Stalking Perry Mason: Following the Footsteps of Erle Stanley Gardner in Ventura

What’s not to like about a lawyer who got kicked out of law school?! His best-selling Perry Mason novels aside, Erle Stanley Gardner would still be legendary for that un-lawyerly feat!

Erle Stanley Gardner with his signature pipe.

Born in 1889 in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner managed to stay enrolled at Valparaiso University’s law school for only a few short months. Legend has it that Gardner was sent packing after organizing an underground boxing match in which he himself became a pugilist. It probably didn’t help that Gardner also claimed to have slugged a professor.

Never mind his lack of a formal law degree. Gardner managed to get himself admitted to the California Bar by passing the test in 1911 at age 21. He’d spent three years working as a typist at a law firm in Oxnard, so perhaps that experience gave him sufficient insight into the mysteries of the profession.

The following year (1912), Gardner eloped with one of the secretaries at the firm, Natalie Talbert. A hasty wedding it may have been, but the marriage lasted — officially, at least — until Natalie’s death some 57 years later.

The former Ventura County Courthouse where Gardner practiced – now Ventura City Hall.

Gardner had his own law practice in Merced for a short time. Then in 1915 he was invited to join the trial law firm of Frank Orr in Ventura. He abandoned law briefly in 1917, working instead as a salesman. But by 1921 he was back doing trial work for the Ventura firm. He seemed to most love representing legal underdogs: “I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.

Meanwhile, Gardner was trying his hand at writing pulp fiction on the side. His typewriter clacked late into the night in the study over his garage. But would-be writers can identify with Gardner’s early tribulations. His initial efforts produced only a growing pile of rejection slips. Finally, in 1921, Gardner’s first short story appeared in print. Some claim it was “The Shrieking Skeleton.” Others say it was the equally-alliterative “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” a bit of pulp fiction that generated all of $15 bucks. (Gardner’s mother reportedly refused to read it.) But Gardner had found his true calling. Over the next decade, he would crank out an astonishing 600 short stories and novelettes in his spare time.

The Ventura Pier today.

A daughter was born in 1923. Gardner would soon happily begin teaching her to fish off the nearby Ventura Pier.

Things were apparently going well in his professional life, too. In 1926, Gardner’s law firm moved into offices in a newly-completed bank building at the corner of California and Main. Although Main Street itself was still unpaved, the building boasted the finest accoutrements, from sparkling chandeliers to the city’s very first elevator.

Gardner’s office was in this building at 21 California St., Ventura

The four-story office building was conveniently situated in the heart of downtown, with the Ventura Courthouse just a short walk up the hill. Gardner was able to enjoy some of the finer things that Ventura had to offer, including steak dinners at his favorite Pierpont Inn.

As Gardner’s publishing credits began to grow, his agent encouraged him to try his hand at book-length works. And there in his third-floor law office in 1932, Gardner would crank out the opening pages of what would become his first Perry Mason novel. Some say it took him a mere three days to finish his first draft.

Front door of Gardner’s office building.

The book, “The Case of the Velvet Claw,” debuted in 1933 and became an immediate success. Soon, Gardner was spending just two days a week as a lawyer. The rest of his time was devoted to writing. Before long, Gardner gave up law entirely and devoted himself to writing full-time.

Although he pounded out stories at first as a two-fingered typist, Gardner quickly figured out that he could produce far more by dictating. A chance encounter with Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn (where she worked as a hostess) led Gardner to offer Agnes a job as his secretary. The dictation system worked so well that he soon hired her two sisters as secretaries, too.

Gardner met his secretary, long-time companion and eventual wife Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn.

Some sources say Gardner set himself a goal of 4,000 words a night; others say his target was 10,000 words every three days. He regularly churned out some 100,000 words a month. That meant he could produce between three and six books a year — a track record that would make him any writer’s idol!

Gardner and first wife Natalie acquired a newly-built home on Foster Avenue about 1936. But Gardner himself didn’t live there long. Although they never formally divorced, the couple lived separately beginning about 1935. In 1937 Gardner purchased “Rancho del Paisano” in Temecula. It would be his home for the rest of his life.

Natalie passed away in 1968. A few months later, Gardner married his long-time secretary and companion, Agnes.  He was 79 years old. Gardner lived just two another years, passing away of cancer at his home in Temecula in 1970.

All-told, Gardner authored nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring the quintessential sleuth, Perry Mason. His books have been translated into 71 languages, making him the most-translated American author. Despite this incredible record, Gardner claimed “no natural aptitude” as a writer. He was simply a “good plotter,” he once said — and oh yes, “one hell of a good salesman.” His goal was to offer his readers “sheer fun.” And readers loved it.

The historic plaque on Gardner’s former office building at 21 California St., Ventura.

Today, modern-day Perry Mason fans can still follow in Erle Stanley Gardner’s footsteps on a visit to Ventura. A bronze plaque flags the downtown building on California Street where Gardner had his third-floor law office — and drafted his first Perry Mason tale. The Courthouse just up the hill (now Ventura’s City Hall) is where Gardner, as a real-life lawyer, once argued tenaciously on behalf of his clients. The Ventura pier where Gardner taught his daughter to fish has since been rebuilt, but still juts out proudly into the Pacific. The Pierpont Inn, where Gardner tucked into delicious steak dinners and where he met Agnes Jean Bethell, remains an iconic Ventura attraction.

The former Gardner home at 4240 Foster Ave, Ventura, listed by eXp Realty.

And you’re really eager to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, you can even purchase Gardner’s former home at 2420 Foster Avenue. It’s two stories, 2,770 square feet, with a killer view overlooking town. And it’s on sale right now for just $1.79 million.

