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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Jim Hill

I drove out of the heart of the Valley and headed south, past ‘downtown’ Yorkville and at the 44-mile marker I turned into the driveway of the Hill Ranch, being greeted by the waving wooden mannequin of a cowboy that has greeted passers-by on Hwy 128 for many years. Owner Jim Hill welcomed me into his house, where he lives with his eighty-six year old mother, and we sat down at the large kitchen table to have our chat.

Jim was born in 1949 at Healdsburg Hospital when his family was living on the Morrow Ranch, a mile further south on Hwy 128 than where we were sitting. It was the house that a previous interviewee and Valley ‘old-timer’ Wes Smoot had grown up in. Jim’s parents were Harold ‘Butch’ Hill and Ruth Marie Vadon and he had one sister Kathy who has now passed away. “The Hill family were 100% English who settled in Canada, where my great Grandfather owned the first cold storage warehouse in Montreal. He did well but wanted to be a farmer and once that was decided it was a downhill spiral! He had farms in British Columbia and made contact with a man there who owned a ranch in Oat Valley, just this side of Cloverdale, about a dozen miles south of here. Our family bought that ranch in 1913 and moved down. My great Grandfather never could understand why July 1st (Canada Day) was not celebrated down here! My grandfather worked on the ranch but went back to Canada to get married and he and his new bride returned to the ranch in California where my father was born...”

“My great grandfather on my mother’s side was Irving Ingram, born in 1877, whose father had come to Anderson Valley in 1859 — in the first decade after the Valley’s discovery. It was Irving Ingram who bought this ranch where we are sitting in 1911, so it will have been in the family for one hundred years this next September. He had one daughter, Ruby, and she married Fred Vadon, of French heritage, whose family was from Cloverdale. One of their two children was my mother Ruth Marie. My parents met at school and when they married they lived on the ranch in Oat Valley. Ray Smoot and his family had looked after the Morrow Ranch for some years but when Ray died in 1948, they moved to Boonville and my father became the ranch caretaker and I was born there a year later. In 1959, when I was ten, my great Grandfather Irving Ingram died and Dad took over the running of the ranch, called the Ingram Ranch at that time. Our family moved in here from the Morrow Ranch and I’ve been here ever since.”

Growing up in the Valley meant that Jim was always outdoors playing. “My parents knew there were no threats to young kids apart from snakes. We’d be outside all day long and come in when it was dark. We had no close neighbors and I was quite a shy kid so I was alone most of the time. When I wasn’t outside I’d enjoy building toy models. My mother worked in Cloverdale as an insurance agent and I went to school there — traveling with her each way. My Dad was a sheep rancher but like most of them he had to have something else on the side and he was a carpenter. They do the sheep ‘cos they like it... I helped Dad with the sheep and he had some sheep dogs too, with me doing any of the extra running around that needed doing. We grew acres of oat hay for the sheep and I had other various chores around the land and hope. My parents hoped I’d be a hunter — it is my middle name — but I have never had much interest, despite most of my family being into it. I’d go along on hunting trips but didn’t care for it and quit when I was sixteen, by which time I’d learned enough outdoor skills to survive if I have to.”

Technically, Jim should have attended the Anderson Valley schools but with his mother working in Cloverdale and his grandparents all living there he went to Cloverdale High. “I enjoyed school at that time and pretty soon reading became a big hobby of mine — the American Civil War was my favorite subject to read about, and still is today. It was not cool to be seen reading all the time and hanging out with older people but I loved to listen to their stories of their times in the late 1800’s, a time when the Valley was developing although it was still a time of horses and wagons. I sat for hours listening to their histories and tales.”

Jim was an honor roll student with his favorite subjects being history and mathematics. “I played the individual sports like track and wrestling — I was not into team sports plus I came home with my mother every day so after school teams activities were difficult for me to take part in. I graduated in 1967 but the whole sixties scene, in which I went through my teenage years, did not have a big effect on me. I went to Santa Rosa Junior College for a couple of years and transferred to Humboldt State in 1969 to get my civil engineering degree, which I hoped would support my ranching ‘habit.’ There were student anti-war protests at Humboldt and they formed picket lines around the engineering building — the closest thing to anything military that was around. It was a very liberal college and one of the professors was a Lt Colonel in the National Guard so the protests took place. They did not affect me and I remained focused on my goal of graduating on time. I was never a party animal — my sister got those genes. My family was very conservative and I was a young Republican yet remained open-minded and I had fun watching it all going on. I respected the sense of community that comes with people joining various groups — something that is seen far less these days, although the destruction of private property that went on in those times really did bug me.”

