SPRING'S FORT BRAGG
How does one know a place? Or express a place? Or get beneath the topography that’s abstracted from everyday life?
If place is as critic and curator Lucy Lippard, describes -- the concept of space imbued with memory (1997) -- then Larry Spring’s production may be encountered as a subjective response to a landscape brimming with buried histories.
What follows is a brief glimpse into Fort Bragg’s history of complex cultural interactions, and how these contextual influences may have informed Spring's cultural production. It outlines a pattern of colonization that is inherently linked to Fort Bragg. This is enacted through spaces both abstract – Northern California a source of esoteric energies, and the material – the land, the town, the industry and its buildings.
While the role and significance of the peculiarities of isolationism and rugged individualism in rural Northern California is unquestionably essential to understanding Larry Spring, it would be easy to overstate its importance. However, in relation to Spring’s personal biography and cultural production, the logic of time and place and changing social processes should not be overlooked.
The following selection of photographs provide's a brief historical timeline that is tied to the development of Spring's cultural production.
Hover over each photograph to access the text.
California has long been held in the American imagination as a place of limitless possibility. It's hardscrabble history is dramatized as what Larry Spring's long time friend Bob Kirtland called the "pioneering American spirit'," (2015). This myth has origins in the Spanish colonial era when land originally settled by Coast Yukis and later the Pomos, was exploited by successive waves of outsiders for economic opportunity.
In this stereoscopic card, Pomo shelters are viewed through the distancing lens of virtual tourism.
C.E. Watkins. Rancherie, Mendocino. 1857. Stereograph. Courtesy of Steve Heselton.
After California entered into the Union, lumber barons moved north to forcibly claim Pomo land. The army built Fort Bragg to protect the barons' interests and to restrict the Pomos' subsequent uprising.
Anne Maureen McKeating. 'California Republic.' 2014. Jpeg. California.
One hundred years of industrial colonialism followed. Infrastructure - camps, railroads, and sawmill sites - were hastily built on stolen land. Pomos who resisted were killed; many were forced into a life of servitude.
The 1906 earthquake was a boon for Fort Bragg. Lumber companies sold redwood to builders seeking to profit from the disaster.
Photographer unknown. Circa 1910. Acme Lumber Co. Postcard. Courtesy FB-MCHS. Fort Bragg, California.
After the land's resources were stripped, the lumber companies sold cheap sections coined 'stump ranches' to economic migrants like Larry Spring's family.
Photographer unknown. The Mathison Ranch 1911. Courtesy of the FB-MCHS. Fort Bragg, California.
Farming a stump ranch was a hardscrabble existence. To maintain an arable plot, farmers had to constantly remove the stumps that resprouted from the roots.
Spring's family turned to mink farming as a way to bolster the stump farm's yield. This harkened back to the Russian fur trade that dominated the region before logging.
Photographer unknown. Sid Spring with mink. n.d. Gelatin silver print. Estate of Larry Spring. Fort Bragg, California.
The timber industry monopolized Fort Bragg's political and cultural economy. This played out in the political strategy of the town's first mayor, Union Lumber founder C.R. Johnson. Johnson vehemently opposed the founding of Fort Bragg's high school because, in his view, education would divert young men's labour from logging.
Photographer unknown. N.d. Gelatin silver print. Estate of Larry Spring, California.
Johnson's low regard for education and the domination of a single industry had a lasting impact on Fort Bragg's economy.
McKeating, AM. 'Win a Chainsaw' 2013. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
A 2009 census determined that only 16% of the town's population had any post-secondary education. As recently as 2014, Fort Bragg's College of the Redwoods had only one full-time employee -- the custodian.
McKeating, AM. 'I Graduated!' 2012. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
Logging culture infiltrated the town's leisure time. In 1939, Union Lumber established the Paul Bunyan Days festival starring the 6'8" Charlie Buck as Paul Bunyan.
Charlie Buck 1939. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of FB-MCHS. Fort Bragg.
Paul Bunyan Days continues to be celebrated despite the cultural and environmental devastation wreaked by the logging industry. In the struggle to recover from its collapse, Fort Bragg trades in an aestheticized nostalgia to attract tourism and to buoy community spirit. "Old Fashion (sic) Dress" remains a significant component of the festival.
Photographer unknown. Larry Spring wearing Paul Bunyan Days Fancy Dress. Circa 1970. Colour transparency. Estate of Larry Spring. California.
Northern California's identity was immutably tied to the nostelgic myth of real and constructed gigantism. Despite the near demise of the giant redwood from over-logging, single log houses and other gigantic timber-themed amusements became part of the leisure economy.
Photographer unknown The Interior of the Famous One Log House N.d. Souvenir postcard. Estate of Larry Spring. Fort Bragg.
Postcards from Mendocino also played with nature's gigantism on land and sea. Mendocino's rough waters have been known to cause towering 'sneaker' waves that both deposit and take life from the shoreline.
Here, residents contend with the unsettling body of a whale with humour.
Photographer unknown. Mendocino County Minnow Circa 1925. Souvenir postcard. Courtesy of the FB-MCHS archives.
Visual jokes combined with hand-written commentary were popular in 1920's-era vernacular photography. Here Spring's diminutive family enacts received ideas about nature's gigantism at the base of a redwood tree.
Photographer unknown. A small tree and five big people. 1926. Gelatin silver print with handwriting. Estate of Larry Spring. Fort Bragg.
Larry Spring integrated the popular appeal of the oversized into his window. This 6 ft chainsaw has been on display since the 1950's and has been cited by a number of visitors as the reason they were drawn into the storefront.
McKeating, AM. 'Storefront Window Display'. 2013. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
Union Lumber's 1700 yr old redwood round acts as a metonymic stand-in for Fort Bragg's colonization. Its tree-ring timeline features prominent moments in European history -- 'Leif Ericson Lands on American Coast' and 'Signing of the Magna Carta' -- yet omits regional narratives and any trace of indigenous peoples.
