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The Hurst Family: Arkie Immigration to the Valley

Very old friend Kenny Hurst is a great story-teller and journalist too. I found that out right away almost fifty years ago when he wrote a flamboyant report for the “other” Anderson Valley newspaper I published, the Advocate, on the mythic greenchain gang working at the Philo Mill back then. An earlier of my Advertiser articles about my career at the mill in 1974-5 quoted large parts of Ken’s elegy to us self-mythified Paul Bunyans. Today’s story about the Valley’s Arkie community started with several interviews with Ken up at his Greenwood Ridge home, Loren Bloyd’s old Rocky Bluff Ranch, magnificently supported by a number of rich Advertiser reports he had written twenty years ago about his recollections from being one of the first Arkie families to arrive in The Valley, 1947. Those articles have deeply informed the ones I will be writing about this post-world War II episode of migration to The Valley.

Ken’s family were small farmers living on a hundred sixty acres and growing yellow meat watermelon, a first in Arkansas, he claims, corn and peanuts near the towns of Glenwood, Amity, and Mount Ida. The largest town in the County, Glenwood, lies on route US 70, once an important east-west national highway. The countryside there is flat to gently rolling with loblolly, slash and other pines on the ridgetops. And the Hurst farm, like those in Anderson Valley was part crops to market, part family subsistence with milk cows, hogs, chickens and a large vegetable garden. 

With marriage to Mary Burchfield his father Noel left the farm, moved to Mountain Pine, a more mountainous and forested village west of Hot Springs, and found work in a large saw mill. When World War II broke out, Noel and his new wife ended up living in Vallejo, he inducted into the Marines and in basic training, she working at the Mare Island navy construction yard managing its tool shop. Noel was the first of his local neighbors to volunteer for wartime service, and a number of his close friends signed up right behind him. In those wartime recruitment days military policy tried to keep friends stationed together as a morale booster, and several of his best buddies fought in the same unit with him throughout the Pacific campaign ending at Iwo Jima. After Noel finished his military service at War’s end, he and Mary returned to Arkansas. knowing the farm couldn’t support their growing family, the Hursts packed kids and most important worldly possessions into a 1930s sedan, perhaps a four door Dodge, and headed for California, where so many southerners in those days, Arkies, Okies, Texans, Louisianans, thought the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow waited.

Ken’s mother Mary was a good story-teller and was always pleased to comment on male behavior, her husband’s and friends’ and neighbors’. In his AVA Arkie articles Ken quotes from memory a number of those cryptic tales, which I have framed with quotations marks. About the journey west she reported: “Marcia (Ken’s sister) had her first birthday on the trip, and you (Ken) were crawling all over me and everything while your Daddy and Audie Martin (neighborhood friend) chawed tobacco, spit out the open windows and acted like the trip was all a good time with not a care in the world.”

The Hurst’s destination was a mill camp up in the Sierras north of Nevada City, a Wartime start-up operation by an Arkie neighbor, Vaughan. Noel got a job at the mill immediately, apprentice to the edgerman running a large multi-blade saw that turned the first log cut, the cant, into boards, say 2 x 4s or 2 x 6s and larger, and as apprentice mill equipment mechanic too. The job was steady, but housing and utilities were another matter. The mill site was perhaps at 5,000 feet altitude and near a snow-melt stream. Noel built a tent with a wooden floor on the stream edge, an arrangement which accommodated water gathering, and dish and clothes washing and bathing too. A bit chilly in wintertime, but the organic refrig Noel carved in the snow drift in front of the tent was a winter blessing. In a couple of years, however, the timber source supporting the mill was logged out and it was for the Hursts time to move on again.

Noel had kept in touch with his roots in Arkansas and had gotten a job invitation from an Arkie neighbor, an elderly gentleman named Foshee. The mill was arguably the first post-war one in The Valley. It was located in the open field on the south side of Mountainview Road just before the valley floor begins to slope, opposite the orchard remnant and newer vineyard above Boonville International Airport. “Foshee’s mill” was an interesting investor partnership and included Foshee, a Glenwood merchant L.T. Merritt, who sold his business during World War II, moved to Boonville and invested in constructing a sawmill there, assuming the high price of lumber during World War II would continue into the post-war era, a risky assumption. Other Arkie investors from around Glenwood included Chili Bates, who ran the logging operation with Billy Owens as his primary choker setter. Local early settler scion and ambitious entrepreneur Bob Rawles was also an investor. According to ‘Mills Of Mendocino County’** silent investors included persons named Martin, Donohue and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, unknown to Ken. After a year or so, the elderly Foshee moved back to Arkansas and Merritt became the mill manager.

As usual housing was a secondary consideration in Anderson Valley’s timber and mill boom, and upon arrival Ken remembers his mother saying the only accommodation fitting the whole family was a ”motel” in Navarro. I don’t think so; in all my research about the mill days in Navarro, no one every told me about, nor did I see a picture of a motel building. Perhaps Mary meant “hotel.,” and maybe they stayed in the Navarro Inn, the biggest accommodation in Navarro, then called the Hotel Pardini.

The Hursts couldn’t afford the monthly rent in Navarro and soon moved to a house on the Boonville mill site. Here’s how a “house” was defined in the early post-war mill camp days. The mill owner permitted employees to build a cabin, realistically called “shacks” by their inhabitants. So Noel threw together a three room “shack,” possibly made out of mill run lumber, but due to the long hours weekly at the mill didn’t get to putting in the floor for months. Mary solved the problem, though, she reports…” I raised cain with Noel after work one day, and the next the floor was put in the house.” My sense is that even though the Hursts and others “owned” their “shacks,” they didn’t own the land it sat on. The arrangement was satisfactory for all concerned because either the shacks, built in haste and not exactly code, usually deteriorated beyond repair in a couple of years.

