A Landscape Full of Stories > Gene Covert
“There’s not a person that I know that isn’t in one way or another an artist, or who could be. You know, I encourage everybody to go pick up a camera, a paintbrush, a pen, whatever. Because it will surprise you what you can do.”
An Excerpt from the Interview
Hank Meals: You appear to have always had a taste for politics. What was your first political involvement here on the Ridge?
Gene Covert: Right, here on the Ridge, that’s the only taste of politics I’ve ever had actually. I used to deliver newspapers and was a great reader and was very interested in current events. And I’m not sure exactly how it came about. I believe because I was a carpenter, I was appointed by the chairman of the board of supervisors, Will Kern, to sit on a committee – the K housing committee. Well, you’ve got to go back a little bit before that. I was actually on the San Juan Ridge County Water District board of directors for about six months until I was elected as a county supervisor in ’76. Yeah, so in ’75 I was on the water board and sometime in ’75 was appointed to the K housing committee.
Hank Meals: Okay, and how long did that last, that appointment?
Gene Covert: That lasted just until I declared I was going to run for supervisor. And I did. I’m not sure why I did. Actually, I am quite sure why I did that. I was inspired actually by many of the newcomers to the Ridge, Gary Snyder, Dachtler, Sanfield, Dardick. These folks who had come back to the land and were searching for ways to live a different life than the suburbs or the cities offered.
Hank Meals: So they convinced you to…
Gene Covert: No, no. They did not convince me. I was inspired by the environmental message that all of those gentlemen and ladies, the many folks here, who made the environment a top priority. And I was inspired by them to join the fray, so to speak.
Hank Meals: What were the years you were a supervisor?
Gene Covert: That was from 1977 through ’81. [Editor’s note: The election took place in 1976 and Covert began serving in 1977.]
Hank Meals: What were the major issues in that era?
Gene Covert: The major issue was development, but there were others that were equally important to the communities, one of which was steel leghold traps. That was on the agenda. And actually, that was resolved and they were banned here in this county. Open range, which had become very difficult to manage, was ended here in Nevada County except perhaps in the high country.
Hank Meals: Do you think that’s because land that was formally open was now being sold and people were holding on to it?
Gene Covert: Oh, sure. The correlation was obvious. In the old days it worked. It worked because there weren’t that many people. But as more and more people come to the area, things changed. And you know, in that regard, I think of the old timers. When we moved here, when my folks moved here, there was a very strong and vibrant community of old-timers. And the Catholic church, the Methodist church, the teen club, the fire department, all of these things were social centers. They used to have talent shows. They had a teen club. I mean, it was really a vibrant place. And then when I came back in ’72 to actually live here on a continuous basis, there were suddenly just a whole new community made up of the old and the new. But as time went along, the folks who came here learned from the folks who were here how to do certain things, how to live here basically, and the old-timers benefited from the new ideas and fresh energy of the newcomers – the hippies.
Gene Covert: The K housing committee lead to actually just some amazing, beautiful board of supervisors meetings in which there was spirited dialogue – raucous actually is the word I used many times. But there was a real exchange of ideas and the upshot of the K housing committee was that we all began to know each other better. What the K housing people wanted was the ability to have outhouses to have a less rigid examination by the public of how they built their houses. That actually didn’t go very far. I mean, there was a state hearing at one point and they did change some minor chapter of the uniform building code or added an article that did allow for I believe — “engineered septic systems” is basically what it was, a way to handle that issue of environmental health. Sanitation. When Priscilla and I bought this old place in 1975, it was the state sanitarian who approved the septic systems then. Armstrong was his name, a very nice guy. The K housing people wanted to have outhouses, they wanted to build their outhouses without interference from government and probably many of their demands were simply… I know this for a fact, they were not acceptable to the main community, or to the general community.
But here’s what happened, really. The attitude of the building department and the county government changed. There was a chapter, or there was an article in the uniform building code — I think it’s article 106 — that allows the chief building inspector to use his discretion in approving buildings for occupation. That had not been used much in the past, and I don’t think it’s used much now. But I do know that the chief building inspector during those days, Chuck Cohen — a really fine man who was an enemy, a sworn enemy of K housing to start with — in the end, he came out to this community and okayed any number of buildings for occupancy. He used common sense. So the real value of the K housing is that it got the two sides talking. That’s my view of it.
Hank Meals: As I recall in the beginning, part of the problem was we would just go ahead and build houses and then try to get them grandfathered in, and the community that was here was not interested in breaking laws like that and there was a kind of resentment about it.
Gene Covert: Right, but on the other hand, many, many, many of these same people did exactly the same thing. They built and then if it snuck by long enough, the assessor would come out and reassess. But the permit process was kind of avoided, or people misrepresented what the building was actually to be. I know that that happened many times, not just hippies but by the community at large. So I guess it just depends on who can get away with what.
Hank Meals: Another aspect of it, and probably something that Mr. Cohen discovered is there were some very innovative designs and some very beautiful, creative houses being built.
Gene Covert: Yes, and that is why he changed his mind. There are examples all over the Ridge of beautiful homes, and one that to me is the most beautiful of all is Killigrew’s old shacks, the mining shacks put together and worked on through the years to create a beautiful, beautiful homestead.
Hank Meals: A mining shack with multiple wings.
Gene Covert: Yes, he never stopped. And then also, I don’t know the names of all of the people who have these beautiful homes, but I have been in some of them and they are not only beautiful, they’re efficient and they’re safe.