I met with Ellen at her home on Hwy 128, opposite the Lazy Creek Vineyard, where she lives with husband Mark Fontaine. She gave me a cup of good coffee and a generous serving of her really delicious grape cobbler and we sat down to chat.
Ellen was born in Healdsburg when her family was living on Sunset View Ranch a couple above Navarro, at the home of her grandfather Alva C. Ingram. “We lived in the two-story home while my grandparents had the log cabin with an outhouse and a front door that opened out on to a drop of a few feet because the porch was never built. You had to use the side door.”
Ellen’s parents were Rea Ingram and Barbara Austin who had a boy and two other girls. “Amos Burgess came to the Valley in 1954 with the Beeson Family and he wrote back to his sister, Nancy, who had married Daniel Holder Ingram, in Missouri, that the family should move out here. They eventually did, in a wagon train in 1859. My great grandfather, Daniel Cass Ingram was just about old enough at the time to take responsibility for the rifle on that trip. The gun is now in the Anderson Valley Museum, along with a fiddle of my grandfather’s. The family lived in various places in the Valley and Cloverdale, although some moved to Calistoga and died in a smallpox epidemic. They could not afford the cemetery so they were buried at home and when the highway was built they just paved over them — which is where they are to this day... Seven of Daniel’s kids survived into adulthood, including my grandfather, Alva Cass, who was the youngest. He had apples and sheep in the hills above the Valley in the 30’s and 40’s. The family were all in farming, whether it was sheep, apples, picking hops, etc. My Dad was the youngest of six and he was named Rea Daniel Ingram after the man who helped deliver him, Dr. Rea in Ukiah, He told us we could never use his name Rea as a first name for any of our kids as so many people had misspelled it over the years but a few relatives have used it as a middle name.”
The Austin side of the family was from the Scottsdale area of Arizona. Ellen’s grandfather, Warren Austin, owned a huge dairy farm and was also a teacher and superintendent of schools in that area. “Their ancestor was Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Austin, Texas, and my grandfather was involved in the Salt River Project — an organization bringing power and water to the region. My mother used to go to the dances at the local military base. Even though she was just 16, her parents trusted her, and at one of these she met Warren Ingram, who was in the service. He talked about his brother and the story goes that she decided she wanted to meet him and came to Anderson Valley where she found work at the Highland Ranch, made friends with Charmian Blattner among others, and got to meet the Ingram family. She married my Dad in 1948 and daughter Mary was born in 1949, Bob coming next in 1951, then me in 1952 and finally Donna in 1955.”
Ellen and the family lived on the ranch above Navarro until 1958. In those years she remembers playing outdoors a lot, the large cherry tree in the yard, and the many family gatherings that took place. She also remembers her grandparents’ outhouse — “a two-holer — one big and one small.” Her Dad bought the property on Hwy 128 where she now lives after another prospective buyer backed off to let Rea and his young family move in. Rea Ingram was the school bus driver and he parked the bus right outside the house at the edge of the road. “On the property opposite, now the Lazy Creek Winery, lived Grandma Pinoli, a woman who had amazing healing powers. Other than that there were not many people around this area of the Valley. There were certainly no wineries then. The Nunn Ranch was where Husch and Roederer now sit, and the Bloyd’s lived on Monte Bloyd Road. My best friend, Trish Maddux lived a mile away. Meanwhile my grandfather Alva Cass Ingram had married again after my grandmother Eva passed away. This was to Grandma Katherine who also passed and later Grandfather sold the ranch on the ridge top and married Grandma Mary. I was always told that we were related to everyone in Anderson Valley except the Rawles’ and Gowans.”
