Over the decades it wasn't just helping Sam Prather manage his sheep bands that introduced me to other ridgetops around The Valley. Sometimes it was other activities both agricultural and social, driving, for example, up Nash Mill road to organize a new vineyard planting or over the back door access from Greenwood Road to Ward's Highland Ranch for a visit with George Gaines, regularly the “deer hunting” expeditions with Bill Witherell and his '46 Ford jeep, where he told stories as we followed the trails he knew from Mill Creek to the Navarro North Fork and even from Comptche Road Keene Summit to Albion River tide water.
Finally one day in the nineties I found an excuse to drive up to Peachland, where lived a city person retiree and talented amateur photographer, Kent Rodgers, who lived at one end of the roads up there with one of the most dramatic and detailed vistas I ever found in the Valley.
The drive up to Peachland was interesting enough for this backroads explorer. The pavement ended in the first couple of hundred yards, and the gravel road climbed steeply and steadily with an increasing deep drop off to the right down into Con/Witherell creeks. Half way up one had to stop to visit the old Doug Fir snag at the back of the Rawles Ranch, the Lone Pine named after its namesake and early settler Tom Ruddock whose family once owned the John Peterson Ranch, now part of the Goldeneye vineyard empire.
The views from Lone Pine down into the Valley captured the missing pieces south of Philo I described seeing from Rickard Ranch in last week's story. Most important was a vista of the whole Peterson Ranch, the apple orchards both around the house at the Highway and also over the little ridge behind it and down toward the creeks, and the broad open pastures little visible from the Highway that lent down to the creeks. And I could also see the convergence of the three by virtue of their tree lined banks, Rancheria, Anderson and Indian all meeting behind Philo at Newmans to become the Navarro.
Then back south there clearly and like a small unpainted New England Puritan church was the Witherell apple dryer, and then Mike and Angela Prather's millrun wooden nineteen fifties suburban ranch house-style home, then all the cars and pick-ups surrounding the three remaining rental cabins at Craig's Mill along Rancheria Creek, which wandered upstream into the treelined Ham Canyon as it headed for Bear Wallow.
Back in the pick-up, the Peachland road continued to climb steadily, past the new Kendall Jackson vineyards on the left and finally to a three way intersection on the flat ground at the ridgetop. No signs of a once-was community, still one wide gravel road went southerly, another pushed on straight ahead, the third turned sharply north, my route. But first I had to drive exploratorily up the middle road. I was now on top of the ridge, the ground was flat, a combination of grassland and scattered thinly forested Douglas fir and oak stands, not a fenceline or building remain in site. Once sheep, I imagined. Later when I looked at the topographic map I understood this flat ground on Lone Tree Ridge was framed to the north and east by Indian Creek and its South Fork that goes all the way to Highway 253.
Then back on the north road headed for Kent Roger's home I drove through viewless open Doug fir and oak forest, past the entrance to a New Age commune, I wonder whether it's still there, and gradually into open sidehill pasture too steep to look over the edge for a view. The last couple of hundred yards were gently down hill on flat ground from which I could see in cautious glances pieces of Denmark Creek and the forested area around the Boudoures subdivision. I drove up to the back of Kent and Ann's home, went in the back door through the interior and out onto the front deck facing northerly. From the deck edge the ridge dropped close to straight off for over a thousand feet. And this vista, unlike the broad panorama from Rickard Ranch was like looking through a fine lens telescope. In its ocular circle there was in detail downtown Philo, the “suburban” outskirts north and west and the surrounding pastureland, vineyard, orchard remains, the streams and River, and what was most surprising and dramatic was that the whole scene was virtually straight downhill below my feet.
First focus was on the town center itself, the back of Lemons' Philo Market under the walnut tree, next door Elsie Skrbek's house, now a tasting room, then the immortal Philo Cafe, Johnny Pinoli's house and the trees around the Frank Johnson Ranch to the north, now surrounded with John Scharffenberger's large vineyard planting stretching over the gently rolling river bottom soil all the way to Clearwater Ranch and to the base of Whipple Ridge. And immediately to the south the back of the Catholic Mission Church and the PG & E power distribution station.
And across Highway 128 downtown were the abandoned Last Resort saloon, the volunteer fire station to its left, the old Philo Post Office, now another tasting room, to the right. And most poignant for me was the two still operating saw mills on either side of the highway south of Lemons, both 25 years ago historic remnants of the dozens of local entrepreneur stud mills that dotted The Valley after World War II, and the hundreds more up and down the rest of the North Coast all the way to Crescent City. From my altitude the Philo Mill, now owned by Cloverdale Redwood Lumber, was a neatly laid out three acres with the log deck and truck unloading yard to the left, the mill buildings center, the old tee pee burner still standing out back next to the huge bark pile waiting the chipper, and the yard to the right half full of bound units, 120 studs each and room for more. At the front gate the admin office for the hill.