Jim graduated from college in December 1971 and on Jan 2nd, 1972, started a job in Santa Rosa at the engineering firm of Brelje and Race, consultants who worked on several projects as city engineers for Cloverdale. “The Hill family knew some political people and put in a good word for me... I found an apartment in Santa Rosa but on most weekends I was here on the ranch, helping Dad. We had no hired help and not only had our own 760 acres but also had the 870 to maintain at the Morrow Ranch, and we leased 1100 acres for sheep at the Carlson Ranch — now Summer Winds Vineyards. I worked at the engineering company from 1972 until 1978, four years as an Engineer-in-training before getting my license as a professional engineer in 1976. Then in 1978, Dad died at the age of fifty-nine of a cerebral aneurism. He was a healthy man and it came as a shock. I spent three months thinking what to do before deciding to give it a try and work full-time on the ranch for a year and see how I felt at that point — well, I’m still giving it a try 33 years later!”

However, Jim’s boss at the engineering company did pass a job on to Jim that involved a sub-division in Cloverdale. Jim took the job but turned down the next one — “there were too many political shenanigans.... I never had a real business plan but I did take work on at times and worked from home in the evenings. Most of this came from word of mouth and the more contacts I made the more work came in, and I ended up working for some prominent developers thanks to having worked for the city engineers and knowing all the workings and ‘skeletons in the closet’ so to speak... I worked on the ranch all day and then in the evening on my engineering projects until midnight or 1am. Then in 1981, I took over another ranch — I had social time at all. My days of cruising the backroads on a motorcycle were long gone; I never had that time again. It was ranch, engineering, and then I’d get to read a little as I ate. I should say that I enjoyed it though; I really loved the bulk of my time on the ranch. The engineering used to be 90% engineering, 10% bureaucracy; now it’s 30% engineering, 70% bureaucracy. As for the ranch I finally hired some help — Claude Rose, the former government trapper, who lived on the property with his wife, Lu. Claude was into the sheep dog trials and had many stories he loved to share. He helped with the sheep a lot although I did the fencing myself. The predators are always a problem — coyotes. With Gary Johnson, the trapper who is now running Stanley Johnson’s ranch next to ours, that helps a lot. The coyotes remain a problem but may be not as bad now that we have a llama in with each group. Some people use the guard dogs and I’ve heard good things about them. I have one in a pen out there and he needs to be trained and used.”

Jim’s father started a Christmas Tree Farm in the late 60s and that still goes today. “It was situated alongside the highway but too many trees were stolen — 90 in one week. So it meant guarding them and that meant sleeping on the lot from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Eventually I moved the farm on to the ranch and we sell about three hundred a year, starting on the Friday after Thanksgiving and then weekends up to Christmas. We have about 4,000 trees up there at this point. I have had several different ranch workers over time and this meant I had to earn more money to pay for them and so the engineering has come in very useful. I have had Martine Vargas for 14 years now. He is an excellent worker, although he is now part-time as I cannot afford more. He runs the ranch basically as 90% of my time has been engineering for the past ten years or more. For a time I had to visit job sites and developers’ offices but now with the computer and a fax I can do a whole lot more from home. But I have slowed down in recent years. It’s the old gray mare syndrome: ‘She can’t do what she used to do.’ I still enjoy the engineering but it is a little too much at times. As for the ranching — that is in my blood.”

Jim’s mother was very social but she often sends Jim to events now. Since 1979, he has been on the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Ram Sale and he is in the Cloverdale Historical Society. As his time on the ranch and in engineering slows down a little, Jim became more involved in more things in Anderson Valley. He is in the shepherd’s pool organized by Gary Johnson for the sale of his lambs. With various other Valley gentlemen, he often attends the monthly ‘Cannibal Feed’ in Ukiah — a lunch with a few hundred Mendocino men from all walks of county life, put on by a different group of them each month. Jim and his mother joined the Anderson Valley Historical Society and at the election of officers a few years back, Wes Smoot nominated him as President. “I hardly knew anyone very well. I did have my love of history but that was all. It was enough I guess because I was voted in and was re-elected last week for my third term. At this point in time, if I was independently wealthy, I would retire from the engineering but, as the saying goes, ‘If I had a million dollars, I’d keep on ranching until it was all gone!’ Yes, I still, enjoy it even though it gets harder as I get older and fatter, and tire easier. My primary interest when not at work is history but there are not many people to talk to about that so joining the historical societies has been good for me.”

