Mushroom foraging was something the nineteenth century European immigrants, Italians, Germans, Swiss and French brought to the United States and to Anderson Valley. When I first moved here, I heard stories about the old-timer Italians in Navarro and on Greenwood Ridge being the vanguard of this foraging culture, that in season “shrooms” often provided added nutrition to poor early settler family dinner tables. I also sensed the excitement among Italian friends up on “Vinegar Hill,” the Pronsolinos, Valentis, Giovanettis, etc. when the first autumn rains fell and they began searching for the succulent first crop of “coccora” or “Pete Pinoles.”
Down in Navarro the one mushroom gathering story I ever heard was Bill Witherell’s and it was apocryphal. In the village lived a millworker family, the Sciainis, who like others around The Valley supplemented their menu with mushrooms as soon as the harvest season began. More specifically one autumn after work hours the patriarch came home and was immediately dispatched back out by the wife to gather some fungi to support her dinner plans. According to Bill, Victor Sciaini ventured forth somewhere around town, and toward dusk found a nest of what he thought were edibles barely visible under Doug fir canopy. Tired and hungry after a day at the mill, he swept up this cluster and headed back home with a harvest large enough to enliven dinner that evening. The next morning found seven of the eight members of the family deceased.
Well, down in Boonville, there was, in the late 1970s a mushroom gathering club, both educational and social. The Mannix family and their Mountainview ranch were important participants in its activities, but most important was the club’s Docent or primary field educator, Bob Glover. The millworker family story I recount above illustrates the mushroom Docent’s importance and responsibility. He or she must be knowledgeable with absolute precision about identification and more important consumption of a succulent, a hallucinogenic or a toxic mushroom. For example the Amanita calyptraderma mushroom is as tasty as one can find, the Amanita phalloides that hatches at the same time of autumn a dozen yards nearby can be literally deadly. So Bob knew he had a big responsibility on his hands on each club foray into The Valley’s fields and woods.
Retired Boonville carpenter and raconteur Mike Reeves was a member of the mushroom club, and his recollections of its affairs have contributed to this episode in the Bob Glover saga. Other members Michael remembers include local school teacher Bill Rapp, retiree Lew King, David Pronsolino, Joan Bloyd, Jeanie Nickles, Earlene Merriman, Barbara White, Sue Brendlen, Homer and Bill Mannix, a number of others. The range of their foraging explorations was enormous, not just Anderson Valley and highlands like Mannix Ranch, but also all the way to The Coast. Michael can remember exploring places like Greenwood Ridge, Nash Ranch, Guntly Ranch, Rancho Navarro, Mountainview and Fish Rock roads, and Little River van Damme Park.
The highlight of each expedition was its conclusion up at the Mannix Ranch, Bob Glover and the Mannixes as hosts, where mushroom-based dinners would be prepared from the harvest-of-the day, lots of pasta, omelets and meatloaves. I won’t overdo the list of varieties that ended up on the dinner table at Mannixes. But I can’t resist, my mouth watering with recollection, pronouncing some of the most important ones whose names themselves vibrate flavor: Boletus edulis, Lactarius sanguefluus, Agaricus campestris, Lepista nuda, Cantherallis cibarius, and so on. And even when you cook them with the most aromatic meats, beef, pork or chicken, the mushrooms’ aromas of chestnut, savories and rich earth are what fill your whole house. I bet the Mannixes didn’t mind those smells sticking around their home for the next day or so.
I myself knew nothing about mushrooms and foraging in my first years in The Valley, being too occupied with farming, with hunting for deer with Bill Witherell and harvesting mussels on the Coast with my Navarro friends. My late wife Earlene introduced me to the fact they were right here under my nose at my place only after we married in the early eighties. And once about that time I went on a Mushroom Club expedition down Highway 128 almost to The Coast. It was a drizzly, chilly afternoon in November, I think. And about six of us parked at a large pullout on the south side of 128, around milepost 1.75 where the last redwoods give way to Douglas and Piss fir, hardwoods and open fields. Bob knew the off-road area intimately and guided us from likely site to site on the bluffs above the Navarro, sometimes on the forest edge, sometimes along the alder edges of the fields.
