Chapter 14: Madera County: 1922-1929

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 Fairmead, California


“You moved to Fairmead after Grandview?”

“Well no, see, from Berenda to Dixieland and from Dixieland to Fairmead and from Fairmead back into Dixieland—the Dairyland area. Berenda was the first stop.”

“Berenda and all that are sort of in the same general area then?”

“They’re within about 7 miles. In Berenda the school still stands by the road—the ‘99’, and the Dixieland school is about 6 miles off of Highway 99, and Fairmead is several blocks off there.”              Jacob “Jack” Willems, 1997

I have always known that my father and his family lived in the Madera area for a time when he was a boy. I remember seeing the small, plain signs for “Berenda” and “Fairmead” that sat along the railroad track on Highway 99 when my family drove down to Dinuba from Stockton. I don’t remember that those signs sparked any stories or reminiscences about those places, though, and I always assumed that the family’s time in the area had been short.

When Dad told stories about when he was a boy, I saw the area around Reedley and Dinuba. I thought of vineyards and orchards and the Kings River and farmhouses with big trees around them—not this open, treeless land that lay between Chowchilla and Madera. It looked so hot and bare and desolate. Nothing invited my eyes and imagination. I literally could not imagine living there—did not want to even think about living there. No escape from the heat in that treeless place, no shade, no bright green leaves to refresh the eye. No Kings River for my dad and his brothers and mules to swim in at the end of a long workday, no vines to lie under for a break from the sun. No big trees sheltering houses with their shade—just open, exposed land as far as I could see, land beaten down hard by a relentless sun, dry, hard shimmering with heat waves, a land to break one’s spirit. The thought of living there felt like death.

I was in for a surprise, then, when I started a time-line for the 1920s to try to get clear in my head the jumble of names and places where my father’s family lived when he was a boy. I had found my grandparents’ names, Jacob C. and Lena Willems, on the membership list for the Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church, and I noticed that it not only gave a date for when my grandparents joined, (December 15, 1919), it also the date of a letter of transfer for them to take to another church. The date of the letter of transfer was December 3, 1922 and included the date when my grandparents resumed their membership in the Reedley MN Church, November 29, 1929. My father’s family lived in the Dinuba-Reedley area for only three years before they moved away. They had lived most of the 1920s in Madera County.

From 1922 to 1929 is seven whole years—seven important years in the life of the family. When the family moved to Madera County the family numbered nine children—seven boys and two girls. When they returned to Reedley, the number of children had grown to twelve—seven boys and five girls. My father was still a small boy, only eight years old, when the family moved to Berenda in 1922. When the family moved back to Reedley, dad was a teen-ager. The images my mind supplied when I heard Dad’s stories about his childhood had to be revised. I had to re-imagine his life, place the boy who was my father in a landscape I had rejected. I need to rebuild my sense of the story of his life and that of his family.

Madera Redux

 “Madera County has an area of 2,112 square miles, about equally divided into plains, foothills and high mountain region. The population in 1930 was 17,164. . . .             …“The foothill and plains portions of what was to become Madera County were gradually divided up into a number of large ranch and pasture holding. Of these, the most notable accumulation was the 145,000 acres belonging to Miller & Lux. Most of this lay in the extreme west end of the county, with some small acreage only east of the Southern Pacific line. In the last ten years, since the death of Miller, the directors of the company have endeavored to dispose of the land, have virtually brought to a close the cattle production, and have sold off 100,000 acres. Most of this has been in very small tracts, but two sales have been in blocks of several thousand acres.”                                 History of Fresno and Madera Counties (1930, 1933)[i]

“Why in the world would they move out to Madera? There’s nothing there!” Those are my aunt Rosie’s words when the subject of Madera came up in one of my visits to Dinuba while doing research on the family. And the word that sprang to mind in response was ‘poverty’—poverty and the desperate attempt to own land of one’s own. The land around Dinuba and Reedley was beautiful and productive, but it was also very, very expensive by the time my grandparents arrived with their children in 1919. I have no knowledge of how much money was realized at the sale of their homestead in Saskatchewan, but the desire to help his parents financially found in even the earliest of my dad’s earliest memories of California indicate that it must have been little more than the cost of the train tickets.

