California Outback: Sweet Home Fort Bidwell – Celebrating Fall to Save a Town Hall

Backstage of the century-old Town Hall in Modoc County’s Fort Bidwell—up in the far, right corner of California—the visitor can see faded inscriptions on rough-hewn walls: Little time capsules of messages—now murky—in schoolhouse penmanship of our grandparents. Written many in pencil, the tradition was for performers to inscribe their names and dates—there’s one for Oct. 3, 1912—but what they said long ago, needing a Sherlock Holmes effort to decipher, a magnifying glass, prolonged study and light.

Fort Bidwell, under the Warner Mountains, is located at the top end of Surprise Valley in Modoc County. Photos by H.A. Silliman.

Fort Bidwell, under the Warner Mountains, is located at the top end of Surprise Valley in Modoc County. Photos by H.A. Silliman.

The white clapboard building sits in the middle of the settlement that literally is the last town in California for travelers going up northeast on County Road 1. Beyond is the outback of scrub and sage, a landscape jumbled by the collision of earthquake faults, and the point poplar among orienteers where three states meet.

Fort Bidwell Town Hall has been around for World War I, Prohibition, the Roaring ’20s, the Depression, Pearl Harbor, World War II, the First Atom Bomb, the Cold War—those great events that mark the calendars of our minds. Townspeople say it had been relocated at least two times, the last maybe 90 years ago when it was hefted onto big logs and rolled across the street.

“It always tickled us that they didn’t think much about moving the building,” said Fort Bidwell Civic Club President Carole Benner. “They just got some horses and off they went!”

To give it a chance for another 90 years, Fort Bidwellers have launched a campaign: “What we are trying to do is preserve the building so it doesn’t fall down,” said Benner. And now Town Hall has officially racked up a big event of its own: the first an annual harvest fair fundraiser, held on a recent Saturday.

Fort Bidwell celebrates autumn and a fundraiser to preserve Town Hall. Photos by H.A. Silliman.

Fort Bidwell celebrates autumn and a fundraiser to preserve Town Hall.

The Fort Bidwell Civic Club—with an assist from the Fort Bidwell Volunteer Fire Department—organized Autumn Days—a celebration that spread from a fine mellow afternoon into a cool fall evening—complete with a two-band dance. The key ingredient for the day was an apple press demonstration via Tom Fee’s ancient apple press, made right there in San Francisco—so says the big block letters—for the company Baker & Hamilton. The apples came from right there in Fort Bidwell, harvested by Benner and two local boys, Blaze Royer and Jake Fee, and Tom Fee at the tractor.

Making apple juice from apples is no light-weight process—despite that handy piece of equipment. Ron Lynch explained to the crowd gathered that hundreds of pounds of apples had been given a bleach bath and cut up into halves and cleaned by civic club members. Then came the pressing, which involves pouring batches of apples into the machine, turning a crank to grind up the fruit. The bucket of grindings then is moved under the press—a large chunk of metal attached to a screw drive and hand-turned by a well-worn wood handle that looks like an oversized baseball bat. Turn and turn and turn and the weight squeezes down onto the shaved up apples: The juice sluices out golden brown at about two gallons a bucketful.

Tom Fee begins the process of apple pressing by grinding up the fruit on his family’s century-old machine.

Tom Fee begins the process of apple pressing by grinding up the fruit on his family’s century-old machine.

Tom Fee spent the better part of the afternoon grinding away on the press, while his son, Jake, and friend, Blaze, kept the trough stoked with apples and turning the squeeze. And as the crank went round and round, there was an interesting symmetry to the work. For Tom Fee and his wife, Alissa, held their wedding reception in Town Hall in 1995—officially the last party to be held in the building, and so here he was 21 years later, with his boy helping out and Alissa one of the event’s organizers, to save the place that helped bring them together.

Watching all that work, of course, turned onlookers thirsty: Civic club members stood by with large cups to quench it for free, with juice that tasted like drinking a big draught of fall—sweet, mellow and smooth—all in one glass—a taste to savor but notably addicting, a flavor not found off a grocery store shelf—or even down at El Dorado County’s famous Apple Hill. Here came autumn fresh-squeezed in a liquid dose—and like all good medicine, wisely moderated to avoid walking around in an Apple Daze of a sugar high.

The civic club sold barrel-roasted chicken, pulled pork sliders with cabbage, hot dogs, chili, baked potatoes, roasted corn-on-the-cobb, and more things sweet: fudge, caramel popcorn, chocolate almond bark, and pies, whole or by the slice—thus tempting people to eat dessert before dinner and then return for seconds afterwards. Judy Lynch helping doing the selling, judged not the indulgence—sweetly taking the donations and handing over the goodies.

Judy Lynch happily sells homemade sweets—no judgment as to when purchased.

Judy Lynch happily sells homemade sweets—no judgment as to when purchased.

Westward, the sun set behind the Warner Mountains; through the trees opposite, the playa lakebed and close hills still glowed yellow as the town deepened into night. The lights strung over the shindig came up, and when one stepped back across the street, life imitated art: a remembered country dance scene from the movies “Murphy’s Romance” and “Sweet Home Alabama”—music drifting out of Town Hall as soundtrack.

Carole Benner recalled that Fort Bidwell folks had a tradition of harvesting apples and getting together for a party of the pressing—a town tradition they have now pressed into an annual festival to save the building: New events for Town Hall to mark the years by, new dates for people to inscribe on that backstage wall.

Note: Donations can be made to Fort Bidwell Civic Club Town Hall Fund, P.O. 58, Ft. Bidwell, 96112.

Photos by H.A. Silliman.

© 2016 H.A. SILLIMAN ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

H.A. Silliman
The California Outback Report is produced by H.A. Silliman, a freelance writer who lives in Modoc County. He can be reached at hsilliman@hotmail.com.
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2 Responses

  1. AJ says:

    Oh my! I want to go. ..I want to be there! I love that corner of the state.  Beautifully peaceful is my take on the scene.  For those of we fiddler type folks who have transversed that general topography every June for the past umpteen years, it can be a beautiful respite before heading out into the desert.  Most of us feel quite familiar with that part of the state. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.  Be sure to remind us next year.

    • C. Benner says:

      AJ,  We would love to feature some fiddlers next year at the festival.  Contact me at my Facebook page private messaging.  Glad you liked the article, it was very well done.