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Bill Holcomb’s Valley Life

For this episode of Bill Holcomb’s life, I visited him at his and Eva’s home, a lovely owner-designed indoor/outdoor dwelling, part domicile, part workshop, part old vehicles and construction equipment museum. Bill bought the 14 acres of open upland near the end of Ornbaun Lane in 1972. Because there was no available water on the property, they acquired the place for $70,000. 

The house sits facing southeast across several acres of open field and a dramatic view of the old Mooney Ranch hillside vineyard south of Boonville and the Bald Hills at the back of the Floyd Johnson Ranch. The original one story building had four bedrooms. Today the rebuilt three bedroom house includes an indoor hot tub sauna. A hundred feet of live oak shaded patio and outdoor barbecue/party area sits against the house’s west side and leads to his equipment repair area, both working and museum vehicles, most spectacular the two tone, blue and orange, 1957 Mercury convertible. We’ll visit this piece of artwork later in the article.

The Holcomb’s new Home, 1972

Back in 1954, after two years working in the redwoods, Bill moved to full season employment, with the Mendocino County Road Department repair crew. This job gave him his first experience operating heavy equipment, dump trucks, back hoes and front end loaders. He also learned another interesting skill blasting roadside rock walls with dynamite. Next time the reader drives over to Ukiah, look to your left while crossing the top of the hill between mileposts 7.00 and 10.00. In several places you will notice thirty to fifty foot outcroppings of sandstone, a little granite too, hovering above you. In order to create a safe two lane road with pullouts the Highway Department trained Bill and other employees to use dynamite charges to reduce these outcrops to moveable gravel. Bill and his crew cut the notch called “The Eye of the Needle” that starts route 253 down the hill to Ukiah at MP 10.00.

In 1985, Bill retired from County employment and, exploiting his heavy equipment skills, started his own business, Holcomb’s Backhoe Service, Grading and Rocking, which he ran until he retired in the late 1990s. Local “hippie” artist Wayne Ahrens painted him a wooden, multicolored advertisement sign depicting on the left Eva wielding a witching stick, then a small water fountain coming out of the whole the back hoe bucket is still digging. Magical waterwell construction.

A typically ambitious job Bill’s business undertook was creating a ranch road up to the Moonie offices. communal living quarters and chinchilla farm (yes!) up on the sidehill south and east of Boonville, today all vineyard owned by Sheepdung Estates. The ranch road ran east on the flat, then crossed Anderson Creek at the base of the hill, then wound for almost two miles up to the Moonie compound and included several sets of tight switchbacks required to make the ascent without violating the 15% grade code safe for vehicular traffic.

The most complex part of the project was building a bridge across Anderson Creek. The actual bridge was a flatcar bed he acquired. The difficult piece was building the two footings required on either side of the creek. The footing on the west side was the simpler, about fifteen feet high to match the flatcar end to the flat ground the ranch road lay on. The footing itself had to be dug and cement forms built into the streambed gravel deep enough to make sure the creek’s winter run didn’t undercut the foundation. Tough work building forms in wet, crumbling gravel.

The east side footing was even more challenging. The foundation hole was right on the streambed edge, so the forms had to be built in a hole constantly filling with water. Then the bridge/road joining spot had to be cut into the side hill to make a 90 degree turn to begin the road’s ascent. Not easy with just a back hoe and grader. But over thirty five years later the road and bridge have suffered little deterioration, even from those El Nino flood years in 1990 and 2001.

As my earlier description of Bill and Eva’s home suggests, every part of it and the surrounding grounds were works of imaginative craftsmanship. The patio/barbecue area, scene of so many family parties during their life, he created first by building on the sloping west sidehill a rock wall of three foot boulders a hundred feet long. Then he used the back hoe to backfill the boulder retaining wall with packed dirt fill, and on top laid in outdoor handmade weather resistant clay and shale rock tile, trimmed with bricks from the old Navarro sawmill or cement and quartz pebbles. What a comfortable place to spend not too warm summer evening with kin and friends.

