Redwood Region residents are going to miss legendary Sonoma County newspaper columnist Gaye LeBaron, who never forgot her North Coast roots and returned repeatedly to write about its people, places, and history.
LeBaron 65-year career with The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa put her in the ranks of San Francisco’s Herb Caen and Chicago’s Mike Royko as one of the greatest columnists in the annals of newspapers. LeBaron’s daily column was the most read feature in the PD for decades. Even after LeBaron’s formal retirement from writing daily columns 20 years ago her regular history pieces continued to be a big reader draw.
In short, Lebaron is an icon from an era in journalism when columns were ‘must reads.’
Lebaron concluded her final column a week ago with these words:
“Finally, and you can take that literally, this is my last column. As you can see, it’s just bits and pieces, pretty much the kind of thing I’ve done for this newspaper since the 1950s.
I want to be very clear. I haven’t been fired. I’m not sick, I’m not leaving town. I have just run my course, and it’s time to make room for others.
I could easily have filled the whole column, the page even, with every good thought I have about Press Democrat readers and what they have given me through the years.
But I choose no fuss, no muss. Up there at the top of this piece, I said that it would be odds and ends. This is the end part.
I’ve retired before – 21 years ago to be exact – and now, well, I’m doing it again.
It’s been a remarkable ride. Thanks to all.”
LeBaron knows the ins and outs of Sonoma County like the back of her hand. She’s mingled with everyone, talked history with all, and seldom misses a beat about what is going on in the North Bay. LeBaron enjoyed a long and robust marriage with the late John LeBaron, a former PD photographer and the first instructor of photography at Santa Rosa Junior College. They raised son Tony and daughter Suzi in the same house in old Santa Rosa where LeBaron still lives.
LeBaron was a mentor to dozens of journalists who came through the Press Democrat newsroom over the years, including me. When I researched a story, I always went into LeBaron’s office and asked her questions about the subject. Invariably I came out better informed, and with a note pad full of nuances that made the story even better.
LeBaron speaks fondly of ‘community news,’ and how the rise of ‘gotcha journalism’ seems sometimes to undermine solid reporting about everyday life in communities: local government agencies, business development, law enforcement, housing woes, education issues, the arts, sports, and so on.
While LeBaron was always interested in a community’s bigger picture, she was not afraid to share the works of respected historians about our collective histories.
Before leaving the main newsroom in Santa Rosa and moving with my family to Ukiah to become the PD’s News Bureau Chief for the North Coast, LeBaron handed me her prized copy of ‘Genocide and Vendetta,’ a rare book that is no longer in print.
“If you are going to live and work in Mendocino County and write about it, you will need to know and understand the history. All of it,” said Gaye.
‘Genocide and Vendetta’ documents a bloody chapter in North Coast history, a ‘war of extermination’ as the first governor of California declared it in 1851.
The book’s focus on is the remote and ruggedly beautiful Round Valley in northeast Mendocino County. At the valley’s northern end live remnants of five different tribes of native people, some traditional enemies, who were forced to share a federal reservation. In some cases, early valley settlers brutally enslaved, killed and terrorized them. The dark history hangs over the troubled community more than 150 years later.
Yet Round Valley’s unvarnished history is not widely known except in academic circles.
LeBaron is one of the first journalists to write about a documented and chilling history. Among the stories is how hired ranch hands rounded up native women and children, roped them together, and marched dozens through the coastal mountains to be traded for horses in the Sacramento Valley.
In 1979, Gaye wrote this about the valley’s terrible history:
“No story can match the true tale of George White, the Cattle King of Round Valley, and his henchman, the murderous Wylackie John.
In 1858, White claimed 1,000 acres in the middle of Round Valley. That same year the federal government selected Round Valley as the site for an Indian reservation called ‘Nome Cult.’
During the next 18 years the Indians battled for their lives in Round Valley, and mostly lost. The main targets of the white man’s wrath were the Wylackies, a group that lived to the north of the valley.
At Horse Creek in 1859, 240 Wylackies were slaughtered. At Bloody Creek, no one kept count but there were women and children included and the name speaks for itself. After the Mill Creek Massacre wipes out a camp of 80 Wylackies in 1862, the government sent the Cavalry to stay. The entire valley was placed under martial law. The soldiers, naming their outpost Camp Wright, stayed in Round Valley for 13 years, all the while trying unsuccessfully to evict the white settlers including George White. The settlers meanwhile went about the business of building the town which was later named Covelo.
By the time the U.S. government lost the battle of Round Valley, with the passage of the infamous ‘Land Grab Bill’ through the Legislature that cut the reservation back to 5,000 acres and gave claimants at the fertile valley, White owned several thousand acres. Eventually, he would control 100,000 acres in three counties – Mendocino, Tehama and Trinity.”
White’s control was in large part due to the role of Wylackie John, a white man who claimed he was born in Indiana and kidnapped as an infant by native men who killed his parents in a raid on an Oregon-bound wagon train.
