Gowan Near Interview
Growing up in Potter
Valley on a small dairy ranch, Jean Gowan Near has called
Mendocino County home since 1914. At a time when women were
generally expected to be homemakers, her father, Judson,
encouraged her to go to college. His dream was that she
would become a teacher even though Jean herself "loved
the soil and the animals." She pursued a degree at
the University of California (Berkeley), then married and
had two sons. During World War II, with labor shortages
in the U.S., she finally did enter teaching. Literally beginning
at a "little red schoolhouse" in Covelo, she went
on to teach at schools in Potter Valley, Philo, and Mendocino,
finally completing her teaching career with 28 years at
Ukiah High School. After her second husband's death in 1981,
she investigated, for a prospective livelihood, sheep husbandry,
even making a tour to New Zealand where sheep still outnumber
people 10 to 1. Soon after, she stocked a small sheep ranch
in Redwood Valley where she still produces raw fleeces for
spinners and crafters.
great-grandparents immigrated from Ireland to Quebec, Canada
around 1842. They had six sons: George, James, Robert, John,
Cecil, and Hiram. Jean's grandfather was George Gowan. In
1886, Frederick Weyerhauser, who at the time owned more
timberland than anyone else in America, sent George Gowan
from his home in Wisconsin to scout out timber mills in
California. George spotted a prospect at Russian Gulch on
the Sonoma coast, north of Jenner and south of Fort Ross.
Weyerhauser was not interested, however, in Gowan's find.
Turning from scout to entrepreneur, Gowan bought the mill
himself and moved his family to California. Soon he learned
of another mill much farther north up the Mendocino coast.
George would eventually hold the controlling interest in
the Cottoneva Lumber Company (Rockport) from about 1889-1894.
For a time, his brother James, who was accomplished at filing
saws, joined him, later returning to New York. Two other
brothers, John and Robert, also worked at the mill but eventually
returned to Canada.
George Gowan had
ten children, including eight boys. One of his sons, Cecil,
married Alice Studebaker, a distant relative of the car
company founders. Studebakers were one of the earliest cars
of the 20th century—both electric and gas. The last
Studebaker rolled out the factory door on March 16, 1966.
Cecil took over an orchard business from his father-in-law,
George Studebaker, around 1922, and, with his wife, built
it into the Gowan Oak Tree Orchards of Anderson Valley,
CA, known locally for its roadside produce stand. .
On May 20, 2008,
Jean sat down on the deck of her home in Redwood Valley
to reminisce, in part, about her grandfather, the shipwreck
of "The Venture",
and the town of Rockport.. Particularly touching is the
story of Frank Gowan, Jean's uncle, who was born about 1887
or 1888 and spent his early childhood at Rockport. As an
old man, when he was near death, he phoned Jean to record
his memories of Captain Johnson and the ill-fated Venture..