Notes from Napa

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Nell Taught Us to Be Neighbors

Nell MacVeagh taught us what a neighbor is and does.

It was 1957. A few years earlier, the government had decided to build the Air Force Academy on her land in Colorado so she and her foreman, a crusty cowboy named Mr. Kelly, separately scoured the country for a new ranch to buy. Independently, they both landed here. She purchased La Herradura, formerly, Mountain Cove Winery, and tunred the 1887 stone winery shell into a "modern" 50's style home--complete with aluminum sliding doors and hip, new skylights.

Not a bad commercial for the beauty of St. Helena. Now she had city folk for neighbors--people who tied calves up like dogs and thought shot gun shells were filled with buckwheat. Regally, she rode through our tiny ranch, the Lazy J on her horses--sighing that "what a tribute it was to California pasture" that those calves, raised by us city slickers, lived at all.

Patiently, she taught us horsemanship. How to groom. How to jump. How to take care of cattle. When a ewe abandoned her twins (they were black), Nell gave them to us to bottle feed, and raise.

We fed them nightly and bedding them down in baskets with pillows. Before long, they thought they were dogs--joining our golden retriever to chase deer and running after tennis balls (though they couldn't quite pick them up and bring them back.

Nell's generosity knew no bounds. She shared her bull, her tractor, her truck, her love. An ardent member her church, Nell shared her land, her home, her life with so many people. Her home was never empty. When the last sole had left, there was always some cousin's-uncle's-son's-friend's-brother's-cousin, left over-- working on a manuscript, and sponging off Nell's generosity.

The parties at the lake were legend. We'd go into her walk-in freezer and throw steaks like cord wood into the pickup and drive them up for the bar-be-cues.

My favorite story was back in '59 when Mr. Kelly, a true-blue cowboy, pulled us aside and said, "You know that Herb Caen Feller. He was sharing a room with that Maria Theresa gal and they wasn't even married. I threw him off the ranch. I don't care who he was. He's just white trash to me."

We laugh out loud every time we re-tell that true story.

For years she fought good fight for the valley--the Ag preserve--the Land Trust. A steward of the land, she never stopped fighting the would-be rapists of what she held dear.

All that aside, she comes to mind whenever some friend calls to say he has to get a written easement to ride his horse on a neighbor's property--or a new land owner complains because by survey, the barbed wire fence at the top of the ridge is 10 feet off--or another calls to say he can't get an easement for power, or his having difficulty with a road maintenance agreement. Had only they been able to learn at the feet of Nell, what living in a community is all about.

In her last years, Nell didn't ride like she used too. But to those of us who were blessed to have been in her orbit, she never failed to sit tall in the saddle. And were she alive today, she'd be mad as hell to read this "drivel"!

Thank you Jeffery, for taking us back to a time that was very good indeed. Mrs. MacVeagh was one of a kind and yes generosity is a very fitting term to describe her. I had the great fortune of spending a lot of time with her and my grandparents in the mid-70's , when I was becoming who I was to be - especially relating to ethics and values. While she was definately tough as nails, she was an intellect like no other. I remember late in her life when I would stop by the La Herradura and visit, she would nearly always have a WSJ sitting next to her. She loved to engage me in a current event - political or financial. To this day, when I find myself heading up Conn Valley Road, I immediate return to the best of times. We all miss you terribly Mrs. MacVeagh.....
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