On the Mendocino Coast, A Frolic on the Rocks
On the Mendocino Coast, a Frolic on the Rocks
Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
In 1850, Frolic, a sailing ship bound from China to San Francisco with cargo for the Gold Rush, ran on the rocks near Point Cabrillo on the Mendocino Coast. Frolic gave birth to Mendocino, but that’s only part of the story. The present-day village culture continues to embrace good frolicking. For a weekend getaway, my wife and I visited Mendocino Village and the nearby town of Little River. I discovered coastal history that is now invisible to the naked eye.
In a prior article entitled “Find Your Happy in Mendocino County” we reviewed vintners, fresh press olive oils, craft whiskey, goat cheeses, gourmet appetizers, coffee, and luxurious resorts in Mendocino.
The scenic views along Highway-1 on the Mendocino coast are awe-inspiring, with the ocean surf crashing on rocky coasts. Mendocino Village caps it off with elegant Victorian houses dotting the landscape on a high cliff.
When we travel, I always want to know what life and culture might have been like in the past. As a lifelong history buff who is too full of “wondering,” I wondered what started the seemingly elegant Victorian lifestyle in such a remote location. Docent John at the Visitor’s Center on Main Street in the Mendocino Village was happy to fill me in.
The Frolic: Before Frolic, the Mendocino coast’s only visitors were Pomo Native Americans who came each Summer to dry seafood for the winter. Docent John pointed me to exhibits that showed how dangerous the rocky shores, fog, and coastal mists were to ships. From 1850–1900, 123 ships were lost, including thirteen in Mendocino Bay. There were no roads or settlements. Stranded sailors faced a long 120-mile hike to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma. The other alternative was to row south past Fort Ross and Bodega Bay to San Francisco, a distance of more than 130 nautical miles.
To understand how Frolic gave birth to Mendocino, Docent John recommended a book entitled “Voyage of the Frolic,” (Stanford University Press), in which archeologist Thomas Layton recounts his discovery of Chinese porcelain and green bottle glass shards at a Pomo village archaeologic site and his research to discover how it got there. Long story short, he discovered it came from the wreck of the Frolic. As a sailor and history lover, I had to get the book and learn the story. Walking across the street to the Gallery Bookshop, I found they had it in stock. Reading the book quenched my wondering and gave me a story that deepened my appreciation for the culture of coastal Mendocino and its gritty determination, resilience, and resourcefulness.
Archeologist Layton discovered that the Frolic was built in Baltimore in 1844 and sailed to China in 1845 just as President Polk and Congress annexed Texas, Oregon, and Washington. A war with Mexico was starting, and a possible war with Britain over Oregon and Washington was on the horizon.
In China, merchants wanted payment in silver. The competition was fierce. Unfortunately, a few years after Frolic arrived in China, steam-driven ships made sailing ships obsolete. Seeking alternatives, the owners looked to Gold-Rush California. In May 1850, Frolic departed Calcutta, India bound for San Francisco with a cargo of silk, porcelain, furniture, Edinburgh Ale, and other trade goods that were in high demand. Approaching the Mendocino coast at sunset on July 25, 1850, with the pervasive Mendocino coastal mists, the crew saw the coastal mountains but not the nearby surf or rocky shore. She ran on the rocks near present-day Point Cabrillo and quickly flooded. Lost in time, sport divers found Folic’s remains in 1965 just north of the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse in 75 feet of water. How she gave birth to Mendocino is a continuing saga.
How it all started: Hearing about the wreck of the Frolic and seeing a possible salvage opportunity, a Boston entrepreneur with a lumber mill in Bodega Bay sent his foreman, Jerome Ford, to investigate. Ford found that most of the cargo had already been salvaged and reported the loss, along with the revelation that the coastal valleys of Mendocino were full of giant redwood trees. San Francisco was in the Gold Rush building boom. Profits from lumber had never been higher. Local lumber mills couldn’t keep up, and lumber was imported from as far away as New England, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia. The mill owner seized the opportunity and ordered logging equipment from New England. The mill began operation in 1853, starting a population boom in Mendocino.
The Mendocino Lumber Company fueled growth on the coast. Rugged Mendocino logging without roads or railroads required innovation. Many tools were developed specifically for redwood logging in dense forests with big trees on the dangerous rocky coast.
Logging was hard, dangerous work. Gritty determination and resourcefulness were and are key cultural features of Mendocino. New England lumberjacks and Scandinavian immigrants provided the manpower. They, in turn, were supported by local Chinese laborers and fed by Portuguese immigrant fishermen working from Navarro harbor in Fort Bragg. As we discovered, many descendant families still live and work on the coast. My wondering was getting interesting.
The profitable mill on Big River mined the forests and, in its heyday, cut 50,000 board feet of lumber a day. The mill brought prosperity to Mendocino Village and the surrounding area, explaining the beautiful large Victorian houses that started all my inquisitive wondering. Fortunately for the forest (or unfortunately for the village), the lumber boom only lasted until the 1890s when the five-year-long national depression hit the coast hard. The mill finally closed in 1938. Redwood trees sprout new growth from their cut trunks, and many of today’s Mendocino second-growth tall redwoods are more than 100 years old. On our way to Mendocino, we drove through miles of those beautiful, verdant redwood forests.
