Sunday, January 29, 2023

‘Going Home’: Two Decades After Raising Children in a Historical Mendocino County Home, It Was Time for a Visit— Geniella’s Thoughts

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Mike Geniella’s incisive voice and watchful eye have been aimed at Mendocino County for many decades as a long-standing reporter for the Press Democrat and the spokesman for Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office. Now retired, Geniella finds the writing habit hard to shake. We’re excited to host a column from him sharing his thoughts, comments, and concerns about life here in Mendocino County.

The front of the historical Crofoot Home [All Pictures provided by Mike Geniella, this exterior photograph was taken by Santa Rosa photographer Ned Bonzi.]

In these turbulent times, it is good to go ‘home,’ even if for just a short visit.

Almost 20 years have passed since I lived in a place my family always called ‘the Crofoot house.’ The fine home, even though empty and on the market, warmly welcomed me back.

It was a sentimental, and calming visit. I was reminded how fortunate we were to have owned and lived in such a stately icon of Mendocino County’s post-World War II lumber boom. The Crofoot house was built in 1951 when the county was a leading lumber producer in the state’s billion-dollar timber industry.

I arranged to meet Dan Crofoot last week at a place that stirs deep feelings in both of us. Crofoot grew up there in the 1950s and ’60s. Terese and I purchased the Crofoot house from Dan Crofoot’s parents when we arrived in Mendocino County in 1985. We raised our sons there, relished the old swimming pool on Ukiah’s sizzling summer days, and invited family and friends to join us. We celebrated birthdays, baptisms, and Little League and soccer gatherings. We threw grammar school to college graduation parties for sons Pete, Luke, Nate and Sam. One year we even hosted a Junior Prom dinner. Our sons became men, and in 2004 we decided to sell our home and downsize.

It is a house that has always beckoned out-of-town buyers. 

The Crofoot house features old-growth timber originally milled at the family sawmill down the road near where Highways 20 and 101 used to intersect at ‘The Forks.’

The builders were Jane and Bud Crofoot, legendary members of Mendocino County’s timber aristocracy.

When Bud Crofoot died in 1993, the New York Times noted in his obituary how the Crofoot family in the 1940s came to the North Coast of California and “set up sawmill operations in the Ukiah and Anderson valleys during the heyday of Mendocino County’s timber industry.” The Times described the Crofoot mills as being among the ‘most successful’ of that era. 

The Crofoot house indeed reflects the arduous work and successes of Jane and Bud Crofoot, brother John Crofoot, and other family members.  John Crofoot’s son, former Mendocino County Supervisor Tom Crofoot, lived there too.

 The Crofoot house sits on a knoll overlooking Lake Mendocino Drive. It was constructed before the east fork of the Russian River was dammed to create Lake Mendocino. 

The all-redwood interior of the Crofoot home [Photograph was taken by Santa Rosa photographer Ned Bonzi.]

The all-redwood house evokes a by-gone era. 

When the Crofoot house was built it was especially large for the era, a 2,400-square-foot custom-built home with swimming pool and Sunset magazine-style barbecue area. The place features a wood-paneled guest room attached to a separate double-car garage with a back wall of large storage cabinets. Bud Crofoot put in an extra larger shower to accommodate a burly SF 49er who came to visit. The Crofoot’s were season ticket holders from the team’s early days at Kezar Stadium.

Jane Crofoot was a keen businesswoman and an artistic individual who ran a family sawmill while her husband was away in the military during World War II. She designed the Craftsman-style house. Her touches were everywhere, from a painted cowboy mural on a son’s bedroom wall, to forest scenes on interior walls in the living areas. She painted a life-size mermaid on the pool’s bottom before it was filled. The mermaid was a visual landmark for local pilots winging into Ukiah’s airport.

“My parents loved to share the house with family and friends, and they entertained regularly,” recalled son Dan Crofoot. 

The elder Crofoots were close friends with other aristocrats of the North Coast timber industry including Vivian and Frank Crawford and Jane and Bob Harrah. Jane Crofoot, Vivian Crawford, and Jane Harrah were pilots in their day, and owned their own airplanes. They regularly flew their husbands to family timber operations spread across Northern California and the West Coast.

The Crofoot’s also included among their close friends the late corporate timber executive Harry Merlo. He sometimes was a business partner of the Crofoot’s, who in turn were godparents to his only son, Sonoma County’s Harry Merlo Jr. 

Dan Crofoot recalled that in his childhood he called the senior Merlo ‘Uncle Harry.’ “I would sit on his lap while people partied, and Harry played his harmonica,” said Dan Crofoot.

The Crofoot house stands today as a testament to the boom times of Mendocino County’s once mighty timber industry. Into the 1980s the county was consistently ranked among the state’s top five lumber producers.

