Ben Van Zandt – June 13th, 2011

Following a very large gathering for the latest Van Zandt family wedding at the family’s resort on the outskirts of Philo on Rays Road, I arrived to conduct my interview with Ben, the family’s patriarch, as the final guests were leaving. We sat on a deck built into a redwood glade that was constructed amongst these second growth trees about one hundred years earlier and we started to chat…
Ben was born, the only child, of Don Van Zandt and Alta Chipman, in Eureka, CA, in January, 1922 – up next will be his 90th!… His father’s family were from Germany and Holland and his grandfather, Benjamin C Van Zandt, came to the States as a nineteen year old in the mid-nineteenth century, arriving in California by way of a wagon train after he and his brother went their separate ways in Kansas – the brother going to Texas. Benjamin C. settled in the Sacramento Valley at his sister’s and he became a wheelwright, eventually opening his own shop. “At some point, my grandfather heard about a redemption claim on property in Anderson Valley and bought some land on what was called Hazel Hill, behind the property owned now by Golden Eye Winery and at the location that became known later as the Tumbling McD Ranch. My father Don was born here in the Valley in 1887.”
On the Chipman side, Ben knows little other than that they were English and moved over here around 1900. “My grandfather was a bit of a n’er-do-well and the family were fruit pickers in Oregon and then California. They never had a dime to their name. They settled around here and married into a local family – my grandmother being a direct descendent of Cornelius Prather, who founded Philo, naming the town after a relative of his, Philomena. My mother grew up here, going up to just 6th grade before leaving school, and she later married my father on Valentine’s Day 1914.”
Ben’s father had found his first job firing the boiler at Clow’s Mill and later went on to jobs cutting brush and surveying in Dry Creek Canyon. After the 1906 Earthquake, he worked as a carpenter in construction for a time, building the Sunset District in San Francisco. Then he took some college courses and got a job with the N.W. Pacific Railroad as an engineer working on the damage evaluation survey. He moved on to an engineering job with the California Highway Commission (later CalTran) and left the Valley, working on building the highway to Eureka, settling in Trinidad, CA by the time Alta was pregnant with Ben. “He was working in Willow Creek, about fifty miles east of Eureka, when he got news that my mother had been taken to hospital to give birth. He walked over some hills, rode a horse through deep snow to the stagecoach stop, caught the stagecoach to Blue Lake and then the street car to the hospital. He stopped in to see that we were o.k. and then turned right round and returned to work.”
Within a year, Don, Alta and baby Ben had moved to stay with Ben’s grandmother on Hazel Hill in the hills near to Philo. “My grandfather had lived on Hazel Hill since the late 1880’s and had started the resort there around the turn of the century. People from San Francisco would catch the ferry across the Bay (this was many years before the bridges that went up in the thirties) and then catch a train to Cloverdale before getting the stagecoach to Philo. There they would be met by my grandfather with his horse and wagon and taken to the ranch. Needless to say, they would stay for quite a time once they got here and there are stories of the women in tears by the time they arrived – my grandfather had little patience for that… My grandfather passed in 1925 and my Dad quit his job with the highways and helped my grandmother run the Hazel Hill property. Then in 1926, my parents bought twenty-five acres from I.E. McPhail for $2500 – it took many years to pay off that mortgage. This became the Van Zandt Redwood View Resort that is still going today – in fact we are pretty much fully booked through the summer once again, mainly with people who have been here many times and their parents and grandparents before them. We don’t need to advertise.”
Ben’s grew up on the property and his father built a two-bedroom home out of the remains of the old corncrib that was there. Five years later, in 1931, the resort opened after Don had built two cabins. These were originally just sleeping cabins and Ben’s mother Alta would cook three meals a day for the guests over a wood-burning stove – cabins and the meals would cost each guest $2.50 per day. Alta tired of this over time and Don added kitchens and bathrooms to each cabin and more were built in the next few years for a total of five. Although he helped on the resort, Don also had a full-time job as the foreman with the Highways Commission in Anderson Valley for twenty years.
“I attended Indian Creek Grammar School on Philo School Road that runs next to what is now Lemons’ Market in Philo, down past the mill. The road goes past where the Catholic Church is and my school was where the P.G. & E substation is now. For a time I was the only boy along with about six girls. My schoolmates included Charmian Blattner, Jack Clow, the Arthurs, Billy Phelps, and some Dakes. I remember the teacher would leave me on Hwy 128 and I would have a walk of about a mile down to our property through the woods. I was scared to death of being attacked by a panther!”