Since the 60s, Jim and his family have been visiting a cabin they own in Modoc County, in the northeast corner of the State. “My mother first went there in 1946 and they bought the cabin in 1964. I have gone every year since 1971. The area, in the high desert, is about the closest as you can get to the Old West anymore. I go with Mom and my niece Penny (Kathy’s daughter) and her family — husband Ramon and daughter Kayla. Kathy had another child, Jake who works at the theater in Cloverdale. The nearest town is Canby, named after the Union General who fought in the Civil War and Indian Wars — the only General killed by Indians incidentally. Custer was not a General at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He was a Lieutenant Colonel. We still have family gatherings although most of mother’s generation has gone now. We get together here for Christmas Eve and sometimes at Thanksgiving or Easter and we are slowly rebuilding a structure on the land to make it a family event center. It burnt down a couple of years ago. Last week I attended the Ingram Family Reunion in Brookings, Oregon. My great grandfather was the original patriarch — Irving Ingram. There were not only nametags but also different colored t-shirts for each branch of the family. It was a lot of fun. It seems like I am related to quite a few folks in this area. My great Grandmother, a Hiatt, used to say ‘Everyone in Anderson Valley is inbred.’ She may have been right!”

Apart from those trips, Jim has only had two vacations. Two trips he made that were Civil War related. In 1993, he caught the Amtrak to Washington DC and rented a car to spend two weeks visiting Civil War historic sites. Then in 1998, he went to Little Rock, Arkansas and went aboard a wooden steamboat, The Delta Queen, for a Civil War themed cruise along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers, ending up in Chattanooga.”

I asked Jim for an image he has of his father. “A very strong man, in body and mind. If I could go out and choose a Dad, he would be my ideal choice. He had those John Wayne qualities — strong, a hard-worker. He was a first sergeant in World War II. He was not more than necessary in terms of discipline. He was very understanding but you would not want him mad at you.” And his Mom? “Maybe stricter than Dad. A big supporter of my academic studies. I was the first in the family to graduate from college.”

I next asked Jim about what he liked about his life here. “It is difficult to put into words. I’ve been here all of my life. I just love this type of country. I like being alone a lot and I can do that here. The country here just really suits me.” And anything he doesn’t like? “There are too many people here now for my personal liking. The traffic is too much. The breaking up of the bigger ranches also bothers me.”

I asked my guest for his opinions on various Valley issues.

The wineries and their impact? “The impact has been good in that they are agricultural rather than residential development. The downside to this is that they bring in outsiders. I am not a part of the anti-winery group but taking out forests to put in vines is ridiculous, showing no common sense or respect. Both sets of my grandparents had vines and they didn’t irrigate after the first year. The dry farming method still gave them good grapes and wine but just not as much. Doing it the old way worked well but I guess they were not as greedy in those days.”

The AVA? “I read it if one comes my way and sometimes I agree with what is said. I like the local pages and the sheriff’s log.”

KZYX radio? “I don’t listen.”

The AV school system? “I have worked in it and there are some good people there. I am not sure if the kids are getting a good deal there or not. I am not qualified to know.”

Drugs in the Valley? “The whole drug thing gets on my nerves. I am a ‘live and let live’ kind of person but when kids think that everyone is involved in drugs and are shocked when they meet someone who isn’t involved in some way, then that is telling us something.”

I posed a few questions to my guest. Some from TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? — “When I have no aches and pains in the morning and I know the ranch is running well.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Unexpected problems and when you can’t get your body to work like it used to.”

Sound or noise you love? “In the springtime that would be the baah-ing of lambs; and in the winter, water running in the creek.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Traffic roaring by along Hwy 128 — it’s crazy sometimes.”

Favorite food or meal? “Lamb chops and mashed potatoes.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “I’d love to sit down with Abraham Lincoln, and if Confederate General Robert E. Lee was to join us that would be great.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “Family photographs, the 180 year old Grandfather clock — a family heirloom, and some old guns dating back to the Civil War.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “Well a song would probably be the Battle Hymn of the Republic. A film would be ‘The Longest Day’ set in World War 2; and a book would be something by Bruce Catton — a Civil War historian who started my interest in the subject. His writing is not at all like the dry history books you get to read at school.”

Favorite hobby? “Reading, 90% of which is military history, mainly The Civil War but World War II is a close second. I have read quite a bit about Hitler and how he gained control of the country with his assorted gang of misfits.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “Some sort of fiction writer. I submitted my writings to magazines over the years, but it’s always been rejected.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “A government bureaucrat.”

Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “No, as a general rule I guess not.”

A memorable moment; a time you will never forget? “The first time I got to walk on a real Civil War battlefield. Or perhaps when I graduated from college.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “That I kept the family ranch going.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “I can’t think of much. I am basically honest, hopefully. I’m fundamentally an honest man, but I’m not a fool.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “It would be good if he said, ‘Hi, Jim. You were very nice to animals and so you are very welcome here.’ If nothing else, I guess I’ll end up in animal heaven.” ¥¥

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Ellen Ingram, whose family first came to the Valley in 1859.)

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