sitting room were in simple, complete order, dishes washed, dining ware laid out for the next meal, no dust on tables, etc.  In the front yard was his winter wood supply for the heater, each log, fifteen inches in length, resting on end against the stack, root side down, to facilitate the curing regime in preparation for winter.  Across the creek in the back yard Alvy had a modest, elegant home garden, the usual beans, squashes, peas and a surprisingly large section devoted to elephant garlic, which in early July filled the whole site with its rich aroma loved by so many of us.

At Floodgate Alvy daily parked his spotlessly clean pick up in the same place in the parking lot, sat in the same place in the bar, first stool on the right against the front window and directly across the bar from Sam Avery, proprietor, bartender and friend.  My consort and I always sat two stools to the left of Alvy so as not to make him feel intruded upon.  After a few months in attendance, I took the chance of interrupting the Alvy/Sam discourse to ask Alvy directly to qualify some historic reference he and Sam had made to local Deep End affairs.

Thus began the first year our relationship:  I would toss Alvy a question about something he and Sam would be discussing, Alvy would pass his answer to my query to Sam, and Sam would hand it back to us with his own amendments to the insight Alvy shared.

In our second summer in Navarro, 1972, we went to visit my parents Back East in suburbia, our first return there since moving to The Valley.  We were gone about a month that August, and of course the first afternoon of our return, we were at Floodgate to catch up on the local news.  A moment or so after we had mounted our usual barstools, ordered our $.15 beers, Alvy turned directly to me and said,  "where have you been these weeks; we were missing you ..."  Arguably the most important acceptance anointment of my life here in Anderson Valley.

As a local oral historian Alvy was an incredibly important one.  His perspective was not just historical but accurately, precisely technical.  So when he described how to fall in the pre-chain saw days a hundred thousand board foot old growth redwood, a project taking a team of two fallers a week, he would take one through each step of the process from building the brush and slash bed for the tree to prevent shatter upon hitting the ground, to constructing the springboard scaffolding that took the fallers as much as ten feet above the stump flare, to each step of making the undercut by axe and backcut with two man cross cut saws.  What an odyssey for one tree.

One day in the mid-seventies Alvy took my consort, now my wife down the Navarro to the site where he and his father spent two summers during World War I, growing potatoes on the Southern Pacific land along the Navarro.  During The War food shortages made prices attractive enough that the Prices profitably spent 1916 and 1917 living from planting to harvest farming potatoes, in a small businessman project more profitable than professional woodsman work.  Their farm was on the river bank just below Hop Flat village where his father migrated to Navarro from.

Today the flat is totally shrouded in a canopy of Redwoods,  spaced eerily in rows and echelons twenty feet in both directions because they were planted in 1924 as an experiment by the pioneering sustained yield forester Walker Tilley.  It's where the gauging station run by California Fish and Wildlife and maybe still Nature Conservancy is.  In 1916 it was a clear cut site with only stumps on a flat about ten feet above the River.

As we oriented ourselves to the garden layout under the trees, Alvy explained that the most important part of the planting process was building a redwood split stuff picket fence around the potatoes to protect them from the pervasive wild pig marauders that lived in numerous bands up and down The River, and in fact all over Mendocino County.  To show us where the actual river side of the fence was, Alvy began poking the silty soil with a robust redwood limb and, lo and behold, he hit something solid.  We dug around this hard spot with our hands and, yes, found about six inches into the silt a row of pickets that once had framed the potato patch in protection of the crop.  Over the years the River's flooding had deposited that much silt on the flat.

Alvy went on to describe the seasonal potato planting program:  he and his dad would come down to the Flat at the end of the rainy season, build or repair the fencing and plant the potatoes while the ground was still very damp.  They then spent the whole spring and summer camped out on the Flat tending to the potatoes and to themselves.  When it was time to harvest, they dug the rows by hand, bagged them, then brought down a horse and wagon to haul them back up the River and over the mountain to the Ukiah Railroad station to sell to the produce distributor's commission agent.

I neglected to ask Alvy which route the horse and wagon took to Ukiah, whether through Boonville and over the grade on the Toll Road, or up the Navarro South Fork of the North Fork, under Alaska Ridge, then into Robinson Creek, the more direct in miles route to Ukiah.

I only know of this route because one day at Floodgate the subject of transportation from the Valley to Ukiah was the topic of the moment.  Alvy declared he frequently in the pre-auto days walked from Navarro to Ukiah on the North Fork/Robinson Creek route.  He in fact stated that around the Summer Solstice, if he started from home around dawn, he could make it over the hill and back, including doing his business, by dark.  A distance I calculate as approximately 32 miles.   Those were the days.

