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Mendocino County’s First Christmas


Christmas Eve is with us and Christmas Day will follow. Most of us will observe the holidays in one way or another.

I can remember the first Christmas tree I ever saw. It was about 1900 in Murray's Hall in Mendocino. Upstairs in a wooden building and a full audience. Truly a Providence was with the people but a fire marshal would have a fit nowadays. Fortunately, trouble seldom developed and disasters were few. But they were 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. Many people brought their presents from home for Santa Claus to deliver, or at least some of them. Coal oil lights and candles were on the tree and nobody seemed to worry about it. The next year the tree was in the Presbyterian Church and that was a spectacle. It may have had electric lights by then because Albert Brown may have put in his electric plant in the early 1900s. That is a story of its own.

There were several denominations in Mendocino and all 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. In some rituals people were even fed to wild animals for the entertainment of others whose civilizations were even then on the way out.

People in the interior of the county had it pretty easy to get home for the holidays because mostly they were not far from the Bay Area and there was a railroad to Ukiah and there were stage lines for farther on. A hundred miles in those days was quite a journey. On the coast however it was different. The towns were small and isolated and the roads between them were poor and there was very little actual commercial transportation.

It was 50 miles from Mendocino or Big River to Ukiah. It was a long hard 12 hours and the fair was $5 which could be something like $100 today. It took great skill and doubtless a good bit of nerves for those drivers to get over those narrow mountain dirt roads at a fast trot while avoiding the many stumps and trees. Wherever the horses went the stage had to follow and much of the road was very winding and you couldn't see beyond the next curve.

Even so, accidents were very rare. The stages ran in rain or shine. Windfalls accounted for much of the trouble when there was any. Sometimes there were forest fires in the hot season. Sometimes delay would be caused by a good-sized tree which had to be chopped away. Those drivers surmounted all their troubles — fire, floods and even outlaws. Of course on holidays they would be loaded down with passengers and baggage and mail and supplies.

Those drivers made a name for themselves over many years in 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. At every change there would be horses ready and waiting. There were shortstops along the way and halfway houses where people like Grandma Hansen would have a quick lunch and coffee to give a few minutes rest to the passengers and the driver. There was no passable road all the way up the coast just from Gualala to Point Arena.

Those coming from the city up the coast usually came by boat and typically landed in Fort Bragg or Point Arena. That was a little faster probably than by land but not always easier during holidays. Those little steam schooners such as the Point Arena, the Seafoam, The Noyo and others that ran up and down the coast rolled very badly in open water and could only carry a few tons of freight and sometimes could only run 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 children. I was bedded on a settee, but 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 pretty well and didn't mind much. I enjoyed the meals aboard the ship and the ship felt solid. Little River had a wharf and a sheltered cove and boat could land there when weather was too rough to land at Mendocino.

Sometimes passengers 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 at sea, about all of them in time that were on the coast in those early days. Ships at that time had a short life.

About 1900 or soon after that the wire schute was built at Mendocino which allowed passengers to be ferried ashore in a small boat and landed on a skiff on a landing close to some rocks. Then they went up the stairway to the top of the bluff. Freight was the same, except it was hoisted from the skiff by a winch up on top. It was no place for the weak hearted, although I never heard of an accident. The wire chute was built a year or so later and it was not for the nervous either as a little passenger box ran on a cable over 100 feet above the water. But the men were always very careful and I never heard of an accident happening to a passenger.

Even with all these obstacles, people still found ways to celebrate Christmas with their families in those early days. ¥¥

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