A person can stand on a corner in downtown Loleta — tiny Loleta, population not quite 800 — and never want for conversation. Even on a Tuesday. A sweltering day — fog chased off and the hot blue sky gone fuzzy orange at the edges with smoke drifting in from burning mountains.
At the corner of Loleta Drive and Main Street, this looks like a sleepy town. A bigger-city weekender's getaway. And yet, here it is a weekday, and there's a buzz. People, bikes, cars and stinky diesel trucks stream through the main intersection. A young guy speaking Spanish into a cell phone walks past, heading toward the cluster of downtown businesses and the post office — a row of eight pretty façades. Here comes another young guy on a cell phone, walking the other direction; he's speaking English. The parking spaces angled toward the storefronts are filling up, as are the parallel spots beside the moribund railroad tracks that cut through town. The sidewalk outside the bakery's choked with patrons at little tables and people milling about waiting to be seated, inside or out. Picnickers clog up the picnic tables in the long park across the tracks. The bakery door's swinging, the market door's swinging, the post office door's swinging, the meat market door's swinging.
Heck, it's not even safe to jump into the street a quick minute to snap a photo east at the old dead creamery (where Milkman powdered milk was born). It beckons, that creepy-pretty red-brick and glass-pane behemoth, with an air of "yes, I did cow stuff, but people know me for my role in Halloween III."
The buzz. Or maybe it's more like a signature. Families coming in for a visit to the past — to remember how mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, would stop at the meat market for a bag of weenies before heading out to the ranch; retirees and workerbees getting lunch or the mail; tourists herding in for cheese, pies, bread. Summer vacationers.
It's a truly joyful noise.
With an undercurrent of something else. It sounds kind of like a meat saw trying to cut through a bread board. Or like a bread knife sawing at a hunk of beef ribs. Some rumble of an expansion of bread-and-pastries and an eviction/relocation of meat, and a town gone semi-apoplectic over it.
This is the story of one sunny August afternoon in Loleta, with all of its humming and buzzing. And with a courtroom coda that promises more buzz to come.
Hammers and saw-whine sound from the back end of the defunct Gilded Rose Tavern. Then the noise stops. Two guys step through the open doorway into the sun. One hurries his tools into a pickup and zooms off. Paul King, with a bottle of South Fork Mountain spring water in one hand, hangs about to talk. They're with DCI Builders, a Ferndale construction company. This space they're remodeling will be the new home of the Loleta Meat Market.
Beyond the open door gleams the fresh, lumber skeleton of future walls.
King says he doesn't know the details of the bakery/meat market controversy; he's just doing the remodel work.
The Gilded Rose building is owned in part by Jeanne van der Zee and in part by a trust managed by her husband, Peter van der Zee. The van der Zees also own several other buildings in town, including the one that houses their Loleta Bakery. In January, they announced they would expand the booming bakery into the space they own next door — occupied for the past 81 years by the Loleta Meat Market. They served meat market owners Pixie Setterlund and her brother, Curt Terribilini, with a 60-day notice to relocate. The town exploded in protest — and anguish, because both businesses are beloved. Some people addicted to Loleta bread and sweet bakery atmosphere swore off it and vowed to start buying more of Pixie's famous sausages. Others argued that the bakery folks had revived their half-dead town. Heads got together. An agreement was reached: The van der Zees would lease the back half of the Gilded Rose to the meat market, and give the market another 60 days so the new place could be fixed up. They even offered to pay for some of the renovation. It seemed settled. But on July 23, Peter van der Zee filed an unlawful detainer in Humboldt County Superior Court seeking immediate eviction of the meat market and unpaid back rent. And there things stand, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, with the hammers and saws quieted for the day and the court's ruling still far ahead.
A cyclist rides up, and stops with one foot on the ground. Leans on his handlebars. Long, fluffy brown hair. Hat that says "Bite me." Shirt says, "One time, I got a rifle for my wife. It was the best trade I ever made."
Shawn Santoro, eyes smiling behind large sunglasses, says it's just for fun. "I'm not a serious person," he says. "I live life as it is. ... Ride my bike. Talk to people. They're nice here."
