In The Know
By Gary VanDeWalker
story: Gary VanDeWalker photos: Brett and Matt Christensen
MCCLOUD'S BOB GRAY KNOWS HIS HISTORY
Walking through the streets of McCloud, a visitor stops a man in front of the large mercantile building and asks for a tidbit of town history. Without hesitation, a finger points across the street to the town museum. “You need to talk to Bob. He knows everything,” the resident says. In his 88 years on earth, Bob Gray has grown both an impressive sense of humor and an array of knowledge, making him a man you should never leave town without meeting.
“I grew up in a small town in Louisiana during the depression,” Gray says. “There were dirt streets with livestock wandering through town. You could ride anything you could rope.” His southern drawl has never left him. “I went to the smallest high school in the state. There were five in my graduating class, and if it hadn’t been for the two girls, I would have been valedictorian.”
Gray attended college and worked for a levee construction company. However, ads seeking summer workers in California led him to apply for a temporary job with the Forest Service in 1942. He hitchhiked to California. Walking up the steps of the Supervisor’s Office in Mount Shasta, a man greeted him, asking why Gray was there. After hearing his reply, he asked if Grayplayed baseball and could pitch. “Yes sir,” Gray said. “And fairly well.” The man informed him he was now working for the McCloud Forestry District and playing on their District Baseball team. Two weeks later, they beat Mount Shasta in the Forestry Tournament and Gray embarked on a 34-year career.
His first summer was spent as a lookout. Unshaven and needing a haircut, Gray walked into a McCloud restaurant at the end of summer, ordered and ate a quart of ice cream. One the workers related the story to her niece, Betty. The ladies shuddered and laughed about the vagabond customer. Three years later, Gray approached Betty, after eating his daily 35-cent meal at the same restaurant. He had been watching her walk by every day. He told her, “We are always going the wrong way.” Soon they were dating. Betty says, “It was an interesting courtship. Often on a date, the fire truck would pull up and Bob would leave me, setting off to fight a fire. I never knew when I would see him again.”
Gray worked in an era before specialization. The McCloud District consisted of three full-time rangers. He was a fire boss, lumber manager, engineer, clerk of mining claims and recreational supervisor, and he even led mule teams to fire lookouts with supplies.
“I was the youngest in the office, but had the most education with two years of college,” Gray says. “Dutch, my boss, would make me type all the letters and he would approve them. He always rejected my first two drafts and accepted the third. I learned to just resubmit the first draft the third time, which he always declared was just what he wanted.”
For years, he took ski trips into the backcountry doing the yearly snow surveys. His career took him to Fall River Mills, Mount Shasta and Weaverville, but he always found his way back to McCloud. “I’ve loved living in Northern California and a small town.”
At the age of 55, mandatory retirement came to him. As a gift, he was given a hunting rifle with a high-tech scope to replace his old Army rifle and fold-up sight. “Once I had that new rifle, I never was able to get another deer. So I gave up hunting,” Gray says.
Determined to stay active, he logged and prepared timber, building a two-story log cabin where he and Betty continue to live. He taught Fire Management for the next 15 years at both College of the Siskiyous and Shasta College. He took up painting, wrote local sports articles and continues to split wood. “Over my life, I’ve learned a lot about people and how to do things. I just can’t sing in the church choir. The pianist is too fast for my southern voice.”
Today, Bob and Betty continue to be active, serving at the McCloud Museum and supervising the docents. With a glint in his eye, Bob reflects, “I know this area’s history because I’ve lived it. And it’s not that I know everything; they just don’t know the facts, so I can tell them anything.”