Sam McManis

Discoveries: Small-town charm is no facade in Ferndale

It’s as if time stood still for the tiny town of Ferndale, population 1,300, in Humboldt County.
It’s as if time stood still for the tiny town of Ferndale, population 1,300, in Humboldt County.

All liquored up, Jim Carrey assumed one of his goofy faces and addressed the stuffed monkey riding shotgun in his 1950s Mercedes-Benz, idling in the dead of night at some Southern California beach.

“What if you and me just drive up the coast until the sun comes up or the gas runs out?” Carrey, a blacklisted screenwriter in 2001 film “The Majestic,” says to the monkey (portraying himself). “We’ll change our names, start new lives, never come back.”

And where, pray tell, did Carrey and his primate pal wind up? Which redemptive small town, emblematic of wholesome, bucolic and gauzily idyllic America, embraced these weary travelers to its comforting civic bosom?

Ferndale, of course.

Actually, in the movie, its name is changed to Lawson. But Ferndale, the humble Humboldt County town resplendent with colorful Victorian homes bordered by the King Range, the Eel River and the Pacific Ocean, is accustomed to adopting the persona of Anytown, USA, for the whims of Hollywood.

Ferndale became Cedar Creek, the wholesome, bucolic and gauzily idyllic American town torn asunder by a lethal virus (spread by a pet monkey) in “Outbreak” (1995). It stood in for the wholesome, bucolic ... etc. ... burg of Canaan, Conn., in the 1978 TV movie, “A Death in Canaan,” and once more displayed its famous wholesomeness, et al., as a small Maine town in 1979’s “Salem’s Lot.”

Regardless of the tepid Rotten Tomatoes ratings for most of these movies, Ferndale has always received boffo reviews. When the San Diego County theme park Legoland was looking for the quintessential small town to depict in plastic bricks, it worked from photos of downtown Ferndale. Nary a month goes by when Ferndale isn’t included in some “listicle” (Forbes, Country Living, The Huffington Post and Smithsonian, to name a few) touting America’s Best Small Towns.

“Hell, we even had some Wall Street guys come in once and take pictures of us and use it in an ad, something about Main Street America,” said Joe Koches, owner of The Blacksmith Shop and a 36-year resident. “Can you believe it? I see us in this big ad that runs in The New York Times?”

So how can the town, 1,300 strong, possibly live up to its down-home reputation?

By not trying. At least, not overtly.

No doubt countless tourist-hungry communities would exploit such notoriety for all it’s worth, milk every last drop of publicity with blatant, over-the-top come-ons. But what makes Ferndale special is that it doesn’t especially cater (some might say pander) to tourists. The only milking being done is at the dairy farms on the grassy plains outside of town, those same farms that in post-Gold Rush times gave rise to Ferndale’s “Cream City” moniker, replete with those ornate Victorian “butterfat palaces” that dairymen built in town.

“We’re a real town, not a tourist town, and I think people get that,” said Sandra Mesman, former longtime owner of Golden Gait Mercantile, a general store, who now runs The Pearly Gait, a gemstone shop. “Usually, when you go into a small town, it’s undergone restoration and all the service-oriented businesses are gone. We’ve lived here 40-plus years, and we still have a doctor’s and dentist’s offices, a grocery and pharmacy.

“I remember once when we traveled to a tourist town in Colorado, near the Mother Lode, and I got a bad headache. There wasn’t a single place in town to buy an aspirin. Every store just sold knickknacks. Thank goodness, we’re not like that.”

That’s not to say the Ferndale is tourist-wary. Far from it. Unlike, say, Bolinas, a hidden California coastal gem that can be almost hostile to visitors, Ferndale manages to retain its sense of civic self, its essence as a dairy and textile town, while still showing tourists a good time.

So it will do things such as print a souvenir edition of the Ferndale Enterprise newspaper with a walking map of Main Street, detailing the Victorian cottages and the brick and mortar stores that have stood since the late 1800s. It has turned some of those Victorians into bed-and-breakfast establishments, including the pricey but nationally lauded Gingerbread Mansion. It has settled upon a good mix of retail, ranging from artisan craft boutiques to art galleries featuring local work, from vintage clothing shops to antiques stores that harken to the dairy days.

Chain stores and restaurants are not to be found here. Want that morning trenta Sumatran blend dark roast? Sorry. But you can go to Poppa Joe’s on Main Street, where the sign on the sandwich board out front states, “Great Coffee only $1. All you can drink.” Dining options are surprisingly numerous for such a small town, boasting everything from high-end, white-tablecloth cuisine (the VI restaurant and the Hotel Ivanhoe) to casual dining at Curley’s, the No Brand Burger Stand or the Ferndale Meat Co., the latter featured on a Food Network TV show by native son Guy Fieri (or Guy Ferry, as oldtimers around here know him).