To complete our tour Alvy walked us up the highway a hundred yards or so, then up onto a little ridgeback on the north side of the pavement.  We found a flat with a trail for the horse and wagon rising up to it.  When we scratched in the redwood duff, we found remains of the temporary one room cabin Alvy and his father had built out of salvaged redwood split stuff.  These remnants were mostly the rotting mudsills the cabin rested on, though I found a glass and metal ink bottle stopper Alvy remembered as part of their household goods.  He said one or another of them rode out to the Valley once a month for supplies and to mail letters penned over the summer to local kin and friends about their farming life.  Can you imagine any of from the Digital Age extending that courtesy?

Across the Old Highway from The Store,  the Mabery compound and Alvy's house, where the Old Highway turns south toward the mustard-colored Painted Lady, "Susie's House," stood the Navarro Inn, the last of the old hotels part of the working milltown sixty years before.  I say "stood" because she stands no more, wherein lies the saddest story I experienced and can report about Navarro during my time.

The Hotel dates from the earliest days of the town, its founder and owner being various members of the Pardini family, Donald's ancestors.  During the nineteen twenties and the opening of the paved McDonald to the Sea state highway the hotel migrated from exclusively a temporary home for new immigrants or travelling salesmen to also being a seasonal destination for urban sports hunters and fisherman.  The business combined rooms for rent with a kitchen dining room/bar featuring Italian family cuisine.

Donald's uncle Danny was the last member of the family to own and manage the Hotel, and he sold the business to outsiders in the late thirties.  When my consort and I arrived in Navarro, it had been renamed The Navarro Inn and become an important, in fact the only dining/social gathering place in the whole Valley, except Janie's Place in Philo.  No more rooms for rent.  Although Kenny Hurst told me the other day that when his family migrated from Arkansas to The Valley in the late thirties, before they found a place to rent for themselves, they stayed for several weeks at The Inn.

The inside décor in 1971 was rustic rural, redwood walls, fir floor, different size tables from grand to intimate scattered graciously between the kitchen in the back and the bar near the front door, local historic photos on the walls.  The menu was as described, but the important  feature of the place was the clientele.  Walking in, you never knew whom you might run into, best friends from Philo you'd not seen  for months, someone who'd been born and raised in Navarro and returned for a nostalgic visit, or some City Person actively interested in learning about the culture of the village and The Valley.  We looked forward with great anticipation to our monthly or so evening at The Inn.

Then on April Fools Day, 1972, the first anniversary of our settlement in Navarro, tragedy struck.  I was up in the vineyard around 1 PM of a sunny spring day, when I heard a fire siren coming from the village.  As I had just joined the volunteer fire department, I raced down to town, to find the Navarro truck standing safely away from the building, hose on the ground unused, the other trucks from Philo and Boonville just arriving.

The Inn was in full flames, the roof crumbling to create the classic house fire chimney effect, flames reaching fifty feet in the air.  With our frail equipment there was nothing to do.  A bunch of us, Deependers, Poleeko-ites, Boonters, stood in a cluster south of the building a hundred feet away because of the heat.  I was standing next to Bob Glover, we didn't say a word, just shook our heads.  There were tears in both of our eyes.  She was gone, never to return.

Further south up the Old Highway lived and still live the Hopper family in a compound next to Joe Pedro's garage.  The Hoppers, like the Prices and Maberys, had migrated upstream from Hop Flat to the mill town of those days and in the 1970s they were a small, complex arrangement of family and friends.  Bull Hopper, former woodsman, was the patriarch of the clan, his wife Lucille was a recluse I only saw once, standing in her side yard studying a tree close to the house.

There also lived in the compound an adoptive post teenager, Irma and an old widower farmer from Dry Creek, Healdsburg, Graydon Landers. Irma and Graydon married soon after our arrival in the Valley.

Graydon played a key role in the outdoor social club that gathered under the redwood suckers across the old highway west of The Store.  The club's members included Emil Niemela, Angelo Bacchi, Danny Gentile, sometimes Rob Bloyd and Cap Salmela from outside the village.  The club's principle activities were drinking beer and playing horseshoes in the shade of the redwood trees.  Its location we all called "The Drunk Tree."

Graydon also gifted me one spring noontime in the late seventies with a gem of wisdom I've both never forgotten and still work on living up to.  I was running a small crew planting a couple of new vineyard acres up on the hill.  At noon I drove down to the Post Office still at the south end of the village, ran in anxious to get my bills but also get back to the planting crew, leaped back into the 1953 Chevy pick up, swung around near the Drunk Tree to get back up on the hill.  As I was turning slowly so as not to shed dust on the deliberations at the horseshoe pit, Graydon ambled over into my path signaling me to stop.

Being the courteous soul I was, I stopped the pick-up, rolled down the window, and began the usual litany, "Oh no, Graydon..."  so much to do up on the hill, blah, blah, blah.  His face froze into a stern statue as he ambled up to the truck, firmly grasped my left elbow resting on the door panel, locked his eyes on mine, and slowly, firmly pronounced:  "You gotta listen to me, son..."  A pause, then..."There's going to be plenty to do after you're gone..."  Thank you, Graydon, forty-three years ago.

