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A Weekend in Ferndale, California

This North Coast village has it all, from a flying saucer to Butterfat Palaces.

Via Contributors
Ferndale's Gingerbread Mansion
Photo caption
The Gingerbread Mansion, an 1889 Queen Victorian, dishes up deluxe rooms.

Anyone who has ever set foot in Ferndale, Calif., will tell you about the wealth of Victorian architecture in a village of 1,400 souls near the rugged Lost Coast, about 250 miles north of San Francisco. What they don't usually mention are the vampires and the flying saucer.

The vampires, of course, aren't real. With redwood-dense mountains at its back, this town of pioneer cemeteries and gingerbready houses looks so peaceful and bucolic that filmmakers can't resist menacing it with horrors like bloodsucking ghouls (Salem's Lot) and deadly viruses (Outbreak).

As for the flying saucer, well, it's real enough. Every Memorial Day weekend, Ferndale hosts the finish of the kinetic sculpture race, a three day marathon of human-powered vehicles along roads, over sand dunes, and across water. You'll find examples of these wacky creations—including the flying saucer and a monster-size rubber ducky—in the Ferndale Art & Cultural Center.

Motorless, zany contraptions take off from Arcata, Calif., on May 24 for the 42-mile, multiterrain Kinetic Grand Championship race. Join cheering crowds at the finish line in Ferndale on May 26. (707) 733-3841,

Before grisly movies and wild rides, Ferndale grew fat on cream and butter. In the 1870s, roughly two decades after a pair of brothers first laid claim to the area, dairy-farming Danes arrived and set their cows loose on the rich Eel River delta pastureland still found here today. By 1890, the town had 11 creameries churning some of the state's finest butter, and Ferndale was known as Cream City. Wealthy dairymen built themselves "Butterfat Palaces." Nowadays a handful of their opulent homes are period-furnished, Wi-Fi–equipped inns.

So many of those Victorians survived that the entire one-square-mile town and its Main Street are listed as state and national landmarks respectively. In the 1970s a local woman, Viola Russ McBride, bought a passel of the town's ornate commercial buildings, rented them cheaply to artists, and promoted their restoration. "Viola is the patron saint of Ferndale," says Joe Koches, who was one of those artists. At age 70 he still labors at his coal-fired forge in the Blacksmith Shop, which carries hand wrought items ranging from drawer pulls to a $40,000 set of Maya-themed light fixtures by a top California smithy.

Joe Koches works the forge at the Blacksmith Shop. 455 and 491 Main St., (707) 786-4216,

Nearby, the creaky-floored Golden Gait Mercantile sells everything from an antique clothes-washing stand to soaps and hats. Sweetness & Light offers handmade candies, including the signature Mooo Bar, a chocolate-covered confection of caramel, toasted almonds, and homemade marshmallow. Golden Bee Candle works features some 150 styles of candles made with beeswax from the owners' own hives. At Jackie Jett's dollhouse-size shop, you can pick up a jar of her Humboldt County Fair blue-ribbon jam.

Head to Curley's Grill for steaks, pasta, and fresh fish or to La Petite Maison for curry chicken salad, seasonal bistro dishes, and a Saturday night dinner that might include tender rack of lamb with goat cheese polenta.

In quiet backstreets, rhododendrons put on a spectacular display around May. Another show, of the grandma's-attic variety, can be seen at the Ferndale Museum. Exhibits include a cross section of a 1,237-year-old redwood tree and a 1953 photo of "the world's tallest cake," a 15-tier creation made with 300 pounds of butter and served to 10,500 people at the fairgrounds.

Ferndale's most recent motion picture appearance was in The Majestic (2001), in which the residents of a small town mistake an amnesiac writer (portrayed by Jim Carrey) for a long lost resident. In a bit of typecasting, Ferndale played the role of a friendly, slightly quirky hamlet with genuine heart, the kind of place you think doesn't exist anymore. Except it does.

Photography by David H. Collier

This article was first published in May 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.