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My Travels With Wes: Highway 128 Landmarks

Wes Smoot, locally born and raised, at age 90 is one of the most informed Valley historians and journalistic story-tellers I know of. His article in the Advertiser last month recounting the business history of the Anderson Valley Brewery is as accurate and romantic a piece of business newswriting as you will find anywhere in America, I claim, whether in a daily or weekly paper.

My report today is motivated by the wonderful book he and city person Steve Sparks wrote almost ten years ago, THEN AND NOW, An Anderson Valley Journey. (Available at the Anderson Valley Historical Society and Anderson Valley Market, $21.) The book is a traveler’s guide down Highway 128 from Mountain House junction to Navarro via some 59 one-page articles describing the historic landmarks along the way, illustrated with numerous photographs, original and theirs, of the buildings they journeyed past. 

I have read the work several times since its publication, including again last week, and learn something more about the Valley’s history each time I do. I cannot recommend too strongly those who are interested in Anderson’s Valley’s roots, add it to their library.

During my latest review of Wes and Steve’s work, I made a list of the landmarks I’ve found in my hundreds of trips up and down 128 over the last half century, enumerating those Wes and Steve don’t mention, or if they do, I would like to know more about. 

My list includes twenty sites. Then last week one sunny, chilly December afternoon Wes and I drove out past Yorkville and parked at the turn in the road where 128 starts up Haehl Hill on the last ten miles to Cloverdale, and I began interrogating Wes.

Haehl homestead House, Milepost 46.26, southwest side of the highway. Ed Haehl and his wife bought this lower piece of the large McDonald Ranch around 1910. The McDonald ranch stretched up the hill on its south side all the way to the junction of Highway 128 and the Hopland Road. McDonald also ran a wagon road stage stop hotel, the Mountain House, at the junction. That’s why when California took over the wagon road right-of-way in the 1920s and graded and paved it, then Highway 28 was named “McDonald-to-the-Sea.”

Ed Haehl was originally from Ukiah and was involved in local politics as County Supervisor. The Haehl piece of McDonald was about a hundred acres, part of which went up the seasonal creek to the south of the old wagon road and today’s Highway 128, and also the flat on both sides of Dry Creek where it leaves The Valley and heads for Healdsburg. There is room to pull over in front of the house. It is a modest two story steep-roofed structure with porches on the front side in which Haehl and his wife raised three children. The house is particularly beautiful in mid-spring each year when the surrounding grasslands are still green, and the wisteria draping to the top of the front porch covers the whole front of the house in its lovely purple flowers. When I drive by in late April, I can almost smell the bloom from the highway.

Haehl sold the ranch in 1945 and retired to Boonville. Since then, however, the house, under shady oaks and a redwood, and the haybarn behind it near Dry Creek, have been maintained meticulously by their owners. I ignore the modern stables facility to the north along Dry Creek and the pack of horses, sometimes llamas, residing there when I drive by.

Gaskill School, Milepost 45.99. THEN AND NOW reports on this tiny building on the east side of 128 a quarter of a mile toward Yorkville. The school was originally part of a small commercial center called Hermitage surrounding the Glenn Johnson Ranch (see next site), but was moved in 1926 to its current location fifty feet up the side hill from the highway and under live oak shade trees. So far Gaskill is the smallest school house I have ever seen in my auto wanderings around the back roads of California. Wes and I guess it to be about 25 feet long by 18 wide, with two windows and a metal roof covered front door, the building sitting on the ground. No wonder it is rotting away after 100 years.

Wes grew up in his step-father Smoot’s home on Morrow Ranch, a mile north of the school. His dad Ray, an early immigrant from Oklahoma around 1928, was an employee of the Anderson Valley School System, daily driving its bus between Haehl hill and Boonville. The buses were stored in a large barn along the highway just south of the school. The original school bus, a forty foot long 1929 Dodge that could carry 40 students, fit in the barn: the later 1940 Ford could haul more kids but stuck ten feet out of the barn. 

Wes walked the more than a mile to school beginning in first grade in 1937 and through the eighth grade in 1945. The school had no running water inside the building, so spring-fed washing and bathroom facilities, one for the boys, one for the girls, were outside under the oaks. Student population was eight or nine souls, some Smoots, Johnsons, Prathers, Ingrams (?), and so on. His best friend and daily playmate was Leland Prather. During recess and lunch they spent much of their time making toys and models out of salvaged tree limbs around the school. Their most ambitious project was a model of a sawmill like the ones around The Valley. They also found time, as did most male kids of my generation, to make up and act out “war games.” 

