The 1950s in Anderson Valley

In the 1950s there were more than 20 lumber mills in Anderson Valley. The mills were often surrounded by houses that in the beginning of the lumber boom were called shacks. A high percentage of workers for the lumber mills came from an area 25-35 miles west of Hot Springs, Arkansas — small towns called Amity, Glenwood, Norman, Hopper, Mount Ida, and Caddo Gap. There are many local families who lived through those rugged sawmill days who have vivid memories of them, and just as many families back in “the old country” who share them. Some memories subtly suggest who you were and who you are. Other memories may be so clear that you realize the past is not really the past but in some ways it isn't even gone.

My family moved from Amity and Mountain Pine, Arkansas to Nevada City, and then to Anderson Valley in the late fall of 1944. My dad worked for the Merritt-Foschee mill for awhile, then for D.L. Martin who sold to Mr. Brown. We lived at the Brown's mill camp for awhile and then we moved in the September of 1954 to Buster Hollifield's Lumber Company. My sister Dana was born at the old Hillside Hospital in Ukiah on our first day at Hollifeld Lumber Company. On the first day of Dana's life, the newly formed Hell's Angels Motorcycle gang slept on the grass in front of the hospital, perhaps waiting for a fallen comrade to be treated in the emergency room. My mother said some of the nurses wanted to go outside and talk to them, but the hospital’s management wouldn't allow them to go outside.

My memories from the Brown's mill camp days are mostly fond ones. Brown’s mill was located at the very end of Ornbaun Road. Behind the old Teddy Master's house there was a small gorge with pepperwood trees growing thickly on its banks. Ronnie Vaughn and I would climb high in the pepperwood trees and bend them toward another pepperwood tree and grab the limb of another tree and cross to the new tree and play “Tarzan travel” for hours at a time.

There used to be a huge oak tree in front of Teddy Masters’ home. Ronnie and I would climb that oak and eat our sack of cherries during the cherry picking season. A truck full of cherries would come by each week and for 50¢ you could buy a large sack of them. We would eat cherries until we had to rapidly descend the big oak tree to rush into the bushes and invent a toilet.

As we grew older and stronger, we finally got the nerve to bend a tall pepperwood tree across the small gorge to grasp another pepperwood tree on the far side. Our one success at this trick was so scary — propelling us across the gorge like we’d been shot out of a giant slingshot — that we didn't do it again.

When I’d grown tall enough to reach enough handholds to pull myself up the wall on the far side of the gorge, I grasped a big rock to pull myself to the top of the gorge to peer into the grass and the brush on the other side. I heard the unmistakable metallic rattle of warning and found myself looking into the eyes of a coiled rattlesnake a foot away. I pushed myself backwards immediately and fell into the gorge. I was only bruised and shaken but unbit. Ronnie and I have both admitted that we were shocked at how small the gorge actually was when we both returned separately as adults to see where we had tested our boyhood courage.

Joan Bloyd told me that she and her husband Loren drove out the Signal Ridge Road in his jeep in 1958 for a picnic and Loren told her to watch out for rattlesnakes because “they're pretty thick out here.” Joan said she thought Loren was exaggerating. The jeep didn't have doors or a roof. Joan spotted a large rattler coiled on a bank beside the road as she and her husband drove to the picnic site. After their picnic, when they started to get back into their jeep, “there were four rattlesnakes that had crawled into the jeep. Two were on the seats and two beneath the seats,” Joan remembers. “I walked away while Loren killed them.”

In keeping with the Anderson Valley and the Arkansas old country connection, Chris Hill, the Glenwood forester who lived behind the Buster Hollifield family in the 1950s and saved Cloi Burchfield from her neighbor's charging Rottweiler, just mentioned recently his encounter with a formidably large snake far from Anderson Valley. “We came across a five-foot rattler right outside Glenwood. We didn't have the right kind of tools to kill it, so it slid away,” remember also that “my older brother Jimmy was bitten by a cottonmouth walking along Lick Creek near Norman, Arkansas, years ago. He thought a limb bumped into him so he kicked it and that snake bit him on his big toe and wouldn't let go. Jimmy was trying to run away from the cottonmouth, but it was hooked on to his big toe making Jimmy try to run faster. A friend of Jimmy's finally grabbed the snake's tail and pulled it away. Then his friends who were also panicking, sliced open his toe to suck out the poison. But in their panic, they sliced open the wrong toe. Finally, they got Jimmy to the doctor where he was in intensive care for three days.”

