Old grammar school, church spire in background.

Everett Racine’s photograph of the Mendocino Grammar School and its neighborhood, taken between 1921 and 1929 before it burned down. According to reports, the building was situated on the lot’s center so as to separate the boys/girls play yards. The first Mendocino High School is the large building at the top with a rounded cupola, replaced with the present building in 1949. The first Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church and its bell tower is to the right – it burned in 1930. The house on the far right was the Milliken-Murray House, dismantled in 1946. The Jasperson House is in the middle, directly behind the four-legged lawn mower in the school yard. It is still with us.

Tom Burnham, a friend and supporter of the Kelly House, wanted to know the story of his house on School Street. He’d heard something about a sea captain named Jasperson and someone falling on their nose, but that was about it. 

A review of our Historic Structures files gave us some information, but it was clear we needed to roll up our sleeves and do some in-depth “house genealogy.” Like tracing a family tree, a building that has stood for 135 years has a lot of stories to tell. So, let’s begin our tale with Jon Neils Jasperson, also spelled Jaspersen.

A native of Denmark, Neils arrived in Mendocino about 1868 when he was just 19 years old. He wasn’t a sea captain as Tom had heard (that was Søren Jaspersen), but a brick mason. He also worked on ranches, and logged in the woods, until he married Catherine “Kate” Wills in 1879. Kate was about the same age as Neils when she arrived at Little River with her parents from Prussia.

They lived for a time near Comptche, but by 1880 he was working at the lumber mill and they were living in Mendocino where the first of their two children, Emma Louise, was born. Another girl, Anne Elizabeth, would follow. 

In 1886, their dream of a house of their own became a reality when German-born August Rahlves, a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker, built for them “a neat cottage” opposite the fine new grammar school that had opened the year before on the corner of Pine and School Streets.

Here is where the nose story appears in the Beacon: “On Saturday last, Mr. A. Rahlves was knocked off the roof of Neils Jasperson’s new house, by a piece of timber swinging around. He fell to the ground and broke his nose.”

The Jasperson’s single-gabled redwood house sat on a large lot with open land to the north along the wagon road to Willits (now called Little Lake Road). Until the 1880s, the area northeast of them was known as The Picnic Grounds and had belonged to Captain David Lansing, an early pioneer whose house down on Main Street was one of the oldest.

Situated within walking distance and away from the noise of the mill and harbor, this spot was neither town nor country, but a semi-wild place. In the early days, it was a community gathering place for outdoor platform dances, early May Day events, and Fourth of July celebrations.

Lansing died in 1877 and his heirs subdivided his large holdings south of Little Lake Road into home lots, with a large parcel sold to the school district. Completed in 1885, the construction of the schoolhouse set off a wave of house building in its vicinity. The sound of hammers and saws was everywhere. 

In the same year the Jaspersons erected their house, the Gordens built theirs right next door. Down the street, Moses Greenwood was building two of the four houses he would put up on Pine Street, and Mr. Bither was constructing his home south of the school grounds one block away on the corner of Evergreen and Pine. Within a few short years, the bucolic Picnic Grounds were transformed into a 4-acre fenced schoolyard surrounded by city-sized lots owned by working folk with gardens and water tanks.

While it was a small building, the Jasperson cottage seemed to be full of life. Two happy marriages were performed and celebrated here in 1902. The first was for their daughter Lizzie, who married James Heap, the engineer at the Mendocino Electric Plant. 

Two weeks after those nuptials, Isaac Cropley and Miss Freda Fredding also pledged their vows here. Curiously, this couple would purchase 8 years later the house in which they were wed and would live there 10 years.

Death is also a part of a house’s history. In 1904 Neils passed away at the age of 55. His good standing in the community was such that the Beacon published both an obituary and a sorrowful eulogy.

Though his health had been impaired for some time, yet he was downtown the previous evening, and it had been his apparent intention to work in the local mill again the next Monday. But when his wife came up to his chamber in the morning to bring him a cup of coffee, she found him dead in the bed, having apparently died of heart failure during the night.

After his death, Kate held on to her house for a few more years. She presumably stayed with her out-of-town married daughters and rented it out to pharmacist Grove A. Sherman and his family, then to the Van Valkenburgs. She finally sold it in 1907 to Mrs. Foland, a widow like herself, who would stay 2 years, then rent it to school principal George Findley, and later to high school teacher Allen Brown. 

Other names associated with this house were Victor and Mary Hanson, the Lloyd Storts family, Ed Krogh, Arthur Schultz, and the Wards. The three most recent occupants have all been artists – Charles Stevenson, Matt Leach, and Tom Burnham. A book could be written to encompass all their stories, as each occupant adds another chapter to its genealogy.

If you’d like to know more about your Mendocino house and help support the Kelley House, contact Karen McGrath at curator@kelleyhousemuseum.org.