1970s Ano Nuevo: Russell Towle Colors In The Man Called Merrill Bickford

HalfMoonBayMemories (HMBM): I remember a huge piece of driftwood; maybe it looked like a fist, but it was very big, and it had been planted in the sands near Ano Nuevo. I always thought of the driftwood as an address and I think a sculptor made the piece of art.

Russell Towle (RT): Well I can’t say for sure but that sculptor sounds like my old friend Merrill Bickford. If so, I was his caretaker. That was my official role while living in that tiny driftwood cabin. And I helped Merrill
build his fine adobe and redwood-bridge-timber house, now a ranger residence. Merrill was amazing. His wife at the time, Janet Creelman, was a mentor of mine, and I named my daughter, Janet, for her.

Merrill once had the pseudonym, or alternate name, Stuart Harwood. It was supposed to be more artistic. His sculptures were displayed at some of the most prestigious museums back East, in the 1950s. In the
1960s he landed at good old Peninsula School in Menlo Park, which is where I met him. The Duvenecks of Los Altos founded the school in the 1920s, classic CA Bohemians.

Merrill was a wild man of many marriages and somehow the alternating names helped him keep clear of past wives. We built a raft sixty feet long and thirty feet wide on the little lake on their Año Nuevo property, the frame was of discarded 6-inch iron irrigation pipes fromthe Rossi’s adjacent artichoke and brussel sprouts fields. Merrill had a huge crew of hippies working for him at that time. I was the welder, he taught me how to do it. We’d take a length of pipe, sledge-hammer each end flat, and then weld it shut. As it turned out these pipes ended up leaking an taking on water, but we stuffed all kinds of rigid foam and so on under the thing and it floated well enough, with a wooden frame atop the iron pipes, and plywood deck.

Upon that deck we erected a 40- by 20-foot greenhouse, installed a wood stove, and there Janet and Merrill lived for two or three years while we finished the Big House, which was not so big. But impressive,
with its ancient redwood timbers, adobe walls, tile roof and tile floors, and sculptural driftwood cabinets and finishing touches.

But the greenhouse was quite magical. The eternal northwest wind kept it rocking and bumping about gently, on its raft, and we could hear the waves thundering on the beach, more than a quarter mile away. It
was at one end of my bird-watching reservoir. Canoes tied up to one end of the raft. We had a little floating sauna I built at one end, made from eleven ancient redwood doors from Coastways Ranch. Willows and tall tules and cattails almost surrounded the greenhouse. It was amazing. No running water, no electricity. A wood stove for cooking. Merrill was a great raconteur and I heard many stories of his fabled life in that greenhouse. In WWII in the Pacific, he was a SeaBee, bulldozing out landing fields for aircraft on remote tropical island paradises. Returning to California after the war, he became a building contractor in the San Diego area, and managed to cut off one of his fingers with his power saw, late one afternoon, in an exhausted hurry.

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