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Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Tom McFadden

I met with Tom at his home on Hwy 128 in Boonville and following a brief tour of his wonderful workshop we sat down with a cup of coffee and a delicious ham and cheese sandwich made by his wife Kathleen using bread baked by Tom that very morning.

Tom was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1942 to Tom Sr. and Margaret Butzow, who thirteen years later had another child, son John. The McFadden’s are of Irish descent who came to this country in the late 1700’s and settled in western Pennsylvania. Tom’s grandfather, also Tom, married the girl-next-door and worked in the coal mining industry and their only son, Tom Sr., became a heavy equipment operator earning enough to put himself through Ohio State University where he studied journalism. The Butzow’s were German and Tom’s maternal grandfather was a doctor in Chicago during the flu pandemic following World War 1. Margaret studied nursing at Ohio State where she met Tom Sr.

“The McFadden’s were a big family and we spent a lot of time around them when I was growing up in the Carrollton, Ohio area. When I was very young, during the war, my Dad was in Lebanon working for the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) as a spy, although this was never spoken about around the home at the time. He did tell my mother that he was undercover as a writer preparing a book on the Arab press. He had been turned down by the military because of an injured arm that he could not straighten following a car accident so he joined the O.S.S. My Dad returned at the end of the war and worked for the O.S.S. in Washington until 1946, always telling us that he was sworn to secrecy about what his job had involved. We had moved to the Washington D.C. area and as a family we visited Lebanon after the war - I have vivid memories of the beach and the snow-covered mountains not far away. My grandfather, Dr Butzow, became ill and I flew back to America with my mother but grandfather died soon after our return”

Tom attended elementary school in Arlington, Virginia but then the family bought the weekly newspaper in Covington, Ohio so they moved there and Tom went through the rest of his schooling in this town in suburban Ohio. “Covington is about eighty miles north of Cincinnati and twenty miles east of the Indiana border. It was rural and conservative, and very ‘white.’ I suppose we were viewed as middle class and my Dad was pursuing his journalism dream but it was a struggle. Because my Dad was Tom I was always known as Tam (Thomas Arthur McFadden) at home and this name stuck all the way through school and beyond until I moved to California. I liked school and really enjoyed English, Social Studies, and Biology. I hated Speech and didn’t play any sports. I had planned to take Shop in my senior year but I was seen as college material and I had to make sure I passed Math and with my algebra being poor I had to do that instead so woodworking was put off for a time. I had several part-time jobs at my Dad’s newspaper when I was at school and also worked in a lumber yard during my senior year.”

“I was a loner apart from one close friend, David Powell who lived kitty-corner from us and was from a working class family who worked on the railroads. He had flunked 1st grade somehow and then broke his leg so he was two grades behind me and the biggest kid in his class! We often fished together in the Stillwater River that ran along our five acres and even though we were not supposed to swim there we did ‘fall in’ quite often. We hunted together but then one day I shot a rabbit and it screamed. I never hunted again. I had a garden on our property and raised worms to make compost – an organic garden was weird in the fifties, but not now!... In many ways my parents did a great job of picking out a place to raise a kid. One day they offered me the choice of getting a pony or having the wooden boat that was parked near to our house. I chose the boat. Some time later we left it on the river and the winter ice crushed it but Dave’s father said he could repair it so I swapped it for Dave’s wooden canoe that also needed repair work. I read how to steam bend wood and taught myself how to fix the canoe. I was fourteen and had a small wood shop in the basement of our house. This was my first experience with woodwork and I’m still learning today.”

Tom and Dave had many adventures on the river after that, sometimes going as far as fifty miles away. “We’d go for miles each day then build a fire and cook dinner before sleeping under blankets – there were no sleeping bags then. We’d finally stop after a few days and call one of our mothers and she would come and pick us up and take us back home. Yes, it was a wonderful place to grow up, living this Tom Sawyer-like life. At fifteen, my brother John was born and while we would never be close due to the age gap, I did help in taking care of the youngster... I was a good kid, I think - a little mischievous but nothing serious. Dave dropped out of school in the 9th grade and I started hanging out with a guy called Larry Fogt from the town of Piqua nearby. I had my driver’s license at sixteen and I remember one night when Larry and I drove to India Lake Amusement Park to meet girls. It was very uneventful in that regards but driving home some guy was tailgating and I decided he wasn’t going to pass me. It turned out to be a cop car and I lost my license. After that my Dad took me on any dates I had and I guess he pretended I wasn’t there in the back seat! He and I became close in my teens and for three years in a row we two went canoeing in Michigan; just us and plenty of cans of Dinty Moore Stew in case we didn’t catch any fish.”

