Dairy Farms and Detectives: A Micro-History of Hill House Inn, Hills Ranch, and Joshua Grindle Inn

This article is by Wilma Tucker, a local historian.

The Hill House Inn is located on property that, like all of the properties in Mendocino, has a long and interesting history. In 1853 or 1854 Joel Fisher Hills arrived in what is now called Mendocino. The exact date of his arrival, just where he came from, or why he came to this remote and rough lumbering mill village is not known. He was, indeed, one of the first non-lumbermen to settle here.

His first venture was to establish a store to serve the needs of the small but growing village that was composed almost entirely of men. The only residents living here at that time were a large number of mill workers, two or three families and an unknown number of ladies of doubtful character. Joel Hills’ arrival was only one or two years after the arrival by ship of men and lumber mill machinery to capitalize on the vast stands of redwood trees along the Big River valley. The store that Hills established was located on the river flats below where the Big River Bridge is now.

His business was apparently quite successful. It was successful enough to enable him to build a second, much larger, store on Main Street. As was the practice in those days he lived in the upper story of the building and used the lower story for his store. His success continued and he was able to purchase 320 acres of property north of Ukiah Street and east of Lansing Street from E. C. Williams, one of the original owners of the lumber company that had been started in 1852. Hill House Inn is located on a part of that property.

Hills started raising cattle on what became known as “the Hills Estate Ranch” and sold the meat in his stores. Little is known about Joel Hills and his life in Mendocino but he must have sent glowing descriptions of life in this still remote and rough and tumble lumber town to his family back east. He was obviously encouraging enough so that in 1859 his brother, Spencer Wolcott Hills, and his wife, Aseneth, and their daughter Alice, came to Mendocino from Union, Maine. Spencer Hill and Aseneth purchased a small cottage facing one of the main streets in Mendocino-Little Lake Street. We must assume that Spencer joined his brother in the operation of the two stores.

The two brothers apparently shared in both the success of the businesses and the ownership of the property. Little is known about this period of their lives.

In 1870, the Spencer Hills’ daughter, Alice, married Joshua Grindle (who was 14 years her senior). Spencer Hills gave them a piece of land just east of his house

The same wanderlust that brought Joel Hills to Mendocino must have still been there, for it was noted in the Mendocino Beacon that in 1877, Joel Fisher Hills sold his Mendocino holdings to his brother, Spencer, and moved to San Diego.

In 1879, Joshua Grindle and Alice decided that it was time to build a house of their own. They built a large and stately home next to Spencer and Aseneth Hills home. That house still stands and is the beautifully renovated and enlarged Joshua Grindle Inn. The Joshua Grindle Inn is several hundred yards to the southeast of the Hill House Inn.

It was noted in the Mendocino Beacon that in 1880 Spencer Hills enlarged his house by adding an east wing and a porch across the front. This enlarged and beautifully restored house still stands just 200 yards south of the Hill House Inn, down the slope and on Little Lake Street.

In 1882, Joshua Grindle and Alice’s happiness in their new home was tragically brought to a close. The birth of their son, Aliston, which should have been a happy event, was marred by Alice’s death in childbirth.

Spencer Hills owned and operated the property – the ranch – until his death on July 1, 1909. On August 14, 1909, the Mendocino Beacon ran a notice that the S.W. Hills estate was “appraised at from 16 to 18 thousand dollars.”

Only 55 days later, on August 24, 1909, Aseneth died. Long-time Mendocino resident, Robert Law, purchased the land and it became a dairy farm. Where joggers and walkers now take their exercise on Palette Drive, cows once grazed and awaited the milking stool. In the 1970s, when people began to buy parcels on the dairy farm property and to build houses, the old, beautiful, tight-grained fence posts and barbed-wire fencing were still in place.

The small green building that faces the Hill House Inn entrance was once the old horse stable.

In 1954, after Robert Law’s death, his daughter, Jean, sold most of the property and it was subdivided to become the residential neighborhood that adjoins the Hill House. The Reeds-long-time residents-purchased the land between the Spencer Hills house and the Joshua Grindle Inn properties and the residential subdivision and built the Hill House Inn in 1978.

The Hill House Inn gained national recognition when the weekly CBS television show, Murder She Wrote, was filmed here from 1984 to 1996. Mendocino became Jessica Fletcher’s (played by actress Angela Lansbury) town of Cabot Cove, Maine, for several weeks every year during that time. Although the filming period for Murder She Wrote was relatively short, the series developed a life of its own and reruns can still be seen.

The Hill House Inn is known also for the place where many Hollywood notables have stayed. One of the first stars to stay here was Bette Davis while she was filming Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in 1979. For nostalgia, check out The Bette Davis Suite. The photograph gallery in the lobby displays signed photos of many celebrities-including actors in Murder She Wrote.

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