Ferndale, California: The Victorian Village and Its Artists
By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. This chapter deals with Ferndale, a village known for its lovely Victorian architecture. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
Pockets of Victorian architecture flourished in various areas of Northern California, but nowhere is it preserved in such a thorough and pleasant gingerbread manner as Ferndale. The town is a kind of Victorian village, populated partly by artists, along the northwest coast. Lumber and dairy industries created the original prosperity here. Tourism and art now augment as engines of the local economy.
The Historic Story
Lumbering may be the more obvious story in Humboldt County, but the broad alluvial plain associated with the Eel River produced a second major resource, an abundance of grass. The grass could sustain a huge dairy industry. Although Ferndale is five miles inland from the sea, its elevation is only 30 feet. While exploring the Eel delta, you can stop in at the Loleta Cheese Company in the small village of Loleta. Sample some of their specialties, such as jalapeno-flavored jack cheese.
Ferndale is known for its Carpenter Gothic architectural legacy. Start with a look at one of the earliest structures, the Shaw House Inn, 703 Main Street. Stroll down the four blocks of Main Street from Ocean to Shaw streets. Take notice of the nuances of the Eastlake-style Ferndale Meat Company (376 Main Street) from the Roman-style Tri Counties Bank (394 Main).
As you might expect, several of the Victorian houses have become B&Bs, including the Gingerbread Mansion Inn (400 Berding Street), Victorian Inn (400 Ocean Avenue), and the mentioned Shaw House Inn (703 Main Street).
Hobart Brown’s Art Legacy
Hobart Brown and his art legacy represents another thread of the modern historical story. Brown arrived here in 1965 and started his metal sculpting creations. Brown also brought a zany sense of imagination. He founded in 1969 an annual event called the Kinetic Sculpture Race, now called the Humboldt Kinetic Grand Championship. Race entrants must cover the water and land between Arcata and Ferndale in human-powered vehicles. The challenge of crossing water and land spurred some ingenious creations. The race is a kind of concourse of contraptions. Brown died in 2007, but his fun race, held every Memorial Day weekend, lives on.
The Kinetic Grand Championship has become a cult tourism attraction. For three days, contestants scramble over a 36-mile course in vehicles of their own design. When Brown promulgated the first race, he was surprised to find that seven entrants and 10,000 spectators showed up. The race now attracts up to 50 entrants per year.
The Kinetic Universe Headquarters is at the Kinetic Museum Eureka, 518 A Street, Eureka, CA 95501; 707/786-3443.
There are many art galleries in Ferndale. Today there are about 100 artists among the 1,372 residents of Ferndale.
There is also a Ferndale Museum (corner of Shaw and 3rd Streets, 707/786-4466) with many artifacts on the area history, especially the dairy world that has flourished here since the town was founded in 1852.
Drive north on Highway 101 and watch for the signs to Fernbridge/Ferndale, south of Eureka. Ferndale is a short drive west of Highway 101, across Fernbridge, an arched concrete span built in 1911.
Be Sure to See
Walk around the historic town to see the Gingerbread Mansion and the Shaw House as examples of Victorian architecture.
Be sure to stop in at the museum to the Kinetic Sculpture Race to see the wacko creations that characterize this annual event.
Visit Hobart Brown’s galley and some of the other art galleries in town.
Stop in at the Ferndale Museum to absorb the dairy history of the region.
Then drive out the Eel delta to enjoy the rural countryside, perhaps with a stop at the Loleta Cheese Factory, 252 Loleta Drive, in Loleta, 707/733-5471, for some picnic supplies, such as their smoked salmon cheddar.
Best Time of Year
The Memorial Day weekend of the Kinetic Sculpture Race would be a special time of the year here. Call the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce to verify the annual date. Beyond that, this lively little town has several other yearly festivals to consider. In May there is a Tour of the Unknown Coast bicycle race. The Scandinavian Festival and Parade is in June. The Humboldt County Fair and Horse Races is in August. The Christmas Celebration includes “America’s Tallest Living Christmas Tree” and a Lighted Tractor Parade. Call the Chamber of Commerce to check on details.
The Gingerbread Mansion (400 Berding Street, Ferndale, CA 95536; 855/786-4001; www.gingerbread-mansion.com) would be a choice place in which to lodge. One block off Main Street, this restored Victorian is filled with antiques. It is also one of the most photographed historic buildings in America.
The restaurant in the Ivanhoe Hotel (315 Main St.; 707/786-9000: www.hotel-ivanhoe.com) serves steak, pasta, chicken Marsala, and other traditional American dishes in an 1875-style inn. Reservations are recommended.
For Further Information
The local information source is the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce (580 Main St., Ferndale, CA 95536; 707/786-4477; www.visitferndale.com.
The main area tourism information source is the Eureka-Humboldt Visitors Bureau (322 First Street; 800/346-3482; https://www.visitredwoods.com).