How Humboldt became America's marijuana capital

In the 1970s, hippie pioneers mastered a new way of growing pot -- and transformed the economy of Humboldt County

Published June 30, 2013 4:30PM (EDT)

    (AP/Ben Margot)
(AP/Ben Margot)

Excerpted from “Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier”

Late one morning in the winter of 1970, when Mare Abidon was a young woman of thirty, with blond hair that streamed down her back, she stood outside her San Francisco apartment holding a cardboard box and prepared to say good-bye. The box in her arms brimmed with the remnants of the life she was leaving behind, and all the lives that came before that: art supplies from school, horn jewelry purchased on the street in India, and batik granny dresses from her years in the Haight. Len was waiting in his truck nearby. Brooding Len with the dark beard and strong arms, who had made Mare’s heart skip a beat the first time she laid eyes on him years ago at the post office.

Instead of feeling melancholy about the life she was leaving behind, Mare was brimming with excitement. The Beast, Len’s old green Chevy, was loaded down with their belongings and ready to carry them north. Six years earlier, Mare had arrived in San Francisco with her new husband, Gene. When her marriage fell apart a year later, she fled to the Haight-Ashbury. What a refuge the Haight had been. The neighborhood was brimming with creativity and hope. The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane all called it home. The Diggers served free soup down the Panhandle from Mare’s apartment. The Haight was famous the world over. During that summer they called Love, even more dreamers flocked to San Francisco. There was such a spirit of freedom and communalism to the place that, for a moment, Mare really believed love could conquer all.

But then things took a darker turn. Some of Mare’s friends started shooting heroin. A severed arm was found in the back of a car in the neighborhood, and hate began creeping in. Early one morning, when Mare was walking back from her graveyard shift at the post office, someone in a passing car screamed out the window at her:

“Get a job!”

Oh, leave me alone, Mare thought. I have two.

In addition to working the night shift at the post office to pay the bills, by day, she was an art student. What had started out as a way to find herself and gain some confidence years ago in Michigan had evolved into a full-blown passion. Mare honed her painting and sculpture skills with classes at San Francisco State and the University of California at Berkeley.

It had slowly dawned on Mare that she wasn’t the kind of person who could work and do her art on the side. Then one of her Berkeley professors made it clear that this was a futile endeavor anyway.

“Female artists should find husbands to subsidize their careers; professorships are for men,” she had overheard him telling another female student.

As those words sank into her, Mare’s dreams crashed and burned.

Then, one afternoon after class, as Mare stood on the sidewalk waiting for the bus, a car pulled up alongside her. The man inside offered her a lift.

“No, brother, I don’t need a ride,” she told him.

But the man had a gun, and forced her inside the car. He proceeded to drive to a desolate place. Mare kept thinking she could talk her way out of what happened next, but she couldn’t, and he raped her.

Nothing made sense anymore. For all these reasons and more, it seemed like a good time to start over someplace far from civilization and its discontents.

Mare took one last look at the building on Twentieth Avenue in San Francisco’s fog-shrouded Sunset District, then carried her box to the truck and never looked back. The plan was to head north, past Marin and Sonoma, to the place where the counties of Mendocino and Humboldt meet. Some of Len’s buddies from high school had started a commune at an old lumber camp there. They called it Gopherville.

The idea to move there came to Mare and Len a few months earlier, at the end of summer, after they had helped Mare’s cousin Jewel and her husband build a house in the Humboldt Hills. Mare had fallen in love with the big trees, and she wondered what it would be like to pass through them every day on the way home. On the way back to the city that summer, she and Len had stopped off near the coast at Gopherville.

As Mare and Len looked around at the various buildings set back in the trees, and the seemingly tranquil life they provided, Len’s old friend Bob pointed to a house on the hill. A family had just moved out. It was theirs if they wanted it. They did.

