Joseph Russ was typical of a number of California pioneers--resourceful, energetic, committed to putting down roots in a new land and determined that his family would multiply. Zipporah Patrick was made of strong stuff, too. As a teenager in 1852, she crossed the plains in a covered wagon with her family. They met, were married and before long settled above Bear River Valley, on the Humboldt County coast where ranching life was anything but easy.
Joseph had operated a family-owned a sawmill in Appleton, Maine when news of the discovery of gold in California made its way around the world. He had the frame for a small building cut and, with a stock of merchandise, shipped himself and the building and gear to San Francisco on the bark “Midas,” by way of Cape Horn. He arrived on March 15, 1850 and quickly discovered that nearly everyone was heading for “the diggings.” He sold the building and merchandise and went to the gold fields. Instead of digging, however, he operated a sawmill, then filled contracts to build bridges.
Later that year he moved to Volcano and opened a general store for a season. He said later, “We did an excellent credit business and left the profits on the books where they still remain!” He went north to Placerville, purchased a herd of cattle, drove them to Yuba City and sold them at a profit. The next year he was busy selling hay and seed and shipping orders between Colusa and Shasta in the Sacramento Valley.
In Fall, 1852, Joseph purchased approximately 100 cattle in Placerville and, with two hired vaqueros, drove them over the Coast Range to Humboldt County, selling them in Eureka to settlers and the Army at Fort Humboldt. The next spring he filed a claim and built a log cabin just east of Centerville (not far from where Fern Cottage stands). He and a partner, Berry Adams, then went to Sacramento to purchase a large herd of cattle to drive back to Humboldt. There, he met the Nehemiah Patrick family, including daughter Zipporah, who had just arrived from Pennsylvania (via a sojourn in Illinois). He persuaded them to move to the Ferndale area. About the same time, he and Adams drove their herd to the Bear River hills and opened a meat market in Eureka.
Joseph and Zipporah were married December 17, 1854. She was 16. He was 29. In the mid-1850s, they began to buy ranch land, ultimately owning more than 50,000 acres of it. Nearly all the ranches are still owned and operated by their descendants.
By the mid-1860s the family included five children. The Bear River area was a remote place from which to manage the expanding Russ enterprises (over time, timber and lumber, an abattoir, several meat markets, a bank, ships and The Brick Store, a dry goods emporium). They looked for a site outside the young town of Ferndale. One day, riding along the high ground above the Eel River delta, west of Ferndale, they came to a spot where Zipporah said, “Here is where I would like to have a house.” And this is where Fern Cottage has stood since 1866.
In 1876, the Russ’s first ship, a three-masted schooner, “Mary E. Russ,” left for Honolulu with a load of Russ redwood. In 1881, the “Maggie E. Russ” and the “Joseph Russ” joined the family lumber-shipping business. Early schools in growing San Diego County were built with Russ lumber.
Joseph Russ, a Republican, was elected to the state Assembly and served three terms, 1871-72 and 1882-86. He was serving at the time of his death, October 8, 1886.
The Russes had 13 children in all. Zipporah Russ died on November 10 1929. During her 43-year widowhood she donated in her husband’s memory a large grove of redwoods to the Save the Redwoods League and the acreage for a wilderness park, Russ Park, to the City of Ferndale.
From the front, it looks like a simple cottage, but from the side it seems to go on and on. Both view are correct. Originally, it consisted of the front portion, with duplicate wings being added as the family grew.
This was not a mansion, but a ranch family’s roomy working home. Joseph conducted his many business activities from here (as did his family after his death), the children went to school, played and grew here. Fern Cottage also was the center of a dairy farm. Across the street were barns, stables and living quarters for ranch hands.
All the furniture and furnishings you will see at Fern Cottage are original to the house and the family, but not of the same period. The overall feeling is that of a home of the 1870s, but as the family grew and some moved on, styles changed. New pieces of furniture were added (including several fine ones from the Arts & Crafts Movement period), new pictures were hung, wallpaper and color schemes in some rooms were changed. While new gadgets were added to the kitchen from time to time, cooking was always done on a large wood-burning stove. Bertha Russ Lytel, the youngest of Joseph and Zipporah’s children who lived to maturity and who died at age 98 in 1972, cooked on it until near the end of her life.
A tour of Fern Cottage will take you back in time, seven generations to the days when Joseph and Zipporah and their young family filled the house with love and laughter (and, at times, tears).The Trunk Room is where the young children once went to school. Later, as they grew and moved away, they left behind trunks filled with their clothes and other belongings. The trunks are carefully preserved there today, just as they were left, many decades ago.Many of Zipporah’s dresses are on display, as are memorabilia of family members. The laundry room, in full use every day, presents a vivid contrast to today’s labor-saving, compact washer-dryers.
Fern Cottage is one of the few homes in California owned and lived in continuously by the same family for over a century. It stands as a living history lesson to be enjoyed by young and old.