History of the Hill House Inn
Local History: Mendocino in the Beginning
The Mendocino area is known for its natural beauty and for the flavor of a bygone era when the town was filled to the brim with loggers and mill workers. Although the Hill House Inn was built as recently as 1978, it and the land and the town reflect the colorful legacy of its early settlers.
Pomo Indians were native to this area and lived near the mouth of Big River. The earliest known European references to the area were by the Spanish in their plate galleons who sailed from Manilla bound for Spain by way of Acapulco.
In 1850, the square-rigged, two-masted cargo ship, Frolic, ran aground on the rocks about three miles north of Mendocino near where Point Cabrillo Lighthouse now stands. The ship was a China opium trader bound from China to the Gold Rush boomtown of San Francisco. It was loaded with a valuable cargo of Chinese trade goods since it was the “off season” for the opium trade.
Word of the shipwreck reached San Francisco by way of the ship’s survivors and Jerome B. Ford, co-owner of a sawmill in Bodega Bay, traveled north to salvage what he could of the cargo. He found that the Pomo Indians had already made off with, and were using, much of the silk, china and other goods.
Ford soon realized that even though he had not found the treasure he sought, he had found treasure of another kind—the magnificent Coast Redwood Trees.
On July 19, 1852, five men who—along with Ford—were the founders of the Mendocino Lumber Company arrived from San Francisco with workmen and a prefabricated mill on the brig Ontario. That was the beginning of the town of Mendocino.
Thanks to the redwood used in Mendocino’s buildings, many of the structures built in the 1860s and 1870s still stand and are still lived in, so the influence of those early pioneers is still evident today. The buildings were built with care and built to last.
The Hills Brothers
The Hill House Inn and its Spencer’s Lounge are named for Joel Fisher Hills and his younger brother Spencer. Joel Hills was one of the first non-lumbermen to settle here. He came to Mendocino in the mid-1800s—probably in 1853 or 1854. In 1856, he established a store independent of the mill-owned store, and was the first to do so. His business was so successful that he was able to build a larger structure on Main Street, living in the upper story and using the lower story for his store—as was the practice in those days.
After building and operating his two stores, Joel Hills purchased a claim for a large block of property north of Ukiah Street and east of Lansing Street from E.C. Williams. Williams was one of the men who came to Mendocino on the Ontario and who was one of the original owners of the mill. The Hill House Inn is located on part of that property. Hills raised cattle and sold meat in his store. In 1877, Joel Fisher Hills sold out his Mendocino holdings to his brother, Spencer Walcott Hills, and moved to San Diego.
Spencer W. Hills and his wife, Aseneth, came to Mendocino from Union, Maine, in 1859. They purchased a small cottage that had probably been built in 1855 by E.C. Williams. Williams also built several other houses in Mendocino including the Ford House that still stands on Main Street. Hills enlarged the house in 1880 by adding the east wing and a porch across the front. The house still stands just 200 yards south of the Hill House Inn, down the slope and on Little Lake Road. The porch was extended in 1971. The house has been beautifully restored.
In 1878, the Hills’ 20 year-old daughter, Alice, married Joshua Grindle, who was 14 years her senior. Spencer Hills gave them the plot of land to the east of his house, and Joshua Grindle began construction of a home for himself and Alice in 1879. That house, too, still stands. It is now the Joshua Grindle Inn.
The original property, known as the “Hills estate ranch”, consisted of 320 acres. Hills owned and operated the property until his death on July 1, 1909. On August 14, 1909 the Mendocino Beacon ran a notice that the S.W. Hills’ estate was “appraised at from 16 to 18 thousand dollars.” After the death of Aseneth on August 24, 1909, long time Mendocino resident, Robert Law purchased the land and it became a dairy farm. The small, white building that faces the Hill House entrance was once the old horse stable.
After Robert Law’s death, his daughter, Jean Law Grant, (later Rice) sold the property in 1964 to William C. Dill and Erwine H. Miehle who subdivided it. Barbara and Monte Reed, long-time residents of Mendocino, purchased part of the subdivision and built the Hill House Inn in 1978. They owned and operated the Reed Manor of Mendocino until their retirement in 2006.
This essay is by Wilma Tucker of the Kelley House Museum in February 2000.