Although Tom’s father was liberal in his political leanings they lived in a Republican stronghold and he had to be careful what he wrote in his paper’s editorials so as not to upset his advertisers. “It was tough for him. He worked seventy hours a week and had a lot of staff to support. Eventually the paper became a ‘home shopper’, which did well financially but wasn’t what Dad wanted. He sold it and made enough to support himself for the rest of his life.”

Having followed quite a religious upbringing and realizing that religion had played quite an important part in his life to that point, when Tom graduated in 1960 he attended Defiance College in the town of Defiance, Ohio – a school run by the Congregational Christian Church of which his family were members. “It was a very liberal church but I remember feeling bad for our preacher when he was ran out of town for having an affair with a married parishioner. However, growing up if I needed someone to talk to there was always someone at the church who would listen.”

Although the school was only ninety miles away Tom found himself with a mild southern accent compared to most of the other students. He soon had more friends than ever before and settled in well, maintaining a solid 3.5 G.P.A. in his studies of Botany and Biology. However after a year he wanted a more exciting scene and transferred to Ohio State and joined a fraternity. “The girls were a bit wilder there too”. His major was English Literature with a minor in Journalism, and he found some paying work in the data processing department. In his sophomore year Tom decided he didn’t like the fraternity scene and started to hang out with the beatniks from the English department. He started to think about California for the first time. “I knew I didn’t want to go back to Covington after college. It was a bigoted place – there was even an ordinance that black people could not stay overnight in the town! My Dad got into trouble when a black friend of mine from University, Jim Thompson, stayed for a night at my parent’s house. I remember he and I drove into town with my girlfriend whose name was Merrily. I stopped to get a haircut and the barber saw Jim and Merrily walking down the street and said, ‘My God! There’s a black man with a white woman.’ I spoke up and said, ‘That’s my girlfriend and he’s a friend of mine.’ The place went deathly quiet.”

Early in his senior year at college Tom dropped out. “I wanted to get my feet wet in the world and an opportunity had come along. The owner of the newspaper in nearby Carrollton had died and his widow had asked my Dad for help. He suggested me and in the fall of1963, at the age of twenty-two, I became the editor of the newspaper. There were a few thousand people in town but beyond that it was many miles to the nearest place of any size. I remember going to work on the day that President Kennedy was shot and crying. The printer commented, ‘That’s what the whole bunch of them deserve.’ Yet another reason to leave this rural Ohio scene, I thought.”

It turned out to be the final straw because shortly afterwards, in January 1964, the newspaper was sold by the widow. It was the right time to go. Tom and Jim picked up a drive-away car in Detroit and headed west with no plans other than to get out of Ohio. They arrived in San Francisco and rented an apartment on McAllister Street near to the Civic Center. It had a small basement area where Tom set up his skill-saw and some tools and started to make some furniture for their apartment. “I had taught myself quite a bit more by this time.” He found work as a fry cook at ‘Lot-a-Burger’ but two weeks later it closed and he moved to Brooks’ Cameras on Kearney Street where he worked in the basement as a receiving clerk, earning $55 a week. “We spent a lot of our social time in North Beach but by this time most of the beatniks were carrying briefcases.”

After a few months they moved to Leavenworth Street after neighbors complained about his noisy carpentry projects and he found a new job at The States Steamship Company on Pier 15 earning $85 a week and wearing a tie to work every day. He moved again, this time to Sacramento Street where he had a small wood shop in the basement and could now finally afford to buy new tools. “Around this time I read an article in Life Magazine about Art Carpenter, a veteran of World War 2 and a woodworker. It really inspired me a great deal and I quit my job and decided to become a furniture maker simply because I didn‘t want a ‘job’; not because I wanted to be an artist, not because I loved wood, I just didn’t want a normal job.”

