A couple of weeks ago Wes and I drove another leg of our roadside visits to Highway 128’s historic and iconic buildings. This one was an easy jaunt from the Hamar Olsen ranch, formerly Edmeades vineyard, now Kendall Jackson, just north of Greenwood Road junction, south toward Boonville, 4 miles, two stops.
Josie Brusa’s House: West Side of Highway 128, Olsen Hill 200 yards north of Milepost 19.94.
The Olsen ranch originally was an elongated stack of forty acre parcels stretching from just north of Greenwood Road turnoff all the way to its boundary with Maddux Ranch, now Roederer and Husch properties. As a one-time part owner of Edmeades, now Deadmeades, I knew the Olsen property well. Its west boundary, curiously enough, ran north for half a mile or so without actually reaching the Navarro River the way most of the ranches in The Valley on the west side of the highway did. Instead the property line ran along the bluff above the river, so Edmeades had to secure a right-of-way through Winkler, now Corby to pump water up to a holding pond in the vineyard for irrigation and frost protection.
The ranch was farmed by Hamar “Hammer” and his brother, evidently very capable agriculturalists. The haybarn where Edmeades stored its farm equipment was in excellent condition when we used it. I don’t exactly know what crops and stock the Olsens grew. I do know there was a solidly constructed fruit dryer on the farm’s sidehill front looking down to 128. Edmeades used the building for wine tanks, barrels and the bottling line, heavy use requiring a solid foundation. So there must have been extensive orchards on the place. The only evidence of fruit trees was an acre plot on the highway side of the haybarn, which had a few varieties of apples, a couple of walnut trees, and to my knowledge unique to Anderson Valley, a couple of almond trees, which ripened in late August. I hope the trees are still there.
The main Olsen house was on Highway 128 south of the ranch road right at the rise and tight curve, once called “Olsen Hill,” before the straightaway down to Greenwood Road turnoff. Unfortunately the live oaks around the house have grown aggressively in the past thirty years, so it’s hard to view it when one is driving too fast through the curve. You have to park in the pullout in front of the house to inspect it. Parked at the pullout, Wes and I reminisced about the house and its occupants.
Hamar Olsen “took in” Josie Brusa when she was a teenager escaping her apparently dysfunctional family. Josie lived in the house and likely cooked and cleaned for the Olsens. She was a large round woman, very sweet of disposition, Wes reports, and was an excellent cook. When Hamar Olsen died, he left the home and a surrounding 3 acre strip of land south along the highway to Josie. She was still alive when I first moved here, but to my recollection I never met her, or even glimpsed her outside the house when I drove by too fast. I believe she passed in the 1980s.
The house is a large one story structure less than thirty feet across the front. Its sits on a cement perimeter foundation that I believe is owner-made from river run fine gravel and bought cement. The ridgepole runs parallel to the highway, and the whole structure is enclosed in narrow, elegant 3” wide clapboard painted off-white. I suspect this redwood siding was a product of the local sawmill industry over a hundred years ago, as I find it on many family homes around The Valley. The roofing is modern times and not visible from the highway.
On the south side of the house in two clusters are five redwood trees I estimate over a hundred years old, likely deliberately planted to provide shade from the afternoon sun. There is a prominent gabled dormer on the front of the house capturing a large entryway and a porch. The porch sits on a fieldstone foundation and gracious wall, and shades the front door while wrapping around the house to part of its north side. The single window to the front door’s left is a modern bay. The rest of the windows on the south and north side look to me as original, multipaned sashes the upper half of which slide down to open. Two windows are of a design that indicates they actually supported counterweights to assist their opening.
Josie’s house is a larger structure than one can see and imagine from the highway. It stretches back more than forty feet, the rear door and deck suggests the kitchen is back there. And the deck extends to a small detached cottage that looks about the same age as the house.
On the house’s south side is a grand fieldstone chimney likely serving a large living room open fireplace to heat the house, a lovely work of home craftsmanship. And about thirty feet south of the house under the redwoods is another field stone square structure about four feet tall that at first glance looks like a well cap. Closer inspection revealed it was in fact a domestic dwelling fireplace and fieldstone chimney remnant, likely site of a previous dwelling and another tragic home fire.
I don’t know whether the Olsens were the first settlers on the ranch and home property, or whether they bought the place from a pioneer family such as the Studebakers who settled the ranch across the street, today’s Navarro vineyards. The current Brusa house owners, the Pardini family, owners of the appliance store in Ukiah, have done an excellent job maintaining and modestly landscaping the yards around the Brusa house.
The Carl Prather House: East Side of Highway 128, Milepost 24.75.
Wes and I stopped by the Prather house after leaving Josie Brusa’s. Current owner Morgan Baynham was on the front porch to greet us, and Morgan gave us a through and historically informed tour of the place. Morgan and his wife Laura bought the house and five surrounding acres in 1982 and have been heroic restorers and maintainers of the house, outbuildings and landscaping.
This Prather house, one of many still extant in the Philo area, sits up on a gentle slope about 25 feet uphill of Highway 128 and underneath a redwood and four giant gum eucalyptus trees shade. The building is currently two stories about thirty feet across with a gracious roofed one story front porch its full width and a little bit wrapped around the north side of the house. The elegant wooden water tower adjacent to the house on its south side provided very adequate pressure to its interior plumbing until the Baynham’s major restoration and enlargement of both buildings in 2016. Engineers doing the tower redesign told them they couldn’t guarantee the forty foot tall, sixteen foot square building’s survival in a major earthquake, even though it was mounted on huge cement footing pier blocks, due to the weight of the water aloft.
