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LeBARON: Bear sightings, and stories, abundant in local history


Bear! Where? Over there!

I see by my morning paper there are ursine sightings in west county. This is a recurring story — always news, but nothing new, really.

The bears were here first. And, despite the efforts of man, they have never really left. People who live in the Mayacmas Mountains on Sonoma County's eastern border know them as neighbors. Lower down, closer to towns, they appear infrequently enough to cause a stir.

The current visitor from the deep dark forests in the Occidental-to-Monte Rio area that took a couple of cool-off swims in a private swimming pool last week appears to be a young black bear. (Note: All our bears are black bears, even when they are brown. Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are brown bears.)

Grizzlies were something else again. In early California they were matched against bulls for sport. When the Americans arrived, it took them less than 50 years to hunt them to extinction here.

But while they lasted, they were central to some great stories — like the one about Andy Stump. Andy's story has been told and retold. Early historians embellished it. Sonoma State's late, great Dr. Hector Lee included it in his folklore collections.

The setting is the town of Bodega in 1852. Andy was working at the sawmill there when his friend, another mill hand, was murdered.

Young Andy was sure he knew who had done the deed. When the bad guy showed up at the mill, Andy confronted him and the man ran, dodging lumber and logs, with Andy right behind him. At the edge of a modest ravine, the man paused and then jumped into Salmon Creek.

His fatal mistake was landing on a bear cub, which gave a shriek that awakened its mother. The chase was already underway when Andy crashed through the brush and landed on top of the grizzly bear.

Away they went, a murderer (He was, of course, just a suspect, but tale-tellers do not adhere to the rules of modern journalism) and a furious Mama Bear with Andy on her back, hanging on to the coarse hair for dear life.

I don't know how far he traveled in this manner — the length and time increased, I'm sure, with every retelling — but at a point where the creek was deep enough to jump into without injury, Andy bailed.

He picked himself up and staggered back to the posse of mill hands that had followed along as best they could. They didn't see that bear again, nor her cub, but they found the bad guy about an eighth of a mile downstream. The verdict: Death by bear.

It was considered an open and shut case of frontier justice.

And Andy remained famous for the rest of his long Sonoma County life.

My husband's Aunt Evelyn, born in 1901, liked to regale our children with an account of being introduced as a child to Mr. Stump. He was, her mother told her with due respect, The Man Who Rode the Bear.

Now, to the matter of the Bierstadt ram.

The "mystery" of how this small, battered oil painting of a Rocky Mountain sheep by an Old West master came to be in the basement of Shirley and Jim Modini's ranch house is solved. Or so it would seem.

A favorite cousin of Shirley's read about the Bonhams auction in New York last month where the painting brought nearly $40,000 to Audubon Canyon Ranch, the natural history nonprofit that owns what is now the Modini-Ingalls Preserve.

In an email to Modini trustee Judy Johnston, the relative reported that she told the story to other distant family members who pieced together a plausible explanation.

As children, Shirley's mother Ella and her brother, Prentiss, were favorites of the Lathrops, a wealthy family who owned large sections of Fruitvale, now part of Oakland, and were friends of their grandfather Dearing.

(There is an Ella Street and a Prentiss Street in today's Oakland, testimony to that affection.)

The Lathrops collected art and antiques and, when their childless daughters died in the first years of the 20th century, their treasures were divided among friends.

Some, it is believed, went to the DeYoung Museum. Ella and her siblings were given a share. It's highly likely that the Bierstadt painting was part of Shirley's mother's legacy. But relatives say that Shirley (who was a "ranch girl" from the moment she met Jim) was never very interested in her family "things."

It stands to reason that it would be stashed in the basement with who-knows-what else.

Judy Johnston adds that a long-time friend enhanced this explanation. He recalled that a pair of unscrupulous caregivers had helped themselves to most of Shirley's mother's art when she moved into a care home many years ago. He remembers Shirley looking over the nearly empty house in Healdsburg and saying, that it looked like "They left us the ripped one."

So the only chapter still to be written is the identity of the buyers who paid five figures for the repaired and extremely valuable "ripped one" at last month's auction. They should hear the story. It's part of what art dealers would call the "provenance."

FINALLY, a geographical musing, nothing more, occasioned by the current dust-up in Occidental over the ephemeral plans to put a "Gateway" hub for the surrounding parks and preserves in the town's Community Center.

I thought about Occidental and beyond last week when a friend mentioned how wonderful it seemed to her that the town in New Jersey where she grew up has not changed in the 40 or more years since she lived there. It hasn't grown; it hasn't shrunk. Her school friends who stayed there have enjoyed the stability of having their children and their grandchildren attend the same schools they went to.

A New England native who was also in this conversation pronounced: "That is SO East Coast."

And it is SO not Sonoma County. To a California native who has taken careful notes about change for half a century, such stability is absolutely amazing.

I considered this conversation in the light of the "gateway" debate. California towns in general, our towns specifically, are not like my friend's town.

Our towns are works in progress. Sonoma, for example, became a tourism "destination" long enough ago that there are now people demanding that it be stopped, or at least slowed down.

Healdsburg, meanwhile, has left its Prune Belt image behind and is relishing being idolized as one of the best small towns in the country. How long will it last?

Imagine, if you can, living as you do on the ever-shifting sands of coastal California, a town that hasn't changed 40 years.

We are works in progress. Just a thought.