The Muskrats come home again

Jeff Hansen, left, and Vince Gizdich

Story and photos by LANE WALLACE

When Jeff Hansen and Leland Johnson tour Watsonville, they’re not looking for pretty sights, but the salt-of-the earth working people you’re not going to find in Santa Cruz or Carmel.

Hansen, a former Watsonville restaurateur now living in Florida, made his annual visit home, which included a three-hour tour with stops at a berry and apple ranch that has been in the same family to 81 years, a cigar store that’s been around 104 years, and sites where “I remember the business that was there years ago.”

Hansen, 70, takes his tours with fellow Watsonville native Leland Johnson, 73. It’s been 25 years since Hansen left Watsonville, but it’s like he never left — everywhere we went, he knew everybody. Hansen operated the iconic Wooden Nickel Too and the Beach Street Cafe before leaving for Florida.

Driving a rental car with foreign plates (Texas), Hansen headed for Cutter Drive, just east of the city limits, where he once lived. There are some fancy houses overlooking Kelly Lake, and others without a lake view worth a lot less. Hansen points out the home of Ken Sears, the Watsonville-born basketball star who died in 2017.

“He was the first basketball player on the cover of Sports Illustrated,” Hansen said. Sears was a senior at Santa Clara University then, in 1954, and played eight years in the NBA.

Members of the Royal Order of Muskrats wore caps with muskrat pelts that extended straight out from the bill about a foot, considered beer a soft drink, and sang “Walkin’ in a Wiener Wonderland” at the hot dog stand during their annual Christmas caroling.

Our next stop is Gizdich Ranch, where people can pick their own berries and apples or choose from a list of more than a dozen pie flavors.

The ranch is an actual tourist attraction in Watsonville. Schoolchildren are welcome, and on this day a class of first-graders had come from San José to play around the hay bales, pick berries and eat pie. They probably wouldn’t believe that this slice of country life was the way San José used to be.

Vince Gizdich, who has known Hansen and Johnson for years, told a visiting relative about the Royal Order of Muskrats, the club Hansen and Johnson formed in 1982.

Members wore caps with muskrat pelts that extended straight out from the bill about a foot, considered beer a soft drink, and sang “Walkin’ in a Wiener Wonderland” at the hot dog stand during their annual Christmas caroling.

As we passed a watery area on the way back to town, Johnson said, “I have no egrets. There’s a slew of them.” Johnson and Hansen’s idea of fun is a pun.

Before he left Watsonville, Hansen started a “newspaper” called Cahoots that he still publishes in Hollywood, Fla. He has a few factual articles and a lot of stuff conjured up — just like Fox News. The difference is that Cahoots is funny.

Hansen said Johnson ”had an aversion to deadlines and writing in general,” so he fit right in as co-founder of the paper.

We headed downtown to Jack’s Cigar Store, where Jack Novcich started business in 1914 and was still running the place 65 years later. The original store is gone — the current one is a short distance away  — but it’s still in the family. Novenka Radich, a niece of Novcich, now owns the business with her husband, Zarko.

Zarko Radich, considered a newcomer to Watsonville (he arrived in 1980), warmly greets his visitors and accepts a pie that Johnson bought for him at Gizdich Ranch.

Johnson and Hansen toured the downtown last year, so they decide to cross the Pajaro River bridge into Monterey County to the village of Pajaro, the forgotten stepchild of Watsonville.

The “gateway” to Pajaro is an abandoned, fenced-off building that once held a bar and a TV repair store — there’s still a big sign for VCR repair. Between the fence and the building is an old mattress, but it doesn’t appear anybody is calling it home. As we walk around Pajaro (it doesn’t take long) it seems there are more car-repair and tire shops than cars.

On Porter Drive, an elderly man motions for us to come into a small store, but we decline and keep walking. When we come back 15 minutes later, the man is stretched out on a blanket on the sidewalk, drinking a soda.

We passed several empty store fronts, including the barber shop operated by the Yagi brothers (the barber chairs are still there).

Next door, Johnson and Hansen reminisced about the ones that got away as they passed the now-closed bait and tackle shop, also operated by the Yagi family.

It seemed we might have to dodge traffic on Brooklyn Street in Pajaro, but Hansen said, “Naw, the Dodgers left Brooklyn 61 years ago.”

Our last stop is Hector’s Panaderia on Airport Boulevard. We arrive to see the sign out front says “Fidel’s,” and we wonder what happened to Hector. We walk in to find that nothing happened to Hector — he’s still behind the counter. The business is now run by his son Fidel.

It’s getting toward mid-afternoon, so Hansen buys a couple of burritos to eat later. Neither he nor Johnson spent a cent all day at a chain store or restaurant.

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Lane Wallace

About Lane Wallace

Lane Wallace is a former reporter for the Register-Pajaronian in Watsonville and the Monterey Herald.