20 Years of Community Building in Caspar

  • Post published:July 1, 2022

Compiled by Jim and Judy Tarbell and informed by a host of Caspar characters,
Caspar archives, lively memories, and various published accounts

Over the past 25 years, neighbors, friends, and residents of Caspar have worked to create community; the most important and daunting project in this age of political dysfunction, cultural division, and social alienation. Caspar’s Community Center (CCC) functions as the heart of this undertaking, and this year all Casparados who understand that Caspar is a state of mind, are celebrating the twentieth birthday of the Caspar Community Center. The main event will be on July 9, 2022, noon to dusk at the Caspar Community Center, 15051 Caspar Road.
Community building in Caspar takes heart in an earlier era when Caspar was a hub of the Coastal world. Caspar old-timer Harold Johnson told us that back in the 1930s and ’40s, “We had a helluva a lot of good times. Caspar Hall, where the Post Office is now, [just south of the present Conservation Fund Office in Caspar] used to be a big dance hall; used to have a big dance there every Saturday night. Just a bunch of kids. One guy had an accordion, and another guy played a guitar and someone else had the drums. We didn’t worry about time in those days. Six o’clock in the morning. Lots of times I would come home at six o’clock in the morning; having fun.”

Every Caspar celebration includes wonderful food, music, and fun for every age. The fifth annual CasparFest in 2007 featured a
memorable hot air balloon ride. Photo by Nicolas Wilson, nwilsonphoto.com.

That all faded away in the 1950’s when the Caspar Lumber Company sold its forest to the state and closed its mill at the mouth of Caspar Creek. Though there were many good times in the intervening years, Caspar did not begin coming together as a unified community until the Caspar Lumber Company heirs sold all their remaining land to Oscar Smith and his Caspar Cattle Company, which included most of downtown Caspar, the headlands on the north side of Caspar Bay and a hundred acres or so east of Highway One.
Once the property changed hands, local residents met a few times in the old garage, which has more recently been Caspar Curiosities, to confer on the future of Caspar. People were particularly alarmed when the US Postal Service took away the Caspar zip code. Suddenly Caspar mail was going every which way, except the direction it was supposed to be going in. County Supervisor Norman deVall warned the crowd, “Make sure you keep your zip code, it is your identity as a community.”
Once everyone resolved the zip code dilemma, community meetings faded away until 1997. That year, with the announcement that the Caspar Cattle Company intended to sell its Caspar property to developers, locals rallied to the cry of “Let’s buy Caspar and determine our own future.” Thus began a process that brought almost everyone out of the woods and away from their seaside enclaves. Suddenly people were meeting in a roving confab of convivial feasting that led to a unified planning process under the practiced hand of UC Berkeley Landscape Architect Professor Randy Hester, famed for his enterprise he called Community by Design.
Those gatherings focused on saving the “sacred places” in Caspar, most notably, the Caspar Headlands. That process coalesced around a community commitment to create the Caspar Community non-profit, with a mission “to preserve and enhance the quality of all life in Caspar.” Mike Dell Ara, the first President of the Caspar Community Board pointed out that, “When we, as a community, started this process, it was hard to believe that we could be successful. But what we found was that, when we pool our resources, we have a very powerful community! By combining the amazing resources of all those who participated in this process and building trust and consensus, we could achieve what seemed at first impossible. People donated their money, their resources, their connections and a huge amount of their time towards this objective.”
He added that, “through our community’s connections with the Coastal Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land, County Planning Department, County Supervisors, and the Mendocino Land Trust, we were successful in funding and acquiring the Caspar Headlands, approximately seventy acres of beautiful oceanfront property and transferring it to the Mendocino Land Trust to preserve and protect as an open space habitat.”
Then, in February 2002, Caspar Community published a press release by Jerry Juhl announcing, “The next meeting of the Caspar Community will take place on in the old Caspar Schoolhouse. The schoolhouse will, in fact, be the main topic of discussion for the meeting, as the building is on its way to becoming a community center for Caspar.”