In September of 1954, my family moved to Hollifield Lumber Company in Philo. Buster Hollifield had purchased the mill property from Bub Clow. As it was with Bob Rawles, every Arkie liked Bub Clow because he was a fair man and a good man.

Norman Clow told me recently that his dad (Bub) really liked Buster, but his dad had also said, “I always wondered why Buster bought a plane because he already flew every place he went almost as fast as a plane in his car.”

Bub told his son of a memorable trip over the hill with Buster. “I went with him to Ukiah once and Buster started out in just a little bit of a hunched over position. But before we got to Ukiah, the sleeves of that brown suede coat he always wore was pulled up to his elbows and his knees were wrapped around the steering column on both sides of the steering wheel, and he was hunched so low, he looked through the open slots of the steering wheel. He was so tall and lanky, he was comfortable driving hunched over that way. And, he really could handle a car.”

When we moved to Buster's mill, I met Bill Long (AVHS, 1958) who was to become one of my lifetime friends. The Burl Long family had moved to Anderson Valley in 1953 from Morrilton, Arkansas, which is located in the Ozarks of the old country. The Longs settled into a long tenure of sawmill life at Hollifield Lumber Company.

The Floyd Coffman family moved to the Valley in the late 1940s from Hopper, Arkansas, and owned and operated the gas station that was next to Jack's Valley Store two miles north of Philo. (The station was closed long ago and is now a pottery.) The three Coffman children were my classmates — Wanda, her older brother Warren, and younger brother Ronnie.

The Coffmans were related to the Wilson and Marchie Summit family of Norman, Arkansas, and told the Summits that hard-working people wound find work in Anderson Valley. The Summits came to our Valley in 1951 and Wilson first went to work for the Hess mill in Boonville.

Wanda Coffman Wilson (AVHS, 1959) married Norman Wilson (AVHS, 1958) and moved to Southern California. Warren and Ronnie are filling up Willits, California, with fine Coffmans. And, of course, the numerous and popular Summit boys are insuring that there will be Summits forever.

Joe Faulkner also moved to the Valley from around Hopper, Arkansas, in the late 1940s and brought with him his pretty daughter Betty. She married the popular truck driver Paul Hughbanks.

In the 1950s the Valley was filling up so rapidly that the local schools had to adjust to a rapid increase in school-age children. The schools adjusted by giving difficult tests in the 8th grade so that half the students would flunk. I think we had about 87 students in my 8th grade class and only half of us were able to pass a history exam required to enter high school in the 1955-56 school year. When we graduated in 1959, there were only 19 of us left.

But, back in 1954, Bill Long was in my house, and I was telling Bill about my first memory.

“I was on some sort of ancient crusade dressed in battle armor and I had been thrown to the ground. I had been attacked by two large men with reddish-blond beards who were also dressed in silver armor worn over black garments. They were both about to thrust large wide swords into my stomach when a brilliant light appeared and burned my eyes. I wasn't afraid of the men. I whispered that I called them 'sons of bitches.' But a burning brilliant light made me scream.”

My mother had heard the story before. She wasn't about to listen to it again without making a comment. She said, “Bill, this story is horse hockey. This is his reincarnation story.”

My mother and dad had recently been baptized and become members of the Boonville Church of Christ. So she had changed portions of her verbal terminology into horse hockey and wasn't about to listen to reincarnation stories in her house; not anymore. Then she told me for the first time, “Ken, you were born in our bedroom in our little Mountain Pine's cabin in Arkansas. My doctor was a Jewish man, and he suggested that you be circumcised to avoid potential infections. At first I said ‘No’ to my doctor. But I thought about what he said. And he was the kindest, most gentle and intelligent man I had ever known. So, after several weeks, I told my doctor that I trusted him and I wanted him to circumcise my baby boy. He agreed to perform the task. He put you on our kitchen table beneath a big bare light bulb that was lit, and when he cut you, you screamed because it hurt. You sure weren't reincarnated.”

