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Donald Pardini Remembers His Navarro Childhood

One drizzly afternoon last week I sat around his dining room table with Donald Pardini and son Ernie and listened to Don’s recollections of his early childhood in post-milltown Navarro. What stories and what power of recollection the 92 year old Anderson Valley native possesses today.

Ernie Pardini is as well-informed a guardian of Valley culture as his Dad, and like Donald loves collecting and retelling stories of the “good old days,” so important to capture in print before the texture of our community’s roots is lost for good. Sitting at the dining room table we were virtually surrounded by AVs history. There were several photo scrap books lying open on the table to inspire our recollections and anecdotes, and every wall of the house was hung with photos from back then, both Navarro and later on in the Pardini family’s life. Bookshelves were filled with a dozen more scrapbooks and local histories including the collection of stories Donald’s wife Donna wrote for this newspaper forty years ago, Anderson Valley, A Love Story.

Hotel Pardini Porch. Left to right, Guiseppi, Sabatena Pardini, kin Dale, his grandmother Cad Anderson, Don’s father Ernest Pardini. (Donald Pardini collection.)

To begin our interview I asked Don for his first childhood recollection of Navarro. It was of living in a small apartment on the second floor of his grandparents Sabatina and Giuseppe’s Hotel Pardini, still in business as the Navarro Inn when I first moved here in 1971. Unhappily the building was totally consumed by fire in early 1972, the saddest day I ever witnessed in my hometown; the firemen were weeping as they vainly pumped water on the conflagration.

Back in the nineteen thirties, when Donald was born, the Navarro mill was permanently closed and abandoned, but as the Great Depression wound down in the late 1930s logging began again sporadically all over Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. Don’s parents, Ernest and Annie Bacci Pardini, often lived in the seasonal logging camps around our county where woodsmen and their families cottaged and worked for months on end. The family worked as far from Navarro as Sherwood Road near Willits and off of Highway 20 at Camp 19. 

Donald’s grandparents, Giuseppi and Sabatena were born and raised in a small Tuscan village named Gradiliana near Lucca. In 1899, Giuseppi migrated directly to Navarro by steamship around Cape Horn, stopping first at the newly opened Ellis Island immigration center in New York harbor to clear immigration. Giuseppi and Tena had had a romantic relationship as teenagers, and after her first husband, a Giusti, died, Giuseppi lured her to Navarro in 1903 with a marriage proposal. After working hard in the mill and woods, the couple saved enough money to purchase the future hotel from Navarro Lumber Company who built it as hospital for the town, but built a new one closer to the mill. The Pardinis named it the Hotel Italia (later the Hotel Pardini) with rooms for bachelor mill workers and seasonal hunters from The City, complete with restaurant and bar.

After the summer season working and living in the woods, Ernie and Annie would move back to their family and friends in Navarro and live in two rooms upstairs in two of the hotel’s guest rooms. Those rooms are his first recollection of his life in the town. After several winters at their parents hotel and with a growing family (sister Eva was born in 1934, and brother Robert called Mancher in 1938) the Ernest Pardini’s moved a few hundred feet north along the old McDonald to the Sea highway to the ice house, the one-time saloon/whorehouse/rail station/post office that still stands well-preserved today west of the current Highway 128. Donald’s dad continued working in the nearby woods. 

Donald also attended third through seventh grade classes at the Laurel School up Wendling Soda Creek Road, as did his sister Eva and brother Robert. He has little recollection of his school years beyond that the teachers were a Mr. Bill Burton and Mrs. Lyle Hampton, and Cecil Mitchell, all good teachers, he says. His sister Eva and brother Robert were the beneficiary of the legendary elementary school teacher Mrs. McDonald.

When I asked Don for recollections of his after-school recreational activities, he at first said, no, he had none. But when I asked him where the kids played baseball, the stories began. The kids, including his best friends Oscar Price, Robert Sciani, Roy Neilsen, Bob Mabery, created a ball field in the open space between the Ice House and the Hotel Pardini where the famous Drunk Tree retirees’ meeting place and horseshoe pit was back in the 1970s. There is today still a picnic bench there under the second growth redwood trees.

Then there was the swimming hole Don and his friends manufactured in the creek next to the post office building behind today’s Navarro Store. In those days the old McDonald-to-the-Sea highway turned left south of Mrs. Barnes House, and rose gently up and down slope to Wendling Soda Creek bridge, where there was a small bridge about where the back of the Navarro Store is today. It then went between the Hotel Pardini and the Hotel Pasero complex, then south as it is today down hotel row to Joe Pedro’s garage and on to Floodgate. 