My dad said that all the places the family lived on around Dinuba were rented, and evidently they were renting only the house. He said his father worked for wages; they didn’t own horses, didn’t even have the means to feed a free horse. Farm labor was seasonal, hourly work paid very little. My grandparents must have been anxious, desperate to somehow break out of the financial trap in which they found themselves when they arrived in the golden land that had beckoned so seductively. The bare land in Madera County must have looked like a place where they might get a foot-hold.

My father’s brother John said that his father’s uncle, John Boldt, talked with the Dinuba realtor Omar Newton, and the real estate agent recommended Madera for the family.[ii] Joseph Barcroft in his History of Fresno and Madera Counties published in 1933 states that the Miller & Lux ranch sold off 100,000 acres in Madera County during the course of the 1920s. The ten acres my grandparents bought may well have been part of the Miller & Lux sell-off. If so, the land they purchased, which had been used as cattle range, was basically worn-out former wheat land—land that had undergone decades of monocrop grain farming that “effectively mined the soil of nutrients and promoted the growth of weeds.”[iii]

Unlike the land around Dinuba and Reedley this land was neither fertile nor well-watered. Rivers and streams in the area were small, their flow ending early in the summer. Farmers in the area were in the midst of a legal battle with the Miller & Lux Ranch over San Joaquin River water rights. Friant Dam, which eventually made possible the creation of the Madera Irrigation District, was not started until 1937 and not finished until 1942. In the 1920s, when my family lived in Madera County, farmers were primarily dependent on well water and gas-powered pumps for irrigation, which limited the amount of acreage that could profitably be cropped.

“Berenda was the first stop.”

            “Dad bought some land and he built a little shack house there [in Berenda]. Half of it was wood floor, and the other half was dirt floor—the kitchen area. And we had to dig a well. Walking around digging it, pulling it.”

“The water table was high enough then that you could hand-dig a well?”

“No we didn’t hand dig it. We had a hand digger, like an auger you know. Two men had to work it. We walked it, one on the one side, the other on the other—and you walked around and that would dig it. We dug that I think 80 foot deep. Seemed that way to me anyway. One length of rod was, I think, 20 feet long, and we had that thing 3 –4 rods. We cased our well as we went down. —Jack Zimmerman helped a little.”

“Did your dad grow wheat there?”

“He must have. It was all bare land, rolling land. Berenda was where it was”

“About how many acres was it?”

            “I think, maybe 20, and the Hamm’s lived there then. We was introduced by the Mennonite church.”                Jacob J. [Jack] Willems, 1997

My dad was eight years old when the family moved to Berenda, old enough to judge the two-room house his dad built a “shack,” old enough, perhaps, to even help with the digging of the well, though, I’m quite sure it was probably his father and older brothers—Nick, Stan and Henry—who did the actual work. Even if Dad wasn’t much real help in the digging, he would have been out there observing everything that was going on, feeling part of this fascinating project.

Uncle John, my father’s next youngest sibling, turned seven in the fall of 1922. He, too, remembered the two-room shack his dad built, though the word John used was “cabin.” My dad had said that his mother’s youngest brother, Jack Zimmerman, helped with digging the well. The adult male who helped the family that John remembered was Pete Goerz, the husband of his father’s third youngest sister, Maria. John said that Pete moved down there with them, that his father and Pete Goertz built two cabins, which were about an eighth of a mile apart, but added that it was mainly Pete Goertz who did the building of the house: “Dad didn’t know anything about building!”

Like my father, John remembered there was wood flooring in only one of the two rooms, that the floor in the other room was dirt. John also said his father and Pete Goertz built a shallow reservoir on the place, –he didn’t remember them digging a well, nor did he remember that they did any farming. He emphasized that it was just bare land, said that his father didn’t know anything about how to farm in California. He didn’t know if his father worked for wages while they lived there or what his father might have done to support the family.

It was the barrenness of the land that seemed to dominate John’s memory. He talked about driving out onto the Miller-Lux land and seeing coyote pelts hanging over the barbed wire fence. “Those coyote skins just went on and on. They seemed to go so far.”