After three years of operation Merritt, et al., sold the mill to Al Bolt and Merritt left The Valley. D.L. Martin built a mill on Ornbaun Road, near where the road jigs right along a creek at the north end of today’s airport runway. This mill also had a dug pond on the property where logs unloaded and stored in preparation for milling. Ken remembers swimming in the mill pond on hot Boonville days-ends. Noel Hurst got a job at this mill and moved his family to a home nearby on Ornbaun Road underneath a large live oak tree. Noel’s father and mother joined them at their new home. Ken’s grandfather had been a professional logger back in Arkansas, and he immediately went to work falling in the Valley’s logging sites. Unhappily he was killed on the job in a Peachland logging show. This mill was owned by Martin but was known by the name of his partner, “Browne’s Mill.” Browne was an elder quiet man, Jewish, and Noel Hurst became friends with him. Ken describes Browne as a “kindly person,” a boss worth being friends with. And he paid better than Foshee/Merritt. **

Ken’s best article from the 2000 AVA describes vividly his childhood daily life back in the forties and fifties and also relationships between early settlers and the Arkie immigrant wave. Here’s Ken’s recollection of his mother’s description of mill camp home life. “I told Noel I couldn’t stand it there without some entertainment. We didn’t have any money yet, but I went to Rossi’s Hardware store and talked to Emil Rossi and asked him if I could buy a radio by making payments even if I didn’t have money to put down. Emil said, ‘young lady, you can have anything you want in this store.’ So I got a big radio that was a large, fine piece of furniture. I’ve got pictures of you (Ken) listening to the radio.” Mary’s term for demonstrating to Emil her integrity with personal debt was an astonishing Arkie turn of phrase I had never heard before, “I ran my face.” Mary described the transaction thus: “you looked the proprietor in the eyes and if he believed in the character of your face, you could purchase things based on your word to pay for them later. Emil Rossi was a wonderful man who helped lots of people when they needed help. Mary’s friend Cloi Burchfield went to Rossi’s the next day and got her entire house outfitted by Emil.” Ken’s article noted “In fact all of the proprietors in The Valley let newcomers “run their faces” because The Valley people were learning again to live with this new wave of “Arkie” immigrants.

This article also relates lots of anecdotes about Ken’s Anderson Valley youthful experiences at home, in school and around the community and the relationship between The Valley’s “oldtimers” and the Arkie new arrivals. Mary reported “You would have your hand on the radio with your face laying on your hand while listening to The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Inner Sanctum, Sergeant Preston and The Whistler. Your daddy and I loved to listen to The Hit Parade. Your dad loved Kay Starr singing “Wheel of Fortune.” This journalist can report that rural Anderson Valley homes were listening to the same network broadcast programming as I did in deep suburban New Jersey every evening during the forties and fifties. 

Ken also describes his personal income earning agenda from a very early age. “As a kid I saved half gallon lard buckets, filled them with blackberries and sold them to neighbors and merchants for 50¢ each. Mrs. Wiese made cobbler from the blackberries. I also roamed the camp we were living in to collect coke bottles to sell, or to hoe weeds out of yards for money to go to Wiese’s Store in Boonville. I would get an ice cream cone or a root beer float at Tony’s, and buy comic books.” Tony’s was a soda shop/convenience store on the Old Highway, now Anderson Valley Way just north of the Elementary School and before Con Creek, all oak trees and blackberry bushes today.

In his after school ramblings around The Valley on business or pleasure Ken always encountered friendliness among “oldtimer” neighbors and business owners. He reports “Modesto (identified) Okies and Arkies as separate people, but south of Modesto if you were from any southern state, you were simply considered…an Okie. The Okie and Arkie labels were usually negative terms to designate southern outsiders who arrived in California broke, rather than people from any particular state. My father Noel told me long before he died that ‘in California the farther north you go, the nicer the people are’.” He also noted to Ken “the Arkies in the 1940s didn’t have it near as rough as the Okies in the 1930s did. Not only were times better, but we had all fought a war together.” Very sophisticated economic and social class analysis from an observant, philosophical man.

Ken’s article also captures the retrospective comments of other Arkie newcomers. Wilma Brink, Walter’s wife, reported “The people here didn’t like us at first, but as soon as they got to know us, they did like us because we were just like them.” Carolyn Short, who with her husband Jeff were right behind the Hursts migrating to the Sierra’s mill and to Foshees, said: “At first there was some standoffishness because we were new, but after we all got to know one another, we were all comfortable and became friends.” Ken’s mother Mary: “I became friends with almost everyone…eventually. And I loved Goldie Ward (Charmian’s mother), but don’t you sugar-coat everything because there was lots of resentment toward us in the schools, they said we weren’t paying taxes.”

I will finish my story with a list of the immigrant “Arkie” families Ken’s article mentions with the hope that their names become bait to lure other participants in the Migration still here in The Valley to tell me their recollections of this great American experience, indeed our history since the Pilgrims fled British persecution in the 1620s. Where are you the Adams’s, Bates, Brinks, Burchfields, Charles, Coffmans, Goldens, Faulkners, Hardings, Holcombs, Hollifields, Lemons, Morses, Owens, Shorts, Summits, Tuckers, Vaughans. Whom have I missed?

**‘The Mills of Mendocino County, A Record of the Lumber Industry, 1852-1996, Alice Holmes and Wilbur Lawson,’ Editors. Mendocino County Historical Society, 1996.

Next Week: “Down at Buster Hollifield’s Mill.”

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