He's 52, a retired machinist from Buffalo, N.Y. Moved here 13 years ago to be with his girlfriend — they met online in a divorced/separated chat room. Now they live in a mobile in a park just around the corner, north past that curve of the railroad tracks.
A maroon four-door sedan slides up, and its front passenger window hushes down. The driver, a white-haired man, leans over and says, "I'm looking for a chick named Charity."
Santoro knows her. She lives in the trailer park, too.
"If you see her," the driver says, "tell her her aunt's funeral is Saturday at 10 o'clock. In Fortuna." The sedan leaves.
Yeah, everybody knows everbody's business here in Loleta. Santoro nods at the back of the Rose. "We think he's an idiot," he says of Peter van der Zee. "He should have kept this place for the bakery, and let her stay there."
A faded gray car stops a few yards before the stop sign. Back window comes down and a greasy-looking fellow aims binoculars up at the second floor of the Rose, where there are apartments. Then the car circles around to the other side of the building.
That was weird. But Santoro just shrugs and wheels off toward home.
At least 20 cars are parked now in the main block of Main. More are circling slowly, looking for a spot. This is where Sam Swauger ran cows in the 1ate 1880s and where, in 1886, the 3-year-old railroad line to Loleta got its first depot, Swauger's Station. The townspeople changed the name in 1897 to Loleta — a Wiyot term, lo-le-tah, which some claim means "pleasant place at the end of the water." [But does it?]
It's never been a big town — in 1880, according to the census, it had 807 residents; in 2010, there were 783. That's not counting the several hundred people living on the outskirts.
The north end of the block begins with a large green hedge, behind which lies a residential property owned by the familiar sounding Zeeder van Family Limited partnership. Next to the hedge, on a parcel owned by Peter van der Zee, is a big white-faced building with "Blue Coach Antiques" on its shingle and two large storefront windows flanking a red door. The antique store is defunct, and the building looks like it's used for storage. Stacks of Red Rose Premium Flour bags are visible through one window. Behind the other window is a diorama with a sign identifying it as the "Loleta Community Park Vision."
Loleta Realty, next to the Blue Coach building, is on the same parcel. It appears quiet, but Joyce North has been inside all morning fielding calls from prospective clients. There's a full ashtray on her desk and the air has that old-time smoky smell. Enormous plants scrape at the ceiling. A large goldfish tank bubbles against one wall. North, who's 55, her husband, who's 65, and her brother-in-law opened the business in 1989, after moving up from San Francisco.
"We wanted a slower lifestyle," she says.
They mostly manage rental properties, from Rio Dell to Eureka — including the four apartments above the Gilded Rose.
North and her husband live on 20 acres about 15 minutes out of town, with a large assortment of animals. She loves working in Loleta, where she says everyone gets along "fabulously."
"It's about the best spot on the map," she says.
But the bakery ... the meat market ... the dischord?
She'd rather not talk about the eviction turmoil. She handles lots of property owned by the van der Zees.
"They've got so many projects going," she says, proudly. "They plan to renovate the creamery. Ask them about it."
Has it been hard, dealing with two popular clients caught up in a tense situation? She says no. She gets along with everyone. Has to. Once you're in Loleta, you're in Loleta.
"We just had Swauger's Station Day," says North. "I'm the one that makes 35 gallons of chili every year for that." Ten or 15 years ago, she explains, she volunteered to make the chili, and people have expected her to make it ever since.
"Pixie does the deep pit barbecue, of course," she adds, referring to Setterlund. "C'mon," she says, "I'll introduce you."
We nod in at the friendly woman on the phone next door in Eel River Farms, a business owned by Peter van der Zee (on a parcel he owns). It supplies some of the food on the bakery's menu. We sweep past the grand, white, former Bank of Loleta — now owned by the Loleta Community Services District. We stop briefly at the green-painted Loleta Market — it and the meat market and bakery next door, which share a yellow building, are on another parcel owned by Peter van der Zee. North sticks her head inside to tell the market manager, Imran Khan, that I'll be back soon to talk to him. We step around a dusty-caramel dog chin-to-forepaws on a mat in front of the Loleta Meat Market.
