Dave and Marilyn Sabold
Marilyn and Dave Sabold ran Gardner Gardens nursery for 26 years.
Fleeing life in the academe, Dave and Marilyn Sabold and their five-month-old daughter, Ananda, arrived in the Methow during the flood of May 1972.
“We had to drive through water on the highway to get here,” Dave recalls. Just a few inches of water flooded over the pavement, but it provided a memorable introduction to the Methow.
They were on their way to a ranch up Wolf Creek for troubled boys that was run by John Holmes, where Dave had lined up a summer job.
Dave, now 72, was a teacher with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from San Jose State University; he grew up in nearby Los Gatos in today’s Silicon Valley. Marilyn, 67, was from San Diego, majoring in art at San Jose State. They had married in 1966 in Yosemite National Park, where Dave was working as a seasonal ranger naturalist.
The Sabolds met at San Jose State one dark night during a naturalist field trip when Dave boosted her up over an obstacle to get a better look at something, Marilyn recalls, laughing, but it was too dark for her to see who he was. “He introduced himself the next day when I could see him.”
By the time the couple arrived in the Methow, Dave had taught biology, botany, genetics and physiology at San Jose State, the College of San Mateo, and Allen University, a small black college in South Carolina and at a women’s college, Keuka College in New York, where Marilyn, whose watercolors and pottery are familiar in venues around the valley, finished up her bachelor’s degree in art.
The Sabolds live on the site of the former Ken White taxidermy business.
In 1967, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the government offered draft deferrments to teachers, which is how Dave ended up teaching in what he calls a “corrupt” little college for rural black students in South Carolina. “It got me out of the draft and I loved the kids,” says Dave. But he was fired.
“The educational quality was very poor,” Dave explains, and the students went on strike demanding improvements. He sided with the students and soon found himself unemployed.
“Being young and idealistic, I thought if your motives are pure and you pursue it with energy, we’ll win,” he recalls, smiling. “We lost.”
While he was teaching in New York he realized that to continue in his academic career he’d need a doctorate. So he enrolled at the University of Washington and did the coursework for a doctorate in botany. But then tossed his career aside without finishing the degree.
“I was getting bored with my own lectures,” he explains, and figured that the students must be bored too. “It just wasn’t me,” he says of the academic life. “I thought: `To hell with it. I’ll just go to the Methow.’”
Neither of the Sabolds had ever laid eyes on the Methow. “We just jumped off a cliff when we came here. We didn’t have much of a plan,” admits Dave.
Snapshots from the Sabold's earlier years owning and operating the Gardner Gardens nursery just south of Winthrop. Photos courtesy Dave and Marilyn Sabold
That fall they rented 200 acres up the Rendezvous for $50 a month. “I got to try all that back-to-the-land stuff,” he says, chuckling at the memory.
In 1975 the Sabolds paid $3,000 for a burnt-out house and property just south of Winthrop on the East County Road. This would become a valley icon, Gardener Gardens Nursery, which the Sabolds would own and operate for the next 26 years. They rebuilt the burned-out house, moved in, and their son Ben was born there.
“We were not business people,” says Dave, and they had no nursery experience. But their customers can attest that what the couple lacked in business background they made up in hard physical work. “We mixed all the soil by hand,” Dave recalls. “We never lost money. We never missed any meals.”
The couple realized that “people are there not just to buy plants but to visit,” Dave explains. So Marilyn set up a table outside, provided popcorn and encouraged customers to socialize amid the plants and greenery.
When it was time to retire, they sold the business on contract; it’s now Wild Hearts Nursery. The Sabolds say they’re very pleased to have had the experience of building a successful nursery in the valley.
They’re still in the gardening business, raising shallots and garlic for such customers as the Arrowleaf Bistro and Sun Mountain Lodge. They also keep bees and continue to sell their Gardener Gardens skin cream made with beeswax. And with four other families they tend a community vegetable garden on their property.
