Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Bread is my favorite food group. My palette would be happy with a grains only diet. So what better park to visit on Thanksgiving weekend celebrating food, harvest and abundance, than Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park.

When the mill was first built by Dr. Edward Bale in 1844, grist mills were a cornerstone of American sustenance, both social and nutritional. Bale Grist Mill was for more than grind and storage. News, gossip, dances and other social events were integral parts of "hanging around the mill."

Thomas Jefferson once said, "There is no neighborhood in any part of the United States without a water grist mill for grinding the corn." The 1840 census showed 23,661 grist mills serving the USA population of 17 million. Prior to the construction of Bale's mill, the locals of what is now Sonoma County had to make a three-day journey to turn their wheat to flour. Bale's grist mill - and originally sawmill as well - were a welcome addition to this new community of pioneers.

Bale Grist Mill is right on Highway 29, halfway between the hot springs of Calistoga and the wineries of St. Helena. It is a compact but pleasant park, with a picnic area. After walking across the mill-creek, pumpkins, scarecrows and other harvest decor welcome you to the Visitor's Center and Museum.

A $3.00 entry fee entitles you to view the museum and to a 45-minute tour of the mill. The museum is filled with day-to-day items used back in the day. A dozen or so 4x8 foot flats tell the mill's story. As with many early pioneers, the history is colorful and not without it's ambiguities.

An English surgeon, Dr. Edward Bale attended several British medical schools, always leaving on the lam when he fell behind on his school fees. With debtors prison at his heels, he bailed on the British Isles and joined the whaling ship "Harriet" as its surgeon.

No one knows for certain if he jumped ship, or if the ship went down, but Dr. Bale appeared alone on the shores of Monterey (the capitol of then Mexican California), near death from hypothermia and claiming to be the sole survivor of a sinking ship.

At that time Mexico was awarding generous land grants in order to populate it's California territory and protect it from other nation invaders from the sea, and from pioneers now arriving from the eastern United States. Dr. Bale was hopeful of receiving a land grant, and set about meeting the three criteria Mexico required. First, through interviews, it was determined he was not a criminal. Second, he converted to Catholicism. And finally, he became a Mexican citizen by serving one year as a surgeon in the Mexican army. He and his new wife Maria - niece of General Vallejo - were awarded 18,000 acres in the area that now encompasses the towns of Calistoga to Rutherford.

The mill wheel we see today is not the original. The first was only a twenty foot wheel, using the often too soft granite rock for the stones, and as mills go was mediocre in its production. The current mill was redesigned by Maria, has a thirty-six foot wheel, and replaces the granite with the harder quarzite.

Today, many folks consider this "Maria's Mill" rather than Dr. Bale's. After bearing six children in six years, Maria got a break from both childbirth and from Dr. Bale's rascally behavior when he left for the gold fields in 1848. Gun fights and illegal sales of alcohol landed him in jail on more than one occasion. As with most, his dream of making a fortune in gold was never realized. He returned home, but become ill and died at the age of 38. Likely speculations as to the the cause of death include stomach cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.

Maria, now left with all of her husband's debt, rebuilt the mill to a higher standard with a 36 foot over-shot water wheel, and made her children's education a priority, sending them to the finest schools in Santa Clara, Boston and England. Eventually through hard work and creative financing, she paid off her debt, and willed the mill to her oldest daughter Isadora.

Over the next few decades the mill changed hands several times, with constant improvements, until in 1885 the last miller was let go. The growing California population now needed mills that produced a higher volume than the modest Bale Grist Mill. In 1905 the mill was closed for good.

Between 1988 and 2000 assorted repairs and restorations were made, and the mill is once again a functioning mill during the week, with tours on the weekend.

Our tour guide Scott showed us how the mill could be run by one individual, a competent miller, with the occasional assistance of apprentices known as "dusties." He adjusted gears, stripped ears of corn, and explained the origin of several phrases in the English language.

"Run of the mill" and "fair to midland" both originated in the milling environment referring to everyday grains and flours. The miller had to "keep his nose to the grindstone" to make certain the two large grindstones never touched, running only thousandths of an inch apart. The two wheels needed to balance perfectly, with the top wheel and it's "cock" sitting perfectly on the lower wheel's "eye." Thus, at one time, "cockeyed" meant perfectly balanced, quite the opposite of today.

The teeth of the gears are made of wood to prevent sparking. Flour dust is highly flammable and in the days before electric light, only natural light was allowed - no candles or gaslights - so as to prevent explosions.

Finally, the flour is produced, bagged and sold. Well, it used to be sold. Now it is available for a donation. As of 2011 the mill no longer meets state health requirements, so the bags of flour are marked "Not for Human Consumption." The problem? Not the milling process, but rather building code issues. Pristine, nonpourous floors and stainless steel appliances are not a part of this historic mill. So the flour can no longer be officially "sold." I gave a donation for a stoneground bag of spelt and one of polenta. This particular human fully intends to happily consume this "unsterile" product.

