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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Kelly Hiatt

I met with Kelley in her classroom at the High School where she has worked full-time as a teacher’s aid in the Special Education Department for the past twenty-five years. She made a lovely cup of tea and we sat down to talk.

Kelley was born in the small rural logging town of Scotia, about seven miles south of Fortuna in west-central Humboldt County, northern California. Her parents were Lasca ‘Lassie’ Wilburn and William ‘Bud’ Johnson (Ms Hiatt was born Kelly Johnson). The Wilburn’s had come to California in the late 1800’s from Tennessee and her great Grandmother was 100% Indian and as a result her great Grandfather had been disowned by the family — he was with a ‘squaw.’ The family settled in Trinity County and Lassie grew up there and Humboldt County too. She was boarded out with a family to attend school during the week in Fortuna, which was many miles from where they lived.

The Johnson family was from Arbuckle, Colusa County, and at some point they moved and Kelley’s grandfather worked on a large cattle ranch in Trinity County. The ranch was near to the Wilburn property and Bud Johnson was also boarded out to attend school in the town too. He and Lassie had known each other as kids for some years before they were married in 1949 and Kelley was born a few years later.

Sister Kristy was born, two years after Kelley at which time they were living in Cloverdale with Bud working at the Crawford Ranch in Anderson Valley. “My parents split up not long after that and Mom moved back up to Trinity County with us girls and married again, a couple of times in fact. We did not see much of dad over the next few years. We were always moving as my stepfather was in construction and worked on dam building. He worked at the Ruth Dam, the Whiskytown Dam, the Trinity Dam, and the Shasta Dam and each time we moved I went to a new school so that before I graduated high school I had been at fourteen different schools in total. Fortunately I was very outgoing so I made friends quite easily everywhere we went. Meanwhile, my Mom would find work as a bookkeeper or elementary school teacher. When she wasn’t doing that, or raising us girls, her hobby was horseback barrel racing and with my stepfather being a bucking horse rider, we would go to rodeos as a family since as far back as I can remember. I had been on a horse with my grandfather as a baby and then rode one at the age of three. However, I did have a couple of serious horse wrecks a youngster and that was hard to overcome for a time.”

For a time they lived in Hetton Valley, Bridgeville, in southern Trinity County and Kelley attended the local school along with ten other children, in total. “My Grandmother, Hazel Wilburn, had a ranch there, my Grandfather had died, and she ran the ranch and was also a teacher for thirty-two years, as well as being a local judge and a supervisor for the 5th District. There was quite a large extended family of Wilburn’s around and my grandmother spoiled us all rotten. My mother was a heavy smoker and this was linked somehow to her having to stop teaching for a while and she began to run cattle on the ranch — she had always wanted to grow up and be a rancher, and now she was... My stepfather was a strict Catholic and so we had to go to a Catholic school in 6th grade — Sacred Heart Elementary in Eureka. Yes, I went through the whole Catholic scene. I was baptized, and regularly went to mass and confession. I did not like being forced to do that at the time but it made its mark and I think I’ve continued to practice a lot of those Catholic ways ever since — you know, the guilt, the doing what you are supposed to do, etc. When I left that school and went to a public school — Winship Junior High, it was just the greatest thing in the world to me. To be away from those strict nuns, no school uniforms, and be able to do some sports, although we still had to go to mass every Sunday.”

“We moved to Ferndale, a town about the size of Cloverdale, and I went to Ferndale High School. My parents bought an old Victorian house there and my Mom was the Principal at nearby Grizzly Bluff Elementary School. My parents were strict and we were assigned household chores, while at school I was an average student and didn’t apply myself very well but I played on the school tennis team and had lots of friends. We lived next to the fairgrounds where I was able to keep my horses and my sister and I worked the Fair, a seven-day event, mucking out the horse stalls and walking the horses after a race, cooling them out. It was good money for a high school kid. When I was about fifteen or so, my parents split up and for a time Mom had to take an extra job working at a mill as well as at the school before she decided to return to running cattle on the property in Hetten Valley and bartending at a nearby resort too. This was too far away to go into school every day so for my junior year I had to board out once again during the week. I hated being boarded out with a family that I didn’t know and my schoolwork declined. In the summer before my senior year, my Dad showed up and his wife thought it would be a good idea to go and live with them. It seemed like a great idea to me too. I was so unhappy with the boarding situation. My Mom was very upset at the possibility of me moving but I went ahead and grabbed the chance to get out. I was like many other self-centered seventeen year olds and did not really consider her feelings at the time. My sister stayed with her, She was a wild child, and I went to live with my Dad and attended Anderson Valley High School for my senior year.”

