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“Blocksburg is still a nice turn in the road, where all of Humboldt County’s sunshine seems to congregate all day long. It has a wonderful historical past.” – Andrew Genzoli, Times-Standard May 25, 1979
According to some historians, our quiet little community was once a rough and rowdy gathering place for sheep and cattle ranchers as well as the people they employed. It grew, out of necessity, as a stop-over on the Overland route between Eureka and San Francisco. It boasted several hotels, saloons, and even a race track. Twice in its history, it was nearly destroyed by fire.
When the first white settlers began moving into the area, there was already a large Native American population scattered throughout the hills. One of the biggest villages was just above Blocksburg on what was known for many years as the Hope Ranch and is now the Lewis Ranch.
The town officially became Blocksburgh when the post office was established in 1877. Prior to that, it was called Larrabee after Henry P. Larrabee who owned extensive land in a region that stretched from the Eel River to Laribee Valley to the east. Laribee was notorious man who served as a corporal in the Volunteer Guides during the Indian Wars, and, it is said, boasted that he had killed more than 60 Indian children with a hatchet.
Next came the first white settler, Joseph James Powell, who opened a small store. The town carried his name for some time. He was a farmer from Kentucky who registered in Humboldt County in 1871. He died at Blocksburg on July 6, 1884 at the age of 59. Joe Stemmons opened a store in Blocksburg around the same time. It was little more than a shack with a few necessities and a lot of tobacco and whiskey.
Ben Blockburger Arrives
Blocksburg began to grow into a real town with the arrival of its namesake, Benjamin Blockburger. The Humboldt County register lists Blockburger on October 25, 1872. He gave his age as 42, his occupation as merchant, and his address as Powellville. He opened his store that fall when his merchandise was brought in by a double-pack train of 60 mules, half of which carried whiskey.
On May 31, 1876, an article in the West Coast Signal noted the rapid growth of the town. “Blocksburg is improving very fast. A townsite has been surveyed and lots sell readily at $100. The place has one store, one hotel, one blacksmith shop (owned by John Stemmons), one schoolhouse, a dozen dwellings and more going up. The road is now open for wagons from Blocksburg to Hydesville.” Opening this road to Blocksburg was no easy task. It was done mostly by Chinese laborers using picks and shovels.
On January 30, 1877, the town officially became Blocksburgh when the first post office was established. (The cumbersome “h” was dropped in 1893.) By September of 1877, according to a newspaper article, Blockburger was busy building a 20×50′ warehouse, a Mr. Butler was producing a good quality brick, a Mr. Harris was building a new hotel (the third one in town), and Frank Hendrickson opened a new saloon with the first billiard table ever brought to this section of the country.
Fires and Hard Winters
In the fall of 1886, the first major fire occurred at Blocksburg, destroying Mr. Hendrickson’s saloon and presumably the billiard table. Also lost were Hermann’s meat market and Helmke’s store. A few years later the town was struck another blow. The long, hard winter of 1889 was so severe that livestock as well as crops died off. Many of the farmers and ranchers who had mortgaged their land to expand their holdings lost everything they had and were forced to sell out. Then in November of 1907, fire again destroyed the major portion of the business district. It started in the post office and spread to a warehouse, the Town Hall, and Robinson’s saloon, hotel, and barn. The store was rebuilt and also housed the post office. There were two saloons remaining and a blacksmith shop. Ben Blockburger’s store was vacant.
During its prime, the town supported three hotels, three livery stables, five saloons (which might explain one writer’s description of Blocksburg as “scandalous”), a photographer, a millinery shop, two blacksmith shops, a drug store, a telegraph office, a saddle shop, a post office, a meat market, and a jail. There was also a doctor and a dentist in residence. There were over 200 registered voters, and this was prior to the Suffrage movement. A regular stage service was provided. The school had more than 100 students. Fourth of July picnics were an annual event, and the local race track was said to attract people from as far away as Los Angeles.
The opening of a road through the redwoods (Highway 101) in 1920 brought about changes for Blocksburg. No longer did travelers have to pass through our town to get to San Francisco or to Eureka. The big ranches became mostly cattle ranches. Tanbark became an industry for a number of years. The logging industry provided the biggest boom in later years as small lumber mills were scattered over the hills in the 1940s and ’50s.
Contributed by Beverley Windbigler.