Mendocino Insights: A Latter-Day History of Mendocino Village

Contributed by Don Tucker

The legacy of the hard-working, interesting, colorful earliest residents of Mendocino is that of a quaint and rustic small town in a wonderfully beautiful ocean side location. Unfortunately, after the redwood lumber mill closed, the town had no other economic reason to continue to exist and it began to deteriorate. A strange turn of events led to its survival and reincarnation as a national treasure.

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, the trend toward less rigid lifestyles and a less traditional sense of “responsibility”-variously, and sometimes loosely, called the “Beat Generation,” the “Hippie Generation,” the “Back-to-the-Landers,” or “Refugees from the fast lane”-had a significant impact on Mendocino. Many people were beginning to believe that life held more promise than just joining the upwardly mobile lifestyle that post-war society afforded. This movement included many talented, dedicated professionals, artists, and business people who simply wanted to enjoy a lifestyle that was not rigidly proscribed by society and who wanted to do it in a naturally beautiful place. Mendocino was found to suit their needs very well. The small town was economically depressed, property values were very low, and the rural nature of the area provided a true “back to nature” opportunity.

A few of the new arrivals were “drop-outs” who were into drugs, who were dishonest, and who created a great deal of negative reaction on the part of the established residents. Unfortunately, the highly visible few created an image of irresponsibility that did not apply to the majority. For the most part, the new residents were talented, hard working people who wanted to find a way of living with a greater sense of personal responsibility, with less demand on the environment, and with more contact with the more internal or spiritual aspects of life. They rented old buildings or bought land and built minimal dwellings. They accumulated only basic and necessary personal belongings. For milk, eggs, and meat they raised goats and chickens, and explored the concept of less is better. Their love of simplicity, interesting dress, and rejection of many traditional values resulted in creating a somewhat exotic atmosphere. They added “character” to the area, often not appreciated by many of the older residents. But, and very importantly, they gave the community the broad-based benefits of their talents.

It is interesting to note that today the 1960’s back-to-the-landers are among the area’s most involved and respected residents. As their children needed braces, as the faithful old rusted out car gave up and as age began to make physical comfort a little more attractive, they gradually moderated their simple life to include more in the way of upward economic mobility. They intermixed with the highly talented newer residents seamlessly.

There are still three types of residents: the “old-timers” who lived here before the mid-50s, the “newer old-timers” who came up as part of the renaissance period between the mid-50s and the 70s, and everyone else.

The “everyone else” group is, for a major part, the financially well off, still economically active business people who increasingly can conduct business by computer, and the relatively economically well off retirees.

These groups still interact in a marvelous way to create the total ambiance that characterizes the village of Mendocino-but each also has its little sub-culture that is gradually changing as time goes by.

The “old-timers are slowly becoming a smaller and smaller minority as they grow older and die. They still nourish a nostalgic attachment to the past. The “newer old timers”, primarily artists and crafts people, are also becoming a smaller part of the mix due to aging and changes in lifestyle. The “everyone else” group is on the increase as the physical beauty of the area, lack of congestion and more laid-back life style attract them.

Mendocino businesses have also changed. While in the 1960s and 1970s, there were small shops displaying the work of local artisans and that were largely “unimproved.” They have gradually become more oriented to selling high quality merchandise, some — but less of it — still of local origin, for the ever growing tourist trade. It is important to the residents that the renovation or rehabilitation of existing structures in town, as well as any new construction, enhance its history and culture. Building applications are judged for style, scale, harmony, appropriateness, and compatibility with the character of the area by an active and effective Historical Review Board. The intent is to ensure that a sense of the past is continued — not to try to return to the past or to create an artificial atmosphere that merely mimics the past. The characteristics of the village are incomparable and efforts to preserve them continue.

Today, 2007, Mendocino has continued to be a very special place. Old buildings have been restored and modernized, but with special efforts to keep the historic flavor of the town. It is very true that it is not the “funky,” quiet little village it once was, but it still retains a distinct charm that is rarely found anywhere else in the world.

Interesting examples of this change without significantly altering the ambiance of the area are:

1. The complete rebuilding of two 1860s, badly deteriorating houses in downtown Mendocino. These two houses, known locally as the “Red and Green Houses” are sited on the largest relatively undeveloped properties in town. The houses were rotting, coming apart, were hazards and were magnets for drifters. They were a disgusting example of demolition by neglect. They have now been taken apart, rebuilt in the same outside style using as much of the original material as possible, and are now a very attractive part of the downtown business community. (They are immediately to the rear of the bank building at the intersection of the two main streets of Mendocino.) In addition, the remaining portion of that block has had two added residences built and a falling-down shed converted to a business site. This has added significantly to the town’s business base without marring in any way the historic ambiance of the town.

