Trains All Stopped at Gerber in Busy Bygone Years

by Inez M. Borror - 1985

Gerber, Tehama County's youngest town, has the county's oldest park. When Edward Gerber laid out the unincorporated community in 1910, he gave nine of its 30 blocks to the county for a park, its first.

The park is still there, but a lot of other things have changed.

Among them are some startling rules that went into the first deeds. There were to be no Africans, Mongolians, Hindus, or Japanese permitted to own, lease or occupy land in Gerber. There was to be no tannery, slaughterhouse, or pigs. Every building must cost at least $500. There were to be no signs larger than 1x2 feet. And no alcohol was to be sold or given away.

No one around Gerber these days is guided by those almost forgotten rules, and veteran Tehama County Superior Court Judge Curtiss E. Wetter said he never heard of them.

But there were a couple of momentous changes that probably every old-timer in Tehama County knows about:

In 1916 Southern Pacific Railroad ushered in 40 bustling years by moving its division point facilities to Gerber from Red Bluff. In those years all trains stopped in Gerber.

Then after 1955 when diesel engines replaced steam locomotives Southern Pacific closed its Gerber facilities down.

Changes didn't start with Gerber filing his 30-lot plat. Even the name of the place had changed several times before that. Indians, signs of whose habitation have been found in profusion in the area, many have had a name for it, though there is no record of it. But the land including the Gerber site got a name in 1844. William George Chard, a native of New York, had come to California in 1832, married a daughter of the Robles family, and the Mexican government granted him 13,300 acres on the north bank of Elder Creek. He named it Rancho de las Flores--Ranch of the Flowers.

Then before there was a town called Gerber, three was Logan's Field, then Tyler's Switch. And there was Alfalfa.

Logan's Field was a bit of the Chard rancho acquired by a black man named Logan, according to an article in the March 21, 1954 issue of the Tehama County Reporter written by Mrs. Fern Allison.

She wrote that Butte Tyler of Red Bluff had told her that his father, Johnathan Tyler, had bought the piece of pasture land criss-crossed by sheep and mule trails, and he remembered that it was always called Logan's Field.

Johnathan Tyler bought a lot of the Chard land and some of the Robert Hasty Thomes Rancho de los Saucos--Ranch of the Elder Trees--south of Elder Creek. By the late 1860's, Central Pacific Railroad, later merged with Southern Pacific, had built a line to Sesma across the Sacramento from Tehama, and was preparing to cross the river there and push on north. Tyler struck a deal. He donated right-of-way in exchange for an arrangement for stopping trains on his land. The place, just north of Elder Creek, was called Tyler's Switch.

Alfalfa was a popular name for the area's center of activity for a few years early in this century. It came from the major crop there. In 1908, Edward Gerber and some associates built a mill on the high ground north of what was to become the Gerber townsite to process alfalfa into meal. It processed a lot of alfalfa.

W.E. Gerber, Edward Gerber's father, was one of the early alfalfa growers in the area. He was a Sacramento banker who visited there in 1900, bought land on the north side of Elder Creek in 1902, and had it planted in the crop which gave the place its short-time name.

The town of Gerber, laid out eight years later, may have been named for W.E. Gerber. Then, again, it may have been named for Edward H. Gerber, who had it laid out. Or it may just honor the Gerber family name. A granddaughter of W.E. Gerber, Mrs. John Spencer, who lives in Woodland, said she didn't know.

Shasta Route, a book published in 1981 by Frank and Ev Mills, quotes a 1916 Southern Pacific Bulletin telling of the negotiations which preceded moving the division point from Red Bluff to Gerber: "...we purchased an entire ranch...From W.E. Gerber, which led to the naming of the terminal 'Gerber.'"

But there appears to be an error there.

Records in the Tehama County clerk's office show that on Jan. 26, 1910, E.H. and Gertrude Whitaker Gerber sold the 276 acres to the railroad for $10.

That year, 1910, is the year that Edward Gerber and Archie and Ed Fuller formed the Tehama Investment Company; and that Gerber filed the plat of Gerber, and the Fullers laid out Las Flores, just to the north of it.

Neither of the Gerbers ever lived in Gerber. The family did have--and still has--a summer home in Tehama County, in Battle Creek Meadows near Mineral.

The alfalfa mill Edward Gerber helped start continued for a good many years. Later owners were Fred Holmes, A.T. (Tom) Spencer and Dave Minch. Holmes and Spencer were ranchers in the area. Spencer added a feed yard and used some of the meal.

Minch, who had arrived in Gerber from New Jersey with his family in 1919 and had become a meat wholesaler in Red Bluff, bought the mill and yard in 1950. Incidently, Minch once worked for Gerber's biggest employer of those years--Southern Pacific Railroad. He cleaned out cattle cars.

