Plot to Steal the County Seat

On the 16th of February 1871, a group of Mendocino VIPs launched a determined effort to steal the county seat away from Ukiah.

Portrait of William Heeser in the regalia of the Masonic Order of Knights Templar, c. 1900. (from the Biage Quattrocchi Collection, Kelley House Museum)

Beacon newspaperman William Heeser was among those present and may even have called the meeting. We don’t know who else was on hand, since files of the Beacon’s predecessor, the Independent Dispatch, are incomplete and the coast’s other newspaper predecessor, the West Coast Star, did not hit the streets until 1874.

We don’t even know where the meeting was held.

High School & Houses on Little Lake St. across from Heeser’s Field, c. 1900 (gift of H. L. Prevost, Kelley House Museum)

Not at Murray’s Hall, the much-used second-story meeting place above the store, since druggist John D. Murray didn’t buy his Main Street lot just west of Kasten until 1873 [now the site of Sol de Mendocino, east of Out of This World].

And not in the loft over William Heeser’s first general store, located on the northeast corner of Main and Heeser streets (sometimes used for such meetings) because that wooden structure was one of 25 buildings that burned to the ground three months earlier when fire broke out at the St. Nicholas Hotel [site of Gallery Books].

But we DO know that Heeser and others on hand pledged $3,500 to build a new Mendocino County Courthouse, and Heeser promised to set aside an entire downtown block on which to build it.

This block was probably what is now known as Heider Field, bounded by Ukiah, Ford, Little Lake and Kasten streets. At the time this still largely undeveloped land had perhaps only one of William Heeser’s barns. Heeser had not had time since to build what is now known as the Beacon Building on Ukiah Street, which adjoins this field.

Ukiah had already warded off a strong attempt to have the county courthouse built in Calpella instead. These two prospective county seats were chosen by a three-man commission set up by state legislators in March 1859: Jesse Wilton of Napa County, Beverly Mundy of Sonoma County, and Upton Gordon of Marin County.

The men were instructed (at $6 a day) to choose two prospective sites for Mendocino County’s courthouse. Ukiah and Calpella were selected at a meeting held in a Calpella blacksmith’s shop, and the county’s voting population then chose between them. By August, the new county’s supervisors were calling for bids on construction of a courthouse and jail, and at the cost of $6,000 a brick building arose in the center of Ukiah’s plaza.

Heeser had walked (!) to Calpella to attend the meeting back in early 1859, at which it was decided to carve Mendocino County out of Sonoma County. As there were no roads at that time, we traveled an old Pomo Indian trail. Later he walked the same route to survey the first road from the Coast to Ukiah.

Maybe his feet were sore. Anyhow, Heeser was one of the Mendocino businessmen who thought the county seat should be on the coast, where it would be more easily reached by the skippers of the “tall ships” that plied the coastal waters between San Francisco and Astoria. Perhaps he envisioned Mendocino as the county seat when he laid out the town’s 80-foot wide streets – we may never know for sure.

But his 1871 efforts to steal the county seat from Ukiah were doomed to failure. According to William’s son Auggie, in an interview with Santa Rosa reporter Mike Pardes in the summer of 1952, Jerome Ford, the city’s founder and one of the mill’s owners, was emphatic in his opposition to the idea.

He didn’t want his millhands whisked off to the courthouse for jury duty.

Since Ford provided jobs for most of the local men, he apparently carried more weight than William Heeser with his 80-foot streets, his two banks and a general store – and the “raid” on Ukiah’s courthouse was unsuccessful.

The above is an edited reprint from one of our earlier columns by Wally Smith. The Kelley House Museum will be closed until Friday April 3 to protect our elderly docents from possible exposure to the corona virus.