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Philo First Settler Families: Aunt Blanche & Indian Creek

Dr. John Brown, Aunt Blanche’s grandfather, settled in Philo in 1862, during the Civil War. His family had migrated to California, along with Iowa neighbors, the Prathers and Ingrams, in 1863. Brown family roots go back to Indiana, North Carolina all the way to Scotland’s Isle of Skye. John Brown was Anderson Valley’s first resident primary care medical professional. Back in his hometown in Iowa he had married Elizabeth Frain, and over the years they had 2 children, some in Iowa, some in Philo. Dr. Brown was formally trained as a veterinarian. Upon settling in Anderson Valley he recognized a more important local medical need and taught himself medical doctor’s craft. He also trained himself in pharmacopeia and was the local druggist, concocting and distributing conventional and herbal medicines. His wife Elizabeth was a practicing midwife offering her craft to both The Valley and the Mendocino Coast. Their seventh child, Frank Hayes, was born in 1861, back in Iowa; he married Philo neighbor Hattie Prather in 1885 and they had five children. Their second child, Blanche, was born in 1892, their fourth, Blanche’s beloved bachelor brother Kent, in 1896 .

Dr. Brown it appears to his descendants loved rural homestead life. The property he bought, Wildwood, perched on the hilltop north of today’s downtown Philo, more specifically abutting the Philo Methodist Church, and ran north and west along the Navarro River almost to the southern boundary of today’s Hendy Woods state park. The first homestead cottage he built was situated so one could see the Hendy Grove old growth redwoods. The Brown property was a large north/south rectangle following the California state platted ranges, townships and sections surveyed in 1862,using Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County, not local roads and highways. Its south boundary was along today’s Ray’s Road and ranged north to the Philo Hill ridge above George Ayer’s homestead, now Schramsburg vineyard, with a small piece east halfway up the south side of Philo Hill bounded by the old Frank Johnson Ranch, today Scharffenberger and Toulouse vineyards. 

Dr. Brown’s appreciation of Wildwood included a vista from the home looking down the Navarro River to the then privately owned Joshua Hendy Woods old growth grove, investigative walks through his property observing and collecting wild berries, mushrooms, herbs, medicines and flowers, and home gardening. His appreciation of the natural world around him seems to have been genetic, as the trait passed down the family line to his son Frank, Blanche, her direct and grand nieces and nephews, including Linda Hulbert and her daughter Melanie. When this reporter first moved to The Valley he would often see on his afternoon shopping run to Lemons’ Dr. Brown’s grandson Arnold, then about 90 years old, standing near the rich shallow well pump house in the field across the street from the Wildwood homestead, now Roederer vineyard, gazing reflectively up the hill to the Doug fir trees that crowned Philo Hill. The Browns sold the last piece of their properties at Wildwood and Indian Creek in 1989, after Blanche passed.

The heart of the Aunt Blanche story to follow is based on the many hours I spent with a Dr. Brown descendant, Linda Hulbert, born Crispin, who is also Aunt Blanche’s niece. Linda’s roots in the Valley and she is fully informed as to local history, and I have been fortunate to be Linda’s friend and fellow local historian since I first moved here over fifty years ago. She is related to all of the Philo first settlers, the Browns, Prathers, Crispins, Dightmans, Ruddocks, Petersons. Linda left the Valley during a first marriage, returned from suburbia over half a century ago to a deeper appreciation of Anderson Valley’s special economic and cultural ecosystem. She and her daughter Melanie live on a small piece of the old Dightman place on a wooded bluff looking down on Indian Creek’s south side about a quarter of a mile from the Highway 128 bridge, and she is also proprietor of an Airbnb cottage. 

Aunt Blanche, Linda relates, grew up south of Indian Creek in a cottage on property owned by either Dightmans or Prathers, I am not sure, with her four brothers and sisters. Family and friends who knew her all describe Blanche as a born educator and dedicated contributor to the cultural development of her community, including authoring children’s history books and the founding the celebrated annual Wildflower Show at the Boonville Fairgrounds each April. She began her formal education at the Indian Creek elementary school, and as there was no further public education in The Valley, she attended two years of high school in Point Arena and Ukiah. After completing her high school education in Ukiah, to qualify for a teaching credential Balance tutored privately with Ukiahan, Mrs. Porterfield. Janet Gowan’s article in the Advertiser in the 1980s described the qualifying exam as a ‘gruelling coverage of 22 subjects, lasting a week, from 8 AM to 6 PM.”

Blanche began her teaching career at the Ed Haehl grade school in the Yorkville region. Among her first students in 1918 were names known today, Ingram, Ornbaun, Hiatt, among others. In 1921, she returned to Philo and the Indian Creek School near where the Philo Catholic Church stands today on Clearwater Road. Students included Mike Prather, Leo Sanders, Opal Clow, Jim Johnson. Next she returned to being an itinerant teacher, taking jobs in Geyserville and Alexander Valley. Missing home after 11 years teaching in Sonoma County, she returned to Philo, securing a job at the Peachland School, in the hills above Boonville about four miles. Her family had bought 120 acres of land up Indian Creek about a mile, a cottage above the Indian Creek Road and a meadow gently sloping down to Indian Creek, a peaceful place out of the afternoon wind. Her father Frank had built a cottage and planted an orchard on the property, and Blanche moved there in 1932 after her Sonoma County exile and lived in the cottage with her beloved bachelor brother Kent who struggled with epilepsy the rest of their lives.

