Press "Enter" to skip to content

John Burroughs: An “Arkie” Teenager Heads West

To continue my “Arkies” in The Valley stories, I thought I would explore the life of an “older” immigrants’ child. As Einstein theorized over a hundred years ago with regard to age and time, everything is relative. John Burroughs, age 86, is almost half a decade older than I and Kenny Hurst, Arkie storyteller. John and I first became friends over forty years ago, when I engaged him to build my first home here on Harmony Hill, Navarro. I had designed the building, in fact had drafted its plans at a drawing board with a tee square, protractor, architect’s ruler, tools saved from my high school mechanical drawing class a quarter of a century earlier.

John went on five years later to convert my woodframe water tower into a detached 2 bedroom/office addition behind the house, no easy job, and ten years ago a semi-octagonal extension to my living room, all glass walled on the south side. This complex addition, utilizing the foundation framing for the previous sundeck, still flies. And more important, after three owner/designer-contractor engagements, we are still good friends. Reason being, I claim, because we are of similar temperaments, long term, patient, wanting to learn more from life, reflective, ruminative, meaning liking to story-tell and gossip analytically about friend and neighbors.

John Burroughs was born in Chidester, Arkansas fifteen miles north of Camden, a major county seat on U.S. Highway 70 halfway between Little Rock and Memphis Tennessee across the Mississippi River. John was the youngest of six brothers and sisters. His mother had died when John was a child, his father, John, sr., , had remarried to a woman named “Vergie” John describes as a good step-mother. His father was a craftsman saw filer at the local mill in Chidrick, a job critical to the efficiency of its operation. The main saw, the head rig, was five feet in diameter with dozens of removable teeth that required sharpening once a day. And so did the other saws, circular and band, that created the finished lumber. 

As in the rest of the South wages even for a skilled worker were low at the local mill and work hours/week unpredictable. In 1951, John’s family loaded into a 1948 Ford pick-up truck and headed for California where it was said work was steadier and wages better. The trip took five days and ended up with John’s father finding saw-filing work at Philbrook’s mill, down a road south of the Philo Grange off Highway 128, across Rancheria Creek on a flat. The mill also provided “shack” housing for its employees.

As a teenager John was already a craftsman builder. He remembers assembling from wood a model steamboat almost two feet long. He also learned how to navigate that boat in Rancheria Creek even under winter streamflow conditions. He designed his boat with strings attached to both bow and stern and taught himself how to maneuver it from the near stream bank across Rancheria and back by guiding it with care out into the middle and using the current as a source of power to the end of the string. He then used the stern string to recover his yacht.

John’s dad was a member of the local Jehovah’s Witness and overused his evangelical zeal raising his children. So when the father found a better job at a mill over in Fort Bragg, John preferred to continue his high school education with his Valley friends, and stayed. He found a home at the Cecil Gowan Ranch living with the generous James and Jo Gowan. The Gowans also found him work at decent wages for much of the year both in the orchard pruning, thinning and picking in seasonal rotation, and also in the packing shed, often repairing the 40 pound apple boxes, lugs, into which apples were both harvested and shipped to market.

John’s high school friends included Dick Sands, Lovella Canevri and Jerry Wiese, the bar owner’s daughter. I also know from other local sources he was an excellent basketballer on the school team. John quite appropriately played the point guard, a position that in a sense, directed the offense, including big forwards Billy Don Hale and Jerry Weeks from backcourt to the hoop. His nickname during the season was “Bullsy,” I heard elsewhere, because he was such an efficient, accurate shot maker from that difficult location 25 feet from the net. No grandstanding.

After he graduated from high school, John matriculated at the Southern Oregon Institute of Technology, a two year college in Klamath Falls. Not only did he leave The Valley in pursuit of further education; he also left California too for the first time in his life. Oregon Institute back in the fifties, as now, had a technically ambitious curriculum, just what attracted the school for John, having been directed out of state by his shop teacher, Stanley Isadore. At OI John took courses in carpentry, project management and architecture.