Ellen’s father had been the school bus driver in his days up on the ranch during which time he parked it down near to Hwy 128 on Wendling Soda Creek Road in Navarro, driving into Boonville every day. He was the bus driver from the late forties for many years, along with people such as Reno Redding and Bill West. “I went to Kindergarten in the Little Red Schoolhouse which was white by the way, and faced in a different direction to that which it faces now. It was painted red when it became the museum and was called the Little Red Schoolhouse Museum. I went to 1st grade at the school in what is now the Legion Hall or Senior Center. My teacher was Beth Tuttle, and then the rest of grade school was at the site where the elementary school is now. We lived in what were the boonies, I guess. We didn’t get into town much. My Dad was the head bus driver and custodian at the school and Mom taught 2nd grade and then Kindergarten at the white schoolhouse and she was also the librarian. I went to 5th through 7th grade at the old high school and for 8th grade on I attended where the high school is now, in Boonville, along with classmates such as Robert Pinoli, Stephanie Adams (born Lawson), Linda Perry (Harold’s daughter), Connie Lemons (Harding); and Ernie Pardini, who was a little younger than us. My teachers included Mrs. Farrer, Mrs. Hawkins, and Ron Snowden.”
Ellen liked school and found the classes “pretty easy.” Her favorite subjects were reading and English and she did not like typing and learning Spanish. “In 7th grade Spanish we just watched old Spanish movies, then in high school the teacher didn’t know much either and would ask Carl Gowan, who worked around the Spanish-speaking community on his family’s farm, to translate for us. I enjoyed some sports and joined the Girls Athletic Association after school program, playing baseball and a couple of times at The Fairgrounds in Boonville I played ‘powder-puff’ football. I was quite shy but was always considered a ‘brain’ because I was an Ingram, I guess, and I certainly skated on the name sometimes and was accepted in most of the various cliques or groups at the school. My crowd were not the cheerleaders, nor the jocks, nor the brains. We were not the social types.”
The principal at the elementary school, James Dean, these days the director of Unicorn Youth Services group home in Philo, had started a summer camp for wards of the court at Rancheria Camp, south of Boonville. His counselors at the camp were former boy scouts from Modesto, where he had previously lived. Ellen’s best friend, Trish, and Trish’s mother, also helped out at the camp and one day during the summer between her junior and senior year, Trish suggested that Ellen come to the camp and meet the new horse wrangler, Danny Biggs from Modesto. “It was expected that I would go to college. My brother Bob and sister Mary had both gone to UC Davis, a school that was too big for my liking. Anyway, I met Danny, we started to date, and we saw a lot of each other that summer. I worked as a lifeguard at the camp and also had a job at Gowans Oak Tree fruit stand. But once we returned to school in the fall, it was hard being so far apart. Dating long distance is not easy so when college decisions had to be made I applied to go to school at Stanislaus State University, near to his home in Modesto.”
Danny was at the Modesto Junior College but then transferred to Stanislaus State. Two years later Ellen and Danny were married and lived in an apartment in an old house in the town of Turlock but Ellen would visit Anderson Valley every month or two and never missed the County Fair in September. In the February of her senior year of studying for a Sociology degree, Ellen dropped out of school. “I had to work at a nursing home for five days a week to support us through school. One of us had to get a job. Danny graduated and went to the University of the Pacific in Stockton where he got his masters in Chemistry. I got a job in a nursing home in Stockton and then had our first daughter, Jodie in May of 1976. In August of that year Danny got a job as a chemistry teacher at SW Louisiana State University and we moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun country.” In November 1978, daughter Jennie was born and Danny moved to a job with the Gulf South Research Institute in their quality control department and then in February 1980 to another job, this time with Foremost-McKesson in the Bay Area. “I stayed with the girls and planned to move a month or so later.”
Tragedy struck in April 1980 when Danny drowned while on a solo fishing trip on the Clavey River in the Sierras. He was just 27 years old. “His mother told him not to go. She had a feeling about the trip and has good intuition. A few years earlier she had told Danny and me not to go out one night and we turned our car over in the snow a few hours later. Our girls were four and one-and-a-half. I sold our house in Louisiana and my parents came to get us and took us to Modesto to stay with Danny’s parents where we stayed for a time before we bought another house. We frequently visited the Valley to see the grandparents but stayed in the Modesto area close by Danny’s family.”
