Lives turned upside down in Swanton: Longtime local entrepreneurs grappling with unique double whammy

Carren Dixon and her daughter Hannah Wilson-James
Carren Dixon and her daughter, Hannah Wilson-James, survey their property that was devastated by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A family legacy that started with Jan’s Cakes in the 1960s got thrown into upheaval, first by COVID and then by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. The longtime homestead and center of business for the family that runs Buttercup Cakes and Farmhouse Frosting was destroyed; now the family is pondering what to do.

As Carren Dixon and her husband, John, made their way home past still-burning trees, she was pretty sure nothing was left. The old schoolhouse her father had attended, two landmark houses on Swanton Road, and her neighbor’s house were all gone.

“I think I was most concerned about my chickens,” said Dixon. “I had this horrible feeling of dread that I was going to find poor trapped chickens in there.”

Dixon owns Buttercup Cakes and Farmhouse Frosting with her daughter, Hannah Wilson-James, and at the beginning of 2020 they were looking forward to a great year. But when COVID-19 restrictions kept the once-busy storefront on Pacific Avenue closed for months, they were forced to shift operations to their family homestead in Davenport.

Just days after the final move, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire destroyed everything — two homes on the property and a commercial kitchen — except the chickens and their pen.

“I don’t even know what that feeling was,” she said, “it was a combination of numb curiosity and ... I think I shut down on the vastness of it, and I was only able to let it in in pieces over time.”

* * *

The one-two punch of COVID-19 closing downtown and the catastrophic fire, knocked the wind out of Santa Cruz County in 2020. A year after the fire, the future of Buttercup Cakes, a business rooted in a family legacy beginning in the 1960s, is still up in the air, and the Wilsons continue to grapple with the realities of rebuilding their home.

Carren Dixon and her daughter Hannah Wilson-James
Carren Dixon and her daughter, Hannah Wilson-James, survey their property that was devastated by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

North Coast residents now find themselves navigating a complex matrix of county oversight that they tended to distrust even before the fires, with the displacement and losses of 2020 still a daily reality.

Wilson-James went into a frenzied survival mode in the weeks after the fire, sending a flurry of emails to county officials with requests and demands, and researching fireproof housing. It wasn’t until later, after talking with other survivors, that she recognized her obsessive research was partly a coping mechanism. “I needed that to kind of buffer the shock,” she said.

She heard rumors that it could take 10 years to rebuild because of Santa Cruz County’s restrictive permitting process. And, in the back of her mind was the paranoia shared in rural parts of Santa Cruz County about land grabs by the county. That the county could deny any rebuilding in some places, forcing owners to sell to the county as unbuildable land.

What's left of the Buttercup Cakes sign.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Instead, there have been pleasant surprises in Swanton thus far, she reports. The county has reduced permitting fees and taken other measures to reduce the burden on fire survivors, and hopes to speed up the lengthy review process, but Wilson-James still isn’t sure it’s enough.

* * *

The sprawling property that runs along Mill Creek just off Swanton Road has been the Wilson family’s central nervous center for 100 years, since Dixon’s grandfather, Arthur Wilson, built the main house in 1921. Her father, Ben Wilson, now 90, lived in that house his whole life.

The wedding venue and kitchen, which they called Laughing Canyon, hosted scores of public events and private gatherings over the years, with a dance floor for weddings and picnic grounds for celebrations. It was where Dixon’s mom, Jan Wilson, first started her wedding cake business, Jan’s Cakes, in the 1960s.

The former storefront on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Courtesy Carren Dixon)

Buttercup Cakes and Farmhouse Frosting began at Laughing Canyon in 2011, with the idea of creating vegan and gluten-free cakes and pastries with seasonally aware ingredients, many sourced from their own garden. Wilson-James helped create some of Buttercup’s most popular flavors, like the triple-orange cupcake with Earl Grey frosting, when she was only 13.

March 2020 marked the beginning of wedding season for the busy bakery. Couples wanted the auspicious number as their anniversary year, and walk-in business at the bakery was bustling when Santa Cruz County’s first pandemic restrictions put a stop to downtown shopping and big gatherings. The same month, Buttercup’s rent went up to almost $9,000 a month.

As the scale of the pandemic became clearer, wedding cancellations rolled in month by month. Soon more than 200 wedding bookings had evaporated. By July, it was clear they wouldn’t be able to reopen Buttercup, and planned their exodus back to Laughing Canyon, expecting to be moved by the middle of August.

Gourmet cupcakes from Buttercup Cakes and Farmhouse Frosting.
(Courtesy Blake Weber)

* * *

The night of the freakish lightning storm that ignited the CZU fire, everyone at Laughing Canyon was awake, watching anxiously. The next morning, Sunday, was the day they’d intended to leave their location on Pacific Avenue, so they pushed to move all that they could carry without a truck up to Davenport, unaware of the fires that had been sparked overnight.

Power was out in the canyon. Reports of a small fire in Davenport reached them through their neighbors. On Sunday afternoon, the family began clearing brush away from their houses in case the flames came close.

A fire was burning in Waddell Creek, their neighbors said, and others in Last Chance were hearing from Cal Fire that they would be fine. “It was under control until it wasn’t,” said Dixon, “That was their quote.”

Jan and Ben Wilson in front of their home, which burned in the fire.
(Courtesy Carren Dixon)

It was the smoke that finally drove them away. On Tuesday, they held a staff meeting on the property, and as the sky turned redder and redder, ashes began raining down. It was time to get Wilson-James’ grandparents, Ben (90) and Jan (82), to someplace they could breathe easier.

“We had a few things packed,” said Wilson-James, “but it was camping stuff. It was stuff for if you’re away from your house for a week — what you need, and not like, precious items.”

* * *

The era of redwood cabins with shingled roofs is over for Dixon. Faced with rebuilding from scratch, she has taken the realities of climate change to heart. The family is exploring fire-resistant building methods like straw-bale construction and earth shelters — like Hobbit Homes — where the walls and roof are built into the earth so the next fire will roll past.

It’s uncertain what’s next for the family’s home and the business. They’re still at steps three and four of about 50 to rebuild. And they’re selling Buttercup goods at Loma Mar Store, inland of Pescadero, and fulfilling orders for weddings that have been rescheduled.

The chickens survived in Laughing Canyon.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Like their North Coast community, the Wilsons are still coping with their losses and navigating the new realities of climate change. “The existential threat feels very real,” said Wilson-James. “In California and so many rural parts of the West, the conditions are already barreling towards the unsurvivable.”