Though the student population was small, there was always at least one, sometimes two teachers for the first through eighth grade curriculum. First teacher Wes remembers was Retta Kerr, followed by Christine Burke, Alice Holland, and Eva Farrer from the Boonville Farrer family. In 1945, Wes graduated from Gaskill and entered the ninth grade at Boonville High. His last semester at Gaskill there were seven students, four girls and three boys. “We were one big family,” he remembers. 

From that community he suddenly found himself in a student body of 75 kids. He describes that size student population as “scary” for a kid from out in the country. Three other students graduated with Wes that year, leaving three students at Gaskill. The next year Gaskill School closed forever. 

Glenn Johnson Ranch, Milepost 45.31, both sides of the highway. Glenn Johnson was a descendant by marriage from the Valley’s first settlers, the Guntlys, residents of Christine, Mill Creek in 1852. Sometime before World War I Glenn’s father Ed bought several hundred acres on both sides of the wagon road which is now Highway 128 from the larger Ingram Ranch to the north and settled his sons Glenn and Arthur on the property to manage the farm. Glenn built his first home up the draw behind the hay barn you can see from the highway. The home burned down, as did a second home he built in about the same location. Hence the current Johnson house right off the highway, wood framed but then plastered in heavy stucco, he built in 1927, still there today.

While we were parked at the Johnson home pullout/driveway space, Wes related to me a story about agricultural practices in Anderson Valley I had never heard before. Today, there is a remnant apple orchard of some dozen acres on the flat across the highway from the Johnson home. That orchard Johnson planted in the 1920s in the format of other AV farms, twenty-five varieties with different autumnal harvest times in service to the local dryers around The Valley. Before the orchard though and beginning in the 1890s, which liked the deep, fairly rich gravelly loam on the banks of Dry Creek there was tobacco. 

Tobacco also requires a drying barn to prepare the harvested leaf for sale. And if you can find the tiny pullout on 128 back at Milepost 45.64, there is a small rectangular redwood split stuff building fifty feet up a wide opening at the base of the east sidehill whose roof is shake material, its siding split stuff also but begins about six feet off the ground. What I have thought as I’ve driven by for decades was a sheep shearing shed Wes explained to me was a tobacco drying barn. The leaf was hung in loose bundles up in the roof, and dried in the natural air entering the space from all four sides.

Interestingly, enough tobacco farming arrived south of Yorkville from Cloverdale and via Dry Creek. A business in Cloverdale called Hermitage manufactured chewing tobacco, roll-you-own leaf and perhaps other products. As its business grew, the company encouraged farmers around Cloverdale, including those on Dry Creek, Healdsburg, to plant the leaf. This farming expanded to the Johnson place, then owned by Ingram’s predecessor, Stephen Knowles. 

Knowles opened a post office at Johnson ranch and as the settler population grew in the area, Wes believes there was also a stage stop hotel and general store in the flat near the current Johnson home, along with the original Gaskill School building.. He also thinks it possible that tobacco growing existed all along Dry Creek almost to today’s Yorkville, farmed by Knowles, Ward and others. A piece of our ag history I had never heard before.

Wes Smoot Childhood home: Milepost 44.75, pullout on east side of highway. Wes was born in Navarro in 1932, and due to family poverty and a run-away father at home, Wes was adopted by Ray and Dorothy Smoot at age twenty-one months. Wes was Ray and Dorothy’s only child. As I noted earlier the Smoots were renters on the Morrow Ranch of some 2,000 acres on both sides of today’s Highway 128. 

The Morrows were absentee owners, professionals from Contra Costa County using the ranch as a “summer” recreational and land speculation piece of property. The son of the previous property owners, Irving Ingram, managed the ranch for them, probably running sheep, growing a little grain along the creek.

The Smoots lived in a modest two story home built in 1874 closer to the wagon road where the current highway is then it is to Dry Creek. The family lived in the home until 1948 when they and the house moved to Boonville. The house was set up near the Mancher Pardini gravel quarry below Burger Rock on the Floyd Johnson Ranch. The building no longer exists.

Where Wes and I pulled off on the east side of the highway is a narrow draw heading up into the mountains. About a hundred yards up the draw is a structure I have also been wondering about in my journeys in and out of The Valley on 128. Up this draw is an earthen dam about a hundred feet long and perhaps twenty five high with the most grand cement spillway, a dozen feet wide, thirty long of cement, unlike any I have seen in Anderson Valley agriculture. Whoever currently owns Morrow Ranch apparently built the dam about twenty years ago and for the purpose of vineyard irrigation, Wes thinks. He also remembers that the valley behind the dam, invisible from the road, is wide and gently sloping for possible half a mile or more. 

Our Valley’s history, I claim, is more exciting when there are still more mysteries about who we are than we already know.

(Next Episode: More Travels with Wes, from Ward Ranch to Boonville.) 

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