Carl Prather was the son of William, an earliest settler in Anderson Valley from Indiana and Iowa. William arrived in Boonville in 1852, before the Illinois Germans, and bought and settled land at the east end of Fitch Lane. Carl married Maud McGimsey in 1874, and moved to a home no longer existent on a large piece of ranchland. Morgan doesn’t know how large the property was. He does know it stretched extensively up the east hills against the Rawls and Clow properties respectively south and north of it.
We’ll learn more about these places when we get to the Prather and Clow family stories. What we do know is that the home and parcel Laura and Morgan bought forty years ago was fifteen acres and had been in the Prather family’s ownership until Carl died in 1950. Since then and Baynham’s 1982 purchase the property changed ownership four times.
The April, 1915 Ukiah Press Dispatch reports in its county-wide local news feature under “Philo and Vicinity” “An old landmark was destroyed yesterday when the old farmhouse on the Prather place was destroyed by fire. It was at the time occupied by Carl Prather and family. Nothing was saved except a few chairs, etc. The fire was started from a defective flue.” A November 11, 1915, Press Dispatch“Peachland” column noted “Carl Prather has purchased sixty thousand shingles from J. B. Sanders to cover his new house.” Thus providing us a date for the completion of the new dwelling.
Carl and Maud had three children, the youngest Katherine, married to Ray Eubanks, was born in 1913 in the first home. Katherine and Ray were still alive when Morgan and I came to Anderson Valley. Katherine visited Laura and Morgan from time to time after they purchased the place and filled them in in a lot of the home’s history. At the time of the 1915 fire Katherine was two years old, and remembered her parents escorting her outside the yard picket fence and telling her to stay there while she watched the family trying to fight the conflagration. Surviving the fire and loss of home must have been a traumatic experience for the child.
The house the Prathers lost was at a site different from the current home. More specifically it was about two hundred yards south and on the north bank of Denmark Creek and east of the old McDonald-to-the-Sea Highway, its paved right-of-way still there in front of the Rawls ranch house and leading to Vista Estates road. Denmark Creek, when I first came to Anderson Valley half a century ago, was also called the “Mason/Dixon Line,” because local folklore claimed all the settlers south of “the line” were immigrants from the American South and thus still supporters of the secession movement. Everyone north of “the line” were mostly supporters of the Union cause. To a great degree, I know enough of Valley first settlers roots back east to think “the line” was quite accurate. Does anyone living here today know about “The Line?”
On a sunny afternoon last week Morgan and I further explored in detail the exterior and interior of their home. South side, capturing the warming morning sunlight, were two bedrooms and a bathroom, each with its own door, lined up side by side from the front of the house to the kitchen wall. There was also a wall and door separating the living from the dining area, and another of each between dining and the kitchen spaces. It was hard work using only a wood stove heating those rambling, uninsulated one story homes.
The interior flooring in the original house was all 1 X 4 inch end grain Douglas Fir Katherine Eubanks reported coming from Indian Creek trees, likely sawn at the mill Cornelius Prather and his partner Dightman owned. Today the flooring still survives in the living, bedroom and dining areas, and is in what I call “mint” condition. When the Baynhams did their major renovation, they raised the roof line, added a staircase and second floor bedroom and bath, and replaced the damaged floor in the kitchen cooking area.
It turns out the roofed front porch once wrapped three sides of the house. This porch was and is eight feet wide and once stretched the full length of the home’s south side. Providing further protection from summer afternoon heat there still thrives is a vigorous, possibly hundred year old Concord single grapevine arbor, its wood frame about twelve feet square with slate tile flooring. On this sun-warmed outdoor “room” Morgan and I sat the other afternoon and talked about the Prather home and its features.
The northside porch enclosure ran about fifteen feet into a house wall that was part of a shady-side storage area for meal staples like flour, cornmeal, and vegetables and fruits in baskets and canning jars, the output of the household garden and orchard. One ancient plum tree still stands on this side of the house about thirty feet away and continues to bear some fruit each year.
A roofed dormer wing across the back of the house is a screened-in porch with an exit on the north side of the house and entrance into the main building’s dining room. This space was a combination storage area for stove wood and other non-perishable goods, and a butcher shop for the households’ meats. The floor was made of cement one can tell was made from line and river-run sand by the rough texture of its upper surface. The south half of this area was the slaughtering and butchering area, and today one can still see a couple of inch long but narrow nicks in the cement where large animal butchering occurred. Axes, cleavers or other tools had likely broken through bones and sinew and cracked the stone. The butchering tables were in such bad repair that Morgan and Laura had to dispose of them when they first moved in.
So far, the Carl Prather house has been the iconic Highway 128 roadside landmark most educative of all those Wes and I have visited. The reason being that we were able to enjoy such complete exploration of the outside and inside of the place guided by its informed and caring owners Laura and Morgan Baynham.
At the end of our visits I felt I had a very clear picture of the daily life of an Anderson Valley farm family in the post-Civil War and pre-World War One era. More precisely the second and third generation of our original settlers.
(Next Week: The End of the Road with Wes: The Skrbek and Rawls homes and Boonville’s Tolman Home.)
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