LeBaron wrote that from all indications Wylackie John would “kill a man or burn a homestead at a word from ‘the King.’”
LeBaron’s affinity for regional history and the larger world of community news took root in rural Humboldt County, where she spent her childhood. LeBaron was born in Scotia, the celebrated Pacific Lumber Company mill town that Life magazine once described as ‘Life in the Peace Zone.’
In October 2008, LeBaron wrote about a place and time when she was a child in southern Humboldt County:
“It was two years ago when I first read that Charles Hurwitz, the corporate raider from Texas whose disrespect of the California redwoods had made him an anathema on the North Coast, was offering the town of Scotia for sale.
My first thought was that I wished I was rich enough to buy it. It isn’t every day one gets a chance to buy back a chunk of one’s childhood.
I spent my early years in a very small town called Redcrest, a dozen miles down the road from Scotia. I was, in fact, born in Scotia in the days when there was a hospital in town – a hospital, a hotel, a theater, a bank, and the church where my mother and I worshipped on Sunday morning while my dad read the Sunday paper in the car. And of course, the mill, stretching along the main street the entire distance of the town.
It was my family’s closest ‘big city,’ and we traveled there regularly – for tap dancing lessons Saturday mornings at the Winema Theater; for my big brother’s baseball games at second base for the might Lumberjacks; for visits to The Sweet Shoppe in the basement of the Scotia Inn for a chocolate covered ice cream bar called a Whale, which I haven’t seen since.”
LeBaron always visited her home region during her travels, and she stopped often at her favorite places. Among them was the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah.
LeBaron liked writing about Grace Hudson, a remarkable woman artist who captured the culture of the Pomo people on canvas, and her husband, Dr. John Hudson, a Southern-born gentleman who met and married the young divorcee upon his arrival the late 19th century in Ukiah. Grace Hudson’s father was Mendocino County’s first newspaper publisher, and he was a photographer who documented the county’s early years after settlers arrived.
LeBaron and former Hudson Museum Director Sherrie Smith-Ferri, a renowned Pomo scholar with ties to Sonoma County’s Dry Creek tribe, formed a decades-long friendship. She encouraged Evert Person, the late Press Democrat publisher, to help support the Hudson Museum. Person acquired the first numbered oil painting by Hudson and gifted it to the Hudson Museum. He also underwrote the cost of adding a gallery in honor of Grace Hudson’s family. Evert Person, and his widow Norma Person, to date remain the single largest contributors to the Hudson Museum.
When Smith-Ferri and retired Hudson curator Karen Holmes in 2014 authored a book at Hudson’s turn of the century sojourn in Hawaii, LeBaron captured the essence the artist’s life in her review:
“Grace’s early interest in art brought her to the San Francisco School of Design before her 14th birthday. That’s where she met Ed Esprey from Eugene, Oregon, who, following his artistic inclinations, was also a student at what was deemed the best art school on the West Coast (precursor of today’s SF Art Institute).
Before long Grace and Ed became – in the language of those gentler times – “sweethearts,” a relationship that would last for the next four years.
Both explored the depth of their talent in a range of artistic disciplines. But Esprey went to study in France, and while the love letters between them continued, Grace had caught the attention of an older man, a widower names William Davis. Against the wishes of her family, she eloped with him in 1884. She was 19. He was 34. It was a brief marriage and ended in divorce in 1886. Grace’s formal art education ceased, and she returned to Ukiah to work with her parents in their photo studio and give art lessons. Her artwork from this period – what little there is – is signed ‘Grace Davis’ and lacks the quality of her earlier, and later work. The three-year ‘down period’ ended when John Hudson came to town.
Hudson was a physician, sent to Ukiah as a railroad doctor when the San Francisco and North Pacific Line reached Mendocino County. He was also an ethnographer, interested in the Pomo population of this frontier town.
The love story of Grace and John Hudson would result in a marriage that lasted well into the new century. It produced not only a new and important form of California art – Grace’s Pomo portraits – but also John’s contributions to the ethnography and anthropology of the region. Both disciplines are well told in permanent exhibits at the museum and the adjoining Sun House, where they lived and worked.”
The vignettes underscore LeBaron’s deep connections to the North Coast, its people, and the history.
She has been a great friend of our communities in Mendocino, Humboldt, and Lake counties, and an informed teacher of their histories. We are in awe of her accomplishments. We will never forget her contributions.
Two journalists I’ve always admired! Fascinating article….I wish Genocide and Vendetta was still in print
Genocide and Vendetta book is available for online reading and downloads
In 1986, as Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 222 formed, we decided to exhibit the Traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Santa Rosa. Gaye LeBaron was our quiet but not-so-secret ally. She lobbied for, and wrote, a Sunday supplement on an array of veterans, myself included. The nuanced human interest tales she related were a major factor in swaying public opinion and earning permission for us to display the memorial on a college campus for the first time. I still owe her a hug for that Sunday section.