Charlotte Hoak grew up in the wilds of Comptche, born in 1874 on ranch land that had formerly been under the jurisdiction of the local Pomo leader, Comptche — the name the region became known by.
Comptche is, in fact, a Pomo word that means “the valley among the hills.” It’s land the Pomo traveled through each summer on their way to the coast and the Comptche-Ukiah Road is the old stagecoach route.
Certainly, Charlotte must have seen it in her childhood and may have been part of why she loved the natural world. She liked to say she was born with two green thumbs. Both of her parents loved growing plants and on the day of her birth, her father planted seven redwood trees. Charlotte referred to them as her “Birthday Grove,” and the trees still stand today.
Her passion for cultivation had sprouted by the time she was five years old. Charlotte was fascinated by the plant life of California and spent a lifetime lecturing and writing articles on the state’s native flora.
In 1896, at the age of 22, Charlotte enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. She majored in English; botany was her minor. She received her degree in 1900 and after two years of teaching, she returned to Berkeley for her Master’s degree. Her research was on Mendocino County’s Pygmy Forest, which ultimately she helped save.
Located just a few miles inland, the Pygmy Forest extends south from Fort Bragg for about 30 miles. Once known as the Mendocino Barrens, the land produces dwarf evergreen Cypress, Bishop Pine and Beach Pine — some as small as nine or ten inches high. Tucked into this miniature world are huckleberry, ferns, rhododendrons, lilies and a range of evergreen shrubs.
It was in her capacity as the horticulture chairman of the California Garden Club that Charlotte put her fascination with the Pygmy Forest to work. In 1950, she began encouraging the club to purchase some of the forestlands and donate it to California’s state park system. Charlotte wrote extensively about the pygmy and the club mounted a drive to raise the money.
It took almost 18 years, but in September 1969, acreage adjacent to Van Damme State Park was dedicated as the Charlotte M. Hoak Memorial Pygmy Forest.
Charlotte moved to Southern California in 1906, after purchasing a home in South Pasadena. She spent 25 years teaching agriculture and horticulture in the elementary schools of Los Angeles and was also a columnist for the Pasadena Star-News, where her writing became known internationally. Her many accomplishments include the discovery of a new lily in the mountains of Southern California, which was named for her, and her undying love of begonias — for which she received numerous awards, including the Kenworthy Gray Plaque in recognition of her outstanding contribution. Her friends included famous naturalist, John Muir.
Charlotte Hoak is one of Mendocino’s heroines. This remarkable woman lived to be 93 and at the age of 84, was named “Miss Horticulture 1958.” She was a runner-up for “Woman Gardener of the United States.”
To learn more about Charlotte or other noteworthy pioneers, visit the Kelley House Museum, and discover the rich roots of this unique town.
(Courtesy, Kelley House Museum)