For further reading:

IMDb biography of Gardner

Kingston Pierce blog

“Thrilling Detective” blog 

L.A. Times story by Jane Hulse (1/11/1996) 

L.A. Times story by Gary Gorman (9/23/1990) 

Wikitree

Wikipedia

And the eXp Realty listing for 2420 Foster Ave

Vegan Ventura Vacay – Part 2

Ventura Sites & Sights:

Our trip to Ventura, California was a fun “Vegan Vacay” – we dined our way through some fabulous restaurants! (For our vegan eatery itinerary, check out Part 1 of this story!) And of course there are plenty of sights to see and things to do in Ventura, as well. Here are some of our favorites!

Inside the old Buenaventura Mission church.

San Buenaventura Mission and Church Museum: 211 E. Main Street. The Old Ventura Mission was the last of six missions personally founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra. This was actually the third church built on this site: the first was destroyed by fire; a second effort was abandoned when the door “gave way”. This third church was finally completed in 1809, 33 years and one day after Fr. Serra first celebrated Mass on this site. Mass is still regularly celebrated here.

Chumash basketry at the Mission Museum.

Visitors can tour the beautiful Mission church and grounds, and stroll the Mission Museum and gift shop. www.sanbuenaventuramission.org.

Pottery recovered during excavation of the Mission grounds.

Albinger Archaeological Museum:  113 E. Main Street. Right next to the Mission, this fabulous free museum displays artifacts that have been found at excavations nearby. Items found from the Mission period include millstones, crucifixes, bottles, pottery and buttons. Archaeologists also discovered Native American artifacts dating back 3,500 years, including bone whistles, arrowheads, and shell beads. An interpretive walk outside lets you see the actual site that was excavated, including an earth oven dating to 300 B.C. and a well serving the Mission occupants in 1844. https://tinyurl.com/y63mbrq6

Valdez Alley/Eastwood Park: Look for the sign beside the Archaeological Museum to find this easy-to-miss stairway leading up the hillside to the remains of a historic “filtration building.” Constructed under the direction of one of the Franciscan Friars in 1792, this old brick structure helped bring clean water to the early residents of the Ventura Mission.

Peering inside the Ortega Adobe.

Ortega Adobe:  The carefully preserved adobe of the Emigdio Ortega family can be found at 215 W. Main Street; there’s easy parking in the back. Son Emilio Ortega gained fame as the founder of the Ortega Chile Company, making chili sauce in his mother’s kitchen here in 1897. The Adobe itself is not open for visitors to walk inside, but you can stand in the (barred) doorways and peek inside. We especially admired the gardens around the outside, including trees that (we’re guessing) were popular in Ventura’s early days: olives, pistachios, and pomegranates (which had fruit on them when we arrived!) https://www.cityofventura.ca.gov/640/Ortega-Adobe

Although we didn’t manage to visit, there’s also an Olivas Adobe to visit at 4200 Olivas Park Drive — the restored home of one of the early settlers, it dates to 1847. The grapes and fuchsias in its front yard are both said to be over a century old.

Father Serra’s statue gazes out over the town of Ventura, with the old Courthouse (now City Hall) behind.

Courthouse & Father Serra Statue:  501 Poli St. Today used as Ventura’s City Hall, this iconic white stone building was originally built as Ventura Courthouse. The 1937 statue of Father Serra out front was initially sculpted in concrete during the WPA days. Weathering of the concrete artwork led to it being replaced with the current bronze replica in 1989. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ventura_County_Courthouse; https://visitventuraca.com/business/father-serra-statue/

Grant  Park – Take a drive up the hill above City Hall to find a scenic overlook, then all the way to the top of Grant Park for amazing views of the city and the historic Serra Cross. Father Serra himself is said to have erected a wooden cross here in 1782, and ships once used the prominent landmark for navigation. There are botanical gardens here as well. We found a “pop-up yoga” class getting started on the lawn when we arrived! https://visitventuraca.com/business/serra-cross-park-at-grant-park/; www.VenturaBotanicalGardens.com

Two fabulous used-book bookstores: Bibliophiles are in for a treat at Bank of Books used bookstore at 748 E. Main. Check out their offering of fabulous vintage magazines, too. And I could disappear for years in the Calico Cat bookshop at 495 E. Main; definitely one of my favorite stops of the trip! https://visitventuraca.com/business/bank-of-books/; http://www.calicocatbooks.com/

Cool brickwork and ironwork adorn buildings in downtown Ventura.

Stroll  downtown Ventura’s Main Street for some fun and eclectic shops, and don’t forget to look up to check out the interesting architecture here, as well. You’ll find great old brickwork and ironwork adorning the fronts of the old downtown shops.

If you love old buildings, there’s also a fabulous Historic Walking Tour that will take you to 36 of Ventura’s historic sites and buildings. (Pick up a brochure with map at the Visitor Center, 101 S. California St., or you can find it right here: http://www.itqw2019.com/public/files/Ventura_history_map.pdf).

Stop in for coffee at Secret Gardens.

Secret Gardens Florist at 677 E. Main is more than just a florist; their downtown coffee shop is a great place for a pick-me-up cuppa joe. (And as the name implies, you can buy flowers, here, too.) https://www.secretgardensflorist.com/Content/AboutUs

Ventura Pier

The Ventura Pier is historic in itself. Today it’s 1,700 feet long, with food and other concessions. Find a convenient parking garage at the end of California Street (at Harbor Boulevard); just $2 bucks to park for an hour. Fish, picnic, or just stroll out and watch the surfers lining up to catch the waves — Ventura boasts some of the best surfing anywhere! http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=600

Ventura’s Post Office Murals are open to the public.

Post Office Murals by Gordon Kenneth Grant: 675 W.Santa Clara. Stop in to see the famous WPA-era murals painted by artist Gordon K. Grant in 1936-37 at the downtown Ventura Post Office. These folk-style paintings showcase the “industries and agriculture” of Ventura in a beautifully stylized way. Other murals by this talented artist have since been painted over, but Ventura’s have been preserved and remain open for the public to enjoy — for free. https://visitventuraca.com/blog/ventura-post-office-gordon-k-grant-mural/

A pygmy mammoth is one of the displays at Channel Islands Nat’l Park

Channel Islands National Park & National Marine Sanctuary:  This free visitor center includes informative displays about the Channel Islands flora and fauna, plus a gift shop. Find information here about whale-watching and wildlife cruises as well as full- or half-day trips to the Channel Islands. Find the Park at the very end of Spinnaker Dr., past Ventura Harbor Village (a classic tourist venue with lots of shops, dining, and activities). https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm, https://www.venturaharborvillage.com/.