The barrenness of the land and a prairie fire that was coming right at the house were what my uncle Frank remembered. He was just a very little boy when his family lived in Berenda. Born in 1919, he would have been only three or four years old, but he remembered that fire and his father and older boys beating it back with gunny sacks.

Nine children and two adults living in a two-room shack. Bare land, no shade. That shack would have been stifling hot in summer, claustrophobic when the winter rain and mud set in. Bare land with no water until the well was dug. Digging that well—building even a shack—took money. It took money to get land into production. It took money to buy animals and farm equipment and supplies. It took money to feed the family until the land began to produce. In Dinuba they had not even had horses with which to work the peach orchard that came with the house they rented. What did the family live on there on that bare piece of land? Dad said the family always had cows, about three of them, as well as chickens and pigs—they usually butchered about twice a year. But I can’t see those animals on that bare land. There was no pasture, no barn. There was no place to put the animals, nothing to feed them that wasn’t purchased from others.

What was Grandpa intending to do with that place anyway? Twenty acres of dry land can’t support a family. Did he intend to develop the land for some kind of intensive farming? Alfalfa, perhaps? Alfalfa was the most valuable crop produced in the Valley, exceeding raisins, citrus, cotton and dairy products (1932)[iv]. Alfalfa could be cut six times in a year on average, each cutting producing two tons to the acre on good, irrigated land. But whatever Grandpa’s plans, they didn’t materialize. The family was only in Berenda a short time. Were they able to sell that place and recover the money they put into it? Or did they simply have to walk away because they ran out of money and could not survive on that place?

Pascal Buckley

Many of Dad’s stories are about his attempts to help his family. The one below was sparked by the memory of his friend Pascal Buckley:

            “So [Pascal] said, ‘My dad I guess he’s going to have to shoot a sheep. He broke his leg.

            “I couldn’t study, I couldn’t do nothing that day thinking about that sheep so as soon as we got home—no, I didn’t even go home—I went with Pascal to his home, and I said to Mr. Buckley, “You’ve got a sheep here and it’s got a broken leg and I hear you’re going to shoot it. Now don’t you shoot it! I can take that sheep home and my people can eat that sheep.

            “Well,” he said, “I’ll give it to you with one condition. You take that jackass too.

            “Then Henry and I went with a—you know what a road cart is? That’s a two-wheeler with one horse. So we went over—I ran all the way home, and we went back and got that sheep in that road cart—we had to take the jackass, too.

That jackass was ornery. Frank was a younger one, and John and I–and I was in front–and we’d get that jackass to trot, and all at once he’d take and stop just like that and put his head down and away we’d go!”

My father’s stories reveal that the people around the family were concerned about them and tried to help. In the story above, his friend Pascal Buckley’s father not only gives my dad the sheep with the broken leg, Mr. Buckley finds a dignity-preserving way to give the family a jackass as well. And when the family left the bare land in Berenda for a small dairy in Dixieland, it seems to have been with the help of another neighbor, a man named “Sam Harvard” who talked to the person who owned the dairy and was looking for a tenant to take care of the cows and land.

Dixieland: The First Dairy

“We had a dairy there. Sam Harvard was very helpful, in trying to help us.”                                               Jacob ”Jack” Willems (1997)

The family lived on two different dairy farms in the Dixieland area. Uncle John said the first dairy was the “Jantzen Place,” which was about a half-mile south of Dixieland School and the Mennonite Brethren church. It was small dairy, about 10 acres, and “it wasn’t much of a place.” John thought the family got their cows from the big dairy next to theirs. He also thought their dairy might have been a subsidiary of that bigger one.

John also remembered picking alfalfa to feed to their bull, which was staked out on a chain that went through a ring in its nose. John was there when the bull was ringed. He said his dad and the boys walked the bull over to the place next to theirs and put it in a stall in the barn. “It was roaring and bellowing. I was just a little guy. I was so scared of that bull! I climbed way up on a haystack and still didn’t feel safe up there.”

Dixieland evoked other memories for John. One was about Christmas. John said his mom and dad would set out dinner plates and have the kids go into the other room. They would then put an apple, some peanuts and mixed candy, and a little gift in each plate, something like a jackknife—nothing big. His dad would then give a whistle for the kids to come in. That was their Christmas.

