Stockton recalls 50 years with state park; hopes to keep area history alive

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

Dave Stockton, who recently retired as executive director of the Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Association (HRIA), has been involved with Humboldt Redwoods State Parks for 52 years, and his family has deep roots in Southern Humboldt.

Stockton's great-grandfather was a sheep rancher in the Petrolia area. "Apparently my grandfather decided it would be much easier if he went to Shively and bought into a dairy," Stockton said. "They had 40 cows that three of them milked - my grandfather, my father, and a helper...

"My father could not be late for milking. He told me he got kicked off the school bus in Fortuna one time for acting up, so he sneaked behind the bus and hung onto the spare tire for a ride to Shively," so he wouldn't have to face his father's wrath if he showed up late.

As a young man Stockton's father went into the lighthouse service at Cape Mendocino and Trinidad. On one of his jobs he became friends with a "powder monkey" in a rock quarry and learned how to work with explosives. During the Depression he put three of his five younger sisters through college with his earnings, using dynamite and black powder to split huge logs into pieces that would fit on the trucks.

Stockton's parents moved to Holmes Flat, where they built their "dream house," which his mother designed. His father quit working in the woods and became a full-time farmer with six milk cows, an orchard, and a garden. Every year they supplied hundreds of heads of cabbage to hungry Scandinavians, Germans, and eastern European workers who lived in the Fortuna area. "We always had the place full of sauerkraut," Stockton recalled.

Places that today are just names on the map with homes for a few families were bustling towns when Stockton was growing up. "Holmes Grammar School had 64 students. I was in a graduating class of eight; it was the biggest class they ever had," he said. "Shively was the huge one. Shively had a beautiful school. Larrabee had a school, Bull Creek had a school. McCann - there was a school there. All those places had lots of population. A lot of it was the logging camps; they would have 500 men in a logging camp."

Stockton remembers several earthquakes when he was growing up, and the big floods of 1955 and 1964. "In 1955 we had three feet of water in the house. In ‘64 it was 12 feet deep," he said. "We had a salmon in one of the trees in the back of the orchard; it got hung up there... My father said, ‘I love to farm, and this is the richest soil around. I have to pay a price, but I'm willing,'" referring to the floods, which leave behind layers of nutrient-rich silt.

On July 5, 1970, Stockton started his first job at Humboldt Redwoods State Park near Weott. It was his summer job while he was enrolled at Humboldt State University.

"Carl Anderson was the park superintendent who hired me," said Stockton. "I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the people. I got to know some of the Save-the-Redwoods League people. I was a park aide, and I worked on the litter patrol, the garbage patrol, and then I got on the ‘patrol patrol,' the fire patrol.

"That was in the time when the park was acquiring Bull Creek. I knew all the people out there, I stayed out there, so as the property was being taken piecemeal I had a better idea than most where everybody should be and shouldn't be."

The California state governor at the time (Edmund "Pat" Brown, Sr., father of the current governor, who served from 1959 to 1967) mandated a state takeover of land in the Bull Creek watershed because of the damage done during the 1955 flood to the historic old-growth redwood groves, including many of the tallest trees on earth, in Rockefeller Forest.

"The governor's mandate was technically different than condemnation," Stockton explained. "The state was just going to take it. But then Save-the-Redwoods stepped in, raised a bunch of money, and gave everyone fair market value for their property.

"After the 1955 flood that whole watershed just unraveled," he said. "A lot of horrible things went on. [Early loggers and settlers] made roads up Cuneo Creek [a major tributary of Bull Creek, which is in turn a major tributary of the South Fork Eel], which is extremely unstable. The log decks from the mills went in the creek - they actually had logs stacked up in the creek itself...

"I worked that whole decade in the 1960s when it kept unraveling worse and worse and worse... And sad to say, there was a native brown trout that lived in Bull Creek. And now they're coming back, they're finally coming back. The watershed is repairing itself."

And then came the flood of 1964, which destroyed two popular campgrounds at Stephens Grove just north of Miranda and at Williams Grove north of Myers Flat. The mud in Stephens Grove, which had once been the most popular campsite in the park, was so deep the crews could not bring in equipment to clean it out. The 100 campsites at Williams Grove were under as much as 35 feet of water. (Both Stephens and Williams Grove are day-use areas today, and Williams Grove has a group campsite.)

"After the ‘64 flood we had a humongous job to get the park back for the ‘65 season," Stockton said. "We started work in April. [My co-worker] had the Cat and I followed behind him with the tractor... He'd get the bulk of it out and I would finish it and terrace it, and then all it had to do was dry out."

After returning from Vietnam, where Stockton served in the U.S. Army First Division, the "Big Red One," he went back to HSU and finished up his degree in English, graduating in 1972. He went to work at Eel River Sawmills, as well as teaching at College of the Redwoods night school for a few years. He and his wife Sharon, whom he had married in 1968, raised a son and daughter.

In 1992, the then-president of HRIA, Aletha Powers, asked Dave and Sharon Stockton to join the board of HRIA. Stockton served on the board for five years.

One of the highlights of that time, Stockton said, was the Avenue of the Giants planning process. "It was actually two plans - people don't realize that," Stockton said. One plan, sponsored by Humboldt County, was for the Avenue towns, and was meant to resolve zoning issues. The other was State Parks' general plan for Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

"My sole motive for getting involved was to get the state off their duff and do both plans at once, not duplicate all the meetings and all the expense," Stockton said. "It didn't work because the county plan got finished before the state plan got started...