At each new species discovery, we stopped, gathered around Bob, and listened intently as he carefully provided us with its taxonomy, typical blooming time of the year, microenvironmental location, and edibility, sometimes some recipe hints. Well, that day was not a favorable one. After an hour or so, the drizzle was beginning to penetrate our clothes, the day was darkening, and we had found nothing edible. Certainly a disappointment to me. However, later I realized once I became an expert forager for half a dozen or so different species, and amateur educator to family and neighbors interested in the ranch’s indigenous mushrooms, that even the inedible ones like the chalky tasteless Russula family are beautiful. Bob’s encyclopedic knowledge of the species and its careful foraging practices became the model for my mushroom gathering pastime in Anderson Valley.
Here’s another interesting story about Bob’s unconventional business practices as entertaining and enlightening adventures for Bob Glover. From time to time as his work schedule grew apace with new city-people immigrants moving to The Valley, he would hire an assistant to help him meet his business obligations and do the unskilled heavy-lifting of wire, control panels, pumps, etc. I say “unskilled” as many of these younger folk never lasted long enough on the job to get to the “apprentice” skill level. One day I met his new assistant electrician, a comely single mother, Jeanie Grey, with a ten year old son, Chris. Jeanie was an unusual type even for our diverse Anderson Valley society, she a “biker-girl” because she wore jeans and leather, rode a motorcycle and had a boyfriend, “Buff,” or Buffalo, to my knowledge the only Puerto Rican biker ever to live in The Valley.
Sometime in the eighties Bob hired Jeanie as yet another assistant to his electrical/pump business. Jeanie, it turned out, was a devoted student of this challenging, complex installation business and stayed with her job long enough in years that Bob and his customers all recognized her no longer as his heavy lifter but as an “apprentice” electrician/pump installer. I got to know Jeanie as also a caring mother via my step-son Geoff, same age as her Chris. They were both members of the recreational after-school basketball team called The Junior Panthers, voluntarily coached by Reuben Thomasson, jr., owner of AV Market. I became “assistant” coach because I drove my old Mercedes as a second “bus” for the team’s away games. And Chris was by far the best ten year old on the Junior Panthers team.
Now let me return to Bob Glover’s role as the most important Anderson Valley local historian I have encountered in my half century residence here. I am rereading an article Bob wrote back in 1973 for our local community monthly, the Anderson Valley ADVOCATE. In it he reports in a thousand words the history of “pomoculture,” apple growing in The Valley, the economics of the industry, and in detail the operation of a typical apple dryer at his ancestral Guntly ranch at Christine.
The article begins with the origins of pomology in The Valley: his ancestors, he believes, planting the first commercial orchard here around 1855. He notes a commercially successful business strategy was to plant as many different varieties of apples as was possible. I won’t bore the reader with too much detail here, and instead will name the more lyrically resonating names among the dozens of New York state varieties imported to The Valley and elsewhere in California in the nineteenth century: Bellefleur, Pearmaine, Northern Spy, Astrakhan, Newtown Pippin, Esopus Spitzenberg, Ben Davis, and so on.
Bob also recaps for us something of the flavor of apple harvest work, three times harder than picking grapes. Teams of pickers, family and neighbors, worked the orchard all day armed with woolen sacks and galvanized buckets, shook the fruit out of the trees and salvaged what remained hanging with picking poles. Attending the crews were horse-drawn wagons to pick up the full sacks and haul them to the apple dryer, either on the more prosperous farms, or to an available one on a neighboring ranch.
Bob then explains the commercial basis for the apple-growing industry before the advent of paved roads and truck transport to Anderson Valley. Because of the early settler days pre-macadam wagon road system out of The Valley, growers had to preserve their crops for winter storage at the ranch, then ship the product to the rail freight stops available in Cloverdale and Ukiah. Herein, he shows us, played the role of the apple dryer, in Boontling the “appelder.” We are fortunate that a number of these architecturally elegant structures still remain around the Valley. The one in the accompanying photo still exists, but isn’t visible from Highway 128. It lies in a swale on the Frank Guntly ranch just east of Philo, now Scharffenberger vineyards (photo nearby). I have visited this dryer from time to time for the pleasure of admiring its magisterial shape.
The two most emblematic dryers still standing in the Valley are visible from Highway 128. The one on Day Ranch, eastside just below the highway and under large oaks on a small creek dividing Day from Cook Ranch, now a Phillips Hill winery tasting room, is the most elegantly designed dryer I’ve found in The Valley. Because of the nearby creek’s flood propensity much of the very vertical two story building is supported by timbered pillars, and the turret releasing the wood smoke is long, narrow and of magisterial height. I always slow down when I am driving on Day Flat, but have never gotten around to visiting the tasting room in this beautiful building.
