Chapter 13:California 1919-1922

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Paul Buxman “Valley Sunset” 1997. Used with permission

“The San Joaquin Valley, 250 miles long and 40 miles wide, comprises the largest continuous block of agricultural land in the state. On the vast plains of the valley floor are 6.6 million acres of land having gentle slope and flat surface conformation favorable for agriculture. The marginal foothills to the east and south add 1.8 million acres more, making a total of 8.4 million acres of agricultural land in the San Joaquin Valley.”                                                             (California Department of Public Works)[i]

When I was growing up I thought that ‘San Joaquin Valley’ was the name of the whole Central Valley. It’s not. It’s the name of just the southern half, the part whose outlet to the sea is the San Joaquin River. The northern half is the Sacramento Valley. Its outlet is the Sacramento River, which has its birth in the mountains around Mt. Shasta at the valley’s northern end. The Sacramento is a much larger river than the San Joaquin, and its valley was the first part of the Central Valley to be settled. The San Joaquin River, which comes down out of the Sierras east of Fresno carries much less water than the Sacramento. Even in the days before irrigation diverted most of its water, the San Joaquin was shallow, often reed chocked. The valley floor south of Fresno was actually a huge shallow, tule filled lake, a basin filled with an intricate maze of sloughs and bogs. Shallow-draft boats did journey south of Stockton on the San Joaquin, but navigation was always tricky and got worse as the boats proceeded south. Until the coming of the railroads, transporting crops and livestock to market was a real challenge. Major settlement came only after the advent of railroads.

Even though settlement was well underway when the Willems family arrived in California in 1919, the San Joaquin Valley was still pretty much a land of wide open spaces. That was particularly true of its western side and valley floor. The waters of the Kings, Kaweah and Kern Rivers had been diverted for irrigation. The vast shallow lake which once filled the bottom of the basin between Fresno and Bakersfield was now dry, needing a regular allotment of irrigation water in order to grow anything. The west side of the valley grew no crops at all. It was dry, bone dry with no access to irrigation water. All of the irrigation districts were on the east side of the valley where the rivers were, rivers that were fed by the deep snow pack of the high Sierras.

All the towns were on the east side of the valley. Farm towns, the same towns I saw when my mom, dad, sister Nita and I drove Highway 99 down from Stockton to Dinuba back in the 1940s—Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Madera , Fresno and all the little hamlets in between those towns whose order I never bothered to memorize. My father’s family passed through those same towns in the train that took them to Reedley back in 1919.

October is a golden month in the Valley. The grass that covers the roadsides and non-irrigated land is golden brown. Even the light is golden, coming in at an oblique angle, shimmering off the grass blades, creating shadows behind the stalks. There is almost no rain in October, just day after day of cloudless blue sky. The days still get hot, but the mornings and evenings are deliciously cool. The air coming through open windows of the train would have been warm, but comfortable—not the blast furnace of open windows in the summer months. It was a good time of the year to see the land for the first time, a good time to arrive in a new home.

 The Train

Eight children, most of them rambunctious boys, confined to a limited space for several days and nights. Uncle John says that Grandpa’s youngest sisters—Kate, who was twenty-one, and Margaret, nineteen—went with the family to California. There were four adults to look after the kids; but still, it must have been a real ordeal for all concerned, including the other passengers who shared their rail car. Perhaps there were some kind people who took compassion on the family and helped entertain the little kids. Helping the family would have been hard, though. None of those children spoke English. The parents may have had a few words of English they could use, but the children did not. The only language the kids really knew was Plautdietsch, the Mennonite variation of Low German. The adults could also speak High German. The Mennonite church used the German Bible, and High German was its language of literacy, taught to each new generation. However, Plautdietsch was the language of everyday conversation within the community, the beloved mother-tongue, learned in the home, the language of affection and intimacy. Even passengers who spoke German would have had difficulty talking to the children. The passengers who shared the railroad car with my dad’s family on that long trip probably found them curious and strange, and I imagine they found their rail car refreshingly quiet when the family left it.