When the state built the Old Highway back in the twenties including the Wendling Soda Creek bridge, they buried a small unnamed creek that flowed behind the Italia/Pardini hotel up to Joe Pedro’s garage in a giant 3 foot galvanized culvert which I believe is the one still in place and operating today. The culvert’s exit was into Wendling Soda Creek, where the heavy winter flow carved a large hole to accommodate the swimming ambitions of the pre-teenage boys. The unnamed creek also gathered sewage from the hotel and residences along the Old Highway, including what I’ll politely call human waste. So once early summer arrived and the creek flow diminished someone performed the Navarro equivalent of life guard duty by posting himself at the entrance to the culvert to pick out the turds that occasionally revealed themselves in the stream flow.

Another recreational activity of the Navarro pre-teen gang was scouting out and exploring the various illegal alcohol manufacturing activities in and around town. Joe Sciani living at the south end of Navarro (where string instrument nailsmaker David Dart lives today) had a still somewhere in the woods everyone knew about, but no one ever discovered. However, behind the Sciani home was a small shed where the finished product, a kind of whisky, raw materials unknown, was warehoused in old wine barrels. Donald and Mancher found a way to enter the warehouse without being seen or heard from the house, and to pull a small wooden plug on the bottom side of one of the horizontal barrel and enjoy a sip or two. 

One day as Don pulled the plug from the barrel, it split in half, and even with the broken plug back in place, there still was a residual drip escaping the barrel. Ever the conservationists, and while Robert ran to find a replacement bung, Don lay under the barrel plugging the bunghole with his thumb as best he could while imbibing the fine liquor one drop at a time as it escaped the barrel. Donald doesn’t remember going home that day, but does the headache when he woke up the next morning.

One other story about Navarro’s Italian community culture was about one of the local home winemakers, Nilgo Frachi. Nilgo bought grapes from Claudina; Pinoli’s vineyard up Lazy Creek and made wine in old, badly maintained whisky barrels. His product was famous all over town for its tannic bitterness. Nilgo explained his wine-making strategy as designed exactly that way to keeping the neighbors from stealing it. Thus it was for pioneer winemaking in pre-War Iteville.

Donald was also an industrious youngster always looking for ways to increase his personal wealth. During World War II when the US Government War Production Board rewarded companies monetarily for providing the economy with scrap metals, Southern Pacific who owned the Navarro mill and surrounding railroad, paid local people on a piece basis for gathering even the nails from the old mill and other abandoned buildings around the town. When he applied for the job, Don was told he was too young to do this kind of work.

Not one to take an insult to his character quietly, Don paid the company back by breaking into where it had the stored in large boxes, hauled them up above the Ice House and dumped them in an abandoned seven seat outhouse on skids the old mill had provided its employees for bowel relief during work hours. Take that, Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

Don also reminded me that his afternoon agenda wasn’t all hangin’ and foolin’ with the gang. There was also a daily routine of tasks his firm but fair parents expected him to perform in support of family homelife. He was responsible for scouting up the hill behind the Ice House where the family milk cow grazed, finding and milking her. Closer to home were the pigs and chickens to feed, and his firm but fair parents insisted persuasively these tasks took priority over his daily social life. 

I want to close this episode of Don Pardini’s recollections with his reply to my question asked several people knowledgeable of Navarro’s history. Who was Mrs. Barnes who owned the large yellow house at the intersection of today’s Highway 128 and Wendling Soda Creek Road? Donald added a piece of information hitherto unrecovered. Hazel Barnes was in fact the Postmaster when the PO was in the Icehouse and later next to the Hotel Pardini. The house itself, Don believed, had probably been the home of a Navarro Mill manager. Her husband was for years a mill guard protecting the leftover buildings, equipment and steam engine from vandalism. Donald surmised that during the Great Depression the large supply of homes abandoned and available for sale as residents moved away to find work made it possible for the Barnes family to buy the mill manager’s mansion.

(Next Week: More Don Pardini recollections of his Iteville childhood.)

One Comment

  1. Kirk Vodopals April 5, 2023

    Thank you for putting this to paper. I’m glad to see local history being documented.
    You might want to reach out to Bobby Mayberry for more Navarro lore

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