But he quit that job, his son, Robert Minch, quoted him explaining: "I did such a good job my bosses wanted to keep me at it, and wouldn't promote me."

At any rate, he went on to bigger and better things, and the Minch yards were an important part of Gerber business long after the railroad yards had gone. Robert Minch carried on after his father's death, and only a changed pattern in livestock marketing in recent years has forced them, too, to close. Only part of an old fence with heavy posts north of the Tehama County Road Department headquarters remains of the old Minch yards. Bob Hinkle Roofing now occupies the old alfalfa mill building.

In spite of the early restrictions, Gerber had a population of 200 by 1911, and its first hotel, the Wales, was built on the corner of Vestal and Ventura Avenues. It housed many of the railroad and neighboring ranch workers.

Gerber came to life in August of 1916 when Southern Pacific moved its division point there. A building from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition was moved in for a big rectangular engine house, replacing the roundhouse at Red Bluff, inadequate for servicing the giant Mallet engines being introduced to pull the trains over the Siskiyou Mountains.

A repair shop was built and acres of other buildings and facilities, including an icing plant to service refrigerator cars, livestock yards, close to 12 miles of tracks, and freight and passenger stations. It was a busy, busy place.

Trains stopped in Gerber to change crews. Housing for layover crews was needed. Three more hotels were built, the Shasta, Terminal and Sunset. Fires have taken the Shasta and Terminal, but the Sunset still stands, now made into apartments.

In addition to the hotels, many small houses were built by the railroad company. Some were remodeled and are in current use.

The stop in Gerber enabled local people to see and hear many famous persons who came to the rear platform of the trains to speak. It is reported that 7000 stood to hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaign in 1932. Others seen and heard on trains passing through Gerber include Charlie Chaplin, Herbert Hoover, Will Rogers, Harry Truman.

But the trains don't stop in Gerber anymore.

In may 1955 the town received the shock which changed its entire life: The steam locomotive era was ended. Diesel engines took over, and could make the long runs from Oakland or Roseville to Dunsmuir without stopping in Gerber for fuel, repairs or change of crews. Southern Pacific began to phase out all operations in 1957, and closed everything down in 1965.

Gerber has one vivid reminder of the pre-1955 days. That is Godfrey Humann's South Shasta model railroad.

Perhaps no one has preserved the magic of the steam locomotive era in such a tangible form as Humann, who lives on a farm on Holmes Road about a mile southeast of town. In 1947 he began work on the South Shasta in the basement of his house. All in scale, he made and layed out tracks, buildings, bridges and actual terrain in replica of the Southern Pacific from Gerber to Dunsmuir. He and his family hold a show every other year on Sundays in April and May. Thousands come to see the exactly detailed reproduction in full operation.

The town of Gerber has never been incorporated. Hence no city council, city police, or city taxes. However, the public spirited citizens have not depended on the county government for many of its improvements.

In 1916 a school was started with funds raised from dances and suppers. One room was built from 1x12 boards and 1x3 batting. A Mr. Murcie and Miss Dean Dyer were the first teachers. Mr. Murcie and Miss Dyer were paid for only part time work, though they taught full time, in order to qualify for county funds the following year. An attendance average of 37 was recorded for 1917-18. The building was on the east side of town.

Also in 1916 a fourth class post office was established with Miss Ola Eagon from Red Bluff as the first postmaster. Rural delivery from the Gerber office, using the Gerber address, extends north to Campo Avenue at Proberta, west to Rawson Road beyond Interstate Highway 5, south to Gyle Road, east to San Benito Avenue and Holmes Road.

A branch of the county library was opened in 1927, and Mrs. Frank (Babe) Mullins served as librarian for 30 years. The Mullins still live in Gerber. They are responsible for starting the Gerber Riding Club.

An early day theater seated 200 people. Tickets cost 30 cents for adults, 10 cents for children.

In 1918 a Sunday School was started under the leadership of a Mr. Stocking, and first met in one of the railway cars. In 1918 a group under the auspices of the Baptist Church came to Gerber, and a church was organized. The first meeting was held under a tree a short distance south of a tunnel passageway from the north part of town under the railroad track to the yards above. Later, land was purchased at Samson and Mariposa Streets, and the present church built.

When the railroad yard operations were stopped and the station closed, there were predictions that Gerber would "die on the vine." But it didn't.

Several families were sent to Roseville or Dunsmuir. But most remained and found work in new lumber mills and other businesses in Red Bluff and Corning. Many prefer to live in a small town where community spirit is kept high through a community club, volunteer fire department, ball clubs and a riding club.

And there is that nine-block park that Edward Gerber donated when he laid out the town back in 1910. Residents and other people in the county still enjoy it. There is a swimming pool, picnic places and playgrounds there. An annual July barbecue there brings out hundreds of people and raises funds for community projects.

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© 1996 David Louis Harter, California Technologies