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Aunt Blanche Brown & Indian Creek (Part 2)

Two weeks ago our story introduced us to the life of Aunt Blanche Brown, teacher, historian, community asset.  The episode ended with the fire that consumed her Indian Creek home in January, 1956.  This week I will describe the rebuilt and well-maintained homestead as it is today, what the Indian Creek community and industry looked like during her lifetime in The Valley, and include a more complete picture of Blanche the local historian and schoolbook author.

As I mentioned in my previous, the Blanche Brown homestead was situated on the bumpy, potholed county road a mile up Indian Creek.  Blanche’s father Frank had built the original right-of-way in pieces over the years, armed with pick, shovel and dynamite to conquer the rocky outcrops.  The home site was and is still right above the road and against the south hillside framing Indian Creek.  Blanche’s niece Linda Hulbert and I made an exploratory tour of the house and surrounding property on a warm, sunny day last February.  

Soon after Blanche’s death in 1986 the Brown family sold the place to City People in 1989, after her death.  The new owners had expanded the rebuilt Brown home with bedrooms but had kept the comfortable spirit of the old place, a simple one story rambling cottage with a view facing north across the creekfloor meadow, Indian Creek itself and up Whipple Ridge onto the Sanders place.  They had also maintained the essence of the surrounding yard, the landscaped gardens, next to the house a small elegant handmade barn, in back against the sidehill a shaded open space under the firs,  oaks and pepperwoods up the hill behind the house.  The centerpiece of this shady grove was an ancient, gnarly pepperwood tree, a stout lower limb of which supported the handmade rope and wood swing still hanging there today.  Standing with Linda and  her daughter Melanie in the cool of the grove compared to the warm drought-year day in the front yard, reflecting on the homestead’s past, was the highlight of our February tour.  Linda and Melanie both couldn’t stop themselves from reminiscing about the joyous childhood hours they, kin and friends spent testing their swing management skills in the cool of the grove.

Pepperwood tree & swing

Blanche the botanical naturalist had ambitiously landscaped the yard surrounding her house with an array of decorative annuals and perennials, maintained an extensive kitchen garden of beans, peas, squashes, tomatoes, herbs and more.  Fruit trees including apples, pears, prunes were also part of her plantings, along with blackberries and raspberries.  Today some remnants of her multi-purpose landscaping continue to thrive,  including daffodils, iris, rare wild lilies, and Pink Lady Slipper still flourishing into the twenty first century.

Below the house and road there is a floodplain field running up and down Indian Creek bottom, a vigorous grassland pasture perhaps a hundred yards wide and comprising some 120 acres.  This grassy flat, today wild oats, rye, brome, etc., desperately needs livestock grazing on it to mitigate the fire hazard.  Back in Blanche’s time, Linda and I assume the Browns probably grew grain and ran sheep there, as did most of the surrounding neighbors from first settlement into the 1850s.  The grains, likely wheat, barley, rye partly fed the horses cultivating the field and nearby Brown orchard, some three acres of apples, pears, prunes , possibly walnuts. the rest going to to the nearby flour mill;  The Brown orchard, with its nearby Indian Creek swimming hole, was the site of the Prather family picnics (everyone in Philo was related to the Prathers) until 1951.

The Indian Creek road continued upstream for another 2 miles or so to where the creek branches north and south.  The north branch runs behind Whipple Ridge and headwaters miles north up against the backside of Day and Cook ranches, now all grapes.  The south branch runs east of Peachland and headwaters just below Route 253, the Ukiah Road.  You can see its terminus, if you slow down and look north over the edge into the headwater deep canyon near Milepost 9.00 or so.  Back where the creek branched there was, I believe, in the 1920s a logging camp and “town” to house the woodsworkers and their families, the usual cookhouse, living quarters, company store, dispensary, etc.  Like much of the local logging industry the camp/town only lasted a couple of years, then died.  I haven’t heard how the logs were moved downstream for milling or to what mills they were delivered.  I hope a reader can add to this piece of Anderson Valley history.