PHOTO: FrankBrown’s Home

The Peachland School job lasted only one year after which the school closed with students transferring to the Con Creek elementary school in Boonville. The school day in Peachland must have started early, as Blanche rode to work on horseback up Indian Creek and ascended a path still passable today onto the Peachland benchland. I recollect it being about three miles from the benchland edge above Philo to where I believe the Peachland store, Post Office and school were. Blanche’s next teaching job in Boonville also lasted a year, enough time for her to initiate a student club, a branch of the Campfire Girls, a national organization similar to the Boy Scouts of America, encouraging collaborative self-reliance in the outdoors among teen-agers. In 1935, I think, she was transferred to the Counts District local elementary school on the Reilly Ranch south of Mill Creek. Names like Day, Gschwend, Bloyd and Dightman appear in the school’s student registry, probably Reillys, Gschwends, Madduxes too. With the consolidation of all the outlying district elementary schools in Boonville, Counts closed in the 1930s, and has since been converted to a home by the Clark family. Friends of mine lived there in the 1970s, and I must report the school, under the oaks, out of the wind, and beneath the sound of Highway 128 traffic, made a comfortable dwelling for a large family; probably still does.

Next came Blanche’s last school appointment, the Con Creek School, now part of the Anderson Valley Historical Society museum. Con Creek was also her last school assignment; she taught seventh and eighth grades there from 1935 until her retirement in 1956, age 64. But many of us know “retirement” is a relative event. So it was for Blanche. The Clearwater Ranch facility for children wards of the court director brought some of the kids to her Indian Creek home for tutoring, and Blanche also coached local schoolteachers like Betty Burns and Charmian Blattner in managing classroom environments. 

Blanche’s most memorable contribution to the culture of Anderson Valley was the Wildflower Show, now institutionalized annually each April, the height of the wildflower season, at the Boonville Fairgrounds, one of our most important community celebrations each year. The tradition began, however, as a teaching and learning event up at the Peachland School eighty-six years ago this spring. Blanche’s Peachland school year began in the rainy season with two students. Come spring the opening of a sawmill in Peachland provided five more students to the classroom. Blanche’s family back to grandfather Dr. Brown had all been amateur naturalists, walking the woods and fields, studying their microsystems and flora, often gathering the wildflowers to decorate the home with. That spring of 1926, Blanche created a botany “class” by taking the students on occasional wildflower gathering walks. The specimens gathered she taught the students to identify and display with signs in the schoolroom. The research project concluded on April 24 with a formal exhibit to which the parents were invited.

When Blanche returned to teaching in Anderson Valley in the thirties, she reinstituted the show with the support and contribution of local schools, families and clubs. Soon after her formal retirement in 1956, the Campfire Girls recruited her to help organize a gathering and formal exhibit in the Clubhouse that existed at Indian Creek state park, a very successful local event. The next year the garden section of Unity Club participated in the harvest and exhibition which featured more than 300 specimens, several of which visiting professional botanists for identification by the California Academy of Sciences. I am not sure when the Wildflower Show moved to the Arts and Crafts building at the Boonville fairgrounds, but can count on it being there each year at the end of April.

As I mentioned earlier, after she returned to Anderson Valley in the 1930s, Blanche lived with her bachelor brother Kent at the comfortable cottage up Indian Creek, in which she and Kent lived until 1956, when the cottage was destroyed by a fire. 1956 was a ten year cycle flood year and the early morning conflagration, causes unknown but likely poor electrical wiring or chimney failure, was unsuppressable, as mudslides had blocked Indian Creek road in several places and the volunteer fire department couldn’t get up to the house. A sad loss Linda Hulbert still mourns as she described to me last week seeing black smoke and flames helplessly from washed out Indian Creek Road as she walked to school that day. 

(SOURCES: Our Families, Sketches And Memories, edited and privately published by Frances Henley Browning and Victor Ralph Henley, descendants of the Philo Families. Grass Roots Memories of Anderson Valley, Blanche Brown, privately published 1981, revised 1987. Linda Hulbert, born Crispin, and daughter Melanie Noerenberg, several hours of interviews, 2022. Next Week: Blanche’s homelife and contributions to the Community.)

One Comment

  1. jess July 22, 2022

    These people were not the first settlers in the valley. There were many families here already, well established, many children and their families, grandparents, siblings… a beautiful culture, who were subsequently all hunted down, with horses and dogs chasing after them and then shot in the back. Murdered, as they ran screaming. Only then, could the white man begin taking over and endlessly bragging, still today, about establishing themselves, annihilating the forests, standing proudly on once magnificent, beheaded trees. Christians, they called themselves.

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