Gold Star Mother Esther Underwood lost her son, John Haynes, the first American soldier from the Garberville area to die in World War II. But from her grief — and her generosity — the John Haynes Memorial Veterns Hall grew and, over the years, the Garberville Vets Hall, as it is more commonly known, became the heart of civic life in the Southern Humboldt community. On May 23, that heart stopped beating when county inspectors discovered unhealthy levels of black mold growing in the walls and ceiling, and ordered the hall closed.
When Bud Rogers challenged Estelle Fennell for the 2nd District seat on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, they faced off in a debate at the Vets Hall in Garberville. When county code enforcement officers brought guns to an inspection on Titlow Hill, SoHum people filled the Vets Hall to capacity to demand an end to those heavy-handed tactics. When the community debated whether to establish a public restroom in Garberville, we argued about it at the hall. Whenever we try to figure out what we will do, as a community, about anything of substance in Southern Humboldt, we discuss it at the Vets Hall.
The hall also includes a branch of the Humboldt County Superior Court, a small courtroom where, during certain hours, people can pay traffic tickets or have their cases heard by a judge. Or at least they could up until this spring. According to Hank Torborg, current commander of VFW Chapter 6354, which runs the Garberville Vets Hall, a 2nd District supervisor long ago convinced the veterans that they had a better chance of getting their hall approved if they agreed to have a courthouse in the same building. This political arrangement caused some grumbling among vets. However, it is more than 60 miles from Garberville to Eureka. The branch courthouse in Garberville makes it easier for everyone in Southern Humboldt to deal with court matters and, no doubt, made it possible for more of them to make their court dates.
Not only that, but if you've ever attended a meeting, a workshop or a lecture in Southern Humboldt, or taken a class, or attended a birthday party, a wedding, a reception, a wake or a funeral, chances are it happened at the Vets Hall. If you live here, of course, you know about the community Thanksgiving dinner that takes place at the hall, even if you haven't spent the holiday there yourself. Thanksgiving at the Vets Hall is a huge, all-volunteer effort with a long history. Throw in Christmas dinner with a visit from Santa, and it's clear the Vets Hall has become the heart of our community.
It's simple logistics, really. Say you teach dog obedience training and you live in Alderpoint, 12 miles east of Garberville, up a steep, curvy mountain road. If you advertise for students, you will get one in Ettersburg (16 miles west of Garberville), another in Myers Flat (15 miles north), a third in Piercy (20 miles south), and one more student right in Garberville. It only makes sense to meet in Garberville, and the Vets Hall is the most reasonably priced multipurpose space available. As the SoHum community continues to grow, so too has the importance of the Garberville Vets Hall to community life.
Torborg, the local VFW commander, knows the story behind the John Haynes Memorial Veterans Hall better than most. The story begins shortly after World War II, when a group of mostly World War I vets got it in their minds to open a new Veterans Hall in Garberville. They had tired of the cold, damp Fireman's Hall and wanted a place of their own with a kitchen. They started a fundraising campaign and held a steelhead fishing derby.
By the mid-1950s, the vets had raised more than $9,000. They approached Underwood about purchasing the property she owned on the corner of Conger and Locust streets in Garberville, but Underwood insisted on donating the land to the cause, meaning the veterans suddenly had the money they needed to begin construction.
Underwood deeded the land to the vets, who formed The John Haynes Memorial Building Association. In turn, under a provision of state law that allows the property to be managed publicly, in perpetuity, as a memorial veterans hall, the vets deeded the property to the county. Apparently, the political decision to include a courthouse in the same building led many vets to fear that the county was trying to take over their hall. This led to a somewhat contentious relationship between the Garberville vets and the county of Humboldt right from the beginning, and the John Haynes Memorial Veterans Hall appears to have been something of a thorn in the county's side ever since.
Meanwhile, other changes were underway in Southern Humboldt. As back-to-the-landers began showing up in greater numbers, they started holding their events, parties and boogies at the old, cold, drafty and damp Fireman's Hall. Friction between these newcomers and the established townspeople, including many vets, increased as more and more hippies moved into SoHum. Tempers flared and meetings were held, but tensions between the two groups finally exploded one night in 1983 when an arsonist torched the Garberville Fireman's Hall, burning it to the ground.
