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Travels With Wes III

The end of La Nina drought has been like no wet winter I remember in my half century living in The Valley. From the day after Christmas until Wednesday ten days ago over three weeks straight of daily rains, no sunny interludes to raise the spirits. The cycle also postponed Wes and my desire to get back on the road again and visit 128’s historical landmarks. But finally last Friday on a sunny afternoon we mounted up and headed for the north end of The Valley to visit the greater Navarro metro area.

Navarro I reported earlier in this article series was the first real industrial town in Anderson Valley and also its largest and our most complex community. As I reported earlier the Wendling mill and its operation created what was for its time a full service town complete with stores, hotels, housing, school, a medical dispensary, dance hall and so on. So Wes and I drove to the north end of town and turned up Wendling Soda Creek Road past the giant clapboard house on the corner and turned around at the mill manager’s house, now a board and breakfast, and back down past the 1912 Laurel School and parked roadside just above the bronze-yellow house for our conversation.

Mrs. Barns’s House: Navarro’s “mystery house” and its largest. Milepost 13.97.

Not only is Mrs. Barnes’s the largest house I know about in Anderson Valley, but it’s also the most complex, multi-winged and dormered one I’ve explored so far. And neither Wes nor I, nor its current owner, Jodie Williams, know anything about its origins and owner. Thus my calling it the “Navarro Mystery House.” Every town in America has a mystery house, or if not, we historians create it. And at the end of the day in story-telling a picture can be worth a thousand words. 


Despite its structural complexity since I moved to The Valley, every owner has taken good care of the building, including the current one Jodie. And a 1915 aerial photo showing Navarro from the Hotel Pardini south of Navarro Store north to the mill site itself includes the mill manager’s house, the Laurel School, but no Mrs. Barns’s house. First mystery: when was the house built?

Next mystery: who was Mrs. Barns, how could she afford to build one of the biggest homes in The Valley, one never identified as a hotel? Perhaps she was the wife of the mill manager? Research will go on. We do know she was the Navarro postmaster sometime after the town became a registered Post Office site once it changed its name from Wendling to its current address. I believe she was postmaster during the 1920s through the forties before turning the job over to local ranch wife Violet Salmela sometime after World War II. Did she die in Navarro, move away? No one knows.

I did spend a little time in the house back in the early seventies, though mostly in the basement. It was back then a rental, owner unknown, where friend Martin Miller and other companions, vineyard employees, lived. And the basement supporting about half the house had a cement floor and enough head clearance to accommodate a ping pong table, where there were often raucous competitive evenings playing singles and doubles, even though for a sidetable shot one had to make the stroke then bounce off the foundation wall to stay in the game.

Once I did go into the house, up a flight of steps to the ground floor, down a corridor to a large, gracious sitting room with picture windows looking north across Highway 128 right below into what would have been the mill site and railroad siding for the log flatcars. Not the world’s most romantic vista. In prep for this article I asked Jodie Williams to give me a thorough description of the rest of the house. Behind the living room area was a narrow corridor leading to the back of the house. On the right was a bedroom, then a sitting room adjoining the kitchen/dining area. On the left was a bathroom and bedroom under a spiral staircase leading up to the second floor under the roof.

This smaller second floor space included two modest bedrooms and one other Barns’s house mystery. Jodie Williams reports that she heard that sometime in its history a resident had committed suicide up under the roof by hanging himself from its rafters. I had never heard that before myself.

Susie’s House: Old McDonald-to-the-Sea Highway, 200 yards south of Navarro Store.

As we turned off highway 128 onto the Old Highway and drove past Navarro Store, Wes told me another factoid about his uncle Alvy Price’s two story house to the left now under redwoods and surrounded by junked automobiles. Before it was a photo shop with a home downstairs and darkroom lab upstairs, it was a buggy repair shop, servicing the principle means of transportation in the pre-highway days. And important service it was, given the roughness of the old wagon roads in and out of The Valley.

“Susie’s,” this tiny piece of Victorian architecture with a false front façade framing a two story building is very well known to me. All during the 1970s my best Anderson Valley friends, Buzz and Barbara Barrett, hippie-types from Richmond, California, lived in the house, a rental owned by Rena Nicolay of San Francisco. I have written about Buzz and Barbara and Rena two years ago in a previous article about Navarro. And spent a good deal of time dining and partying there back then. The name “Susie’s” House” was what every local inhabitant called the place when I first lived here. Apparently “Susie” was Rena Nicolay’s mother’s name, and some folks called the place a hotel, others a whore house. Neither Wes or I know.

Back in the seventies I got to know Rena Nicolay a little bit. Though she visited Navarro not frequently, when she did, she spoke fondly of the town and the neighbors she grew up with. I also attended her upscale Veronese Italian country restaurant in San Francisco North Beach’s Washington Square a couple of times. Hers was an imaginatively creative menu. Her loyalty to the Navarro community she exhibited back in the seventies when Rena used her knowledge of San Francisco’s political scene to get the US Postal Service to sponsor a neighborhood meeting in Navarro to permit the citizenry explain why they didn’t want the local office closed. Her political domination of that community meeting and her influence in the city saved the local PO branch for another three postmasters and twenty years or more.

The house itself is arguably the smallest “public” dwelling I have ever been in. I guestimated its dimensions from the Old Highway for this article and came up with about 16 by 40 feet. On its gentle slope the front steps rose to about a six foot elevation, its back door into the kitchen area was only about eighteen inches high. The house rested on pillars with only a crawl space underneath. To this day every owner has cared about “Susie’s House” enough to keep it in excellent condition despite its age and fragility.