Dump Truck & Holcomb Home Front, 1980s

Then through a back gate my tour guide Bill led me into the workshop and equipment and antiques storage area. I never wanted to own ones but I love looking at the elegant design of old cars and trucks, 1930-1975. And Bill had a few.

First in an open shed was Joe Pinoli’s 1949 four door straight six Chevrolet Fleetline, baby blue, completely restored inside and out. Next door was a 1969 pickup, a ¾ ton Chevy V-8 with air conditioning and installed camper in its bed Bill, his sister’s vehicle, also restored. And nearby was husband of the Navarro School teacher Eva treasured as a child, Jack McDonald’s, 1965 half ton pickup, currently under restoration. In their attached house garage Bill parks a cherry condition Eva’s cousin Bacchi’s 1970 Chevrolet V-8 half ton stepside. He only drives it to town on errands when there wasn’t a chance of rain or heavy fog. 

And outdoors at the back of the work area his own 25 horsepower 1974 John Deere back hoe, used only for occasional yard work, like building the patio or cutting a trail up to the sidehill spring providing their house water. A sweet and rich resource in these drought time.

Last and most iconic among his automotive museum pieces this most memorable auto, stored in a thirty foot enclosed box trailer, in cherry condition and still running - on certain occasions. Jerry Philbrick put this car up for sale around 1995, asking $3,000 for it, and each time Bill asked if he would take less, the answer was “no.” Many times over the years. Then one day a couple of years down the bargaining road Bill made another query about the vehicle, and Jerry said, “Oh, hell,” and gave Bill the car.

Bill, Eva and the Merc, Delivery Day

The first time I saw it was one post-labor day evening at an outdoor concert next to the Navarro Store, “Asleep at the Wheel” was playing I believe. I drove back from San Francisco during Friday afternoon rush hour desperate not to miss a note of this Texas swing band, got there fifteen minutes late and just before dusk, but the music hadn’t started. I parked along Highway 128 north of the concert area and trotted down toward the bandstand. And when I crossed over from the 128 to the old highway, there in the back of the open grassy area was parked the 1957 Merc, and next to it sat Bill and Eva at a picnic table enjoying dinner. My jaw dropped at the art deco beauty of it and I went over and fondled the hood ornament before saying “hello” to the Holcombs.

Last week when I visited the Merc in its storage area, I began at the front grill and walked slowly around all four sides, looking for the slightest evidence of a ding or scratch. Nope, not a mark. When he began the restoration work, Bill found an old Mercury parts catalogue describing the actual colors of the car for the year it came off the Ford assembly line in Detroit. He then got a paint store in Ukiah to mix the orange and blue colors until they matched exactly those on the original auto. 

Near the end of our conversation at his home last week, while we were sifting through his photo collection boxes looking for the right pictures for these stories, I asked Bill if he had ever returned to visit the family ranch on the Brazos Clear Fork. A troubled look crossed his face as he told the story of a visit sometime in the 1980s. He and a cousin flew to Texas, rented a car and visited a Holcomb uncle to celebrate his 65th wedding anniversary. The uncle, the Haskell County sheriff, still owned the ranch but no longer farmed it. Instead he had converted it to more profitable business now prominent in rural Texas, a resort hunting lodge. What that meant was building guest cottages, a common dining room, deer fencing the whole property and stocking it with wild game for the city people to hunt.

Bill was very disappointed to find the cotton fields returned to chaparral, the Brazos Valley sidehill cattle range heavy with trees, the whole 560 acres surrounded by deer fencing. His Uncle, the Sheriff had stocked the family working ranch with with deer, elk and razorback hogs, and added guest cottages and a common kitchen. City people from places like Dallas, Houston, or even maybe Denver could come and hunt wild game for fun. But Bill did find a couple of farm tools, a tiny gardening rake to bring home as memorabilia from his ranch life.

Wrapping up the interview I asked Bill about the success of his journey from the Texas Ranch to Boonville, some eight years long. His view: “It’s been the greatest thing in the world. My whole family has benefitted from the opportunity to come here, to have a good life and live in a great community.” Nuf said.

(Next Week: Billy Owens, an “Oakie” and his love affair with music.)

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