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My Travels With Wes, VI (The Last Ride?)

This “last ride” actually occurred a couple of weeks ago during our voyage from Josie Brusa’s home on the old Deadmeades winery property back to Boonville via the Walter Prather home visit and stop by Rawles Ranch on the other side of the “Mason-Dixon line at Denmark Creek. Since then I have made contact with the Tommy Lemons family and with Bill Charles who owns the Tolman house on the south end of Boonville to mine what they know about previous ownerships.

The Elsie Skrbek House, 8651 Highway 128,between Lemon’s Philo Market and The Company Cookhouse.

Wes believes Fred Skrbek died in the 1950s. He and Elsie had lived on the square one hundred sixty acre ranch south of my place and above Floodgate, now owned by Kendall Jackson winery. I have written about their farming activities including being early Valley wine grape planters over a hundred years ago. Sometime in the 1950s age and declining health forced the Skrbeks to sell their Floodgate ranch. Thereupon they moved to Philo and bought property that included the store, the adjacent house, the restaurant, and a couple of acres behind these buildings. Fred was in declining health and lived in a one room “shotgun” cabin behind the restaurant. Elsie lived in the house performing home maker duties and managing the Skrbek’s ambitious landlord affairs on the place. 

The Skrbek house is another of the simple but elegantly decorative one story buildings that typified Anderson Valley early settler ranch homes. One’s immediate attention to it is provoked by the dormered, pillared porch framing most of the house front. Today it is an outdoor tasting area where one can enjoy Witching Stick’s wines and study the locals walking from Lemons store to the post office to pick up their mail. The home’s footprint is about 20 X 30 feet with numerous simple but boldly framed large windows on all four sides. The siding is more of that elegant 3 ½ inch clapboard we see all over The Valley. The roof is of new material.

One warm afternoon last week I stopped by the open tasting room to explore its interior. Winemaker Van Williamson, a long-time friend, was pouring for guests that day and he told me to roam the place as I saw fit.

The interior’s layout today is totally different from its origins and when Elsie lived there, I am sure. The flooring is contemporary, probably the decision of the Lemons family when they repaired and restored the building back in the late seventies. Today the most prominent interior design feature are the windows and ceiling throughout the house. The ceiling is a narrow, heavily painted off-white redwood tongue and groove, probably the product of the local mill industry. The ceiling trim is a rippling, cascading design I call Corinthian for its baroque charm. The windows and their frames look original to me. They all have moveable upper sashes that can be opened down behind the fixed lower ones. The Window trim everywhere is a plain painted 1 X 6” board. The mopboard trim at the floor is a simple painted four inch board.

Earlier this week I spoke with Tom and Connie Lemons about their knowledge of the Skrbeks and their residence at the house. The Lemons leased the store, now Lemons’ Philo Market from Elsie in 1973.When the lease came up for renewal in 1976, Elsie was in declining health and under the care of her daughter Joyce. Joyce was not interested in being a real estate entrepreneur and sold all the property, including Elsie’s house, the restaurant to the north that was Janie’s Place, Janie being Connie’s mother, and the trailer court. 

Tommy’s father, Elmer, immediately began major repair and restoration work on all three buildings. Elsie’s house was in most immediate need of work, as its maintenance had been neglected by the aging Skrbeks. Most important task was to replace the foundation pillars, as they were decaying and the house was gently sinking in some places. Tommy remembers helping his dad after work in the woods, and the excitement of jacking up the house one place at a time, and pouring a cement pad foundation in the dark crawlspace under the house, then letting that part of the house back down onto the poured pad a couple of days later. Not easy work. part of the Skrbek real estate empire and tore down Fred’s abode behind the restaurant. 

The Skrbeks bought the property from Denver McKinney, who had been running the store and restaurant and continued to as a renter after Fred and Elsie became owners. Elsie then installed about nine rentals on the area behind the house where the trailer park is today. When one walks to the rear of the house where the kitchen was, one notices two of the three back windows are considerably smaller than the rest of the home’s, about two feet square, I believe. Elsie included a real estate office as part of her kitchen, and those windows provided a venue where renters could walk over from home and pay their monthly fees without disrupting Elsie’s cooking activities. The Skrbeks in their retirement affairs were indeed remarkably entrepreneurial real estate owners and Elsie an efficient business and office manager.

I am very grateful for Tommy and Connie’s recollections of their families’ relationship to Elsie Skrbek’s real estate enterprise, a rich vein of Valley business history.

The Russell Tolman House: 14551 Highway 128, Boonville, south of Charles’s Foursight winery tasting room and Rental Cottages.

As of this report, the Tolman house remains a mystery to current owner Bill and Nancy Charles, Wes and me. Currently it is hidden back from the highway by a very old incense cedar, a lovely Victorian style white picket fence and some landscaping shrubs. Since I like historic mysteries, I will explore at a later time its ownership before Russell Tolman and will report back once I find out more.

