I drove into the High Roller (Yorkville) region to chat with lifelong Valley resident Guido Pronsolino at his beautiful home off Hibbard Lane. His wife Betty greeted me and over the next couple of hours various family members, there to work on the ewe lambs’ hooves, joined us and made me feel very welcome, not to mention giving me a delicious sandwich and soft drinks.
Guido was born on October 6th, 1926 and therefore turned 83 the day before this interview is to be published. His mother and father, John and Theresa Pronsolino had both come over from Italy and settled in San Francisco where they had met and were married. In the early twenties they moved to the Greenwood Ridge, initially to the property of a cousin, Angelo Fratti, known as the ‘Godfather of Wine’. This was in the days of Prohibition, when the region was known as ‘Vinegar Ridge’ so as not to draw attention to the illegal activities up there. Three of Guido’s siblings, including brother Angelo, had been born in S.F. while his sister Albina and Guido himself were born up at the ranch that his parents acquired on the Ridge in 1924 and which is still in the family. “My father worked in the wine business but my mother did not like it up here at first – they had had a nice home in San Francisco. She had to become a farm girl overnight but eventually settled and they were soon raising cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits, and with the timber base they could buy anything else they might need to eat. Our home was like an open restaurant to any visitors who came by. We served wines that were either ‘Dago’ red or white – laborers wine, and if the family were about to eat you were welcome to sit down and join them – a good old Italian tradition.”
Guido attended the Signal Ridge Elementary School, “in what is now the house occupied by Doc Apfel, I believe. It was in walking distance up on the ridge and consisted of one room with private bathrooms.” By 1940 he and six other kids from the Ridge would get a ride in an old hearse down into the Valley to attend High School on the site where the current Elementary School is situated. “We spent most of our time up on the ranch where there was no electricity – we had lanterns. The nearest phone was in Philo at the Johnson Mercantile (now Lemons’ Market), which we would get to by horse and buggy. We would fish for trout, ride the steam engines going to the logging camps, and we kids would ride the rails on a cart taking food to the cookhouses at those camps. We rarely left the Valley but sometimes we’d go the San Francisco to see relatives and in 1936 or so I was there to see the building going on at the Golden Gate Bridge (which opened in 1937).”
“In December 1941 our teacher told us about Pearl Harbor and there was a real fear of invasion around here. I remember that when I delivered apples and vegetables from the ranch to the coast I had to drive without lights because of the blackout…I wanted to enlist and did so in 1942 at the age of 16. My brother Angelo was in the army in the Philippines and told me not to apply for that as I’d be on the front line immediately so I went into the navy instead and was in boot camp in San Diego at 17 to start a two-year stint which was mostly helping at a naval hospital. I didn’t do anything heroic.”
At the end of the war, Guido used the G.I. Bill to enroll at Cal Poly, the agricultural school in San Luis Obispo but when on summer break after his first year he was playing baseball in Boonville – “a big event that we rode down to on horseback every Sunday” – when Vernon Rawles approached him and said there was work at the Mailliard ranch for the summer. “He had taught me to shear sheep and knew I could also work dogs as a herdsman. I had raised a bummer (motherless) lamb as a kid on Greenwood Ridge and learned about dogs and sheep at a young age. I went to work for Mrs. Mailliard (Larry’s Grandmother) for the summer and stayed for forty three years!”
At school Guido had been dating Betty Smith, who was from a long-time Valley family, and they had kept in touch through letters when he was in the service and at college. “We did our courting in a Model T Ford and a buggy. I had thought about returning to college for a second year but I had not been the best scholar so when Dr Jim Wilson of U.C. Davis started a breeding program for imported Australian Marino sheep at the Mailliard Ranch to improve the fine wool in this country I decided to stay in the Valley and work on this new sheep project at the Ranch. I guess I became a ‘student of wool.’ Over the years I got to touch the fleeces on the backs of some of the finest sheep in the world and learned a lot about wool, sheep, and dogs. I learned to distinguish the best fleeces very quickly – I guess it was a god-given gift, and we sent them all over the country to various wool shows. They were well-received but breaking into the market against the well-established Rabelais sheep breed from France was very difficult to do and the sales we expected never really materialized.”
Guido and Betty were married in April 1948 and moved into a one-room cabin on the Ranch – “to us it was like having the biggest castle on Nob Hill in San Francisco!” Their three children arrived over the next few years – Ron, Janice, and Guy. With Guido out working the Ranch from before sunrise to way after dark, Betty was a homemaker, raising the kids and maintaining a prolific vegetable garden. It is said that Guido too, with his knowledge of grafting, ‘could take a stick and make it grow.’ “Betty and I are farm people and are very proud of that fact – we have been a great team for nearly 62 years.”
