Newspaper publisher shines light on West Marin’s past

David Briggs
Longtime Point Reyes Light publisher Dave Mitchell this week released a book tracing the history of West Marin as seen through the eyes of this newspaper. The book, available through the Tomales Bay Regional History Center and at Point Reyes Books, gives a glimpse into the varied passions of the weekly’s publishers with 350 pages of clippings.
12/12/2013

Dave Mitchell watched as the “evening bird show” began late Saturday afternoon. His partner Lynn Axelrod, a reporter for The Citizen, had scattered birdseed across the deck’s railings and table, drawing flocks of fowl ready for feeding time.

At a rough count, Mr. Mitchell has watched some 13,400 West Marin sunsets (and a fair share of sunrises) since he built his cozy version of Xanadu on a Point Reyes hillside. The scene through the cabin’s large windows appears today almost the same as the afternoon he and his ex-wife Cathy moved in. Different birds come and go with the seasons, and the sun may fall a bit further north or south, earlier or later in the day. But it’s always beautiful—the backlit jays and blackbirds, the light over Inverness Ridge and the small community below that Mr. Mitchell came to love during his quarter-century as editor and publisher of The Light.

Mr. Mitchell, who turned 70 last month, has been thinking much recently about what has changed outside his windows, the differences less visible to the eye. Over the past year, Mr. Mitchell and journalist Jacoba Charles reviewed more than 3,380 past issues of this paper’s coverage for a book released this week, The Light on the Coast. The 354-page history highlights the best of The Light’s 65 years of coverage: how fires and floods shaped the hillsides, how a railroad shuttered and left a station, how a colossal national park claimed ownership of the coast and how longhairs made peace with cowboys.

As he began recounting his favorite stories, Mr. Mitchell could not simultaneously express his enthusiasm and stay seated at the dining room table. With an electronic pipe in hand—he no longer smokes Amphora tobacco for Ms. Axelrod’s sake—he paced back and forth, sometimes pausing in front of the wood stove to remember a name or detail and more often bending over with laughter. 

Mr. Mitchell is skinny as a muckrake, but at six feet and three inches, he seems to fill a room. His beard seemed whiter in the day’s last light. It elongates his face and gives him the air of a local wise man. If you saw him on the street, you would never think to call him Mr. Mitchell (though our style requires it). He’s just Dave. Sage, sparse and timeless as ever.

“I always thought the most rewarding part was going into a situation where neither I nor most of the readers understood what was going on,” Mr. Mitchell said. “I’d research so that it made sense to me, but being able to explain it so that Light readers would be able to understand it, that was the real pleasure. It made me feel I’d accomplished something.”

The most obvious example is The Light’s reporting on Synanon, a cult that took hold in Marshall in the 1970’s. While other newspapers didn’t connect accusations of child abuse and financial fraud with sheriff’s reports of beatings and intimidation, Mr. Mitchell’s reporting showed they all linked back to the cult. The paper’s stories and his editorials won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, the nation’s highest award for journalism.

Another series that spanned a decade and sent reporters abroad to Ireland, Switzerland, Croatia, Portugal and southern Mexico tracked waves of immigration to West Marin, revealing how ancestry shaped our community. An influx of seafood restaurants in Marshall, for example, were built by Croatian immigrants who came from islands of fisherman and boat builders, and many Italian-speaking immigrants went into the dairy business because they had work experience in the Swiss Alps.

Mr. Mitchell’s book follows the same logic, presenting seemingly random glimpses of West Marin’s “lively little towns” through their chroniclers, who shaped history even as they transcribed it.

The Baywood Press, as the paper was first known, was born in a house in Inverness on a hillside surrounded by bay laurel trees in March 1948, shortly after the end of the Second World War. Dave and Wilma Rogers announced their intentions in the first edition: “First of all this is YOUR newspaper,” they wrote. “It will become what YOU make it.”

The earliest issues were neither broadsheet nor the tabloid printed today, but a little booklet. Each copy was handmade: employees circled a table at the Rogers’ home, picking up each consecutive page and stapling it together before writing out the mailing address by hand.

Mr. Rogers was a “funny little man with glasses,” who snooped around town in search of stories. He used to sit under a fig tree outside Perry’s Grocery & Deli, where the men had beers after work, to find out who did what, went where, fought with whom. 

The society column listed when Mr. and Ms. So-and-so motored to San Rafael for the weekend or Mr. This-and-that had guests or threw a party. With people scattered across the countryside, it was one of the only ways residents stayed in touch at a time when phone calls between Point Reyes and Inverness were considered long-distance.

Though the gossipy social calendar was far from investigative journalism, Mr. Rogers gave the paper its dedication to local news. One of his early editorials addressed the lack of trash cans in unincorporated Marin, which had led to “boxes of tin cans, rubbish, garbage, old underwear and diverse junk” and suggested that Woodacre was better named “Dumpacre.” 

He also covered a proposal by West Marin and Petaluma residents to form their own county, a plan dismissed by Supervisor James Kehoe (father of Shoreline Unified School Board President Tim Kehoe) as “silly.”

For health reasons, Mr. Rogers was forced to resign. “The time has come to place the torch into new hands,” he wrote in a prescient farewell note. “We throw this light to another, whom we feel will carry on.”

The next editors reported news both important and strange. There were stories about street lighting being added in Point Reyes Station, the burglary of a “new carton of cigarettes” from Jimmie Lockhart’s unlocked car and the Navy’s plans to use Drakes Bay as training ground for air-dropping mines. 

