The Palm & The Pine – A California Story Part I

by Bob Sparrow

      I was recently made aware of a physical and symbolic boundary that screamed, “Road Trip!”.  It is a ‘landmark’ of sorts that I believe most Californians, much less those who live outside our state of ‘fruits and nuts’, don’t even know about .  It is simply two trees in the meridian of a highway that represent the mythical dividing line between Northern California and Southern California – and trust me on this one, there is a division.   As a matter of fact there have  been no less than 220 official initiatives, 27 that have been considered, ‘serious’, to separate California into, sometimes multiple pieces, but mostly in half.  It seems this ‘sometimes-less-than-civil’ war has been going on in California since the very beginning.

      The first secession effort was in 1854, just four years after statehood.  That attempt was a ‘tri-state-ectomy’ where the southern counties were going to be called Colorado, a name not being used at the time, but one that a group from the Rockies had called ‘dibs’ on.  The middle counties would retain the California name, and the northern counties would be called the State of Shasta – the State of Canada Dry had apparently already been taken.  That initiative lost momentum when everyone was more interested in finding gold than defining boundaries.

      The next secession attempt was five years later in 1859, but lost traction when all the paparazzi headed to the South covering another secession attempt, the beginning of the southern state’s attempt to break from the union and that pesky conflict that ensured.  With that, the California state-ectomy soon became back page news and Californians didn’t want to waste time on political posturing when there was a good war going on.

      Ironically, it was another skirmish that got in the way of yet another effort by Californians to subdivide the state in the twentieth century.  In 1941 individual counties from both northern California and southern Oregon were seceding, one each week, to form the State of Jefferson – a name probably inspired by the television show of the same name, but, alas, the Japanese were planning some sub-dividing of their own that year, which gave those in the entire country, and particularly those on the west coast, more important things to worry about.

      There was another major state-ectomy initiative in the 1960s – of course, what wasn’t going on to interrupt the status quo in the sixties?  Sorry, I don’t remember.  But hey, there was another war going on then too, so it must have been time to look at separating the state.

      The nineties offered up another tri-sectomy with a proposal of the states of Northern California, Central California and Southern California, which died in the state senate; I’m thinking it was because no one wanted Bakersfield.  As recently as mid-2011 the latest attempt to create the State of South California was laughed at by most politicians in the state; which was an ironic twist since we’re usually laughing at most politicians in the state.

     The reality is, over the last 150+ years, destiny, providence circumstance and various wars have prevented us from even getting close to bifurcating California.  So the trees have come to symbolize, at least to some, the cultural divide between Northern California and SoCal – see, even these two terms typify the different cultures.  So, you say, “Enough with the history lesson, what’s the story behind the trees?’

 Coming in: The Palm & The Pine – A California Story  Part II


By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This week, in honor of Mother’s Day, I want to pay special tribute to my paternal great-grandmother, Annie Billiou Hoever.  Last year I received a ring from my mother that I always assumed was my paternal grandmother’s engagement ring.  When I told mom I would enjoy wearing Grandma’s ring she looked at me with alarm – something I’ve become used to – and said, “It wasn’t her engagement ring, it was her mother’s engagement ring.  It belonged to Annie Hoever.”

Sheesh!  Good thing I found this out before mom died or I would never have known the truth.  In all the stories I’d heard about our family, I couldn’t remember one mention of Annie Hoever.  Mom had only met her a few times after she married our dad so she couldn’t tell me much about her.  I wanted to know more about the woman who first wore the ring so I started doing some research.  Luckily, I found a second cousin who had stories, pictures and old newspaper clippings about the whole Billiou clan.  Jilted lovers, murder, insanity…it was all there.  Just your typical American family.

Annie’s father, Joseph Billiou, was born and raised in St. Louis.  Her mother, Julia, had emigrated from Ireland to Willows, California in the 1850’s.  Willows is in rice farming country north of Sacramento.  My father, who was raised in Willows, often spoke of his home town in rapturous terms.  I’m not sure Fodor’s would agree with Pop; Willows is a typical agricultural outpost that could barely be found on a map until Interstate 5 was built and they constructed some off ramps to the town.  Now its claim to fame is that there is a both a Denny’s and a Burger King right off the freeway exit.

In any event, when Julia came to Willows she fell in love with Joseph’s brother, Michael.  Michael (rather foolishly in hindsight) asked Joseph to move from St. Louis to Willows to join him in the rice business.  In a move worthy of a Kardashian, Julia took one look at Joseph, broke off her engagement to Michael,  and married Joseph.   That must have made for some rather awkward Thanksgiving dinners.

Joseph became major rice and grain farmer in his own right.  He and Julia eventually had four children, Annie being their firstborn, and they lived a wonderful life on the ranch.  Annie was educated at a Catholic boarding school near San Jose and then returned to Willows to settle down.  However, no eligible bachelor presented himself and by age 27 she was still unmarried.  Today, that would be the equivalent of someone at age 40 still being single.  In other words, getting hit by lightening was a more likely event.

Unfortunately, in 1887 the family idyll was rather unceremoniously torn apart when their cook, having drunk too much of the cooking sherry, stormed into the dining room one evening and shot Annie’s mother to death.  The cook then chased Annie around the house, shooting at her twice but – the cooking sherry having taken its toll – missed her both times.

