Local author keeps Merced history alive

By DOANE YAWGER

Merced author Herb Wood has a passion for local history and a longstanding interest in writing short stories before this information is lost forever. And he also has an interest in the proper way to go camping.

Wood, 77, has written three books. The first, “Ghost Towns of Merced County,” came out in 2005 and quickly sold out. A second edition was printed two years ago and is still available.

Wood’s latest book “Off the Beaten Path, A Collection of Short Stories” came out last fall. The 293-page book has about 115 of the more than 800 short stories he has written over the years.

There is a sense among historians that many worthwhile stories and descriptions of times gone by are lost forever when the person with all these memories dies and nothing has been recorded. Wood encourages people to write down some of these stories and assures them that others will be interested in them later.

Ever heard of Dogtown, Forlorn Hope, Kadota, Sturgeon or Yam? They are among 43 former Merced County communities now considered ghost towns. Some were little more than sidings on the railroad way back when.

“The Merced County Historical Society has a periodic newsletter,” Wood said. “I thought ghost towns would be of interest to people. When I got into it I discovered there were three dozen-plus ghost towns. My definition of a ghost town is a place that at one time had an official post office and one business.”

Ironically as a youngster growing up in the tiny South Dakota town of Hudson, history wasn’t one of his strong subjects. He could care less when Columbus sailed the seven seas or other significant historic milestones. But pursuing local history later gained traction in Wood’s thoughts, especially during the two years of research and untold hours spent writing and photographing the material for the 67-page ghost town book.

Take Plainsburg, for example. At one time the eastern Merced County town had a two-block business district and its own newspaper, “The Globe.” Historical documents show Plainsburg was incorporated as a California city between 1869 and 1890.

Athlone, once known for its dangerous curve on Highway 99, had the first college in Merced County, called a normal school or teachers’ preparation school. Now even the curve is gone on the recently upgraded stretch of highway.

Merced Falls at one time was home to 1,500 residents and was the industrial center for the county. It had a lumber mill and about 700 of its citizens worked there. When the Yosemite Railroad went bankrupt in the mid-1940s and the lumber mill closed, Merced Falls was lost to antiquity.

Wood credits historical society director Sarah Lim for her help, encouragement, research, fact-checking and editing of both the ghost town and short story books.

Lim said Wood is a very good writer with many interesting stories to tell. He also is a well-established photographer whose work is featured each year at the Merced County Fair.

Wood said work on the book of short stories started about 20 years ago. Some of the recollections from Wood’s great aunt, who lived to be 100 and died in 1950, were inspiration for the short story book, which has memories which go back as far as he can remember. As a kid, Wood said he wasn’t paying attention to his aunt but later on cherished what she told him.

Wood said the short stories center around experiences growing up, farm memories from the 1940s and 1950s, family-related experiences, adventures and a section on humor with some tales admittedly “embellished.”

“It (short stories book) went together really fast,” Wood said. “There was a lot of reminiscing. It was done in about a two-month period. The next thing I knew I had a book. I tried to avoid stories with strong political views because I didn’t want to offend anyone.”

Wood said the short stories will resonate with people who grew up in the same era he did or lived in small rural areas.

Wood doesn’t have any other books planned at this point but concedes maybe sometime in the future another book is possible.

“The big stories will get covered,” Wood said. “These little things that nobody writes down will be lost to history. You need to get it down.”

While some people are content to spend their evenings in front of the television set, that’s the time Wood reserves for writing. He said it keeps his mind sharp – forcing him to think. He has seven loose-leaf binders full of stories and gradually adds to that number.

Wood received a bachelor of science degree in elementary education from Northern State College in Aberdeen, S.D. He taught eighth grade for a year and discovered teaching didn’t appeal to him.

For much of his professional life, Wood worked for K mart Corp. and was the manager of the Merced store on West 15th Street before it closed. He served at various store locations in Chicago, Minnesota and Nebraska along with Lompoc and San Bernardino. He retired in the late 1990s and works as a volunteer docent and registrar for the Merced County Historical Society.

Wood said there were four typographical errors in the first printing of the ghost town book but none in the second edition that he knows about.

Wood also authored a 34-page booklet called “Camping for Beginners” which came out five years ago. Some advice imparted in that book includes making sure your food is locked up where bears can’t get to it, breaking in your hiking shoes beforehand, renting or borrowing camping gear before spending lots of money on things you don’t ultimately need and don’t pet the chipmunks.
— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.

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