Man of the House

| December 2003

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    Threshing grain crops
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    Track-type tractors
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    1930 cover

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My family's journey from Nebraska to the Pacific lands of California lasted three weeks. I was only 14 at the time and suddenly had a man's responsibility with Mom, Dad and little brother, Carl, age 5, as my passengers. Yet, I successfully navigated our new 1926 Chevrolet Sedan westward toward the Golden State. Our southern route took us across many rivers, mountain passes and expansive deserts, but we finally reached our destination of Gerber, Calif. There, we settled on a small 27-acre farm of bare land.

'How was grain threshed in this new land?' I wondered. I soon learned that no steam rigs existed in the area. Instead, huge combines unheard of in Nebraska harvested a big part of the acreage. These combines were pulled with 26 to 30 horses or a gigantic Caterpillar tractor. Smaller acreages were still harvested with a binder and stationary thresher. Those wonders were just the beginning of my California adventure.

A meager subsistence

Our first grain crop was a meager 5 acres of barley, and we hired someone to bind and thresh it for us. Such a small outfit didn't compare to the huge steam-threshing rigs I once operated, but our land was threshed just the same.

Our little farm struggled along, but there was never enough money to go around. We needed to find more work until Dad and I could  plow some more of our land. We heard stories of rice fields to the south of us, so Dad and I went to see about a job. Fortunately, we both were hired to thresh in the rice fields. The pay was 35 cents an hour for 10 hours a day - including Sundays - and we got no time off, except for rain days.

The Samual Ranch was large with about 800 acres planted in rice. Six binders were employed in the operation: five were pulled with horses and the sixth was powered by a 2-ton Caterpillar tractor. Our job was to shock the rice, eight bundles to a shock. Fifteen men were employed in each group, and Dad and I worked with a singing Mexican with a very large sombrero and a rangy cowboy with a big hat as well. These two characters stood out from the other men, the former fellow constantly singing, and the latter dude telling dirty jokes that certainly educated me about the facts of life well before my time.

I loved to shock wheat for short periods of time, but Dad and I were working 10-hour shifts, seven days a week. As the days went by, I grew weary and finally fell sick. I told Dad I wanted to go home. We were staying in a cabin in Willows, Calif., for a dollar a day, and each morning we drove 4 miles to the Samual Ranch. We bunked at the Samual Ranch, but the mosquitoes drove us out the first night. That first mosquito-filled, sleepless night was what made me sick. Despite my pleas, Dad stoically told me that we had to finish our job. He suggested I take some Castor oil, and in the morning I felt a little better.


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