One day last summer I was showing a recent Valley settler neighbor the historic sights of Navarro town and reminiscing about "the good old days." Part of the tour, of course was up Wendling Soda Creek Road to the old town dump site, today barely traceable through the growth of manzanita, poison oak and Douglas firs. No sign of Bob Glover down in the pit looking for old bottles either.
Driving twice past the beautiful old Laurel School reminded me that once upon my time it was used as a community voting station for local and national elections under the supervision of the County Assessor/appraiser's Office. The school itself, this elegant chapel-like structure with two front porches and entrances at either end of the front facade and an austere bell tower, opened in the early mill days around 1908 and, according to Wes Smoot and Steve Sparks' authoritative Then And Now, An Anderson Valley Journey, served in a single room first through eighth grade students until its closing during World War II.
In my time in Anderson Valley beginning in 1971, my wife and I also saw it owned by a city person, whose name escapes me now, who visited it on weekends when the weather warmed up, but also generously lent it to the community as a polling station for local, state and national elections. In fact we had the privilege of voting there, to the best of my recollection, twice, in the 1972 and 1976 presidential elections, an experience for us in franchise democracy at its most intimate and communal.
The 1972 election was for me the most dramatic of the three major ones I had voted in since my first in 1964. I have since reaching voting age been hostile to the agenda and personalities of the major parties, and in my first balloting experience had tried to "speed the day" by voting for senator Barry Goldwater. The 1972 election was poignant with political possibility at two levels. At the national senator George McGovern running against incumbent Richard Nixon was in my estimation the presidential candidate most challenging to our corporate monopoly political economy since Franklin Roosevelt. At the local level incumbent Anderson Valley Judicial District Homer Mannix was being challenged by licensed lawyer and commune-dwelling Hippie Richard Kossow, resident of Rainbow Enterprises up on Greenwood Ridge. Interestingly enough when the post-election counting dust settled, both challengers lost to the incumbents by the same margins, 37 to 63%.
In those days there were in fact five separate polling stations, believe it or not, in Anderson Valley, stretching from Yorkville, Boonville, Philo, Clark Ranch and Navarro. The station in Navarro was in my recollection called "Counts," a designation I am sure is accurate though contrary to some location facts in relation to the next closest local school and polling station at Clark Ranch I will address later.
At Counts Precinct in 1972, the polling station opened at 7 AM to serve those with non-timber industry day jobs and closed at 7 PM, more or less. And what I remember most was the almost cult ritual atmosphere that enveloped me as I started up the left hand steps into the actual voting space inside the building. First just inside the door to the right was a list containing in alphabetical order the names of all precinct registered voters, all 123 of us in the region stretching from Rancho Navarro to Mill Creek south of Guntly Ranch.
Then also inside the door and to one's left but at the appropriately welcoming angle were two tables at which sat, with the registered voters list and individual ballots stacked around them, four dignified elderly ladies dressed to the formality of their volunteer roles, the Precinct Captain and her three assistant poll watchers, citizens known to and respected by all of us north Valley residents.
And behind them toward the back wall of the one room were the four centers of activity, the actual voting booths. These were four accountant work benches about chest high and on four steel legs, each with privacy walls on three sides and a cloth door stretched across the front opening. One stepped inside one's booth, stretched out the ballot and went to work. For me, a politics engagement junkie since the age of twelve, managing the candidates list down to the county level was a no-brainer. Where time crawled by was was the wrestling match reading, perhaps for the third time, then x-ing a decision on the California proposition measures, sometimes three or four, sometimes a dozen or more.
The precinct Captain was Ava Glover, the wife of local TV and water pump man service man and Valley's leading historian Bob, a third generation descendant of both the founding families Guntlys and Gschwends. Tall, quietly dignified with a soft Kentucky accent, Ava was perfectly cast to be the presiding officer for the voting process. Her assistants for the day included Vivian O'Brien, wife of Bill the daily newspaper delivery man and amateur butcher. The O'Briens, I claim, were the first City People to migrate to Anderson Valley after World War II. Bill, Vivian and their son Ron later the founding local radio station engineer, abandoned Richmond and the Ford Motor Company assembly line to move to the Guntly House south of Navarro in 1946 or so. Vivian was a more robust in stature and voice custodian of the polls than Ava and perfectly complemented her as the guardian of the election transaction's sanctity.