But there were also articles about the death of a 39-year-old horse one month short of his birthday and a Fourth of July barbecue that devolved into a drunken riot when a Tomales tavern-owner closed up early. One of Mr. Mitchell’s favorites is this brief from April 1956: “Mrs. Joe Curtiss’ television set caught fire last week, and the wall behind the set began burning. Before the fire department could answer the call, Margie picked up the set, threw it out the window and proceeded to extinguish the blaze.”

The last editor of The Baywood Press was Don DeWolfe. “The Baywood Press is the only newspaper in the world dedicated to West Marin, and we plan to keep it just that way,” he said upon arrival. And he pretty much did, except for the change in  name. Mr. DeWolfe asked around town for ideas, as editors always do before they “do their own thing regardless,” the late historian Jack Mason explained. 

Mr. DeWolfe apparently was sick and tired of out-of-town advertisers asking, “Where the hell is Baywood?” Finally giving it a sense of place, the new name The Point Reyes Light alluded to the nearby lighthouse, which years later Mr. Mitchell argued should be reopened to the public.

Under Mr. DeWolfe’s editorship, the paper first published details on the National Park Service’s desire for an expansive park along the coast. In 1958, one rancher, George Nunes, called the plan “a wild dream.” 

At the time, the National Park Service warned that they were in “the ‘eleventh hour’ as far as the opportunity or possibility of preserving this outstanding area is concerned, as there is rapidly increasing awareness of its potential commercial possibilities.” By 1961, the park’s proposed area had expanded from 28,000 acres to 53,000 acres. “Some of it is very beautiful; some of it not so beautiful,” one senator told the paper. 

When the park opened, reporters were on the scene, or at least, they were on the way: West Marin’s highways and private roads were clogged with cars. Most drivers had no idea where they were going. By the next weekend, some locals barricaded private roads and turned back any visitors from out of town.

The next editor, Mike Gahagan, witnessed another chunk of West Marin become public lands with the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, approved by unanimous voice votes in the House and Senate. But Mr. Gahagan found himself increasingly frustrated by the “peculiar obligations of being an editor in a small town.” He  had hoped to inform the public and lead them to consensus, but the same issues—“sewer, growth, transportation, park uses, representation”—continued to pester him without any real change. “There will be more opportunities to be myself elsewhere,” he said, and left the paper to the Mitchells in 1971.

The two young writers, who had met at Stanford’s journalism school and returned to California after a slow trek westward, would define The Light for the next several decades. Past editors had written of lofty goals—Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, for example, cribbed from Abraham Lincoln for their first editorial, “A newspaper of the people, by the people, for the people”—but Dave and Cathy were short and direct in their aims. “Rather than ask you to read any more about the changes we plan, we instead encourage you to watch the changes happen,” they said, thinking it better to spend time on their product, not promises.

Within seven years, Synanon was making the front page almost every week, leading some readers to complain. “Synanon coverage continues ad nauseam, dominating local news,” one letter to the editor protested, but replies flooded in next week, with one saying, “They deserve a Pulitzer prize for their achievement, not irrelevant criticism.” 

By April 1979, the Mitchells had $500 worth of gold from the judges to show for their work. Ralph Craib, a Chronicle reporter who nominated the couple, spoke of Dave’s “courage and dedication, and more particularly, of his vulnerability.”

But after the euphoria of their victory wore off, the Mitchells old marital problems resurfaced. “You might enjoy working at The Light even more if it were your job and not your life,” Cathy once told Dave. The pair split in 1981, and both left their cabin on the hillside for a time. 

Mr. Mitchell travelled south to do war reporting in Central America, where he had “a heck of a good time,” he said, such a good time that he used his vacation days to travel to war zones and file more dispatches—“a working vacation.” But Mr. Mitchell’s thoughts never strayed far from The Light. When the new publisher defaulted on a payment, he took the opportunity to reclaim his editorship. 

By the time Mr. Mitchell was finally finished in 2005, The Light had won 109 regional, state and national awards. Even then, he was only in “semi-retirement,” as he continued to publish his column online.

It was dark outside the cabin once Mr. Mitchell’s stories had ended, and strangely quiet. A bottle of cider had been drained and lay lonely on the table; the stove’s firewood had turned to embers. Mr. Mitchell climbed up to the second floor and looked at some old pictures hanging on the walls. 

When Mr. Mitchell first moved to Point Reyes Station, he and Cathy were too broke to afford their own place and slept in the newsroom. It reminded him of a Sherwood Anderson story he had read in college, about a time of night in a small town when only three people are awake. How strange, he had thought, that a place like that might be possible. The last to sleep, of course, is the reporter. He is the one who lays the town to bed and the one who watches until morning.

“This has been the best job that I or any newspaperman could ever hope for,” Mr. Mitchell said in his final goodbye. “For a while at least, I’ll still be occasionally out and about with my camera and notebook. Old reporters, like old soldiers, never die; they just fade away.”

But if there is a lesson to be gleaned from Mr. Mitchell’s book, it is that the history he documented and made will not fade: the light bulbs of this office, the records of this Light and Dave Mitchell’s pipe will all burn a little longer yet.

 

The Light on the Coast: 65 Years of News Big and Small as Reported in the Point Reyes Light, by Dave Mitchell and Jacoba Charles, is available at Point Reyes Books or can be ordered online from the Tomales Regional History Center bookstore at tomaleshistory.com.