In 1982, Ellen met and married her second husband but it was not a good thing although third daughter Amanda came along on July 4th 1983. “It did not work out. He had drug and alcohol issues and we even sold the house to keep him happy. We moved to Redwood Valley and stuck it out for six years but it was never good and we got a divorce in 1988, with the girls now twelve, ten, and five. He has turned his life around now and he’s OK.”
Ellen continued to keep in touch with the Biggs family and got a job with the Ukiah Unified School District as an assistant paraprofessional working with the severely disabled kids in high school for three years then a further 20 years, from 1987 until 2007 at Oak Manor Elementary School. “It was a good job, working school days and hours with good pay and benefits — the best job for me in my situation. I received social security help with the girls until they each turned 18. My sister Donna lived nearby to us in Redwood Valley and my parents were still in the house here in the Valley. During the summers I worked at the Redwood Empire Fair in the Fine Arts building for minimum wage but I had lots of fun with the artists. For ten or twelve years in a row I also taught swimming on the Eel River and I’d go up there along with Mom and Dad and my sisters and their kids. My parents were both on the volunteer ambulance crew for many years, my mother taught round dancing at the Grange, and they were both regularly involved with Senior events in the Valley.”
In 1990, Ellen’s best friend and fellow paraprofessional, Nancy Jameson, and her husband Ron, had a friend staying with them in Redwood Valley — Mark Fontaine. “Jokingly, Nancy and I were talking about a questionnaire that women should take if they were thinking about going out with Mark. He was not good. Anyway, it was arranged for the four of us to go out and they were to be his ‘chaperone.’ He was not sure about doing it and as they waited for me to arrive at their house he asked them to leave the back door open in case he changed his mind and wanted to suddenly leave! We went dancing at Blue Lakes on Hwy 20 and had a good time. We went there a few more times and it was kind of working out between Mark and me. However, I wanted to be sure about one thing before we moved forward. Jennie had experienced a bad relationship with my second husband and I did not want that to happen again. I needed to know what she thought of Mark and if she didn’t like him then we would stop seeing each other. I had been a single mother for too long to go through that again and end up back where I started. Jennie is strong-willed, like Mark, and it would not have worked if they didn’t get along, but she said, ‘He is a cowboy and he has horses. He’s fine with me.’ We were married in June 1991, having a cowboy wedding with horses and wagons in Redwood Valley. We bought a house there, the girls had horses, and for the next ten years we raised the family.
In 1998, Jennie, who had attended Chico State University, married Chris and they now live in Redwood Valley where they have two children, Logan Rea and Jessica, losing baby Ben at a very young age. Amanda married David in 2001 and they had two — Ryan and Katie, before some difficulties arose and Ellen and Mark took the kids in and raised them for a year or so. Then a third child, Ella Rea, was born in 2007 and the family was reunited. Jodie went to UC Davis where she met Jens, a German student, and they were married sometime around 2004 and now have two children also — Anna and Sophie, who were both born in Holland and now the family lives in Germany. Ellen’s father had a heart attack, his second, in 1999 and passed away. Ellen’s mother moved in with them for a short time but then went to Arizona to live with her brother Bob. She was there for about three years before she passed in October 2009.
In 2008, with the house here in the Valley now empty, Ellen decided to ‘go home’ and she and Mark moved here, with Ellen commuting to her job in Ukiah for the next year. At that point, in October 2009, Mark had a heart attack when he was already in the Intensive Care Unit recovering from a femoral bypass operation. As a result Ellen retired in November, although she had been planning to stay for a further couple of years until this happened. She still does thirty days a year as a consultant for the Ukiah school district.