Third officer was Blanche, wife of Joe Anaya, another immigrant from the Bay Area and local electrician, plumber and all-around repairman. Blanche medium-sized, round, quiet and serene, was more an observer than a participant in the administration of the voting process going on around her all day. Finally was Blanche's opposite, Lena Witherell, born in Navarro a Gentile and married to Bill, descendant of one of Boonville's first settlers.
Lena and her husband Bill were my first and best "oldtimer" neighbors, and many were the times I heard her anecdotally upend the character of each of us fellow Valley inhabitants during my regular late afternoon social calls. Her neighbor and lifetime Iteville resident Cynthia Modenese called her "the little Spitfire" or in another language "la Strega." Lena saw herself, whether needed or not, as the local "cop on the block" at the voting site, no muddy boots, loud voices or other behavior violating the standards of decorum she set for the election day ritual in Navarro. Small person in stature, but firmly ferocious was her growl of disapproval if you screwed up your participation deportment at the polls.
As I mentioned, the day began early with a modest amount of business for the first hour or two, then slowed down at mid-morning and into the afternoon. Ava and the other watchers got a lot of catching up on the Valley news done, and also took turns leaving the school to do their family grocery shopping or to catch a bite to eat at home. Lena lived right across the street from the School. Ava, Blanche and Vivian lived across Highway 128 from one another and all on the edges of the Christine Woods, once part of the Gschwend Ranch.
Then along about 4 PM voting traffic began to pick up, as the work day wound down, kids returned from school, freeing up younger parents also ranch and woods workers to head for the polls. By 5:30 the building and street, by Navarro standards, were teeming with cars and people generally engaged in the dual process of filling out their ballots and exchanging the new news about the life of The Valley.
In 1976, the Carter vs. Dole presidential election year, I remember finishing up getting ready for winter work in the vineyard around 5 PM, going down to the home on the Highway, washing up, combing my hair, and driving down to the polls around sundown in my 1953 Chevrolet pick-up, finding a place to park up toward the Doctor's house, and walking in the door of The School just in time to catch hell from Lena for almost missing out on my citizen duty before 7 PM closing time.
Also about that time of day the Captain and her team, who had scrupulously administered the precinct voters list all day with a pencil line through each name as you voted, would carefully review the list to see who still had not arrived to do their civic duty. With the truant's list in hand Lena would cross the street to her house, get on the phone and advise each offender to get on down to the school...or else, never mind your political affiliation or candidate preferences. A remarkable civic duty on the part of our polling officers, I thought.
And there also was another reason for this duty, local pride. The next day when I went for my regular late afternoon visit to Bill and Lena, she told me with enormous pride and, it appeared to me, three inch growth in stature that with its 83% voting rate, Counts Precinct had, once again, the highest percentage of participating registered persons in The Valley, and probably the County. Voting in Navarro always made me proud to be an American citizen.
Like all else in life, election day in Anderson Valley back then a day of community celebration not unlike Christmas, New Year's and the Fourth of July, wound down a little after 7 PM, the Laurel School doors closed, the lights went off, and Precinct Captain Ava, with her husband Bob armed and literally riding shotgun in the front seat with her, drove to the Boonville polling place to formally deliver the cast ballots to the County Officer responsible for hauling them over the hill to the Appraisers' office for official tabulation.
A note of historic confusion on my part. I am certain that the name of our voting district in Navarro was Counts. Which contradicts the name of the other one room school on the Clark property, milepost 18.07 Wes Smoot and Steve Sparks describe and illustrate in THEN AND NOW. So how did the name Counts migrate from south of Mill Creek at Clark's to the Laurel School in Navarro? Wes, Steve, Marshal Newman, anyone who can, please help clarify.