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La Honda’s colorful Wild West story told
By Julia Scott   - 07/02/2007

San Mateo County Times

LA HONDA - SOME of the stories of La Honda's past still find believers, no matter how outlandish or farfetched they may be. They are told and re-told by residents whose families' bloodlines stretch back more than 100 years to the town's founding.

So says La Honda resident Bob Dougherty, who took on the task of documenting La Honda's settler family histories, local lore and seminal moments in the town's history for his new book, "Images of America: La Honda," released in June by Acadia Publishing.

One of the tallest tales in Dougherty's book is about the Younger brothers, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, members of Jesse James' infamous gang who hid from the law in La Honda under assumed names in the 1860s. It is said that the Younger brothers found time to help build the old Cavalli Brothers store before they were caught and sent to prison in 1876. The store was eventually torn down, but the story survives.

"The old store used to be here — it's gone now," saidDougherty, pointing to a thatch of blackberry bushes next to the Pioneer Market, erected in 1959.

Dougherty, an engineer, was never a student of history in high school. In fact, he hated the subject. But when he moved from San Francisco to La Honda 15 years ago, stories of the town's colorful past began to tickle his imagination.

"When I started to look at La Honda, it was really like the Wild West. There were Indians here. Part of the Jesse James gang hid out here. There was logging, there were oil wells," said Dougherty, sipping a hot coffee on the porch of the Pioneer Market in the Sunday morning sunshine.

La Honda is a town that prides itself on continuity. Its rural character, famous for tall, shady groves of redwood trees and log cabins hidden behind winding mountain roads, has changed little since its first days as a mill town in the 1850s. Its 2,000-odd residents enjoy no cell phone service and live 13 miles northwest of the nearest grocery store in Woodside. Its elementary school teaches 78 students.

"It really is a small town," said Dougherty. "It takes a hearty breed to live out here — a lot of people, I think, would have a problem with the bugs and the big trees over their houses."

This quiet town has had its brushes with fame. The late author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters took up residence in a redwood cabin here in the 1960s, and their forest hijinks are immortalized in Tom Wolfe's novel, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Kesey is remembered as both a point of pride and a source of grief for residents who couldn't stand the noise from his late-night parties.

Dougherty, president of the local homeowner's association, was inspired to write a history of La Honda after reading an earlier history of the town, published in 1941 by local resident Bud Foss. Foss' book traces the origins of old La Honda from its first settlers in 1850 through its halcyon days as a mill town with ox- and horse-drawn carriages, to its popularity as a weekend retreat among San Francisco's well-to-do. His narrative ends in 1900, when the mills were beginning to die off.

Using black-and-white photos and oral histories submitted by locals with long memories, Dougherty's book retraces the early days and lingers on important periods, like La Honda's unexpected oil boom in the 1920s, after oil was discovered bubbling up under several local ranches.

Many of the book's photos and anecdotes originated with Milton Cavalli. The 94-year-old, born in 1913, remembers the "bandit-built" Cavalli Brothers store his father and uncle owned from 1904 to 1918.

"They sold whiskey and steam beer for 5 cents a glass, and had a bowl of boiled eggs on the counter for free," said Cavalli by telephone. Growing up in La Honda, he and his cousin were often the only students at the one-room schoolhouse they walked to in the mornings; other students came by horseback, if they came at all.

As a boy, Cavalli spent his time fishing for trout from La Honda Creek with hooks baited with earthworms.

"It was beautiful. We never locked our doors," he recalled. "A man would come around from Half Moon Bay once a week selling meat, and another man came around selling fish. My father had a vegetable garden, so we were never hungry."

Filled with such playful stories, Dougherty's book is meant to appeal to La Honda's youngest residents as a way to teach them about their town. To that end, he plans to distribute copies of the book — for free — to every family with a child in the school district.

"Hopefully I made it interesting enough for kids to realize that this is their history... that who they are is based on this history," said Dougherty.

Hopefully young readers won't be too frightened when they read about "Grizzly" Ryder, who was in the forest looking for his oxen when he heard a rustling in the bushes and was confronted by a grizzly bear and her cubs, who chased him down the hillside. Ryder played dead and narrowly escaped with his life, though he had to have his face stitched back together.

Then there's the story of mill worker William Milliken, who was nearly crushed to death when his coat got caught in the machinery in 1875. He was able to pull himself out of his clothes, and was left on the ground wearing only his boots.

Tall tales or true stories? History will decide.
Dougherty will sign copies of "Images of La Honda" at the La Honda House Cafe, 8865 La Honda Road, at 6 p.m. on July 7. Milton Cavalli will speak at the reception.





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