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Pick up the Local Lingo:  Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s old-time drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Use the term and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)

Vegan Ventura Vacay – Part 1

Ventura, California. It’s been called the “most under-rated beach town in America.” And frankly, that’s why we love it.

Tucked between the L.A. bustle and Santa Barbara glitz, Ventura’s undiscovered energy makes this coastal burg even more special. It’s pedestrian-friendly, temperate year-round, and right on the ocean. Despite recent growth, it’s kept the small-town feel. And oh, did I mention the Ventura sunsets?

Unlike its sister town, uber-hip Ojai, Ventura doesn’t especially tout its vegan offerings. But those sunsets and ocean breezes were calling, so a friend and I set out together for a two-day “vegan vacation” in Ventura. Could we make it work?!

Bottom line: Teasing out vegan venues took a bit of digging here. But what we discovered was well worth the hunt! Foodies can find great vegan options here. So we wanted to share the juice!

Vegan Eats:

Vegan Mussamun curry with red rice.

It was a long drive to get there. But our first vegan dinner made the trip worthwhile: Thai food at Rice 2 By Mama, 583 E. Main Street. (Don’t be confused by yet another “Rice by Mama” just to the west — that one is so popular it’s hard to get into on a Sat. night, but Rice 2 isn’t far away!) You’ll find many vegan options to choose from; we dug into Mussamun and Panang Curries. Be sure to try their delicious, nutty “red rice.”

The Busy Bee features cheerful red-and-white decor, vinyl seats, and old-time juke-boxes on the wall.

If you decide to stay at the Bella Maggiore Hotel, as we did (see below), the Busy Bee Cafe, 478 E. Main Street, is a must for breakfast. It’s literally right around the corner from the hotel. (For the in-crowd, there’s even a closer entrance off the alley!) The Busy Bee is a Ventura classic — not to be missed, if only for the decor. Think iconic red-and-white tiles, old-fashioned juke boxes at each table, and waitresses with coin-changers at their waists.

Avocado toast and homemade pico de gallo at Busy Bee.

The menu is pure down-home American. But with a little ingenuity you can create vegan options that work. I started with an order of their hearty whole wheat toast, slathered it with a side of sliced fresh avocado, and topped those wedges off with Busy Bee’s tasty homemade pico de gallo. Bee-utiful! 

Don’t miss the vegan samosas at Himalaya.

For lunch, we found our way to Himalaya, 35 W. Main Street, a restaurant boasting Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan food. Tucked into a shopping center at the corner of Ventura Avenue (just north of Main), the restaurant is a former Taco Bell location. Vegetarians will be delighted to discover a whole page of vegetarian options on the menu, and vegan options are helpfully flagged. And the food was amazing! We started with a shared order of Tadka dal (yellow lentils with Indian spices/vegan), and splurged on a house favorite, Saag naan (traditional naan bread stuffed with spinach dip — a non-vegan naan variation, as it included sour cream, but so good!)

Be sure to try an order of their wonderful vegan Samosas  – little towers of a deep fried potato/pea mixture, accompanied by two sauces: tamarind (red) and mint (green and a little spicy).   While you’re relaxing, browse the shelves of traditional crafts from Nepal, Tibet and India, including figurines and artisan-made clothing.

Nature’s Grill offers lots of vegetarian options – just tell ’em to skip the cheese to go vegan.

For our second night’s dinner we stopped into Nature’s Grill & Juice Bar  – 566 E. Main – Vegan options include a creatively veggie-filled vegetarian chili (including corn, carrots and black olives) and sweet cornbread; just ask them to hold the usual cheese. My travel partner ordered the “Old Town” salad (brown rice, tomato, guacamole, and carrots) — again, just ask them to leave off the feta cheese to make it vegan.

Breakfast granola at Harvest Cafe with fresh fig on top.

Our third morning opened with breakfast at Harvest Cafe – 175 S. Ventura Avenue, Suite B. We were surprised to find no dedicated parking lot, but there’s plenty of street parking a short walk away. The Harvest Cafe proudly displays its “Ocean-friendly” rating, and it’s certified as a “Ventura Green Business.” And their menu is completely gluten-free. I opted for the “Golden Protein Porridge Bowl”: oats, quinoa, buckwheat groats, coconut, banana, raisins, nut butter, flavored with tumeric and cinnamon. Delightfully sweet to the tongue despite no added sugar. My companion chose the “Cashew Yogurt Bowl”:  house-made granola and yogurt, topped with a delightful fresh fig!

Light and delightful: Zack’s vegan tomato soup and passionfruit tea.

Lunch was at Zack’s Cafe, 1095 Thompson Blvd. — an experience so unique it deserved its own write-up! The menu is upscale Italian crossed with farm-to-table foodie. They’ll happily adjust anything on the menu for food preferences, and vegan options were easy to find. We ordered a delightfully light tomato soup, laden with floating bread cubes and topped with ribbons of fresh basil. For the main course we split a tostada salad topped with a mixture of grilled vegetables, all presented on a (homemade) baked whole wheat tostada. And don’t forget to try their passionfruit iced tea!

Maria Bonita is bright and cheerful, with original art on the walls.

Our farewell-to-Ventura dinner was a lower-Main Street find: Maria Bonita, 256 E. Main St. The decor’s a blend of colorful folk art (think Frida Kahlo) mixed with an Old Mexico flair.