The famous Gertie the Gorse Monster, designed by Jerry Juhl of Muppets fame, crawls out of her storage unit for any parade.

erry and his wife Susan played a central role in the acquisition of the schoolhouse. Well known as the maestro of the Muppets, Jerry Juhl had been Jim Henson’s first employee and the lead writer for the Muppets and other Jim Henson ventures. Jerry and Susan were also deeply involved with the writing and production of Fraggle Rock. They carried on as Muppets themselves, and in their fantastical, magic way committed to provide the down payment for the schoolhouse with the dream of making it into a community center.
Caspar board member Meridian Green spoke of the long path the Caspar Community took. “Casparados have been dreaming of this building as a gathering place for several years now, knowing it was a major goal once the headlands had been secured. Now, thanks to incredibly generous neighbors and the enthusiasm of the community, we’ve got a down payment for the building, and we have to figure out how to make our own rain for the center. We need to make it part of our hundred-year plan.

Costume party at the Community Center drew big crowds.

”That hundred-year plan came out of the magic that Randy Hester conjured up for the gathering of diverse Caspar characters. He somehow got them all to close their eyes and envision their most sacred places in Caspar that needed to be cared for and nurtured for the common good of all of Caspar. Out of this quasi-spiritual experience the community of Caspar took its first steps forward into the thriving village it has become.
Long-time Caspar Board member Annie Lee points out that, “From the beginning, the neighbors, who got together to keep the headlands free of development, established the ethic of working together for a common goal larger than the sum of its participants. Striving for consensus, building community, and whatever it is that has drawn us to Caspar have generally made it possible to overcome personal differences and conflicting opinions and keep the focus on preserving and protecting the quality of all life in Caspar.

“The Center itself is a beautiful chameleon, adaptable, inviting, and comfortable, embracing people from many sub-communities and serving as a venue for a wide variety of events. The pleasure of smooth and effective teamwork, in whatever form, informs the atmosphere. The coming generation moving into leadership, promises even greater inclusion in this vision.”
Fantastically, each and every one of the events that happen at the Caspar Community Center merges an ever-growing list of participants into the constantly expanding community of Caspar. Volunteers are at the core of the process. Almost everything is done by volunteers and the relationships built while volunteering is the glue that holds Caspar Community together.
Bob Frey, who moved to Caspar after a career in the film industry, is the consummate volunteer. He first volunteered to wash dishes, and got to know everybody from that role. Then he moved on to so many tasks — audio/video wizard, back-up generator engineer, godfather of kitchen appliances, board member extraordinaire, investment counselor, and on and on — all as a volunteer. As we say, “If you need something done at the Community Center — Call Bob.” In return Bob says, “The Caspar Community has given me a place to really know my neighbors and count on them as friends. My small gifts towards this community are returned to me tenfold. I love living here.”
Retired doctor Jim Katzel who often volunteers to lead the serving team at the Fourth Sunday Breakfasts asks, “Why do I volunteer? I just flat out love serving! Be it doctoring, waiting tables, relationships, it is always about a different way of doctoring, a different way of waiting on a table, and a different way of relating. It’s not about always being a positive person, or maintaining positive emotions. It’s about generating feelings of warmth, of friendliness, and of caring toward yourself and others. It’s like the meditation practice of loving-kindness. It’s about love. And that moment of love is good for everyone.”
The Fourth Sunday Breakfast is the flagship Caspar Community Center event serving quality food in a community spirit of eating “family style” at large tables with old and new friends. The dedication and esprit de corps of the volunteer wait, cooking, and cleanup staffs have made the Fourth Sunday Breakfast the premier example of building community in Caspar.
Volunteer Kris Reiber points out that “We prepped and cooked our first Sunday breakfast in a small narrow kitchen which is now the backstage in the north room. It was a very cozy experience. But SO much fun to see the community gathering together with their neighbors sharing a meal together.”
Master chef Margaret Fox cooked the first Sunday breakfast in 2004. That began a long tradition of excellent chefs cooking fantastic food at the Caspar Community Center. Those qualities became a Caspar trademark and spread to the fabulously popular pub night that added music into the mix with volunteer musicians. You can always count on good food at Caspar, whether it is Breakfast, Pub Night, or Caspar’s annual Harvest Dinner, or wood-fired pizza from the cob oven out back on volunteer appreciation day.
Food has also been the central focus of Marty Johnson’s canning classes. Marty says, “The primary gift of these classes was creation of community around preparing food and preserving the results. People who would never have met would come together, cook, laugh, learn, and have delicious things to take home. The community aspect of this activity was so moving that I extended it into cooking classes of cuisines from various parts of the world. A group of twenty people came together to create eight or nine dishes — never underestimate the power and creativity of a group — which would then be shared with their invited guests. The Caspar Community Center allowed the space both in the wonderful kitchen and in the adjoining room for us to stretch out, chop together, talk as we created different recipes, stand around the stove tasting and kibitzing about what else might need to be added, and then sit in community enjoying what we created together. It was a continuing vision of the children’s story of Stone Soup—coming together as strangers around creating food to be shared with others as we formed connections and new friendships. It is again what we need to bring out of the ashes of Covid to have meeting places where we come together and connect around celebration of food, community, and revitalize our connections with each other.”

