Ever since I was a kid, my family and I have stayed in a friend’s cabin in the small town of Mendocino, California. The cabin is antiquated and somehow frozen in time, yet cozy and comfortable, overlooking the Pacific Ocean whilst sitting atop a scarped cliffside. From the cabin, a run-down wooden staircase descends 150 feet alongside the sheer cliff down toward ground-piercing rock formations emanating from the shoreline. Tidepools form throughout the rocks creating civilizations of starfish, abalone, and various species of sea anemones. At night, if you leave a midnight snack out on the small cliff-hanging deck, you may even catch a glimpse of the rare and elusive ringtail cat.
Although the cabin is a charming weekend getaway, something has always made me feel slightly uneasy about it.
Nextdoor to the cabin, separated by a thin chain-link wire fence decorated with a myriad of NO TRESPASSING signs, lays a decrepit and abandoned property occupied by three distinct cinderblock buildings, all of which are in a state of steady and ongoing decay. Being on the property gives you an extremely uncanny and eerie feeling that I can not quite describe through words. The land is completely devoid of human activity and has been left abandoned for decades, yet it feels like you could turn a corner and catch a quick glimpse of the previous tenant going about their everyday life. The property has always creeped me out, and from what I have learned through researching this rabbit hole, maybe for good reason.
It was not until recently that I learned the land was previously and solely owned by the late Jacques R. Helfer, and his family prior to it becoming state park land. A local Mendocino resident, author, and naturalist, Jacques Helfer was a name familiar to all Mendocino locals at the time, as he occupied ‘Jack’s Corner’, a weekly column of the local newspaper, The Mendocino Beacon. Helfer’s writing for the paper was controversial, to say the least.
Jacques was a lifelong naturalist and author, spending years documenting the local flora and fauna of the Mendocino area. Jacques particularly focused on the wildlife found inside the Russian Gulch State Marine Conservation Area, a state park that his property bordered. He has written over 10 books on the subject, including his 1970 book ‘The Natural History of Mendocino’. The opening preface to the book states, “Sufficient general information is included so that persons living in other parts of the world can gain a fair understanding of the character and appearance of this area and of its flora and fauna.” It was clear that Helfer was proud of where he lived and wanted to share its natural beauty with the world.
While Helfer was a well-respected naturalist author and illustrator, his personal life was shrouded in mystery and controversy. Throughout his life, Jacques made countless adversaries with neighboring Mendocino residents, oftentimes through his columns in the local newspaper, The Mendocino Beacon. His columns were consistently viewed as repulsive or in poor taste, such as an alleged response he gave regarding an overdose death of a Mendocino local, stating that he ‘did not think a dead druggie deserved a memorial.’
On February 15th, 1994, Jacques Helfer was found dead on the rocks beneath the ocean cliffs that encompass his property. The factors leading up to the cause of death were never determined. Speculation still ensues over Jacques’ death, particularly if it was an accidental or intentional act. It is worth noting that while he had his fair share of enemies who could have been responsible, in all likeliness, Jacques’ death was accidental, as in his later years he had developed health problems leading him to require the use of a cane to move. However, questions have arisen based on multiple accounts and insinuations that his “reclusive and sedated wife” had earlier shot him in the foot. No matter what caused Jacques to fall off that cliff that fateful day, it seems this will remain a case lost to time.
When I was younger and explored Jacques’ old property, I was never aware of his death, but for it to have taken place in the setting that he loved the most feels fitting. While Jacques himself was a controversial figure, his work and documentation of the local Mendocino wildlife and fauna was brilliant. In recent years, it seems that someone has purchased his old land in hopes of developing new homes. They have had their permits denied, and to this day the land remains in a state of decay. I am sure as a naturalist, Jacques would be happy to see the premises remain vacant, with nature reclaiming the land thathe once called home.