Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The Elder Magnolias of Ukiah’s Courthouse—A Living Link to the Town’s Beginnings 

Crews working to decrease the weight bearing down on the magnolia that has a significant crack in its trunk [Picture from Peter Armstrong]

In the heart of Ukiah’s downtown stands the Mendocino County Superior Courthouse at the intersection of State Street and West Perkins Street. The courthouse’s broad concrete entrance faces east towards the Mayacama Mountains. A passerby could easily miss the entrance due to two large trees, tall and broad, that dominate the face of the building. The limbs reach wide and the leaves are dense creating a grove of shade at the threshold of the local criminal justice system.

Yesterday, Saturday, December 17, the County of Mendocino dispatched a tree-trimming crew with the expressed purpose to address structural weakness in one of those trees. Crews worked to decrease the crown’s weight after a crack was found in its trunk along with veins of deadwood. A press release from the County of Mendocino announcing these efforts elicited passionate community feedback on social media imploring officials to do whatever could be done to save the tree.

The community concerns suggested these trees were treasured and they had a story.

Our research found that these two magnolias are in fact living artifacts of Ukiah’s early days planted in the late 1800s. Since then, the trees have become defining local landmarks of Mendocino County’s seat. The tree’s blooming blossoms marked the beginning of spring for generations of Ukiahans. Savage winter storms wrought havoc breaking their branches and reminding residents of nature’s power. As the world sped up in the later half of the 20th century, the trees would prove a fertile space for free speech and expression.  These trees became an enduring symbol of Ukiah’s frontier days that children of today can still experience

With a crack in the trunk and measurable deadwood metastasizing, the future of the magnolias is uncertain. County officials are working with arborists and university personnel to keep history alive.

The Southern Magnolia is native to the American South. Some grow as tall as 120 feet. Its wood is commercially harvested and used to construct a variety of goods including furniture, boxes, doors, and more. In its native habitat, the Southern Magnolia usually takes root alongside the water. In drier soils, the trees grow tall and broad.

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Throughout the United States, the tree has become a mainstay of university landscapes often trained to grow large while keeping its lower branches trimmed. The tree is a traveler growing successfully on the West, East, and Gulf Coasts, down into Mexico, Central American, and South America. The Southern Magnolia has also been found growing in parts of Asia. In lore and storytelling, the tree is associated with luck and stability.

Maybe it’s fitting that a frontier settlement like early Ukiah found an affinity toward the magnolia. In a town carved from the California wilds populated by laborers, misfits, and outlaws, most could relate to the magnolia being far from home, forced to adapt to an unknown world, and remaining sturdy while doing it.

The Victorian-inspired Mendocino County Courthouse that was completed in 1873. The magnolias were planted soon after this was constructed and are clearly visible in this rendition of the scene. [Picture from the USC Historical Photo Database]

Mendocino County was officially incorporated on February 18, 1850, as one of California’s original counties when granted statehood. For the first nine years of existence, there was no formalized government due to minimal American settlement. By 1860, enough American settlers had arrived to necessitate the construction of the first county courthouse. This first-generation courthouse would not survive the decade after it was destroyed in a fire.

The Press Democrat described the county’s second courthouse built in 1873 as an “imposing building for its period” with characteristics reminiscent of Victorian architecture. 

A hodgepodge of trees was planted around the building. Palms and magnolias are clearly visible in photographs and artistic renditions of the courthouse. We could not find a specific record of the magnolias being planted but other references to them suggest the trees were planted soon after the new courthouse was constructed.

The earliest reference we could find to the magnolias came from the June 11, 1987 edition of the Ukiah Daily Journal. An article described that the trees were “in full bloom, and with their glossy, green leaves and large white blossoms, present[ing] a most beautiful appearance.”

Just seven days later, the June 18, 1897 edition of the Mendocino Dispatch Democrat made reference to the magnolia when describing a Friday night performance of the Ukiah Concert band. Downtown was “thronged with people” and a full moon suffused through the fronds and branches of palm and magnolia. The evening was such a hit that the writer said “if, for any reason, they do not continue…there will be gloom in the hearts of Ukiah’s people.”