When he reached high school age Ben had to catch the bus from Philo into the outskirts of Boonville, to a location next to where the Elementary School is now situated. “I enjoyed school and was very active in sports and very social. I played on the school basketball team – we only had a squad of six so we were ran ragged in most of our games by the bigger schools. I also ran some track and played baseball – I remember that Angelo Pronsolino was a really good baseball player… When not in school I loved to be outdoors and did lots of hunting, fishing, and trapping. My Dad was an avid gun owner and hunter all his life. He hunted the woods along Rancheria Creek and bought home many bucks. He passed along this passion to me and my son, Marty. I got my first BB gun when I was eight and I would shoot birds for our cat. I then got a .22 rifle and after that, when I was thirteen I was given a 25-35 Winchester which I used to kill my first buck. I mostly trapped raccoons to earn a little money – a coon hide was worth about five dollars… I also enjoyed being in the school plays and for that we were given English credits. It was too bad because when I went to Cal I was way behind and had to study ‘dumbbell English’ in my first year. I was in a similar situation in Algebra because the basketball coach was the algebra teacher and we’d talk sports all through the class.”
“I graduated from A.V. High School in 1939 with fellow classmates that included Bill Dightman, Bobby Glover, John Edsall, and Pete Witherell… My other friends were a year older – Chester Soderland, Walter Gschwend, Norman Borini, and Jack Smith, whose parents owned the Floodgate Store. I remember I was sweet on Yvonne ‘Eva’ Modenese in my class. She was short – I could fit her head under my arm when we stood next to each other, but she was more interested in those older guys who had cars!”
“The Valley was full of apple orchards and sheep in those days – there were thousands of sheep that you could see up in the hills from the Valley floor and it seemed everyone had an apple dryer. The fishing was also plentiful in those days and the trout would be practically jumping into your net. However, logging arrived in the forties and, with no erosion control even thought about in those days, the rivers and creeks were slowly ruined. One of the resort’s big attractions was the swimming hole in the Navarro River. There were two actually, one for us and one for the nearby Pines Resort (now Shenoa) owned by Mrs. Ward. They were ten to fifteen feet deep but the logging upstream led to the river filling up with gravel, silt, and mud and the holes are no more… I remember when I was about six that Mrs. Ward hired my Dad to construct a footbridge across the river. Prior to that, wintertime crossing was by a box or platform supported by a cable. It was supported by pulleys and pulled across by hand. My Dad built a detailed scale model to help guide him in this project and he hired Ernest Whipple to help in dig the holes for the anchorages and tower footings. It was to serve for many years until the present auto bridge was installed.”
Ben graduated at seventeen and went from the Valley’s high school of sixty pupils to U.C. Berkeley where there were 23,000. “I was kind of lost and lonely and flunked out after one semester, transferring to Santa Rosa Junior College for two-and-a-half years, learning there what I should have been learning at high school. During that time I met Alice Frevert and we began to date…I eventually transferred back to Berkeley but was put on probation to make sure my grades were maintained. I registered for my junior year in 1942 but then the draft was introduced and I was summoned to Hamilton Air Force base in Novato. I had suffered with hay fever since I was eight and this allergy meant that I was given a temporary waiver but I wasn’t going to wait so I went to San Francisco to join the Navy and signed up for their flight-training program on Oct 10th, 1942. They agreed to let me finish my junior year at Cal first and following that, on the following Monday morning in May 1943, I was at the Ferry Building in San Francisco ready to do my part.”
Unfortunately things did not work out for Ben with the flight training and instead he went to the Great Lakes Training Station in Illinois for the Navy’s basic training. He then applied for midshipman school and went for more training at Cornell, in Ithaca, New York. He graduated from there on the same day that he and Alice were married – April 6th, 1945. “I got the train to Georgia for final training and then went on to San Clemente Island, CA to await further orders. I was finally sent to Seattle where I was to join my ship as a radar screen operator. However, I arrived there on V.J. Day – the war was over! I did join the crew of the U.S.S. Saidor, an escort carrier, and we sailed down the Pacific Coast and into the S.F. Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge. People were there ready to welcome back men from the war but in our case we had not even been out of the sight of American land!”
Ben was released from active duty in February 1946 but remained in the Reserve for the following twenty years, attending various activities regularly and weekend training camps. As a result, after retiring finally from the service with ‘satisfactory service’, he would eventually receive retirement pay and military healthcare when he was sixty.
Ben got a job in Eureka on a survey party with the Division of Highways, like his father, and they allowed him to finish his three final semesters of school, finally graduating with a degree in civil engineering in February 1948. He was to remain with the Highway District for the next thirty-three years. “I was up in Eureka for that time. I tried to get transferred to this area on several occasions but it never worked out. Alice and I had our first child, Martin, in 1947, and then Carol in 1950 and Bonnie in 1954. I retired in February 1981 although I did some work for the feds in 1982-83 on storm damage reviews and estimations.”
Don Van Zandt retired from his position as Maintenance Foreman for the State Highway Department in the early fifties and he and Alta continued to run the Van Zandt Resort for many more years, during which time Ben would visit the Valley frequently. Alta passed in 1972 and Don in 1978 at the age of ninety-one. “We had various and sundry people run the place after that. I came down as often as I could until I retired and then it became more often. I would cut wood and do the maintenance that is required. At one point I rewired all of the cabins. This remains a family operation is most ways although we do have people here working for us and managing the property on a daily basis. My daughter Carol does the bookkeeping from her office in Sacramento and we have Jose Delgado and his family running the place.”
