Shrouded in fog on the north California coast, Mendocino still carries the mystique of Kate McGarrigle’s song. Its houses and stores built of wood by transplanted New Englanders in the mid-1800’s, evoke a kind of everyman’s home town with such a northeastern feel to it that Mendocino has portrayed the quintessential Maine coastal hamlet in movies such as “Summer of ‘42” and “The Russians are Coming” and the long-running television series “Murder She Wrote.”
Yet as you approach Mendocino on Highway One, you can’t miss seeing that this town is California to the core. The misty stands of redwoods, a wild javalina crossing the street, the glowing sunset over the Pacific, are all dead giveaways. Even the iconic statue of “Father Time and the Maiden” atop the bank on the main street is carved not from marble, but from a single piece of solid redwood, the wood that built the town itself.
The figures that stand so gracefully atop the Savings Bank today still carry a hint of mystery. Their deeper meaning is a secret of the Masonic order, leaving us free to speculate and wonder. Guidebooks invariably mention the sculpture, so it is easy to find out that Eric Jensen Albertson started carving the figures in 1866, working in a beach shack on the Big River. Albertson, who worked at the local lumber mill, was an officer and charter member of the Mendocino Mason Lodge, which has met in the same building since 1863. He labored over the sculpture for seven years, which hardly seems long enough when one pictures him bent over his carving after work in a damp cold dimly-lit beach shack. At the same time, he carved the inside columns and ceilings of the Masonic Temple and the classic Greek Revival column on which the figures stand.
The elements of the scupture seem clearly defined, and yet their descriptions vary depending on the source. The theme appears to be the transitory nature of life amidst the persistence of truth (or faith?) From left to right, we see a life-sized figure of a bearded man with a scythe leaning against his left shoulder because both hands are occupied with the maiden’s long hair. Her dress is cinched at the waist and has a flowing skirt. In her right hand she holds a staff or branch, often described as an acacia branch, and her left hand grasps an urn which rests on an open book. The book lies open on the base of a broken column. The top section of the column is leaning on the base, forming the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Can you see the hourglass? I almost missed it. One might spend hours discussing the symbolism of each element and its placement.
Written descriptions variously describe the tall bearded man as “Father Time” (6) or, more ominously, as “the Angel of Death,” (4) which belies how gently he lifts the girl’s flowing tresses. Finding the right words for his action matters, because the choice of verb designates a motive for the only purposeful activity taking place in an otherwise static scene.
Yet this is where the articles disagree the most: Is he “braiding” her hair (2), “anointing” her hair (4), “dallying” with it (8), “toying” with it” (1), or “untangling” it (9)? Father Time does not look like one to dally. Anointing sounds sufficiently dignified, but anointing with what? He’s not holding anything but hair. Visual observation suggests braiding to me, based on the separation of her locks into three tresses, lifting two of them in his hands just as you would when braiding a girl’s hair. Time patiently working to achieve order? But untangling makes the most sense, if persistence is the message. (For this interpretation and a look at other Masonic representations of Father Time and the Maiden, be sure to take a look at “Words on Stone,” August 19, 2014. https://wordsonstone.wordpress.com/tag/mason/ )
The statue, like the town, has appealed to writers as well as filmmakers. A Mendocino Mystery by Mary Cesario Weaver has the tower on its cover. In The Life of Brother Antoninus , Lee Bartlett moves it off the tower to create a Mendicino wedding venue, “Susanna was particularly attracted to the location because a large nineteenth-century statue of Father Time and the Maiden rested on the courthouse steps.” (p. 219). And, while Kate McGarrigle doesn’t mention the statue, her lyrics evoke the mystique of the California coast, where Father Time and the Maiden stand aloof above the town of Mendocino, home to so many mysteries.
“Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait must I follow
Won’t you say “come with me.”
With gratitude for a singular journey:
- Bright Stars: American Painting and Sculpture Since 1776, Jean Lipman and Helen M. Franc, E.P. Dutton, 1977.
- Early Mendocino Coast, Katy M. Tahja. Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Page 76.
- History of Mendocino and Lake Counties, California: With Biographical Sketches, Aurelius O. Carpenter, Percy H. Millberry. Historic Record Company, Lake County California, 1914. Page 56.
- Mendocino Mornings, Agnes Moorehead and Jim Moorehead, Joshua Grindle Inn, 1996. Pages 11, 17.
- Masons of California, https://www.freemason.org/newsEvents/article.htm?id=10862
- Roadside America.com, http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/28260
- Freemason, http://www.cafreemason-digital.com/cafreemason/20130607?search_term=mendocino&doc_id=-1&search_term=mendocino&pg=26#pg26
- The WPA Guide to California: The Golden State. Federal Writers’ Project, Trinity University Press, 2013. (Under “Mendocino”).
- A Mendocino Mystery, by Mary Cesario Weaver, Lost Coast Press, 2003.
- The Life of Brother Antoninus, Lee Bartlett. 1988. New Directions Publishing Corp., 1988.
- “Words on Stone,” August 19, 2014. https://wordsonstone.wordpress.com/tag/mason/
- Metrolyrics, http://www.metrolyrics.com/talk-to-me-of-mendocino-lyrics-kate-anna-mcgarrigle.html