The tortilla chips were thick, hearty deep-fried wedges. Be prepared: the homemade salsa is super-fiery but excellent! Vegan options are limited here, but the black bean-and-rice soup makes a wonderful meatless meal in itself. Vegetarians and pescatarians will find many more choices. In addition to the bean soup, the vegetarian in our party tried a cheese-and-veggie quesadilla, which came sizzled to perfection on a grill, blessedly light and free of extra oil.

Cool B&B Stays:

The Bella Maggiore on Ventura’s California Street.

We relished our stay at the marvelous “Bella Maggiore” – 67 S. California St. Located on California Street, the Bella is an easy walk to everything downtown. The hotel is an updated 1930s classic that’s retained its Old World charm.

We were greeted by live guitar music in the courtyard when we arrived, along with complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres.

The courtyard.

Fresh flowers were liberally distributed throughout the hotel, and the concierge was extra-helpful when we had questions. Don’t forget to ask about the ghost of “Sylvia,” a former inhabitant from the hotel’s red-light past, who supposedly lingers in Room #17 — said to be one of the hotel’s most-requested rooms!

The Bella left us chocolates on the pillow. An old-world touch canopy adorned the bed.

Our amazingly large room on the second floor featured not only a fireplace but a padded window seat, perfect for lounging the afternoon away with a great book. (Check out the local bookstores we visited in Part 2, “Sites & Sights”!) Vintage antique faucets have been lovingly preserved in the luxuriously-large bath. And a packet of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory chocolates on the pillow made us feel extra-welcome.

For our second night, we stayed at the “Inn at the Beach” — 1175 S. Seaward. A newer building decorated to look like a Victorian B&B inside, the Inn reminded us a bit of the home of a well-loved aunt: gracious and welcoming, but in need of a carpet clean. Staffing at the front desk doesn’t start until 7 a.m., so if you plan to check out early you’ll be asked to just drop your key card and they’ll gladly email a receipt.

Inn at the Beach, Ventura.

The beds were comfy and the rates terrific. And best of all, it is literally right on the beach. Be sure to ask for a room with an ocean-side view! Big sighs as we watched windsurfers cavort in the waves from our second-floor balcony. We snapped lots of can’t-wait-to-come-back photos of the sunset over the ocean.

I have a feeling we’ll be back. Soon.

A final sunset over the ocean.

And check out Part 2 of this story:  Ventura Sites & Sights to enjoy while you’re visiting Ventura!

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HIP TIP:   Pick up the Local Lingo Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s oldest drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this main north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Try it and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)

Cafe Zack: A Foodie Find & A Hero’s Tale

It was the last day of our Ventura vacation when we wandered into Cafe Zack for lunch. You won’t find it jostling its culinary competition among the bright lights of downtown. Instead, Zack’s welcomes guests more quietly from a charming bungalow closer to midtown. A fairy-tale garden cascades beside the front steps, a tiny hint of the magic that awaited us inside.

Someone has a great eye for colors, shapes, and textures in this cascading planter — a warm welcome to Cafe Zack’s.

We’d settled in at a table by the window and were checking out the menu when our energetic host appeared. “Welcome to Cafe Zack,” he beamed. “I’m Hector Gomez, the owner. Try the passion fruit iced tea. It’s very good.” It was like a thousand-volt jolt of lightning had just entered the room.

Hector is clearly passionate about his restaurant. And he’s equally passionate about pleasing guests. Looking for something vegan? He’ll pop in the back and chat with the chef, just for you. Trying to avoid gluten? No worries; they’ll happily make your dish gluten-free.

It didn’t take us long to realize that both Hector and his cafe were totally extraordinary. The food, for one thing, was amazing. The bread was fresh; the passion fruit tea as refreshing as promised.

Refreshing passion fruit tea was a great pairing with delicate tomato soup. And oh, that fresh basil!

The tomato soup when it arrived (laden with glorious chunks of bread) was delicately-seasoned and sprinkled with fresh licorice-basil ribbons on top. Our tostada salad came piled high with grilled fresh vegetables and rested on a baked (not deep-fried, thank you) whole wheat tortilla. Yumm.

Grilled vegetable salad.

But the real treat was getting to meet Hector. When he told us he was approaching his 19th anniversary as owner of Cafe Zack, we asked where he’d come from and how he’d happened to buy this special place. So he pulled up a chair and told us.

Turns out his story is worthy of a Horatio Alger novel — a real-life fairy tale come true. The saga (and it is a saga) of how Hector became the Cafe Zack’s proud owner is a testament to both his willingness to leap and never giving up. We asked if anyone had ever written a story about him. Hector just shook his head slightly at the odd question, as if what he’s done is nothing special.

No, it’s definitely special. It’s hero’s journey worth celebrating, an ode to hard work, a message of inspiration. We’re tickled to be able to pass the wonderful story of Hector and Cafe Zack along to you.

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Hector’s arrival in the world was a tad, well, inconvenient. He was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to a mother who wasn’t married and an airline-executive father who was — to someone else.

When he was eleven months old, Hector’s mother went off to seek work in the States, leaving him in the arms of his grandmother. “I first met my mom ten years later, when I was eleven,” he says with a shrug. There’s no trace of animosity as he describes his parents. “They had their own lives.”

Grandmother Elia was good to him. But counting Hector, her household numbered eleven people, spanning four generations, all in one tiny house. And out of those eleven, Elia was the only breadwinner. She worked as a maid for a local family in a private residence.

By the age of 8 or 9, Hector began walking a mile after school every day to the home where Elia worked, to help his grandmother. “I would sweep floors, I learned to clean pools,” he says with a shrug. And when her usual workday was over, Elia sometimes would walk the neighborhood, knocking on doors to ask if there were clothes she could wash or iron to bring in extra money. Hector would help his grandmother carry two big metal wash buckets loaded with laundry down to the river, a mile and a half from their home. Elia would beat the clothes on rocks there to scrub them clean.