In his leisure time, Ben helped raise the family with Alice as much as he could when not working. He was a very keen salmon fisherman, belonged to the local yacht club, and enjoyed duck and goose hunting. “I have always been a gun nut – my Dad was a gunsmith in his leisure time. These days my eyes are bad so I use shotguns now… We have six grandchildren and four great grandchildren but none of the family lives permanently in the Valley at this point. I like to spend as much time as possible here but age is catching up with me. As I said earlier I have often thought about moving back but these days Alice has a very full and active social life where we live in Eureka. I tend to get cabin fever there, as there’s not much for me to do, whereas I’m always busy here and I also try to get lots of walking in. I guess I felt when I was working that I could never make the same living here as I could in the area around Eureka and beyond. That was where I worked on some very big highway projects, planning and designing many of them, including the highway through the woods north of Crescent City, the bridge at Cummins Creek Bridge on Hwy 101, and then the repair work following the floods of 1964/65 that left Eureka completely cut off except by air.”
“However, Anderson Valley was a great place to grow up. My first job here was driving the pilot car for a contractor in Yorkville and later I would pick prunes for two bits (25 cents) a box. I was always outdoors. I had my own world on the ranch too, exploring the woods, the springs, making small dams, fishing, hunting with my Red Raider BB gun. My Dad had very strict rules about guns and although he was fine with me going out alone with my .22 rifle I was not allowed to go with a friend without adult supervision – that was a recipe for disaster in his mind…”
“I always kept in touch with many Valley folks and Marietta Young (Hulbert) was my Dad’s caretaker for many years and Beth Tuttle helped with my Mother. Coincidentally, my friend at the Floodgate Store, Jack Smith, was later my boss for many years in the Highway Department. Who else do I remember?… Oh, when I was a kid I turned my ankle at school and so like many others I was sent to Johnnie Pinoli’s mother who had learned to be a sort of ‘osteopath’ in the old country – Italy. She had some sort of powers because she worked on it and I was back to normal the next day. Lots of people believed in her abilities… I knew Wes Smoot real well – he is one of the last speakers of the local dialect, Boontling. So was Bobby Glover, although I think he made a lot up as he went along!… I was a good buddy of Jack Clow and I remember the time we stole a couple of pipes and some Prince Albert tobacco from his father’s store – the original Jack’s, owned by Bill Clow – and we smoked it behind the bluff out back of the store – the area known as Smackville. We got sicker than dogs!… I remember people who wanted a drink during Prohibition would go up to Vinegar Ridge to get a jug of wine – to one of the Italian families up there who had vines – the Pronsolino’s or may be the Benetti’s. Speaking of wine, for over thirty years now, I have tried my hand at winemaking. We have just twenty eight vines in total and it’s an ongoing fight to protect the vines and grapes from deer, wild yellow canaries, and wild turkeys, not to mention that my winemaking has been spotty – some o.k. and some not…”
I asked Ben for some of his thoughts on various current Valley issues… The wineries and their impact? – “I think it’s been great. They certainly have provided more jobs to people than the apple orchards could and many more than raising sheep ever did”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “Once in a while I do read it. I didn’t agree with some of Bruce Anderson’s rants but it’s his rag and he’s entitled to do so”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “I listen once in while”… The school system? – “Like all modern schools I wonder if they are teaching the right things. What happened to the ‘three R’s – reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic? What about practical subjects also? If their car breaks down I’m sure most of the kids today would have no idea what to do.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and others I have added myself, asking my guest to reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Well, when I’m here, it’s the little tasks that I have to do every day.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “If we’re talking about being here, then it would be the trespassers on our property.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Birds singing in the morning.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “A siren”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “A good steak and baked potato… Many years ago I would have said chicken fricassee and dumplings cooked by Mom.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “My father – he was old school and had a lot of wisdom to share.”
7. Do you have a favorite film and /or book or one that has influenced you? – “Well I always enjoyed John Wayne movies – True Grit is a favorite; as for a book, probably one of the adventure series written by Clive Cussler featuring the character Dirk Pitt.”
8. What is your favorite hobby? – “Well my eyesight is getting poor but I have always liked woodworking.”
9. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “A pilot of some sort. I did get in 160 hours of flying time but never got my license. It would have meant lots of time saved coming back and forth between here and Eureka.”
10. What profession would you not like to do? – “Undertaker.”
11. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I do believe it was with Yvonne Modenese and we went to a dance in Boonville. I used to love to dance.”
12. Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. – “My marriage of sixty six years to Alice.”
13. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “My work for the highways department, I guess. I think I accomplished many things.”
14. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “Well there are so many things I should have done and didn’t but there is nothing really, in the end, that I regret.”
19. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “That is a very hard question for me… I cannot really say… I suppose I hope that I have been a truthful and upstanding person.”
20. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I hope he says ‘Welcome’ rather than ‘Get the hell out of here’!”

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 4:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

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