The Little Girl Who Grew Up At Wyntoon
Shirley Selna Shewmaker Wahl's Life at Wyntoon on the McCloud RiverStory: Ron Linebarger
When my parents took employment at Wyntoon, William Randolph Hearst’s forested hideaway on the McCloud River near Mt. Shasta in 1936, my childhood ceased being a normal one. I was 11, and until that time, daily living was pretty simple: Rise early, dress, eat, run to catch the school bus; return home, play, eat, and retire. We moved a lot to various logging camps dotted about in Plumas and Lassen counties. My dad was a logger and a cat skinner. In the camps, we lived in two-room wood cabins with tin roofs. There was always a sawmill, a millpond, a sawdust burner, rows of cabins surrounded by large squared piles of cut lumber that I called the children’s playground. And nearby, a stream or small river was always available for family bathing or swimming, one of the more delightful pleasures of those long-gone days. But for me, all of that uncomplicated living changed when my dad, Cal Shewmaker, took a year-round job as a crew boss and “driving cat” to build roads at Wyntoon. When we arrived, we were surprised to see “cottages” which looked like castles. We could not believe the great change we were making from Depression-era logging camps to a place of palaces.
The first time I met Mr. Hearst was the following summer of 1937, when I was picking pansies at the edge of the circular driveway in front of the Brown Bear House where he stayed. It was early morning and it was one of the chores to be done before Mr. Hearst and Miss Davies appeared for the day. Mr. Hearst did not like nature disturbed, and that was an order. But naturally, pansies must be picked in order to grow. The fact that I, a 12-year,-old was crouched down doing it rather than, say, the gardener, Pat Leonard, may have been cause for the look on Mr. Hearst’s face. He suddenly appeared out of nowhere and was standing behind me. I heard a “harumph,” looked up and again up farther, until I could not tell whether I was looking at a big man of our time or a giant of a man in olden days. I had heard plenty about Mr. Hearst from the other servants and my parents, but not about how big a man he really was. Needless to say, I was scared out of my wits, because this man had “authority” written all over him. He was well suited in a gray tweed suit with a flashy necktie, and I remember large saddle shoes because I wore saddle shoes in those days, too. Well, he didn’t scold me as I thought he was going to do. Probably he was able to read fright written all over my turned-up face, so he turned on his charm, grinned, and said, “You must be Shirley, the little girl of the Shewmaker family living in the log house down by the Bend.” I answered weakly, “Yes, sir,” and made an effort to hide the picked pansies in my closed fist. “Well! Nice morning isn’t it?” he said, and walked away toward the Angel House to see Mac McClure, the draftsman.
I didn’t meet him again that year, but later, down near the bend, I picked a large bowl of wild strawberries and took them up to the Gables where everyone met for meals. The servants ate in one dining room and Mr. Hearst and guests supped in the main dining room of the Gables, which lay about a half-mile down river from the Bavarian Village . My intention was to share them with my mother and father as sort of a surprise. When I climbed the back stairs to the help’s dining room, the butler, Freddie Redelsperger, saw what I had in the bowl and exclaimed, “Oh my, where did you find those delicious-looking strawberries?” I told him, and noticed his eagerness in that he was practically grabbing the bowl from me when he said, “You know, Shirley, Mr. Hearst would delight in having these delectable berries for his dessert tonight.” Well, what could a girl do but give them up, which is what I did. Later, the butler told me that Mr. Hearst did indeed enjoy them with ice cream that evening, and a week later what happened? Mr. Hearst had ordered from Blum’s Confectioners in San Francisco a 10-pound box of chocolates to be given just to me in return for those wild strawberries.
A few years later, I was pressed into summer service, and my first job was washing fine dishware and glassware for the evening’s formal dinners. Later, under my mother’s tutelage I donned the standard, white, starched uniform and became a maid for guests at the Cinderella House.
I also was called upon occasionally to accompany Marilyn Walsh (daughter of movie director Raoul Walsh) horseback riding and be her companion during the evening formal dinners. And when Marilyn wasn’t there, Miss Davies called on me to make 14 at a table of only 13 guests, which didn’t happen very often, thank goodness. I always hated sitting as a guest while my mother was servant. I rather preferred working with her to serve the guests: “Serve to the left, take away plates to the right,” she’d tell me. I was used in the dining hall only when there were 30 or more to dine. Like my mother, I hated their dachshunds, who ran around nipping at our heels and ankles. I remember how I wanted to douse them good with a trayful of hot demitasse on occasion. It was hard enough toting those large, silver trays without such disturbances as the little devils prancing around at our feet.
The time finally came that I was to attend college. Mr. Hearst wanted me to become a journalist and work for his San Francisco Examiner; Miss Davies wanted me to be screen-tested for movies. They may have been disappointed when I announced my intention to become a nurse, but then, there was a war on. Nevertheless, Miss Davies, always thoughtful, surprised me with a going-away party at the Bend. Mr. Hearst didn’t attend the party, but he did send a present: A nurse’s wristwatch etched on the back, “Best of Luck – W. R. Hearst.” The two of them were like that, though.
Note: Shirley Selna Shewmaker Wahl had planned on writing about her and her parents’ (Cal and Nellie Shewmaker) life at Wyntoon. Unfortunately, she passed away while on a trip to Europe in 2001 before finishing or publishing her writings; the above story is adapted from her notes.