One day when he was 12, Hector announced he was going to find a job. “I want to help you,” he told his grandmother firmly. He requested permission to serve as a greeter at a local restaurant, opening taxi doors for arriving guests and offering a hand to help ladies out of the cab. “I made that my little business,” Hector smiles. “I wasn’t on the restaurant’s payroll, but sometimes guests would tip me.” A few months later, he moved up to a job as a dishwasher. He was 13 years old.

At 14, Hector begged a manager at another local hotel for a job as a busboy. The man quibbled about his age and tried twice to turn him away. “Don’t pay me,” Hector pleaded. “I just want to learn.” The man relented, and Hector spent the next year and a half as an unpaid “busboy for the busboys,” pulling silverware and cleaning ash trays. “I worked hard. Really hard,” he says. “And I did it for no pay.” There’s a far-away look in his eye, as if he’s remembering. “Sometimes I made a little in tips from the busboys. But there were also days when there were no tips at all. I’d come home cussing.”

Those were the nights his grandmother would console him. “Just remember, mijo, you are there to learn,” she told him. “Someday it will pay off. One day you’ll have your own restaurant.”

Hector finally got a real job as a busboy when he was 16. He looked up to some of the waiters at the restaurant (“my favorites”), who “dressed so beautifully and smelled so nice.” Some waiters spent half of every year working in the States, returning to Mexico to spend the other half working at the resort. Hector yearned to follow their example. He made up his mind he was going to go to the Bay area to find work when he turned 18. He spoke no English.

The following year, fortified with $100 and a backpack, Hector flew to Tijuana and eventually found his way to a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco. But once the bus reached Ventura, Hector saw the beautiful ocean passing by on his left. “I wanted to check it out!” he says. He got off the bus and walked down Thompson Boulevard — his steps taking him past the restaurant he would someday own. It was like Fate was calling him.

Those first two nights in Ventura Hector slept in empty cardboard box near the railroad tracks. Then Fate stepped in one more time. Buying lunch the next day at a burrito stand, Hector met a man named Frederico who hailed from his home state of Jalisco. That chance meeting would shape his life.

Frederico offered to let Hector to stay at his home. “There were 29 guys there already in a four-room house; with me, it would be 30,” Hector says. But it was better than a cardboard box. Frederico’s friends at the house shared a rumor that the Elephant Bar might need a busboy. Hector applied for the job and, as he puts it, “the rest is history!” But a single job didn’t bring in enough, so Hector soon picked up a second job as well. He did room service, worked as a busboy, learned to cook, and eventually became a server for various local restaurants.

Meanwhile, his roommate Frederico had a job as a cook at the restaurant Hector had walked past on his first day in town — yes, the very same one that’s now known today as Zack’s. Hector stopped by one day to say hi, and the owners asked if he wanted to be a server. “I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time,” Hector grins. “They handed me a menu and a wine list, and that was it!” And oh yes, he kept his two other jobs, too.

Hector worked for the restaurant owners for seven years, eventually picking up both lunch and dinner shifts. That meant 14-hour days, but it also meant he was able to ditch his side jobs. In 1993 he met Frederico’s sister, Suzie, who’d arrived with her parents from Mexico. Eight months later they were married. Things were on the up-swing. The restaurant owners treated him like a son. Hector had even been talking with them about purchasing the restaurant someday.

Then in 1998, he returned from a short vacation to devastating news. The restaurant had lost its lease. Instead of offering the business to Hector without the security of a solid lease, the owner had decided to sell it instead — to the landlord’s niece.

It was a tough blow. Hector swallowed his disappointment and continued to work at the restaurant, for the new owner. It was a difficult transition, and despite her enthusiasm, the new owner struggled to make a go of it. “She was young and inexperienced,” Hector says kindly. “It wasn’t for her.” Eleven months later, on November 1, 2000, Hector was able to purchase the restaurant himself. Astonishingly, he’d saved enough over the years to pay for it in cash.

Cafe Zack’s the vibe is upscale with a foodie flair. Fresh flowers; linen tablecloths; and an imaginative menu.

“One of my best memories,” he tells us, “is when I called up my Grandma and told her I’m going to buy this place. I’ll never forget — we both cried on the phone together. She told me, ‘Remember when you used to bitch about working for no pay, and I told you that you would own your own business someday?’”

Today Hector is a U.S. citizen. He has three children, who’ll be 21, 17 and 13 this fall. He tells his oldest son to stay in school: “Life is not easy, mijo.” Grandmother Elia passed away nine years ago, but she was able to visit several times and see the restaurant. Hector has purchased a 4-plex, where his wife’s brothers and others in the extended family now live. Three family members help him in the restaurant. Still a workaholic, Hector describes the restaurant as “my life.” But he proudly adds that he never misses special occasions with his family.

Hector is a living example of the power of gratitude. “God gave me this –” he pauses to find just the right word — “this gift. I’ve always had lots of energy. I’ve been doing double shifts for the last 25 years. I’m just really thankful for all the people who helped me along the way.”

The irrepressible Hector Gomez, in one of his rare moments sitting still.

Between the great food and Hector’s outgoing personality, Cafe Zack has built a devoted following. Most of its customers are locals, a statistic Hector shares with pride. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the restaurant are repeat customers, not tourists,” he emphasizes. “We know them by name; they come to my home. They know my kids. We are like family.”

It’s easy to see why. As we leave, Hector offers us each a hug. It’s warm. It’s sincere. We may have walked into Zack’s Cafe as strangers. But we leave as friends.

Here’s Where To Find It Yourself:

Cafe Zack

1096 Thompson Blvd

Ventura CA 93001

(805) 643-9445

www.cafezack.com

 

Take a Ride on History: The Amador Central Railroad!

Our tickets called it a “Speeder Excursion.” And a delightful (if not exactly speedy) ride into history it was, bumping along on the 114-year-old rails of the  Amador Central Railroad — one of the oldest continuously-running railroad lines in the country!