The fire left the Vets Hall as the only affordable rental in Southern Humboldt. No effort was made to rebuild the Fireman's Hall. Instead, the back-to-the-landers formed a group called the "Mateel," for the two watersheds they occupied, the Mattole and the Eel, and commenced their own fundraising campaign to build a hall of their own. These newcomers, still reeling from the violence of the arson but also beginning to feel their oats as the fledgling black market marijuana industry began to grow, vowed to come back stronger than ever. Instead of building an all-purpose hall, the Mateel community opted for a concert venue.
They had their reasons. I never went to the old Fireman's Hall, but I can attest that the Vets Hall, not unlike a lot of multipurpose community buildings, has terrible acoustics and it's likely the Mateel folks got tired of holding their boogies in awful sounding rooms. Who could blame them, especially in that era of FM stereo, audiophile component systems and half-speed master recordings? So, the Mateel built a great sounding concert hall and installed a top-flight sound system, which stands as a testament to the community's deep respect and appreciation for the performing arts. There's only one problem: The Mateel Community Center is just too expensive to rent for dog training, a club meeting or a whole lot of other things that make a community function.
The Mateel charges between $800 and $1,000 a day to use the hall, with extra fees for cleaning and use of the lights and sound system. It offers a discount rate for nonprofit organizations, but compared to the $20 to $25 an hour the Vets Hall charged, there's really no comparison. It is possible to rent just the bottom floor of the Mateel by the hour, but it still costs more than twice as much as the Vets Hall.
Even as the Mateel Community Center rose in prominence, the SoHum community became more reliant on the John Haynes Memorial Veterans Hall for everything from seniors exercise classes to circuit-bending workshops for the Southern Humboldt Amateur Radio Club. As the years passed, Vietnam vets succeeded Word War II vets, and the lines between hippie and straight began to soften. To help ease tensions and build community, the vets started hosting a Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone in the community was invited, and everyone was invited to help.
The event proved so popular that they decided to do it again for Christmas. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at the Vets Hall have been a SoHum tradition for more than 30 years. One year, the vets served more than 300 people for Thanksgiving and every year at least a couple hundred spend the holiday at the hall, this in a town with a total population of around 1,000. Additionally, the vets and the local Kiwanis collect Toys for Tots every year, store the cache of donated toys at the hall and, every Christmas, Santa comes to distribute them.
Meanwhile, the roof has leaked for as long as anyone can remember. The lack of a service contract with the county led to considerable rancor between Garberville vets and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors in the ensuing decades, but the vets and the county finally came to an agreement that clearly established who is responsible for the hall's maintenance on Sept. 17, 2002. The agreements notes, "The county and Garberville veterans associations have been living, somewhat tenuously, under terms of a 1985 agreement that expired in 1987. The attached agreement is the culmination of years of negotiations, and represents, staff submits, a mutually satisfactory arrangement."
The agreement also tells us: "Veterans, years ago, without county permission, replaced part of the roof at a cost of $7,567. The county in fiscal year 1999-2000 reimbursed the veterans half the amount ($3,784) and offered to reimburse the remaining half ($3,783) on signing of a new agreement." The new agreement clearly delineates responsibility for maintenance and repair of the hall, listing roof repair and replacement right at the top, under county responsibilities. According to Torborg, the roof leaked at the time the agreement was signed.
At this point you are probably wondering what's the problem with the roof of this building. It stems from the fact that, like a lot of other public buildings of the era, the hall has a flat roof. Back in the late 1950s and through most of the 1960s, people loved clean, modern Bauhaus lines, and those boxy, flat-roofed designs looked so good on paper no one could resist them. Architects sold thousands of sleek, modern-looking, flat-roofed buildings to communities just like ours, and damn near every one of them leaked chronically. The Garberville Branch of the Humboldt County Public Library, right around the corner from the Vets Hall, has the same problem.