With their decision to leave the city and start anew, Mare and Len joined a wave of young people who were fleeing urban America at the time. With Whole Earth Catalogs and Mother Earth News magazines in hand, these idealist youth were leaving behind the “American Dream” and its tarnished illusions of material wealth and success. They headed into the countryside of Northern California, upstate New York, Vermont, and elsewhere to grow their own food, live simply, and be self-sufficient. It was one of America’s last great pioneer movements. It was known as Back-to-the-Land.

All Mare knew was that, in the words of Joseph Campbell, she was going to follow her bliss, to live as an artist and be free. In a way, the quest for freedom had been driving her ever since she was old enough to determine her own destiny. Mary Em Abidon was born in Chicago in 1940, just before America entered the Second World War. Her parents, Walker and Lola Belle, had met a few years earlier, at the University of Wisconsin, where Lola Belle earned a master’s in nutrition and Walker studied the classics. Lola Belle was the first woman from her Wisconsin town to attend college. Walker hailed from a family of southern physicians, and became a doctor of philosophy. When Mare was two, her parents returned home from the hospital with a freshly swaddled newborn. At first, Mare thought her baby sister, Ellen, was a doll they’d bought for her to play with.

The Abidons eventually settled in East Lansing, Michigan, where Walker taught at the local university and Lola Belle focused on being a housewife. Like so many women of her generation, Lola Belle believed being a good mother meant staying at home and devoting herself to her family. Mare watched her mother give up all her hopes, dreams, and ambition for family life, and even though Lola Belle excelled at it, Mare knew it wasn’t all her mother wanted. Mare also knew it wasn’t all she wanted, either. Like many a daughter, Mare looked at the decisions of her mother and ran in the opposite direction.

Mare’s rebellion began in earnest during her junior year of high school, when the family moved to India for the year and Mare began going for long motorbike rides in the countryside with a male friend. Later, at Antioch College in Ohio, Mare wore dark turtlenecks and heavy eyeliner and emulated the Beats. During her junior semester abroad, in Mexico, she discovered the heady calm of marijuana. Then she dropped out of college and headed back to India for a few years to teach. She met her first and only husband, Gene, there. He was a Peace Corps doctor, and they moved to San Francisco together. Gene had wanted her to be a good housewife and to obey.

“Only one person can make the decisions,” he told her.

Then he started taking her to Ronald Reagan for Governor fund-raisers. The marriage lasted less than a year. Mare met Len shortly thereafter. He had caught her eye on the first day of work at the post office. Two other girls at work were also crazy about him, but Mare won the right to flirt with him in a coin toss. Mare and Len later married themselves in an unofficial ceremony in Golden Gate Park.

As the heavily loaded-down Chevy headed north on Highway 101 that winter afternoon, Mare felt giddy. She was finally doing it: she was breaking free. When the Beast passed through that ancient patch of redwoods called Richardson Grove, Mare thought to herself, Oh good, now I’ll get to pass through these trees on my way home. Little did she know that she would one day risk her life to protect them.

As the Beast emerged from the grove, the mountains ahead were awash with green. It was as if someone had drawn them in oil pastel and delicately smudged the edges. As they grew closer, the pointy tops of every individual tree came into focus, the redwoods tall and skinny like candlesticks, and the Douglas firs fuller, like Christmas trees. It was the kind of landscape upon which dreams are built, and one that had attracted outlaws, rebels, fortune seekers, and dreamers for as long as white men had been coming west.

* * *

Shaped like a long, slender piece of a jigsaw puzzle, Humboldt County is located on the far northern coast of California. Its immediate neighbor to the south is the county of Mendocino; to the east, Trinity and Siskiyou; and to the north, Del Norte. The frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean crash into Humboldt’s western shore. The county’s terrain ranges from sea level at the coast to 6,000 feet along its eastern edge. Much of its 3,600 square miles are covered in dense forest. In April 1850, the crew from a ship called the Laura Virginia christened the large bay near what would become known as Eureka in honor of the famous German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, a man who never visited the place but was fond of botany and surely would have loved it. The county was named after its bay.