Russell Tolman and family migrated to Anderson Valley in 1901. A review of the Tolman family portrait album at the Anderson Valley Historical Society museum reveals lots of neat photos of three generations of Tolmans, including my friend Roger, whom I got to know via our participation in the Anderson Valley “adult” softball league. I believe Roger played for Hiatt Trucking. He also would stop by Day Ranch north of Philo when he saw Sammy Prather and I working sheep around its barn. 

His grandmother Beth Tolman had married Bill Day, and Roger had spent a lot of his childhood doing rural recreation at Day Ranch. I got to know Beth Day when I worked at the Ukiah livestock auction where she was transaction book keeper, as difficult a financial records management job as there is. When I went into her office to collect my monthly wages, she was always totally organized in her work, had the check already written before I went to collect. His great-grandfather Russell was a Montana sheepman who, it is said, raised Merinos back in that formidable grazing country up against the Rocky Mountains. 

There is a picture at the museum that shows the family standing in front of a barn and on six inches of snow, dressed in heavy woolen clothing and blowing steam from their throats on a sunny Montana winter day. In The Valley Russell worked on various sheep ranches as herder and shearer and lived into the 1960s. Wes believes Russell migrated to The Valley via Alturas, where he was both a sheepman and ran a bar and restaurant in that isolated part of northern California.

The house, exquisitely maintained by the Charles’s, I am certain predates the Tolmans. I spent half an hour walking around its exterior doing my archeological work on its structure. The house could possibly have been built in three stages, the front a simple one story cabin about 20 feet across the front by fourteen deep, the roof ridgepole running north and south. I wonder if it had once been a “line” cabin for a shepherd living with his flock in the Valley’s hills, the building then moved off a ridgetop and into town. 

What I claim is the original structure sits back about twenty feet from the picket fence, and today reveals no front door and its 20 X 14 footprint makes a pretty small home. Two large simply trimmed windows dominate the house front, and I see no evidence of the fireplace chimney that must have heated the home. Its siding, as it is for the rest of the house, is large, dramatically beautiful nine inch shiplap. The exterior of the current house is freshly painted in a light smoky grey, the large six inch wide window trim in a darker shade of grey.

The photo shows the rest of the Tolman house with its currently located front door and porch. I surmise each of the variably sized extensions represent additions made at different dates. The first addition with its extended covered porch is the same height as the “original” building and is sixteen feet long by 18 wide. The porch is nicely shaded from the afternoon sun by the highway cedar and a couple of mature Douglas firs and is comfortably wide to accommodate the Tolman family’s outdoor evenings. This wing is also clad in the same elegant wide shiplap as the house front, suggesting, counter to my guess above. 

The foundation perimeter wall for both buildings was made from local river run sand and gravel mixed by hand with cement, very rough textured finished product. The front structure’s stem wall is a foot high; the second one facing the camera is only eight inches off the ground. So my surmise is an older settler built both the small cabin and the addition at different times in the nineteenth century.

The third extension is smaller than the other two pieces of the home’s footprint, it’s ridgepole two feel lower than them, and its dimensions are sixteen by fourteen feet. The siding on this wing of the house is a smaller 5” wide shiplap.

The side pictured above and the Tolman house rear the Charles’s have enclosed in a carefully built split rail fence with a handmade picket front gate. On the ground next to the gate is a 6 X 9” wooden sign reading “The Tolmans.” I doubt it’s legible in the photo due to the afternoon shade, some of it provided by two flowering cherry trees to the left of the gate, just now blooming, and by the dying old tree next to the gate. The tree is an exotic, a white maple from the eastern Appalachians I am guessing planted by one of the nineteenth century owners of the home as a talisman from their roots back east. I am told its leaves turn flaming red and yellow in late summer, much like sugar maples up and down the Appalachians.

As I circled the house on foot, I discovered behind its acre lot a fenced couple of acres of vigorous pasture inhabited by a small band of purebred sheep, always a pleasurable sight to this retired sheep farmer. Half the band were healthy looking Suffolk ewes, the other six were, I think Corriedales, a predecessor to the Columbia rams Sammy Prather used to breed for sale. I am very grateful Wes and I visited this unnoticed little Boonville residency landmark and want to find out more about its heritage before the Russell Tolman family occupancy.

And I believe there are to be more Travels with Wes in the future. In my recent tours around Boonville I noticed another half dozen small but I believe historically significant domestic dwellings at both ends of town warranting a visit by we two road warriors. And for learning about many more structural landmarks up and down Highway 128, get a copy at the History Museum of his and Steve Sparks’s wonderful travelogue, ‘Then And Now, An Anderson Valley Journey.’

(Next week (maybe):Growing up in Navarro four generations ago with Donald and Robert Pardini.)

One Comment

  1. Marshall Newman March 6, 2023

    Cool series. Thanks, Brad.

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