a Victorian village of color and fun : Ferndale

<i> Times Travel Editor</i>

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.

It is sculptor Hobart Brown, though, who sees life as an ongoing party. In his Main Street gallery where he creates life-size figures from metal, Hobart Brown hatches ideas for wacky Halloween celebrations and puts out a “Calendar of Unexpected Events.”

Kinetic Sculpture Race

The classic is Ferndale’s annual World Champion Kinetic Sculpture Race, an event that involves a three-day weekend in May and finishes miles and days later after entrants traverse sand dunes and cross rivers in people-powered contraptions fashioned from cast-off metal.

It began 16 years ago when Brown (with his handlebar mustache, he resembles a Butch Cassidy outlaw) created society’s first kinetic vehicle from a child’s tricycle. Calling it a pentacycle, Brown raced fellow metal sculptor Jack Mays down Main Street. Mays’ homemade tank broke down before reaching the finish line, and Brown’s pentacycle collapsed like a wilted pumpkin.

None of this, however, deflated Brown’s spirit. It was a challenge. The following year the race was on again. Only this time dozens showed up driving every imaginable oddball vehicle they’d created from discarded junk: the Trashcan Express, the Rickety Chikadee, the Inchworm, the Blue Weenie, ad infinitum.

In the ensuing years, drivers arrived from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona. What began as a one-day event stretched into three. (The winner one year was a metal turtle that laid eggs!)

Among the rules set down by Hobart Brown: “Cheating is a privilege, not a right.” And in the event of rain the race will be run anyway, come hell or high water, and there’s plenty of that because racers cross rivers and sometimes venture even into the ocean itself.

Homemade Bus

A recent Hobart Brown entry was a 2,000-pound homemade bus. Dressed in a tuxedo, Brown led a dozen others who helped propel the metal monster. Did they win? Well, no, but they had a marvelous time.

Still another metal sculptor, Stan Bennett, creates kinetic devices featuring steel balls zipping over a metal track that would hypnotize a gorilla.

It goes without saying that Ferndale is fun.

In August, handmade quilts are displayed during Ferndale’s fair. This is when residents take part in sheep-to-shawl spinning and weaving contests and display homemade jams, jellies and pickles. Sack races and spelling bees are featured, and ranchers arrive from as far away as Oregon to display their cattle.

It is the town itself, though, that draws the curious. New England-style church steeples rise above Ferndale’s peaceful streets. Rings Pharmacy has been doing business in the same location on Main Street since 1895. Down the block an artist displays paintings inside a one-time Victorian mortuary, and across the street the Palace Bar has been pouring spirits since before the turn of the century.

Noontime crowds gather at the Ferndale Meat Co. where Gary and Sandra Edgman serve huge slabs of ham, pastrami, beef and turkey between great hunks of Dutch crunch and onion cheese bread.

A Different Age

Ferndale remains out of touch with 20th-Century frustrations. It has no parking meters or traffic lights. Neither is there mail delivery. Letters are picked up at the post office where residents gather to exchange pleasantries and bits of gossip.

In addition, Ferndale is the only city in America with a wilderness park within its boundaries. Cars aren’t permitted in the grounds. Only horses and hikers.

In the ‘60s, hippies tried to infiltrate Ferndale. But it was too staid for that crowd, too true-blue American. A couple remained behind, but for the most part they moved on. And in their place came painters, potters and sculptors until today Ferndale threatens to become an art colony, although dairy farms and agriculture remain its mainstay.

With the arrival of a repertory company in 1972, new crowds began appearing. Now productions are offered year-round.

During June the Scandinavian colony puts on a festival featuring folk dancing and an aebleskiver feast, and there are craft displays and a parade led by the Portuguese colony.

Treats for Tourists

Visitors buy hand-dipped chocolates in a shop with the fetching name Sweetness & Light, and they pick up bits of historical wisdom at Ferndale’s newly opened museum. After this they go off bird watching, bicycling, fishing and visiting the nearby redwoods.

Ferndale’s primary attractions, though, are its Victorian homes with their carpenter gothic, so-called because of the jigsawed patterns created by their builders.

Two of Ferndale’s finest Victorians provide shelter for visitors, Shaw House and the magnificent Gingerbread Mansion.

As Ferndale’s oldest home, Shaw House has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places (it was designed in the fashion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables); it has 18 rooms. Presently it is operated as a B&B; by ex-San Diego antique dealer Velna Polizzi. Sherry is served in the library, and classical melodies soothe the spirit throughout this house that features a marble fireplace with a gold-leaf mirror, paneled ceilings, twin porches and bay windows that frame trees and gardens.

Newlywed Suite

For honeymooners, Velna Polizzi reserves a suite with a magnificent bed in which newlyweds have slept since before the turn of the century.

The Gingerbread Mansion (circa 1898) draws other raves. Set beside an English-style garden, it is renowned as Northern California’s most photographed Victorian, a warm peach-and-yellow three-story old frame that’s elaborately trimmed with gingerbread and tastefully furnished and decorated with antiques, country wallpaper, lace curtains and the most comfortable beds I’ve slept in in America.

Its youthful proprietors, Wendy and Ken Torbert, greet guests like old friends and afterward lead them on a tour of this turreted, gabled old prize whose huge (200-square-foot) second-floor bath is framed by mirrors. One on the ceiling looks down on a claw-footed tub resting on a pedestal surrounded by hanging plants that blend with floral wallpaper matching a stained-glass window. For those who disdain a tub bath, a shower is tucked unobtrusively off in one corner of the room.

At the Gingerbread Mansion, robes are provided, beds are turned down, and fresh, hand-dipped chocolates await guests on a night stand.

Muffins and Cakes

For early risers, coffee and tea are found outside the door, and at breakfast Wendy Torbert provides homemade muffins and cakes along with juice, fruit, cheese and jams. And in the afternoon she puts on a tea-and-cake spread.

For actives, a fleet of yellow-and-peach-colored bicycles is lined up outside the Gingerbread Mansion. And in case of rain the Torberts provide umbrellas along with knee-high boots.

Take note, Mr. Sheraton and Mr. Hilton.

For reservations in Ferndale:

The Gingerbread Mansion, 400 Berding St., Ferndale, Calif. 95536. Telephone (707) 786-4000. Rates $45 to $65 per room until May 13, when four more suites will be ready and rates will be $55 to $85 per room.

Shaw House, 703 Main St., Ferndale , Calif. 95536. Telephone (707) 786-9958. Rates $55 to $65 double.

The Ferndale Inn, 619 Main St., Ferndale, Calif. 95536. Telephone (707) 786-4307. Rate $45 double.