And back on the east side of 128 was the even more remarkable operating museum, the Philo Lath Mill, designed and built from scratch back in the 1940s by Gary Island's grandfather, self-taught engineer, with a few electric circular and band saws, motors, chains, sprockets, fork lifts and low wage labor. Today over seventy years later, the mill still trundles along with a rare, if not extinct product, a 3/8th X 2” stick of various length redwood, lath treasured by markets outside the redwood ecosystem like a Costco in Nebraska or Home Depot in Dallas.
Then as my eyes adjusted to the Philo global panorama and fanned out from downtown, I picked up the Ray's Road suburb heading toward the River, a little north along The highway the Starr Automotive shop with its collection of wrecked vehicles statuary in front, and adjacently to the right on stilts Charmian's charmingly maintained “Antique and Gifts” shop I believe still running twenty five years ago. At the top of the hill a little further along stood the austere white wooden Philo Methodist Church and bell tower, seating capacity 68 adult persons.
Then as my eye roamed up Ray's Road I again saw only from the framing provided by the streamside oaks and pepperwoods where Rancheria, Anderson and Indian Creeks converged to create the mighty Navarro. Tracking it northerly the next interesting feature was finding it on the north side of Philo Hill framed by the redwoods at Smoky Blattner's river gravel mine at the back of the George Ayers property followed by the far more magisterial stands of the Big Hendy and Little Hendy Groves, across from the humble but deeply community-serving tin buildings, Jack's Valley Store and Hardware.
To complete the visual circle my eyes came back to the other side of the highway and Frank Johnson's place, terrain-wise one of real interest. I believe the ranch ran from the highway along the split rail fence halfway up Philo hill and separating it from the Arnold Brown place. And out of view from the highway it was a series of gently rolling open grasslands all the way to the base of Whipple Ridge. Today that whole pastureland is wine grapes, first planted by John Scharffenberger in the eighties, then taken over and expanded by Roederer later on.
The most dramatic feature in this terrain I could clearly see was the Johnson apple dryer, still in good shape, down in a little draw out of the wind halfway back to the base of Whipple. I got to know the dryer back in the early seventies, when my wife Anna and I were running a local monthly newspaper, The Advocate. A photographer friend told me about it, and we drove back there and took shots printed in the next edition of the paper. To this day I have never found a larger, better kept factory for its purpose here in the Valley or elsewhere in Sonoma County. The cement, boiler foundation was still solid, the foundation pillars, siding and metal roof in good condition, and the air vents for the sixty foot long building must have been themselves twenty feet high. I hope the dryer is still there and also wonder, why it was built so far off the wagon road, then highway. Were there ever orchards planted on Johnson Ranch? In the 1990s there weren't a trace, save along Indian Creek a small grove, and some abandoned scraggly sidehill trees on Arnold Brown's place, more abandoned trees on the flat out Ray's Road west of the Brown homestead. Perhaps Johnson's dryer was just a service manufacturer to the local neighborhood.
Back behind Johnson at the base of Whipple Ridge I could see the Leo Sanders place, the house just above the seam between the rolling Valley floor and Whipple Ridge itself. I think this property stretched up to the top of the Ridge and was primarily a sheep place.
Lastly in the Philo vista virtual telescope was the Indian Creek water course. In those days before the alders and willows grew tall, you could see the 128 bridge south of town the course of the stream as it wound east a quarter of a mile across a narrowing flat into the increasingly deepening canyon separating Peachland from Whipple Ridge. Right away there began redwood trees straddling both sides of the Creek, including the still extant old growth stand at Aunt Blanche Brown's place. As the canyon deepened upstream the forest became thicker stretching further up each hillside.
Finally back up about two miles, at the base of the north/south Cow Mountain/Pine Ridge separating Anderson Valley from Ukiah, one could see where Indian Creek divides, the north branch invisible from my viewpoint, heading behind Whipple Ridge for a couple of miles, the south in an increasingly deep, narrow canyon all the way to just below Highway 253, around mile post 9, yes, that far.
I wish I knew more about the Peachland Community living back there in these headwaters a century ago. Sheep, cattle, and tanbark I believe were the principle farm products, all a long way from transportation to a market. Judge Maurice Tindall lived back there quite a while a hundred years ago, and his 1977 memoir, Down to Earth, A Mendocino Life, captures something of the way of life back then.
Well, I think I've run out of space and readers' attention span, so it's time to suspend the reminiscences and put off the other vista adventures further north in the Valley until next week.
Next week: Guntly Ranch, the Reilly Ranch, Greenwood Ridge road snapshots, and the view from 5,000 feet altitude in a single engine airplane.