Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Gold Country Memories of Huell Howser

Good morning. Tina here. My sisters and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Huell Howser this past Sunday.  We enjoyed his shows, especially those of the Gold Country.  He had visited Placerville several times, and several of my friends met him.  I spoke to several people yesterday and they shared memories of Huell with me.  As the saying goes, to know him was to love him.

My friend Kay Murdock is a member of the El Dorado Historical Society, and is in charge of procuring volunteers for the El Dorado County Museum and the Fountain Tallman Museum.  She first met Huell at the County Museum, and shared this memory.

Kay and Mary Cory, County Museum Director, were waiting for Huell at the County Museum.  He and his crew were running late, and finally arrived at 2:00 pm. Huell had not had lunch and was very hungry.  After filming Kay and Mary took Huell and his crew to The Hoosegow, a nearby restaurant on Ray Lawyer Drive.  Kay says the owner was thrilled to see Huell!  Did I mention that Huell was hungry? He was famished. The owner, famous for his chili, and winner of several chili cook-offs, generously let Huell sample a least three different chilis. Everyone enjoyed the lunch, and Huell left full and happy.  About a year later, Kay and her daughter Cheryl returned to the Hoosegow for a meal and Kay asked the owner if he remembered when Huell had visited.  He said not only did he remember, but that after the show had aired, he had over five hundred customers who came to the restaurant because they had seen it on the show.

Kay tells me that Huell was here in the Placerville area at least three times, once serving as a waiter at a banquet fundraiser in Coloma. She said he loved it here. Kay said Huell was enthusiastic about everything and enjoyed walking downtown Main Street in Placerville talking to people as he passed by.  He was interested in stories about ghosts on Main Street.  Huell sent her VCR copies of his shows after they were produced. She said if a person saw his show and thought he was phony, all you had to do was meet him, and you would know, he was not phony, he was completely natural and exuberant about everything, it was not an act.  And she added: He liked to eat!

Above and below are shots of the miners' chili from Huell's show as he visited Coloma.

Below, Huell chats with Mary Cory beside an original Studebaker wheelbarrow at the County Museum.
Mary was generous enough to share her experience with Huell.

Huell Howser and his camera man came to Placerville in August of 2002 to do a show called "Road Trip to Placerville."   After finishing his filming at the Museum, he asked me to take him downtown.  We went to the Fountain Tallman Museum where he interviewed Phyllis Rupley Snyder, we went to Placerville Hardware, where he enthusiastically repeated "the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi!" and then I delivered him to Pat Cook at Gold Bug Park.  What so impressed me was Huell's genuine interest in meeting and talking to people.  He took the time to interrupt what he was filming to stop and speak to strangers on the street who came up to him.  When he spoke to you it was with his full and undivided attention, and you felt like he was really listening!  He came back in 2010 to film a segment on the Studebaker Wheelbarrow Races during the County Fair, and wanted to do a piece with me and the Studebaker Wheelbarrow at the County Museum.  It was a hectic, hot day, but when Huell began filming, after giving me a bit of direction (where to stand, what kind of questions he was going to ask, etc) I felt at ease and tried to answer his questions as best as I could, because he really seemed to care about the history of this wheelbarrow, the County Museum, and those of us who work there.  By doing these films, he also provided great publicity for us.  Every time the shows air, we get visitors who tell us they saw the show and had to come visit.  Huell Howser has done a great service to California tourism, and has done it in such a charming and personable manner that it can't be beat!.
Mary Cory

El Dorado County Historical Museum

When I have volunteered at the County Museum, I have been lucky enough to work with my friend Bob Gatlin, shown above with Huell.  When I spoke with Bob yesterday he was enthusiastic about Huell.  His first comment was that Huell was a very, very BIG man.  He said when he threw his arm around his shoulder his hand was as big as his head. (Check above, I think he is right!) Bob had been trying to meet Huell for a million years. Bob and Huell had walked up to the museum together, and then Bob went to work. Later when Huell saw him again he said "Where have you been?" just like he would to a good friend.  He was one really happy, friendly man. As our conversation ended Bob added, be sure to say I said he was a "very, very, very FINE man."

The photo above shows Huell speaking with Ed Allen, El Dorado Historical Society Member, and volunteer in Coloma at the Gold Discovery State Park.  Ed portrays James Marshall, discoverer of gold.  I spoke to Ed last night and he shared the story of his meeting Huell at the El Dorado County Fair.  Ed had gone to the fair with his wife and was walking around enjoying talking to people in his James Marshall persona.  He ran into his brother and his family.  Unbeknownst to Ed, Huell was at the fair looking for him, to interview him as James Marshall. Just as Ed met up with his family, here comes Huell, upon spying Ed's trademark straw hat, exclaiming in his great Tennessee accent "There he is!" Ed's niece and nephew were thrilled ( his niece actually kept a photo of Huell next to her bed, and his nephew said he had planned to wear his Huell Howser T Shirt but it was in the wash).  Ed says all present had a good time.  Later Ed spoke to Historical Society members and found out that Huell had come to Placerville a day early and stayed at the Carey House on Main Street. He came early so that he could talk to Marilyn Ferguson at the Fountain Tallman Museum.  Huell spent two hours at the museum with Marilyn, calling people he had met and become friends with during earlier visits to Placerville.  Ed says Huell remembered people and liked to stay in touch.