Needing just nine units to complete his degree, Tom attended S.F. State and finished up. While there he met Lisa Farr and they fell in love, moved in together in the Haight-Ashbury district, and got married in the summer of 1965 in Muir Woods in Marin. “I made furniture in the basement once again but now I started to actually sell my stuff. The hippies were moving in and then in 1966 our daughter Maegan was born. The scene soon changed and was becoming too crazy for a young family; too many drugs, too wild. My folks lent us $1950 as the down payment on a house in Fairfax, Marin County that we bought for $19500 and I worked in San Rafael at a place that made office furniture. I learned a lot there – my first professional outfit. However, our friends from the City would hang out with us there and we’d still visit the City often. Maegan came to be this naked little hippy child in all of our photos. Moving away had not stopped the wild scenes and, as I was one of the few who had a job, I found myself housing and feeding all sorts of ‘losers.’ I moved to a job making kitchen cabinets but was laid off and so I started to work for myself. Eventually it all became too much and Lisa and I split up sometime in 1967. I moved to Forest Knolls in West Marin and left the house for Lisa and Maegan. Things got worse, we were divorced, debts mounted up, I owed lots in taxes, and I filed for bankruptcy.”

Things picked up for Tom after he found a job working for the architect Leslie Stone as the foreman in his shop. He was allowed to work on his own projects in the shop and soon after he met Marina Delfino, a potter, who became his steady girlfriend. “We went to the ‘Renaissance Fayre’’ every year from 1968 to 1971 and each time I’d get enough orders for about eight months of work. I had bought a house in Forest Knoll for $5,000, payable over five years. There was a second ‘house’ on the property and I remodeled it into a shop for my woodwork. After the five years was up I still owed $3,000 which I didn’t have so I sold the house for $18,000, paid off my debt and we went traveling.”

Tom and Marina bought a camper and went to Mexico for a few months before returning and visiting his family in Ohio, then on to the Appalachians, Kentucky and Georgia. “We had no plans about where to settle but the later part of the trip made me realize we had to go back to California.” In 1973 they settled briefly in Potter Valley and began to look for property to buy. “I had been to Anderson Valley in 1964 with Jim and commented that I’d like to live here some day and I had made several day-trips after that. In June we passed through the Valley and saw a sign for 20-acre parcels of land for sale. We camped that night in Dimmick State Park on Hwy 128 and returned to what we came to find out was the Holmes Ranch. We found a great spot and bought for $16,500 with plans to build a house by the fall. After his initial suspicion of my hippy-like appearance, Art Gowan agreed to let me have some wood from a broken down mill worker’s house and we moved into a basic structure on September 19th, 1973. It was all to code with permits and we didn’t grow any dope on the property – I guess that means we weren’t hippies.”

Fortunately Tom had a commission worth thousands of dollars to build a huge oak table for the Wine Museum of San Francisco and they survived on that for quite a time. “Marina worked in the apple sheds at Gowan’s and with my skills continuing to improve I was able to work on my furniture in an empty machine shop in Navarro owned by Jerry Waggoner. I attended many craft shows and my work was finally getting out there.”

In 1974 Tom and Marina split up and within a month a new girlfriend, Peggy Miniclier had moved in with him. “She had been dating my friend Brian but we just clicked and fell in love almost overnight. Over the next few years we built a workshop, a barn, a 45-foot water tower, and a chicken house. We went to Art Fairs all over the place and I joined the Mendocino Woodworkers Association whose show I exhibited at for several years. Clyde Jones opened his gallery, The Guild Store’ in Ft. Bragg and I showed there too, a wonderful outlet for me as I continued to grow as a furniture maker, now steaming my own wood and learning to make curved things, as well as doing complete kitchens. Clyde’s space moved to Mendocino an even better location and later I showed at Highlight Gallery out there too.”

Daughter, Christina, was born in 1978 with son Cameron following in 1981 by which time they had four horses, goats for milk, chickens, bummer lambs that shepherds would give them, and pigs. “The hippies were now being slowly accepted in the Valley, and the ones I knew didn’t steal from Gowan’s Oak Tree Stand. I picked up some extra work teaching woodwork in night classes at the High School. Talking of the school, Cameron had some learning difficulties and he was greatly helped by both Sharon Shapiro and Jill Rathe at the school in Boonville.”

After some unsettling times, Tom and Peggy split up in 1994 after eighteen years of marriage. ‘I went to work at Navarro Vineyards to get extra money to support the kids. Peggy’s reliable pay-check had come in handy many times previously - furniture makers aren’t guaranteed money all year round. I remained on the property, having built an apartment above my shop because I wanted to be near the kids and I stayed there for six or seven years.” In the early nineties, with Tom cutting and drying his own wood, his work gained more exposure, not to mention prestige, when it was shown at the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore (he and Cameron took a train trip there when the boy was nine) and his client base was greatly expanded to customers all over the country following this.

