Tom Bell’s Flat

Along the Comptche-Ukiah Road, east of the nearly forgotten town of Melburne, is a spot known to locals as Tom Bell's Flat (or Tom Bell Flats). Tom Bell settled there in the 1860s. He made his living as a trapper and spent his years as a bachelor in a small cabin. Near his home a gulch stretched westward from the Flat. In those days its timber remained uncut. The redwood populating Tom Bell Gulch were so large and thick that sunlight barely trickled to the ground at midday. Children traveling through alone usually proceeded at a gallop.

Tom Bell was born in England around 1839. Much of his day to day life has sifted away from historical annals. However, a few details remain. In 1879, Tom Bell found an orphaned bear cub near his place. He had a doctor acquaintance, formerly of Mendocino City, who had once told Tom that he was curious about the growth pattern of bears. The medical man had moved to the Bay Area, but Tom was determined to send the foundling cub to his friend for study.

He built a box for the bear cub and had it transported on board a wagon into Mendocino; the “present” was to be shipped from there on to San Francisco. All of this, the building of the box, coaxing the bear into it, transport to town, took some time. The cub grew. In Mendocino, the bear box was stored in the barn, next to the livery, of the Norton Hotel on Main Street, awaiting shipment south.

The horses in the livery caught the scent of bear next door and some broke loose of their stalls. Worse yet, the bear tired of his cage and fought his way free of it. Prowling about the barn, the ursine ripped open sack after sack of grain. When his growls were heard inside the hotel, frightening some customers, Mr. and Mrs. Norton, the proprietors, called on a former tenant and fairly close neighbor, John F. Wheeler, the town dentist. Along with his dental acumen, Wheeler was widely regarded as a crack shot with either a pistol or rifle. The dentist walked down from his residence, rifle in hand, then dispatched the poor creature posthaste. Tom Bell's gift had gone drastically awry.

Another tale about Tom Bell relates to his large size. He had either purchased or obtained in trade ten yards of red flannel cloth, red being his favorite color. On a visit to Docker Hill, Tom asked Mrs. Docker to make him a shirt from the material. When she completed the project, the red flannel shirt hung to Tom's knees. He wore the garment proudly, refusing to tuck it in to his pants.

The story about Tom Bell's shirt comes down from the Docker family of Docker Hill, above Comptche. Mrs. Docker' s name was Martha. She and her husband William (aka Bill) traveled from New York state to Mendocino County in the early 1880s. Part of the settling process included toting a cast iron stove two miles up the steep grade to the top of what came to be called Docker Hill. That was accomplished by taking the stove apart and hand carrying it, piece by piece, in several trips. Eventually, William and Martha Docker constructed a handful of homes on their hill for family members. At least one of the houses burned in a 1924 fire.

William and Martha's son, Harry (born in Buffalo in 1877), stayed a bachelor into his sixties when he happened to re-connect with a girl he had known one summer in the 1890s. Her name then was Ethel Jamison. She had been born, in 1880, and raised in Ukiah, a descendant on her mother's side of the Ukiah pioneer Luce family. Ethel Jamison met Harry Docker when she was fourteen and he was seventeen. Ethel's father had hauled ties for Bill Docker to the landing at Littleriver in 1893 and a friendship developed between the two men. The following summer, Martha and Bill Docker rode over the hill to Ukiah in what Ethel Jamison described as a cart. Despite the simple cart, Ethel was struck by Martha Docker's stiff black silk dress as well as the mop of light brown hair that stuck out from beneath her hat, which was adorned with feathers, bows, and flowers.

Before that visit concluded the Dockers invited Ethel to join their family for a camping outing on Big River. During that camping trip, which included members of the Strauss family and others, Ethel only had eyes for seventeen-year-old Harry Docker. Everyone slept under a huge tent stretched out overhead and tied off to tree trunks. The women and girls slept on one side, with the men and boys on the other; their feet toward one another. The first full day at the camp, while others went off fishing, Harry and Ethel found a swimming hole and lay on the sandy shore afterward in their bathing attire. At night, Ethel and Harry scarcely slept a wink because they had scooted close enough to wiggle their toes together.

That romance proved short lived. Ethel returned to Ukiah and school, Harry went back to woods work. By the time they met again Ethel had a son in his late thirties and she had been married six times, including a divorce from her son's father which she instigated. An action practically unheard of in the 1910s.

Ethel and Harry Docker enjoyed a quarter century of happily married life until Harry's death in 1966. She died five years later at age ninety.

Harry and Ethel Docker, 1945 (photo courtesy Kelley House Museum)

Five years before Ethel and Harry Docker met as teenagers, an acquaintance stopped by Tom Bell's cabin. He found the trapper in gravely ill health and transported him to Dr. McCornack's hospital in Mendocino, where his condition was diagnosed as a serious case of pneumonia. He never improved. Tom Bell died on November 12, 1889. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery the next day.

With only a sea captain brother on the east coast as a known relative, Tom Bell's 160 acres, including prime redwood, was sold at auction the following year. The price: $4,500.


(More tales of flat and hilly country at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

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