Although I lingered at Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park for nearly three hours, it can be fully seen in 60-90 minutes. It's an easy visit for anyone wine-tasting or mud-bathing in Calistoga. And the good news! The parks proposal for a partnership with a supporting non-profit organization has been accepted in Sacramento, and the chances are very good that this delightful park will remain open.

Now! Pass me a big old honkin' chunk of butter.

See you at the parks.


Thursday, November 24, 2011


The trains at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park run on weekends from April through October, the steam train on Saturdays and the diesel train on Sundays. I squeaked in on the last Saturday in October - Halloween! - for a ride on the steam train with it's "skeleton crew." As it turns out, Santa's Starlight Express and the Santa Day Trains run on Thanksgiving weekend and the weekend before Christmas, so there's still a chance to spend a thoroughly enjoyable day at this State Park before they close for the winter.

It was a perfect day for the 90 mile drive to Jamestown, combining the clear blue skies of summer with autumn color and a hint of crispness in the air. My dog Roxy and her "aunties" Patty and Jeannie piled into my car. Driving through the quaint towns of Jackson, San Andreas, and Angels Camp, I had to fight the urge to stop and explore the many historic markers along the way. I vowed to rent a cabin in Calaveras County sometime in the future and spend a week visiting them all!

Once in Jamestown we stopped at a local mini-market to pick up a picnic lunch. In the spirit of the hallowed holiday, a buxom, matronly clerk with pink and yellow hair (and the proverbial "heart of gold") offered to apply colored hairspray to all who entered the store. I opted for a couple of blue streaks down the back of my long dark brown hair while Jeannie went for a few swatches of pink, filling the market with hairspray fumes and choking the other customers.

Lunch acquired, we drove the half mile to the park. Before eating, we purchased tickets for the 2:00pm train ride, as sometimes they sell out in advance. Tickets range in price from $6.00 - $13.00 depending on age and where you sit. The train runs on the hour with the last ride at 3:00pm. Ditto for the walking tour of the roundhouse.

The Sierra Railway Company was formed in 1897 by Thomas Bullock who had logging and mining interests in the area. Bullock owned three locomotives and several miles of track due to his failed railway in Arizona. With investment assistance from William Crocker and Crocker's brother-in-law Prince Andre Poniatowski, they developed this short-line railroad to Oakdale where they hooked up with the Southern Pacific Railroad to serve the growing Sacramento and San Francisco areas.

In 2010 the Sierra 3 Loco-motive was fully restored
(see video)
and now whistled and rumbled in the background during our picnic. Our lunch was enhanced by the Oakdale Model A Club exhibiting their cars on this particular day. Roxy behaved, promising not to make the white walls yellow.

An impressive variety of loco-motives, passenger and freight cars are strewn about the park, awaiting restoration. Train parts and tools are everywhere. This is an active, working facility. While explor-ing the park, I had to frequently walk on or cross a railroad track. I noticed that even when that track was nonfuctioning or went nowhere, the fact that I could hear the train and sometimes feel it's rumble, made me want to nervously jump off the tracks. A lifetime of horror stories about getting stuck on railroad tracks (Mighty Mouse anyone?) are apparently deeply ingrained.

Since 1919 the Sierra Railroad has starred in more than 200 movies, TV shows and commercials. Its freight hauling days were ending, but the trains were still being used by Hollywood.
With everything from miles of tracks, a wealth of old trains and a rugged "old west" landscape, the motion picture industry helped keep the railway afloat during tough economic times and prevented the locomotives and cars from becoming wartime scrap metal.

Movie memorabilia is scattered about. There are old movie posters, John Wayne's handcar, and a screen backdrop for your own photo-op (or your dog's). I found myself wishing for some rope so that I could take a picture of myself tied up on the tracks.

The water tower from Petticoat Junction's Shady Rest Hotel sits at the back of the park amidst as lot of "train stuff." Clint Eastwood is one of this steam locomotive’s co-stars and supporters. Says Eastwood, “The Sierra No. 3 is like a treasured old friend. Early in my career, I rode Sierra No. 3 on the television series Rawhide. Over twenty years later, I returned to use No. 3 for my own productions Pale Rider and Unforgiven. Even in the business of ‘make believe,’ you can’t beat the real thing." A complete list of film and television appearances are at the end of the blog.

We boarded the Sierra 3 Movie Train for the 2:00pm ride. This being Halloween weekend we had a "skeleton crew." The train was decorated with orange and black spiders, skeletons and the like. Many children were in costume. A few Steam Punk folks were on board. Roxy was allowed to ride as well, although I would be remiss if I didn't say that the "official" policy is that only services dogs are allowed on the train.

