Memories of Russian River summers

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August is a week old, and an event I always capitalize in my mind as First Day of School is coming up fast. The new school year is anywhere from a week to two weeks away for most Sonoma County students. The end of summer is in sight.

(Some would say that weather-wise there hasn't been a summer, but that's another matter.)

Times change. It used to be that summer didn't end until after Labor Day. That First Day of School did not occur until mid-September — and in some schools very late September, when the prune harvest ended.

August was the heart of our summer, particularly along the Russian River.

It's a familiar theme: Lazy, barefoot days, sunburns, summer romances, the family cabins, outdoor dances in the soft, warm nights.

All this came flooding back (you should pardon the expression) with a letter I received last week from retired Santa Rosa fire captain Tim Doherty with his personal recollections of summers in Guerneville.

Personal memories are my stock in trade. I talk to people — often before a video camera — about Sonoma County's past. You'd be surprised how often, in the midst of the accounts of business and politics and other historical truths, the summers of our youth come up.

Grown men get teary-eyed and the memories flow like the river at floodtide.

So when Doherty talks about his grandparents' cottage on Guerne Road, between the Pee Wee Golf Course and the river, it's the stuff a summertime column is made from.

DOHERTY WAS a happy kid in the 1950s when he and his family came to the river every summer. He writes: "We spent our days getting jaw breakers and wax candy filled with sugar water from Walker's store and then walked to our beach, where we swam and fished and occupied ourselves in a manner that kids today would consider absolutely foreign."

He was moved to write to me, he said, when he happened to see an interview on the Community Media Center channel with Santa Rosa's legendary radio guy, Jim Grady.

Grady, who grew up in San Francisco, talked about the weekends, school vacations and summers he spent at the river where his uncle and aunt, Bob and Jo Philipson, owned a resort (six cabins for steelhead fishermen, a bar and cafe) called the Mayor's Inn in Duncans Mills. The building now houses the Blue Heron restaurant.

Grady talked the familiar line, going back to the 1940s, when his single mom, who worked long wartime hours at the Presidio, would put him on a Greyhound bus and send him north, "up the old highway, through Petaluma."

"In the morning I'd help my uncle wash glasses, clean the tables; he'd give me 50 cents and I'd hitch a ride to Monte Rio to Big Sandy Beach. But it cost a quarter to get in, so I'd go into a backyard in Villa Grande, swim to Monte Rio and save my money," Grady said.

In his early teens he caddied at Northwood. "That's where I met Dennis Day."

Later, he said, "I was dating a girl who ran the concession stand at Rio Nido," where vacationers gathered at the nightly bonfire and big name bands played on weekends.

Phil Trowbridge can talk about those bands. His father, the late Bob Trowbridge, ran Mirabel Park, with its outdoor dance floor jutting over the river.

Phil recites the litany of familiar names on a video about the river made by the Water Agency in 1998. "Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Carmen Cavallero, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys — not only at Mirabel but at Rio Nido and The Grove in Guerneville."

Vintner Allan Hemphill came to Guerneville as a 9-year-old in 1945 when his Navy father, who was stationed at the Naval Air Station on Wright Road, rented one of those cabins intended only for summer occupancy that became affordable housing for servicemen during World War II.

Hemphill, who called the Guerneville area home for 30 years or more, remembers "the sounds at night, down at Guernewood Park where they had the weenie roasts and the dances ... and the winter, when everything stopped, and there would be just two or three cars on the main street, so quiet you could hear the transformer buzzing."

Not only a good town for vacationers, as Hemphill remembers it, but for year-round residents as well. "In towns prone to floods, people help people," he said, recalling that sense of community. "It always attracted the off-beat," he said. "It was a rich stew. Still is. I grew up thinking the whole world was like that."

THESE RIVER memories are almost like the Old Older Game.

They may, in fact, be an Old Older Game

The memories of the Olders can take you back to when two railroads converged, one that ran on a right-of-way that is now River Road, the other sneaking in the back door by way of Valley Ford, Freestone and Occidental.

In those days, before the automobile changed our lives, young men came by the carload for the beaches by day, the dances at night and a stolen overnight accommodation on a farmer's haystack.

And it wasn't only the boys. The late Barney Barnard, talking to a Water Agency interviewer, grinned when he remembered, "the secretaries (who) came up on vacation and needed a country boy to dance with."

The late Lee Engelke talked about the music. "I was in high school, he said, "and I couldn't afford the admission, but there was a great big redwood stump alongside the bandstand and I would take my bulldog and sit on that stump. I heard some of the best music. It's a very fond memory."

The late Gov. Pat Brown liked to tell about his summers at the river picking cherries and working part-time at the drug store in Guerneville.

Healdsburg wine pioneer Lou Foppiano met his wife, Della Bastoni, from the Santa Rosa baking family, at one of those dances. It's a common theme for the Olders. Frank Bastoni, Della's brother, met his wife at a river dance. And Marian Ridenhour, whose grandfather was the first settler, in 1853, met San Franciscan Jack McMurtry from a "summer family."

Fifty years later, Marian went on a search for the giant moon that hung above the Rio Nido resort, reporting on her quest in the county historical society's newsletter, illustrating the soundness of Rio Nido's slogan: "Where Memories Linger."

LINGER THEY DO. Tim Doherty never forgot those summers, even as his aunt and uncle moved into Grandpa's cabin year-round and the vacations ceased.

The river flooded, the urban refugees of the '70s turned the old cabins into low-cost housing and, for a time, things looked pretty grim — until Guerneville became a gay mecca, bringing money enough to refurbish the flood-damaged houses and the old resorts. And the families are returning.

"Now I'm in my 50s," Doherty writes, "and in a position to do what my grandfather did back in the '30s — buy a place at the River. Although it's not as rough as Grandpa's cabin was, it still has that same magic — the tall redwoods, the river running behind the house, and a familiar fragrance, which is a mixture of river and redwoods."

Doherty took his family to play Pee Wee Golf and was startled to find the same sculpted "challenges" that marked the course when he was a child.

"I felt like a tour guide, telling my kids about crawling into the castle, through the tunnel ...

"Now that we are back there regularly, I have noticed how much it has changed and how much it is still the same," he said.

That, too, is a familiar refrain. Allan Hemphill calls it "a time warp."

"All you gotta do," he said "is round that big bend on River Road and look out at the river and it's like it's always been."

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