Dalen Anderson, chef extraordinaire, in the beautiful CCC kitchen. Photo provided.

There has also been a flow of Caspar-sponsored community events aimed at bringing the Coastal Community together for food and music. Headlined by the Caspar World Music Festival and followed up with annual CasparFests, they utilized all the Caspar volunteers to produce days of fun and workshops for the common good. A year after the Community Center opened, Caspar music impresario Mickie Zekeley actualized the Caspar World Folk Festival after pondering whether all those world-class musicians teaching at his legendary Mendocino Woodlands Music Camp would hang around for a few more days and join the fun of a Caspar Festival. And they did and brought music from around the world for events including a Multi-Cultural Fiddle Summit; Pickin’ Parlor: free-for-all jamming; Joke Swap, Children’s Tent, Worst Song in the World Contest, Sacred Song Circle, Belly Dancers, and more.
Out of that bubbling brew grew the Caspar classic Gertie the Gorse Monster, conjured up by Muppet Master Jerry Juhl, with a head constructed by multi-talented Tommy Brown and a body put together by a host of willing volunteers. Gertie the Gorse Monster epitomizes Caspar magic leading a parade of revelers at the World Folk Festival, Halloweens, the subsequent CasparFests, and even the Mendocino Fourth of July parade, where she won first prize.
CasparFests were grand events inspirited by music maestro Joe Craven, who now proclaims himself as a musician, fashion insultant, and former Parade Marshall of CasparFest. The parade, led by Joe and Gertie the Gorse Monster opened CasparFest, and lots of fun followed including magic, puppet theater, trapeze acts, a petting zoo, and all kinds of music: bluegrass, swing, Latin, calypso, country, Zumba, African drumming, funk, and soul. Beyond the music, CasparFest expanded into activities for the common good with workshops on greywater reuse, water storage and composting, sustainability, food fermentation, and local currency. It was all capped off by hot air balloon rides at the close of the event.
Premier festival organizer Jima Abbott exclaimed that, “The balloon was almost surrealistically big, bigger than the stage and accompanied by the roar and the flash of the burning gas used to make it lighter than air.
“Most of the organizers of the fair, along with the last of the visitors, were dancing to the rhythms of Kevin and the Coconuts as the balloon rose into the air.” Abbott then pointed out that, “After the balloon came down and the marketplace closed and all the vendors had left and the center was finally locked up, there remained a group of people around the downed balloon, in the dark, playing soft music, talking and holding on to the special feeling that the festival had created in the meadow behind the center.”
Caspar also has a long history of hosting many events welcoming in the New Year. It all began with Y2k. Do you remember that? The end of the world was coming and Caspar decided to go out with a grand celebration in the fanciest building in town — LA sound studio wizard Bill Bottrell’s world-class music studio that he had installed in the old Caspar Company Store. A music studio guru, Bottrell had worked with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Cheryl Crowe in LA — gaining him 4 Grammy awards — before coming to Caspar where he produced Shelby Lynne’s album that earned him another Grammy and a Best Producer of the Year nomination. Joining in on the Caspar community sharing culture, he threw open his doors for the Y2K New Years party that was an event never to be forgotten.
From then on, New Years became a two-step affair. First a fancy affair under the glittering ball in the Caspar Community Center to count down the New Year, and the next day an informal local affair that rotated between private Caspar homes where neighbors played games, relaxed from the holiday season, and inspected how we all lived.
From the very beginning, dance, music, art, and food were the elements which created a deep sense of community in Caspar. There is a lot of dance, largely because there is a lot of music, but also because we are all dancers in our own way. Not only is there a lot of dancing at the festivals and balls, there are also events like the pop up dances organized by Claire Amano and others. They began in 2017 with the Caspar classic Mighty T-Bones Band. Claire points out it was, “an all volunteer effort, and a blast. We brought in some fabulous bands. All dances were well attended. People just wanna dance in the company of community. Others are now planning outdoor dances at the Center.”
Beth and Mickey Zekley and their son Corwin brought English Country Dancing to Caspar, along with a shared meal initially served up from the little kitchen behind the stage. Beth would call the dances and Mickey’s band played. Bodies swished in this most community based style of dance, and after a dry period during Covid, dancers are swishing around in style again. As Mary Kay Champagne said, “Joyful people laughing, dancing in concert with each other is a sure way to build and feel the joy of community.”