I said, “Well, how did I know how to cuss?”

She said, “You're going to unlearn it now. You boys go out to play.”

Bill Long and another neighbor Bill Carey (from Oklahoma), and my sister Marcia, would often go swimming in the river between Hollifield's mill and Hendy Woods and then go to Hendy Woods to explore the forest.

Hendy Woods in its natural state was a beautiful place with occasional spangles of celestial sunshine filtering into the perpetual shade. The Hendy Woods forest was protected by the men in the Valley for a long time before it was protected by the state. It was an unofficial law made by mutual agreement of all the woodsmen in the Valley to keep it whole, to keep it natural.

Loren Bloyd told me, “Everybody knew Hendy Woods was off-limits for cutting wood. We all knew it was the only natural forest we had left.”

I asked Loren if anyone ever tried to break that unofficial rule.

Loren replied, “Oh, yeah. But me and Rob (his brother) and some other guys would drive them out of the Valley. I remember one guy fell a tree by ax to make split stuff in the winter. He used an ax so we wouldn't hear the noise of a chain saw. But, Rob found out about it and made him leave the Valley — didn't give him any choice but to leave.”

It was my good fortune that when I heard about a handicapped access trail being put into Hendy Woods State Park and that a contest was being held to determine the name of the trail, my entry, “The Gentle Giants Trail” was selected in Sacramento to be the trail's official name. The name was always what I had considered the trees to be when all of us kids played in the ancient forest.

I think of the natural physicality of the sawmill years, of strong men and women getting up early on frosty late fall mornings to sunrise breakfasts, their muscles hardened by the daily hard labor. To leave the house early and to pull on yesterday's still sweat-dampened gloves over callused hands, then walk over to the sawmill's huge scrap wood burners for the warmth of the constantly burning fire to dry the gloves, to smoke the day’s first cigarette and enjoy the camaraderie of hard-working friends over a last cup of hot coffee poured from thermoses thoughtfully supplied by the missus, hearing the warning whistle from the mill as all of you start to amble over loose sawdust toward the catwalk beside the green chain to strap on your heavy leather green chain apron over which you will slide the wet, fresh cut, heavy lumber over the apron into the proper stack, well, some of us can still hear the starting whistle blow.

4 Responses to "The 1950s in Anderson Valley"

  1. Marco McClean   September 27, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    Wonderful!

    “Well, you’re gonna unlearn it now! You boys go out and play!”

    Reply
  2. Lynne (Sanders) Lesley   August 15, 2019 at 9:58 am

    I loved reading this! My family lived in a mill camp on Prathers property in the later 50’s. There was a mill there & I remember playing in the lumber stacks, looking inside the big wigwam burner, playing in the creek and the sheep everywhere that belonged to Mr. Prather. I don’t remember the name of the mill though? My grandfather, Fred Savage, moved to the Boonville, CA area from Oregon and my father George Sanders then moved our family there. Logging was what many of my family did and I remember my grandfather rolled a road grader on one of the logging roads, causing him to lose his leg below his knee. He continued to log, fish, hunt, camp and play the fiddle! Many memories of growing up there and then moving to Willits, CA when I was in the 7th grade, where my dad continued to log with Merle Okerstrom, until his retirement.

    Reply
  3. Mark Gurley   March 27, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    My family moved to Boonville in late 1955 from DeWitt, Ark. I was born at the old Hillside Hospital in Ukiah in July 1956. My dad worked in the sawmills in town for years. Me and my younger brother Ronnie had some great times as kids. Wouldn’t change my youth for anything.

    Reply
  4. Marie Gowan Ady   March 28, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks for the stories, Ken. Did you do a book on the Valley mill camps?

    Reply

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