Historic gavel has a purpose

Plumas County Assessor Chuck Leonhardt shares the rich history behind the gavel he gets to use as president of the California Assessors’ Association. Photo by Victoria Metcalf

One of California’s little known treasures is hidden inside an unassuming gray and black drawstring bag.

Casting the bag aside, Plumas County Assessor and this year’s president of the California Assessors’ Association Chuck Leonhardt reveals a box. It’s not just any box, it’s made of wood from five of California’s counties.

But what’s inside is even more interesting and perhaps the real treasure — a gavel handcrafted of wood from 53 of the state’s counties.

This is a one-of-a-kind treasure that only the president of CAA gets to use — or not use — at his or her discretion.

“I just thought it was an interesting story,” Leonhardt explained as he shared the history behind the gavel’s creation.

The idea

It was San Diego County Assessor Crowell Eddy who conceived the notion that the California Assessors’ Association needed a gavel of distinction. Eventually he presented one to CAA in 1940.

“I realized that the wood which was cut from San Diego County to be used in a gavel would only cause jealousy among the other counties because of the fact that avocado wood takes a very fine finish, and it might even outshine redwood,” Eddy said in a speech to the association.

Therefore, Eddy set out to collect a piece of wood from every county.  To help him with this task, Eddy wrote to the agricultural commissioner of each county and requested one piece of well-seasoned wood. And 53 counties were more than willing to supply a bit.

The creation

“Wood working is a hobby of mine, and I have worked out a gavel here made up of these 54 [53] woods,” Eddy explained about the gavel’s creation. For clarification, Trinity County is listed twice on the original list. It did present two different kinds of wood, but so did a few other counties.

Although Eddy was a bit specific in what he requested — “a piece of well-seasoned wood, characteristic of his county, about 4 inches long and an inch square” — what he received varied.

One fellow sent a 4-inch by 18-inch bit of green oak. And another topped that by sending three chunks of stove wood. Eddy good-naturedly called him an “enthusiastic horticultural commissioner.” To top that, the man with the firewood sent it cash on delivery or COD. It cost Eddy $1.82 to collect his piece of gavel from that county.

“If they had all been as liberal with their wood as this one, the assessor in San Diego County would have gone broke,” Eddy pointed out.

With it all collected, presumably Eddy went to work with some of the following contributions: Kern County sent Piute cypress, Del Norte sent madrone, Redwood burl came from none other than Humboldt County and Los Angeles sent western ironwood. Eddy pointed out that it is only indigenous to the coastal islands of L.A. and Santa Barbara counties.

Monterey County, appropriately enough, sent a piece of Monterey cypress. Orange County sent lemon wood and Riverside County sent a graft from the first navel orange tree.

Sacramento County ag commissioner went as far as his own front yard and sent a piece of manzanita he had growing there. Santa Cruz County sent a Redwood burl, Siskiyou County some Port Orford cedar and Sutter County contributed a bit of Paradox walnut. Eddy said this latter piece was probably the most unusual because it came from a walnut tree that measured about 4 feet in diameter.

Closer to Plumas, Lassen County sent a piece of black walnut burl. Leonhardt said he didn’t know that Lassen was noted for black walnut trees (and it isn’t), so the offering must have had something to do with the fact that a black walnut burl was sold to a furniture factory “for an undisclosed price,” which leads one to believe the amount was noteworthy.

Plumas County’s ag commission decided on black oak for the gavel. While that species might be puzzling, given all the pine, fir and cedar that abound in the area, possibly the man thought it needed to be of harder material for such a work?

As a note of interest, Yuba County sent a piece of Bartlett pear wood from an old orchard. Eddy said the orchard’s owner, Joe Pearson, cut down his trees two or three years earlier for fire wood. Apparently he couldn’t get enough from the orchard’s production to pay the taxes. What kind of statement did this make to the state’s assessors’ association during the Great Depression, since this would have put the date of destruction in 1937 or 1938?

The wood that Eddy chose for the center of the gavel is ironwood from Imperial County. The outside of the base is Fuerte avocado wood from his home county of San Diego.

As a careful wood worker and intent on the seriousness of his task, Eddy left a diagram showing the placement of each gift of wood and where it was from.

Each of California’s 58 counties supplied a bit of wood to go into this one-of-a-kind gavel, strike block and its container. Chuck Leonhardt found its history interesting and decided to share it with others. Photo by Victoria Metcalf

Other counties giving wood pieces were Kings with valley oak, Fresno with manzanita, Sutter with paradox walnut, Ventura with California live oak and Glenn with more manzanita.

Placer County also gave live oak; cedar came from Alpine; madrone from Marin; mountain ash from Madera; live, cherry and Osage orange from San Joaquin; manzanita from Alameda and more black walnut from Contra Costa County.

Sierra County gave black oak, cedar from Tuolumne, eucalyptus from San Francisco, prune wood from Santa Clara, black locust and tan bark oak from Trinity.

Napa and San Mateo counties gave live oak, Merced gave almond and Yolo sent black walnut. Butte and Sonoma counties gave more manzanita, San Bernardino sent ironwood, Siskiyou sent Port Orford cedar, and Lake contributed Bartlett pear.

Shasta sent manzanita, Stanislaus sent valley oak, Inyo sent mountain mahogany, Amador gave live oak and Mono County also gave mountain mahogany.

Colusa County contributed valley oak, Tehama gave olive wood, Tulare sent manzanita, Calaveras gave Sequoia and San Benito sent cedar. Modoc County was very original with its offering of Modoc native red juniper. Mariposa sent Ponderosa pine.

In an installation program for the next CAA chairman in 1940, Eddy presented a speech, including an explanation of his task as well as the new gavel to the next officer.

The five unrepresented counties — El Dorado, Mendocino, Nevada, San Luis Obispo and Solano — were finally included. It was San Luis Obispo County Assessor Tom Bordonaro Jr. who collected the unnamed varieties of wood from each. El Dorado County Assessor Karl Weiland built the case for the gavel and its strike plate. It was presented that year to Placer County Assessor Kristen Spears at the annual conference in Monterey.

About its use

As Leonhardt settles into his first month as CAA president, he said that it would be a difficult task to fly and take along the gavel — it could be considered a weapon.

He hasn’t used the gavel in his short term, and unless he drives to the next meeting, he probably won’t.

Leonhardt said that given the gavel’s unique history it should be in the state museum. Between the gavel and the container it does represent a piece of California’s history. And there won’t be another one like it.

Click here to submit a letter to the editor about this post.