MENDOCINO, 7/5/23 — Fire trucks blasted their air horns, veterans and patriots waved hundreds of American flags and some zany marchers and floats were greeted by packed streets full of spectators at the Mendocino 4th of July Parade. The village was so crowded that there was no place to park in town. About 60 vehicles parked along Highway 1, with a steady procession of walkers down roads from three directions as parade time approached.
But this was a far more conservative event in many senses than the event had been prior to the pandemic. There was only one politician in the parade, Georgina “GG” Avila-Gorman, who is seeking the 4th district seat on the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. There were no floats or marchers promoting former President Donald Trump or even President Joe Biden. The only presidential hopeful with a float promoting his candidacy was Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Many of the most energetic, plentiful and progressive marchers of years past, from the Mendocino Environmental Center to local Democrats to Old Broads for Peace to Veterans for Peace, were not featured at the 2023 parade. “The old hippies finally got too old,” one bystander said.
Over the years, the Mendocino parade has garnered a reputation for oddball antics and entries. Past entries included the Big Hair marching group, the Petaluma Chicken Pluckers, All Susan Marching Band, the All Kathy Marching band, and the “Free the Skateboard Seven.” Cannabis activist Pebbles Trippet would push a wheelbarrow with marijuana plants down the parade route. Perhaps the most famous were the topless “Breasts not Bombs” protesters.
This is not to say there were not eclectic entries — they just weren’t political. The best overall entry was judged to be “We Need a Bigger Boat,” a float reenacting the scene from Jaws when the shark attacks the boat and eats one of the two people on board. Call the parade G-rated family fun. Even the Mendocino Mermaids were buttoned up enough to have appeared in any past parade.There was no alcohol allowed on the Kelley House lawn, where open containers once were common. The Mendocino Fire Department’s entry, which included its rescue boat, beat out a half dozen other departments that brought their big trucks and displays.
The Doodle Dandies, a group of doodles wearing patriotic scarves, won best animal entry. The winner of best band was the Mendocino Marching Ukes, a group of ukulele students led by Julie Bawcom. The patriotic award had a lot of competition, won by the Paul Bunyan Days Association, marching to celebrate Fort Bragg’s biggest annual event, which takes place on Labor Day weekend. The Most Creative entry winner was Flynn Creek Circus, which performed shortly after the parade, at 2 p.m. One fire truck float was packed with kids and celebrated 103-year-old Elveria “Bea” Costa Mertle, born in 1920 in Mendocino, and her “little brother” Albert Costa, born in 1927.
The parade, run by the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce, celebrates both the holiday and town history. It snakes between the Ford House, which acts as the State Parks interpretive center and museum and the Kelley House, which looks into the past.
If town founders Henry Meiggs, Jerome Ford and Wlliam Kelley came riding in on their horses for the 2023 Mendocino 4th of July parade, would they have been surprised to find the town celebrating two of them so prominently? How much has changed?
The water towers still loom, although they are now filled with art and apartments, not water. The Mendocino Hotel would be a familiar sight, especially since it’s been renovated in the style of a grand hotel from their era, with fine Victorian furniture, a broad Old West lobby and ornate hardwood walls. Yet in their day, it was more of an economy hotel. Everything is high-end in Mendocino now, with stores selling chocolates, fashionable dresses, art boutiques and cannabis. Only Dick’s Place, Mendocino’s beloved “dive” bar, would have been the type of business the founders might have embraced. At the end of the route the grand visage of Mendocino Presbyterian Church, which dates from 1867, is unchanged.
Parade entries of the past have called into question the actions of the early timber barons who built the town, but not so much this year. Ford came to Mendocino in 1850 hoping to salvage the wreck of the Frolic, which traveled across the ocean to China but ended up on the rocks at Point Cabrillo instead of in San Francisco Bay. The Frolic was a total loss, except to the Pomo, who made beads out of broken bits of its once valuable Chinese pottery.
Ford instead found a redwood forest incomparable to anything he had ever seen. Historians and biologists now say that Big River forest was unparalleled for its giant trees and pristine ecosystem. And that led to massive clearcutting
The three reduced much of that wilderness mostly to pasture by the early 20th century. That lumber built the town, which was called Meiggsville and Big River before the name Mendocino was settled upon. The town was designed to resemble a New England village from a different time.
Railroad tycoon Meiggs funded everything and made most o the profits. Ford walked all the way from Meiggs’ operation in Bodega Bay to find the Frolic, walked back, and then later returned to set up the first mill in Caspar. Kelley arrived as a ship’s carpenter and prospered as a businessman during the lumber boom.
Little appeared to have been done with an eye to a sustainable future, especially by the founders. Leading figures, such as Daisy MacCallum and the Zacha family, led efforts to beautify Mendocino and lay the foundation for the only industry left after the trees were liquidated — art and tourism. It’s now been long enough that the forest is producing again, but not the quality, big trees it birthed. And the lumber companies spend as much time and far more money on maintenance caused by the destructive practices of old as they do on logging.
Prior to 1850, a Pomo settlement named Bulsm was located in the vicinity of the present town of Mendocino on the north bank of Big River. Natives did little better than thousand-year-old trees in the hands of Mendocino’s celebrated founders.
When developers tried to create a motel complex on the Mendocino Headlands, the townspeople got together and pushed to preserve their magnificent village. The entire town was put on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, and the Mendocino Historical Review Board was set up to preserve the historic character of the properties in existence.
The parade is a part of that history. The Mendocino Parade has been around since the 19th century, but nobody seems to know when the first one took place. The Kelley House Museum, the center of the town’s history and the place people have always picniced or partied during the parade, published a story about the 1883 Mendocino 4th of July Parade.
The parade fizzled sometime in the 1960s or early ‘70s, when patriotism ebbed due to the Vietnam War and the Nixon scandals. It was revived in 1976, during the nation’s Bicentennial celebrations and a surge in local activism, including the Mendocino Whale Wars, which played a role in the worldwide movement to ban whale hunting. The parade has happened every year since, often going around the route twice due to the low number of entries in the first few years.
This year, the route was packed and there were more than 40 entries. The Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department once again offered a barbecue at the station, which is on the route. Former Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman was one of the parade announcers and judges, a role he often took on as sheriff. After the event, he barbecued hot dogs at Pamela Hudson Realty, where the lifelong lawman is now a realtor.
For many people, the biggest shock may have been that the parade was not in “Mendocino Time.”
“I think it actually started on time this year, maybe even a little early,” said Tim Bray, who paraded with a dozen or so people flocking from the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society, one wearing a bird suit.