McKeating AM. 'Fort Bragg's Redwood timeline.' 2013. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
Fort Bragg's culture is distinctively self-sufficient. Mayor Dave Turner ascribes this to the confluence of outliers, isolation, and the town's flagging economy. "People here have to think for themselves and that means that unique things happen," (2015).
McKeating, AM. 'Lawn ornament' 2014. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California
Isolation and hard labour sometimes took its toll in unconventional ways. After his wife decamped to more comfortable environs, lumber engineer William Bennet carved a stand-in family out of redwood. According to the Fort Bragg Advocate-News, Bennet could be seen fanning his wooden wife on hot days.
H. H. Wonacott. Fort Bragg's Wood Family. 1911. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of FB-MCHS. Fort Bragg.
Isolation could also foster positive social change. Lured to Fort Bragg by Union Lumber's recruitment ads, Finnish immigrants introduced an alternative value system through their collective approach to resource sharing.
Larry Spring's storefront was the original Finnish cooperative store.
Oscar Erickson Sointula Collective (Harmony) hunting party. 1939. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Fort Bragg-Mendocino archives. Fort Bragg.
Many counter-culture migrants came to the north to escape the Cuban missile crisis's militaristic effect on Bay area politics. By 1978, there were 23 communes in the area including messianic preacher Jim Jones' apocalyptic cult.
Sylvia Bartley. Redwood Summer. 1990. Gelatin silver print. Fort Bragg, California.
Today, communes develop around organic produce and/or marijuana farming. Anecdotal evidence suggests that close to 70% of Fort Bragg's economy is sustained by cannabis production.
McKeating, AM. 'Farm Worker.' 2015. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California
Artists who were looking for alternatives to the middle-class lifestyle came to live in so-called 'Dada' houses where "full-sized adults could have a very simple time swinging in a living room sandbox," (de Vall 2015).
In the mid-sixties, acid-fuelled artist Larry Fuente established a 2-acre compound in which to socialize and make work.
Madame Chinchilla. Larry Fuente on his Cowasaki. 1969. Chromatic print. Courtesy of Madame Chinchilla. Fort Bragg California.
Larry Spring was remembered as one of the few 'old-timers' who was open to the counter culture's new ideas, "He was a draw, and people wanted to be around him. He wasn't the only one looking for a different understanding of the unknown," (Norm de Vall 2015).
Photographer unknown. Larry Spring on a dune buggy. 1970. Colour transparency. Estate of Larry Spring. Fort Bragg, California.
Fuente first encountered Spring in 1968, "To me, the world needed to be more decorative, which is why I was attracted to Larry's window. He was cool and had all sorts of weird things scattered around. I went to one of his lectures where he shared the secret of the universe," (Fuente 2015).
McKeating, AM. 'Fuente re-enacting Spring's friction demonstration.' 2015. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
Similarly, artist Madame Chinchilla called Fort Bragg a "magnetic vortex" that influenced culture and identity. "When I arrived here 45 years ago, I was given permission to be who I am," (Madame Chinchilla 2015).
Spring, Larry. UFO in the Paul Bunyan Days Parade. 1978. Colour transparency. Estate of Larry Spring. Fort Bragg, California.
Informant Bill Roach described Spring's inventive thinking as "a practical application of consciousness" that came from living on a foggy coastal range. "Water, trees, and isolation created an environment where you had to confront yourself. This resulted in a kind of mental activity that stimulated creativity," (Roach) 2015.
McKeating AM. 'Beach Shelter' 2013. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
Spring was an early adopter of solar energy and built miniature motors to harness its power. In 1989, he donated 100 acres of land to the Renewable Energy Development Institute with the pledge that they would name a building in his honour.
McKeating, AM. Motors and Map. 2015. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
While REDI never realized the Larry Spring Center for Common Sense Physics, Spring retained his relationship with them and would eventually demonstrate his Larry Spring Magnetic Levitation Mendocino Brushless Solar motor at selected events.
Spring, Larry. Cal Poly Solar car. 1990. Chromatic print. Estate of Larry Spring. Fort Bragg, California.
What Spring had briefly imagined as a 100 acre centre in Fort Bragg’s harbour became to a jerry-rigged school -- Larry Spring School for Common Sense Physics -- at the margins of downtown. Spring’s storefront, which had always functioned as his ‘professionalized’ place of work, was now wholly dedicated to the dissemination of his research. The path of Spring's inquirythat began with TV and antennae repair had become fully integrated into Larry Spring’s experimental enterprise.
Brown, Heather. Larry in front of the school. 2004. Jpeg. Courtesy of Heather Brown, Fort Bragg, California.
Spring’s school -- now museum – exists namely because Fort Bragg’s disparate economic and socio-cultural make-up has made the town resistant to gentrification. Unlike the socially desirable Mendocino to the south, change stopped in Fort Bragg with Union Lumber’s closing, leaving little to commoditize outside of an era that is long past.
McKeating, AM. ‘Private Barking’ 2013. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
Historically, Fort Bragg has been a site of colonization and this cycle continues into the 21st century. Big box stores, rejected by the coast’s wealthier areas, are looking at Fort Bragg as a place of utility. This keeps the town entrenched in minimum waged poverty and acts to erase traces of history.
McKeating AM. ‘Burned House’. 2014. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.
Fort Bragg’s isolation and unique cultural mix allowed Spring to culturally produce without the pressure of social or academic consensus.
Sadly, the work of maintaining his legacy is unsustainable ,and it is likely that the storefront will go into foreclosure.
McKeating, AM. Larry Spring’s last sign. 2015. Jpeg. Fort Bragg, California.