Sunday, October 16, 2016
Just Passing Through
Oh, the drama hidden within the boundaries of the places we sometimes are just passing through.
Every now and then, our family business sends us to places we've not visited before. Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a day in the city of Willits, California, while my husband conducted a seminar there.
Whenever I have such an opportunity, I like to glean a bit of the history of the region. Willits is such a small town—right now, the population has dipped below five thousand, a trend begun at the dawn of the new millennium—I hadn't thought there would be much to discover. Tucked away in the redwood forests of the northern reaches of our state, it is no surprise that this remote hideaway in the hills is not a population magnet. What could possibly have happened, throughout history, in a place so tiny?
Willits doesn't lack for natural beauty. We drove in—a task requiring more than three hours travel northward from the much more populous Bay area—under cover of night, to the drizzle and sputtering rain heralding the official rainy season that constitutes northern California's autumn. When we awoke the next morning, the hills were wrapped in a magical mist. Narrow, winding country roads beckoned—as well as the old-fashioned ambience of the downtown. I had to check out what makes this place what it is.
Perhaps it is years of genealogical research that shapes the way my mind takes in information. To know Willits better, my first instinct was to learn about its history.
I quickly discovered a not-so-sleepy town with its own checkered past.
There are some good parts. The area around Willits has been known for years as the later-years residence and final resting place of the legendary Seabiscuit—the thoroughbred race horse whose comeback story became a symbol of hope during America's Great Depression. The California Western Railroad's Mendocino County line—now a heritage railroad popularly dubbed the Skunk Train—still runs some excursions from Willits westward through that scenic redwood country.
But Willits, in that checkered past, is also one of the haunts for the notorious activities of Charles Earl Bowles—better recalled by his moniker, Black Bart. Among other activities in Mendocino County, Black Bart held up the June 14, 1882, stagecoach run from Little Lake to Ukiah. The coach was headed to the county seat of Mendocino from the township of Little Lake—the very place that soon became known as the city of Willits. On board the coach that day was Little Lake's postmaster, Hiram Willits.
If Hiram's name seems vaguely familiar, it is because the locale he served was soon to become his namesake city. Hiram Willits, arriving in northern California from Indiana before the 1860 census, obtained several large parcels of land in the area, some as early as 1862. In particular, one became the parcel upon which the original town's settlement was established.
Life in that original settlement in the 1860s was likely no different than any other rugged pioneer territory. Despite its remote situation, news of the day was just as passionately debated in this remote outpost as in the rest of the country—in the case of the new town, coming to a head on election day in 1867 with a shootout between members of a family advocating the cause of the South and a family supporting the North. Within barely fifteen seconds, three members of the pro-Union Coates family lay dead, including Abraham Francis Coates, who had just registered to vote the last January, likely upon turning twenty one years of age.
Such a sudden turn of events was not isolated to this incident. Only twelve years later, three young men suspected of theft and reckless behavior became victims of a triple lynching.
While everyday life has undoubtedly become much tamer in these modern times, Willits has remained the site of a different kind of struggle. In a real-life scene very much like the one played out in the movie Erin Brockovich, litigation alleged that a local company had inappropriately disposed of hexavalent chromium over the course of decades, causing health problems among local residents.
Even the re-routing of the local highway can't detour around that inevitable clash of widely divergent opinions. Highway 101, the route stretching from the north end of Los Angeles upward through the rest of California—and, ultimately, wending its way along the coasts of Oregon and Washington—happens to shrink down to a two-lane road, becoming Main Street through the center of downtown Willits. Construction to build a bypass elicited strong feelings on either side of the issue. It will kill the central business district—or stop propping up excess business establishments. It will get rid of that impossible nonstop stream of annoying traffic—or destroy the environment by sending unnecessary volumes of traffic into protected wetlands. It seems Willits doesn't lack for divergent opinions, no matter the era or the topic.
Though I have no roots in the area, it was nice to see the ever-familiar typical late 1880s local history genre had not bypassed a place as remote and tiny as Willits. Indeed, Mendocino County has at least two such volumes published, including the 1880 work by Lyman Palmer available at Ex Libris Rosetta, which I found, thanks to a mention on FamilySearch.org's wiki for Mendocino County and their book search utility.
Somehow, becoming familiar with research techniques for genealogical pursuits can be nicely cross-applied to discovering the local history of any place our family happens to visit, and it certainly adds an unexpected aspect to our travels, no matter how brief our stay.
Above: Excerpt from the title page of Lyman Palmer's History of Mendocino County, California, published in 1880 by Alley, Bowen & Company, San Francisco.