Group of people walking down street

Kelley House Board Member, Jane Tillis, leading a walking tour through Mendocino.

As a kid watching “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” I was captivated by Mr. Peabody and his Wayback Machine. Sherman set the controls to a year and place in history, he and Mr. Peabody walked into the machine and closed the door, and they were magically transported back in time. I knew this was cartoon make-believe, but I wanted my own machine. The closest I’ve ever actually come to time travel was on one of the Kelley House historic district walking tours: the guide sets the scene back to the last half of the 1800s, leads the group out the front door, and—shazam!—everyone is carried back to Mendocino’s heydays.

A small cadre of volunteers leads the tours; they have been trained in the basics of Mendocino’s history, but each of them has delved further into various aspects of the town’s past and its personalities. Their love of research yields information they share with visitors and locals alike. The late Marty Simpson, Kelley House board member and history nut, originated the walking tours in 1998. Dressed as E.C. Williams, one of the early owners of the local mill, he led his groups on many merry rambles through the village. Marty also started the late-October visits to local cemeteries, during which some preeminent citizens rose from the grave to tell their stories.

Today, board member Jane Tillis leads many of the tours, with four deputies to cover the days she needs a rest. Jane has been on the walking tour circuit since 2011, so she really knows her way around. One of her favorite chapters in the Mendocino saga involves the critical role artist Emmy Lou Packard played in the 1974 creation of the headlands state park. We’re all familiar with Emmy Lou’s beautiful wood and lino block prints, but few know about her letter-writing campaign to Governor Ronald Reagan to save the headlands from development.

On Tuesdays, Juliet Way dons one of her Victorian outfits, complete with a big hat, and flounces around town. She claims it’s the most fun she’s ever had as a volunteer, but she does admit that, “It’s the only time I talk and people listen.” She particularly enjoys taking people into the Ford House to show them the wonderful wooden model of the 1890 village made by Len Peterson in 1990.

Most Thursdays Kelley House Director Anne Semans leads the tours. She loves stories about all the colorful characters who called the town home: the artist who carved the “Father Time and the Maiden” statue at night down on the beach after working all day in the mill; the Mendocino Outlaws, four murderous men who, for a brief period from 1879 to 1880, had people all over California looking for updates on the hunt for them; or the organizers of the 1976 Mendocino Whale Wars to protest the ongoing whale hunting.

If walking around Mendocino for a couple of hours is difficult, Katy Tahja is happy to take visitors on an armchair tour, which can be scheduled with the Kelley House office. In the comfort of the front parlor, Katy tells the origin story and chronicles the efforts of the Azorean Portuguese, Finnish, and Chinese immigrants, among others, to make the town what it was. A dedicated researcher and writer, Katy also mentions the extensive “family files” in the Kelley House archives, with facts about nearly every family that lived here.

One question is asked of the tour leaders more than any other: “What’s with all the water towers?” Visitors are amazed to learn that there is no water system, only individual wells, and though pumps run on electricity today, in the years before power came to town, water was pumped by windmills into the tanks on the over 100 water towers. Two young women from Los Angeles were horrified to hear that our water comes right out of the ground; “Isn’t it dirty?” one of them asked. (We won’t even mention where their water comes from.)

The universal fascination with the water towers led to the creation of a “Water Tower” tour that can be scheduled with the office. In addition, we offer other specialty jaunts: a “Murder, She Wrote” tour; “Pioneer Cemetery,” which is more factual than scary; and the “Haunted Mendocino” tour led by board member Rob Hawthorn, who is on a first-name basis with some spectres.

Walking tours of the historic district depart from the Kelley House regularly; for a tour schedule, visit To schedule a specialty tour, contact The Kelley House Museum is open from 11AM to 3PM Thursday through Monday. If you have a question for the curator, reach out to to make an appointment.