What we do know from the Henley’s, SKETCHES AND MEMORIES is that Prather and Dightman migrated respectively from Iowa and Illinois separately, but partnered to build and run a sawmill along Indian Creek, located on a Creekside flat  on Dightman land across from the first Dightman home, currently owned by Lynn Archambeau.  The original wagon road from Cloverdale and Boonville came down through the Dightman 160 acre homestead and in the summer crossed the creek on the shallow gravel, then climbed up the hill into downtown Philo.  You can still clearly the road right-of-way cut into the side hill on both sides of Indian Creek.  More interesting was the fact that there was also somewhere along the creek a flour mill.  The Henley memoir describes is as a substantial building with a brick foundation, but offers little else about its location and operation.  Recently I came across a remarkably educative new settler story, Gran ma Stubblefield’s Rose.  I can’t wait to describe this diary, converted by local schoolteacher Beth Tuttle and her Covelo schoolteacher brother Victor Henley into, I believe, fictionalized memoir. Gran ma Stubblefield, who arrived from Missouri into the Valley in 1856, stated the mill came into existence in the 1870s.  What the Browning/Henley recollection does assert is there were enough farmers growing grains, wheat, rye, barley, perhaps oats, up and down Anderson Valley to support a commercial mill.  What I would like to find out is what the power source for the millstones was or were.  Was it horse, water or steam.  And when was the mill started, when did it cease, where was the product marketed, locally or out of the Valley?

Since until now I had never heard discussion among local historians and story-tellers anything about a flour mill in The Valley, I became seduced into finding out all I could about its location and operation.  Linda Hulbert’s daughter Melanie made contact with the property’s current owner, Vera Blackwell, and last week Vera led us on a guided tour of her 37 acre piece of the old Dightman place, all grassy flats and streamside redwoods, willows and hardwoods along Indian Creek.  Vera’s father bought the  property as a summer retreat back in 1967, when Vera was fifteen.  The family used the haybarn/shearing shed for a campsite for years , and she and her husband Toby Gleason converted the barn into a home.  Vera’s father was an amateur reforester and from his first days living there had been replanting the native habitat, including redwoods, firs, and even horsetail sedges to help minimize erosion on the creek floodplain.  Local realtor Bob Mathias had sold Dr. Blackwell the property and then advised and assisted planting horsetail sedge among the streamside redwoods for years.   Vera has continued her father’s planting agenda, and I told her I’d be pleased to assist her with redwood seedlings I purchase from a Humboldt County commercial forestry nursery.

Vera, Melanie and I drove and walked the grassy flat exploring the evidence of the flour mill and of a “camp” for the Dightman/Prather mill.  I think it best to plan another article after further research into these mills and their supporting community as evidenced by abandoned shacks, hutches, washing machines from the 1940s, dooryard apple, plum and whitethorn trees, and the elegant shell of an early 1950s Ford flatbed dumptruck, I bet is a Prather remnant.  We could find no evidence of the flour mill’s brick foundation or the millstones Henley describes.  What we did find was what appeared to be a shallow well on the Creekside edge of the grassy flat we were walking in.  Large amounts of water are needed daily to lubricate the mill running apparatus.  So this possible well would have been an important part of the operation.  I look forward to more research and  writing about the political economy of the Philo community and the entrepreneurial Prather, Brown, Ruddock, Dightman families.

The Henley memoir notes that another important asset of the Prather family annual picnic was a large swimming hole in Indian Creek  next to the Brown orchard, very important recreational element on a hot windless day in June in these parts. My swimming hole experience up and down the Navarro says that a ten foot deep hole, even if only thirty feet across, can maintain a perfect 70 degrees temperature all during a hundred degree day, and in those days no algae.  Linda Hulbert reports that as a younger person she sought the refuge of holes along the Creek on hot Philo days.  She and I know that the location and size of swimming holes can change dramatically from year to year, according to rainfall amounts and size of floods.  (I should mention that Linda remembers that in the dramatic January, 1974 flood, Indian Creek rose to the road below Blanche’s house and into the Brown orchard due to torrents coming down the Creek from Peachland and out of Fern Gulch. Linda also reports that during her childhood and into the 1970s local  loggers years would volunteer their D 6’s and 7’s to build temporary summer sand and gravel dams across the creek to create swimming holes for the benefit of the neighborhood.  Gross violations of California state water resources law, as everyone knew back then.

Along with being a lifelong classroom educator, Blanche was also a dedicated local history researcher and writer.  I have read in depth her 1981 work GRASSROOTS OF ANDERSON VALLEY.  The treatise is principally a recital of various Anderson Valley first settler families living between Yorkville and Christine at Mill Creek near Navarro. In over a hundred pages she recites the ancestral roots back east of people like Anderson, Ball, Beeson, Brown, Crispin, Gschwend,  Kendall, McAbee, McGimsey. Prather, Rawls, Ruddock, Stubblefield.  And interwound with the families’ Valley descendants are brief stories of their roles in the local economy.  I wish she had told more about these pieces of their biography.

