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Another “Arkie” Mill Saga: Down at Buster Hollifield’s

When Hollifield came here and built his mill, everyone wanted to work for him… — Ken Hurst recollection, August, 2022

When I first moved to The Valley half a century ago, locals were still telling stories about this mythic “Arkie” personality, both his former employees and his neighbors, even though Buster only lived here for fifteen years.  Buster Hollifield arrived here from the Glenwood, Arkansas area in 1948 and immediately teamed up with his old country neighbor, Clark Golden, to build Hollifield and Golden mill, which started production in 1949.  The millsite was across Highway 128 just south of Jack’s Valley Store.  The photo of the mill in Mills of Mendocino County* shows it nestled between the road, the Whipple Ridge foothill and Philo hill to the south, currently Toulouse winery and vineyard.  The photo reveals a relatively small, primitive mill building, two tepee burners, one for the mill, another serving what looks like a tiny resaw mill building.  The whole front yard, as it were, is a huge log deck stretching from the highway to the mill itself.  Out back of the mill is a relatively small stack of finished lumber units.

In 1951, Golden bought his partner out and Buster moved north down the road across from Jack’s Valley Store and built his own mill.  The Mills Of Mendocino County aerial, which I have hanging in my bathroom photo gallery, shows a considerably larger operation than the H & G, the main building the standard T-shape with the green chain facing the highway.  The site’s “front yard,” as it were, supports a very large log deck with a smaller one near the tepee burner on the south side if the mill.  On that side and behind the main building are considerable stacks of finished lumber units.  The Mills book notes H & G’s daily production capacity as forty thousand board feet, not bad for its time.  It also describes Buster and his wife Ruby as the co-owners.  A rather confusing item in the book identifies a Davis Brothers Planing Mill on the property, owned by Buster and Davis, but operating dates of 1965-8.  I’ve never heard anyone speak of this partnership.

Buster was a very special kind of small capitalist entrepreneur, a visionary creator and attentive manager of his business ambitions.  At the same time everyone who worked for him or were his neighbors always spoke with affection and respect for him.  Never the aloof office “boss,” Buster was a tall, skinny man always dressed in bib overalls littered with pockets, work shirt and crumpled fedora hat spending most of the work day cruising the mill grounds cheering the workers on with stories and gossip.   My friend and Navarro woodsman mentor Bill Witherell loved telling Buster Hollifield stories while we were out “deer hunting” in his World War II jeep.  As an earlier article about Bill reported, he worked there in the 1950s, and all his stories about life at “Hollifield’s” were filled with good feelings and humor. 

Bill told me more than once a great story about after-work recreation with Buster.  Buster owned some timber and range land up on Clow Ridge behind the Day Ranch.  Could it have been as large as 1300 acres?  During the hunting season the mill always shut down for a week so employees could take their favorite form of vacation, camping and deer hunting.  And he often invited employee friends to join him camped out up there on the property.  Bill described one form of evening afterdinner entertainment.  A canvas drop cloth was spread on the ground near the camp fire and a poker game began.  Bill claimed that the stakes were huge in those low-wage, big savings days.  Sometimes, he said, the pot for a single game might be as much as $500 dollars in bills lying in the middle of the tarp waiting for someone to win the hand.

Ever the ambitious entrepreneur, in 1953 Buster began a business relationship with a San Francisco-based financial services organization, Argonaut Insurance Company.  The deal revolved around mill safety at Hollifield, something also important to Buster.  Argonaut hired an on-site engineer and a safety instructor to work at the mill providing safety instruction and recording the daily and annual accident rate.  I believe the arrangement had something to do with the company accruing safety  record data to help establish its injury insurance premium rates.  Very innovative for a small family-owned mill in 1950s Nowhere, California.  In exchange for Buster’s contribution to the insurance company’s management Argonaut gave him shares in its ownership.  I bet he didn’t cash them in until when the company was bought out another insurer further down the calendar.

Earlier in this article I spoke of Buster’s kindness to his employees.  Ken Hurst’s Buster AVA stories twenty years ago describe his own and his Dad’s experience working at Hollifield’s.  While Ken was stationed in US Army basic training at Fort Ord, Buster was kind enough to hire him to work at the mill during his two week long leave holiday.  Buster gave him the simple no-training job of manually pulling bark and strips from the from the lumber going through the multi-blade edger where his dad ran the saw.  One day when the Hursts were working together at the edger a sharp cant edging caught Noel’s shirt sleeve and pushed his hand into the sawblades.  Noel was quick enough to withdraw his hand so he only received a deep gash on his ring finger.  Ken tried to get his dad to shut down the edger and go to the doctor in Boonville.  Noel, loyal to his fellow employees and the boss, refused to shut down the mill until noontime.  Instead he wielded his own medical skills, fired up the welder and cauterized his finger with the flame.  At noon he went to Dr. Bradford’s in Boonville for formal medical care.

Earlier I mentioned Buster’s care and support for the larger Anderson Valley community.  Ken Hurst reports that Charmian Blattner had told him that without Buster the Philo area would have suffered road-side grass fires, the usual cause-cigarette butts, up and down Highway 128.  Buster had bought a huge water wagon for the mill, probably to sprinkle daily the road dust around the millsite, a health hazard to the various work crews.  And before the days of a local volunteer fire department and equipment, the water wagon was always on call to provide hose and water to suppress those summer and autumn spot fires, including at his own business site. 

Yesterday, I ran into Mike Mannix supervising the Boonville dump.  Sure enough although he had never worked for Buster, he had a story.  When Buster hired a rigger to drill an additional well, the drill hit not water, but methane and ignited it.  It took his water wagon three days to extinguish the gushing flames.

