Friday, September 24, 2010

Ferndale, California

FERNDALE, Calif. -- And here I thought it was just a cute town, full of beautifully restored Victorian homes and buildings. Then I met Denny Crane.

Not that one. This Denny Crane doesn’t look an iota like William Shatner, doesn’t practice law, and certainly doesn’t live in Boston. (For pop culture neophytes, Denny Crane was one of the main characters in the TV series Boston Legal, played brilliantly by William Shatner.)

This one runs a boutique in one of Ferndale’s more exuberant Victorian buildings on Main Street and clearly is one of the more colorful residents. Minutes after meeting, he’s telling me some of the town’s history, before it “started going down the toilet.”
Well. For a toilet, it’s downright purdy, if you ask me. Denny, of course, did not.

Back in the Sixties, Crane’s story goes, the town was hit by a double whammy. First, the nearby Eel River flooded the town and made a mess. Then, in 1964, the earthquake that devastated Anchorage, Alaska, and sent a tsunami that killed 12 people in Crescent City, California, also ravaged Ferndale, knocking many buildings off their foundation. It was a pivotal time.

“At that point, a lot people in town said to just level all of these old Victorian buildings, places that are hard to maintain with the gingerbread structure,” Crane says.

Enter Viola McBride, a local woman who Crane describes as a “kind of a cross between Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane.” Crane credits her with leading a local renaissance, including convincing Sherwin Williams to donate enough paint to cover the town “from stem to stern.”

Ferndale became an artist colony, he says. 

“That was the most vibrant time in this town. A lot of hippies, a lot of dope smoking, drugs, it was that period of time.”

It lasted for a couple of decades, Crane says. Then it began to change.

“People came up from out of the area, bought these buildings only for reselling them for profit, and the town started going down the toilet.”

The town was founded in the 1850s by settlers who hacked their way through dense ferns and groves of trees (Crane says the nearby hills were once nearly denuded by loggers). It became a prosperous dairy community and in large homes popped up all over town, known as “Butterfat Palaces.” It would be wrong to proceed any farther without noting that Victorian Era may have provided some nice architecture but was a tad stultifying, particularly if you were a woman. That said, one of my favorite signs in town was one that commemorated what was once the “westernmost bar” in the U.S. 

Much of the downtown is owned by absentee landlords. One of the nicest restored buildings in town -- the Gingerbread Mansion -- is in foreclosure and is vacant. Still, the casual visitor would not know of the seething caldron of economic and political intrigue and comparisons to bathroom fixtures. For the record, I have not checked out Denny Crane's story, mostly because I fear that it might not be entirely true and I prefer stories with a lot of warts. Ferndale certainly appears more like a delightfully wart-less small town that has been lovingly restored. It also is the place where Kathleen and I celebrated our 10th anniversary, so my perspective is undeniably skewed.

For more photos, go to my photo blog. Go to the town's web site for the romanticized version of Ferndale's history.


  1. I'd like to apologize on behalf of the Victorian Village of Ferndale.

    Having lived in this beautiful town for over 12 years, I feel you might have received a very negative perspective offered by Mr. Dan (Denny) Crane, who due to his own misadventures in the last couple years has spoiled his own outlook of this wonderful town. The history lesson he gave you was also unfortunately colored by his own failures. I recommend a more reliable source
    of Ferndale's History in the book,
    Images of America - Ferndale ISBN 0-7385-2890-0
    You can purchase it or I will gladly send you my copy.

    I sincerely believe that the people who own and maintain our beautiful Victorians do so mainly out of a sense of pride and reverence in preserving the town's history. If they were just looking to make a buck it would be much easier to maintain a modern building.

    An owner of a Victorian soon realizes he or she is merely a caretaker of history. A building that may have been built 100 years before they were born and will in all likelyhood still be standing once they are gone.

    The majority of Ferndale, (downtown included) is owned by local people who work here and live in Ferndale and nearby towns. I consider myself friends with most of them and their families. (Something Mr. Crane cannot say of his relationship with our townspeople, due to his own attitude.)

    Dan Crane himself is the only real absentee business owner I know and most of us are thankful not to have to hear his self-promoting non-sense and negativity.

    I don't make it a habit of making disparaging remarks about people and I don't think any less of you for being misguided by someone who truly does not know or understand the history or people of this community.

    Maybe next time you're in Ferndale we can find you a more suitable tour guide.

    Best Regards, James D. Richards (

  2. Thanks for the note, Mr. Richards. I hope you can tell that my vignette was intended to be tongue-in-cheek; after all, Ferndale is where my wife and I chose to spend our 10th anniversary. It's a lovely town and we'll be back again. Mr. Crane is an interesting character.


  3. Jim Richards has spoken true words. I have lived here for 29 years and I could not have expressed it better!

    Ken Torbert

  4. Very nice blog dear nice pic u have been post on your blog .I like it thanks. Tour Packages to North India

  5. California is a pleasant town, the buidings there are dramatic.

  6. The Gingerbread Mansion has a rich history and has been reopened in Ferndale California. It takes alot to recreate history but they seem to have done a great job. Also visiting the downtown is lovely and reading about the history taught me alot;)

  7. Just to clarify: the tsunami of '64 that killed over 50 (not 12) people in Crescent City, California, did not affect Ferndale at all. The buildings in Ferndale were knocked off their foundations in a 36-hour period in April 1992, when three earthquakes, all measuring 6.5-7.1 on the Richter scale, hit the town. Within six months, everything was repaired and restored.