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Going Home

In these turbulent times it is good to go “home,” even if for just a short visit.

Almost 20 years have passed since I lived in a place our family always called “the Crofoot house.” The fine old house, even though empty and on the market, warmly welcomed me back.

It was a sentimental, and calming visit. I was reminded how fortunate we were to have owned and lived in such a stately icon of Mendocino County’s post-World War II lumber boom. The Crofoot house was built when the county was regularly one of the top five producers in the state’s billion-dollar timber industry.

I arranged to meet Dan Crofoot last week at a house that stirs deep feelings in both of us. Crofoot grew up there in the 1950s and ’60s. Terese and I purchased the house from Dan Crofoot’s parents when we arrived in Mendocino County in 1985. We raised our sons there, relished the old swimming pool on Ukiah’s sizzling summer days, and invited family and friends to join us. We celebrated birthdays, baptisms, and Little League parties. A string of grammar school to college graduation gatherings were held for sons Peter, Luke, Nate, and Sam. Finally, in 2004 we decided to sell and downsize.

It is a house that beckons potential buyers. 

The Crofoot house features old-growth timber originally milled at the family sawmill operation down the road near where old Highways 20 and 101 used to intersect at “The Forks.”

The builders were Jane and Bud Crofoot, legendary members of Mendocino County’s timber aristocracy.

When Bud Crofoot died in 1993, the New York Times noted in his obituary the Crofoot family in the 1940s came to the North Coast of California and “set up sawmill operations in the Ukiah and Anderson valleys during the heyday of Mendocino County's timber industry.” The Times described the Crofoot mills as being among the ‘most successful’ in that era. 

The Crofoot house indeed reflects the arduous work and successes of Jane and Bud Crofoot, brother John Crofoot, and other family members. John Crofoot’s son Tom, a former Mendocino County supervisor, lived in it too.

The house sits on a knoll overlooking Lake Mendocino Drive. It was constructed before the east fork of the Russian River was dammed to create Lake Mendocino. 

The all-redwood Crofoot house evokes a by-gone era. 

When the house was built it was especially large for the era, a 2,400-square-foot custom built home with swimming pool and Sunset magazine-style barbecue area. There was a giant slab of a redwood tree trunk which used to be a perfect place for visitors to sit, put up their feet and drink a glass of wine or two. 

The place features a wood-paneled guest room attached on the east side of a separate two-car garage. Bud Crofoot put in a shower large enough to fit a burly San Francisco 49er player who came to visit. The Crofoots had season tickets since the days of Kezar Stadium. 

Jane Crofoot, an artistic individual who ran a family sawmill while her husband was away in the military during World War II, designed the Craftsman-style house. Her touches were everywhere, from a painted cowboy mural on a son’s bedroom wall, to forest scenes on interior walls in the living areas. She painted a life-size mermaid on the pool’s bottom before it was filled. 

“My parents loved to share the house with family and friends, and they entertained regularly,” recalled son Dan Crofoot. 

Mike Geniella & Dan Crofoot

The elder Crofoots were close friends with other aristocrats of the North Coast timber industry including Vivian and Frank Crawford and Jane and Bob Harrah. Jane Crofoot, Vivian Crawford, and Jane Harrah were pilots in their day, and owned their own airplanes. They regularly flew their husbands to family timber operations spread across Northern California and the West Coast.

The Crofoots also included among their close friends the late corporate timber executive Harry Merlo. He sometimes was a business partner of the Crofoots, who in turn were godparents to his only son, Sonoma County’s Harry Merlo Jr. 

Dan Crofoot recalled that in his childhood he called the senior Merlo ‘Uncle Harry.’ “I would sit on his lap while people partied, and Harry played his harmonica,” said Dan Crofoot.

The Crofoot house stands today as testament to the boom times of Mendocino County’s once mighty timber industry. Into the 1980s the county was consistently ranked among the state’s top five lumber producers.

Big timber was the county’s economic engine for decades. The timber economy loomed so large that Ukiah civic leaders erected big redwood signs at each end of town boasting ‘Home to Masonite.’ The landmark Masonite plant, shuttered and razed 50 years later, had employed hundreds of workers who recycled lumber mill waste into wood products including interior doors and trim exported worldwide.

Dan Crofoot remembers Harry Merlo sitting at the dining room table with his father and sketching out plans to split off a lumber division of the giant Georgia-Pacific Corp. to form a new timber company – Louisiana Pacific Corp.

