Who we are: Mel Brown | TheUnion.com

Who we are: Mel Brown

Fred Nichols
Special to The Union

Mel Brown is who you’d picture a “Farmer Brown” to be: blue eyes sparkling on a weather-beaten face, hands calloused from hard work, with a manner lively and kind – and smart as a whip.

At 90, Brown is one of the oldest residents in Penn Valley, and over the years played important roles in education and water delivery in the area. His memories go back to a time when Penn Valley was owned by a handful of cattle ranchers and dairy farmers for thousands of acres in every direction.

The Brown family memories go back even further – they’ve been ranching and farming the same patch of ground for 150 years.

Brown’s life spans the whole of the Great Depression, a time, he recalls, when wood-cutters would walk up from Sacramento to cut wood all through fall and into the winter, and then walk back.

“They dug holes for shelter, lined them with logs and covered the holes with brush and branches. That’s where they’d live until the work was done,” Brown said. “They used crosscut saws. There weren’t chainsaws in those days.

“They would get a contract to cut 100 tiers of wood for a dollar a tier. If they couldn’t cut 100 tiers, they would only get 75 or 80 cents for each one,” Brown said.

“Some of them brought their families. There were no food stamps or any kind of government aid in those days. They were working just to avoid starvation.”

The Depression didn’t hit the Grass Valley area as hard it did elsewhere, because the mining business was more profitable than ever during those years.

But the economic downturn had its impact. In 1937 when he was a sophomore at Grass Valley High, Brown quit school to help out on the family ranch full time.

He was born in 1918 to Wade and Jennie Brown, the fifth of seven children.

Through eighth grade he attended tiny, one-room Indian Springs School, close enough to his home to walk or ride a horse to. His parents were educated there, as well. (The school is still standing, about 100 yards west of the corner of Indian Springs Road and Spenceville Road. Today it serves as a Baptist church.)

At 13, Brown got his first car, with the help of his parents and his sister, who was a teacher. It was a used 1926 Chevrolet, and it cost $35. Among other things, he used it to drive his sister and some neighborhood children to school.

Forest fires have always been a concern in Penn Valley. Brown recalled the Byers brothers, who in the early 1900s had a ranch on Spenceville Road about three or four miles from where it dead-ends today.

“They were the closest thing we had to a fire department,” Brown said. The brothers always had a water wagon parked outside their barn, filled to the brim. Inside the barn was a team of horses, with a set of harnesses hanging above them.

“When there was news of a fire, the Byers brothers got their wagon going in a matter of minutes,” Brown said. “They were highly skilled at setting backfires, too, all the old-timers were. You used water to save buildings. You set backfires to fight the fire.”

In 1938, Brown and his father decided to go exclusively into Grade A dairy farming.

“Those were 18-hour days, from 3:30 in the morning until 8 or 10 that night,” Brown said.

First came the early morning milking. Then the milk had to be delivered to Bret Harte Dairy in Nevada City before 6:30 a.m., for which they got paid 25 cents a gallon.

“Our milk was on folks’ kitchen tables in time for breakfast that same morning, before the kids went to school and the men went to work!” Brown said.

After the milk delivery, they completely cleaned the barn and sterilized the milk machines and other equipment. For the afternoon milking, they repeated the whole process.

On New Year’s Eve in 1936, Brown met the woman at the La Barr Meadows dance hall who would later become his wife.

Brown, who was 18 at the time, and his friends “were just goofing around, making fools of ourselves,” he recalled.

Then he spotted his best friend, Ray Armstrong, dancing with a girl. Her name was Bertha Kelly. When Brown looked at her, his heart swelled and his stomach tightened, he said.

Pulling himself together, he went up and tapped his friend on the shoulder. With a glare, Armstrong relinquished Bertha (forevermore to be known at “Bert”).

After the dance, Brown returned to the side of the floor where his friend was standing. “Ray,” he recalled saying, “I’m going to marry that girl.”

On Sept. 10, 1939, Mel and Bert Brown exchanged rings, beginning a marriage that lasted 69 years. Bert died June 4, 2008.

In the mid-1950s, Brown became a trustee of the Indian Springs School board and helped lead the movement to combine Rough and Ready’s school district with Penn Valley’s, making possible the building of today’s Ready Springs School.

In 1960, Brown began the first of three terms as an director for the Nevada Irrigation District.

During his tenure on the board, NID put before voters a $65-million bond measure to fund the Yuba-Bear Power Project to provide water for the Grass Valley area’s future growth. The bond measure passed in 1962 and remains one of the great milestones in NID’s history.

These days, Brown doesn’t spend much time worrying about such things. Those are problems for another generation to handle.

He has his hands full with the constant stream of visitors to his home on Spenceville Road, among them his 14 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

When he’s not entertaining, it’s likely you’ll find him out in his dented pickup truck, supervising work, or on his tractor moving rocks and working the ground.

“I can’t do heavy manual work anymore, but I can still handle machinery.”

And he tells a pretty good tale, too.

Fred Nichols has lived in Penn Valley since 2006 and owns Dar a Luz Alpaca Ranch with his wife, Judy Nichols.

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