Since moving back to the Valley, both Ellen and Mark have become docents for the AV Museum and are involved in various Veterans’ events. Ellen is in the American Legion Auxiliary (she’s been in that organization since a child and her parents were involved) and Mark is the Legion adjutant. They socialize at the Senior Center and the various Valley events, and the kids and grandchildren visit. Of great importance to them is the Valley Bible Fellowship group to which they belong. “It is a Bible Study church in Boonville, at the Live Oak Building. I went to a Methodist Church as a kid, Sunday school too, although I can’t remember why. I don’t believe my parents made me go. Then when my grandson Ben died at just one month old it really hit the family. He died, while in my care, of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome — crib death. It was really hard to deal with. Jennie and Chris, who are both into the church, said it was God’s way of dealing with things. I told Mark I wanted to start to go to church again and I guess we were thinking about the Methodist Church in the Valley. However, we talked to the Kephart’s, friends in the Valley, and they suggested the Valley Bible Fellowship. We went and it was like home. The church gave us great comfort and a sense of community, helping us to settle here once again and fit in. It’s been a long way home but I’m here and very happy.”
I asked Ellen for a strong image she had of her father. “The perfect father — everyone liked him. He was intelligent, fair, respected. My brother Bob is a lot like him.” And her mother? “Her cooking! Black-eyed peas and spaghetti sauce. She was a smart woman and usually laughing.”
“The Valley is home to me. I love the climate and it is such a pretty place, plus there are lots of good people here. Mark wanted to move here earlier but I was reluctant — there is not much here for the kids. For adults without kids it is great... I don’t like the amount of traffic coming through these days and the visitors not only speed but they don’t know how to handle the curves — breaking all the time instead of slowing down and taking them gently...”
I asked Ellen for her response to various issues that Valley folks seem to talk about quite often. The wineries and their impact on the Valley? — “I don’t like what it seems they have done to the water supplies, although that has always been a problem to some degree. And I do miss the apple orchards. There are too many wineries now but they make a good product and in some ways they are good for the Valley.”
KZYX radio? “Since moving back here I listen in the car, but mostly I tune in to the Christian station, K-LOVE.”
Changes in the Valley? “The wineries have made the biggest changes here — both visually and culturally.”
I posed a few questions to Ellen.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? — “The grandkids...”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? — “The lack of respect some people have for others, particularly kids for their elders... Loud, mouthy kids... It used be that the bad kids stood out from the crowd — they were the minority; now it is the good ones who do...”
Sound or noise do you love? “My cat purring.”
Sound or noise do you hate? “The brakes on a big truck.”
Favorite food or meal? A rare steak, fried potatoes, artichokes, and a glass of red wine.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “My Dad.”
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; a quilt I made for my Grandfather; a trunk that is full of family memorabilia. We have so much stuff here. My mother was a hoarder and so am I.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “The song would be ‘Amazing Grace.’ The film and book would be the same one — ‘Pay it forward.’ It is based around the idea of paying a favor not back, but forward — repaying good deeds not with payback, but with new good deeds done to three new people. From this a new social movement might be created with the goal of making the world a better place.” (Interviewer's note — The film starred Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. The book is by Catherine Ryan Hyde and Benjamin Franklin discussed this concept in his day.)
Favorite hobby? “Sewing and quilting projects; beadwork; jigsaw puzzles. I like to have several projects going at the same time. I do have ADD tendencies — only half joking!”
Profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “I’ve traveled quite a lot in recent years for the first time in my life and I really have enjoyed it. A job involved in travel would have been something I think I would have liked and at high school I did have thoughts about being an air hostess/stewardess.”
Profession would you not like to do? “Work in convalescent hospitals — I am glad I don’t have to do that ever again.”
How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was 16 and Danny took me to the movies in Fort Bragg to see the film ‘Charlie’.” (Interviewer's note. The plot concerns a retarded man who undergoes an experiment that gives him the intelligence of a genius. Cliff Robertson won the best Actor Oscar).
Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “My second marriage was not good but I did get Amanda and three wonderful grandkids who are very special to me.”
A memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “There are many. Off the top of my head, going to Germany for Jodie’s wedding was very memorable.”
Something that you are really proud of and why? “My work with special ed kids for 20 years.”
Favorite thing about yourself? — “That I can get along with just about anyone.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Welcome, all the family is here — Dad, Mom, Danny, Ben, and others. We’ve been waiting for you.” ¥¥
(If you would like to read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Manuel Soto, Valley resident for over 30 years, originally from Zacatecas, Mexico.)