Big timber was the county’s economic engine for decades. The timber economy loomed so large that Ukiah civic leaders erected big redwood signs at each end of town boasting ‘Home of Masonite.’ The landmark Masonite plant, shuttered and razed 50 years later, employed hundreds of workers who recycled lumber mill waste into wood products including interior doors and trim exported worldwide.

Dan Crofoot remembers Harry Merlo sitting at the dining room table with his father and sketching out plans to split off a lumber division of the giant Georgia-Pacific Corp. to form a new timber company – Louisiana Pacific Corp. He would be the new company’s president.

L-P under Merlo’s leadership became one of the largest timberland owners on the North Coast, and a major player in the soft pine wood markets in Louisiana and Texas. With a long history of boom-and-bust cycles, the nation’s timber industry fortunes can turn dramatically. In California, corporate logging practices came under intense scrutiny as the latest slide began. Eventually, L-P lands were acquired by the Fisher family of San Francisco, who created Mendocino Redwoods Company as a long-term investment arm. The Fishers also bought a swath of Humboldt County timberlands once owned by venerable Pacific Lumber Co. Those lands are now managed as Humboldt Redwoods Inc. Together, the holdings represent one of the largest tracts of commercial redwood forests anywhere. 

Mike Geniella and Dan Crofoot [Photograph taken by Dan’s daughter, Jessica Crofoot]

Changes were sweeping through the North Coast redwood region when my family moved into the Crofoot house in the mid-1980s. About the same time Charles Huwritz, a Texas financier shocked the industry when he seized control of venerable Pacific Lumber Co. at Scotia in a hostile takeover. Hurwitz and other timber companies sharply accelerated the pace of logging, ushering in a contentious era of regulatory battles and environmental protests. 

When Terese and I moved into the Crofoot house, legislators, timberland owners, and environmental leaders mingled with our family and friends. What the future held for the industry was a regular topic of debate, and as the lead writer on the subject for The Press Democrat newspaper the contacts helped keep me informed.

I recall a time when fiery Earth First! activist Judi Bari came to the Crofoot house to drop off some logging-related documents. She stepped inside, and after taking in the Crofoot house’s lodge-like interior, quipped, “You and I are going to have to seriously talk redwoods.”

Author Susan Faludi stayed with us while she researched a possible book on Bari, and the controversies that engulfed the region over timber practices.

Former state Senate Majority Leader Barry Keene sat at the dining room table one time and mused over pending legislation to rein in the effects of logging on the environment. Keene glanced around, smiled, and noted that “the era when old trees were so plentiful that this kind of house could be built is over.”

By the time the latest homeowners Catherine and John Hatch bought the Crofoot house, the big timber era had faded. 

The Hatch family as time passed made substantive improvements to the aging home before putting it on the market two weeks ago. Already, there is a potential buyer who is in contract negotiations, according to agent Marcia Morgan Lazaro of the Coldwell Banker office in Ukiah.

“The quality of a home like this withstands the test of time,” said Lazaro.

Dan Crofoot, his daughter Jessica, and I chose to visit the house together one last time before its likely sale.

The walls could not talk but we did. We shared our deep and lasting admiration of a house that ‘Bud and Jane built.’ 

The Crofoot house’s sunken living room is a standout, for example. Tall ceilings allow for towering Christmas trees. A north wall is anchored a big brick fireplace built by Crofoot mill worker and skilled mason ‘Okie John.’

 “Everyone in town wanted him to build their fireplaces,” said Dan Crofoot.

The living room is paneled on three sides with tightly grained, tongue-and-grove redwood. Old-growth redwood beams crisscross an unusual ceiling featuring large rectangles of wood resembling the interior of slabs of redwood bark.

 The house is divided by a wide north-south hallway which allows refreshing breezes to sweep through the house on summer evenings. Columns of stately redwood anchor one end of the living room, which features two large plate glass windows allowing abundant light to illuminate the lodge-like interior.

A family room, which Dan Crofoots recalls the ‘rumpus room,’ features random boards of prized curly and birds eye redwood. 

Outside, a paved drive encircles the house. A gravel road leads from Lake Mendocino Drive, past painted white corral fences surrounding two separate parcels that have always been owned in tandem with the house.

During the Hatch ownership, a country day school play area was carved out of a small apple orchard. There are chicken pens, a small animal barn, and other enclosures.

The Crofoot house is an oasis in a rural residential neighborhood undergoing change. The little Lucky Angler market, once a neighborhood fixture on a prime corner on the way to Lake Mendocino, has become a cannabis dispensary. 

Times change but the Crofoot house remains a lasting tribute to the people and a resource that once shaped the Redwood Region.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Hi. My name is Tim . My grandmother used to take care of the crowfoot home .I have some pretty cool memories there swimming and playing yard ball on the front lawn. My Grandma’s name was Merry Burton.

  2. I growed up white trailer trash in a 1950’s Nashua 35×8 foot rolling box of kindling. I love to see fond memories of rich folks. Never lived in one place over 3 years. Bay Area to Elko Nev I went to 25 schools

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