Become Part of a Different World in Ferndale
By Jordan Venema
Slice of AmericanaBy Jordan Venema
Photos: James Mazzotta
While on vacation in 1989, Karen Pingitore and her husband found, or really lost themselves in the small town of Ferndale, population 1,371. South of Eureka, a five-mile drive from US Highway 101 and four miles from the coast, surrounded by wooded hills and fields, the hamlet might as well be a million miles from anywhere, a portal to another time.
While enjoying a cup of coffee on Ferndale’s Main Street, the Pingitores watched as children and animals paraded past, led by leash and pulled by wagon, cows and cats and ducks and you-name-it, even banana slugs. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, how can this still be happening in 1989?’” laughs Pingitore. They were watching “a slice of Americana we didn’t expect to find, nor did we think existed anymore.”
Three months later, the Los Angeles natives purchased a Ferndale home over the phone, and they’ve been here ever since. Now as president of Ferndale’s Chamber of Commerce, Pingitore is happy to report, “26 years later the parade is still happening.”
For a town that’s only a mile wide in any given direction, Ferndale is replete with “only in Ferndale” moments, events like the Pet Parade, which contribute to what Pingitore calls the “Ferndale mystique.” Like Brigadoon, she says, “you cross the bridge and you’re in a different world.”
But Ferndale’s mystique and timelessness is tied to the right here, right now, as a living history. California Historic Marker 883, Ferndale is the only entire city registered as a historical landmark, and driving down Main Street, it’s easy to see why.
Walk along the thoroughfare, from town hall to commercial district, passing perfectly preserved Victorian homes, whose owners aren’t afraid to wave at strangers passing by. There’s an air of the Truman Show about Ferndale, a mood almost too good to be true. And yes, Pingitore says, “it’s like a movie lot, but it just happens to be the real deal.”
Ferndale was founded during the Gold Rush, though its prospect didn’t pan out. But settlers remained anyway, cutting down ferns and building farms instead. Dairy led to better wealth, and by the 1870s, architect T.J. Frost began building what have come to be known as the butterfat palaces.
A combination of Queen Anne and strict Victorian, Pingitore calls Ferndale architecture a photographer’s paradise. “It’s like the frosting on a cake,” she continues, describing the details and colors that accentuate buildings like the drug store, gazebo and inn.
Because of its architecture, Ferndale’s history is visibly palpable, but Pingitore recommends beginning at the town’s museum, “which just has a ton of information about the background of the city.” And for those who don’t find it morbid, she also suggests a walk through the town cemetery, which dates back to Ferndale’s founding.
“I liken it to a European statue garden,” says Pingitore, since it represents its earliest settlers, with Scandinavian, Portuguese and German names etched in stone.
Ferndale’s history may be written on its walls and etched in stone, but the town’s real commodity isn’t its past. Without a living, thriving community, these buildings would be dead as a Hollywood backlot, just colors and facades.
“Truthfully,” Pingitore says, “it’s the architecture that brings people to see us.” But as Pingitore knows too well, that’s never the reason they stay.
Ferndale’s charm isn’t inherent to the butterfat palaces, but comes from something more pervasive, an atmosphere generated by the people who live here, like the very breath they exhale. Ferndale looks the part, but its residents provide its authenticity, the nostalgia of Midwestern hospitality and pies on windowsills.
In Ferndale, pet parades still happen and draw people together with the kind of excitement usually reserved for events like the Super Bowl. “But we’re small,” says Pingitore, “so we can
pull these things off.” Especially at times like Christmas, when every Main Street business erects a tree that’s decorated by local school kids. “So we’ve got 40 trees lining the street with all these ornaments. You just don’t see that anyplace else,” she says.
Pingitore also claims Ferndale is home to the tallest living decorated Christmas tree. “Our volunteer firemen literally climb the tree to put lights on because we don’t have a hook and ladder truck.” And even if they did, she laughs, “it wouldn’t get that high anyway.” But what really makes the tree special is its lighting ceremony, when the community gathers with hot chocolate and baked cookies. “Folksy isn’t the right word,” says Pingitore, “but it just warms your heart when you see things like that.”
Definitely not folksy, and definitely not isolated, either. Ferndale might preserve its sense of timelessness, but not without wi-fi. “It’s not like we’re cut off from humanity or modernization,” insists Pingitore. In fact, Ferndale boasts a vibrant arts culture, with a repertory theater and the finish line of the world championship Kinetic Sculpture Race, started by a Ferndale sculptor in 1969.
Ferndale offers within a stone’s throw what most cities fail to provide in miles of sprawl. So how does one plan a trip here? How much time does one spend time, between the theater and parades, the beach and butterfat palaces? Because while the town can be walked in any given day, it’s easy to imagine getting lost in the details, as a day turns into a weekend, and a weekend into a month. And as that sense of timelessness washes over you, perhaps you’ll wake one day, like the Pingitores, living in your very own butterfat palace. But after 26 years, even Pingitore says it sometimes feels like she arrived just yesterday. “I feel I’ve always been here, and that I’ve only been here a year.” Well, add that sentiment to the long list of things filed under “only in Ferndale.”
www.victorianferndale.com • (707) 786-4477