As a bookseller at Gallery Bookshop I recently had the pleasure of selling a 60 year old but ever-wonderful picture book called “The Biggest Bear” by Lynd Ward. As the grandparent buying this classic and I chatted about bears this question arose. What was the biggest bear ever found in Mendocino County? This was another History Mystery waiting for an answer.
The real answer may never be known since grizzly bears, once common in the county, are long gone. Bears were hunted, along with deer and elk, for meat to feed the loggers in the cookhouses during logging days. Francisco Faria, an early settler and hunter on the coast, had a circular shaped forearm where a bear had bit him and the bones healed crookedly.
Looking at a gazetteer for this county the place names with ursine focus are numerous. Included were Bear Creek, Bear Harbor, Bear Haven Creek, Bear Pen Creek, Bear Camp, Grizzly Peak, Grizzly Canyon, Grizzly Flats, and Bear Mountain. Looking into obscure resources, old books and the internet I found tidbits of bear lore from all over the county.
Manchester, on the south coast, was famous for butter production, and the bears who liked to kill and eat the butter source, the cows. A bear called “Old Two Toes” was killed in 1907 and measured 6’ long. He had also wreaked havoc on the local sheep population.
“Reel Foot” was killed by Frank Asbill in 1881 and weighed 300 pounds with an 18” footprint. This bear was reputed to eat an entire common cow as a good meal. Over decades he was shot with flint arrowheads by Wylacki Indians and a variety of slugs and all were found imbedded in his bones. A two gallon tub of honey laced with strychnine killed him near Island Mountain. His head was said to be comparable to that of a good size cow.
James Hull, for whom Hull Mountain over Lake Pillsbury is named, was killed by a Grizzly Bear in 1856. He had been part of a party hunting for venison and went out alone to the site they’d butchered the deer to collect brains for buckskin tanning, and vanished. The search party looking for him found a big dead Grizzly and Hull’s body. There was a shot stuck halfway down in the barrel of the gun and he’d turned the gun around and beat on the bear with the gunstock. They both died and Hull’s grave is on the north side of the peak about ¾ mile down from the summit.
In 1976 the Willits News reported a bear had dressed out at 394 pounds and had a live weight of 550 pounds. From a bear skull found in Eden Valley in 1959 the story goes the hunter said the bear weighted 670 pounds live weight and dressed out at 595 pounds with 20 gallons of rendered bear grease. As a back-to-the-land hippie in the 1970’s bear grease was my oil of choice to waterproof leather boots…back when hiking boots were made out of real leather.
A woman feeding “pet” bears in 2010 in Laytonville made the news as she had 14 bears loitering around her cabin, including a 400 pounder. She had named them all, had a kids wading pool on her deck to give them water to wallow in, and fed them so much rolled and cracked corn she had a 40’ storage container to store bear food in. Her house had bear feces inside (she let them in) and she hand fed them peanut butter sandwiches. Needless to say Fish & Game was NOT pleased with her behavior and she ended up in court being told to cease and desist feeding wild animals.
Maurice Tindall, former Anderson Valley judge, in his book “Down to Earth” wrote about bear hunting. Finding and killing one in an elderberry thicket they had hard work getting the hide and meat out of the woods. As Tindall said “It had been a bear for quite a long time and it was impossible to chew the meat.”
Getting serious with my biggest bear search on the internet I found Mendocino County Black Bears rated as some of the biggest on record. I do not understand the rating systems used by Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young but one bear rated number 5 in size on the records for a bow & arrow kill. Mendocino is fifth in the state for bear hunting with 104 kills between 1997 & 2007. Fish & Game says there are more than 30,000 Black Bears in the state and I know for a fact, due to fruit tree damage in our century old orchard, that bears are alive and well locally. I had a bear cross the Comptche Ukiah Road in front of me at twilight a month ago.
So NO, I could not find out what the biggest bear in Mendocino County ever was…but as with other History Mysteries I sure had fun looking for the answer.