Click on any picture to see a larger version.
Most of the towns on the far north coast of California were first established in the middle of the nineteenth century. They grew up around the sawmills that rapaciously transformed California’s old-growth redwood forests into buildings in San Francisco (and also into opulent lifestyles for the lumber barons who owned the sawmills). The surviving buildings from that era, originally built for purely functional purposes, are now quaint “Victorian” tourist attractions. The current owners of many nineteenth-century houses have turned them into bed-and-breakfast inns that provide cozy lodgings for couples who seek romantic elegance on their vacations or getaways.
The town of Ferndale, in Humboldt County 19 kilometers south of Eureka, may provide the most complete “Victorian experience” on the north coast. The collection of freshly-painted original 19th-century buildings on Main Street is the heart of a historic district that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. And there are enough Victorian houses outside Main Street to earn the entire town a place on the list of California Historical Landmarks. If you have sufficient imagination to ignore the anachronistic traffic and parked cars, a walk down Main Street can be a trip back to the turn of the 20th century.
But Ferndale seems to have avoided becoming a gaudy Victorian theme park. People actually live and work there, and it’s an 8-kilometer detour from Highway 101, the coastal freeway. It also lacks attractions and amenities that appeal to kids, which I suspect is the main reason Ferndale retains its character.
Seth Shaw founded the town in 1854 when he built its first large house. He called the house Fern Dale, after the large ferns he planted in his garden. The town adopted that name when Shaw became postmaster and ran the post office in his house. (Postmasters often exerted substantial influence on the naming of new towns in the nineteenth century.) The house still exists as— what else?— a bed-and-breakfast. Seth Shaw’s current residence is an ornate mausoleum in the Ferndale cemetery.
Ferndale’s original settlers came to California in the 1850s gold rush. But they soon decided that farming offered a more consistent, if less exciting, source of income. By the 1870s they found that the surrounding Eel River Valley was best suited for cattle grazing and dairy farming. Danish immigrants provided the dairy expertise that earned Ferndale the nickname “Cream City.” Particularly renowned for butter, Ferndale’s dairy cooperatives gave their owners the wherewithal to build lavish homes and offices, which their envious neighbors called “butterfat palaces.” The cooperatives’ innovative contributions to dairy technology included packaged butter, powdered milk, and the bulk milk tank truck.
A large processing plant and signs advertising cheese on Route 211
that leads from Highway 101 to Ferndale are reminders that dairying is
alive and well today in the Eel River Valley. But in Ferndale itself,
Victoriana has supplanted butterfat as the town’s primary industry and
claim to fame.
“Victorian” is actually a catch-all term for any of the diverse architectural styles that developed during (roughly) the second half of the 19th century. The Carson Mansion in Eureka may thus represent the “ultimate” Victorian house, since it’s a compendium of architectural styles and trends, circa 1884. Guidebooks call it the “most-photographed” Victorian house in (depending on the book) California, the United States, or the universe. So of course I couldn’t resist photographing it. The famous facade faces west, so late afternoon is the best time to visit.
William Carson made his fortune from clear-cutting California’s redwood forests. His story is a common one for lumber barons: He came to California from New Brunswick for the 1849 gold rush, but turned to logging when gold didn’t pan out. Carson reportedly treated his workers better than the prevailing standards for loggers’ wages and hours. And some guidebooks say he conceived the mansion as a project to keep a hundred of them employed during an economic downturn. Just imagine how Wall Street analysts would excoriate any CEO who tried that today.
Carson commissioned renowned San Francisco builder-architects Samuel and Joseph Newsom to build a house that reflected and displayed his wealth and stature. He gave them free rein— and apparently an unlimited budget— to create a fantasy of gables, turrets, gingerbread, and ornate woodwork that took those hundred workers two years to build. Appropriately, the exterior is made of redwood.
Many people who gawk at (and photograph) the mansion are disappointed to learn that it’s closed to the public. The mansion is home to the Ingomar Club, a private club founded in 1950 to buy and preserve the mansion. As a highly exclusive fraternity of no more than 300 upper-crust men, the Ingomar Club also resurrects an essential institution of the Gilded Age elite. Men’s social clubs were important fixtures of nineteenth-century cities and towns, and weren’t confined to the wealthy. Men of more ordinary means spent much of their spare time in one or more fraternal organizations— Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, Moose, and many others. Some of those organizations still exist, though they seem to have increasing difficulty recruiting new members in the Internet age.
The Ingomar Club took its name from Ingomar the Barbarian, an
1851 play that was wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It must
have been Carson’s favorite; when he built a theatre in Eureka, he named
it the Ingomar Theatre. The plot is Pygmalion in reverse: A
virtuous Greek maiden in pre-Roman Gaul tames, civilizes, and ultimately
marries a loutish Germanic warrior chieftain. The play, in
cloying blank verse— “Two souls with but a single thought / Two hearts
that beat as one”— is as quintessentially Victorian as the Carson
Mansion. But unlike the mansion, Ingomar the Barbarian is
deservedly forgotten today.
Carson was apparently quite satisfied with the Newsoms’ work. He hired
them again in 1889 to build another house as a wedding gift for his
son, Milton. It’s less elaborate, and represents only the Queen Anne
style, but it’s still an attractive piece of work. I can only
speculate on the significance of its location, right across the street
from the mansion. Were the Carsons a particularly close family, or did
William feel the need to keep an eye on Milton? Officially called the
“J. Milton Carson House,” it’s most commonly called the “Pink Lady.”
But it wasn’t originally pink. The Carson family sold the house in the
1940s, and their various successors failed to maintain it. Robert M.
Madsen, a real estate broker and former mayor of Eureka, bought it in
1963 and fully restored it. To contrast with the yellow and green
mansion, he decided to paint it Pepto-Bismol pink with white trim.
Other Northern California Coast pages: