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Remembering Renton Mitchell

Renton Mitchell was my dad-in-law, and his stories inspired me to get a license. He began his real estate career in 1970 at E. David Davis’ Los Olivos office, just down the street.

“If there’s another world, he lives in bliss; If there is none, he made the best of this.” -Robert Burns

“I’ve always been lucky,” said Renton Mitchell. He came to Solvang as a newly minted deputy sheriff in 1961.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1926, Renton grew up poor but happy, in a large family, amidst the razor gangs of Belfast, Ireland, named after their favorite weapon. Renton’s father was a piano player, singer, and adman in Belfast. Renton did some design work at an early age.

“I was just a little boy, when my dad asked me to draw a picture of a loaf of bread for him. Next thing I knew, my loaf was on all the trams in Belfast.”

His mother Helen (nee Hunter) and dad, Walter, had William, Walter, Agnes, Duncan, Renton, and Robert.

“My dad looked like Churchill. In Southern Ireland, they thought he WAS Churchill. And being an entertainer, he pretended to BE Churchill,” laughed Renton.

A Hollywood director asked Walter Mitchell to be in the film version of Brigadoon. He declined, suggesting a friend instead. Renton later visited the man in Hollywood, where he had done well, appearing in many films. In his dressing room, he tearfully thanked the son of the man who gave him his start.

In 1940, after Hitler launched his Blitzkrieg against Holland and Belgium, Renton’s oldest brother, William, was sent to bring Queen Wilhelmina from Belgium to England. Bayoneted through the neck and captured, he spent five years as a POW, most of it working on a farm, where he was well treated.

Brother Walter was the flight deck engineer on board the convoy escort carrier HMS Smiter, on convoy duty in the North Atlantic, during WW II.

Renton lied about his age (he was 16 and two weeks) to enlist in the British Navy in 1942. He served until July of 1946.

A few days before D-Day, he was a signalman on a LCM (Landing Craft, Manned), part of the invasion force at Poole Harbor, near Bournemouth, waiting for General Eisenhower to give the order.

Suddenly called out for review, he stood with about 80 other signalmen, lined up at attention, as a jeep with an American commander in it pulled up.

The American strode down the line, chatting with a few of the men. Renton, and another sailor, an older man, were pulled out of the ranks. They’d been chosen to instruct new American signalmen. They were told to get their gear, and move out. A few days later, his friends were part of the Allied invasion. Many never returned.

As the war wound down, he was again assigned as signalman on an LCM. He wasn’t the captain, but he was in charge of the four man crew. He left the tiny LCM tied up one night, and went out with his mates. As a lark, he dressed in an American uniform and went with them to a dance in town, but the local girls weren’t buying it.

“You’re no Yank,” they laughed.

Upon the crew’s return, they discovered their boat stern down in the water.

“Some of the tides there drop 28 feet,” he remembered wryly. There had not been enough slack in the lines. He’d sunk his ship. Hauled before a board of inquiry, he was admonished. Two things saved him.

One: The war was over, and all anyone wanted to do was get home.

Number two: “You’re bloody lucky that was an American boat,” they told him.

Belfast did not suffer like London during the Blitz, but it took some hits. One day a bomb blew up the bolt factory down the street. A massive bolt landed on the Mitchell’s roof, tore through the attic and the upper story, and rolled down the stairs to the ground floor landing.

Mustered out, he received a striped suit, shoes, and a hat.

He took a job driving a taxi in Belfast, where he was the only Protestant in the cab company. This worked in his favor with one Catholic priest, who always asked for Renton to take him on drunken weekly rounds visiting parishioners and his girlfriend.

Fabled Irish tenor Joe Locke, about whom the film “Hear My Song” was made, spent two months riding in Renton’s cab.

Renton went back to sea. His first civilian ship was the Ballyholme Bay, an ancient, coal-fired scow, with a miscreant captain who neglected to purchase enough supplies for the journey. On the way to Finland to pick up a cargo of logs, they ran out of food.

