Celebrating a century in Healdsburg
By ELIZABETH COSIN / Healdsburg Correspondent
E. Walter Murray was 3 when his parents moved into the Craftsman home they built themselves on West Street in Healdsburg. The year was 1915.
Incredibly, that same house still stands where it was built, on a hill overlooking what is now called Healdsburg Avenue. Even more amazing perhaps is that Murray still lives there. On Christmas Eve, in fact, the man known to many in town as just Walter will celebrate his 100th birthday.
“Everything was measured with a ruler and squared and cut by a hand saw,” Murray said recently while sitting in the living room of the home he has lived in continuously for 97 years. He is cheerful and alert and rather fit for a man his age, happy to tell stories about his life, surrounded by photographs and family keepsakes and some of the home’s original furniture.
“There were no power tools. Everything you see here is original.”
Which is a good way to describe Murray, an avid hunter and outdoorsman who for the past half century has raised and sold red factor canaries, been a beekeeper and owned Sunset Laundry, a company he bought from his father in 1933.
In fact, Murray continues to raise and sell the canaries, a business he only recently decided to downsize.
Murray received a letter last week honoring his upcoming birthday, signed by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, one of several local residents near the age of 100 or older. He is part of an ongoing project by Gina Riner that includes a photography/essay exhibit called “Enduring Spirit: Ten Lives of Healdsburg.”
Riner calls Walter the “baby” of the group that included Louis Foppiano, Elsie Passalacqua, Rev. Maurice Wilcox, George Greeott, Evelyn Day Iversen, Rose Ferrari Demostone, Angelo Micheli, Barney Barnard and Gene Cuneo, all of whom were 92 years old or older when the project was first exhibited in 2006.
Murray’s vantage point from a spot not far from the historic Healdsburg plaza has given him a first-hand look at the incredible changes the town has experienced over the years, beginning with his childhood years living on what was then a dirt road.
“Sometimes I would hear a loud noise and run outside the front door, and it would be cowboys driving a herd of cattle down the road,” he said. “They would regularly drive them down to the train depot. Sometimes we’d even see sheep.”
Murray’s parents took different routes to Healdsburg. His father E. J. Murray, a native of Maryland, joined the Navy and was injured in an accident that left him recovering for almost a year in an Oakland hospital. Once back on his feet again, he heard of a septic project that needed workers in Healdsburg and moved there in 1908. There he met Walter’s mother, Lillie Bertha Nickerson, whose family traveled from Wyoming to Healdsburg in 1900 by covered wagon.
Lillie’s father, Sage Nickerson, was a Civil War Veteran who grew up in Ohio. He enlisted in the Union Army when he was only 16 and moved to Wyoming with a business partner after the war. He spent several years seeking his fortune in Lewiston, a mining camp at 9,000 feet above sea level.
According to family lore, there was a dispute with local Indians and the two men were attacked by Indians. Nickerson’s partner was killed, but he survived, hiding in a creek for more than a day before he was rescued by friends. He nearly died from pneumonia, but once he recovered, a cattle driver offered to buy his land and he decided to try his luck out west.
Murray says his family preached hard work but were always generous to visitors and strangers, many of whom arrived by train in Healdsburg looking for work, especially during the long years of The Great Depression.
“When the freight trains came into town, I would sometimes count as many as 60 tramps on board. They’re what you now call homeless people,” he said. “The train would stop, and they would get off looking for work or something to eat. My parents were always there to help them.”
Murray said his mother would cook up a big pot of beans and coffee for them and his father would pay for dinners at Iceberg, a restaurant across the street from his laundry. Once a man walked into the laundry begging for food, and Walter said his father took a liking to him.
“I don’t know why but he ended up bringing him home for dinner,” Murray said. “The fella was heading up to Oregon, and when he left my father gave him some money. I don’t know how much. But a little while later, my father got a letter from that man who said he had found some work, and he included all the money my father lent him plus interest. We never saw or heard from him again.”
Murray tried to follow his parent’s example and worked hard from a very young age, including raising rabbits and building prune crates. During Prohibition, he and friends would off-load bags of sugar from the freight trains into a warehouse for a local businessman.
“Overnight, the bags would disappear,” Murray said, a twinkle in his eye as he recalled the years when liquor was illegal. “We had one bar in town where the owner kept all the liquor under the floor boards. He would get notice of a raid every so often and would get the bottles out and pour them down the sink. He always complained it cost him a fortune.”
Murray added that he never drank or smoked and believes the last time he had whiskey was a taste in 1942.
A serious back injury kept him out of the century’s two major wars, and he eventually purchased his father’s laundry business in the 1930s, running it for nearly 50 years before retiring at 70. It was in the laundry business that he met his future wife, Helen Mildred Stenquist Murray, though he remained a confirmed bachelor until he was 58.
The couple had been married for 22 years when she died on Dec. 8, 1993. Murray said he remembered hoping that he would not be left totally alone.
“I prayed that I would find friends,” he said. “I had so many, so many who are now gone. But I’ve met many wonderful people since then.”
Affable, quick with a smile and a funny story, Murray has no problems finding friends. In fact, Riner says she expects about 200 people to attend a birthday party this month at St. John’s Catholic Church.
Murray continues to raise and sell his red factor canaries, though he says he has scaled back a bit in recent months, in part because he nearly didn’t make it to the century mark. Earlier this year, he was having dinner at Cattleman’s Restaurant in Santa Rosa when he choked on a piece of meat, according to Riner.
A quick-thinking bartender there, Matt Waite-McGough, saved his life.
“It has made the last few months even more precious,” says Riner, who first befriended Murray nine years ago when she gave a talk about Craftsman houses at the Healdsburg Senior Center. “He told me he had an original Craftsman and invited me to see it. We’ve been good friends ever since.”
Murray’s easy-going nature has always brought him friends, and when pressed for the reasons for his longevity, it’s one of the first thing he mentions.
“I’ve been very lucky to have so many good people in my life, so many friends,” he said. Then he went on to joke that it was also important to maintain “a four-pack-a-day habit and drink a bottle of whiskey.
“I never ever thought I’d be here this long,” he said. “But I feel real good. I feel great.”