Kelley had visited her father a couple of times in the Valley and had entered her horse at the Mendocino County Fair in Boonville the previous year, but on this occasion she left her horse behind. She was in a senior class with people such as Peggy Gowan, Angela Pronsolino, and Lindsay Clow and soon settled in. “My mother had wanted me to be a teacher so I had rebelled against that and enrolled in beauty school part-time during that final year at school. She did not like that. I now regret leaving her. It was very selfish of me, but you don’t realize that until you become a mother yourself. We kept in touch and remained very close but she was a heavy smoker and it led to her dying at the age of 53.”

Kelley dated local logger, Wayne Hiatt, who was from one of the original families who had settled in the Valley in the 1860s. He was a couple of years older than her and he worked for his father Kay, at Hiatt Logging. “I graduated from high school in 1971 and we were married a couple of months later in a redwood grove — to avoid all religious conflicts that may have come up. My father’s bear-hunting friend, Andy Burgess, was a judge and he married us and we moved into an apartment between The Boonville Lodge bar and the Anderson Valley Market, and then into a house on Fitch Lane on the edge of town. I did finish beauty school but found a job working for Evelyn Berry at her apple packing shed, before getting work at the Redwood Drive-In for Donna Pardini and Eva Johnson. They closed down for the slow winter months of 1974-75 and I did not go back because I was pregnant with my daughter Amanda who was born in 1975. We moved to the place on Ornbaun Road, ‘Kelley’s Place,’ which we rented from my Dad. We later bought the property from him and I continue to own it and rent it out to my half-brother W.T. It’s where I have corrals for my horse and other people’s horses too. W.T. is a partner at Starr Auto in Philo and my other half-brother, Houston, works at Maple Creek Winery. When Amanda was in grade school, I volunteered as a part-time teacher’s aid and in 1985 they hired me full-time at the high school in the Special Education department under Bill Dawson. A year later Brian Schreiner took over the department and I worked alongside him for twenty years until he retired in 2006. I then did two years with Sarah Cornsweet, one with Marie Bryant, and now it’s Rae Sokolow.”

“Wayne and I had several steady friends we would hang out with — people such as Dave and Sandy Knight (Tucker), Craig and Marty Titus (also a Tucker), and Ricky and Stephanie Adams. We’d go to the Boonville Lodge and often over the hill to Ukiah to watch the stock car races. Wayne was riding bucking horses by this time and my Mom gave me a barrel-racing horse so I started to learn that sport — I’d only shown horses to that point because I had been pretty scared after my two wrecks. Then we both really got into roping and that became our social life, attending rodeos with friends every weekend, all over the State and into Nevada. People would say a girl couldn’t be a good ‘healer’ (roping by the heels), so I wanted to show people they could and won Girl Healer of the Year two or three years in a row and also the Women’s Team Roping Association title a couple of times and then, after my third victory, my prize was a wonderful saddle. My Dad had married a friend of mine, Vicky, and he was very well known in the rodeo scene and we’d all go together; he and Wayne always got along well. By the time she was three, Amanda was riding in the County Fair parade and at five she was barrel racing... Over time my priority became roping and I did very little barrel racing. I bought a real nice horse from Jim Clow here in the Valley, and we did this whole thing as a family for many years.”

“Wayne and I split up in the early 90s. Around the same time my sister was killed while working as an under-cover narcotics officer in Texas, and then on top of that I was diagnosed with cancerous cells. That was a time of real learning experiences. I stayed on at the Ornbaun Road property with Amanda and my sister’s youngest boy, Patrick, came to live with us there. A year or so later, I met a man called Scott playing pool in the Boonville Lodge. He lived on the Hanes Ranch about ten miles west of Boonville (his mother Meda had married John Hanes), and he was building a house for himself on the property. We went on our first date to a Halloween Dance at The Grange. He was in construction and was helping to build the Lazy Creek Winery building and would cash his check at the Lodge. That’s where he asked me out to the dance. We have been together ever since and I moved into the place with him on the ranch about seven years ago and we are very happy there. I totally love living there although it takes me about thirty minutes each way to get to school so I don’t want to forget anything.”

Amanda went away to college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and Patrick (Upchurch) attended AV High School where he excelled at sports, particularly football and baseball, and graduated in 2000. “He is like my own son and Scott also really helped in raising him. Amanda got married and in 2003 had a son, Jace. After Wayne and I split up, I pretty much stopped roping and went back to barrel racing, although for years I did not compete anything like as often as before. However, in the last five years it has become quite a serious hobby once again and now Amanda is into it and she is a very good competitor. She gave me a well-bred barrel-racing horse and he is very quick but a little too ‘hot’ or highly-strung. I have had him three years and a good relationship has slowly developed. I ride him three or four days a week, a couple of miles up into the Deer Meadow hills overlooking Boonville. Most times it’s a nice quiet ride but if I’m angry with him then it’s all the way to the top without stopping! Last year we did quite well in a few competitions and one weekend won $700. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done but I love the whole thing as I go with girlfriends, Amanda too sometimes, and I always take my dog, Chub — half Border collie, half corgi, and we stay in a motor home or at a motel and we always have a great time, win or lose. I actually think barrel racing is harder than roping although I’m sure some people would argue with that. Anyway, I want to be good at racing before I die, or at least before I am too old to do it anymore.”

