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The Ties that Bind

Anderson Valley is a unique place. The valley’s tightly circumscribed terrain, redwoods-and-meadows landscape and temperate (compared to most of the world) climate are similar to a scattering of spots up and down the Northern California coast, but the element that sets it apart — even now, but especially in the past — is the region’s isolation.

Those similar spots — Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley, Eureka, Scott’s Valley, Woodside and Mountain View - were readily accessible by boat, rail or a combination of the two from San Francisco by the late 1870s. Not Anderson Valley. A visit here from San Francisco before 1900 required a rail journey to Cloverdale or Ukiah followed by miles of travel by wagon or horseback on roads either incredibly dusty (in summer) or incredibly muddy (in winter). The alternative was passage by sailing ship or steamer to Mendocino, Caspar, Little River, Noyo, Albion, Manchester or Greenwood (now Elk), and then a similarly long horse or wagon ride on the Navarro Ridge or Manchester Road.

Keep in mind those methods of travel were for visitors. The early settlers of Anderson Valley came one way; by freight wagon, drawn by oxen or horses. The stuff needed to establish and maintain a homestead — tools, furniture, clothes, food, stock, seed and more — was considerable. Even if early Anderson Valley settlers could afford to ship everything by train or boat, they still needed a freight wagon and team to get the stuff from the dock or railhead to Anderson Valley.

Those first Anderson Valley settlers didn’t come solo. Brothers Henry and Isaac Beeson and their stepbrother, William Anderson (for whom the valley is named), together with Anderson’s wife and seven children, established their homestead just south of today’s Mountain View Road in 1852. Jefferson Davis Ball also arrived in 1852, settling near Con Creek: he married three years later and was joined in Anderson Valley by his wife, two stepchildren and his wife’s brother, Alonzo Kendall, for whom Kendall City - soon to become Boonville - was named. John Ornbaun, his family and his brother arrived in Ornbaun Valley near Yorkville in 1853 (another family named Ornbaun — apparently unrelated — settled in the heart of Anderson Valley soon after). John Gschwend and his wife arrived in northern Anderson Valley in 1855.

John McGimsey, with his sons Alderson and Porter, settled near Soda Creek in 1856. Thomas Rawles, who came in 1857, was accompanied by his wife and six children. Brothers William and Cornelius Prather settled near Philo in 1862. Daniel Studebaker arrived just south of Christine (a now-vanished town near the junction of Greenwood Road and Highway 128) with his wife and five children in 1868. Large, often extended families or siblings were the norm for early Anderson Valley settlers. Building a home and making a living in an isolated location took people power, and big families with lots of adults and/or lots of kids had the advantage.

Other prominent names from the first 20 years of Anderson Valley settlement include Irish, Babcock, Burger, Brown, Clow, Hiatt, Guntley, Reilly, Nunn, Smalley, Shields, Stubblefield, York, Beebe, Donnelly and Hutsell. Plus there were other, less prominent Anderson Valley pioneers, most little-known or recognized today.

By 1880, Anderson Valley had an estimated population of 1,000, a significant percentage of which likely were children or young adults. Even though the railroad reached Cloverdale in 1877, the valley’s isolation kept young people’s social lives close to home. There were plenty of local opportunities for youngsters to meet their peers; at school, at church, at social gathering and at dances (Anderson Valley was home to a handful of dance halls over the years).

As a result, lots of Anderson Valley’s founding families became related by marriage. A Burger married a Rawles. Another Burger married a Beeson. One Irish married an Ingram and another married an Ornbaun. A Prather married an Ornbaun. A Wightman married a Ball. A Gschwend married a Reilly. A Nunn married a Rooks. A Brown married a Prather. An Ingram married a Clow. An Ornbaun married a McGimsey. And this is only a small sampling.

Spurred by Anderson Valley’s isolation, this mingling of Anderson Valley pioneer families continued for more than two generations. Only in the early 1900s did travel become easier; first around 1910 when the Albion River Railroad reached Wendling (now Navarro) and later in the late 1920s when the MacDonald to the Sea Highway (now Highway 128) from Cloverdale to the coast opened. Only then did many local youth have opportunities to socialize with peers from the “outside” world.

Despite the evolution of Anderson Valley’s economy — the rise and fall of logging and milling, the rise and fall of dried apple production, hops production and tanbark harvesting, the rise of fresh apple production, the rise of sheep ranching, etc. — many descendants of the original Anderson Valley pioneers still lived in the valley in 1957, when my family arrived. A fair number of them had taken advantage of the easier travel to get college educations outside Anderson Valley, only to return to work in family businesses, start new businesses or teach.

Sadly, the ranks of those pioneer family descendants in Anderson Valley have thinned considerably in the years since. Many descendants left to pursue opportunities unavailable in Anderson Valley. Some were forced out by the valley’s evolving economy. Others married outsiders and never returned. A few pioneer family lines simply died out.

Change is inevitable. The loss of those connections to Anderson Valley’s early history is a loss for all valley residents. However, the arrival of new residents has created fresh vitality. Some of these new families will shape Anderson Valley for generations. Anderson Valley may not be as isolated and insular as in the past, but it is still a unique place.

Footnotes: There probably are important early Anderson Valley families not mentioned in this article: to their descendants, I apologize for not including their names. I also want to acknowledge the Anderson Valley Historical Society and Valerie Hanelt, whose research was essential to this article. Thank you.

One Comment

  1. Peggy Hoelbl July 20, 2019

    I am an ornbaun descendent, names is in little red school house museum love my family history

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