In 1892, a writer for the Republican Press in the June 10 edition described in “Local Notes” that the “magnolia trees about town are about to bloom.”

Ten years later, an article in the Ukiah Republican Press entitled “Heaviest Snow Storm in Years” was published on January 18, 1907. In the aftermath of a winter storm, the county seat was inundated with snow resulting in broken branches that littered the town. The writer noted the town’s magnolias were “especial sufferers and most of them bear evidence in the shape of broken limbs.” 

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In late January 1916, snow struck the Ukiah Valley floor once again. The January 28th edition of the Ukiah Republican Press included a piece entitled “Storm Damages Tree in Courthouse Plaza”. A series of storms broke multiple branches from the “magnolia trees on the east side of the Court House Plaza”

On December 11, 1925, the magnolia trees were chosen as the town’s Christmas trees and citizens decorated them for the holiday.

These magnolia trees, far from their native lands, were becoming part of Ukiah’s ethos. The blossoms of the approaching summer; the broken branches of a winter storm. The magnolias had proven to be what some would say is the best kind of neighbor: silent, sturdy, and reliably there.

The front lawn of the Ukiah Courthouse in the year before its 1950s remodel [Photograph from the California State Library]

Ukiah’s bond with the magnolias was put to the test in 1949 when plans were drawn up for a new courthouse. The facility from 1873 was in decline and it was time for an upgrade.

On June 1, 1949, the Ukiah Republican Press published an article simply called “Timber!” The author painted a vivid picture of the day one of the elder magnolias was cut down. 

The writer described how “crowds of onlookers lined the sidewalks opposite the square” and some “gazed at the white saucer blossoms about to fall and regretted the change” happening before them. Others in the crowd spoke of the change signifying the town’s progress, but the writer noted “even they… spoke gently.” 

As the county considered the future of its courthouse, a local attorney by the name of Charles Kasch argued to the Board of Supervisors that the magnolias be removed. An article in the Ukiah Daily Journal from October 18, 1950, described Kasch arguing that the trees blocked the new building and were in “bad shape” and “need a great deal of care.”

Supervisor George Decker was adamant: the trees would remain saying, “When I get my old age pension, I want to come back to Ukiah and sit under those trees.” Decker’s colleagues agreed and dismissed Kasch’s request.

At a cost of $777,512.14, the new courthouse was designed by architect C.A. Caulkins who aimed for a “modernistic” and “streamlined” building. 

The current public-facing facade of the Mendocino County Courthouse was designed by architect C.A. Caulkins and completed in 1951 [Photograph from Flickr user J. Stephen Conn]

Caulkins would employ forced concrete and brutalist minimalism to evoke modernity but demonstrated his commitment to Ukiah’s past by choosing to build the courthouse on the site of the one being replaced. Though many of the trees that encircled the former courthouse were cut down, Caulkins kept the magnolias in their central location at the heart of the town they had watched grow for nearly one hundred years.

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On April 7, 1951, the modern courthouse opened its doors to the public who walked underneath the thick-leaved canopies as they ascended the courthouse steps. A new decade, a new courthouse, but the magnolias remained.

The lawn underneath the magnolias that has hosted countless gatherings [Photograph from Flickr user J. Stephen Conn]

Just weeks after the new courthouse opened, the magnolias faced a foe that could end them for good.

In late April, observers noticed a pest called cottony cushion scale overruling the beloved trees. Infestations of cottony cushion scale would cover every single leaf and the insects would proceed to soak up the tree’s sap and moisture. After these pests were done, the tree would be left with dead leaves, brittle and black.

On June 14, 1951, Rosemary Lehmer wrote an article for the Ukiah News that described the war waged on these pests by Ukiahans to keep their magnolias alive.

Norman Buhn, Mendocino County’s agricultural commissioner, was not going to let cottony cushion scale win without a fight. He reached out to his connections in Riverside County’s ag department for a secret weapon: the vedalia beetle.