The other dryer along Highway 128 is on Ted Ingram Ranch a mile south of Navarro. This one is set back against the east side hill about a hundred feet from the highway. What it demonstrates is the engineering that went into the design of virtually all dryers in northern California. The building in question, along with two other barns to its north, has been beautifully converted into a residential home. The dryer itself is the right hand one, its back is slightly tucked into the sidehill, its cement ground floor has been cladded over with redwood siding so that a passer-by can no longer see the 8 feet across round hole where the wood-fired boiler providing the heat for the winter-long drying process once was. A wooden second story sits on top of the boiler cement, and on top of the whole building used to stand the narrow wooden airvent turret permitting the rising heat to escape. The right side of the building has a low lean-to shed attached to it, probably the storage area for the sulfur dust Bob describes below as part of the drying process.
When I first moved to The Valley there was to the right and on a gentle sidehill now all grapes a half acre of small apple trees on shallow sidehill soil. Each tree bore a lot less fruit than those planted on riverbottom soil like at Gowan’s, but with no irrigation available I bet they were some of the most succulent fruit in the whole valley.
Bob’s article takes us step-by-step through the winter-long drying process, an intensive one involving a combination of hand and machine-driven assembly line labor. The end result was cored apple slices stretched out on wooden drying racks about four feet square, racked and stacked on the vented floor of the open room above the boiler/heater and underneath the air vent. In this open-window gallery the apples spent the winter slowly drying in a cloud of rising heat and hand-fed sulfur dust to assist the dehydration. What Bob didn’t mention was the importance of the variable harvest dates of the apple varieties. Gravensteins were typically the earliest, say Labor Day, then each week all fall another variety or two, ending with the supposedly tasteless Ben Davis before Christmas. This ripening pattern enabled a steady flow of fruit to dryer for over three months of the Autumn.
Finally, Bob recounts the manual final step in the production line, loading, using the hands for scoops, the dried fruit into burlap sacks that full would weigh out at around 60 pounds. The way the downstream packaging and distribution segment of the industry worked was it sent representatives, buyer’s agents, to each growing region to bargain ranch by ranch on a purchase price. In Anderson Valley two locals, George Johnson, owner of the Philo Store, and J.T. Farrer of the Boonville store, were buyer’s agents. But others from outside The Valley also played this critical role. Important purchasers Bob mentions include California Packing Company, Del Monte in Oakland, and Rosenberg in Santa Rosa.
Bob finishes his elegant piece of ag history with a “sharkin” anecdote. He only identifies the victim of local pranksters as a “fellow prone to brag.” The bragster claimed publicly that he could tell the apple’s variety simply by tasting it. So “a couple of the Philo boys” working at a dryer took him up on his claim, put a blindfold over his eyes, and handed him a sliver of ripe apple with a good size chunk of cork hidden in the flesh. After consumption the connoisseur declared, “I know that’s a Ben Davis apple.” Yes, Ben Davis does taste like cardboard or sheet rock. The tree I had in Colson orchard here at home was a small dignified productive beauty. it was the last healthy tree there when I converted the orchard to grapes, and fruit hung on its branches til after Thanksgiving. And lo an behold after a little frost in December, the Ben Davis finally ripened and was as tasty as any variety I consumed earlier in the fall. In honor of Ben Davis, I planted a sapling here in my back yard a couple of years ago; no fruit yet.
From my perspective Bob’s loving attention to Anderson Valley and its history was his most valuable contribution to our community, his qualities as an interesting character notwithstanding. I also propose his approach to recording and relating our history is foundational for this “social science,” that is, family and family business history is the heart and roots of who we Americans are yesterday and today. And his personal archive of that history, as far as I could tell, was unrecorded; it was all stored inside his brain. And the integrity of his memory of Anderson Valley’s past was remarkable. I listened carefully and I trusted it. Nothing he ever related to me about the ancestors and their affairs have I found at variance from what I have learned from my own sources aggregated over the past half century. Thank you, Bob Glover, for helping preserve and relate our Anderson Valley roots and heritage.
Next Week: This reporter plans on taking a break. Later, roots of grape-growing here.