That garden is all organic, says Dave, and so is the Sabold’s own commercial plot—with the exception of nitrogen fertilizer. “An ion of nitrogen is the same whether it comes from compost or a sack,” he says.
The Sabolds have four grandchildren, and both of their children have returned to live in the valley. “They were glad to go away and glad to come back,” says Dave.
Marilyn Sabold is a pottery and watercolor artist.
The story of how the Sabolds ended up living where they do is one of those “Only-in-the-Methow” tales. To expand their business, they had bought some land on contract from an adjacent neighbor, the late taxidermist Ken White, and had been paying him $50 per month. White didn’t have much money to live on, Dave recalls, and when the debt was paid, White missed the $50.
In March of 1992, Dave says he summoned the courage to leave a letter at White’s house offering to pay him $100 a month if White would leave his house and the five acres it sits on to the Sabolds in his will. White, who then broke the news to them that he was dying of cancer, accepted their offer; he died that June.
“So the house was really a gift,” says Dave. White and his wife, Marge, had been divorced but remarried shortly before White died. She cared for him at the end, and Dave says they continued the payments to Marge until her death.
Dave became president of the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) when it was fighting the Early Winters Ski Resort. Ask him why he got involved and he’ll tell you that the Silicon Valley he grew up in used to be called “The Valley of Hearts’ Delight” because of its fruit orchards. “Now it’s paved over. I didn’t want it to happen here.”
“People weren’t really adversarial,” recalls Dave of his time trying to sort through the ski resort controversy. “I really like Doug Devin”—a chief proponent of the resort. But Dave says he made a mistake that got him booted out of the presidency.
In the early 1980s, he and three other MVCC board members engaged in negotiations with the Merrill Company in hopes of finding an acceptable resolution that would allow the resort to be built in a way that MVCC could support. The MVCC negotiators were asking for a percentage of sales as a condition of supporting a scaled-back, environmentally acceptable development. They believed that the MVCC stood to gain as much as $21 million over time to fund its environmental protection efforts if an acceptable deal could be struck, according to Dave.
The problem was, he says, that “We were negotiating in secret.” When the membership found out, he was voted out of office. The members did not want to allow the resort to be built, he says. “I was just sandbagged.”
The Sabolds are still in the beekeeping business.
“I appreciate that people are adversarial. I’m not so good at it,” he adds. “I still send them [MVCC] $35 a year. I don’t go to the meetings.”
The MVCC continued the fight, suing the Forest Service for issuing a permit for the development. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1989, in a mixed ruling, did grant the MVCC its legal costs but ruled in what has become something of a landmark opinion stating that agencies do not have to require developers to provide environmental mitigation plans as the MVCC had unsuccessfully argued. Agencies only needed to take “‘a hard look” at mitigation, the court said.
“You have to do an Environmental Impact Statement but it doesn’t have to mean anything. That’s my interpretation,” says Dave.
The Early Winters project finally died of thirst in 1999, when the Washington State Supreme Court upheld a state Pollution Control Hearings Board ruling in favor of the Okanogan Wilderness League—Lee Bernheisel and Lucy Reid of Carlton—which successfully argued that there was not enough legally available water to build it.
“The valley has prospered without it,” says Dave of the resort.
The Sabolds are still active in conservation efforts as members of the Methow Conservancy’s advisory board. And each year—following a tradition started by Ken White and using a 100-year-old press—they host the Cider Squeeze and Social as a way to celebrate harvest and to thank the community for its support of the Conservancy’s efforts. This year the free public event is on September 28 starting at 2 p.m. at the Sabold home at 17 Bean Road off the East County Road just south of the nursery.
The Sabolds told Methow Grist they feel confident that the Methow is in good hands, thanks to a critical mass of community members who care about its future, defend the right values and “keep their eyes on the ball.”
Says Marilyn: “We’ve got a valley that does things right.”
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