"That's Kegger," says North. "Pixie's dog. He's pretty famous. He's three-legged, for one thing; the mail truck kind of plowed him down five years ago. Pixie's got his leg stuffed and mounted, back there." She nods into the brightly lit meat market then hollers for Setterlund, who emerges from the back wiping her hands on her apron. North introduces me and tells her I'll be back. We pick our way through the crowd outside the Loleta Bakery and enter the post office.
Dawn Belmont, Loleta's postmaster, chats with everyone coming and going. But she can't be interviewed. Post Office policy. Cas Austrus picks up the mail for Loleta Elementary School, and I run into him a minute later at Loleta Market, where he's buying a Red Bull. Austrus was a sawyer for 31 years at Pacific Lumber Co., then did stints at Humboldt Creamery and the pulp mill. Now he does maintenance at the school. His black T-shirt says "Team Deb" on it — Deb is his wife, who's fighting metastatic breast cancer.
"If anyone can do this, she can," Austrus says.
He's staying positive, he says, and even signs all his correspondence now with NEGU — short for "never give up."
Customers flow past us up to the counter. Khan, the market manager, fields them graciously. He is 42, and originally from Pakistan. He came to the United States in 1999, and came to Humboldt soon after to work at a friend's markets in Orick, Eureka and Loleta. Four months ago, he took the management gig at the Loleta Market. He lives in Eureka, but he likes Loleta's vibe. It's small, friendly — and not as sleepy as Orick.
"I'd rather be busy than not," he says, smiling.
The sidewalk is even more crowded now, and the picnic tables too. I head over to chat with a compact, red-faced guy who has clearly ridden his bicycle a long, long way. His bundle-burdened trailer looks like it should be attached to a team of sled dogs. He's Ian MacKendrich, 60 and retired, from Alaska. He's on his way to see family in Texas. He sneezes, and sneezes.
"Oh, it's killing me out here," he says. "So much green stuff."
MacKendrich has been riding since 5 a.m. He likes to ride the backroads, and that's how he ended up in Loleta. "That's a nice little grocery store in there," he says. "Their hot deli works."
"It's good," he says. "Egg rolls, bread, cheese. Gatorade — I love this stuff. That cheese factory's good, too. I got the pepperjack. And at the bakery, I got French bread for the road."
Tonight, he'll camp along Avenue of the Giants.
It's time to face Kegger's stuffed leg. At the meat market, Setterlund's in the back, whacking at a mound of beef with her cleaver. She takes a break to show me the leg — it's mounted on a plaque, next to an ode written by the taxidermist, Shirley Hopkins of Carlotta.
Uh, why'd she have the poor leg stuffed?
"Because I'm a morbid butcher," she says, laughing. "And the surgery cost two grand, so ... ."
Might as well get some art out of it.
Setterlund is petite and robin-round, with gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. She likes earthy humor. A children's book on farting lies atop some papers. "It's actually really good," she says, laughing, opening it up. Then she pulls some papers out of a box on another table. "This was on my fun wall," she says, pointing to a blank white wall covered in bits of clear tape where jokes, photos and drawings accumulated over the 15 years she and her brother have been proprietors of the meat market.
There's a lot to pack up, but Setterlund says she's already moved out 30 boxes.
She and her brother quit paying rent on this place in May, after agreeing to move the meat business over to the Gilded Rose building. She signed a lease on the new location in June.
"My understanding was we weren't to pay rent here anymore," she says. "And nobody asked me for rent, so I didn't pay it."
In July, she says, after she was served with the complaint, she cut a check to Peter van der Zee for four months' rent — May, June, July, August.
Setterlund tells me the transition to the new place is going to cost more than $100,000 — for the renovations, transfering and acquiring equipment, and so on. But Peter van der Zee is putting $30,000 toward the renovation, she says. She and her brother will put in another $30,000. "And then we have to come up with the rest," she says.
She understands the busy bakery's need to expand, and says she's not dragging her feet. "It's getting done," she says. "It's just a long process."
By September, she hopes to be in the Gilded Rose building. "I wish I was excited by the new spot," she says. "I'm going to miss being next to the grocery store. I go in there every day."
Setterlund walks outside to check on the racks of jams and jellies she sells for a couple of local women. She also keeps an eye on a friend's table of jewelry and plants for sale or donation to benefit a program for the disabled.
