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Mendocino Headlands – The Birth of a State Park

NO ONE REMEMBERS actually seeing any plans for the condominiums that Boise Cascade was going to build on the Mendocino headlands. No one had to see them. Just the thought of some developer ravaging this unspoiled coastal village was enough to stir the tiny art colony into action. It all started in October, 1968, when the big multinational forest products corporation from Idaho announced plans to buy the local Union Lumber Company and all its historic land holdings. But the real story began more than a hundred years ago. The Union Lumber Company had acquired large tracts of land on the Mendocino Coast dating back to 1852, when Jerome Ford arrived to set up a sawmill at the mouth of Big River. Only a few years earlier, white men first made contact with the peaceful Pomo Indians, the master basket-weavers who camped near the abundant estuary. Just 120 miles to the south, the booming gold rush town of San Francisco was becoming a city and was hungry for lumber. So the giant old growth redwoods were felled and cut into massive chunks by the power of human muscle alone, dragged across the steep ridges by teams of oxen, and then floated down Big River to be ripped by the big steel saws. The finished boards were hauled up to the ocean bluffs and loaded by cables to schooners anchored in Mendocino Bay. There were no roads in those days, so everything came and went by sailing ship. The village of Mendocino grew, and the lumbermen built tall water towers, wooden store buildings and graceful Victorian homes. The Mendocino mill prospered through the late 1800s and early 1900s, when nearly every cove and inlet on the rugged Mendocino Coast had a sawmill. But the small mills were gradually replaced by the big factory mills like the one (previously) run by Georgia Pacific in Fort Bragg, and the long lines and dog hole schooners soon gave way to steam locomotives and fast logging trucks. Fire finally destroyed the Mendocino sawmill in 1945, and no one bothered to rebuild it. The charming village and its dramatic setting began attracting tourists as early as the 1920s, when brave travelers drove their funny automobiles through the dark redwoods to the foggy coast. Some say that Mendocino remained a well-kept secret until 1958 when Bill Zacha, founder of the Mendocino Art Center, inspired the cultural and economic renaissance which continues to this day. Actually, Mendocino has been rediscovered and shaped by successive waves of social change, like the ancient wave-cut terraces which form the coastal topography. The beatniks and artists and movie-makers came in the 1950s, the hippies and flower children moved to local communes in the 1960s, the urban drop-outs came during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, and the bed-and-breakfast innkeepers settled in during the 1980s. Artist and activist Emmy Lou Packard, now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, is honored by a bronze plaque on the Mendocino headlands which credits her vision and perseverance for the creation of the state park. “Emmy Lou Packard started it all,” remembers Mildred Benioff. “Emmy Lou was magnificent, she knew everyone and who to write. That whole first year she had a group of people who worked at her home and sent out letters and petitions.” Emmy Lou’s appeals to make the Mendocino headlands a state park and fight the condominiums went far and wide, eventually receiving national publicity. C. Malcolm Watkins, Chairman of the Department of Civil History for the Smithsonian Institution, wrote in December, 1968 “I do not think it is an overstatement that it appears just as important for California to have Mendocino preserved and guarded against encroachments as it was for Virginia to have Williamsburg restored and protected.” The story made headlines in the Bay Area newspapers, and was the subject of a leading editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle in January, 1969. Both KGO and KQED television covered the Mendocino headlands story, and the Sacramento Bee published a feature article. Emmy Lou and her artist husband Byron Randall came to Mendocino in 1959 during the early art colony days, and opened the Randall-Packard Gallery. They lived in the old house across the street from the Presbyterian Church, which is now the Mendocino Village Inn. She built a studio out back, now the 955 Ukiah Street Restaurant, where she met with her fellow conspirators. Local residents remember her as a talented artist who worked with the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. They say she was an extreme liberal (if such a thing is possible by local standards), and some even referred to her as a communist. One night some high school kids painted her front gate red, but the young vigilantes were apprehended and had to repaint it. It was a small town and everyone knew who did it. Mildred Benioff met Emmy Lou at the post office in late 1968, and Emmy Lou admitted that she was great at getting projects started, but just didn’t have the time to carry it through. She asked Mildred if she would take over. Mildred was married to the late Dr. Hugo Benioff, a world renowned scientist and professor of seismology at Cal Tech, who had died earlier that year. She accepted the challenge, and began serving as head of the Mendocino Headlands Park Committee, appointed by State Parks Director William Penn Mott, Jr. The committee included a host of talented community leaders who were determined to preserve the historic village. Among them were Lauren Dennen (owner of the famous Heritage House inn), John Tritenbach (pastor of the Presbyterian Church), Mr. and Mrs. Bill Grader (owners of the Noyo Harbor fish company), artist Dorr Bothwell, retired Madison Avenue adman Hanley Norins, Berkeley professor Frank Pitelka, eminent soil scientist Dr. Hans Jenny, and many others. Not everyone was in favor of the park idea. Basil Heathcote, the Big River Judicial Court judge, was a vocal park opponent who had a strong local following. He and his fellow protestors also opposed the incorporation movement which was going on at the same time. The local opposition was angered by State Parks acting like Big Brother, telling them what to do with their town. If there was a demand for more commercial establishments, lodging, and vacation homes, they argued, then they should damn well be built. And they certainly weren’t going to pay more taxes. Although Mendocino was finally forced to build a sewer treatment plant and stop dumping its raw sewage into the ocean, there is still a strong local sentiment against incorporation (more taxes) and the construction of a community water system (more tourists). Mildred remembers attending a County Supervisor’s meeting to plead her case for the Headlands