The Carneros area was once a close-knit rural community. Primarily composed of farming families, its population also included a number of free-spirited souls. These truly unique individuals added extra color to the already rich heritage of the Carneros district. Some of this community’s free-spirits were hermits, or River Rats, as they were known by their neighbors.
A long-time Carneros area resident, the late Stewart “Duke” Duhig, reminisced about some of these River Rats in his book, “Huichica” (whee-chee-kah). According to Duhig, during the late 1800s-early 1900s, the nearby vegetation-dense wetlands provided these recluses with ample privacy for their chosen lifestyle of solitude. Many of these men beached boathouses along the fringes of the marshes and lived off of the once abundant resources of that ecosystem.
One set of River Rats were the Applebys, three brothers from England. In the 1890s, the brothers immigrated to Napa County and purchased 1,000 acres of Carneros land. Their property was located at the end of Milton Road on what is now known as Edgerly Island near the mouth of Huichica creek.
The Applebys had planned to raise rice on their land. They built the necessary levees by hand. When that back-breaking endeavor was done, the levee was more than a mile long. The brothers had also planned to irrigate their rice with slough water. However, they had to modify that plan when they realized the slough was filled with saltwater.
Determined to fulfill their dream, the Applebys brought in a well-drilling rig to tap into the fresh underground water. They drilled by hand for 310 feet before reaching the fresh water. To prevent saltwater contamination, they cased the well. That well became known to the Carneros community as a ready and reliable source of fresh water.
All seemed to be progressing well until the levees were challenged by Mother Nature. Those earthen walls were not high enough to keep out the saltwater intrusion during high tides and floods. Each year the Applebys watched the salty water flood their land and destroy their rice crops. Eventually, the Applebys went broke and the bank foreclosed on the property during the teens of the 20th century.
Although their dream had died, the Appleby brothers remained in the Carneros area. They lived out their lives as River Rats. To sustain themselves, they fished and hunted as well as worked odd jobs at the nearby farms and ranches, such as the Duhig place.
Duhig also wrote about another hermit named Walter “Cap” Hammett. He lived in a beached boathouse near Appleby Bay. He spent many hours scavenging the sloughs, inlets and marshes “salvaging anything of value that floated.” Duhig continued, “When he got a load (aboard his skiff) he would sail into Vallejo and peddle it.”
Hammett also worked during harvests at his neighbors’ farms, such as the Duhigs, when he wanted or needed extra cash. Apparently, during those occasions, Hammett seemed to be the victim of the Duhig children’s mischief, intentional or otherwise.
Duhig related one particularly memorable example. “One time, shortly before 1900, Cap (Hammett) was picking prunes for us. In those days, you always boarded all your farm help. Cap quit picking about 7 o’clock and came down to the house to eat supper. He had also brought with him a large bucket of prunes that he had left out by the gate. My (14 year old) half brother, Louis...had seen the bucket of prunes, so when Cap was eating supper he sneaked out to the gate, dumped out the prunes, nearly filled the bucket with dirt, put a few inches of prunes on the top and waited.”
After finishing his meal and unaware of what had transpired, Hammett picked up his bucket and returned to his houseboat. The next day, a Saturday, with the bucket in hand Hammett sailed off to Vallejo to peddle his assorted wares. After successfully selling the entire load, the purchaser of the prunes wanted to inspect the entire contents of the bucket. Happily the ignorant Hammett dumped out the bucket to reveal Louis’ prank. With that, the would-be customer quickly terminated the sale.
Duhig continued, “Next Monday when he showed up for work, he was mad.” Hammett proceeded to inform Duhig’s father of what had happened and his displeasure of being the victim of the prank. According to Duhig, Hammett also said, “I pretty nigh didn’t ever come back.”
Duhig pointed out, “It never occurred to him he had stolen the prunes in the first place.”
Duhig wrote of another bit of mischief. “I can remember once, my dad, my sister and I were sailing down to Cap’s houseboat in his sailing skiff. We were tacking west on Hudeman Slough, toward Cap’s cut-off slough, and making good progress, when I discovered the centerboard and decided to lift it up and see what happened, Cap said to my dad, ‘Morton, can you make that kid quit doing that?’ That, of course, nullified the tack, as I now know.”
In addition to the River Rats accounts, Duhig filled the 96 pages of his book with other personal memories of the Carneros area.