In 1886, California’s fruit industry was crumbling in the face of a cottony cushion scale invasion. The pest was immune to every pesticide, insecticide, poison, and deterrent. Agriculturalists took a chance on a beetle from Australia and found their silver bullet. The beetles would be released in blighted areas, they would multiply quickly, and they would eat the entire infestation.

In early May, Buhn received a shipment of the beetles from Riverside County and released them to fight the good fight. The cottony cushion scale was beaten back, the beetles found themselves well-fed, and the magnolias once again avoided death. Sadly, a win for the magnolias meant death for the beetle because the only food they eat is the pest they eradicate. The day the beetles accomplish their mission is the day they begin starving to death and soon after they’ll meet their maker.

At the end of the cottony cushion scale saga, the beetles were dead, Buhn was a hero, and the steadfast magnolias remained.

Local residents voice their concern to the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade [Picture by Peter Armstrong]

The Ukiah Daily Journal published a column on September 27, 1951 dedicated to observations of the town from the perspective of an outsider. Edith Murphey described what she saw when passing by the magnolias: “Old-timers, too, are there sitting sociably as they have always done in the shade of the big magnolia and that other flowering tree whose evening fragrance adds to the pleasure of passers-by.”

The magnolia had survived storms, infestation, the construction of a new courthouse, and that one crazy guy who wanted to get rid of them. At this point, the pair of trees were here to stay and be a steadfast observer of Ukiah growing into the 21st century. 

From 1950 to the present day, the ground underneath the magnolia canopies would host hundreds of protests, demonstrations, and gatherings of citizens decrying and denouncing and, even, sometimes celebrating and supporting. In the shadows of the magnolias, local people contended with some of the defining issues of American life in the late 20th century.

In 1969, 300 Ukiah High students marched on the courthouse to express their disapproval that voters had denied a tax that would have benefited local education. The students proclaimed they deserve something better than a “third-rate education”. A student who spoke with the Ukiah Daily Journal had this to say about his hometown: “We hope that none of Ukiah’s 1969 graduates or future graduates will ever return to this den of narrow-mindedness.”

In 1972, a group of Vietnam war protestors from Redwood Valley gathered on the courthouse steps, with the magnolias tall overhead. they poured gasoline on to a pile of six baby dolls and set them on fire. A sign they displayed read, “The burned dolls symbolize the babies and children that die every day from bombs in Vietnam. They didn’t ask to be born or to die from bombing.”

On October 23, 1978, then-Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. spoke to a crowd of approximately 500 supporters from the steps of the Mendocino County Courthouse. Standing in the shadow of the century-old magnolias, Brown told the crowd that Mendocino County could count on him to represent “the air, the water, the land, and the future.”

Protestors gathered in 2022 underneath the shade of the magnolia trees to express their disapproval of the crimal justice system’s approach to distgraced Ukiah Police Sergeant Kevin Murray [Picture by Peter Armstrong]

In 1991, the United States found itself embroiled in the Persian Gulf war. As men and women of the American armed forces fought the fight, a small group of Ukiah residents met at the elder magnolias to honor the soldiers in mid-Februray. They tied a yellow ribbon around the trunks as a symbol of their solidarity. A spokeswoman told the Ukiah Daily Journal that anyone could join them at the base of the trees. 

On February 5, 1999, approximately 20 people gathered at the courthouse under the magnolias protesting the treatment of 34-year-old man Godrey Luke John, a member of the Hopland Rancheria. The protestors claimed Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office deputies “roughed up” John. Glenda Anderson’s article in the Ukiah Daily Journal quoted MCSO Captain Kevin Broin who said the man had resisted arrest and run from deputies. John’s mother told the reporter, “He came out with his hands up.”

In the last three years, the magnolias watched as residents gathered to consider police brutality, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Hundreds gathered to express outrage over the death of George Floyd, a black man from Minnesota who was killed by a police officer. Other locals came together to express concerns the COVID-19 lockdowns were acts of government overreach. Just this year, the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade was followed by hundreds gathering to express the right to body autonomy.