L-P, as it became known under Merlo’s leadership, became one of the largest timberland owners on the North Coast. When the timber boom turned to bust, corporate logging practices came under intense scrutiny. Eventually L-P lands were acquired by the Fisher family of San Francisco, who created Mendocino Redwoods Company as a long-term investment arm. The Fishers also bought a swath of Humboldt County timberlands once owned by venerable Pacific Lumber Co. Those lands are now managed as Humboldt Redwoods Inc. Together, the holdings represent one of the largest tracts of commercial redwood forests anywhere. 

Changes were sweeping through the timber industry when my family and I moved into the Crofoot house in the mid-1980s. A Texan pulled off a surprise corporate takeover of Pacific Lumber Co., ushering in a noisy era of accelerated logging and environmental protests. 

At the Crofoot house, legislators, timberland owners, and environmental leaders mingled at gatherings Terese, and I hosted during my newspaper career. What the future held for the timber industry was a regular topic of debate.

I recall a time when fiery Earth First! activist Judi Bari came to the Crofoot house to drop off logging-related documents. She stepped inside, and after taking in the Crofoot house’s lodge-like interior, quipped, “You and I are going to have to seriously talk redwoods.”

Author Susan Faludi stayed with us while she researched a book on Bari, and the controversies that engulfed the region over timber practices.

Former state Senate Majority Leader Barry Keene sat at the dining room table one time and mused over pending legislation to rein in the effects of logging on the environment. Keene glanced around, smiled, and noted that “the era when old trees were so plentiful that this kind of house could be built is over.”

By the time the latest owners Catherine and John Hatch bought the Crofoot house, the big timber era was over. 

The Hatch family made substantive improvements to the aging home before putting it on the market two weeks ago. Already, there are buyers from Santa Rosa who are in contract negotiations, according to agent Marcia Morgan Lazaro of the Coldwell Banker office in Ukiah.

“The quality of a home like this withstands the test of time,” said Lazaro.

Dan Crofoot, his daughter Jessica, and I chose to visit the house together one last time before its sale.

The walls could not talk but we did. We shared our deep and lasting admiration of a house that ‘Bud and Jane built.’ 

The Crofoot house’s sunken living room is a standout, for example.

A north wall is anchored by a big brick fireplace built by Crofoot mill worker and skilled mason ‘Okie John.’

“Everyone in town wanted him to build their fireplaces,” said Dan Crofoot. 

The living room is large and open, and is paneled on three sides with tightly grained, tongue-and-grove redwood. Old-growth redwood beams crisscross an unusual ceiling featuring large rectangles of wood resembling the interior of slabs of redwood bark.

The house is divided by a wide north-south hallway which allow refreshing breezes to sweep through the house on summer evenings. Columns of stately redwood anchor one end of the living room, which features two large plate glass windows allowing abundant light to illuminate the lodge-like interior.

Living Room

A family room features random boards of prized curly and birds eye redwood. At one end, Jane Crofoot painted a scene from the family cabin near Elk on the Mendocino Coast.

Outside, a paved drive encircles the house. Our youngest sons learned to ride their bikes on it, and they and their brothers used to stage track events on it with kids in the neighborhood.

A gravel road leads from Lake Mendocino Drive, past painted white corral fences surrounding two separate parcels that have always been owned in tandem with the house.

During the Hatch ownership, a country day school play area was carved out of a small apple orchard. There are chicken pens, a small animal barn, and other enclosures.

The Crofoot house is an oasis in a rural residential neighborhood undergoing change. The little Lucky Angler market, once a neighborhood fixture on a prime corner on the way to Lake Mendocino, has become a cannabis dispensary. 

Times change but the Crofoot house remains a lasting tribute to the people and a rich resource that once shaped the Redwood Region.

One Comment

  1. Joe Willis March 17, 2022

    Mike: This was a great nostalgia piece for me, too, although I was only marginally involved in many of the events mentioned. I was high school English teacher to Terese’s next four siblings, and especially Mary whom I taught biology. Years later, I was one of Peter’s teachers at Ukiah High, and Judi Bari visited my classes a number of times after I met her at Earth First! meetings in Ukiah. I am now teaching English at Feather River College in Quincy, CA, and I would love to know what has become of Peter. I last made contact when he was a budding journalist at Chico. Are subscriptions to the AVA still available?
    Sincerely, Joe Willis

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