With the agreement of 2002 in place, the veterans turned their focus to the interior of the hall, making several improvements, including a new hardwood floor. Unfortunately, the chronic leaks in the roof have damaged a lot of these improvements. On a recent tour, Torborg pointed out places where water has damaged a tile floor, stained carpeting, shorted out a TV and damaged ceiling tiles, explaining that each of these had been due to different leaks at different times.
Each time they noticed a leak, the veterans informed the county of it. Occasionally, the county even sent people to make repairs. According to Torborg, "They'd send somebody out with a bucket of black jack to fix a leak, on a flat roof, where the whole roof needs to be replaced." One can only deduce, from the county's own mold report, that the county's maintenance of the Garberville Vets Hall had been inadequate to the task.
One of the county's repairs has been a fixture in the hall for many years: a 2-foot-by-2-foot shelf mounted overhead and out of reach on the internal wall between the main hall and the kitchen. On the shelf sits a large cooking pot. A hose attached to a bung on the side of the pot leads down the wall and out an open window. It's hard to say where they found a stock pot with a bung, or the proper hose to fit it, but these are the miracles of Humboldt County procurement. Unfortunately, the wall around that shelf is now infested with black mold, as are several other locations in the hall, including the veterans office ceiling.
The smell of mold permeated the building on the recent tour led by Torborg. The cramped office looked like it had been used that day. The desk had papers on it. Plaques hung on the wall near dress uniforms that hung in a row with filing cabinets lining the wall. Clearly the closure had come as a surprise, but a torn away piece of ceiling tile revealed the infestation.
Apparently it was someone at the court who asked the county to inspect the hall for mold. The court occupies about one-third of the building exclusively. Mold may have become apparent in the judges' chambers or the courtroom before anyone noticed it in the hall, but Kathy Wolman, who used the hall for many years with the Feet First dance troupe, said she smelled mold in the Vets Hall and knew the building had a problem long before the inspection proved it. Once the test came back positive for unhealthy levels of black mold in May, the county ordered the building closed and suspended all court activities there until further notice.
Suddenly, people from Blocksburg to Shelter Cove and from Pepperwood to Piercy had to scramble to find a workaround. While Garberville itself is a small town, Garberville is "town" — as in, "I'm going to town" — for a huge geographic area with a growing population. The John Haynes Memorial Veterans Hall, despite its problems, served this larger SoHum community so faithfully, in so many capacities, for so long, and with such humility, that most took it for granted. We're still scrambling.
Angelina Jaquez still doesn't know what she'll do. She runs Unleashed K9 Training Inc., and has come to rely on the hall, where she taught canine socialization, agility and obedience. "For dogs to learn to behave, they need to be in a pack, so it's important to get everyone together in one place," she said.
She described the difficulty she has had finding another location. "We can't use the community park, because there are no fenced areas, and because too many people let their dogs run with no leash, no training, no manners, no nothing," she said. "We tried to find a place in the Meadows Business Park, but nothing worked out there. Nilsen's Redway Feed Store volunteered to let us use their parking lot, but there's just too much activity in that parking lot and, in the summer, the pavement is too hot for the dogs' paws. I'm currently holding classes in one of my students' yards, but that will only work as long as the weather holds out. I still don't know what I'm going to do when it starts to rain."
She explained that the outdoor setting doesn't work very well, as fewer people show up when it's hot out, which deprives the dogs of the consistency they need for a good training class. Ultimately, she needs an indoor space with air conditioning and floors that are easy to clean. (Carpeted rooms won't work, as dogs do have accidents on occasion.)
"I work a lot with rehab dogs, and dogs that are difficult to deal with, have bite records and other problems," Jaquez continued. "A lot of these dog owners are at their wits end. Without my class, some of these dogs will probably have to be put down."
Evelyn King, who teaches an exercise class for seniors in SoHum, said participation in the class has gone down considerably since it had to be moved out of the Garberville Vets Hall. She still teaches, but sometimes has no students show up for her class at the Healy Senior Center in Redway. "One nice thing about the Vets Hall," Evelyn said, "is that it is so close to the senior housing in Garberville. When we did the class there, the seniors could just walk over to the class, but to get (to Redway) they need a ride."
