Stomping Ground: A young city boy fell in love with the Napa Redwoods community
By Robin Lewis
Harold Jachens comes to the redwoods
A hundred years ago, the end of Redwood Road was almost three hours from downtown Napa because most residents still used horse and buggy to travel the one-lane road to get there. The area, known then as the Napa Redwoods, was remote enough—and the air pure enough—that a resort there advertised itself as located in “the Alps of America.” The area’s fir trees, oaks, hillsides and redwood canyon was heaven to a boy named Harold from San Francisco. His family were frequent visitors to the resort and became friends with the resort’s managers, Augustus and Rosie Benkiser. The Jachens eventually bought a nearby piece of property with another family.
The purchase was an investment for Harold’s parents, a place for weekend visits. But, young Harold had other ideas. “I was about nine years old,” he said in a mid-1990s interview. “I couldn’t see why my family should not leave the Redwoods [at the end of our visits] and [instead] go into the ranching business.” But Harold’s father, who was a wine merchant, “would never get his hands dirty as a rancher,” Harold said.
Harold becomes a member
of the community
But that did not stop Harold. Soon, he was coming up to the Napa Redwoods on his own and became a regular member of the community. “I got my family disgusted at me because every Friday afternoon after school I’d go down and get the old ferry boat from San Francisco to Vallejo.” From Vallejo, the electric Interurban train took him to the station on Trancas Street in Napa (from where it continued on to Calistoga). There, the Benkisers—whom he came to call Uncle and Nana—picked him up, and he spent the weekend in hills and valley of the area.
“Then, Sunday afternoon, they’d take me back down to Napa and I’d take the train and the boat back down to San Francisco to school for five days—and pray that Friday would come damn fast.
“And if breaks came with my family and they wanted to go on trips, I wouldn’t go. I was bullheaded enough and I’d always go up with Uncle and Nana and live there.”
Harold becomes a country boy
Over the next few years, Harold gained experience in all kinds of country life, from horseback riding to rattlesnake hunting to picking wine grapes. He became a virtual brother to the Benkiser’s son Justus, known as “Jus,” who was seven years younger than he was.
The Benkisers gave Harold a saddle pony colt that he raised and trained. “His name was Tommy,” Harold said, “just plain old Tommy.” When Harold arrived for the weekend and wanted to see Tommy, “all I had to do was stand at the top of the hill. I’d whistle, and pretty soon I’d hear a neighing, way down, anywhere, scattered every place in the country. Then I’d hear the neigh coming up closer and closer.” And then Tommy would trot out of the oak trees to Harold.
Harold and Jus began to work on horseback with Uncle taking care of cattle for another neighbor Mr. Brown who kept cattle on a hillside piece of property. “Jus and I would take care of all the cattle and then on Sunday, Uncle [Augustus] would go with us to make sure we gave him a true report on the condition of the cattle and of everything else so he could forward it to Mr. Brown.
He and Jus also hunted rattlesnakes both for their skin and for their venom, which was used to make rattlesnake serum. Jus and Harold milked the rattlesnakes themselves. “The sac is laid right along the neck. You’ve got to be careful when you cut it. We’d just puncture the bag and drain it, put it in a bottle.” When the bottle was full, they sent it to a company in Los Angeles that paid them $5 for it. Harold earned enough money in these ways to buy Jus, who was then 10, his first good saddle for $80.
He also helped picked grapes at Castle Rock Vineyards, which was owned by the father of his friend Robert Streich. “We’d start at the top of the hills and work on down because the avenues for Uncle to pick up the boxes were few and far between. So we’d just work down the hill, (filling) these 60 pound lug boxes.” The kids were paid 10 cents a box for picking the grapes and loading them on the wagon to be taken to the crusher.
At about three o’clock in the afternoon, they would call it a day. As Uncle came by in the wagon, he would pick up their final boxes and give them a ride to the winery building. “Then Jus, Bob Streich and I, we’d dash around to the cellar with a cup and we’d get the grape juice flowing out of the crusher. It was wonderful.”
A swimming hole and steelhead trout
“Jus and I would go down in the creek and take a dip.” All of the ranches dammed Redwood Creek for water supplies and to create swimming holes or bathing areas for after work in the fields, making sure the dam was not too high stop the steelhead run. “We had to rebuild the dams every spring because they washed down through the winter time.”
The kids also fished the creek for steelhead with gigs, small barbed spear points carved from obsidian hundreds of years before by Native Americans and found with arrowheads throughout the canyon. The fish migrated past the Jachen property and a neighbor’s small bridge to the falls of a dam that are about eight feet high (shown in main photo at left or at top) and which they could not get over.
“We put the gigs on long sticks, instead of using a fishing line or anything else. We’d just gig the steelhead after they had laid all of their roe. We were always very careful that we only got the ones that had laid their roe in the sands and the gravel.” Tired and spent after their journey and laying their eggs, the steelhead usually floated back down Redwood Creek into Napa to the Napa River where people netted them. “So, we felt we were eligible to take those because they were going to die anyway.”
A second family
Over the years, people noticed how much time Harold spend in the Redwoods, and how much the Benkisers cared for him. “They said, ‘Jeez, he’s your son, August,’ when we’d go on Saturdays shopping into Napa.”
“This area [not San Francisco], I consider to be my home, to be honest with you. To me the Benkisers were more my mother and father than my blood mother and father—because they treated me like a son. What they did for me, no one had ever done. They took me in. I wanted to be on a ranch, and that was it.
This article is based on an interview with Harold Jachens conducted by Dr. Linda Bancke of Napa. The article appeared in the July 12, 2016 issue of the Napa Valley Register.