BOOK REVIEW: An Eclectic History of Mendocino County, by Katy M. Tahja. Tahjanjoki Press, Comptche, 2019, 166 pages, $22.00.
Katy Tahja, a local retired educator and librarian, defines “eclectic” as “drawn together from a broad range of sources. And, boy, has she ever. 175 years of American immigrant history stuffed into 160 pages, at least a third of which are wonderful photos. The storytelling flow is limpid, misrepresentations of events are few; and my only complaint is that sometimes I wished she’d told a bit more about certain episodes or characters. The photos are small but sharp as a tack resolution-wise and add dramatically to the story-telling.
Herewith is a brief description of Katy’s Table of Contents. She begins the Mendocino story with our geological and geographic history and the rise of the Mayacamas Mountains segment of the Coast Range. And then migrates on to describe our indigenous flora, fauna, followed by chapters on the indigenous peoples and Eastern American pioneers. Regarding the native people’s encounter with the early immigrants her presentation is fearless describing disease, displacement, indentureship of children and outright extermination. There was a local “Trail of Tears” in Mendocino County, she reports, from Covelo to the Central Valley and Modoc County.
Tahja’s description of the political origins of our County is, again, brief and focussed. I had never read, for example, that Sonoma County administered the initial pieces of our county government structure, including a legislative Board of Supervisors and creation of an Education Department, all in the mid-1850s.
I could natter on endlessly with some of the fascinating details of county-wide history, some of which were new to me, but recognize that brevity is a key feature of a good book review and instead will list the key elements of Anderson Valley history Katy reports as part of the eclectic motif. For instance, the US Postal Service awarded Boonville with one of the six earliest Post Offices in the County in 1859.
In the same year Anderson Valley was designate and funded by The County to organize a formal elementary school district. This pioneer appreciation of the importance of education in the community I must temper with a story I read in Ukiah botanist and commercial floraculturalist Carl Purdy’s memoirs, My Life and My Times (1924). In the early 1870s Purdy’s own formal high school education encouraged him to enter professional life as a transient contract school teacher. With the written assistance of an influential member of the County School Board and of a local Boonville teacher, he applied for the school-teaching job in AV, a one year contract with salary, room and board. Well, it turns out never mind his skills and the informed endorsements, his and his Ukiah sponsors’ politics were Republican, those of school board members in Boonville were Democratic, and in those parlous times a few years after the Civil War, he was rejected as a candidate, and moved on to find a secure position in the Rockport (sic) school system, where the locals weren’t as politically contentious as their True Boonter contemporaries. Sounds like a lot of Anderson Valley politics today, no?
Tahja also reports in the chapter “Industry” that apples were first planted in Anderson Valley in 1853 and the first sheep farming ranch appeared in 1856, I am not sure of her source. She also notes the remarkable engineering achievement of pioneer Valley settler, Andrew Gschwend, building with no internal combustion engine equipment the Toll Road between Bell Valley and Ukiah and managing it too.
Finally, she describes the importance to small AV landholders and tenants of the tan bark industry from the late 19th century into the Great Depression, when a synthetic chemical replaced natural tannins in the leather products industry. This anecdote raised the only question I found about Tahja’s factual credibility. She noted that as early as 1913, some tanbark was conveyed to rail shipment in Cloverdale by trucks over the unpaved wagon road between Boonville and there. Could that actually have happened? Must have been so inefficient compared to the rail line from Guntly Ranch to Albion harbor, then freighter to San Francisco Bay, where there were many tanneries in those days. I can see that old photo, pre World War I, of huge piles of tan bark awaiting loading alongside the rail tracks at Guntly.
This kind of “small-holder” salvage activity, let me report, still existed when I first arrived in Anderson Valley in the early 1970s. Most heroic were a lovely Okie husband and wife, Ken and Coral Overby, who lived in the redwoods along the Navarro North Fork, Masonite land, and harvested huckleberry “brush” or leaf foliage all over its property, pruning shears, large plastic bags their tools and an old Army jeep for transportation. Ken and Coral were good friends of my friend and mentor, Bill Witherell, and once I got to know them through Bill, I invited them to use my ranch road to access Masonite property along the River between Clark Ranch and Perry Gulch, don’t even bother to let me know when they visited.
The balance of Tahja’s HISTORY covers topically and almost in list format a range of important elements of Mendocino County history, including health, sports, ethnic immigrant communities, social movements (Boontling, hippie communes), religion, arts, crime, including Jim Jones, miscellaneous world-renowned visitors like Winston Churchill, locally “famous” folk (an interesting trio), roadside attractions from early highway days.
“Eclectic,” indeed. On the one hand I couldn’t put the book down so drawn in was I by the stories On the other I was also exhausted after reading so much history so close to home, all in the course of one evening. And brief as the county story is, I trust Katy’s research and can tell she’s done her history homework carefully. There’s three pages of bibliographic sources in the back of the book, including histories, memoirs, magazine and newspaper articles. She has done her work.
I wish finding the title locally were be easier than it is. I bought my copy at Gallery Books, Mendocino, haven’t found a copy here in the Valley, but I hope the Historical Society’s sites in Ukiah and Willits have it for sale at their public venues.