Another good memory was about a bakery in Madera. John said his folks would drive into Madera to a bakery where they traded chickens for day-old baked goods, bread and rolls and other goodies. “Oh, how we loved that! We would eat and eat. It tasted so good!

Those sweet goodies didn’t help their bad teeth. John said that when he was growing up they didn’t have toothbrushes and never brushed their teeth. That lack of dental care resulted in a lot of rotting teeth and toothache. Finally, when they were living in Dixieland, his father took a bunch of them to a dentist in Madera who pulled three teeth for a dollar. John then laughed and told a story about toothbrushes and toothpaste.

When he was in first grade at the Berenda school a visiting nurse gave each of them a toothbrush and showed them how to use it. She also gave each of them a tube of toothpaste. On the way home they opened the tubes and tasted the paste. “It tasted pretty good.” By the time they got home they’d eaten it all up.

Dixieland is where my Aunt Mary’s memories began, a memory of the older kids going to the Dixieland school and leaving her at home. “I cried because I missed the older kids so much, so Mom would let me visit school with them. I was so thin. Mom put plumamooss (a fruit soup) in a jar for my lunch, and somehow it dropped and broke and I was brokenhearted. –It was sort of a sand creek, and the older kids helped me cover it up so no one would know.”

Even though the dairy was small and my grandparents were only renting, Dixieland seems to have been a definite improvement to the place in Berenda. The family not only had milk from the cows, the place had irrigation water. There would have been feed for chickens and pigs; they could grow a garden; there might even have been a few fruit trees. And it would have been green. Alfalfa is green all year long. In the hot summer those irrigated fields would have been brilliant green, a relief to the eye, the water filled ditches that a relief to hot, bare feet.

Dixieland School

As a little boy, second or third grade in Dixieland—I stayed back one year and the next year was put back—I was so embarrassed I would just freeze up when they talked to me. Nothing went in and nothing came out—but Mrs.Garbedian– Miss Garbedian, she was an Armenian, and she was a sweetheart, and she stayed with Pete Walls, had a room there, and she would teach and she could sing pretty good.

            “And I could sing like the dickens. We had an annual play, and I was Jack Frost. I had little shorts on: ‘I’m Jack Frost as you can see. I make the cold wind blow. I cover all the hills and dales—with frosty snow.’

            –I sang that song as a solo, then the next year they wanted me again! And I had to play cupid. And I had these little wings and stuff like that, and a little wooden sword. – ‘Cupid then will teach you. You’ll understand, oh, you shall understand.’ I still remember that”.               Jacob “Jack” Willems (1997)

On the Madera County map Dixieland School is about 4 miles west of Highway 99, at the intersection of Avenue 18 ½ and Road 19, on the southwest corner. Dad said that Miss Garbedian, his teacher, had a room with the Pete Walls. The Walls were Mennonites, and Uncle John says that the little MB church was just across the road from the school, cater-corner to it. This intersection seems to have been the heart of the tiny MB community. Uncle John referred to the dairy his family lived on as “the Jantzen place.” The name Jantzen is common among MBs.

The Madera Mennonite Brethren Church

         “The Madera Mennonite Brethren Church … formerly the Fairmead Mennonite Brethren Church… changed its name when the town and post office of Fairmead was discontinued. The church was organized with Cornelius Wittenberg as pastor when a number of Mennonite Brethren families from Russia settled in the district in 1911-1912. Together with General Conference Mennonites they erected a temporary church building, but the group dissolved when the settlers were unable to meet payments on the land they purchased. On 19 October 1919, they reorganized with Peter Wall as leader and reopened the church. Bernard Wall, a brother of Peter Wall, served the church for 25 years, from 1928 until his retirement in 1953. The membership rose to 36 in 1924, but later declined to about 20. On 5 November 1939 a new church building was dedicated. In 1954 the membership was 34.”                                       The Mennonite Encyclopedia (1957)[v]

 “They had that little Mennonite church there. You could sit in there and see right through the cracks in the walls where they didn’t have the shiplap to cover. It was quite an airy church!”             Jacob”Jack” Willems (1997)

            The Fairmead Mennonite Brethren Church was actually in Dixieland. My Dad and Uncle John both laughed when they remembered it. Dad remembered being able to see outside through the cracks in the walls. Uncle John remembered the little building had two cloakrooms just inside the door—one on each side—and an outhouse out back. In the summer the doors would be left open because of the heat. And when they sat in church on Sunday evenings the June bugs would come in and fly around and fall on the floor. “It was good entertainment for us boys!” After church all the boys would play games in the church yard, which was also “a lot of fun.”

