When the counterculture — the barefoot, longhaired back-to-the-landers — poured into the hills and valleys of the Mattole and the Eel River watersheds in the 1970s, they needed a gathering place to enfold their new community. At first, they fixed up an old building in Garberville, the Fireman's Hall, but when that burned down in 1983, the newcomers created the Mateel Community Center in Redway.
For reasons not entirely clear to most of the newcomers — but remembered in excruciatingly harsh detail by some of the old-time families — a substantial number fought to stop the Mateel at every step, from the purchase of the land that would host the new building to the first event held inside its large hall.
They lost but their bitterness and the building have both become twisted into the heartstrings of the community. Later, the old-timers were joined in their resentment of the Mateel by some of those who were losers in the fierce fighting that marked the Reggae Wars, which tore apart Southern Humboldt around 2006. To some, the building became a symbol of their greater losses in the culture wars. In the aftermath of news the Mateel may be forced to close in the face of a large debt, some of this bitterness has been on full display. One recent comment from an old-time family responded to a story I posted about the situation, "I have never been to the Mateel or any of their events, most of the people I call friends haven't either. If we even think about the Mateel, we consider it a blight on our community ..."
In spite of the bitterness of some, many of the newcomers offered their hands and backs to build a place to house their celebrations, their meetings and their mournings. Each person gave what they could, created what they knew how. They built walls, sanded floors and hung doors.
The craftsmanship of the community's center shines. Have you seen the beautiful metalwork fence in the back? My father-in-law, his long hair pulled into a ponytail, a pair of handmade leather chaps on his legs, donated his time and much of the materials to create a black iron wave flowing into another black iron wave. Other people created similar offerings of love and hope, not only at the beginning but over time.
The satiny smooth woodwork, the large windows, the place for plays and music and gathering, all have woven magic into our community's collective memories. Or at least it has for the newcomers and for those of us from the old families who have let go of bitterness and even married into the hippie folk.
For most of us, the Mateel became part of the fabric of our lives — not just a place to listen to the surprisingly big name musical acts that performed there but a tradition and a place to partake in each other. There we gathered with our children. There we celebrated and mourned, argued and laughed, planned and partied. I remember weeping as a friend's son was memorialized there and laughing at Mary Jane the Musical. I remember catching my breath watching growers acknowledge publicly for the first time what they did for a living at the "What's After Pot?" community meeting and walking in awe between 40 years of handmade quilts as our community exhibited their handiwork. I have loved watching babies bobbing their heads to music there, delighted as my oldest cherished a stuffed frog bought from a vendor in the hall and paused to watch the pleasure an elderly woman exuded as she peered at a handcrafted candle. A woman I greatly admired collapsed there after dancing joyously with Feet First Dancers and she died soon after. Just a year ago, I was honored there as Citizen of the Year.
So many of the events of our lives happened at the Mateel. New traditions became old traditions so that children grew to adults not knowing any other way — the seasons of their lives were marked by the Winter Arts Fair, the Summer Arts Fair and the Halloween Boogie, punctuated by plays, funerals, meetings and Meals at the Mateel. God, that place is so tightly woven into the fabric of our community, it feels as if we will come unraveled without it. And the recent financial disclosures make it seem as if the great doors might close forever on the building's incarnation as a community center.
And there are a few of us who feel this would be a good thing. The commenter mentioned previously wrote, "[T]he merciful thing to do is shut down the Mateel [and] sell the building, the Mateel serves no useful purpose."
But for others of us, the shutting down of the Mateel would be a betrayal of the hopes and dreams that built it and which were later woven within its walls.
For those of us who want to see the hope live on, we will volunteer, we will work together and we will donate until we have helped mend the Mateel — allowing it to survive for another generation because we believe without a place to gather, to celebrate our traditions and share the great events of our lives, our community will wither and our traditions will die.
Kym Kemp is the publisher and editor of the news site www.kymkemp.com, and a long-time Southern Humboldt resident.
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