In the fifties, Guido started to enter sheep dog trials with other old pioneer ranchers such as the Beebe’s, the Foster’s, and the Ledford’s. “They were very different scenes than at today’s trials and the dogs were a little different too. We mainly had McNab’s but in the late fifties the Border Collis cam over and I started to have them too. They are two different kinds of dog. The McNab is good when they are out of sight working the sheep – you can feel pretty sure that when you get to the sheep there will be no blood. They are stand-up dogs, relaxed. The Border Collie is a creeping dog, intense, superior at lambing time, but if they go out of sight be ready to see some red when you get to the sheep! I didn’t get my first Border Collie until after my granddaughter Vanessa was born, about thirty years ago. That was Margie and I got her from Cy Francis. She was a very good dog, both on the range and on the valley floor and I had another special one in the early fifties – a McNabb Shepherd named Cappy.”
At times Guido has had as many as 25 to 30 dogs and would work about 1000 breeding ewes. “I was fortunate to own sheep and work with those dogs. I could pick out a good one from a litter but you never really know for sure until they are about two years old. You have to be both harsh and soft at the right times when training them – as you would be with children… I would work on horseback with six to eight dogs at a time on hills that were very hard on the dogs. They had to be smarter than the shepherd and be like mountain dogs at times… Over the years many sheep have been lost to coyote attacks so now we have four sheep-protecting dogs, a Giant Pyranee/Akbash mix, living out there with the flocks and haven’t lost any since.”
In 1960 they bought property on Fish Rock Road known as the Redwood Copper Queen Ranch in the hope that they could have their own sheep ranch. It consisted of 800 heavily cut over acres and contained the only registered copper mine in the County which had been mined from1863 to 1914. “I felt I could now start fulfilling my dream of raising a few woolies.” They performed controlled burns to create good feed conditions but they eventually realized that the property was a timber ranch, not suitable for livestock. “Much to my sorrow, I made the decision to back off from the sheep ranch idea and instead planted seedlings of Coastal Redwoods, Douglas Firs, and Pines. I feel good that we brought the land back to producing what was meant to be and we still have that property today.”
Around this time Guido and brother, Angelo, bought property, 200 acres, near to the original homestead on Greenwood Ridge and each had sheep there. Guido had flocks in many other places too, including one at the Yorkville Ranch for fourteen years. They had moved into a bigger cabin on the Mailliard Ranch and lived there for many years but in 1981 part of the Yorkville Ranch became available and Guido, who had had his eye on the property for some time, made his move and bought the 363 acres where they live today. With his sons, he started the Pronsolino Timber Company and logging became another part of his heavy workload as he continued his involvement with the sheep and sheepdogs, cattle, and dabbling in the wine business. However, he never lost sight of the fact that his #1 priority was the Mailliard Ranch. “The job at the Ranch was a beautiful thing for me and my family and I feel very happy that the Ranch is still intact and that the Mailliard grandchildren seem to appreciate all the work that was put in. I’m happy to see that Larry (Mailliard) is at the Ranch and will be the new ramrod out of the pack.”
“I have never been someone to take off on a vacation or a cruise. The only time I leave is for a camping and hunting trip to Modoc. I have always had what I wanted right here in the Valley, between Philo, Vinegar Ridge, and Yorkville, in order to fulfill my boyhood dreams – that’s pretty darn good. I don’t regret not traveling around the world. I kind of wanted to go and see Italy and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii but never did. I did get to Alaska once, on a cruise, and spent hours sat in the ship library looking out at the land, seeing things I never dreamt of seeing. I didn’t know if I was alive or had gone to Heaven. But I am very satisfied to own our land, to work the dogs, to have the livestock, and everything else I’m blessed to have ended up with.”
In the past Guido has served on the School Board, was a big part of The Woolgrowers Association – he was one of the originators of the annual Woolgrowers BBQ and Sheep Dog Trial, he was heavily involved in both County and State Woolgrowers organizations, and was a leader and a very active member for many years on the Farm Bureau, the F.F.A., and 4-H associations. “I have finally decided that is time to close the book. I have done nothing great, many people have done more than me. I was privileged to be in the right place at the right time. I hope I have been of some benefit to the community. If you have a common goal for a community and are constructive then that goal can be reached. I’ve eaten crow in my time quite a bit. I didn’t like it but if you’re wrong, you’re wrong – why not accept that?”
Guido and Betty now live a beautiful home, made from his own redwood and with rock he hauled out of the river. Up until the late spring of this year he was still working every day but his health has deteriorated and he now spends his days at home. He attended the recent Sheep Dog Trial at the County Fair at which he has been the public address announcer for many years. He has been attending the Fair itself since 1931 but believes this past one will be his last… He has many visitors from friends and a large family contingent that includes daughter Janice, son Ron and his wife Jennifer with their grown up kids Kristopher and Vanessa, and younger son Guy and his wife Sandy with their kids Russell and Marcie, not to mention great grandchildren and various nephews and nieces.