It was a very little church. I have to laugh, the Mennonite Encyclopedia states the membership “rose to 36 in 1924, but later declined to about 20.” That peak membership was right when my family was there, and the later decline must have been when the family moved back to Reedley! How interesting to see the names, Peter Wall and Bernard Wall. Dad remembered the Walls in his story of Miss Garbedian and the Dixieland School. Uncle John and Aunt Mary also remembered the Walls: John said Ben Wall was the pastor of the church; Mary said that Pete Wall taught High German to the kids at church. “I wasn’t in school yet. I sat on his lap, and he would teach me High German—before I was even in the first grade! Some of it has stayed with me, but not very much.”

The Walls also seem to have been instrumental in the family’s next move, this time into a really big house, one with seven bedrooms, a house that had originally been a hotel.

The House in Fairmead

I’m not sure how long we lived in Fairmead. I know we lived there when I was five years old. That was in 1926. I went to first grade there, and then we moved back to Dixieland. Your dad and I finished the grade in Fairmead by driving back and forth in a cart pulled by a mule. I think we were late every day. We tied the mule to the flag-pole until someone let us put him in the shed as he made such a mess.”                                                Ed Willems (email, 2/14/08)

            “In Fairmead, you know when we lived in that big house? –Grandpa and Grandma lived, oh maybe a block away. There was a path that went right to their house. They lived there a while, not long. It must have been shortly after they came from Canada. I remember hearing Neufeldt was running a store there, and somebody said the Wall’s owned the big hotel—the house we bought.”                                                   Mary Willems Davis (1996)                                       

Fairmead is about 3 miles northwest of Berenda on the east side of Hwy 99. Once upon a time it was actually a little town with its own post office. I found a picture of Fairmead on the Internet that looks like it was taken during the 1920s. It is an old postcard, and it shows a flat-topped two-story building with the words “Mercantile” painted in big, block letters over the second story windows. A surprisingly large number of 1920s’ vintage automobiles are randomly parked in front of the building. Under the photo someone has written, “The message on the rear reports that this is not all of Fairmead. ‘We have a drugstore, butcher shop, and land office, and a vacant building on our main street.’”

What the postcard does not mention is that Fairmead also once had a small hotel. Grandma and Grandpa bought that hotel sometime in the mid-1920s. Uncle John said that it had six bedrooms upstairs where the kids slept and another bedroom downstairs where his parents slept. His folks paid $2000 for it, and it came with a barn and about an acre of land. When I asked John if they used the barn for cows and other animals, he said they bought their milk while they lived there. He didn’t remember any animals, but said there must have been some because there was a manure pond out back of the barn. John said the three older boys—Nick, Stan and Henry—were sneaking cigarettes out behind the barn and caught the manure pile on fire. His dad “whipped the whole bunch of us. He laid us over a chair and whipped each of us.” John and my dad weren’t part of the smoking, but they wouldn’t tell on the other boys so got included in the general whipping. He said his brothers didn’t have any money so they would try smoking grape leaves, dry grass—even dry manure!

The family lived in the big house in the town of Fairmead about two years. Frank and Ed both said they started school there, and Rosie said she was born there. Frank turned six in March 1925, and presumably started school the following fall. Rosie was born in June 1927. Those are my guiding dates. Who all was in the house then, and what were their ages in 1925? There were eleven children in the family at that point: Nick, who turned 17 in September; Stan 15; Henry 14; Helen 13; my dad 11; John 10; Mary 8; Frank 6; Ed 4; Elizabeth 2 and Martha, the current baby, born March 28, 1925. Seven boys and four girls. That big house must have been a real luxury after the two-room shack at Berenda and the little house in Dixieland!

