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Tradition Survives at Remote Outpost : Dynasty: The Richardson family has owned and operated the general store in a Sonoma County hamlet since it was built in 1868.

July 04, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STEWARTS POINT, Calif. — Point Arena High School bus driver Bill Benedict pulled up beside the 122-year-old general store as he does every afternoon during the school year.

The students, who are dropped off at their rural homes along the 70-mile, 1 1/2-hour route, piled out to stretch, to buy a soft drink, something to nibble on. A few picked up groceries for Mom.

Benedict's school bus is but one of the traditions at this turn-back-the-clock hamlet perched on a bluff overlooking the rugged Sonoma County coast 110 miles northwest of San Francisco.

The weather-beaten old store, Stewarts Point General Merchandise, is another. It has been owned and operated by the same family since it was built in 1868.

"You might call it an emporium," laughed Archer R. (Bus) Richardson, 71, who worked in the store from the time he was 6 until he retired at 67 four years ago.

It is jammed floor-to-ceiling with thousands of items. "If we don't have it, we will get it for you," allowed Richardson's son, Archer J., who now runs the store as did his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. He, too, has been working here since he was 6 years old.

The old redwood shelves are piled high with canned goods, clothing, sports equipment, lanterns, nuts and bolts, tools and other hardware, cast-iron cookware, fresh vegetables and fruit, you name it. The store's 1875 liquor license is nailed to one wall.

Hanging from the ceiling are rubber boots and other modern items for sale and a sampling of Richardson family heirlooms, like the 1888 Studebaker baby buggy, a 160-year-old wheelbarrow, and turn-of-the-century fish traps, horse collars and oxen yoke.

Top shelves are cluttered with dust-covered high-button shoes, home remedies, old wagon lanterns, buggy whips, candle molds and numerous other items of the past still in the store's inventory, but no longer for sale.

Hornet and yellow jacket nests, stuffed fish and colorful abalone shells hang from the ceiling.

The floors squeak with age. Shopping carts purchased in 1948 are still used by customers, many of whom have charge accounts and pay their bills monthly. Patrons of the old-fashioned general store are 500 ranchers and rural residents within a 30-mile radius, and people just passing through.

The first Richardson to own and operate the store was Herbert Archer Richardson, who arrived here from

Franconia, N.H., in 1876 with a new bride and 40 cents in his pocket.

He quickly became a timber baron, and as the years passed he bought 25,000 acres, including eight miles of shoreline. He ran cattle and sheep and employed more than 300 lumberjacks cutting and processing redwood shipped out of Stewarts Point on his nine sailing vessels.

Lumber was hauled on the nine-mile Richardson Railroad to where the old store is located. Logs were carried the last half-mile to Richardson Harbor on rail cars mounted on wooden tracks. Brakemen gingerly guided the cars down a steep slope on a gravity run to the edge of the cliff.

From the cliff, the logs were loaded onto a chute and carried to the decks of lumber ships tied up at the Richardson Wharf. Oxen pulled the empty cars back up the steep slope.

In 1926, when Highway 1 was finally pushed through to Stewarts Point, the lumber ships were replaced by trucks. Lumbering activity slowed considerably during the Great Depression.

Members of the Richardson clan still run sheep, cattle and a small timber operation on the 25,000 acres now owned by the descendants of the original timber baron.

Bus Richardson, his father and his grandfather were postmasters at Stewarts Point from 1876 to 1984, when Ray Berleyoung, 52, who worked in the store for 30 years, became the postmaster.

The room above the store was a dance hall until the late 1940s. Then the Richardsons called it quits, worried that the building might fall apart because it shook so much from the dancers.

Across from the old store are two lichen-covered, bare-wood abandoned hotels built in the 1880s. Bus Richardson's 70-year-old brother, Harold, who still works from sunup to sundown logging in the woods, has lived in one of the hotels all his life.

The Richardsons are a hard-working clan living simple lives in 19th-Century homes filled with 19th-Century furniture.

And to this day, the heart and soul of this community is still the 1868 Stewarts Point General Merchandise store.

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