The courthouse steps and the magnolias have become the Ukiah community’s space to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and talk truth to power.

Crews working on branches high in the magnolia’s canopy [Picture by Peter Armstrong]

Yesterday, a crew worked to slow the deterioration of one of Ukiah’s elder magnolias. A fact sheet about the damaged tree and its health which was released by the County of Mendocino estimates the magnolia to stand between 50′-75′. 

The tree has a significant crack between two unions and some deadwood in the trunk. The crown was assessed as healthy. Their goal now is to reduce the overall weight bearing down on the cracked trunk. 

Recommendations include reducing 15% of weight from horizontal and some vertical limbs. Also, cables will be anchored to the tree in two locations for extra support. From here on out, the tree will be inspected monthly and if there is any sign the crack is growing, removal will be seriously considered.

This tree could very well be 120 years old which is the upper range of a magnolia’s average life span. The oldest magnolia was located in Italy and lived for 320 years. But, our magnolia is faltering. The cracking and the deadwood suggest one of Ukiah’s oldest residents might be coming to the end of the line.

A Ukiah resident in the early 1950s watched the Mendocino County Courthouse be demolished, a new courthouse rise in its place, and all the while the magnolias stood sturdy as the world continued to change. When looking towards a time after the magnolias have gone, consider how that resident described the trees:

“Ancient sentinels of a passing era. Their roots are entwined about the hearts of many who linger here and in the memories of the days of their youth consider them as friends of that happy time.”
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  1. I dont anyone who has happy memories of the injustice center… I mean the court house
    cops who rape and steal, have illegal firearms, lie cheat and steal. then walk free

    doesnt sound like the writer of this article ever got caught up in the good old boy injustice system of mendocino county.

    I know people who have have gone to prison for cultivation of cannabis, and DUI drivers who have killed innocent children who walk.

    happy memories of root entwined on the hearts , gag barf

    • I’ve had run-ins with law enforcement and stood in a front of a criminal court judge. I’ve written and published many articles addressing issues within Mendocino County’s law enforcement and criminal justice system.

      That being said, the story of those trees gives insight into the history of Mendocino County. If you are unwilling to separate your issues with cops and courts to see the historical value of these local landmarks, that’s your loss.

  2. You completely missed the Bear Lincoln case and trial. The front of the courthouse was full of Native people and their supporters for months, including AIM drummers, speeches and rallies. 1995-7.

    • That is definitely a notable piece of local history that the magnolias watched over. There was no way I could list all the important events, so I highlighted some that I thought were interesting and less well-known.

  3. Just in time to tear them down and more easily put in a Central Park- moving the courthouse as planned. I think it’s no secret that there have been major plans to reconstruct the roadways, walkways, restore the Palace Hotel to something finally useable (which I am excited about), and to build an atmosphere that mimics that of town Healdsburg or other money making magnets.

    I love these trees. My family enjoyed lunches under them. My cousins and I played under them while our parents worked on tax season for their local businesses: a time we’d all be together outside Christmas season. We adopted one of our children here at the courthouse and these trees cast a beautiful shade on our priceless memories and photos of our new beginning as a legal family.

    Unfortunately, change is always inevitable. Nothing lives forever. The world is in a constant state of decay and change since the beginning of time. This is a sober reminder that some of us just don’t want to let go of the world we know, myself included.

    • Interesting photos. The old courthouse was courtly, while the current remodel is dated and looks much like a cardboard box. That said, the idea of building a fancy new courthouse down by the railroad tracks is foolishly expensive for our county at this time, and will also move the public away from the “downtown”, which struggles as it is. The new site is blocks away from local restaurants and stores, leaving McDonald’s, Subway and Chipotle, all definitely corporate entities, to serve those who will gather at the courthouse. And the stores are Ross, Kohl’s, and J.C. Penney, hardly stores that reflect (or profit) our individual area. I just don’t get why our city/county planners came up with this idea. Maybe the public deserves a better review of the history of this plan,and the costs ($$$$, I expect) as this is for everyone, and is paid for by our property taxes. It seems the public opinion has been left out of the equation.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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