Our California state parks can tell us fascinating stories if we take the time to visit them, read the informational plaques and listen to the guides.
So this summer, on one of the hottest weekends of the year, instead of visiting the wineries in the Napa Valley, we turned off Highway 29 and drove up the curvy road to the Bale Grist Mill State Park. We had seen the sign many times, but had always forged straight ahead to Calistoga.
Dr. Edward Turner Bale built his grist mill in the early 1840s when the Napa Valley was growing wheat instead of grapes. His life was short and tumultuous. He was erratic, quarrelsome and alcoholic.
Even his arrival in California in 1837 was dramatic. The ship he was on, the Harriett, sank off the coast of Monterey. The Englishman was one of the few survivors.
He was hired by Gen. Mariano Vallejo as surgeon-in-chief of the Mexican army. He became a Mexican citizen in 1841 and married Vallejo's niece, Maria Ignacia Soberanes. With Vallejo's help, Bale acquired a land grant of 17,000-plus acres in the Napa Valley.
Using Indian labor he built a small grist mill in 1840. This led him to a more ambitious project, a big mechanized one. The first man he hired to build the mill couldn't finish it because of insufficient water. He did better with his second contractor. The cost of the mill was $6,000. He paid his bills by deeding off portions of his land grant.
Once the mill was completed, Bale lost interest. By then gold had been discovered in California. Bale left Maria at home with the six children and lots of bills to pay and headed off to the gold diggings. He was a sick man when he returned to his rancho. Some said he had gotten a fever, others blamed his drinking habits and still others said it was cancer. Whatever it was, Bale died in 1849. He was 39 years old.
Bale had mortgaged his mill before he went to the gold fields, but Maria was a wise and indomitable woman. She managed well and paid off the mortgage as well as Bale's other debts. In one of the agreements with attorneys she used, she specified that they must "render every personal assistance in their power in the raising and educating of her children." And she sent those children to schools in Sonoma, Santa Clara and Boston.
She also went into a partnership with Leonard Lille, who replaced the mill's 20-foot water wheel with a 36-foot one, said to be the biggest in the country at the time. Lillie also installed a conveyor system and added a bolting and threshing machine to clean the wheat.
Maria turned over the mill to her daughter in 1859. A year later the Bale family was out of the business. The mill changed hands several times. Other owners added improvements; some went broke. The last commercial operation of the mill was in 1905.
In 1974 the mill was turned over to the California Department of Parks for restoration and preservation. And how that happened is another very good story.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at email@example.com.