"I'm the billboard," Setterlund says. "I'm the bank of Loleta. If people need change or to borrow money, I'm always the one they come to."
She looks down the street toward the Gilded Rose. "I feel like I'm in another world down there," she says, "even though it's only half a block away."
Nineteen-year-old Nick Page and his mom, Barbara Jeffords, are strolling up the sidewalk now. They stop to chat with Setterlund. Page says he and his mom moved to Loleta from the Bay Area when he was 7 because "it was pretty much nuts down south."
"It's a rat race," agrees his mom.
"Plus we love this small town," says Page. "It's calming. People welcome you with open arms."
It's well after 3 p.m. now, and the crowd at the bakery has finally thinned. Just a few customers inside. The staff seems a little frazzled, and the owners aren't here, but one worker hands me a business card so I can call them. A man comes in for a pie he has to bring to a function at the fairgrounds. He tells barista Cammille Layton that he's just going to say he made it. She teases, "They'll know you didn't." He walks out with his prize, saying it smells so good it might not make it to the fairgrounds anyway.
"This is a really amazing place," Layton says when she finally takes a quick break.
She lives in Eureka and has worked at the bakery a year and a half. The crowd today here was normal, she says.
"Tuesday we're busy with all of our regulars — from Eureka, Fortuna, Loleta and all over Humboldt County. We know a lot of them by name. And then, it's tourist season. The weather's nice and school hasn't started. You'd think this sleepy little town would be sleepy all day, but it gets bustling here."
She looks out the window and smiles: An elderly man is crossing over the tracks, heading our way. His left hand grips a bunch of flowers.
"He always bring us flowers," she says.
Ray Costa hands the flowers to Layton when she opens the door, and comes in.
He's 87, long retired from the postal service. He tells me some people call him the mayor around here. He moved to Loleta from Salinas in 1990; his wife, who picked out the town, died in 1995.
"My wife hated Salinas," he says. "Said it was a hard, rednecky town. Well, I wouldn't know, because I was a native."
It's getting late, but up on Loleta Drive, the Loleta Cheese Factory has that hum. It's crawling with customers. They stab toothpicks into bowl after bowl of cubed cheese: roasted garlic, smoked salmon, salami, dill, chipotle. Behind a glass window, giant machinery churns cheese curds. In the courtyard out back, flowering shrubs lure bees and hummingbirds. Their wings whir in the late afternoon sun. Loleta, abuzz.
A few days later, the meat market owners and their landlords meet in court for a readiness conference, and agree to come back Sept. 18. Jeanne van der Zee says later that Setterlund and her brother were supposed to be out of their current location by May 10.
"They made no effort to pay rent," she says. "They made no effort to communicate. And we waited months for them to come forward."
Everyone else had chatted with me that day in Loleta, so I'm hoping to spend some time with Van der Zee on the phone.
We do not have an easy conversation.
When I ask what other buildings she and her husband own on that main block of Main Street, she says, "We own some."
She won't say. She wants to know why I need to know. I tell her I'm writing about the main street of a small town where there's been a bit of controversy. People are curious.
"Well I'm curious about their bra size!" she yells. "And their checking account and their sex life!"
How about me, should she ask me about my bra size?
By now, I'm not feeling patient. I interrupt to explain why bra size isn't relevant to a story about Loleta's main street.
She calms down, for a while. And I get it — in a "tiny, tiny pond" (as she describes Loleta) it can be tough to be the big property owner with big plans to change the place — even when the plans include a thriving bakery.
I ask about the creamery and she refuses to say anything. I ask about the Gilded Rose.
"I own that front part," she snaps. "And we would love to see something happen there. And it's been open for rent for years and years and years, and we have incredibly generous terms we'd offer anybody who'd want to rent that."
As for the back part, and the trouble with the meat market folks, she says she and her husband have been generous — that Setterlund and her brother don't even have to pay rent on the new place for a solid year.
"I would be very pleased for everyone in our village if two viable businesses were thriving amongst the other businesses in Loleta," she says. "And if I don't see that in your article I'm going to be very disappointed."
I wouldn't want to add disappointment to Loleta's buzz. So let's just hope everyone thrives. Jeanne van der Zee will be very pleased.