Napa Insider
The Great Wheel Turns No More
California’s budget calamity has grown so vast in its scope and toxic in its effects that you may find it hard to spare a tear for the closing of an obscure state park in Calistoga. But when I visited the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park in mid-July, I found myself gripped by a pang of sorrow at the thought that beginning this month, the mill’s imposing 19th-century waterwheel will turn no more. Worse, according to Eric Gerhardt, an interpretive specialist for the California Department of Parks and Recreation (who’s been the Bale’s miller for the past five years), once the old mill has gone for a couple months without its regular weekly operation and maintenance, it may be impossible to restart the mechanism without major, costly repairs.

And that’s truly a shame for more than one reason. First, a weekend trip to the mill has long been one of my favorite Napa Valley activities. Even the most history-averse among us couldn’t fail to feel a certain thrilling sensation when Gerhardt pulled the lever that set the 36-foot wheel in motion. The whole of the 1840s building would vibrate slightly as the wheel rumbled through its revolutions, water cascading from its wooden buckets while the gears and grindstones inside the mill turned with astonishing precision to transform wheat berries into flour or corn kernels into meal. You could even take the products home with you: whole wheat bread and pastry flours, spelt flour, cornmeal and polenta, packaged in brown bags with the slogan “The Great Wheel Turns Again: 1846-1988.” The latter date commemorates the Bale Mill’s return to operation, after years of fund-raising and renovation, for the first time since it shut down in 1905; it’s hard not to wonder whether, if it closes again this month as scheduled, the mill will remain disused for the better part of yet another century.

Another reason I’m sorry to see the park shut down is that, thanks to Gerhardt and his extensive research into the remarkable stories of mill founder Dr. Edward Turner Bale and his wife Maria Soberanes Bale, a visit there offers not only a rare and intimate view of life in pre-statehood California, but also a lesson in how one determined woman became a successful entrepreneur after her husband abandoned her and their six children to seek his fortune in the gold fields.

To hear Gerhardt tell it, Dr. Bale was a double-dyed scalawag, a smooth-talking fabulist who was tossed off his ship in Monterey Bay and came ashore claiming to be the sole survivor of a wreck. He won the hand of Maria Soberanes, a niece of the powerful Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, and brought her north to Napa Valley where, in 1846, he established both the grist mill and a sawmill before catching gold fever and leaving his family in 1848.

Bale returned the following year, mortally ill and expecting to be taken in; Maria wouldn’t let him back under her roof, and he ended his days in a lean-to, expiring after writing a retributive will that saddled his widow with all his debts. The formidable Maria, whom Gerhardt credits with originating California’s first prenuptial agreement when her daughter Caroline married Charles Krug, turned her fortunes around with the help of a hired millwright—who, among other improvements, enlarged the original 20-foot wheel to its present 36-foot diameter—and, of course, the subjugated members of local native communities, who were little more than slaves in the Mexican colonial era.

So although the mill is named for its male founder, who only spent a couple of years there, Gerhardt believes the park should really honor the woman who made the operation a success—not single-handedly, but without a husband by her side at a time when men held all the power. It’s a tale that should be told more often. But instead, unless a budgetary miracle occurs, Maria Soberanes Bale and the mill that bears her married name will again fade into the shadows of history.

When Maria Soberanes Bale was forced to support her family on her own, she had one book to guide her: The Young Mill-wright and Millers’ Guide, a 1777 manual that covered everything there was to know about operating an automated grist mill. The rest—including that Krug prenup, which doubtless arose from her own bitter experience—she had to figure out on her own.

Today’s young women, on the other hand, can choose from a vast array of self-help books on personal finance. The newest, So Many Shoes, So Little Money: A Girl’s Guide to Finance by Napa author Lisa Serwin, cleverly avoids the first-person-anecdote approach that characterizes so many of these volumes. Nor does she lecture and condescend in the manner of Suze Orman. Instead, Serwin—who left her job as CFO for San Francisco’s PlumpJack Hospitality Group to write her book—decided to have a good time with her topic, using fashion and shopping to explain the basics of managing money.

“Learning about finance doesn’t have to suck,” says Serwin, a youthful 42-year-old who holds an MBA from Loyola Marymount and a bachelor’s in finance from UCLA. “It can be fun; it doesn’t have to be brutal.” Serwin’s chapters liken debit cards to jeans and T-shirts (“What You Just Can’t Live Without”) and credit cards to that little black dress (“Only on Special Occasions”). Debt, Serwin writes, “is worse than wearing something you really regretted…and having the pictures to prove it.”

Released in July through BookSurge, the publishing arm of Amazon.com, the book is great for a young woman starting out on her own—and at least one 40-something, divorcing Napa Insider is reading it avidly in preparation for her return to the single life. The book is already selling well enough that Serwin has begun work on a sequel: So Many Shoes, So Few Investments. If all goes well, she has a winning franchise ahead of her. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll go back and be a CFO again,” she says. Either way, Serwin has made a valuable contribution to the field of personal finance.