The crew appointed Renton to negotiate with the cantankerous old Irishman. The captain had plenty of liquor on board. Renton suggested trading it for fish from nearby vessels. The fishermen were delighted, and the crew was fed.

In Finland, he was surprised to see the longshoremen were actually longshorewomen. The Ballyholme Bay made it home safely, where the captain was brought up on charges, and the ship scuttled.

Renton spent two seasons (October -April) in 1947-1949, aboard the whaling ship Balaena, as a bone gang man. Christopher Ash immortalized their toil in his 1962 book, Whaler’s Eye. He was going to the movies one afternoon, with his brother Duncan. As they passed the Albert clock tower in Belfast, Renton noted a crowd by the docks.

“Looks like they’re picking men for the ship,” he told Duncan. “I’m going to see. I’ll meet you at the matinee.”

Of the 50 men trying to get a berth, only Renton was chosen. He was ordered to hustle home and get his gear.

He didn’t make the matinee, and he didn’t see Duncan again for 21 years.

They sailed for the Cape of Good Hope. There was a crew of over five hundred on the massive, 400-foot-long, Anglo-Norwegian factory ship, akin to a tanker in design, which took 20,000 tons of diesel fuel aboard for the seven-month journey.

Although they weren’t yet whaling, they were already working. On the way south, they re-decked the entire ship.

They slipped out of Cape Town in the darkness, to get away from their fierce competitors. The Balaena circumnavigated Antarctica. In the land of the midnight sun, the state of the art factory ship dragged massive blue whales and other species aboard, and processed them on the spot, snatching up on average a whale an hour, 24 hours a day. Some blues were almost 100 feet long, weighing 82 tons.

In 1946-47, they carried a Walrus biplane on deck, to spot the whales. Renton’s older brother Walter, an officer on the ship for 15 years, was in charge of the plane, which was catapulted into the air, and winched back on board.

“As it turned out, there were so many whales, there was no need for the plane,” said Renton.

They plunged deep into the Ross Sea, carving a lane through the ice, then retreated with the season, to avoid being caught and crushed, like Shackleton’s expedition.

They saw penguins marching from floe to floe.

“They would parade from one long ice block to another,” he chuckled. “One fellow, a very strange man, caught a penguin and trained it to walk with him on the deck. Back and forth he would go, with the bird waddling after him. They took it away from him when we approached warmer waters, and released it.”

“The longest whale I ever saw was about 110 feet,” said Renton, tongue-in-cheek.

“A blue whale was coming on board, and a killer whale went after its tongue, which they like to eat. It got caught, and crushed by our machinery. So there was a 90-foot-long blue whale, with a 20-foot-long killer whale sticking out of its mouth, coming up the conveyor.”

He cut the bones out, with razor sharp tools, on a slippery, blood-soaked, chaotic deck. It was brutal work, in a hellish, steaming sea of gore. He carved sperm whale teeth into penguin figures in his spare time.

Bizarrely enough, at coffee in Solvang one day, decades later, he met a man who sailed on a competing vessel.

“We all wanted to be on your ship,” he told Renton. “Everyone was jealous.”

Back in Ireland again, he took several University of Pennsylvania professors on a guided tour of peat bogs around Ireland in his 1934 Aston-Martin racing sedan, a rare four-seater, high performance car. Renton was offered a job as a Beechams Pills salesman in Northern Ireland in July of 1950, but decided instead to try his luck in America. He sold the Aston-Martin back to the company for their collection, and set off.

His adventurous forebears had some experience with America. Years before, his remarkable grandmother (she had “The Gift,” they said – psychic power) had tracked down Renton’s Uncle Duncan here, shortly after World War I.  She trekked from Scotland to see the lad, who was working for Fred Harvey at the Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Her first words to her son after getting off her mule: “Are you hiding out from the law?”

It was typical of Renton that after losing most of his money playing cards on the ship over, he spent nearly his last dime taking an aunt who met him in New York out to lunch, and never mentioned his lack of funds. He still had his bus ticket to Los Angeles, California, where another aunt awaited. There he landed his first job, at Germain, Inc., a nursery company, paying 93 cents an hour.