The youngest member of the Hopper clan, Tom, Tommy Bull Hopper, was about twenty when we arrived in Navarro, round, overweight then as now, Tom lived on State permanent disability pay, and then as now made a daily trip from the compound to The Store, to make a few purchases and share a little gossip with whomever was available.

Fifty years later I am still a friend of Tom's, continue to share a few words with him far more frequently today then back then as we see each other on the steps of The Store or walking up the Old Highway to the Hopper compound.  Beside Rich Bloyd, now living with his family in the Mabery house, Tommy Hopper is the last living remnant of the village I knew at arrival there in 1971.  We have much to share.

Last, not least, in the 1971 Navarro cast are Emil and Angelo, Emil Niemela and Angelo Bacchi, self-appointed suitors of The Store's proprietress, Betty, described in last week's reminiscences.  They both lived in single occupant "line shack" cottages up the hill right against the stumps of the original redwood forest and behind The Ice House west of the Highway.  They both had worked in the mill company woods, though Angelo's parents had also owned a small timber and grassland ranch up Floodgate Creek, a farm too small to solely support a family, so he had also worked in the woods, still owned the property, though for reasons I didn't understand, let his house be occupied by Rob Bloyd, Kenneth Ornbaun, Amos Ostrom and Cap Salmela's sister with the "red" hair, Ethlyn, Angelo's ex-wife, a/k/a "Stoplight."  An interesting locals commune.

Anyway, the retired Emil still had a part-time job.  Twice daily he left his house, crossed the abandoned mill flat, climbed the hill a hundred yards to the Caves water tank, his dog "Bigger" on a chain hauling his arthritic body up the slope, and turned on in the  morning, off in the evening the gate valve that sent water to the ten thousand gallon redwood tank behind the Doctor's house, then was redistributed to seven households and The Store.  This job earned him locally the title we knew him by, "The Water Commissioner."

One day in the seventies, two County bureaucrats came over the hill from Ukiah, stopped at the store and began making inquiries about this unincorporated town,  with no tax base known to the County, that had a Water Commissioner.  Soon of, course, they encountered Emil, who with carefully chosen and pronounced language softly declared, "Water Commissioner, hell, I just turn the gate valve on and off..."

That was quite a few words for a day in the life of Emil.  The only other Emil vociferation beside "yup" and "nope" I ever heard occurred each summer time evening stroll he and Bigger took by Bill Witherell's house.  Bill and I would be out at his garden with the hose stretched from his workshop watering economically each plant and vine in the plot.  As Emil shambled by we could hear him mutter loud enough for us to hear, "Bill Witherell's watering his garden again, there'll be no water in Navarro..." Bill's judicious irrigation regime would by September exhaust  the town tank next door and The Caves, implied the the Water Commissioner.

Angelo, on the other hand, was an open, gracious Italian, with a happy word for anyone, friends, acquaintance, strangers stopping by The Store and the Drunk Tree.  One evening, there was a formal meeting between the village's citizens and a representative of the US Postal Service, whose employer was threatening to close the local Navarro Branch.  We citizens rose in collaborative wrath, and with the assistance of Rena Nicolai, Navarro emigrant, prominent San Francisco restauranteur, and owner of Susie's House, we arranged a tense meeting at Taylor's coffee shop, 25 of us versus the Federal Government's regional representative.

Angelo attended, sat in a back row seat, and during the whole negotiation softly exhaled a monotonic whistle between his upper teeth  and chanted, "Angie Bacchi I am and always will be...,"  much to the confusion of the Bureaucrat and the resigned acceptance of the rest of us friends, including Rena.  We did get to keep the Post Office open for another ten years.

The last story in today's Navarro saga involves an informal sporting event between Angelo and Emil I witnessed in Betty's Store one late afternoon as I stopped by for some dinner incidentals.  During my shopping I maneuvered around the two of them arguing in close quarters about who was most qualified as Betty's suitor.  By "close quarters" I mean tall Angelo and small Emil were holding one another in both hands by the shirtfront while doing a slow shuffle around the shelves, counter and coolers.

As I reached for my wallet at the cash register, there was a crash behind me because Angelo had pushed Emil into the open horizontal food cooler box and was grinding his fists in the Finn's face. Betty gently took my ten dollar bill, and without raising her voice commanded, "Stop it, boys, and get out of The Store."  They did as commanded, Angelo pulled Emil out of the box, and they both commenced dusting one another off from the debris of the brawl, and headed for the door.  Last seen, they were walking together in deep conversation across the Old Highway toward their homes behind the Ice House.

Thus pulsed the village of Navarro in 1971 and 2.

Next week:  Navarro's "Renaissance,"  the Arrival of the Hippies.  Stay tuned.

One Comment

  1. Ruth July 9, 2020

    A good description of typical JW behavior!

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