The forty-five minute ride crosses the highway, rolls through the backyards of foothill homes as well as as rugged western landscapes, and ends at a quarry. Here the train stops while the engine is moved to the other end of the train for the return trip. There's a stop at the water tower to "refuel," and then back to the station where we embarked on our guided tour through the roundhouse.

The round house is of course, where the locomotives rest at night and where restoration and repair work occur. Grease, large holes in the ground for working on the train's undersides, metal shavings, machinery and tools of all kinds fill the building, including items that are no longer used but part of the history of the trains and how things were "in the old days." Our tour guide was both personable and knowledgable, allowing us to roam fairly freely while cautioning us when necessary. He was able to flag all of the questions from the more mechanical types (which doesn't include me.) I'm probably in the bottom 10 percent when it comes to mechanical aptitude, but I've always loved taking pictures of mechanical things. Their mere shape and power alone hold a fascination for me.

A few of the walls had some markings from years gone by, noting the weather conditions on a given day. I love finding writings in old buildings from former inhabitants. It somehow makes history come alive.

The day's finale - and for me the most exciting part - was watching Sierra 3 brought back to the roundhouse. As she whistled and puffed back to her stable, I was allowed to stand within a few feet of the track as she passed by, a genuine thrill! The turntable was built in 1922, and she was given a full 360 degree spin for our viewing pleasure. Then, slowly, grandly and with great dignity, Sierra 3 was put to bed as the doors were closed behind her. Wow! Suddenly, I "got" the fascination with trains that so many people have.

There were only moments left now before the park closed, not nearly enough time to see the film, but perhaps enough time to gather a bit more information and hurriedly talk with some of the volunteers. I spoke with several folks who said that they weren't supposed to discuss politics (ie the park closure) but to a person no one at Railtown 1897 believes it's going to close. They are associated with the Sacramento Railroad Museum and have 150 volunteers donating over 29,000 hours annually. They all plan on the park taking it's winter break as per usual, and reopening - as per usual - in April.

I hope so. The trains were certainly full for every ride and the roundhouse tours were well attended. This park certainly does not suffer from lack of love. They are running the trains Thanksgiving weekend and the weekend before Christmas. It's a great place for a family outing, and then you can come home and watch Back to the Future III or one of the many other films shot here and say, "I was there!"

Hope to see you at the parks.


PS - Remember to check the list of movies and TV shows below!


1919 The Red Glove
1929 The Virginian
1930 The Texan
1932 The Conquerors
1934 The Lone Cowboy
1935 County Chairman
1936 Conflict
1937 North of the Rio Grande
1937 The Toast of New York
1938 In Old Chicago
1939 Dodge City
1940 My Little Chickadee
1940 Young Tom Edison
1940 When the Daltons Rode
1940 Return of Jessie James
1940 Wyoming
1940 Santa Fe Trail
1940 Go West
1946 Duel of the Sun
1949 Whispering Smith
1950 Wyoming Mail
1951 Sierra Passage
1951 The Great Missouri Raid
1951 The Texas Rangers
1951 Drums in the Deep South
1951 The Cimarron Kid
1952 High Noon
1953 Kansas Pacific
1953 The Moonlighter
1954 Apache
1955 Rage at Dawn
1955 Return of Jack Slade
1955 Texas Lady
1957 The Big Land
1958 Terror in Texas Town
1958 Man of the West
1959 Face of a Fugitive
1964 The Outrage
1965 The Great Race
1966 The Rare Breed
1968 The Perils of Pauline
1968 Finian’s Rainbow
1969 A Man Called Gannon
1969 The Great Man’s Whiskers
1971 Joe Hill
1971 Nichols
1972 Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
1972 No Place to Run
1972 Let Me Tell You a Song
1973 Slither
1973 Oklahoma Crude
1976 Bound for Glory
1976 Nickelodeon
1977 The World’s Greatest Lover
1978 The Last of His Tribe
1978 Last Ride of the Dalton Gang
1978 Fast Charlie, the Moonbeam Rider
1979 The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
1980 The Long Riders
1980 The Gambler
1980 Sawyer and Finn
1982 Shadow Riders
1983 Gambler II
1984 Chattanooga Choo Choo
1987 Blood Red
1990 Back to the Future III
1992 Unforgiven
1994 Bad Birls
1995 Colors of a Brisk and Leaping Day
2001 Redemption of the Ghost


1956 The Lone Ranger
1957 Tales of Wells Fargo
1957 Casey Jones
1960 Overland Trails
1960 Rawhide
1961-2 Lassie
1962 The Raiders
1965-6 Death Valley Days
1963-5 Petticoat Junction
1964-6 The Big Valley
1964 The Wild Wild West
1965-6 The Legend of Jesse James
1965 The F. B. I.
1965 Scalplock
1967 Cimarron Strip