We gathered at Lane’s Station — a dirt pull-out on Highway 104, about 1.5 miles south of Ione. There we watched in awe as sheer muscle-power (and a pivot) were used to turn the cars around and get them facing in the right direction.

These fully-restored “maintenance of way” cars offered the added luxury of padded seats. (Not part of the maintenance cars’ original equipment!)
Our guides turned each car the “old-fashioned” way — with pivot and muscle,

And before long we were boarding the restored and upgraded cars. All are “maintenance of way” work cars, to which comfortable seats have been added. The oldest (extensively rebuilt) was from 1937; some were World War II vintage; and one was originally in use in the 1970s. The Amador Central owns two of these beautifully restored railroad cars. The rest are privately owned by passionate railroad enthusiasts who make them available for special excursions like this.

Our host for the ride, Mark Demler, kicked off the tour with a fascinating thumbnail history of the Amador Central. Turns out its earliest roots go back to the late 1880s, when would-be founders intended to start an electric-powered railway. Eventually they realized that electricity wasn’t really practical for the route they had in mind.

And who knows just how serious they really were about creating a viable railroad, anyhow?! “Many of the 1880s and 1890s railroad corporations were actually scams,” Demler told us. “They’d set up to sell stock or take donations but then lay no actual track — and eventually declare bankruptcy. So eventually the state prohibited railroad companies from making any stock offerings until they at least made a survey of the route, first.”

It was a gorgeous journey through the Amador rolling hills.

The cows didn’t mind having company a bit.

Undaunted by their early mis-steps, backers of the new railroad managed to complete the necessary railroad survey in 1890, finally incorporating in 1904 as the Ione & Eastern. Becoming an official corporation allowed the promoters to begin selling stock. Even more important, it allowed them to start borrowing money. Short-term bonds were issued to help finance the new railroad line. Track-laying began in 1904, and a short first run took place in 1905.

But expenses were big and profits were small. When those short-term bonds came due in 1908, the company found itself unable to pay. The Ione & Eastern was in a financial mess.

Luckily, a man from Sutter Creek named Erickson stepped forward, acquiring the railroad’s right-of-way by paying off the defaulted bonds. He renamed the railroad the Amador Central. Things were looking up a bit. Erickson passed away just a few years later. But his thrifty wife, Meta, stepped in and managed to not only keep the railroad running but make it solvent.

Once we reached the far end of the journey, the cars had to be turned again.

In its early days, the railroad hauled aggregate, brick, and lumber. (Ione was known for its high-quality clay and quarry goods.) During the WWI-era, the line carried heavy mining equipment like pumps and replacement gears to the Kennedy and Argonaut mines. In the 1930-1950s, the Amador Central began hauling goods for the newly-prosperous local lumber companies. And in later years, it ferried passengers up the hill, too, becoming the “bus” taking kids to and from the local high school (a practice that ended in the late 1930s).

A local lumber mill owner acquired the railroad in the 1980s, renaming it the Amador Foothills. He kept the business name when he sold the railroad a few years later, so another name change was required for the line. And what better name than its early-day moniker, the Amador Central?! A group of passionate railroad buffs incorporated under the Amador Central name, leased the line for five years, then finally bought it in 2010 (in partnership with the Amador Historical Society) for just $1. The group successfully petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to officially change the name.

Larry Cenotto, President of the Amador Co. Historical Society, shakes hands with Larry Bowler, President of the Recreational Railroad Coalition Historical Society on October 29, 2010, celebrating purchase of the Amador Central line for $1. (Photographer: Larry Angier/Amador County Ledger Dispatch photo).

“The community has been very generous in supporting the line,” Mark Demler tells us. “Local companies donate rock and aggregate for the rail bed, and local contractors sometimes do grading for us at cost or for nothing.” When a slide occurred recently, the Jackson Rancheria casino trucked in a quarter of a million dollars of rock to help stabilize the hillside — for just the cost of paying the truck drivers!

Close-up of the original track and crushed rock base. Gaps allow for expansion and contraction, but also make for a bumpy ride in these smaller, lighter work cars!

Total length of the Amador Central’s line today, from end to end: ten miles. But, oh, this short line still boasts major bragging rights! It’s now licensed by the Federal Railway Administration as a true passenger railroad — technically, a “class one non-insular tourist railroad.” The complete route climbs over 1,200 feet in altitude in its mere ten miles, making it one of the steepest railroads in America. Several of the grades are as steep as 4 percent (a rise of 4 feet in 100 feet traveled); for most other railroads, the max is just 1.5 percent (1.5 feet in 100). For a heavy train, that’s astonishing. “In the old days, they had to stop half-way down to cool the brakes off!” Demler notes.

Our six-mile round trip through the beautiful rolling hills took just about an hour. It would be an especially fun trip for kids — though they must be 5 or older to board the cars.

Short excursions like the one we took depart the second Saturday of most months, through November, at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m., and cost a mere $10 bucks. Longer, full-length runs are also offered three times a year. Sunscreen, closed-toed shoes and water are recommended. For more information and a flyer, visit www.amadorcentralrailroad.com.

Take your own ride into history!
“Iron Ivan,” one of the original Amador Central steam engines, can also be seen in nearby Ione.

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Walking Tour of Old Minden, Nevada

The pillars on County Road at the entrance to the Town of Minden once proudly bore a date of 1905. Perhaps it was wishful thinking; plans for this fresh town actually weren’t approved by County commissioners until 1906. And once it was a go, new homes began to spring up immediately in the fresh town.

Minden was the brainchild of Henry Fred Dangberg, Jr., oldest son of H.F. Dangberg. After the death of H.F. Dangberg Sr. in 1904, Fred began to dream of creating a well-ordered, planned community — to be dubbed Minden, in honor of a town near his father’s birthplace in Germany.

Town founder Henry F. Dangberg, Jr., sporting the snappy slicked-down hair, center part, and pocket handkerchief that were fashionable in his day.