Humboldt’s first town was established soon thereafter. The pioneer population grew throughout the 1850s, during the gold mining boom in neighboring Trinity County. Businessmen viewed Humboldt’s seaport as a way to get supplies overland from San Francisco to the men in the mines. Then red gold was discovered.

The story of the people who called the place home for thousands of years prior is a tragically familiar one. The arrival of pioneers spelled death and displacement for the Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, and Sinkyone peoples, among others. In one particularly grisly attack, known as the Wiyot Massacre, on February 26, 1860, white settlers murdered somewhere between 80 and 250 Wiyot men, women, and children. Writer Bret Harte detailed the carnage in the Northern Californian newspaper: “Blood stood in pools on all sides; the walls of the huts were stained and the grass colored red.”

By 1881, twenty-two sawmills were ripping through redwoods across the county, and men were pouring in to work at them. In the black-and-white photographs from the time, the loggers look like Lilliputians standing next to downed giants. Mills buzzed from Oregon to Big Sur as the century turned, and the ancient trees were felled at a rapid rate. In 1874, Walt Whitman composed an ode to their death called “Song of the Redwood Tree.”

Murmuring out of its myriad leaves,
Down from its lofty top rising two hundred feet
Out of its stalwart trunk and limbs, out of its footthick
That chant of the seasons and time, chant not of
the past only but the future.

In 1917, the head of the National Park Service sent three men to investigate the state of Northern California’s redwood forests. When the men reached the Bull Creek–Dyerville Flat area in Humboldt County, they were so in awe of the three-hundred-foot-tall trees they saw there, legend has it they took off their hats and spoke in hushed tones. Within a year, the men founded Save the Redwoods League, to help preserve the last of the virgin redwood forest for future generations.

By the time Mare Abidon arrived in Humboldt County at the end of 1970, the timber industry had slowed to a dull rumble. The land was heavily logged, setting the stage for a later showdown over the fate of the few giants that were left standing. Much of this logged land was considered worthless by ranchers and loggers, and was sold cheaply.

Into this landscape arrived the idealistic, young “new people,” as those who were there before called them. They puttered into town in Volkswagen Beetles, school buses with flowers painted on the sides, and old Chevy trucks with nicknames. They looked around and thought they had found paradise. There were no massacres following this new wave of settlers, only hostility and cultural misunderstandings. The new people settled on remote tracts of land with no electricity or plumbing. Some places were so difficult to access they had to be hiked into. The new people had no real income. Many were on welfare. The old-timers wondered how they’d survive, these kids who’d grown up in cities, who reeked of scented oils and swam naked in the Eel River. This first wave of new settlers—the ones who came to Humboldt before it became synonymous with its clandestine crop—would, in later times, promptly remind people that they hadn’t moved there to grow pot. They’d come to be righteous and free. What happened next was Manifest Destiny.

* * *

As the Beast and its passengers continued on their journey that afternoon, they passed Garberville and Redway, the two hamlets that everyone referred to collectively as “town,” and hung a left on the Briceland–Shelter Cove Road. After veering right at an intersection known as Whitethorn Junction, they drove into Whitethorn proper, which seemed straight out of an old Western. In those days, Whitethorn consisted of not much more than Mrs. Marker’s general store and an enormous redwood stump that the young men who had just returned from Vietnam would gather around to dull their memories with booze and darker things.

Gopherville was set back in the woods down the road. At its height, about twenty adults and six children lived on the commune, in cabins that had once housed millworkers. One building had been turned into a family house, where everyone gathered to eat dinner together around an enormous redwood table.

Looking back, Mare would recall her years at Gopherville as the happiest time of her life. It was, she would say, the closest she ever came to Nirvana. Len gathered wood and chased away rabid skunks, while Mare focused on her art. One day she stumbled across a ceramics kit in the commune dump. She set it up in an old chicken coop and started playing with clay, moving her hands over the moist earth, coaxing it gently into shape.