Tom had several relationships in the years following his split with Peggy but they remained friends and have always been comfortable around each other in social situations. In December 2001, shortly after his recovery from colon cancer, Tom was corresponding with three women through the on-line dating service, “I entered the Ukiah zip code in the website and up popped Kathleen. We had a date in the January at The Broiler in Redwood Valley and had a very nice time together. The second date was when she came to pick me up from hospital after I’d suffered a heart attack due to clogged arteries. Peggy would have come but she was out of town so it was Kathleen, and we’ve been together ever since – I feel like I’ve looked for her all my life.”

Tom had bought property in Boonville in 1995 and after fixing up the dilapidated house he rented the place out for a few years. “There was no shop there so I stayed up at the other place where I could be near the kids and work in my shop at the same time. In 2002 Kathleen and I moved here and began building the new shop. We were married on the shop’s back porch in December 2002 and I work inside there five or six days a week for about six hours each day.”

Tom has always socialized quite a lot in the Valley from his days doing lunch and having a few beers at The Floodgate store in the early seventies, through the hippy times at The Sundown Café in the Boonville Hotel, to more recent times which have seen him and Kathleen as regular customers at Lauren’s and Libby’s and prior to that The Highpockety Ox, The Lodge, and The Buckhorn Saloon. Tom loves the Valley’s scenery and the variety and friendliness of its people. “I also like the remoteness of this place and that it’s nearly twenty miles to the nearest traffic light! I don’t like the way some people speed through town though. The speed limit should be 25 m.p.h. all the way through.”

I asked Tom for his brief responses to various Valley topics of discussion... The wineries and their impact? – “I’d much rather see wineries than trailer parks or sprawl. I don’t know if the water shortages are due to the wineries. Many people have moved here and have dug wells too”... The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I like it now. Because of my own brief history in newspapers and journalism, I take a negative view of papers making things up. I think the A.V.A. used to do that on occasion but not anymore”... KZYX & Z local public radio? – “I don’t listen anymore. Everyone seems to want to grind their own particular axe at this point. It was useful during the wildfires but moist of the programming does not interest me and is not of a high standard”... The Changes in the Valley? – “Well I’m delighted that the hippies were finally accepted and nobody is kicking their asses any more”... The school system? – “They did a fine job with my kids.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself many months ago. I have also recently added a few more new questions and hopefully you will find Tom’s answers interesting and illuminating...

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Woodworking.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Stuff from China – even the metal for the Bay Bridge renovation is from there. It’s ridiculous – a pet peeve of mine.”
What sound or noise do you love? – “Water in a creek, or river, or waterfall.”
What sound or noise do you hate? – “Leaf-blowers.”
What is your favorite food or meal? – “Wild shrimp.”
Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world?
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one, who would that be? – “J.F.K. – he was the last leader who gave so much hope for America. Obama may still come through too.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “My canoe, my fishing rod, and a frying pan.”
Do you have a favorite song? – “The music of Bob Dylan – ‘The girl from the north country’ is a particular favorite.”
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “I think that would be ‘Holy shit’...”
What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “Either ‘you should’ or ‘you need to’...”
What is your favorite hobby? – “It used to be model railroading; these days gardening for sure; writing too.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A serious fiction writer.”
What profession would you not like to do? – “Almost any job – I don’t’ consider furniture making a job.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The day I married Kathleen or days my children were born. I now have four grandkids and another on the way.”
What was the saddest? – “The days my parents died. My parents separated when he was sixty-five and he married a woman just a year older than me. My mother was fine though.
What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “My ability to teach myself to do things.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I think if he said ‘Come on in, Tom, I need another carpenter’ would be just right.”
If you would like to read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives

Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Cheryl Schrader of The A.V. Animal Rescue...Also next week, I shall also be presenting the fourth and final in a series of interviews with the Candidates for the 5th District Supervisor position – Norman de Vall...

One Comment

  1. Larry Fogt November 27, 2010

    Tam you old son of a gun , My Grand son one of 13 fun this and just told me tonight 11/27 hope you had a happy Thanksgiving. Im going to try to call you.WOW Larry fogt Rember the old lark back and forth to school

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