I always entered the house from the back door, as did my tenant friends Buzz and Barbara. Reason being the house was totally uninsulated, and as the redwood forest grew back around the town, the winter sun didn’t directly shine on it from Thanksgiving til late February, and only then for a few hours. So what heated the downstairs was the cookstove and a small in the kitchen, itself about 15 by 20 feet. The living room which dominated the front half of the house had a huge pot-bellied stove that kind of heated it, but it wasn’t worth the effort to stoke it since we all spent our time in the kitchen- unless there was a very big party going, like the birthday celebration for all Capricorns in late January. I never saw the upstairs and have no idea how many rooms there were up there (there are two small windows, front and back). All I know is that Buzzy and Barbara said it was cold sleeping up there in winter.

Joe Pedro’s Garage: Another Quarter Mile south on the Old Highway, highway 128 milepost 14.65.

Wes and Steve Sparks’s travelguide Then and Now, page 59, includes an excellent description and photo of this mysterious remnant of industrial Navarro in the during and after World War I. I have been fortunate in my years here in The Valley to have spent time in and around the building admiring its structural strength, contradicting the broken, half open sliding front doors, and pleased to think about its continuous productive use until recent years. Wes and I parked in front of it on the old highway and reminisced about the garage and the Namadeo Pardini home next door (another Navarro episode to come) for half an hour or so.

The square front façade hides an approximately 24 X 80 foot long two story building. Its north side shows a grand wooden stairway leading up to the second floor balcony, home of a community dance hall with four windows on each side of it. All the windows appear to be original and fixed. Must have been something on a warm Navarro evening in September. The garage ground floor was solid cement upon which the auto maintenance and repair was done.

One old-time locals story Bill Witherell told me involves Geno Zanoni’s truck which in the late 1920s Prohibition era provided county sheriff Bobby Burns with the evidence to arrest “Jumbo” for illegally manufacturing a local grape brandy in Barton Gulch below the Rocky Bluff high water mark on highway 128. Apparently Burns got wind that there was at Joe Pedro’s a truck filled with the product ready to get to market outside the Valley, which led to “Jumbo’s” arrest. The truck had mechanical problems severe enough to end up at the garage before hauling the product to markets outside The Valley. Bill didn’t say how Sheriff Burns came upon the evidence at Joe Pedro’s nor whether “Jumbo” was convicted of his crime.

Joe Pedro also pioneered in retail auto sales out of his garage. Wes and Steve’s history report that sometime in the twenties, probably after the Navarro-to-the-Sea highway opened, he began selling REO automobiles to the Anderson Valley market. REO was the brand name for one of the pioneering early twentieth century automobile manufacturers, Richard E. Olds, whose initials became the brand’s name. Later named Oldsmobile, Olds’s company became part of the giant General Motors empire in the early 1920s. along with Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac. Joe Pedro had the entrepreneurial vision and skill to arrange for the vehicles to be brought by ship to Albion landing, from where he could drive them to Navarro for display and sale.

Then and Now also shows a picture of the local grade school building that preceded the grand Laurel School up Wendling Soda Creek Road on the right, dating from 1912, This older building Wes and Steve date at 1899, before Wendling town, later Navarro, was first settled. It’s a clapboard one story building founded on wooden pillars, two steps up to the narrow front door. The building’s location was just to the north of Joe Pedro’s, right where Namadeo Pardini’s garden and yard is today. It is approximately 24 X 36 feet in size, and graciously containing at least eight large wooden shuttered windows, perhaps more on the back wall. The roof is redwood shake and there is a permanent wooden ladder attached to its back end to enable one to clean the brick chimney for the interior heat stove or fire place.

Earlier today Wes showed me a piece of the school’s history not included in Then and Now. It’s a small roster card labelled Laurel School District and listing the names of the pupils enrolled. The eleven student included only three family names, Reilly, Bloyd, and Studebaker. The teacher’s name was C.V. Brereton. The Bloyds may have still been living on Flynn Creek back then. The Reillys and Strudebakers were ranchers from further up the Valley all the way to Hendy Woods. 

When I first moved to The Valley the Joe Pedro property was owned and gainfully used by a city person, professional architect Jerry Wagner turned potter. Jerry lived in a home whose age I don’t recollect back up the road in a shady gulch under the redwoods and had converted the garage into a pottery shop, studio and kiln for tossing, glazing and selling his work. He also built a rental apartment in the building’s second floor, essentially the back of the dance hall. More multi-purpose use of the building.

During our ruminations at Joe Pedro’s Wes told me a usage story I had not heard before. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, he reports, another manufacturing business used the building to fabricate its product. An enterprising entrepreneur from the city rented the garage and built a shop to manufacture for the regional market delicate little candy and other products dispensaries one typically found on display near retails stores cash registers. Some of us remember back in the 1950s putting a penny in a little steel glass device and getting for our investment a hard piece of bubble gum a couple of months old or a Tootsie Roll. Well, some of those machines were being manufactured right in dead industrial town Navarro.

(*Then and Now: An Anderson Valley Journey, by Wes Smoot and Steve Sparks, 2013. On sale at the Anderson Valley Historical Society.)


  1. George Hollister February 6, 2023

    Great article. The proper spelling for the Sheriff is Byrnes. Also, isn’t Reilly Heights the largest home in AV? Old home anyway. Thanks.

  2. George Dorner February 7, 2023

    Ransom Eli Olds founded Oldsmobile.

    • George Dorner February 7, 2023

      As well as REO, of course.

  3. George Dorner February 7, 2023

    However, connection with REO Speedwagon remains unconfirmed.

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