State Park. It was the fourth time she’d made the hour and a half drive to Ukiah. “He [Basil] did all the talking and I was trying to get my turn, and one of the supervisors, who was a woman, said ‘Judge Heathcote, now its time we let the park lady speak’.” Mildred was known as The Park Lady from that moment on. Mildred later became an influential voice for conservation while serving on both the Regional and State Coastal Commissions. California voters, concerned about the need to protect their thousand mile coastline, passed the landmark California Coastal Initiative (Proposition 20) in 1972. But it didn’t pass in Mendocino County. Mildred wrote to her friend Rudd Brown, then head of the State Department of Recreation, who first suggested the idea of a land swap. The State had no money to buy park land and no one knew how to raise that kind of money locally, so the committee began a long series of negotiations with Boise Cascade. The concept for a Mendocino Historical Preservation District was born in 1970, with the publication of the “Mendocino Headland and Big River Beach Feasibility Study.” The study supported the Headlands State Park idea but said it was “totally dependent upon establishing the community as a ‘historic district’.” Bill Mott and the State Parks people were not going to accept the headlands property if Mendocino was allowed to become some tacky commercial strip. They proposed buying and leasing back all the buildings on Main Street, restricting vehicle access, and even restoring the old sawmill. But nobody in Mendocino wanted a fake town either, like Columbia State Historic Park north of Sonora, where the shopkeepers dress up like people from the gold rush days. The park committee searched for a historic preservation district ordinance to fit their needs, but found nothing they could adopt. In typical Mendocino fashion, the resourceful townspeople hammered out their own ordinance which, as expected, pleased no one. It was adopted anyway by a kind of negative consensus, and continues to protect the historic village twenty years later. The “Hysterical Review Board” holds regular meetings to pass judgement on local projects, and continues to refine and rewrite the ordinance. “When I first came here [in 1973] it was a real sore subject,” recalls State Forester Forest Tilley (his real name), who manages the 50,000 acre Jackson Demonstration State Forest. Boise Cascade was willing to trade for the Mendocino headlands, but they wanted prime State Forest land within the Hare Creek watershed. They proposed trading their 77 acres on the Mendocino headlands, plus an assortment of 1,632 acres ranging from Ten Mile beach to Leggett. The Sierra Club opposed the trade, and local conservationists felt that Boise Cascade should only get one-time logging rights. After all, it was a demonstration forest and was supposed to be logged, not given away. The deal finally went down in February, 1972. The trade was based on land value rather than total acreage, with Fort Bragg appraiser Robert MacDougall Jr. making the final determinations of value. Boise Cascade got 977 acres of forested land in Jackson State Forest, then valued at $900,000. The triangular piece of property was located between Fort Bragg and Willits, about a mile south of Highway 20 near North Fork Camp, with an estimated 20 million board feet of redwood, Douglas fir and grand fir. The State Parks Department in turn got 659 acres from Boise Cascade, including the prized 71 acres of Mendocino headlands south of Main Street along with Big River Beach (valued at $425,000), 573 acres and four miles of ocean frontage between MacKerricher State Park and Ten Mile River (valued at $400,000), and 15 acres at Pudding Creek Beach (valued at $75,000). Today, Mendocino Headlands State Park totals 374 acres, if you count the 27 acre fishing access west of Heeser Drive that Mendocino pioneer and former newspaper editor Augie Heeser sold to the State in 1960. Al Nichols (Augie’s second cousin and heir) sold the 57 acre field east of Heeser Drive to the State in 1973. Since then, the State has quietly purchased over a hundred acres east of Highway One south of Big River for future park expansion. The plan for Mendocino Headlands State Park, published in 1977, calls for the eventual acquisition of over 500 acres. Plans include the acquisition of some Georgia Pacific lands east of the Big River Bridge, the construction of restrooms and parking facilities at Big River Beach, and even a youth hostel near Highway One. Mendocino Park District Supervisor Dave Bartlett wears a tooled black leather belt equipped with handcuffs, mace, and a wood-handled revolver, looking more like a cop than a conservationist. According to Dave, the State Parks Department only purchases land from willing sellers, even though they have the power of eminent domain. But there is no more money for park expansion or improvement. The State Parks budget has been slashed due to the current recession-fueled state economic crisis, and Dave and his dwindling staff are increasingly forced into law enforcement roles instead of ranger walks and campfire talks. Today, there is little to remind us of the coarse and rowdy logging town that Mendocino must have been a hundred years ago. The carefully restored and repainted wooden buildings sparkle in the sun, now filled with delightful but touristy bookstores, candy shops and ice cream parlors, instead of sleazy brothels and saloons. There isn’t a phone pole or power line in site, and the nearest Taco Bell is in Fort Bragg, a real working lumber town eight miles to the north. And, thanks to people like Emmy Lou and Mildred and a handful of local activists, there will probably never be condos on the Mendocino headlands. Mendocino remains an island in time, where visitors come to lose themselves in the vast expanse of earth and sea and sky. The historic village is embraced on three sides by grassy coastal headlands, where the steep rocky bluffs are pounded by the powerful ocean below. The immense blue Pacific disappears beyond the curvature of the earth, where grey whales have been making their annual migrations ever since the ice age. To the east, green forested ridges march on forever. To the south, Big River carves a large sand sculpture in Mendocino Bay which moves in infinite patterns with the tides and the seasons. Giant pieces of driftwood, like the ancient bones of dinosaurs, lie bleaching in the sun on tiny Portuguese Beach, while the cormorants nest undisturbed on Goat Island as they’ve always done. A foghorn moans just outside the bay, and the Point Cabrillo lighthouse winks off in the distance. On a clear day you can see Cape Mendocino 70 miles to the north, the most westerly point of land in the continental United States.  by Chet Boddy
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