That means, of course, that many of the beautiful old homes and commercial establishments in Minden are now more than a century old.

Luckily for historians and visitors, the Town of Minden has published a fabulous walking tour of its oldest buildings, featuring many of the gracious homes surrounding the town’s iconic square. Just click here to pull up  their walking tour flyer. Scroll to the end for a handy map, which includes helpful thumbnail photos to help you identify the buildings.

This well-designed map contains information about some of Minden’s most fascinating and beautiful old homes, including these landmarks:

The C.O. Dangberg House at 1609 Esmeralda.

Built by Davies Brothers Construction in 1910 for Clarence Oliver Dangberg, this house is made of thermally-efficient cement block, an innovative building material for the day.

The C.O.D. Garage, named for Clarence Oliver Dangberg.

At the time this home was built, Clarence had sold his share of the family ranch to his brothers, and was about to turn his attention to his next creation, the C.O.D. Garage (just down the block, at 1593 Esmeralda), built in 1911. Clarence later became a founding charter member of the Minden Rotary Club in 1926. He died in 1938 and is buried at Lone Mountain cemetery.

John Dangberg House, at 1600 Sixth St.

Another fascinating house on the walking tour map is the John Dangberg home. This beautiful two-story home was designed by noted Nevada architect F.J. DeLongchamps for H.F. Dangberg, Jr.’s younger brother, John. It was completed in 1912.

John was president of H. F. Dangberg Land Livestock Company beginning in 1904. He also served as a director for Farmers’ Bank, Alpine Land Reservoir Company, East Fork Water Users Association, and Minden Milling Company. This home was later occupied by his daughter, Grace Dangberg, until her death.

John Schrengohst house, 1578 Mono Avenue.

This humble frame home with the twin-peaked roof was built by blacksmith John Schrengohst in 1918. John was born in Kansas in 1860.

John and his son, Bill, were blacksmiths in Minden — an important trade in the days when horse-drawn buggies, wagons and farm tools were still in use. The Schrengohsts ran a family blacksmith shop across the street from this house for the next two decades. John died in 1938 at the age of 78, and is buried at Mottsville.

Helpful plaques on many of the original Minden homes and businesses make it fun to visit the outside of these buildings in person.

If you choose to make the tour in person, be sure to look for helpful brass plaques mounted at many homes and businesses in Minden’s historic downtown. We hope you’ll take time for a leisurely tour next time you visit this beautiful town!

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Ham’s and Cook’s Stations on the Amador-Nevada Wagon Road

Have you ever driven past Cook’s and Ham’s Stations on Highway 88, and wanted to know their stories?

Yup, these were original old “stations” along the early Amador and Nevada Wagon Road in the 1860s! Here’s the scoop:

Cook’s Station (150 years old and counting) is still a popular wayside eatery.

The “Volcano Cut-Off” had ferried travelers from the Old Emigrant Road in this direction since 1852. Then in 1862, Amador voters approved a $25,000 bond to finance a new and improved wagon road to the Amador county seat of Jackson — and it was to be a new toll road, mind you!

Happy travelers stopping at Cook’s Station about 1920, when Pete Barone was manager.

The merchants in Jackson were understandably in favor of this new enterprise, which would make it easier for traffic to reach the county seat. Yes, the new route was to be a toll road. But its advantages were substantial. For one thing it cut around the Carson Spur, allowing travelers to skip the arduous climb over West Pass. And as a new (and very expensive) roadbed, the going would be far better than the previous road. As Amador historian Larry Cenotto put it, “Roadside inns, like weeds, sprang up in anticipation” of the new wagon road’s opening!

By the summer of 1863, the new “Amador and Nevada Wagon Road” was open for business. With its start at Antelope Springs (Dewdrop), it continued east as far as Hope Valley (still part of Amador County until the following year).

The original establishment at the site now known as Cook’s Station was an inn owned by Charley Stedham (sometimes spelled Steadham), which opened as early as 1852 to serve travelers heading to Volcano. The way station went through several owners after Charley, becoming first Hipkin’s, then Wiley’s, and eventually Cook’s.

Sometime after 1905, the old way station was acquired by Louis H. Cook. A resident of Volcano, Cook served as an Amador County supervisor and also road superintendent for the section of state road west of Kirkwood’s. In addition to owning this famous wayside stop that now bears his name, Cook also was proprietor of the St. George Hotel in Volcano.

Louis H. Cook was a county supervisor and also owned the St. George Hotel in Volcano, California.

If you stop in for lunch at Cook’s Station today, be sure to check out their great old photos of this historic spot, including this one, below!

Cattle and what may be a hay wagon are waiting outside Cook’s Station circa 1900! Notice the churned-up dirt of the road.

And don’t miss the great framed letter and wedding photo on the wall near Cook’s counter! Della Reeves Gillick wrote about working at Cook’s Station circa 1891-95, when her father operated the Station. Teamsters hauling lumber with 12-mule teams from the sawmill up the road would often stop in for a bite to eat or to spend the night. She describes the dirt road out front as “shoe-top deep” in dust, churned up by passing traffic (just as you can see in the photo above!)

Letter from Della Reeves Gillick to her granddaughter, describing life at Cook’s Station when she lived there between about 1891-1895.

Gillick recalls pumping water by hand from the outside well and carrying it into the house to do cooking or laundry. “I sure done my share of pumpin’,” she recalls.

Ham’s Station, east of Cook’s on Highway 88, is another original stop along the old toll road.  Amador historian Larry Cenotto notes that this site was originally Smith’s Hotel, built in 1863, and subsequently was operated by “Tulloch, Horsley & Co.” in 1864.

This etching shows “Ham’s Station, Hotel and Ranch” as it looked in 1881 (from Thompson & West’s History of Amador County). Note the welcoming accommodations for travelers with animals.