After graduating from Oregon Institute, John returned to The Valley and got a job working with contractor “Shine” Tuttle as part of his qualifying with the state to become a licensed independent contractor. With license gained, he began his professional career with small jobs around Boonville, such as fixing a toilet in Fred Abreu’s house. His first major commission was building for Archie and Myrdis Schoenahl an architect-designed home from foundation and basement to the roofing and interior finishings. The house, near the Schoenahl packing shed stands there today. 

In 1951, his high school senior year John married Joan Berry, freshman, a descendant of the Boonville June family. Joan and John had two children, Jeff and Julie. Jeff apprenticed with his father and is today a local licensed contractor. Joan was an important contributor to John’s business success, doing all of the book-keeping and financial management for Burroughs Construction. They also saved their money, and designed and built a lovely, architecturally ambitious, rambling four bedroom home perched on a sidehill up Mountain View Road a mile and a half, under oaks and firs and looking down across Boonville High and Rickard Ranch. John once told me that designing, building and moving into his own home after the long odyssey from Arkansas made him wonder if there were to be any more big adventures in his life. Unhappily Joan and John divorced back in the 1980s.

But John’s explorations of life continued. Since college he had continued his education both through reading and via travel. As long as I’ve known him, he has always had a subscription to a daily newspaper, usually the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, not just for the sports news. He also has always been a reader; history, biography or fiction, he’s for them all. Nothing I provide him from my library’s surplus daunts him, some of it pretty esoteric. And we always have some literature to evaluate whenever we get together socially. Last week, I gave him my other copy of Ivan Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair, Doig’s novel about his Scots first settler ancestors on the western Montana frontier. We’ll discuss Dancing at the 49ers halftime this weekend.

And travel as a way to learn about the world. When he finished building my home in the early eighties and heard I was going back east to visit my parents in suburban New Jersey and New York City, John asked me to take him with me, he wanted to see The City. I don’t remember that visit’s itinerary details, but do remember one traumatic encounter with urban life in those times. We’d finished our New York tourist time and were driving from suburbia to my parents’ summer home on the Rhode Island seashore. I knew how to head east to Little Compton while avoiding the NY metro area traffic, but made a wrong turn on a freeway north of the city and was headed back toward the Bronx, now mostly black and Latino slums. 

It was a desperate time in the ghettoes those days, major depression, job losses, poor people unable to pay rent, the beginning of the crank epidemic, vandalism and random street violence. So with declining revenues slumlords were resorting to what was known as “Jewish lightning,” you burned down your rental property, collected the insurance, and sold the vacant lot to the city. That day we were heading back into the city by mistake, I could see from my driver’s vantage, one, two, three, four dense streams of ugly black smoke rising into the sky from various Bronx locations. Scary and depressing.

So, I pulled off the Interstate, took a deep breath and explained to John what was happening that Bronx morning and why. A depressing and what I thought at the time was the terminal end of urban America as I had known it growing up. Poor people were rising in fear and despair and their masters were burning them out of town. After watching the black smoke for a few minutes, I turned around and headed for Rhode Island. For an hour we drove in silence, not wanting to talk about what we had seen.

My parents summer place in Little Compton, settled in the 1640s as a farming and fishing village to support the Plymouth Colony, is itself nothing but history, including some of the first settler descendants, Almys, Snows, Briggses and Southworths still living there. So I took John to the Calvinist cemetery to show him the grave of Elizabeth Peabody Alden, the first settler child born in New England. And we walked through a couple of miles of woods along the deeded and surveyed colonial public highway, Eight Rod Way, tying Little Compton to Plymouth, 40 miles away, visiting the stone bridges over brooks, the ruins of disappeared towns and their cemeteries, and the site of the first grain mill, its granite-lined race or diversion from a brook that drove the mill’s water wheel, and so on. History on foot, though we found no spring mushrooms.

I took John to meet the descendants of a founding family, the Wilbours, a reclusive brother and sister about our age, she a weaver and tapestry maker, who lived together with their pigs, chickens and family garden and orchard. Purpose was to show him the framing details of this almost three hundred year old house. The rafters in the attic, for example weren’t fir or pine, but hand-hewn oak, the basement was unmortared fieldstone. John had another agenda for the visit, immediately fell in love with Judith and invited her to come visit him in Nowhere California, where she had never been She accepted. John and Judith spent three weeks together here around the Valley and also did some camping around other parts of northern California. But subsequently their correspondence petered out and John never saw Judith again. (Story accurate?)

