Talking With . . . Dave Sverko in 2000

Dave Sverko (seated) with middle school students Adam Channel, Sadie Pepper and Morgan Matthews in 2000.

Back in 2000, students of Ryan Olson Day’s Options Class at the Mendocino Middle School created an oral history project with the help of Steve Jordan and a grant obtained by Deena Zarlin. They made audio recordings of their interviews with twelve “Old Timers” who told these children what it was like back in the day. Two decades later, the transcripts of these stories have been pulled from the Kelley House Museum vault, excerpted, and published now for the first time.

Number five in this series takes us to the Wheeler Street home of Dave Sverko, who is entertaining students Sadie Pepper, Adam Channel, and Morgan Matthews with tales from his life on the Coast.

Born in 1916, Dave says he lived with his family in Fort Bragg “until I was about 13, 14 years old. Then I took off on my own and I lived on a kind of diversified ranch. They had cattle, horses, and hogs, and there was a slaughter house there, and I worked for my board and I had a cabin there but I ate at the house and people just worked. It was necessary because that was in the middle of the depression, 1931, ‘32 and ’33. They were tough years but the ranch women made me go to school.”

After he graduated in 1934, “I worked in different places but I was always interested in the cattle and horse business. That was my thing. So, as quick as I could accumulate a dollar or so, well I bought a saddle horse and an old car.”

Steve Jordan asks, “About how old were you when you did this?” to which Dave replies, “Well I was about 17, 18 years old.”

During his youth, Dave operated heavy equipment for lumber companies and did “cow work” on various ranches, including the Oppenlander’s and the Grimes’ place in Comptche. Then in 1954 he moved to Mendocino, buying a house with a well on two acres for $6,500 cash, and decided to come back around to what he had loved doing as a kid – working with horses.

“The first horse I trained was for Homer Drinkwater at Comptche. Homer brought a little bay horse in and I started him. I didn’t have any barns, I had fences around so it went from there bigger and bigger. So I built my inside arena so I could train horses in the winter time. I was shoeing about 15 horses a week and I was training maybe 4 or 5 horses steady. I had 4 or 5 out there all the time.”

When young Adam asks Dave if he has any funny or unusual stories about the town, Dave starts with a tale about Palle Anderson who insisted on comparing the weight of a rock on the meat scale at Mendosa’s with its weight on the scale at Quaill’s slaughterhouse. The next story also features the slaughterhouse and the fate of Dr. Preston’s poor pet deer. The third tale is about abalone fishing.

“And another time, uh, I won’t mention any names on this, but we were all down on Portuguese beach, in the afternoon. Well one of the fishermen come in, an old timer, and the game warden showed up. Game warden – hadn’t hardly ever a game warden came down here, didn’t bother, you know. But he was a new game warden, and he came down, and there were a few boats coming in and one of the guys come in, and he had three or four ling cod and about twelve or fifteen abalones that he had got over on the other side. So he pulled up there.

We used to help each other, slide the boats you know, across the sand, so the game warden, he went over there and he looked at that boat, and he says, You got over the limit in abalones, and the old guy says, What’re you talkin’? he says, I get abalones all the time, any time low tide, he says, I get abalones. He was one of them old Portuguese you know. The game warden, he says, You know, he says, I’m gonna confiscate your abalones, and I’m gonna have to write you out a citation. And the old guy says, What that all mean? What is that? Warden says, I’m gonna put you under arrest. And the old guy says, Whatdya mean arrest, he says, I been doin’ this for years. And, uh, the game warden says, Well, he says, I’m gonna have to arrest you. The old guy says, You can’t do that! The game warden says, Well why can’t I? You know what the old guy says, he says, I haven’t even got a license! We busted out laughing. Even the game warden, even the game warden, he laughed so much. But this old guy was serious, you know, and he had fished out of Mendocino for a good thirty years and never had a license in all that time. Never. I had to laugh when he says, Abalone, I get ‘em all the time. Oh god! (laughing). But I could go on, we had a lot of that stuff. We had a lot of fun.”

Then the kids ask about the hopes that Dave has for Mendocino. “Well, that’s a hard question because as new people take over, they’re gonna change, you know, they’re gonna change things. But I hope that the Historical Review Board stays, and the open land stays the way it is. And I’d like to see the State take Big River up for ‘bout oh, maybe a mile, mile and a half, and acquire that beach, that Georgia Pacific owns, I’d like to see ‘em take that, so it won’t be developed. And, I think the rest’ll take care of itself, you know. But, that’s the way it should be. It’s a good little town yet.”

If you would like to hear these recorded voices or read the stories in full, just give us a call at (707) 937-5791 and we’ll set you up for a visit at our research office on Albion Street in Mendocino. Our hours are Monday through Friday 1:00 to 4:00, or email us at curator@kelleyhousemuseum.org.