Tango brought Latin culture to the Caspar Community Center. Tango dancer Larry Sawyer recalls, “In 1999, four of us started to dance tango together on the coast. In 2002, the Caspar Community Center opened for community events. Though we started with a very small group for the size of the space, the price was reasonable, and we grew into the spacious room. Within a couple of years, we frequently had more than twenty dancers. During special events, such as classes with out-of-town teachers, we swelled into the thirties and forties. At our first live tango music event, we packed the center with one hundred and thirty-five. For twenty years, we met every week until the pandemic, but the CCC staff held our Thursday evening time slot and we are finally dancing again. All these numbers illustrate the importance and necessity of a place to create so many aspects of community, in our case, a dancing one. Without the CCC and the supportive staff, we likely wouldn’t have “Tango Mendocino,” a community of Argentine tango dancers that have accommodated hundreds of teachers, musicians, and dancers from all over the world. Thank you CCC.”
Consummate dancer Jane Corey adds, “I love the proportions of the rooms for dancing, not quite square, but open enough to easily see everywhere, and everyone. I’ve done African, tango, swing, English country dancing, and salsas. I have much gratitude for the many happy hours spent at the Caspar Community Center.”
These days there are popular and incredibly cute ballet classes for kids at the Community Center, which over the years has hosted many special facilities and events for kids. Ballet time finds a host of kids climbing and swinging on the classic play equipment and gigantic vintage tires on the south side of the Community Center as well as on the playground north of the Community Center. That grant-funded project built a beautiful modern playground that was constructed with volunteer parent work parties. With a spiraling slide, a peek-a-boo tunnel, climbing bars and more, it will provide years of fun for generations to come. Lego building for kids from ages four to eight is another current class for kids at the Community Center, along with fun, fabulous, uplifting, and magical Music Together for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers—and the grownups who love them. It gives young kids a chance to get in touch with their inner musician and connect with other families. They are on a mission to make the world a better place by making it more musical.
Caspar Community Center is often the site for huge kid birthday parties, with bouncy rooms popping up in the yard behind the community center and gone the next day. There was also a time when Caspar was the go-to spot on Halloween for all of the kids on the Coast. For years there was a parade with Gertie the Gorse Monster led by Muppet Maestro Jerry Juhl, followed by the biggest pumpkin that Jerry and Susan could find, along with a homemade marching band and costumed kids of all types. There were even a couple of years when the entire community center became haunted by ghouls, demons, and other crackpot characters to frighten the wits out of young and old alike.
But it has not always been fun, food, music, and dance in Caspar. There has been a much more serious side epitomized by the Caspar Emergency Preparation Project. In case of disaster, Caspar is ready. When the Coast goes down, Caspar will stay up. This project has brought almost all the residents of Caspar together to make sure we are as safe and secure as possible in the face of disaster. Caspar Emergency Prep is based both on the Community Center and building resilient neighborhoods within Caspar.
It all started sixteen years ago in an article in the Caspar Community newsletter, which, in combination with the website — both overseen by Sienna and Michael Potts — has been a great boon to building community in Caspar. That article identified the mess of rescuing people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as the impetus for forming the group in Caspar. That year Ray Duff created a map showing an escape route through Jackson State Forest to Highway 20 if both Highway One bridges on either side of Caspar fail, or if access to those bridges is cut off. From there a small group formed the Caspar Fire Safe Council in 2007.
In 2014, the two paths for Caspar Disaster Prep began shaping up. The Caspar Community board began the process of making the Community Center into a Mass Shelter Site, which could feed, support, and possibly shelter people when a disaster occurs. They instigated a great fundraising campaign to install solar panels on the roof, with back-up batteries and generator in a special shed on the north side of the building. They also acquired a satellite phone and a ham radio, and encouraged households to acquire hand-held two-way radios so they could communicate with each other if necessary.
The communication system is a central part of Caspar’s evolving neighborhood strategy. This will probably be the greatest community-building effort of all. Caspar was divided up into five neighborhoods and each neighborhood held one or more meetings to discuss how to assist immediate neighbors in an emergency. When complete, neighbors will know:
· how to shut off water and gas;
· everyone’s contact information;
· whom to call in case of a problem; what pets need care;
· whether anyone has limitations or special needs;
· skills people are willing to share in an emergency—nursing, carpentry, plumbing, therapy, etc.
· and what supplies neighbors can share like extra beds, food, tools, etc.

