I’ve been doing a lot of non-literary reading lately, researching early California life. This afternoon at the California Historical Society, I read the (thankfully) typed memoir of Harriet Thompson Palmer Dundas, called When We and California Were Young. In short, it’s terrific. These were the words of a 80 year old woman who then went back and revised them in her later years. Selfishly, I’m listing out the bits that were interesting to me.
She describes moving from Los Banos to Tehama County. Her mom wanted to go all the way to Oregon, but her father insisted on buying some land in Tehama. The journey in 1880(?) via wagon involved the family camping each night, approaching Sacramento (which was called Washington at that time!), finally making the last leg of the journey to Tehama from Sacramento in a week. They found a rambling old barn and a three room shack waiting for them. Much was made in the account about how absolutely poor they were, how amazed she is that her mother was able to provide for the 8 person family, and how they ate a lot of beans and cornbread.
At a friend’s house, she observes a friendly Chinese cook who makes amazing cookies and desserts. As an offhand, she notes:
This same Chinese cook like many others of that day saved all his kidney excretions, carefully, in bottles to be shipped back to the mother country and there to be used as fertilizer. These bottles were kept lined up under the kitchen sink or in his bunk house until enough had accumulated to warrant shipment.
She watches her brother and his friends flirt with fate as they wait until the last possible second to jump a train track while a train was steaming at them, and follows along, feeling the heat of the engine on her legs.
A massive storm comes in, clapping open the door during a sudden burst, her parents both wrestle the door back on its hinges and hold it there, but the front porch dances away in the wind. The flooding post-storm was fun to behold, and the author appreciates growing up poor in this section (and many others) because otherwise she wouldn’t have delighted so much in the epic swelling of the creek, etc.
A man comes looking for a young girl to care for his wife while he’s away, and the author heads over, tending to a baby and doing the washing. Her father can’t get work, borrowing credit from the grocer for the winter, then he sent away for baubles to peddle across the countryside from a kit. Eventually he gets a job in Oroville in a mine. While he’s away, the mom and children buy vegetables from the Chinese gardens, and collect elderberries from the woods. Word comes from Oroville of an accident his father broke his back, legs, and arms in, and the family moves there to be closer. The $190 cash that was hard-earned with turkeys and alfalfa is stashed at the bottom of a stove that is in the bottom of the wagon with all their belongings piled atop it. While dad is recouping, the kids do odd jobs, and the author scavenges for dirty towels from barber shops to clean for $0.01.
They move to Thompson’s Flat, a near-ghost town that was an old mining town. That summer, they camp 3 miles from Oroville for her mom’s health, and then camp across the river from Oroville. There is a big rush in the river in the spring, with the snow melt-off, and the family spears salmon as they flop upriver. The author heads off to pick berries for a farmer in the summer, earning $4.
The family rolls further south, headed to Carmel Valley. After local Indian boys make moves on her, the author is sent to work for a banker in a city so she can earn money and get schooling. Her father lands a carpentry job in Santa Clara County, and the author and her sister follow for a summer of fog in tents. There is an upswirl around religious revival in San Jose that her father briefly participates in. “The beach, church, and post office were the main places for young people to mingle with the opposite sex.” Kids would wait in line at the post office without the vaguest idea of if there is a letter waiting for them either then or ever.
The author begins to feel like she is an attractive woman, and starts going on walks with boys to Lover’s point. She always makes it clear that kisses are NOT in the picture, and eventually finds out about “Summer Girls,” e.g. those away from home and not as strictly behaved as if they were at home. The author then bemoans the fact that it’s hard to distinguish good girls from bad girls nowadays (1950s?).