Mare also loved to spend time in the commune’s garden, where they grew vegetables and a little marijuana in raised beds. Pot was a popular drug among the counterculture, of course, and the Back-to-the-Landers discovered that, just as they could grow their own tomatoes, they could pick the seeds out of pot they bought and sow them in the ground. A few of the mothers who lived on the commune were on welfare and would share their government checks, which, along with the vegetables from the garden, helped sustain everyone. Pot wasn’t worth much in those days; once, Mare traded some for enough gas to get her to the city. Mostly, though, marijuana was just something the new people grew for their own pleasure.

Time passed in a blur at Gopherville, the way it does when one is happy. So it came as quite a shock when Mare learned that not everyone on the commune felt the same way she did, and it all came screeching to a halt.

All along the North Coast, experiments in communal living flickered out in various ways, but the beginning of the end of Gopherville can be traced to a trip a couple of commune members made to a place called Lighthouse Ranch. Located at an old Coast Guard station in the north of the county, Lighthouse Ranch was a religious commune owned by a real estate agent and evangelical Christian minister named Jim Durkin. Brother Durkin gave Mare the creeps. He reminded her of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. She found him overbearing, paunchy, and slobbering. Her unfavorable view stemmed in part from what happened next: the two commune members who visited Lighthouse Ranch returned to Gopherville and, one by one, began converting others into what Mare could only describe as dreary Jesus freaks. Those who didn’t convert had to leave.

Mare was heartbroken. It felt as though her family were breaking apart. At one point, one of her recently converted sisters came to her in her clay studio/chicken coop and suggested that Mare ask Jesus into her heart.

“Just try,” the woman coaxed her. “Invite him in and see what happens.”

Mare knelt on the floor of her studio and asked Jesus into her heart.

He didn’t make an appearance.

Mare hung around a bit longer, but the breaking point came when Brother Durkin sent word that she was forbidden from working in the garden and that a woman’s place was in the kitchen.

“Bullshit” was her response.

Len had also had enough of the new Gopherville by then. Mare and Len left the commune and camped nearby, on the Mattole River, for a while. Over time their interests diverged, and the couple saw less of each other. Mare spent the following years camping in the summer and caretaking homes in the winter. She joined a woman’s consciousness-raising group, where she forged close friendships, and made ends meet selling pottery at the annual Bay Area Renaissance fair. Somewhere in the middle of it all, something happened that changed the economy of the area. When Mare heard about it, she thought it was exciting. It was a new horticultural technique that produced marijuana that was so potent people in the cities were willing to pay a lot of money for it.

It was called sinsemilla.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the technique for growing sinsemilla, or seedless pot, arrived in Humboldt County, but it was most likely sometime around 1974 or 1975. Mare thought she heard about it from the Vietnam veterans. Others recall a man who passed through town and instructed everyone to “pull all the males.” One thing is for sure, word spread fast, and soon everyone was growing what the media would soon come to call “the Cadillac of cannabis.” Sinsemilla may have been born elsewhere, but Humboldt growers mastered it.

Marijuana, which is Mexican slang for cannabis, is a flowering annual. All species of cannabis are dioecious— that is, male and female flowers appear on separate plants. Males produce pollen, and females produce seeds—and that’s where the trickery begins. Both plants produce flowers, but unpollinated females produce much more resin, the sticky substance that contains both the terpenes that give pot its potent aroma and the cannabinoids that are responsible for its psychoactive properties, notably delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In order to grow seedless female flowers, sinsemilla, you must remove the male plants before pollination.

Around the same time that marijuana growers in Humboldt and the neighboring counties of Trinity and Mendocino began producing sinsemilla, the U.S. government inadvertently helped create a market for their new industry. In the mid- to late 1970s, the American government supported the Mexican government’s spraying of the toxic herbicide paraquat on the Mexican marijuana crop. At the time, more than 90 percent of the marijuana smoked in the United States came from abroad. The strains were called Acapulco Gold, Colombian Gold, and Panama Red, after the places where they were grown. Like the jug wines that graced American dinner tables at the time, these were simple, lightweight versions of what was to come.