“We have a wonderful home and the land is pristine – we worked hard at keeping it that way and have done a good job managing it I think. There’s no spit and polish but the gates are all hanging and swinging…I thank our neighbors of the past who gave me the chance to learn the history and hardships of ranching and open space. I have always followed the phrase ‘Take care of your neighbors and they will take care of you’ and I feel privileged to have grown up here, to have raised my family here, to be a part of this community, and to have lived here all of my life here. I hope I have not stepped on anyone to get what I have. I have done nothing superior to others but feel I have done a good job in my heart; every day is a work day and I have been so fortunate to have ‘Tonto’ (Betty) alongside for the ride – she has been everything to me.”
I asked Guido for his brief responses to some of the topics that are frequently discussed in and around the Valley today… The wineries? – “Any part of our lands is prone to change. Before World War 2, the Valley was in the Stone Age but after the War veterans came back and wanted homes. Forests were cut back a lot here and people in the apple and sheep businesses were not happy with these new arrivals to a point. There were some hard feelings amongst some. However, they soon learned to accept the sale of their lands for the money they could get for timber. The wineries provide jobs and I accept them to a limit. I cannot be judge and jury and see the wineries as the coming of a new age to Anderson Valley. Again a new group of outsiders have arrived to work here and this has brought up more hard feelings. I just hope the wineries do not overdo it and of course I myself grew up with grapes so I cannot criticize.”
The A.V.A. newspaper? – “Ah, Bruce’s Rag. He and I go back a few years and I admire him for what he does. I remember when he and his bride arrived here – she was well liked. Many people either love him or hate him – that’s journalism, I guess. We get the paper every week and he does a good job. I’d like to see him cater more to the agricultural side of the Valley with a weekly column on some aspect of farming etc. I hear that his son Ben is doing a hell of a job with the High School baseball team – baseball was always important in the Valley in my day”… The School System? – “I can only go by what I read these days and I hope they are doing a good job. I was the Chairman of the Board for the Flight program started for the students when Bob Matthias was Supervisor and John Merriman ran it very well. We were ‘tarred and feathered’ by some local people for that but it was successful despite not being popular amongst many. I guess we were viewed then just like those who encourage the wineries are seen today…Then Betty and I still had 99% of our heavy equipment so we set up a vocational training class for the kids to learn about these machines. It too worked well but after three successful years we could no longer get insurance – that was too bad.”…Changes in the Valley? – “It’s fine. My ancestors and then myself had the privilege of moving here and starting anew ourselves. It was apples and wool and then later, timber. Now it’s wine. The Valley needs the tourists, I always said that would be the next thing, although I’d hate to see it get like Pier 39 in San Francisco or see the time when you can’t get a horse and buggy through Boonville safely!”
To end the interview, as I do with every guest interviewee, I posed a few questions to Guido, many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “ ‘That’s gospel’ is something I say a lot – I’m not religious but it’s probably good to get something said in that direction!…’I’m just an old sheepherder, but’ is another favorite saying of mine…And I do have a dog who answers to ‘Jesse Goddammit’ so maybe that tells you another of my words”…
What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “I’m not ‘Mr. Clean’ but I don’t like a lot of profanity, although using some choice words through the day is fine of course.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “The land, the changes of the seasons, the new born lamb’s first wobbles and getting it’s first food from its mother, seeing the trees I planted grow. These kinds of things fulfill me and also effect me spiritually. That’s what it’s all about.
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Losing friends and neighbors when they pass.”
What sound or noise do you love? – “Bagpipes – I introduced them as part of the Sheep Dog Trials.
What sound or noise do you hate? – “Boom boxes – standing and talking with a friend and being interrupted by the noise from one of those is wrong.”
What is your favorite hobby? – “I guess Auctioneering has been my golf.” (Guido has been the caller at auctions all over the State and beyond). “I have done it at many different events, even in Reno years ago where I looked up at the marquee there and saw Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis’ names up there. It kinda hurt that mine wasn’t up there too,” Guido added with a chuckle. “They still call me for the 4th July Auction here in Boonville…I use to love baseball and basketball many years ago and played on the school teams. My brother Angelo was much better than me but I always wore the school colors proudly…I love hunting in Modoc and even tagging ewes is an enjoyable hobby for me while others would say it was work.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “I was always interested in steam engines, airplanes, outer space. I guess flying a plane of some sort would have been a job I’d have liked.”
What profession would you not like to do? – “If you are hungry and have to support others you will do anything I would hope. I guess in the old days collecting garbage would have been tough and not something I would have liked.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? – An emotional Guido answered, “The day I married my bride. I think I’m the luckiest man on Earth…These days I lie in bed and think about the past a lot. I was given a better chance than many and I have been so fortunate. I believe Betty and I have been a very special team and our dreams have been fulfilled.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – Guido held up his hands, “That it was all done with these. I feel good that I’ve been able to spend so much time on the land that I love. Everything I have done has been for family primarily, and continues to be so. I think I did things in the right way and didn’t step on anyone to achieve my dreams.” (Guido’s daughter-in-law, Jennifer, added that so many of the people who have visited Guido since hearing about his illness have commented, ‘he touched my life.’).
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “These Gates are not open wide enough for you to get the sheep in! I’ll make sure you have someone to close it behind you – the good sheep need to be kept in here.”