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a Victorian village of color and fun : Ferndale

April 14, 1985|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

FERNDALE, Calif. — It is one of those towns that come alive in novels like "East of Eden," and it is running over with characters like Hobart Brown and Joe Koches, a couple of adventurers who discovered that life in a place like Ferndale can be positively a joy.

Yes, and a trifle ludicrous on occasion, too.

Ferndale, California's best-preserved Victorian village, lies in a verdant valley 260 miles north of San Francisco. Not far off California 101, but far enough so that it remains aloof to the mess civilization has made of this world.

Words on a promotion brochure tell the story: "You just might like it better than any place you ever lived." Not that Ferndale is looking for new residents. Tourists, perhaps. But only so long as they leave town after they've spent their money and strolled Ferndale's flower-lined streets, peering in at lovely gardens behind white picket fences surrounding Ferndale's gingerbread mansions. ("Butterfat palaces" is what dairymen called them.)

Ferndale is especially attractive in springtime when gardens are in full bloom with fuchsias, wild azaleas, marigolds, snapdragons, rhododendrons and tulips. The burst of color is surrounded by ornamental-shaped shrubs, birches and poplars.

These are homes that are lived in and cared for. Seldom does anyone bother to lock a door. Imagine. Beyond the village weathered white barns and farmhouses are surrounded by miles of pasture.

Frequently the fog rolls in, draping itself over the eaves and turrets of these fine old homes and obscuring Wildcat Ridge at the other end of town. That's when owners fire up their potbellied stoves and fireplaces, pour themselves another glass of sherry and settle back with a novel from Carlos Benemann's bookstore.

Carlos won the store in a poker game next door at Becker's, which locals refer to as "the investment club." This is because of the games that go on in the back of the scruffy restaurant/bar. At Becker's they serve polenta, which is a mush made from cornmeal that's soaked in a marvelous stew.

The room is thick with pipe smoke, and there's a Formica-topped table that's strewn with dozens of magazines, because the old-timers who gather at Becker's to play cards read as well.

Carlos explained that he obtained his bookstore at Becker's "because of some outstanding debts that needed to be settled after a game." Carlos deals in out-of-print books, some of which are extremely rare. One on display the other day was published in 1532. Carlos said he'd part with it for $21,000.

This should tell you something about Ferndale, which isn't an ordinary run-of-the-mill Northern California town. How many bookstores deal in those figures?

Ferndale, which is set in Humboldt County, was founded in 1852. Because of the dairies that flourished here--some still do--it was known as California's Cream City. These were dairies operated by Swiss, Danish, Irish, Italian, German and Portuguese immigrants, and generations later their descendants still tend herds of Jerseys, Guernseys and Herefords. No one wants to sell. No one wants subdivisions in place of open space and dairy cows.

Nevertheless, Ferndale was threatened in the '40s with talk of razing the old buildings along Main Street. This is when feisty Viola McBride teamed up with the town's newspaper publisher to oppose the move. Whenever a building faced demolition, McBride, a second-generation resident, bought it on the spot.

The upshot of all this is that today she's the town's leading landlord, even though she chooses to live outside the village without electricity, spending her days painting and knitting sweaters with wool from sheep grazing at her door.

Meanwhile, the publisher of the Enterprise persuaded locals to paint up Main Street.

Color consultants arrived, and in a single, brush-swinging, beer-swilling weekend, Ferndale's residents turned magnificent Victorians into dazzling showcases. The fever spread as residents splashed every color imaginable on other Victorians facing Ferndale's side streets.

With the burst of color, Ferndale's fame grew. Soon tourists discovered Ferndale, and after this the town was designated a historic landmark.

Now there are fairs, festivals, antique shows and art displays.

Dave Clowes, who calls himself a "recycled hippie" does magical things with leather at Dave's Saddlery. Anything a rider needs for a horse or a businessman requires for an office. Chaps, bridles, saddles and briefcases.

In another old building, baked goods are sold in an ex-carriage house, and the livery stable serves as a garage.

A few doors away, blacksmith Joe Koches forges gate latches and fire pokers along with other items. Koches, a one-time orthopedic surgeon's assistant from Garden Grove, turned in his scalpels for a forge and anvil after growing weary of city life. Having slammed the door on the outside world, he's never looked back. Nor been happier.

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