Marijuana continued to flow north from Mexico, but after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of the serious health risks that paraquat-laced pot posed to consumers, there was a sudden interest in other sources. By 1979, the year Congress suspended the paraquate spraying program, an estimated 35 percent of the marijuana smoked in California was homegrown. This percentage would only continue to rise in the following years, as California marijuana became synonymous around the state and nation with a quality high. By 2010, the year of the legalization vote, one study estimated that 79 percent of all marijuana consumed in the United States came from California.

And so an industry was born in Humboldt County, one that would bridge the cultural divide between hippies and rednecks by providing income for all, and would bring a new economic boom to the area just as the old industries were drying up. Word spread, and people flocked from faraway places to cash in. As the pillar of the local economy became a forbidden plant, Mare would hear stories about friends who had helped teach old-timers how to grow. On her trips into town, she’d notice how some hippies had started wearing the checked flannel shirts of the loggers, and how some of the rednecks had begun wearing their hair long. Things started to feel more equal. The children of the two cultures were the true hybrids. They went to school together, became friends, and fell in love with each other. As the local logging and fishing industries dwindled even further, bumper stickers began to appear on the backs of the dusty pickups around town announcing the transition: “Another Logger Gone to Pot.”

By 1979, even The New York Times took note. “Marijuana Crops Revived California Town” was the headline of an article about Garberville. The story was one that would be retold in every medium over the coming decades: growers had made a killing with their latest harvest (“$500 to $1,000 a pound, five to 10 times the price paid five years ago”); Main Street was bustling; sheriff ’s deputies had confiscated more pot than the year before; and there had been an uptick in marijuana-related crime. Accompanying the article were photos of deputies standing next to long, leafy plants that, to the untrained eye, looked like freshly cut bamboo.

Perhaps the case that best represents how pervasive marijuana growing became in Humboldt County over the years, how it transcended social and class boundaries until seemingly everyone was doing it, is the story of the lieutenant sheriff ’s deputy Delbert Frame. Del Frame, as he was known, grew up on a dairy farm in Ferndale. He was a tall man with a round, Nordic face and blond hair that he wore combed neatly back. He’d met his wife, Rita, at Boston University and had fought in the Korean War. The couple had three sons and a daughter, and they eventually settled in a ranch-style home on Sunset Avenue in Redway. Del Frame ran the Garberville sheriff ’s substation in the 1970s, where he was remembered as a kind and calm boss. Rita worked as a court clerk.

After his retirement, when Del Frame was sixty and recovering from his third heart attack at a hospital three hours south, law enforcement broke down his front door. Many of the men who took part in the raid that day had been to the house before as guests. A neighbor had tipped off the authorities that Del Frame, veteran, dairyman, and, most important, retired lieutenant sheriff ’s deputy, was growing marijuana on land he owned up Alderpoint Road.

“Everybody else is doing it, why not us?” Frame had told his wife before he planted his first crop. Rita Frame didn’t think it was such a good idea, but Del was always so confident. He didn’t seem to have a problem with people smoking pot, either, as long as they didn’t abuse it. The Frames always thought alcohol was worse. Besides, the extra money would help their kids get ahead in the world.

Authorities seized more than four hundred pot plants from Del Frame’s property on the hill. His partner in the operation, a former highway patrolman named Bud Miller, was also arrested. Frame was tried, and sentenced to five years in federal prison. Two months after his release, he had a stroke while sitting in an easy chair in his living room on Sunset Avenue. He died six years later.

* * *

Mare, meanwhile, continued to help Len grow a little marijuana down by the river. She earned most of her income, however, selling clay pots at the Renaissance fair. She didn’t really start growing her own crop until 1980, after her father loaned her the money to buy her land. That was just before the dull, sickening sound of helicopters moving through the sky became commonplace every fall. The War on Drugs played out in a different way in the hills of Humboldt than it did in the inner city and beyond the southern border. Prices skyrocketed as the stakes were raised, and the unlucky experienced the devastation and stigma of being busted.

Excerpted from the book “Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier” by Emily Brady. Copyright 2013 by Emily Brady. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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