2. The recent purchase of the only grocery, meat, hardware store in Mendocino, one that has been in business under the same name since 1909-“Mendosa’s”-is another prime example. The owner of a large, modern, full-service food store in Fort Bragg -Harvest Market-bought it. After many visits with the Mendocino Historic Review Board and agreements on changes that would be acceptable, and listening to much input from the residents, it has been repaired, restored, and repainted to match historic photographs; yet, at the same time it has been brought up to today’s standards. Even the name change took the historic flavor into consideration. It is now “Harvest at Mendosa’s.”

3. Another example is the conversion of one of the old restaurants, the “Sea Gull and Cellar Bar” into a high-end gallery where the seating section once was and a pharmacy where the kitchen was.

These are merely examples of the kind of change that have been, and continue to be, taking place and these examples, and a goodly amount of other upgrading without historic or character change have taken place since the 1999 “Back Roads” was filmed.

For most people, living in Mendocino is a unique and fulfilling experience. However, life here is not for everyone. It is a small town. It does not have the “excitement” of the city, or even of many other small communities which are more accessible. Shopping is limited; there are no malls, no fast food. One has to drive many miles of twisting, turning roads to get “over the hill” to shop for some things. (One even has to drive more than 60 miles over these roads to report for jury duty that, in a county with a population of only about 80,000, comes frequently.)

Mendocino does have an availability of cultural activities that rival metropolitan areas in quality. Theatre, music, dance, and all of the arts are not just available, but are easily available, being close at hand. The Mendocino Music Festival, staffed with volunteers and music by professionals, is an annual two week event that brings the best of music of all genres to a tent on the headlands each summer.

The natural beauty of the area, the small town social culture, the “laid-back” quality of life augmented by the variety of cultural experiences, all enhance the experience of living here.
Most appealing to many of the residents are the personalities, experiences, life styles, and professional backgrounds of one’s friends and neighbors. Mendocino has a population with eclectic backgrounds and this diversity is rewarding to those who elect to participate in the life of the community-and, it is easy to participate.

At any gathering one might encounter an Oscar or Emmy winner, a waiter, a renowned physicist, a blacksmith, an advertising executive, a journalist, professional musicians, many MDs and PhDs, published writers, teachers and professors, nationally known artists-and, … the list goes on. These varied and interesting backgrounds are discovered as one builds a theatre set, sells hot dogs on the 4th of July, or works at the baseball field. One learns to withhold judgment of people based on external trappings such as current occupation, clothes, or vehicles.

Pretentiousness has no place here. This is not a community in which previous accomplishments are flaunted. Here, what you are as a person is what counts — not what you have done in the past.

While the first attraction to Mendocino is usually its uniqueness and natural beauty, it has great “staying power” because of its people.

As of now, 2007, Mendocino has continued to be a very special place. It still retains a distinct charm that is rarely found anywhere else in the world. One of the most important things to note is that Mendocino has changed very little over the years. The population has not increased much but has continued to drift toward the newer residents and these residents are economically somewhat better off than most of the old timers, artisans and artists who were the newcomers in the 1950s, 1960s, and in to the 1970s.

The businesses have continued to adjust to the wants, and to the purchasing power, of the visitors and the increasingly well off residents. The cost of everything has escalated as it has throughout the state and the country. This increase is particularly found in the cost of real property. There is a saying here that the cost of property depends on the color of the water as seen from a property. No water view, less than $500,000; blue water view add $500,000; white water view add $500,000 more. This is obviously an over-simplification, but-it has a basis in truth-property is very high priced and ocean front property is limited and is at a premium. Other than real property the only other higher than average costs are for meals eaten out. Restaurants are quite pricey.

When residents leave Mendocino for the inevitable occasional trip “over the hill” for major shopping, specialized medical care, or to visit friends, they are immediately overwhelmed by the congestion, the noise and the pace of life there.

Recently, Wilma and I spent a wonderful time on Kaua’i. When-on returning home-we drove up the California coast and beautiful Mendocino came into sight across the Big River Bay, we spontaneously said to each other “Why did we leave?” (as do most local travelers).
It is obvious from the above-we love living here.

Don Tucker
February 18, 2007

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