The subsequent newspaper accounts of the cook’s trial and the vigilante justice that took place afterward are something right out of the Wild West.  I guess because it was  the Wild West.  A jury convened the week after the murder (makes you long for frontier justice, doesn’t it?) and found the cook guilty, sentencing him to life imprisonment.  Upon hearing the verdict  an angry mob formed and demanded “an eye for an eye”.  The sheriff, knowing a “situation” when he saw one, put guards at the entrance to the jail and hid the cook in the basement. He wasn’t aware that one of the vigilante group members was a former sheriff’s employee who knew all of the jail’s hidden entrances.  That night the group broke into the jail, extricated the cook, and lynched him in a nearby field.  No member of the group was ever arrested for the cook’s murder.

You would think Annie had suffered enough trauma to last her a lifetime, but unfortunately she had more ahead of her.

Stay tuned for Part Two…coming on Thursday!


By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Normally we post on Tuesdays and Fridays but this week is not a normal week.  Today my brother Bob has the heavy burden of delivering the eulogy at the funeral of his best friend, Don Klapperich.  So as friends and family gather today to mourn Don, I want to pay tribute to a very special friendship.

While so many of us have let childhood friendships lapse into occasional emails or Christmas cards, Bob and Don maintained a close bond for 53 years.   They first met in 1959 when they were juniors in high school. They struck up an immediate friendship, connected by a love of music, sports and good humor.  This was the era of folk music – the Kingston Trio, Limelighters, etc. – so Bob and Don started playing guitar and singing.  They dubbed themselves “The Neverly Brothers”.  They actually were darn good; they could play, sing and banter with the best of them.

Over the years they got several paying gigs and more importantly for us, they entertained our family, turning every gathering into a joyous sing-along party.  Somewhere along the line Don insisted on drinking rum and Coke, but only if it was cheap rum and diet Coke.  He dubbed that drink “the Klapper” and many a family gathering has resulted in too many Klappers!

They stayed in touch all through college and afterwards, when they both joined the Navy.  Don was a fighter pilot and served four tours of duty in Viet Nam.  He stayed in the Navy for 20 years and retired as a Lt. Commander.  After leaving active service, Don worked overseas as a fighter pilot instructor before finally retiring to San Antonio a few years ago.  Bob, after his Navy stint was over, elected to teach and then joined the business world and was very successful in the mortgage business in California

I give this background because what is amazing about their story is that their bond of friendship never faltered.  No matter the distance in their residence or hectic pace of their lives, they still found time for one another.  This is not to suggest that they never disagreed.  They held very different political views and had some lively discussions over the years.  But their opinions never got in the way of their friendship.

They saw each other through marriage, divorce, re-marriage, children and finally grandchildren.  They shared all of life’s experiences together, as close as two people could be without being related.  Of course, being friends with Don was, let’s just say, “interesting”.  He was a cross between a steely-eyed jet pilot and John Belushi.

In the early 1980’s the three of us were out for dinner and Don decided he was going to teach me how to properly eat a hamburger.  He took a huge bite out of the burger, threw his head back, mouth agape, picked up the plastic mustard and ketchup containers, and squirted them directly into his mouth.  As you might imagine, it got the attention of the wait staff, not to mention the other diners.  This was one of the milder things he ever did.  He was always brilliant, at times socially inept, but always a true friend.

Don never went to any high school reunions but last September, for their 50th, Don agreed to attend with Bob and reunite The Neverly Brothers.  They sang and entertained the crowd, not knowing that it was the last time that two great friends, doing what they do best, would be together.  Thankfully it was taped and put on YouTube for posterity.

I recently received an email that said, “Treat your friends well, for you never know when God is going to want them back”.  It is certainly understandable that God would want Don back – for good humor, good music and maybe even a “Klapper”.

Rest in peace, Don.  And to Bob: my heart aches for you today but just know that you were the best friend that anyone could possibly have.

Hail to Michigan

by Bob Sparrow

I wore my Detroit Tigers t-shirt last weekend, a shirt I purchased at Tiger Stadium several years ago – the one with the mustard on it.  I had several people asked me how a California native became a Detroit fan.  Those who know me know I spent the last five  years of my career ‘commuting’ from southern California to Michigan. The traveling was never fun, but getting to know the people from Michigan was something I’ll never forget.

They are tough – they have struggled more than most states through this dismal recession, as much of their state’s economy is auto-based and the Big 3 were not so big.

They have great values – having spent a good deal of my business life ‘on the road’ I had an opportunity to visit virtually every state in the union and I can tell you that there is indeed a mid-West culture and value system, and it’s still alive and well in Michigan.

They are just good, hard-working people who deserve better – and now they are getting it.
To wit:

  • The University of Michigan is 5-0 and in Denard Robinson have the most exciting player in college football.
  • Michigan State University is 4-1 and beat Ohio State last week for the first time in over a decade
  • The Tigers won their division and now have a 2-1 lead over the Yankees in the first round of the play-offs
  • The Lions are 4-0 in a season marked by great second half comebacks
  • The ‘Hockeytown’ Red Wings continue to dominate the Central Division and their fans at ‘The Joe’ “Don’t Stop Believin’”
  • The Detroit economy still has a long way to go, but with the Big 3 making a comeback, their economy improved more than the national average last year and will probably do it again this year.

              Of all the places that I’ve been

             There’s nothing quite like Michigan