He married Jean Irene Frame, administrative assistant for a Los Angeles County Supervisor, and the fastest typist in LA (she won a contest). She had a four year old, Robbie. Their daughter, Margaret, was born in 1953. Renton bought a gas station in Riverside, and prospered, with hard work and a magnetic personality.

A bout of rheumatic fever at 14 had left Irene with severe heart damage. To get her out of the smog, they took a trip to Santa Barbara.

At a coffee shop there, Renton met the nephew of the county sheriff, who suggested Renton apply for a position. He took a test, interviewed, and finished at the top of the list of candidates. He sold the gas station to become a lawman assigned to Solvang, and the little family moved to the country in 1961. But Irene’s heart troubles worsened, and she passed away in 1962.

Deputy Mitchell took the report when Jimmy Stewart found someone had rustled one of his cows, at Stewart’s Little Wine Cup Ranch, down by the river on Refugio Road. “He was really upset,” recalled Renton. The thief had butchered the beeve on the spot.

He dealt with the plane crash of a P-38 on the Chamberlin Ranch. The pilot had a chute and jumped out, only to be snagged by the twin tail, and plummet with the craft to the ground.

When Edie Sedgwick died from a barbiturate overdose, he and Sheriff Jim Webster broke the news to her parents, at the ranch later donated to UCSB.

Over the years, Renton sponsored 13 of his relatives for American citizenship including his mother, brother William, William’s wife and two kids, his brother Robert and his family, and his sister Agnes, and her husband.

In December of 1963, he married Doris Christiansen Doll, whose husband had died in a plane crash, and they raised Renton’s daughter and adopted son and Doris’ three girls together.

In the early 1960’s, the personable Mr. Mitchell was active in the Solvang Business Association, a sought-after emcee of numerous events, raising money for many local causes. He was co-chair of Danish Days in 1967; chairman in 1968. King Merrill of The Valley News called it “unquestionably one of the best organized and most enjoyable festivals ever held in the community,” attended by 55,000 happy tourists.

He was a deputy sheriff here for twelve years before launching a highly successful real estate career. Clients genuinely liked Renton, immediately and instinctively, and they swarmed to his warm personality like bees to melted caramel.

He worked with tennis great Rod Laver, and producer Jon Peters, among many others. He and Laver toured the Scottish Highlands together. Olivia Newton-John stopped in for a 45-minute chat. Bob Eubanks listed his ranch with Renton. Richard Widmark and Dean Martin were clients. John “Bowser” Bauman of Sha-Na-Na bought a house.

Singer/actress Claudine Longet called him one day, in tears. She had to cancel their appointment. When Renton turned on the news, he learned that Longet, crooner Andy Williams’ ex-girlfriend, had just shot her new boyfriend, skier Spider Sabich.

Renton initiated the sister city relationship with Aalborg that Solvang enjoys today. In October of 1972, he stopped in Denmark, to visit pioneering Danish baker Carl Birkholm.

Carl and Renton drove over to Aalborg, where they had lunch with mayor Marius Andersen. Aalborg is the fourth largest city in Denmark, with 155,000 citizens at the time. The mayor discussed being a sister city to Solvang, and suggested that council members of Solvang take the first move. Mr. Andersen sent Renton back to the States with a book about Aalborg, personally inscribed with this message: “Say hello to all our friends in Solvang – Kind regards, Marius Andersen, Mayor.” Upon returning home, Mr. Mitchell advised the council members on how to make it happen. The sistership took place, and numerous delegations traded visits.

On July 4, 1976, Solvang’s Rebild Society appointed Renton to welcome former California Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, plus former Prime Minister Poul Hartling of Denmark, to Solvang, as part of the July Fourth bicentennial celebration.

He operated Solvang Antique Imports in the mid-1970s, bringing antiques over from Scotland. He bought Santa Ynez Valley Printing and Lithography in 1985, and ran it for over twenty years, contributing printing services for countless charitable causes along the way. Troubled by back problems, he sold out in 2005, and retired, at age 79.

He died of complications of Alzheimer’s on November 10, 2012. We will all miss him, forever.