In 2009, John and I again spent a week or so right after Labor Day, back in New York City. Nice time of year, summer heat and humidity declines, good for long walks, museum visits, and interesting dining. And we did it all. I took him on my favorite tour, the Lower East Side industrial age immigrant ghetto and its places of worship, two Synagogues, one Greek Orthodox Church, one Ukrainian Orthodox church no one knows about, the current Chinese immigrant Buddhist Temple on the Bowery, and finally the original St. Patrick’s Catholic cathedral, 1823, in today’s Chinatown, six hours with lunch included.

I also introduced John to the glories of underground travel on the subway. I love the subway and how it can take you in a matter of minutes to any part of the city and all the boroughs from the Bronx Zoo to Coney Island. And John did too. Via the underground I escorted him 190th Street, the north tip of Manhattan to the Cloisters, the medieval art subsidiary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We spent hours studying the paintings, frescoes, giant woolen tapestries, and wooden altar pieces dating back to the twelfth century. John never got bored, was even slower than I cruising the rooms. I can still see him studying from inches away the joinery in the giant wooden altar pieces made of elm and beech five hundred years ago.

Two days later we tried an urban experiment: Brad went to work at his Hoboken office taking the subway under the Hudson River, leaving John in his mid-town apartment. With direction from me, John boarded the #4 train at 53rd Street and Third Avenue, took it to Yankee Stadium and bought tickets for a ballgame that evening. After getting two good seat tickets behind third base, he got on the D Train, took this one to 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue, transferred via underground foot tunnel to the PATH subway to Hoboken, followed my directions for finding the least obvious one of four sets of exit stairs to where I was to meet him at 2:15 PM. I got to the top of the exit steps at 2:10 and three minutes later John ambled up the stairs, no fear, no awe, looking just like a local, except for the Levi jeans.

Another day John and I were standing at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street the day the stock market made its famous September, 2009, dive. On our previous trip to The City, we had at dawn gone to the open air wholesale Fulton Fish Market at the East River end of Wall Street, had breakfast, and walked up to sit on the steps of the Subtreasury Building. There we watched the “Suits” all dressed the same, carrying the same leather brief case, come up out of the Broadway subway stop and rush in waves from each train down Wall to the same office to do the same thing all day, buying and selling stocks at the brokerage houses and banks, all dressed the same in tweeds, all looking like they have some important job, all trying to make millions themselves before they die. “Lemming,” I called them. 

This particular day, the morning radio news announced the huge market crash that introduced the recession of 2009. So I decided our itinerary would be to go back again to Wall Street to visit the “Lemmings.” Around 1:30, John and I were standing at the Broadway/Wall street subway stop, and the Lemmings were headed home that giant market price drop, and in their eyes as they headed home we couldn’t see the “masters of the universe” look, but rather bewilderment and fear. “What would tomorrow’s market be like; am I and my paper wealth doomed?” What a great urban sociological adventure for John and Brad.

John is 86 now, living outside of Fort Bragg in the footsteps of his father. Ten years ago he bought five acres east of downtown and on the edge of the pygmy forest, and designed and built an elegant and simple one story two bedroom home and a detached workshop. During the interior finishing stage of construction John met by accident a delightful woman, a somewhat younger RN, Lydia Bernard with a classic “Bahstan” Irish accent, a good soul I’ve met. Lydia collaborated with John doing the home interior design and decoration, her special, unique skill. John and Lydia today are good friends, taking walks together, dining at local Fort Bragg restaurants, and doing local sight-seeing tours.

John doesn’t have TV reception there for the 49er games, but I go over from time to time just to chat, discuss the fall of Putin, Boonville society, how to get rid of 49er quarterback Garoppolo, and other important matters. It was a long road from Chidester, Arkansas to Philbrooks’s mill, to the rest of the world as a learning experience, but John has done it all, of more I could tell, like his trip to Paris a few years ago to enter his granddaughter in culinary school, and learn about that historic city. And so on.

It’s been an adventure being John Burroughs’ friend for over 40 years.

(Next week: Grandma Stubblefield’s homestead on Rancheria Creek, 1857)

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *