Elmer Walter Murray, a Christmas Eve baby, celebrated a century of Healdsburg living earlier this month with relatives and friends in the St. John’s school auditorium.
An exhibition of his life and times, curated by Gina Riner, was displayed at the Dec. 9 event, along with a few of the red factor canaries Murray raises. Riner was also the driving force behind the party.
Riner met Murray in June 2004 to talk about his house. She had purchased a Craftsman-style bungalow which she declared in public as “85 percent original.” Murray introduced himself to Riner and invited her to his home that was “more original” than hers.
Riner was working on the project "The Enduring Spirit of Healdsburg," along with writer and photographer Vivienne Sosnowski.
They continued their friendship and nurtured others as well, as “Walter’s girls” shared breakfast with him regularly at Adele’s. Grace Colbert is another friend, who came to see Murray’s red factor canaries and has been friends with him since that day.
Friends of all ages
“Walter’s a ‘babe magnet,’” said Mark Williams, another of Murray’s friends. They met about 24 years ago, when Williams was only 27.
“He’s always looking for a girlfriend who is young,” Williams laughed. “The maximum age is 30."
Williams, however, feels house construction ties him most strongly to Murray. They share the love of tools and the knowledge and hard work of building a house from the ground up.
“One of the coolest things with my connection to Walter, is that he drove the first nail in his house and the third nail in mine,” said Williams. The Williams children drove the first two nails.
Walter Murray was just 3 years old when he drove that first nail into the house where he’s still living after 97 years.
“He loves to eat,” Williams said. “All conversations come back to food.
“When Walter’s wife died, about 18 years ago, he introduced me as his best friend,” said Williams, who was obviously touched by the words. They met when Williams lived and worked at the Rio Lindo Academy.
As the room filled with chatting people, the line to greet Murray grew longer. A tall rangy man with long hair bellowed, “How many days until hunting season starts?”
Murray stood up to be embraced. One of his private hunt club members had arrived.
“It’s 243 days to hunting season, Walter,” said Kai Laeteri. “And don’t you forget it. I’m going to test you later.
“Walter never called it a hunting club,” Laeteri said. “He called it an eating club,” he commented in an echo of Williams.
“Walter never missed a meal and one time when we had to hunt for a wounded deer, he complained his lunch was late,” said Laeteri.
“But a gentler, kinder man you’ll never meet,” Laeteri continued. “And he’s as honest as the day is long.
“We don’t hunt much anymore, but those were good days,” Laeteri summed it up. Laeteri came down from Alaska, where he is building a house single-handedly, for the party.
He offered an example of Murray’s kindness. One of his longtime friends, Maria Layton, is in a convalescent hospital. For a long time, Murray drove down to Santa Rosa to see her; now, though he no longer drives, he has someone take him to visit Layton every week.
Murray’s caring for Layton was evident on Sunday, when she made a surprise appearance at his party. He got out of his seat immediately and went to her side, affectionately straightening her blouse and gently touching her face.
“He’s a notorious ‘babe hound,’” said Laeteri with a huge laugh. He and Williams were both speakers during the festivities.
Joan Bennett handed Murray a personally-designed card.
“I would see you standing in front of the Sunset Laundry wearing your striped white pants. It seems like yesterday,” she wrote and dated it 1939-1943. Bennett rode the bus from Windsor to attend Healdsburg High School.
Several other women stood in line to speak with him.
“My auntie Eva and uncle Ted owned the Iceberg Restaurant,” said Norma Passarino. “I’ve always had a speaking acquaintance with him since I was a kid.
“My aunt called him ‘Cookie,’ I always wanted to know why,” Passarino said on a laugh.
Fern Naber knew him because her sons did the Healdsburg Tribune route and delivered the paper to Walter at the laundry. Her sons were between six and eight years old.
To work at 6
Murray started his work life when he was just six years old picking prunes. He got the hammer he still uses as a gift, when he was just a 10-year-old child. When he was eight or nine years old, he started raising rabbits when his Aunt Nell sent him a doe.
“My dad built a good-sized, heavy rabbit hutch,” said Murray. “In just a couple of weeks, she had babies. I kept the females and built up a business around them.” He ended up with 200 rabbits.
“I put a sign out on the sidewalk that said ‘rabbits for sale’ and people came to get them. They dressed the rabbits themselves. But after I got my first driver’s license when I was 14 years old, I drove up on Fitch Mountain and took orders for the rabbits.
“I didn’t dress them,” he said. “My dad dressed them and on Saturday mornings I would deliver them. I got 30 cents a pound for live rabbits and 60 cents when they were dressed.”
Around the same time he got the first rabbit, local beekeeper, Edgar Poe, gifted him with a beehive. By the time he was 14 he’d built up to 25 colonies when they were stricken by ‘foul brood disease’ and they all died off.
“I did everything to get rid of the disease,” said Murray. “But I lost all 25 hives.”
Murray sold the honey in small one-pound containers for 15 cents.
“I always had a job—stacking wood into sheds, and for two teachers, I stacked wood and took care of the yard in the summers when I was in grammar school,” he said. “I’m come home from school, change my clothes and shoes and went to work. Every year, before school was out, I would go out and get a job for the summer.
“Another job I did was making boxes in a packing house to ship prunes,” he continued. “We got paid 20 cents per 100 boxes and I averaged 250 boxes an hour. They were made by machine.
“We stopped once in the morning, had an hour for lunch, stopped one in the afternoon then worked until 6 p.m. We’d go back at 7 and work until 9 p.m.,” he said.
They were long days.
“The man who had the boxes made never came to the shop,” he continued. “I had to go to the hotel to get paid.” So, once a week Murray would go to the hotel and get paid in cash. This was during Prohibition. Once while he was collecting his wages, the man answered the phone. The owner was warned there would be a raid by the “revenuers,” so he pulled up two boards in the floor and poured the liquor out. Murray also knew that he paid “protection money” not to get raided. He paid $400.
Murray still raises red factor canaries and ships orders for the birds through the U.S. Postal Service. He makes the shipping boxes himself. During the summer a man wanted to purchase the whole flock. Walter sold him 75 of the birds but kept 30 for himself. It was his version of downsizing.
Family is number one
Though work was one of the defining activities of his life, Murray says his family means everything to him, and family is the first reason he gives for his longevity. His mother and father both lived out their lives in the same Healdsburg Avenue home where Murray still resides.
“My mother’s brother, Roy Nickerson, was the official contractor for this house,” Murray said. “dad worked nights and weekends and mother helped.
“Between them, all they had for tools were a hammer, saw, square and level—no power tools—everything in this house is original,” Murray said with pride. “It has double floors, double walls and a good foundation that was made by hand.
“Just about anything you buy now is put together in a sloppy way,” he said. “In the old days things were built to last a lifetime.”
Both his mother and his father encouraged his entrepreneurial spirit. They also depended upon him to take care of family business and to drive them on outings.
“After I got my first license, when I was 14, I did all the driving after that,” said Murray. “We had picnics in Philo with Fort Bragg relatives on Indian Creek.
“I did the driving,” he continued. “My parents sat in the back seat and my sister always brought a girlfriend. Well, she was my girlfriend, too.”
Murray’s mother taught him early on to do the family business. She would give him his dad’s check to cash and to go pay the bills.
“I’d ride my bike around town, pay the bills and go shopping,” Murray stated. “I’d do the shopping at the Dennes & Haige Store.” (It was the main grocery store and was a couple of blocks south on Healdsburg Avenue. It was also where he bought the rabbit food.)
“My mother, Lillie, taught me to keep a little book on the rabbits,” he said. “I was always independent. My parents would have given me anything, but I liked to make my own money.”
Murray’s mother and father took in several cousins to live with their family for long periods of time. He grandfather also lived with them after his grandmother died.
He had just one sister, Eloyce Murray King, who got married during World War II. Her husband, instead of wanting a home of his own, wanted to live with the Murray family, so they did.
“My mother and dad never charged room and board,” Murray said. “It was always free. Even when my grandfather wanted to pay, my mother said no.”
“We were a close and happy family,” Murray said. “My friends used to rib me about not being married, but I just told them that I hadn’t found someone like my family.”
Murray married late, at 58, and only as his father was dying. When Walter Murray learned that his father was worried about his being along after his father’s death, he went and got a ring for his girlfriend.
He and Helen Stendquist married after that, to put his father’s mind at rest. He and Helen had 22 years together.
The family ties continue. During Murray’s birthday party his cousin talked about those bonds.
“He’s always been special,” said Ethel Murray, 80, who came from Maryland to attend the party. “I come out every year in August for my birthday to see him.”
Ethyl Murray's daughter Maggie Murray attended the party, as well. She got back in contact when she moved to Gilroy recently.
"He's so cute," said Maggie Murray. "His mind is just amazing."
In a follow-up interview at Walter Murray's well-built home on Healdsburg Avenue, Riner talked about Murray.
“Walter is very virtuous,” she said. “He carries the old values, virtues and believes in doing the right thing.”
“I remember when all you had to do to close a deal was to shake hands,” said Murray. “Now it’s all contracts and fine print.
"Walter has lived a simple but rich life," said Riner, who is working on his biography.
“It feels pretty wonderful,” Murray said in response to a question about how it felt to live in the same house for 97 years.
“You know, I have no complaints,” he said. “I’d give my right arm to do it all again.”