John says that his father worked for wages while they lived in the house—seasonal work for farms in the area, and would take the boys out to pick grapes and apricots. They worked for Mr. Patterson. The boys would pick and cut apricots, and his dad would lay them on the trays to dry. “If we could make 300 trays a day, Dad would give each of us a nickel.” John bought his first pair of long pants with those nickels. He also said that his father spent a lot of time fixing cars (they had two Chandlers): “Nick really tore up the cars!” When I asked about whether the family planted vegetable gardens, he said “Oh, yeah, especially at Dixieland.” When I inquired whether his dad was the one who did the garden, John said, “He supervised.”

Grandpa had five sons old enough to work hard, a real work force. Grandma had only her daughter, Helen, to help with the work required by that huge family. Eight-year-old Mary could look after the little ones when she was not at school, but the cooking, cleaning and laundry for thirteen people would have been done by Grandma and Helen. I wish I had Helen’s memories. She was older than John and my dad. She would have known what it was like to live and try to take care of the needs of a big family in a two-room shack with a dirt floor in the kitchen. She also would have remembered what the little houses on the dairies in Dixieland looked like inside; she would have been able to describe the kitchen and other rooms in the house in Fairmead.

Helen would have had a different set of memories than her brothers. The life of the boys was outside. Helen’s life would have been inside the house helping her mother. She would have remembered cooking and cleaning and washing clothes. And it wouldn’t have been just the work she remembered. She was Grandma’s companion in the house. They would have visited while they worked; they would have talked about relatives and church and school. They would have laughed, and they probably would have sung together as well. But Helen would also have been aware of her mother’s worry about the family’s deep poverty, and she would have seen the effects on her mother of the babies that kept coming one after the other.


“I can remember Mom saying that she was so worried that one of us would starve to death. It was probably about the time we were living in Madera, just about the time I was born—and before I was born, because Mary, I guess it was, was talking about the sister just older than I. She died at childbirth, and Mary says she feels Mom had a nervous breakdown or close to it about that time because she can remember her staying in her room and not coming out of her room for quite a while. Everybody had to be quiet, so I think those were the hardest times.”                                                                                             Rosella Willems Noble (taped interview,1997)

All those pregnancies! All those babies! Yet even with all that work and worry, Grandma grieved when one of those babies died. Lillian, the baby girl who died, was Grandma’s twelfth child—but still there was grief. The family was living in Fairmead then. Mary said the Zimmermann grandparents lived just about a block away. When Lillian died her Grandpa Zimmermann, who was a cabinetmaker, made a beautiful little coffin her mother lined with silk. Did the Zimmermann grandparents move to Fairmead to help the family? Were they the ones who said that everyone needed to be quiet during the days Grandma spent alone in her room? Or was it Helen, that responsible oldest daughter, who shushed the other children?

The big house allowed Grandma privacy as she mourned. But neither she, nor the rest of the family were able to enjoy that spaciousness for long. Sometime after June 22, 1927, the date Rosie was born, the family moved back to the Dixieland area into a small two-bedroom house on another dairy. The house in Fairmead seems to have been the last place Grandpa tried to purchase. From this point on he either rented or leased farms with houses the family could live in.

Dixieland: The Second Dairy

“I started school in the Fairmead Grammar School. After moving back to the Dixieland area and attending school there, we went back to the Fairmead School while living in Dixieland. Dad got us a road cart which my big brother Jack piloted with a mule pulling it. As I recall, my sisters Helen and Mary and my brothers John, Ed and I all rode in the cart with Jack back to the Fairmead School.”        Frank Willems (1997)[vi]

“The house we lived in was too small to sleep all of us comfortable so in the summer time the boys would make a bedroom out of sight in the corn patch. Nick had a habit of running and jumping into bed at night. Mother did not like it. He was breaking the springs in the bed, so one day John and I had a plan. There was a gunny-sack of old shoes laying around so we carefully put them under his covers. That night when he jumped into bed, what a surprise!”                   Jacob “Jack” Willems (1997)

        Uncle John called the second Dixieland dairy “the Winters’ place”. He said it was northwest of the Dixieland School, “way out there on the edge of nowhere.” He remembered looking west and seeing nothing out there, “no buildings, nothing,” just bare, undeveloped land and “a lot of coyotes!” Between his folks’ place and the Dixieland School were grain fields. Their neighbors had a 6-horse rig to work their land. ”I could hear those boys cussing that team!” This second dairy had about 30 cows and was much bigger than the Janzen place. His family raised their own hay. It was alfalfa, and some of the cows got into fresh alfalfa and got sick. Three of them died.