The latter half of GRASS ROOTS tells brief histories of The Valley’s important community institutions and includes the local one room classroom schools scattered all over from Navarro to the Johnson Ranch five miles south of today’s Yorkville.  Blanche also betrayed her religious preference in a history of the local Methodist churches in Boonville and Philo, including a list of the 1891 contributors to the Philo Church construction on land donated by Cornelius Prather, and another of the presiding church ministers between 1864 and 1955. The work concludes with the story of the Philo Post Office founding and reminiscences of past Wildflower Shows, only four pages I am disappointed to report.

The only sample of Blanche’s local history for children writing are a dozen pages included in the Browning/Henley SKETCHES memoir.  I hope there is more on archival record somewhere in Mendocino County.  One sample titled THE STORY OF ANDERSON VALLEY FOR BOYS AND GIRLS, is dated September, 1957, suggesting that part of her “retirement” agenda was creating this kind of educational literature for future Anderson Valley children.  It is evident to me that Blanche believed as I do that local history is important, explaining who we are as a local community and how we are similar to, and why we differ from other communities around rural America.  The Anderson Valley excerpt begins by providing the geographic context for the settlement’s economy, a river bottom nestled in the Coast Range and back from the Pacific Ocean.  She identifies the first settlers, not the American easterners looking for a new frontier, but the Pomo people, whose migratory use of The Valley she describes briefly but in accurate detail.  Moving on to the first pre-Civil War settlers her work portrays not just the founding family heroic accomplishments  (I call this kind of biography familiolatry), but an accurate picture of the semi-subsistence practices of farming and logging families, grain, orchards, sheep, and mills.  I knew John Gschwend built a mill on Mill Creek in 1854, but had no idea the first mill at the mouth of the Navarro was also built about that time until I read Blanche.  The balance of this history chapter describes the origins of community institutions like the schools and post offices.

There is no date attached to her piece THE STORY OF THE SOUTH COAST OF MENDOCINO COUNTY FOR BOYS AND GIRLS, but it is thematically very similar to ANDERSON VALLEY.  It begins with a lovely and informed description of the geography between the Navarro and Gualala rivers, that is one deep creekbed gulch after another.  The deepest defile along Coast Highway 1 was and still is at Mallo Pass (Mal Paso) gulch north of the current Irish Beach subdivision.  She describes it at the arrival of the first white settlers as only passable on a hand-dug foot path down and up the rocky gorge, no horses, no wagons.  The balance of the work describes the economy of various towns along the coast, Point Arena, Manchester, Greenwood (Elk) and Cuffey’s Cove. 

Blanche and Kent Brown, c. 1980

Blanche completes her Coast story with another contextualization of progress for her young audience with a parable comparing the difference between the first settler experience climbing across Mal Pas on a foot path and a hundred years later comfortably riding a bus across numerous cement/steel bridges on Highway One to school and wondering about the purpose of the Naval radar station on the ridge behind Point Arena built in the 1950s to detect incoming Russian nuclear missiles.

It’s been a wonderful experience the past five months exploring the life of Aunt Blanche Brown.  It is touching to know that as difficult as life on the frontier can be for first settler families and their immediate descendants, people like Blanche chose to dedicate their whole lives to the betterment of the rural community they were born into.  Thank you Blanche Brown.

* * *

Appreciation:   And thank you Linda Hulbert, born Crispin and her daughter, Melanie Holloway, for their time reminiscing about the “Aunt Blanche” they were lucky enough to grow up around.  And to Vera Blackwell for guiding us on our search for the old flour mill.

Sources: ‘Our Families, Sketches and Memories,’edited and privately published by descendants of the Philo families.  Blanche Brown, “Grass Roots Memories of Anderson Valley,’ published privately, 1981, revised 1987.  ‘Gran ma Stubblefield’s Rose,’ written by Beth Tuttle and Victor Henley , 1982.

One Comment

  1. Scott Taubold August 6, 2022

    My Great-Great Grandparents were the Yorkville Hulberts, Pa, Charles was His name I think and Lola (we called her Dala). Their daughter was Lola belle Jewett. She married Ed Jewett her schoolteacher at the little Red school house. They moved from “the ranch” (sheep ranch) now a Christmas tree farm and sold the other half to a winery. Austin Hulbert had it until Scott Hulbert inherited it. Scott, like myself was named after the Scott Family. Let’s see Margaret Toulouse married Scott, then Hulbert, I would have to get out the genealogy, which my aunt and cousins were good enough to record. Anyway, Lolabelle’s daughter married Ed Taubold, and my brother Tim and I are the surviving Taubolds. Loved those old summers at “the ranch.” I have 3 daughters. The last of our line.

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