William Heeser, born and raised in Koblenz, Germany, proved more than fluent in English by the time he reached the Mendocino Coast in the 1850s, a gentleman of thirty something. Within a few years he and his younger brother, Augustus, established themselves as the go-to men for notary work, as surveyors, Wells Fargo agents throughout Mendocino County, and as wise investors in real estate. William made his greatest name as founder, publisher, and editor of The Mendocino Beacon. Publication began in 1877, the year William's son August (named for his uncle) was born. The elder Heeser often took a sly pleasure in his work. Reporting the news, or lack thereof, one autumnal week, he wrote, “There are not enough people left in town to get up a first-class excitement.”
William Heeser owned much of the property in the town of Mendocino by the time he started his newspaper, including a large potato field on the headlands his son would donate to the state park system about ninety years later. For decades The Beacon ran simple ads on its front page and alongside local news tidbits on page three. “Potatoes and barley for sale by William Heeser, on Ukiah Street” rested parallel in print to items such as, “A large bear was killed near the Noyo one day last week.”
If one was fortunate enough to stroll into the Beacon office on Ukiah Street in late fall or early winter the vague mustiness of the last potatoes for sale in hessian sacks could creep from behind the counter and settle on your clothes, whether or not you made a purchase and toted the taters home. In my youth The Beacon was manned by the elderly version of Auggie Heeser, who had taken over publishing and editing duties in 1907, upon the death of his father.
This writer prefers the older papers of William Heeser's era. He provided tidy contrasts to the world of today: “Real Estate Transactions for the Week Ending December 20th, 1878 – William Heeser to A. Rabel, lot in Mendocino City, $100.”
The 19th Century advertisements carried only proclamations, “Dr. White's Prairie Flower – The Great Liver Panacea.” There were no disclaimers about side effects, diarrhea to death.
The local, long running ads often appeared in rectangular, business card fashion:
Dr. of Dental Surgery
Office at Norton's Hotel
Occasionally these notices expanded to let you know that Norton's Hotel stood at the intersection of Main and Lansing Streets. Within a few months The Beacon ad apprised readers that Dr. Wheeler specialized in dentistry services for children.
William Heeser loved to tease tales of blood and money. “Governor Irwin has offered a reward of $500 for the first arrest and conviction, and $200 for each subsequent arrest and conviction of the parties who hung Gibson, McCracken, and Frost at Willitsville.”
The lynching referred to here happened in the summer of 1879 when contemporary readers could glance across the page to find that Mendocino merchant Eugene Brown offered “Fine Cassimere suits for only $14” and “Costa Rica coffee 18 and 20 cents a pound.” Whether the beans were a product of fair trade remains questionable.
No great moral here, simply a look at a time when Doctor Wheeler might rent a horse from the stable attached to Norton's Hotel, ride up Lansing Street, turn east on Little Lake Street and continue along that route all the way to Little Lake, the southern half of what we now call Willits, but many in William Heeser's heyday referred to as Willitsville. The hanging bridge was located just beyond the north end of town.
Mr. Heeser relied on a string of information gatherers as far afield as San Francisco, Sacramento, and Washington D.C. to help fill his weekly pages. His sense of the whimsical side of his second language shown brightest in a series of individuals, collectively called “Our Correspondent.” From Point Arena, correspondence relayed to Mendocino through a writer assuming the pseudonym Pedro. Case in point from the closing days of 1878, “Business is lively. A stranger came to town yesterday with two or three dollars and six bits in his pocket. He had been here but a few minutes when he made a purchase of three bits worth of 'stamps,' thus throwing such a surplus of 'bullion' into circulation that Point Arena feels like herself once more.”
In the same issue, same page, “On Christmas Day four Chinamen, employees of the Duncan Mill Land and Lumber Company, were drowned in the Russian River, nearly opposite the residence of George Hammy. The boat in which they were coming up the river turned over with the above result. The bodies have not been recovered.”
This reader has searched ensuing issues of Mr. Heeser's paper, which carry a faint odor not too dissimilar to the last of Auggie Heeser's potatoes. There appears to be no mention of the bodies ever having been found along the Russian, nor any record of the names of the dead.