The Wye Becomes the Triangle

The Michael James Hill Memorial Triangle at the intersection of Lansing and Main Streets in Mendocino, 2019.

A few weeks ago, this column presented photographs of the Wye in Mendocino, circa 1957. This intersection of Main and Lansing Streets was then a non-descript wayside that lay between three strips of pavement, decorated by a couple of stop signs and a native pine tree planted by the late and beloved Dr. Russell Preston before he died in 1954.

As the town came out of its “quiet years” and grew to be a popular destination for artists and tourists during the 1960s, the Wye became the beneficiary of beautification efforts by community-minded organizations. It also acquired a name – The Preston Triangle. The Mendocino Beacon reported in December 1965, that the Mendocino Study Club and Cub Scout Pack 87 were creating Mendocino’s “first civic Christmas tree” with the decorating Preston’s pine tree with hand-crafted ornaments. On December 19th it was ready for lighting, and with appropriate ceremony and music, the community tree was illuminated for the holidays with flood-lights loaned by PG&E.

However, one month after this festive event, a tragedy brought this little patch of land into sharper focus when a local boy, 14-year old Michael James Hill, was lost to the ocean while surfing off Big River beach in Mendocino Bay. Mike was an excellent surfer and had spent time teaching others the sport. Apparently, a huge wave overtook him and presumably knocked him unconscious. Skin divers on-scene looking for him said, “The rip tide was exceedingly strong and could suck a human under and carry him for some distance before releasing its hold.” His surfboard was found that night, broken in half, but his body was never recovered.

Before his untimely death, Mike had participated in landscaping the Preston Triangle with his church youth group. Many people and several civic groups decided to create a memorial for him in this small garden space. These included the Mendocino Fire Department and the Study Club, as well as the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship and members of his Spartan 4-H Club. The community placed a bronze plaque attached to a boulder under the pine tree, reminding us of his name and the short window of time he spent on this earth. 

Various organizations continued to contribute to the Triangle. Thanks to the combined efforts of the local Lions Club and the Study Club ladies, an underground power cable with its own meter was installed in 1966 so that the branches of Preston’s pine tree could easily be festooned with colored holiday lights. The High School shop class of 1970 made a “Season’s Greetings” sign for the tree.

Today, a split rail fence protects the site’s perimeter from wayward vehicles, while still allowing you to appreciate the casual landscaping inside it. Barry Cusick recalls that a small water tank, now empty, was for many years filled by the Fire Department on Wednesday nights to supply the drip irrigation system that kept the plantings green.

As a public place, it has had its share of neglect and abuse. According to the Beacon, the community tree in the triangle could neither be decorated nor lighted due to vandalism in 1972. The boulder with Mike’s bronze plaque went missing three years ago, but it turned up at the Presbyterian Church, whose pastor managed to track down the family and return it to its rightful spot.

It’s been a different story in recent years, with Mike’s family now looking after the Triangle. Taking over from the boy’s mother, Charene Miles, when she passed away, Mike’s half brother, Dean Miles, maintains this garden and also his roots here in Mendocino, where he grew up and graduated from high school. Though living now in Dana Point, he says his own son will likely continue this practice. They often come up to visit, fix the fence, and decorate it for the Fourth of July.

As we can see, the Wye isn’t just a fork in the road. It is a place of local significance, first as a tended wayside with the planting of a tree by a venerated community elder, then a short-lived beacon of civic pride as the town emerged from decades of neglect, and since 1966 a triangular memorial garden with a log seat that overlooks the pounding surf of Mendocino Bay.

The Kelley House Museum is the repository of Mendocino’s memories. Our archival vault preserves and organizes photos, names, and places so that we can remember who we are and continue to tell the stories. Contact us at 707/937-5791 or email curator@kelleyhousemuseum.org to share your memories or to learn more about coastal history.