Mendocino Village — then and now: Mendocino Village, aka Cabot’s Cove in the “Murder She Wrote” TV series with scenes filmed there, is as picturesque today as it appears on television with Jessica Simpson (Angela Lansbury) strolling down the street. In real life, Angela Lansbury was a frequent patron of village businesses, and locals were recruited for minor roles in some productions. Victorian houses and their water towers have been lovingly maintained for more than a century and a half. They provide one of the few snapshots of what life was like in the 1860s.
In 1854, Jerome Ford built one of the first houses in the village for his soon-to-be 23 yr. old New England bride. The house was constructed before he sailed to Boston, married, and then returned — around The Horn — likely a year-long endeavor. The happy couple raised six children in the home. Today Ford House on Main Street serves as the Tourist Information center. It is worth a visit. If you go, give Docent John a handshake and thank you from me.
The Arts: We stopped by the Prentice Gallery on Main Street and viewed wonderful works by talented local artists, including some who have made it big on the national stage. Although they have moved on, they still retain their roots and love by displaying in the village.
Big River Today: Mother Nature did a good job returning the Mendocino Lumber Company site to its natural state. She erased what men constructed in the 1800s and returned Big River to an estuary and sandy playground for adults and children. Although I hunted, I could see no traces of the lumber mill. If I hadn’t visited the Tourist Information Center and run into Docent John, I wouldn’t have known it existed.
We drove Highway-1 as it wound its way South from Mendocino Village across a high bridge over the Big River onto a bluff, then down to sea level again at Little River. There, just two miles South of Mendocino Village, I found another invisible piece of Mendocino’s coastal history.
Little River: The town of Little River prospered for many of the same reasons as Mendocino Village. The Little River lumber mill was built in 1864.
As the lumber mill grew, it engendered a harbor (Beall’s Harbor), wharf (Kent’s Landing), and shipyard that built lumber schooners for the coastal trade. Weekly steamship service connected the little port to the outside world until the turn of the century. The present-day Van Damme State Park on Little River is named for Charles Van Damme, the successful native son of a Flemish immigrant. Born in Little River, he acquired the lumber company’s land and donated it to the State Park Service in 1934.
Historic Little River Inn: Silas Coombs was an early resident of Little River, building his main house in 1853–1854 on a bluff just South of the Little River and working with partners to build the Little River Lumber Mill. With the mill, port, and shipyard, Little River prospered and boasted a school, post office, and weekly steamer service to other coastal towns. In 1893, during a depression, the mill shut down, families left, and life changed.
In 1939, Ole Hervilla asked his mother-in-law Coombsie (Mrs. Coombs), a teetotaler, if he could open her parlor as a bar. She succumbed, and Ole’s Whale Watch Bar became a successful enterprise. (Today, whales can still be seen passing from the veranda at the inn.) Ole, his wife Cora, and their family grew the bar, dining room, and Inn into the present-day Little River Inn. The family-run business celebrates its 84th year as a hospitality business this year. (Story courtesy of Cally Dym, Ole’s granddaughter.)
The Inn was, and is, a standout in many respects. It has attracted many famous guests over the years. Celebrities, as recounted in the local newspaper -The Mendocino Beacon, included actress Jane Wyman (the first wife of Ronald Reagan) who, as a frolic one night, tended bar; another night, Jonathan Winters entertained dinner guests with his comedy. Clearly, a good frolic was part of the cultural history of the inn in the past; and continues today.
Little River Inn Today: We had dinner at the Inn and were impressed by the dining room’s ambiance, the resourcefulness of the Inn in creating a remarkable garden dining space during the pandemic, and the cuisine’s creativity.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens: Saving the best for last, we visited the beautiful Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens just North of Mendocino Village and South of Fort Bragg. Spring has seriously sprung, with a profuse abundance of rhododendron and camellia blooms, tulip trees, daffodils, poppies, salvia, bulbs, and wildflowers. The visual experience overwhelms the senses and, for me, engendered peacefulness.
Frolicking in Mendocino: In addition to the many wine events held on Hwy-128 in Anderson Valley, the Mendocino Village hosts the Mendocino Music Festival, July 15–29, 2023, held at the Mendocino Headlands State Park. The village also hosts the Mendocino Film Festival., June 1–4, 2023. Local pub-scene music includes live performances at the Anderson Valley Brewing Co. and the North Coast Brewing Co. The immediate coastal area around Mendocino Village has State Parks with miles of hiking and biking trails, including the nearby Fort Bragg Coastal Trail, which is eventually slated to run the entire length of the California coast from Mexico to Oregon.
A sad Frolic on the Rocks started it all in Mendocino. Before her, there was no Mendocino Village, redwood logging, Little River Inn, or art scene. Today the village is a happy frolic, and guests are invited to join in the good times at local restaurants, bars, museums, and art galleries. We joined in a weekend of frolicking and thoroughly enjoyed it.
For more information on Mendocino Village and the Little River Inn, see “Indulge in a Getaway to Mendocino County” by Lee Daley.
IF YOU GO: We stayed and dined at the historic Little River Inn. Our stay was in the Alice Abbot room, with an amazing ocean view and historical significance. Alice Abbott was a well-loved caretaker of guests for 20 years at the Inn.
Links: The Mendocino County Tourism Site; Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens; Prentice Gallery; Mendocino Art Center; Mendocino Lumber Company; and Little River History. For more on Mendocino Village, see the article also by Lee Daley entitled “Indulge in a Getaway to Mendocino”.
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