Other Vets Hall users face similar challenges. When asked, Vets Hall booking manager Amy McClellan rattled off a long list of groups that used the hall every week. There was Feet First Dancers, with classes and rehearsals for ballet, salsa, tap, jazz, hip hop, modern and more. Then there are theater groups, Aikido classes and senior exercise classes. The Family Resource Center in Redway used the hall for parenting classes, and the Garberville Town Square organization used its kitchen to prepare food for events. A host of nonprofits used it to house their annual dinners, fundraisers and celebrations. Then there's the litany of public meetings held there, not to mention the monthly veterans dinner.
"I've probably forgotten some things but this should get you started," McClellan said.
Southern Humboldt just doesn't have that many alternatives. The much smaller Garberville Civic Club can handle about 50 people with a shoehorn, but it's more out of the way. The struggling Garberville Theater, and the newly opened Redwood Playhouse in the old College of the Redwoods building will work for a performance, or to screen a movie, but you can't really serve Thanksgiving dinner for 250 people in either of them and they don't have a kitchen. It's a conundrum. Many fear the county may opt to demolish the Vets Hall and with it, Garberville's long holiday tradition.
According to Fennell, the current 2nd District supervisor, the county is looking at the situation and trying to decide if the building is worth saving. The 2002 agreement stipulates that it is the county's responsibility to fix the roof and rebuild the hall if it is destroyed. However, the agreement also states: "In a situation where the building is destroyed, we have included language that we will rebuild as soon as possible, and commit to beginning reconstruction within a year of destruction. This recognizes that county timelines have constraints."
Those constraints are the reason the roof didn't get fixed for 15 years. The vets have invested a lot of resources into this building, expecting the county would fulfill its obligation under the agreement. The county's apparent failure to live up to its promise has hurt the entire community, especially area veterans. The hall closure has disrupted their activities, and threatens their property. For everyone else, it's going to be a lot harder to find a place to meet, teach a class or have a wedding reception, and there doesn't appear to be an easy answer.
The vets favor fixing the roof and removing the mold, according to Torborg, and the sooner the better. He hopes the problem can be solved in relatively short order if it is handled quickly, before the mold has time to spread. Any other solution will likely leave Southern Humboldt without an affordable hall — and local vets without a place to meet — for the foreseeable future.
And there's more to this than simple inconvenience. Not only is the Vets Hall an important part of everyday life in SoHum, it also provides critical infrastructure in times of emergency. A provision in the 2002 agreement states that the hall will serve as a care center or "other emergency facility" during declared disasters or states of emergency. In fact, the Vets Hall has been used as a severe weather shelter on the coldest nights of winter for a long time.
For many years, community organizers worked closely with the veterans around homeless issues. Many vets were homeless at the time and Veterans for Peace activists within the Garberville veterans post made the building available to people caught outdoors during nights when the temperatures fell below freezing. This past winter, however, the veterans decided they no longer wanted the hall used as an emergency shelter, citing safety, security and insurance concerns.
Since then, community organizers Debra Carey and Paul Encimer have approached Fennell to establish an "extreme weather protocol" to determine emergency conditions under which the hall could be used as an emergency shelter. They say she's been extremely reluctant to exercise the county's authority under the agreement and there's currently no shelter for the people who need it in Southern Humboldt.
From one grieving mother's generosity, and the work of three generations of local veterans, came a modest, poorly designed building on Conger Street in Garberville, but the forces that shape this community, and the people who live here, have made the Garberville Vets Hall into the heart of Southern Humboldt life.
Meanwhile the forces at play in county government allowed the Garberville Vets Hall to fall into disrepair. Other Veterans Halls in the county need repairs too, but few serve such a vital role for such a large community. Considering the county's ongoing structural budget deficit, it doesn't seem likely that the county will make building a new veterans hall in Garberville a priority any time soon. Many wonder if the hall will ever reopen.
In the meantime, the Mateel Community Center has agreed to host the vets annual Thanksgiving dinner, ensuring Southern Humboldt's heart will continue to beat at least a bit longer, however faintly.