Uncle John turned four that October the family left Canada and doesn’t have any memories of Canada itself. He does remember that train trip, though. He says that Kate and Margaret teased him because he told them he’d seen a purple cow climbing a tree when he looked out the window. He also said that the train was Great Northern and that he was very impressed with the train depot in Reedley.

John and the other kids may have been excited when they got to Reedley, but their parents must have been exhausted by the time they climbed down from the train with their children and baggage, exhausted and disoriented by the strangeness of a new land, a new culture. However, they also knew that in Reedley they could again find people who spoke Plautdietsch. There was a Mennonite Brethren church, and there were relatives who would take them in, help them find a place to live. Here they could once again speak with ease, be quickly understood. They would no longer be alone among foreigners.

My dad and John have both said that when the family first got to Reedley they stayed with their father’s uncle, Henry Boldt. Whether this uncle had been notified beforehand I don’t know. There may have been an exchange of letters, but it’s possible that there wasn’t. Hospitality was simply part of being Mennonite. It was taken for granted. When people traveled they made stops wherever there were MB’s. People would welcome them into their homes whether they were relatives, or simply people they happened to meet at church on a Sunday morning. People counted on hospitality, expected it—and expected to offer it in return whenever other Mennonite Brethren were in need of hospitality. The idea of staying in a hotel was foreign, done only if absolutely necessary. This was still true when I was growing up, even true in the early years of my marriage.

I remember no resentment at all about these unexpected visits. They were fun, a break in the routine of one’s daily life, a time to visit and talk and laugh. I loved it when we got unexpected company. My folks seemed to love it, too. However, no one showed up at our door with eight little kids. That I find definitely heroic. How long my dad’s family stayed with their Uncle Boldt, I don’t know, but I imagine till they found a place they could afford to rent.


Canned Peaches

My father’s earliest California memory was about an incident that took place when the family stayed with their Uncle Boldt. Dad never wrote up this story, and, unfortunately, it did not get on the tape when Dad and I talked about family history. I heard the story many times, though. It was an important memory for Dad so I shall attempt to tell it myself, even though it will not be anywhere near the same as if it were in my dad’s own words.

Jacob Willems 1919

Jacob J. Willems 1919

The incident took place in the dining room at the Boldt’s house. They were having dinner, and everyone was seated around the dining room table. The kids were on their best behavior. Everything went well until dessert—canned peaches served in individual bowls. These were not sliced peaches. They were peach-halves, smooth round bottoms perched in a pool of sweet syrup. Canned peach-halves are very slippery, and when dad tried to cut into his peach with his spoon, it shot out of his dish and across the table. His father was furious. He picked up my dad, took him outside and gave him a licking with his belt. The broken-hearted little boy could still be heard when Dad said, “It was an accident! I didn’t do it on purpose! Why did he give me a whipping?”

The story of the canned peach is very different from other early stories involving his dad that my father told. The others were fond memories like the one from Canada about leaning against his father and looking up at the big horses, King and Duke, as they pulled the harrow, stories about looking up to his dad and wanting to be like him.

The Oakland

In 1920, our first car was an old Oakland with the dip system on the oil gallery. So consequently, we had problems. The little light that was supposed to come on when the oil was low did not come on, so my Dad would take off the oil pan to see if something was wrong. I was six years old, and I just had to see what was under that car. If oil dripped on Dad, I would manage to get some on me, too. I was helping Dad.”

We were so excited with that car. I was only five, but I was sure I could drive it [if I] tried. Helen was ready to go. She was sure I could drive it too.

“A mile down the road lived a man by the name of Wexser [?]. He was mean to his wife, so we [decided] we would get rid of him and take over his house and start housekeeping. We told mother about our plans, and she told us to go and see Dad and tell him the good news and ask Dad for some money to start with. What a disappointment when we saw our dad’s face! After we told of our good news, we thought he would surely be as excited as we were.”

 El Monte & the Place at Kings River

Dad said that the first house his family lived in was in Reedley. They didn’t stay there very long, though, before they moved to a place out in the country on El Monte Way west of Dinuba, near the Richland packing house where the creek crossed under the road. They stayed on this place only a short time before moving to “the place at Kings River,” which was the setting of one of my dad’s favorite stories, his story about “Horse Trading”:

Horse Trading

One night I heard my dad say,

      “If we only had some horses, we could work the peach orchard.”

