By Melissa Wynn
[media-credit id=4 align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit]When we think of a mountain man, we generally picture some gray bearded fellow in a ‘coon skin cap leading a heavily laden jackass through an old western movie scene. Don Sabin, the mountain man that I have come to know, is none of the above. He is quite a character in his own right. Like the mountain man of the movies, Mr. Sabin lives in a remote log cabin built from trees on site. He and his pal Duke fell these trees with hand saws, notched with axes stacked carefully in place, with a home made block and tackle system. Mr. Sabin first laid eyes on his 26.5 acre piece of heaven in May of 1946 while visiting the thriving gold mining community of Seneca, Ca with his new bride Marie. He was immediately taken by the beauty and peace of the area and returned in June from Berkley where he was born and raised. Don bought the property for $5000. “Why vacation in the most beautiful place in the world when you can just Live there?” asked Don Sabin.
That summer Mr. & Mrs. Sabin moved into a primitive two room cabin built in the late 1800s during the gold rush. It still stands today. The privy was an old rickety outhouse in the back. Don soon tapped into the spring that fed water to the Seneca school and installed a shower and two sinks. The potty remained outdoors until he and Marie moved into the knotty pine paneled cabin Don and Duke built 2 years later. The move also meant using the built-in propane lights when times were bountiful. Back to candles and lanterns when times were not. The Sabin cabin windows did not glow with electric light until the 1960s when Don installed a Pelton wheel. This was a hydro-electrical system powered by the stream that bubbled past the back deck. During those dark decades, Don recalls many an all night poker game played by lantern light that no amount of illumination could have improved.
Although Don is currently the only year round resident of Seneca, the early years were busy with neighbors searching for gold. Several placer gold minds dot the hills surrounding Sabin’s retreat. He has witnessed the opening and closing of many of them several times over. Don was never struck by the infamous gold fever even though he did “poke around some and pull a bit of color out of the place.” Don Sabin earned his living as Quarter Master of PG&E’s Camp Caribou which was located eleven miles down the winding, narrow dirt road from his home. There was no truck mounted snow plow back in the day to ease his commute, so Don trudged through in his trusty Jeep with chains on all four tires in the snowy winter months. More than once chains weren’t enough and my rugged, rambunctious friend made the trek on foot in snow shoes. Mr. Sabin was the last Quarter Master to be employed by and retire from PG&E.
Occasionally severe weather forced Don to spend the night at Caribou and his wife Marie, a true mountain lady, would stay alone with the dogs they always kept for protection. Dogs were not the only critters to frequent the Sabin home. Marie found her self face to face with a bear or two just outside the front door! But, like the gentle soul she was, she shot them with a camera, not with a gun. Three naughty raccoons are pictured raiding the cat food dish placed “out of reach” on the kitchen window sill. Perhaps the most special creature to grace the lives of the Sabins was Penny the deer. Orphaned by hunting season, Penny was adopted and bottle raised by Don and Marie. She visited indoors and ate side by side with the dogs throughout her life. Penny’s portrait still hangs on the living room wall.
Don’s entire one bedroom cabin is like a museum of the last 65 years and beyond, the land that time forgot. The wood burning cook stove still sits in the kitchen across from the propane unit in use today. Two old black rotary phones, one in the living room and one in the bedroom, still have a dial tone when you pick them up. Of the phones that kept progressing (but never leaving), my favorite by far is the old battery and magnet powered crank phone that hangs in the hall. These were the first telephones in Seneca and were only used for communication around the neighborhood. There were 18 subscribers to the network, called the brush line, during its operation including the Sabins. Their “number” was 2 short and 1 long on the crank. Other subscribers included The Gin Mill (the local saloon and only surviving business in Seneca), Sunnyside Mine and Larry and Jack Dean. The Dean clan has been connected to Seneca for generations.
Cliff Dean owns a summer home just a few bends in the road away from Sabin’s. He spends as much of the year as weather will allow. Cliff’s grandfather, John Dean was born in Seneca in 1886 and he attended school there during the booming times of the gold rush. Golden dreams, grand adventure and the natural stunning beauty of Seneca took a 20 year old city boy, fresh from WWII, and made him into a mountain man. The allure stood the test of time. At 85, Don Sabin continues to live in the cabin year round.
These days Don’s heir and God Son, Billy Davies, who will one day have the opportunity to continue the legacy, maintains the treacherous, narrow road. He attends to Mr. Sabin’s care, making mountain life less strenuous for Don.
Satellite TV was installed in the 1980s replacing the battery powered radio that used to deliver the news. These progressions into the future came slow and I hope any more come slower still. The charm and nostalgia of his place and the rough-and-tumble mountain man that still twinkles in Mr. Sabin’s ornery blue eyes are living history, simple and perfect, just the way they are. The just don’t make men like Don anymore. The mold was broken long ago. It has been an honor to tell his story.
(click on photos to enlarge)