Buster’s evening hours dress code was famous around The Valley as was his robust sociability in public places like Wiese’s bar in Boonville or the Lockhorn in Philo.  Ken reports him as “a striking figure who preferred suede coats, Pendleton shirts, slacks, dress boots and a fedora cocked at a rakish angle atop the entire presentation.  He drove big, brand new cars, Cadillac or Chrysler, and bought an airplane.”  John Burroughs, an Arkie teenager living at Philbrook’s Mill down the hill from the Philo Grange, reports being at Wiese’s soda shop after school and hearing every word of Buster’s dominating monologue through the interior door of the adjacent Track Inn. 

Another story Ken relates: Buster arrives at Wiese’s restaurant/coffee shop “one memorable day a large group of men had gathered to talk and drink coffee when Buster walked in.  One of the men said, ‘hey Buster, we’re getting about ready to throw you and all them other Arkies out of the valley.’  Buster put sugar into his coffee, stirred it, took a sip and said, ‘Y’all old boys waited too long.  There’s too much of us now.  We’re stayin.’  His statement was made without bluster or anger, but with the confidence the words were true and final.  The story of Buster’s reply resounded around the hills and redwoods, the houses of the ranchers, and into the shacks around the lumber mills where the Arkies lived.”  

Buster’s afternoon recreation included going aloft in his single engine two seater.   He had built a landing strip behind the mill and against the Whipple Ridge sidehill and also a hangar for the aircraft.  Kay Clow told me he generously loaned her the airplane so she, a teenager, could teach herself how to fly.  Buster also used his airplane to scout out timberland to purchase.  He told Ken during a visit back to his retirement home at Mount Ida that that a scouting expedition aloft using Phat Clow as an appraiser became “the deal that put him over and allowed him to relax financially in California.  ‘I outbid everybody and got the timber rights for millions of board feet and Phat had estimated the footage within about twenty thousand board feet’.” 

Ken also told me the other day that Buster also survived a plane crash at the Boonville airport.  He had come down the Valley from the north, side-slipping the timbered June Ranch ridge too near the end of the runway in order to avoid hitting it. As he lined up with the runway for landing, he put the nose down too low, and the force of his runway contact broke the nose wheel strut clean off the fuselage, the plane flipped over, skidded down the runway upside down without breaking up or catching fire.  Buster, however, was left hanging upside down in the cockpit by his safety belt, and was only released when an Airport Drive neighbor noticed his predicament.

Buster married his wife Ruby in Arkansas in 1940.  Ruby told Ken about their marriage when he visited his roots back after Buster passed. “I was a school teacher and I was practical.  Buster was an optimist and a visionary.  I asked him, ‘Buster, how could you get a loan while you’re unemployed?  Buster told me, ‘well, I know how to talk.’  So I told him ‘we can do what you want to do and go where you want to go, but I am going to handle the money’.”  Thus was founded the Hollifield partnership owning the mill.

Buster and Ruby migrated to Modesto in 1941 and Buster found employment picking fruit and in the peach packing sheds.  Later on Buster worked part-time for Sears-Roebuck in Modesto, saved money and bought a flatbed truck, probably used, and started his business owner career.  The first week hauling peaches he made $1,300, also his best week as a teamster, and Ruby  was putting the money into a savings account.  Buster did try to enlist when World War II broke out, but was rejected by the draft board because of his illiteracy, a typical situation for a part-Cherokee, part poor Scots-Irish white male.

It was in Modesto where the Hollifields met Clark and Paulene Golden on their way from Arkansas to Anderson Valley to start a sawmill.  Golden’s father, also Clark, was a wealthy Glenwood resident also known as “the Banker.”  His “bank” building was his bib overalls with pockets from shoulders to knees.  Each pocket held a separate loan account record for his borrowing local neighbors, hence his title.  And in the Glenwood area every debtor liked, and more important trusted Clark Golden, Sr.  Golden also knew the Hollifields well enough to encourage his son living in Modesto to get Buster and Ruby to join them in a new business venture.  The Hollifields and Goldens arrived in Anderson Valley in 1947, and immediately bought land from the Clows to build their mill on.  The Hollifield and Golden partnership lasted until 1951, when Buster took the money from the Golden buy-out and built his mill next door.

In 1963, Buster and Ruby sold the business, packed up all their worldly possessions, including the sawmill, and moved back to Mount Ida in Clark County.  “I left California when the challenge was gone,” Ken reports Buster reminiscing.  “I loved the Valley and lots of the people there.  Ruby hated to leave her sister, Wilma Brink and her church.”

Back in Arkansas Buster kept busy in retirement.  He dug some ponds on his place and started catfish farming and sold the fish for food. He also invested in real estate developments in Clear Lake and in Safford Arizona, near the federal prison there, a challenging idea in the 1950s.  Bill Witherell told me the story about Buster salvaging all the running gear, frames, chains and motors from the Philo mill, packing the pieces in tarpaulin and hauling it all back to his home in Mount Ida.  When asked by friends what motivated him to do that, Buster said he wanted to be prepared for The Judgement Day, when God’s wrath hurled another flood at the world’s sinners.  Afterwards he would reassemble the mill and make millions in this new world without competitors.  Buster was always planning.

(Next Week:  Other Arkie families in The Valley, the Burroughs)

* Mills of Mendocino County,  Alice Holmes and Wilbur Lawson, editors.  Mendocino County Historical Society, 1996.

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