By the 1880s, the station had been acquired by A.C. Ham and his brother, who gave it the name it bears today: “Ham’s Station.” Born in Kentucky in 1841, Ham came west in 1855 to join his father, J.C. Ham, a builder who had emigrated earlier. A.C. Ham mined for a time before taking up the hotel business. He later became “sole owner of the Modoc mine in the Pioneer district.” There, it was said, he “is familiar with all the resorts of the grizzlies . . . for persons wishing for a few days’ rural amusement.”

In later, years, Ham’s Station was owned by W.E. Proctor, who sold it in 1900 to Joseph Dufrene for the sum of $450. In the early 1900s it went through a quick succession of managers, including John Votaw, Joseph Mello, and L. Mooney.

Sadly, Ham’s Station was closed when we stopped by to snap this picture in late 2017.
From what we hear, Ham’s Station has now been sold. We look forward to its newest incarnation!

We hear that Ham’s Station has now been sold — kudo’s to whoever purchased this amazing bit of history!

A special thank-you to historian Frank Tortorich for his kind assistance with this article. We also were pleased to find great information in Larry Cenotto’s wonderful “Logan’s Alley,” Vol. V (2006, Word Dancer Press), which contains much more about the history of the Amador-Nevada Wagon Road and the pioneering Amador families!

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Sloughhouse Adventure

Ready for an off-the-beaten-path adventure in Gold Country?

Okay, so you’ve done Highway 49, walked the streets of Coloma, and seen Sutter’s Mill.  Ready for a little different adventure in Gold Country? Here’s a recent discovery drive we took (with so much crammed in, we’ll finish it in Part 2!)

Ever heard of Michigan Bar? Placer gold was discovered here at a bend in the Cosumnes river in 1848 by two men from . . . well, of course . . . Michigan. And they weren’t alone; Nisenan Indians were already here, in a nearby settlement they called Palamul.

With the discovery of gold, of course, life was no longer nearly as quiet. During the 1850s and ’60s Michigan Bar became a thriving town, with a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 souls. There was a school, a post office, blacksmith shop, hotel, and that all-important amenity: a Wells Fargo office.

Some 1.5 million ounces of gold were said to be taken from the local gravels and gold-bearing cobble. But the real winner was a gent named Samuel Putnam with the foresight to build a bridge in 1863 across the river at Michigan Bar. And not just any bridge; a tollbridge. Samuel “carried away more gold than any miner,” as the local historians say.

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So just where is Michigan Bar? From Jackson, head north on Highway 49. You’ll pass through Drytown (so tiny now, don’t blink! But once the home of 10,000 people), and continue on toward Plymouth. At the T-intersection with Highway 16, turn left (west), towards Sacramento.

Here’s what Michigan Bar looks like today — golden grassland.

About 12 miles farther in the rolling hillside you’ll come to Michigan Bar — today as remote and isolated a spot as you can find in California. Stop and take the time to read the plaque explaining the tale of this “undiscovered” historic gold discovery site. Then try to imagine what the place looked like in the 1850 -1860s when as many as 2,000 people lived here, and it was the largest town in Cosumnes Township!

Contours were from early hydraulicking — and a recent fire.

Worth a short detour:  Follow this country lane back from the main highway to see the marks that early hydraulic nozzles wrought on the landscape (those miners weren’t going to give up after early placer diggings gave out!) According to the plaque, the Prairie Ditch (completed in 1858) is still visible nearby, and once brought the water for hydraulic mining.

Leave Michigan Bar and continue west on the highway another 6.8 miles to reach an oasis of magical fresh produce at Sloughhouse. Along the way you’ll pass a stoplight at Rancho Murrietta and then cross the Cosumnes River. Consider a brief stop there to snap a picture of the photogenic old metal bridge on your right! Another three stoplights will bring you to Davis Ranch’s wonderful roadside stand.

You’ll want to linger here — even in the heat!

Amid the fantastic assortment of fresh local produce, dried fruits, nuts, and local honey, don’t miss the books tucked away on a lower shelf toward the back — local author Elizabeth Pinkerton has captured the area’s history in two fascinating volumes called “History Happened Here” — well worth taking home to enjoy later.

A loader dumps fresh-picked corn before it is bagged.

And don’t miss the “corn experience” during corn season. Freshly-picked ears are dumped from a loader down a wooden chute, where workers remove the outer husks and bag it for  you. If you’ve ever eaten FRESHLY-picked corn, you know why this alone is worth the drive!

But fascinating as it is, the Davis Ranch produce stand isn’t the original Sloughhouse. To visit that site, venture on a mile or so farther west to what is now the Meadowlands restaurant, at the corner of Meiss Road (on your left). A hotel/stage stop was built here in 1850. After the first structure burned in 1890 it was promptly rebuilt, and this intriguing site is now a California State Historic Landmark.

The original Sloughhouse was here; and the Pioneer Cemetery is just to the east.

Turn around here at the parking lot to begin the rest of your journey. As you head back east, look carefully to your right just after you leave Meadowlands to catch a glimpse of the early Sloughhouse Pioneer Cemetery.  This land, part of a Mexican land grant to settler Jared Sheldon in 1842, is said to be the oldest pioneer cemetery in Northern California. Both Jared and his wife Catherine were eventually buried here.

The first two known burials were a young woman named Catherine Austin (who died of causes unknown in 1851), and a local gent named William Daylor, who died of cholera just a few days after Catherine. Daylor had gone for Sutter’s Fort 18 miles away to get supplies, and while there, kindly tended to a dying man; by the time he got home, Daylor himself was feeling unwell. He died less than 24 hours after assisting his unfortunate fellow man.

Even before these two burials in 1851, the spot was said to be a sacred site for the Miwok Indians, who cremated their dead here.

Don’t forget to take a few selfies while you’re at Sloughhouse!

On your return trip, slow down as you pass the Rancho Murrietta Country Club (on your left), and look for the turnoff to Ione Road on your right. For “Part 2” of this trip — the fascinating detour to Ione — watch for our next post!

Happy History Hunting!!  Please keep us posted about what you discover!

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