The relationship between the park and the surrounding community "always has been a little bit of a problem," said Stockton, particularly because of lingering resentment over the acquisition of the Bull Creek properties. "The first thing on any agenda [at planning meetings] was, is the park going to take more land?"

He recalled that people from Fruitland Ridge were particularly concerned about park expansion onto their land. After being reassured that this was not going to happen, some of the concerned citizens stayed on to participate in the process, although some left. One person became a facilitator.

Another pet project of Stockton's was to make the Holmgren Homestead near Salmon Creek a working farm again, perhaps an exhibit of living history. It was also ideally situated for a rest stop on Highway 101, since the state is supposed to provide rest stops on every 50 miles of freeway. An exit already existed near a flat site, with good access to water, and the park owned the land.

Around the same time HRIA began working with State Parks on expansion of the visitor center at Burlington, between Myers Flat and Weott. They had acquired the historic Kellogg Log, a travel vehicle carved from a single giant redwood log that was used by the entertainer Charles Kellogg as he went from town to town giving shows and educating people about the redwoods in the late ‘teens and 1920s.

"We were promised that if we [HRIA] restored the Kellogg Log that we would get what we wanted on the Holmgren homestead," Stockton said, but a change in park administration ultimately scrapped the plan.

By this time, the previous manager of the visitor center retired, and Stockton, who had just himself retired from Eel River Sawmills, took over the job. Since the visitor center was in bad repair, housing the Kellogg Log and rehabilitating and expanding the center became Stockton's top priority.

Getting it done took some struggling with state bureaucracy, as he recalled. He worked closely with supervising ranger John O'Rourke (who also recently retired), who was "right on it," Stockton said.

"We had it all figured out. We were going to put this exhibit here, and the animals there, and the state came in and said, ‘No, you can't do it this way. You're interrupting your continuity and flow and whatnot. So then [the state exhibit specialist] goes into this room we had for the Kellogg Log, and he's on fire. He wanted the Kellogg Log exhibit for himself. He said, ‘If you let the state do the Kellogg exhibit, we'll let you do whatever you want with the rest of it.'"

Besides the expansion of the visitor center, one of the most satisfying aspects of Stockton's time as manager - a position later upgraded to executive director of HRIA - has been the increasing involvement with local schools.

"When I started we had maybe two or three schools who came to the park, now we've got over a dozen. And we have interpreters going out to the schools - Save-the-Redwoods League sponsored that. It's a wonderful thing, something we should have done years ago."

Most recently he and HRIA president Susan O'Hara collaborated on a book on the park that is part of Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series. This book, which is available at the visitor center as well as in many retail stores in Southern Humboldt, covers the history of the area in and around the park since the 1860s. It includes dozens of historic photographs collected at the visitor center.

The photos "just accumulated through the years," Stockton said. "People would stop at the visitor center who had family that worked up here in the ‘teens, 1920s and ‘30s." The visitors would bring photos and ask staff and volunteers for help in finding the places in the pictures, and often ended up donating the pictures or copies of the pictures to HRIA's archives.

In fact, O'Hara and Stockton found they had so many photos, including photos they ordered from state archives that didn't arrive in time to meet their publication deadline, that they are considering doing a second book.

Clearly Stockton's retirement isn't the end of his involvement with the park. In addition to his continuing interest in preserving the history of the area, he and retired park ranger Dan Ash continue to drive and hike around the perimeters of the park, reporting problems to park staff.

And Stockton would like to compile more information about the 2003 Canoe Fire to add to his extensive collection of photographs of that near-disaster.

The Canoe Fire, which was started by lightning in October 2003, burned 11,000 acres. "The fire was mostly in the park but some spilled out in the south, which was not a good thing because people had commercial timber," Stockton said. The fire also threatened homesteads in Salmon Creek and spread a pall of smoke over much of SoHum.

Stockton regrets that park staff were unable to do more to stop the fire. "We were going by wilderness protocol, the park's hands were tied. We couldn't bring in any equipment until it got outside the park... by then it was a little late because it got onto private property, which is regrettable."

He attended California of Forestry and Fire Protection briefings in Myers Flat every morning. "CDF was putting a scare into everybody," Stockton said. "They said, ‘If this gets past Salmon Creek we won't be able to stop it until it gets past Garberville.'" Eventually, the enormous firefighting effort plus the onset of winter rains stopped the fire.

Stockton expressed appreciation for the local park staff, rangers, and volunteers. "HRIA tries to encourage local people who get involved as volunteers. There are a lot of opportunities, and those who have gotten involved really enjoy it. A lot of local people also have loaned or donated things to us for the museum - photographs, they've really been generous with photographs.

"My concern is that the communities are going to be forgotten," Stockton concluded. "When our generation goes, who's going to know what happened here? That's another reason for the [history] display in the back of the museum, and the book. We've come a long way to get to where we are now. I want to see it continue - we've got something good going here."

photo caption:


Dave Stockton, a fourth-generation Humboldter who grew up in Holmes Flat, has a passion for local history. He recently retired after 15 years as executive director of the Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Association.