Above is an old photo of the building which houses the El Dorado County Historical Society's Fountain Tallman Museum on Main Street, Placerville.  My friend Phyllis Snyder, a lovely lady ninety-seven years young with deep pioneer roots in El Dorado County, met Huell here at the museum, and was happy to talk about him when I called her yesterday. Phyllis says Huell was very much like he was on TV.  He liked everyone he met and was interested in everything and was a pleasure to go around with anytime you had a place to go. Phyllis said he loved anything scary and would go right in (while Phyllis would back out and wait - for example, at Gold Bug Mine).  He liked to take chances.  Phyllis told me she considered Huell her friend, and that he sent her things in the mail, and he never forgot a promise. "I was really kind of shocked to hear that he died. He was always so well and so willing and so ready to try everything. I knew him, and I thought he was fine."

Above is a photo of another good friend, Marilyn Ferguson, standing in front of the Fountain Tallman Museum. Marilyn was fortunate enough to meet Huell a couple of times and said he really didn't change much, except for his hair turning gray, always looked healthy, and was really unique. Marilyn shared a story about when Huell was visiting at the museum, and four ladies came in to tour the museum. They spotted Huell, and she said it was as if they had practiced the whole response: together the four ladies each threw up their hands in unison, let out a yell, and ran over and hugged him, just like they had just discovered a long-lost family member.

Marilyn's other tale was about her daughter Janie and her husband.  Janie was just mad for Huell Howser, and always said she wanted to marry him.  Huell was in Davis, and Janie went to meet him, taking along her "That's Amazing!" Tshirt, and hoping to get an autograph. She met Huell and told him how she wanted to marry him, and that her husband told her it was okay, and asked for his autograph on her Tshirt.  She is now the proud owner of a Tshirt signed by Huell, and asking "Janie, will you marry me?"

Finally, I am going to end with my friend Denise's tale of meeting Huell a few years ago when he was in town to film the El Dorado County Fair.  Denise and her cousin Kathy were downtown on Main Street near the Bell Tower and had just come out of a bead store located next to the Placerville Newsstand.  Denise saw a man standing behind Kathy wearing a "Charlie Sheen-type" bowling shirt.  She said to Kathy: "That's Huell Howser!" Kathy said "No, it's not". The man turned, and said "Oh yes it is!" in his unmistakable Tennessee accent.  He was very friendly and they stopped and talked.  Denise told Huell that her Mom had always been a fan, and had always wanted a giant hug because of Huell's big strong arms. She was so enthusiastic about Huell that she made Denise a big fan too. Denise's Mom had passed away and Denise asked if she could have a hug for her mom, smiling down at him from heaven. So he gave Denise a big hug.  Denise says all of Main Street was excited... Huell Howser is in town!

Thanks to Huell Howser's love of California, and his many television shows produced for Public Television, we will be able to visit with him for many years to come.  He was an incredible boon to California and one of our very best ambassadors. He will be greatly missed.  I hope that he is right now giving Denise's mom that giant hug she always wanted in heaven.


Terry FitzGerald Swayne said...

I met Huell at a CA state PTA convention in the early 90's. He was as warm and genuine away from the cameras as he was on Tv. When I told him that I'd grown up in Placerville, he asked a multitude of questions about likely places to show on California's Gold. California has lost a great advocate and a truly special man.

Heidi@TheMerryMagpieVintage said...

I've never heard of Mr. Howell before but after reading all of these fantastic stories about him, I think I need to search him out! He sounds like a truly wonderful person!

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Heidi Ann said...

This made me cry, Tina - what a wonderful post and such a nice tribute to the man we all felt like we knew - even if we had never had the pleasure of meeting him! He will surely be missed, but I truly AM glad we will still be able to see his great programs on PBS.

Jim J;O) said...

My wife and I loved Huell Howser and faithfully watched his shows from the beginning—repeatedly. It was impossible to get enough of Huell. What a loving, good, pleasant, and altogether fun man, enjoying everything and everybody. PBS continues to air his shows and we continue to save and enjoy them. We would have loved to have met the man. We’re saddened over his passing. Huell was a member of our family—I’d guess a member of millions of families. It feels good just knowing Huell Howser-type folk are among us.

I don’t remember seeing Mrs. Rupley Snyder being interviewed, nor Marilyn Ferguson. Did they make the show? No matter, I’m sure they were delighted having Huell interview them, interested in them, attentive when they spoke, enjoying them, and letting them full-well know it.

“Huell Howser has done a great service to California tourism, and has done it in such a charming and personable manner that it can't be beat!.” ~Mary Coray [Oh so true!]

yosemite faith said...

loved his shows - he did some great ones from yosemite also.....a huge loss.

Paul Duca said...

Is there anyone in California, or from California, who didn't love Huell Howser? I can't swing a dead cat online without hitting a tribute.