Within walking distance – maybe five blocks in all, and short blocks, too – you can cover all of downtown on Main Street, most of the Victorian “painted ladies,” wander the town’s cemetery (dating to the 1860s) on a hillside and venture a bit farther up the hills to hike among the Sitka spruce, ubiquitous ferns and red alder in Russ Park, which, at the peak, has a pond perfect for bird-watching.

And here’s what Ferndale doesn’t have: a stoplight; traffic; parking meters; fast food; a homeless population; Silicon Valley techies with second homes. It has several public restrooms on Main Street, but what those restrooms do not have – filth. Even your persnickety grandmother would find no fault with these facilities.

Part of the reason Ferndale remains immune to blatant commercialism is its inclusion on both state and federal lists of historic preservation sites. A bulk of it, though, is the town’s innate character. The population has held steady over the past few decades and, according to longtime locals, the newcomers seem to “get” the local way of doing things.

“We rely on young people having our same value system,” Mesman said.

When she and husband Marlin decided to semi-retire and sell Golden Gait Mercantile after more than 40 years, she said she was fortunate to find a kindred spirit in buyers Julie and John Kreizer, who visited Ferndale from Escondido for more than a decade before going native and moving there.

“I fell in love, totally, with the town,” said Julie, 44. “When I came across the bridge, I got really goosebumps. I cried every time I left after a visit. I told my husband, ‘We’re going to move here and do this.’ That was 10 years ago, and the place wasn’t on the market. But I couldn’t get Ferndale off my mind. Why? It’s low stress. It’s the people. When something happens, somebody’s always there to help. Even when people have their disagreements – and they do – everyone comes together and let bygones be bygones. And then they end up getting mad at each other again anyway. That’s life. But it’s life with the drama scaled down.”

Lest a visitor think Ferndale is some goody-goody, Pollyanna place – or, for those of a cynical bent, a “Twilight Zone” facade hiding evil intentions – a visit to the Blacksmith Shop (and the Blacksmith art gallery, two doors down) will set you straight.

Koches, the longtime owner, blanched when Ferndale was referred to as a tourist town.

“Not. At. All,” he said with exaggerated slowness for maximum impact.

He reached into his desk and took out a sack of coins.

“These are Ferndale Bucks,” he said. “We have our own money for people who live here. We’re a town of 1,300, and I can probably name 1,100 of those people and their friends. People stay here. The names in the cemetery and the names in the phone book are the same. I know all the (stuff) you hear about charming small towns. But it’s accurate here. It really is.”

He paused to choose his words, then burst forth in a soliloquy about the town.

“A good example – but don’t you dare put this in your article – a good example is my gallery next door, right?” he said. “I’m in a tiny town. In that gallery, there are no cameras, no alarm. No employees. No nothing. There’s just a sign that tells you where to go if you want to buy a piece. Here’s my theory: If I demand the best from you, I’m going to get it 90 percent of the time. In the 15 years I’ve had the gallery, I’ve lost maybe, maybe, $200 worth of (stuff). So, look, I’m able to run a 4,000-square-foot gallery with no employees. In fact, go ahead and put that in your article, because nobody’s going to drive all the way up here to steal anything. It says a lot about the town. We’re good, honest people. Nobody’s going to rip you off.”

Two tourists hovering outside the Blacksmith Gallery, Jan and Sabine Lind from Östhammer, Sweden, were smitten both with the hand-forged ironworks and the quaintness of Main Street. The couple had just come from Chicago and Seattle and seemed relieved at the slower pace of Ferndale.

“It reminds us of a village,” Jan said. “Old-fashioned and relaxing. It’s what we’re used to.”

Ferndale apparently has a Swedish following. Sabine said friends in Stockholm raved about the place. It’s a word-of-mouth thing, nothing to do with Ferndale’s silver-screen IMDB profile. In fact, the couple hadn’t seem “The Majestic” or “Outbreak,” and Koches laughed when told that.

“Everybody makes a big deal out of the movie thing,” he said. “Basically, when Hollywood comes to town, all of us become prostitutes. They come in, throw a lot of money around in exchange for doing whatever the hell they want. It actually hurt business. But it brought in a load of money for Humboldt County. When they leave, we can go back to being who we are.”


Directions: From Sacramento, take Interstate 5 to Highway 20 to Highway 101 north. Take Exit 691 for Fernbridge/Ferndale. Turn left onto Highway 211. Turns into Main Street.

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