Although the second Dixieland dairy was bigger than the first, the house was “really little.” It had only two bedrooms. Aunt Mary remembers that it did have “a big, long porch in the back,” but with eleven children in the house, plus parents, that house was terribly crowded. To ease the crowding, when the weather got warm the family put a couple of beds out in the field near the barn for the boys to sleep in. They planted sunflowers and tomatoes around the beds, and when the sunflowers grew tall, the leaves and stalks created a “room”. It was cooler out there than in the house, and there was no worry about rain in the summer, but John said it could get really scary at times. He remembered when one of the cows died. They buried it near the fig trees, and that night in bed he could hear the coyotes digging and growling. In the morning the cow carcass was all gone.

In a later conversation, John said that the boys slept three to a bed. Two of them had their heads at the top of the bed; the other one had his head at the foot. John added that the boys didn’t always sleep in the field. When they slept in the house, on hot summer nights after his father took the lamp out of the bedroom, they would sneak out the window and run naked down the road and go swimming in the reservoir. They would cross a sand creek and then they would be at the reservoir. All they had to see by was the moon and stars. “It was so dark out there at night with no electricity!”


Aunt Rosie, who was a very little girl when her family lived in Madera County, has only one strong memory she associates with that place. It is a memory of someone in the church wanting to adopt her, “It scared me to death!”[vii] She thinks now that people might have been joking. She was a pretty little girl, and people do joke about taking little kids home with them. However, it is also true that more prosperous Mennonite families often did adopt children from poor families who had a lot of children. It is very possible that someone in the church talked to my grandparents about adopting Rosie.

My grandparents’ attempt to buy land of their own which took them to the Fairmead-Dixieland area failed. They must have felt real fear, experienced deep anxiety; they must have felt desperate at times. It was up to them to keep all those children alive, keep them fed and housed. And from what Rosie has said, they were not sure they could do it. Yet, somehow, with the help of concerned neighbors and their church community, my grandparents did manage to keep their children alive and their family together. They also managed to do much more than keep them physically alive. Poverty did not have the last word in their children’s lives. It did not turn their world grey. It did not leave them leaden-eyed. Those children had fun. They had spirit and gumption. They could laugh. They could dream.

                [i] The History of Fresno and Madera Counties written by Joseph Barcroft in1930-32 can be found at the following website: .

                [ii] The information from Uncle John is from phone conversations 5/2/2008 & 8/16/2008.

                [iii]Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode. “An Overview of the History of California Agriculture” in California Agriculture: Issues and Challenges. (University of California: Giannini Foundation, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1997), 2.

                [iv] For information about alfalfa see, Garden of the Sun: A History of the San Joaquin Valley: 1772-1929, 2nd edition, by Wallace Smith (Fresno: Linden Publishing, Inc., 2004).

                [v]Neufeld, I. G. “Madera Avenue Bible Church (Madera, California, USA).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. March 2014. Web. 30 Dec 2015.,_California,_USA)&oldid=125678.

                [vi] A Short History of Frank J. Willems and Family of Hillsboro, Kansas (3/ 24/97, unpublished]).

                [vii] Informal conversation 9/4/08.

©Loretta Willems, January 1, 2016







8 thoughts on “Chapter 14: Madera County: 1922-1929

  1. Another fascinating read, Loretta. In much earlier years I was often in the Highway 99 area in central California — slow-going, through lots of little towns — interesting to see what it was like in your grandfather’s day — and the depiction of living in poverty with so many children was quite impressive!


  2. Loretta,
    From what I have been reading here, we are related. Your grandfather, Jacob Willems has a sister, Maria, who is my grandmother. She married Peter Goerzen (Spelling of last name varies).
    I’m enjoying all the reading so far!


    • Nancy. How wonderful to hear from you! Yes, your grandparents’ names are familiar to me, but this is this first time I’ve been contacted by any descendants of my grandfather’s sisters. Did you grow up in the Fresno area? I’m very glad you’re enjoying what I’ve written.


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