So early the next morning I was up to ask my dad for two cents.

      “What do you want it for?”

      “I am going to buy you some horses,” I said.

Dad gave me the two cents with a grin on his face.

      I had a lot of money, so I started looking for horses. I went from neighbor to neighbor from daylight to almost dark. The last place I looked there were three horses in a corral. They looked good to me, so I went to the house and knocked on the door—I thought everybody could understand Dutch. That was the only language I could speak.                    

      After a little horse-trading, Mr. Berg said, ‘How much will you give me for one of those horses?’

      ‘Well, I have two cents.’

After a pause, he said, ‘Ok. Give me the two cents.’

‘I can’t do that.’

‘Why not? You said you had two cents didn’t you?’

‘Yes. I will give you one cent. I want to buy another horse with that other penny.’

It was dusk when I got home. They were looking for me. They were dumb-founded. They had my older brother Nick take [the horse] back the next day. When Nick came to the place, Mr. Berg said,

‘I won’t take him back. That boy bought that horse fair and square. That’s his horse.’”    

             Later on in the conversation, Dad said that his folks really did have to give the horses back to Mr. Berg. “My folks didn’t have hay or nothing. I didn’t think of anything like that.”

One of the things I find interesting about these stories is the glimpse they provide of my grandparent’s sense of humor, a joint sense of humor—Grandma urging my dad and Helen to ask their father for some money to help them set up housekeeping after they got rid of the mean neighbor, of Grandpa giving my dad the two pennies he wanted so he could buy some horses. Grandma’s humor is no surprise. She sounds very much like the Grandma I knew. But Grandpa having a sense of humor is a bit of a surprise, casts a new light on both him and his relationship with my grandmother.

 Low German

The “Dutch” that Dad said was the only language he knew, the language he assumed everyone spoke, was Plautdietsch, the Mennonite dialect of Low German. Dad enjoyed the language and often joked about it.

“—Low German, what kind of a language is that? My brother John explains it this way. There were a group of German people living on the border of Holland and Germany. A big hand took and threw them against a high wall. Those that clung to the wall, they were High German. —“To clear up the language bit, I was in Amsterdam, Holland in 1966. There I found the name Willems in the telephone book. The name is Dutch.”

Starting school knowing only Low German and no English, however, was not funny.

“In 1920, I started school at Kings River. I couldn’t speak one word of English. I spoke Low German. Not understanding the teacher, I fell behind. When the teacher stood behind me, I just froze. My mind went blank. So you can see how my education suffered. This frustration stayed with me till today. If someone stands behind me and tries to help me, I go blank.”

 Grand View School District

Dad said the place the family lived on near Kings River, like all the places where they lived, was only rented. When I asked him how long they lived at Kings River, he said,

“I forget. It was one season, then the next year till crop time. From there we moved to the Grand View area, closer to Dinuba. Grand View was my second school. That was another reason I didn’t learn nothing. I had the language problem and changing schools so often, not understanding the English.”

Did you have a farm at Grand View?

“There we moved on a farm, but it was all bare land. We just lived there, and Dad worked for wages.”

How long did you live there?

“About a year, something like that.”

And then you moved to…?

“From there we went to Fairmead.”


©Loretta Willems, December 1, 2015

            [i] Wallace Smith. Garden in the Sun: A History of the San Joaquin Valley, 1772-1939, 2nd ed. Edited & Revised by William B. Secrest, Jr. Fresno, CA, pp. 605-606. Linden Publishing, Inc., 2004. Source: California Department of Public Works, Division of Engineering and Irrigation, Bulletin No. 12. Summary on the Water Resources of California and a Coordinated Plan for their Development, 33 (date of pamphlet not given).

4 thoughts on “Chapter 13:California 1919-1922

  1. Many times I’ve driven highway 99 going back and forth from SF and LA and I also never bothered to memorize the order of towns stringing up and down the valley. I loved your story of buying a horse for a penny.


    • That’s a long haul from LA to SF and horrible traffic now, very different re traffic when I was a girl. –I’m glad you liked my dad’s story. It’s encouraging to know it survived the transition from oral to written words.


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