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Another Kind of ‘Arkie’: Bill Holcomb, Rule, Texas

Bill Holcomb regularly joins the Valley elite’s morning meeting at Mosswood downtown Boonville for coffee and discussion of local and world affairs. Friday a week ago I met Bill there around 9 AM, too chilly to sit outside, so we were joined at the big table inside by other retirees like logging truck driver Morgan Baynham, poet and sculptor Steve Derwinski, and retired electrician Jeff Pugh.

Bill was born in 1933, on a large ranch settled by his grandfather near a town north of Abilene called Rule, population today about 695 people, probably less back then. The farm itself was north of Rule a few miles on bottomland along the headwaters of the Brazos River, called the Clear Fork. This part of Texas is near the end of farmable prairieland, annual rainfall being about twenty inches. Bill’s father, Ed and mom Susie Spradling, an “Okie,” had four children, and the 1930s “dustbowl” drought John Steinbeck described so starkly in Grapes of Wrath, hit the Holcombs hard. By 1939, their dry-farmed cotton and cattle raising operation couldn’t support the family.

That year, his dad, mother, Bill and three brothers joined the “dustbowl” migration to California. The Holcombs acquired an old Desoto sedan the previous owner had upgraded, replacing the original wheels with wooden spoked homemade ones, and headed west, landing in San Jose. His mom got a job working in a local cannery supporting the flourishing orchard industry down old Highway 101 in San Benito County, pears, apples, walnuts, plums, cherries, and so on. His dad found work as a boilermaker in Oakland where the Kaiser-designed Liberty Ship freighters were built all during World War II. A long commute in those pre-freeway days, so Ed and several other shipyard employees organized a car-pool sharing their family vehicles and the gas expenses.

Before the family headed west, Bill had attended school in Texas, gotten to the third grade a local school in the nearby town of Haskell. In San Jose he went to the local grade and high school in his neighborhood called Horace Mann after the pioneering nineteenth century advocate for taxpayer funded public education in America. What Bill remembers best about those school days was the ice cream parlor across the street from the campus where he could buy a milkshake after school for ten cents.

Toward the end of the war, Bill’s dad was severely injured on the job at the shipyard. An accident involving scaffold collapse while he was welding did serious damage to his upper spine serious enough he could no longer do heavy physical labor of any kind. Once again the family was back on the road looking for employment. His dad found work on the ag industrial farms, irrigation system management and so on. Now the family settled in the San Joaquin heartland, buying a small lot and building a small family home in Tulare.

Holcomb family at Tulare home

Bill continued his education from seventh grade through high school at Tulare’s Palo Verde Grammar and High School. He also started working after school at part-time jobs to support the family’s income, some ag work, one job at a retail grocery store, another as an usher at the local State Theatre movie house. Free movies! Bill reports that the movie house owner was so impressed with his work ethic that he offered him the job of assistant theatre manager, not bad for a teenager. And after a year or so the owner was so confident of Bill’s business skills, he proposed he be assistant manager of all three theatres he owned in Tulare. Bill declined.

In 1950, his dad found better wage opportunity in Anderson Valley’s sawmills, and the family, now five kids, moved to Boonville. Bill wanted to finish high school in Tulare and stayed, living in the family home by himself. Ed Holcomb found work at Weeks’s planning mill across the street from the Church of God on Highway 128, and as Bill put it, “learning the mill business from friends and mistakes.” The family lived in one of the “shacks” at Weeks’s mill property.

Bill’s Graduation Picture, 1952

In 1952, Bill received his high school diploma and followed his family to Boonville and moved into the family “shack.” His first job was at Weeks, a tallyman, measuring and recording the size of the logs coming from the nearby woods to the mill by truck, a tough job on a busy day eating the mill yard dust from trucks and loaders while measuring with a tape the size of each log. Pay: $2.00 an hour. 

Bill next found financially more rewarding employment than at the Weeks’ mill. Out in the local redwood forest he worked on landings peeling the bark from redwood logs, twenty and forty feet long, with a hatchet and peeling pole, a 6 foot long round steel bar tipped with a sharp checker wedge three inches wide. With luck and starting with the hatchet one could peel all forty foot of a log six or more inches wide for the whole length of the log. Peeling wages were piecework, $1.25 per thousand board feet of the log. 

Bill’s first woods job peeling was for Frank Hiatt. The logging site was the Haynes Ranch, up Mountain View Road, then up a logging road at Bear Wallow to Rancheria Creek. One time he made $125 in an hour peeling a giant old growth log. You did this work in shifts during the twelve hour woods day, four hours in the morning, then “rest up” doing wage work on the landing during mid-day, limbing or bucking logs, then another four hours peeling to finish the ten or twelve hour day.

Bill also took on a second job after the summer logging season and all day during the winter when the woods shut down. He rented the gas station and truck and auto maintenance garage next door to Rossi Hardware in Boonville. One of his maintenance crafts was that he was the only garage owner in The Valley who would change the tires on an eighteen wheel logging truck.

One afternoon, Bill skinned a knuckle with his crescent wrench, and in exhausted anger threw the tool out of the shop and across Highway 128, just missing the head of a lovely woman named Eva Pardini, daughter of Ernest of Navarro’s famous Hotel Pardini family, and younger sister to Donald and Robert. A friendship began between Bill and Eva founded on her making him luncheon sandwiches in exchange for his doing maintenance and repair on her 1949 two-door Ford sedan. Their business friendship grew into a far more lasting relationship, and when Bill proposed marriage to Eva a few months later, she replied,…”I guess so, I have too much invested in you to not…” Bill and Eva’s marriage lasted 65 years until her passing in 2017. Bill celebrated their marriage to me saying…”I hardly know how to live without her.”

Together Bill and Eva had two children, a son Billy, who lives in Ukiah and whose professional career has included being first an airline pilot, then in state and county law enforcement. Palma continues to live in The Valley and married to homebuilder Dennis Toohey. The family stays close to this day.

Whenever Bill talks about Eva I sense a deep sense of loss in his voice. Thematically he describes her loyalty to her Pardini family kin and to the annual Boonville County Fair and Apple Show. The picture below shows high schooler Eva picking apples to exhibit at the Fair’s Apple Hall. She never missed a year doing this for almost eighty years of her life.

Eva Pardini, around 1950, Fairtime

Eva was also from early age devoted to her church, St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church, attending Sunday services almost weekly, and doing much volunteer work on the premises and among the practicing parishioners. She also loved the whole Anderson Valley community and its denizens; she called the settlement from Yorkville to Navarro “My Valley.” Bill has at home two beautifully painted signs made for Eva’s funeral celebration. The framed signs read: “Anderson Valley Love Story”

Next Week: Bill Holcomb, Texas “Arkie,” fortunate to find Anderson Valley.

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