“Another thing I love to do is fish. Scott and I like to travel to British Columbia to fish for salmon whenever we can. What a fantastic time that is — fishing all day long. We both love it. He is very good and I’m getting better every time. The other thing I do is my crafts. About ten years ago I started to make barn-wood picture frames and moved on to cowhide covered redwood stools. I then took some classes and now make necklaces — flashy and elaborate, hammered metal earrings, and other different kinds of jewelry. I have my pieces at Scharffenberger Winery and at Susan Spencer’s new gallery in Ukiah, and I always have a stall at the Christmas bazaar, plus a few of the teachers have bought my stuff too. Sometimes what I make is a disaster but sometimes it’s pretty cool. I have a certain gift for crafts and have knitted my whole life, and sewed too, and I can continue to have time to pursue these crafts because of where I live. I love being there but you need something to do to stay busy. I often spend the whole weekend up there — working on crafts, reading… I read anything that does not take a lot of thinking, mainly fiction but not mysteries or scary stuff.”

I asked Kelley what she most liked about the Valley? “I love the Valley’s climate and it is a beautiful place to live. In the spring it is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. I have never wanted to leave and don’t think I ever will. There isn’t anything here I don’t like.”

The wineries and their impact on the Valley? “I don’t think they have had too bad an impact. They have provided lots of jobs and certainly have attracted tourists and their money to the Valley.”

The AVA? “I like it and buy it every week. I don’t always agree with what is written but it is always entertaining.”

KZYX radio? “I don’t listen much although I do like Trading Time. Scott listens far more than I do. I like country music so apart from the shows by Diane Hering and Jimmy Humble there is not much on there for me.”

The local schools? “I think we have a very good school but I’m obviously biased. I do know first hand that a lot of individual effort is put into each and every kid and the teachers genuinely care about the students.”

Law and Order in the Valley? “I am very concerned that the deputies are not patrolling the Valley like they used to.”

Marijuana and other drugs? “I have never used any of them but I would think it makes sense to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana by now. As for methamphetamines, it would be a good deterrent for the kids to see addicts up close, when they first enter rehab perhaps, when they are at their lowest point after using this very addictive and harmful drug. I think it’s a horrible drug. None are good, but the effects of that one seem to be the worst of all.”

I asked Kelley for a memory of her mother. “She was a great lady. She was strict though and would take a belt to you and blister your ass if necessary. I never doubted her love for me though. Even when I was 35, I remember her coming into me at bedtime and sitting on the bed and talking to me. I can still see her crying when I left to come here to live. I shall never forget it. She raised me and made me who I am.” And her Dad? “He and I are close now but I don’t see him as much as I should perhaps. We do try to ride together every couple of weeks and that is important to me.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” plus some of my own.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Helping somebody.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Lack of respect for others.”

Sound or noise you love? “A cow moo-ing.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Fingernails on a blackboard — that happens a lot when I’m wiping down ours here in the classroom.”

Favorite food or meal? “Rib-eye steak with veggies.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “My Mom. She died too young from emphysema in 1986. I smoked like a fiend too but hypnosis helped me stop once for six years then I went back to smoking for ten years or so before quitting for good, thanks to hypnosis again, in 2004.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “My dog Chub, an old gun my Dad gave me; and the saddle I won in competition.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “A film would be ‘Legends of the Fall’ with Brad Pitt; a book would be ‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Cormac McCarthy; and the song may be ‘Red, red wine’ by Neil Diamond.”

Favorite hobby? “Well it would be two: barrel-racing and fishing.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “A full-time cattle rancher.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “A nurse. It would be tough emotionally and heartbreaking at times I’m sure.”

A memorable moment; a time you will never forget? “Catching a 35-pound King Salmon in British Columbia. Oh, my God! It was all I could do to get it in. I am quite competitive and that makes me want to be as good at fishing as Scott is.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Seeing my daughter give birth to her son. Being older I think I appreciated it more than when I gave birth to her, although that would be right up there too.”

Saddest? “My sister Kristy’s death. She was just too young, in her 30s.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “That I care about other people’s feelings. That I’m an honest person.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Welcome, Kelley, I know that Hazel, Lassie, and Kristy are waiting for you.” ¥¥

To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Bill Harper.)


  1. Jeannie Thorp November 2, 2011

    What a wonderful article on Kelley Hiatt. She’s a lovely person & am happy to say that “I know her”. Love ya Kelley~ Jeannie & Charlie Thorp

  2. Wendy McReynolds March 8, 2021

    I miss seeing Kelly. She is a wonderful person ?

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