In 2015 Bob Frey and Jef Shulz organized thirty emergency barrels stocked with emergency supplies, including sleeping bags, a tent, food, solar/wind-up radios, and other emergency items. Local families quickly took them home to be ready for an emergency. Caspar’s Emergency Prep group, that has had over two-dozen participants, bought, organized and stored cots, blankets, and emergency food in preparation for the Caspar Community Center’s responsibility as a Mass Shelter Site. In 2018 Disaster Fest at Caspar Community Center provided hundreds of people with maps, disaster tips, and lists of important information in case of disaster. Both rooms of the Center were full of information and people.
In the pandemic, the local emergency prep group held weekly zooms online that connected up to three dozen people or more who had suddenly become isolated, clarifying information in a time short on information and long on rumors. That zoom connected people from Elk to Westport in a time of need.
That is just the sort of community-building connection being celebrated on Saturday, July 9 in honor of Caspar Community’s Center’s 20th Anniversary. Dalen Anderson, the empress of Caspar community building, who has skillfully guided the entire Caspar project from its inception, tells us that Caspar’s Twentieth Birthday will go from 12 o’clock high noon till the twilight hours. Admission is free, although donations will be gladly accepted and encouraged.
Entertainment highlights include: Joe and Hattie Craven performing a set and sitting in with the various groups; Gene Parsons playing both with Second Hand Grass as well as performing with his own band, New Nashville West; Mama Grows Funk will be offering up a great dance set. Coming from inland Mendocino County will be Bug Guts with their quirky musical mix. Kids can enjoy a classic cupcake walk as well as other kids’ activities; and vendors and non-profit booths will have lots to share. A raffe will take place all day long featuring local crafts and services. Gertie our beloved Gorse Monster is coming out of rest to head up the parade at 1:00. Accompanying Gertie will be a large ensemble of percussionists that has been practicing their infectious Cuban Comparsa. All are welcome and encouraged to join in. The Caspar Kitchen crew will be preparing delicious food available all day long, as well as a bar with local beers, wine, and a few surprise cocktails. Please no dogs. And be Covid safe.
Joe Craven, the parade-leading, fashion insultant musician who will headline the celebration, sums up the scene with these words, “From Global Warring to Global Warming, we live in a weary world. I believe a weary world needs the protection of imagination and innovation. As Abraham Lincoln pointed out, ‘the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.’
“So how do we frame our pursuit of possibility through imagination and innovation? How can something that addresses enhancement and greater appreciation of life, be noble enough to be at the bedrock of a community on the North Coast of California? How about art, for one? Art is a problem solving mechanism. Art helps us become more of who we already are. For me, and at it’s best, The Caspar Community Center in it’s twentieth year has operated as a creative sanctuary, celebrating diversity of thought and inclusion of all, in this meeting house where creative self expression is welcomed for the benefit of all — finding common ground from idea to action.” REM