Joseph Russ was born in 1825 in Maine, and came west in 1850. In fall of 1852 he purchased 100 cattle in Placerville, and with two hired cowboys, drove them over the Coast Range to Humboldt County, selling them in Eureka to the Army which was buying beef for its troops on the north coast where there were Indian wars.
The following spring he filed a claim and built a log cabin near Fern Cottage. He and a partner, Barry Adams, went to the Sacramento area to buy a large herd of cattle, eventually opening a meat market in Eureka.
He met his future wife Zipporah in Sacramento and persuaded her family to move to the Ferndale area. Though she was 16 and he was 29, they married December 17, 1854, having 13 children throughout the years.
In the mid-1850s they began to buy ranch land, ultimately owning some 50,000 acres. Over time Russ enterprises included timber and lumber, an abattoir, several meat markets, a bank, ships, and a dry goods emporium.
Joseph conducted his business activities from the home in Fern Cottage; the children went to school, and the home was the center of a dairy farm. Across the street were barns, stables and living quarters for ranch hands.
Bertha Russ Lytel, the youngest of Joseph and Zipporah’s children, died in 1972. She was the last direct descendant to live in the Fern Cottage home, built originally in 1866.
All the furniture and furnishings are original to the house and the family, but not of the same period. Many of Zipporah’s dresses are on display in her bedroom or sitting room.
According to the homes website, ferncottage.org: “Of the 182 direct descendants of Joseph and Zipporah Russ on our records, 36 live in Ferndale, another 19 elsewhere in Humboldt County, for a total of 30.1 percent in the county. Another 60 live elsewhere in Northern California and 19 in Southern California.”