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My First Christmas In Mendocino

Most everyone in the County will observe the holidays in one way or another.

I can remember the first Christmas tree I ever saw and it was about the year 1900 in Murray's Hall in Mendocino — upstairs in a wooden building with a full audience. Truly a Providence was with the large turnout. A fire marshal would have a fit nowadays. But trouble seldom developed. Disasters were a few but big when they did happen.

That was a big night, a good-sized tree and a program which I don't remember. There was a stack of presents around the big tree. Many people brought at least some, if not all, their presents from home for Santa Claus to deliver. Lots of coal or oil lights and candles were on the tree which nobody seemed to worry about. The next Christmas tree was a year or so later in the Presbyterian Church and that was a spectacle I have written about in other stories. It may have had electric lights because Albert Brown may have put in his electric plant soon after 1900 and that is a story of its own.

There were several denominations in the town of Mendocino and all of the people celebrated the holidays in their own way. It probably began many thousands of years ago and has survived wars and all kinds of disasters and untold persecutions. People were even fed to wild animals for the entertainment of others in civilizations which were even then on their way out.

People in the interior of the county had it pretty easy to get home for the holidays. Mostly they were not much farther than the Bay Area and there was a railroad to Ukiah and there were stage lines for farther on. A hundred miles was quite a journey then. On the Coast it was different. The towns were small and isolated with poor roads in between and very little real transportation.

It was 50 miles from Mendocino (Big River) to Ukiah a long, hard 12 hours and the fair was $5 per person which was a lot back then. The drivers needed great skill and doubtless a good deal of nerve to get over those narrow mountain roads at a fast trot and get between the many stumps and trees. Wherever the horses went, the stage had to follow and much of the road was very windy.

Even so, accidents were very rare and the stages ran come rain or come shine. Windfalls accounted for much of the trouble along the route. Forest fires occurred in the season for them. Sometimes delay would be caused by a good-sized trees falling on the trail which would have to be chopped out. Those drivers surmounted all their obstacles and troubles, fires, floods and even outlaws. Of course on holidays they would be loaded down with passengers and baggage and mail.

Those drivers made names for themselves over many years of County history. Abe Boos. Hans Stout. John Philbrick and many others. Horses were changed about every 15 miles but not the driver. He went clear through. The change horses would be ready and waiting. There would be a short stop at the halfway house where Grandma Hansen would have a quick lunch and coffee ready where passengers got a few minutes rest and maybe even a little for the driver. There was no passable road up the coast except from Gualala south. Those coming from the city any further north came by boat as far as Fort Bragg. That was a little faster maybe than by land, but not always easier at holiday time. Those little steam schooners — the Point Arena, the Seafoam, the Noyo and others — that ran coastwise rolled badly coming up the coast even with only a few tons of freight and sometimes even in the summer.

One time I came up on the Noyo with Captain Odlund. It was an easy trip and we pulled into about all the harbors on the way. The captain and first mate were very good. They let me ride on the bridge where there was heat from the smokestack and a good view of everything. I was in a state room with a couple of women and some other children. I was bedded on a settee. In rough weather I would have needed to sleep on the floor. The women and children were quite ill most of the night but I slept well and didn't mind much. I enjoyed the meals — ships always seemed to provide good food. Little River had a wharf and a sheltered cove and boats could land there when it was too rough to land at Mendocino.

Sometimes passegers and freight would be unloaded there and taken on to Mendocino by team. Northcoast ports were noted for being tough at times and it is true that many ships were lost. In time about all of the boats that plied the north coast waters in those early days sunk into watery graves. Ships on the Mendocino Coast had a short life.

About 1900 or soon after and before the wire chute was built at Mendocino, passengers were ferried ashore in small boats and landed on a landing close to the rocks. Then they went up the stairway to the top of the bluff. Freight was the same, except it was hoisted from the schooner by a winch up on the top of the bluff. It was no place for the weak-hearted, although I never heard of an accident associated with it. The wire chute was built a year or so later and it was not for the nervous either — there was a little passenger box that ran on a cable over 100 feet above the water. The men were always extremely careful and I never heard of an accident to a passenger.

In spite of all that somehow, in the end, Christmas was celebrated on the Mendocino Coast.

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