ContentsPutah and Cache: Capay Valley

Previous chapter Previous piece More like this

Next piece

Next chapter


Of Fires and Early Fruit
A Conversation

Cast of Characters:
Will Baker, Harry Jones, and Annie Main, with Robert Thayer, Peter B. Moyle, Bob Speirs, Jan Goggans, Daniel Leroy, and David Robertson

Will: Welcome. This is the Rumsey opera house. A stage back there and these little paper wings help define it as an opera house. It was not a stop on the major circuit, obviously. When David asked me to talk about the valley, I knew immediately that I didn't know enough about it. So I invited two of my local experts and village elders. Bob Speirs is a retired medical school teacher who has been at the forefront of every single environmental struggle that's gone on since I came here and has usually led the charge and done hard research. We're all tremendously indebted to him. He's glad to talk to anybody about Cache Creek anytime. My good neighbor Harry Jones has been my ag teacher for twenty-five years. He has taught me what little I know about farming. When we were driving over here we were talking about the fire, and he said "You know, some of these seasonal little springs are going to run better, now." And I thought, "Wait a minute, now, everything just burnt off . . . " And he said, "Yes, it burned off all the brush temporarily so it's not sucking as much moisture."

Rob: When's the last time the fire burned this side of the hill?

Harry: 1972. It burned from Caskett Bridge, not on this side so much but it went up to the top of the mountain and burned down, almost to Guinda. And we had quite a bit of north wind. It lasted three or four days I think. If it got too close, some of the farmers would go out and try to put it out, or save some buildings. And then the department of forestry came in, and it still burned almost to Winters. Then the south wind started blowing and brought it on this side of the mountain back to Rumsey again. So there were probably eleven or twelve days of fire altogether.

Peter: Did the farmers in this area ever deliberately set fires?

Harry: Oh, yeah—years ago some of them would run cattle in the hills, and goats. So they would burn sections off, maybe two or three square miles, to improve the fodder. We didn't have big wild fires back then. A fire would hit an old burn, one like two years old, and it'd go out. Wouldn't have anything to burn.

Will: I had a neighbor, also one of our elders, who described the fire-making procedures: You'd go up and find a dry cow pile and you'd take your live cigarette and lift a flap and stick it in there and then you'd put it on a ridge in the late morning and the wind would come up in the afternoon and so while you're having a beer with the fire marshal down in Glenwood, the blaze starts.

Peter: So are there any formal control burns to manage vegetation or prevent wildfires?

Harry: Well this last time they backfired right along the edge of the hills. Forest Service did that because you'd have to take thousands of men if you tried to keep a fire from coming down here. You couldn't do it. The wind changes. So that's why they went along the edge. Just to protect the buildings and what's in the valley. The fire this year does seem too bad, because look at all the thousands of acres that burned here. You've lost all your duff, you've lost all your brush, that hold back the water. In '72, that was a very hard winter. We had fifty-one or two inches of rain here, and well, it just flooded. It just washed everything out. We lost our canal, all of our flumes, thousands and thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Rob: Where do you divert water out of the creek?

Harry: About two miles up upstream [of Rumsey].

Peter: How old is that system?

Harry: Well the Spring Valley Water Co. put through the big ditch in 1872 or 3.

Will: It was 1874.

Harry: In '74 the farmers took it over, but in '72 they built it-the Spring Valley Co.

Rob: Was the railroad up here in 1872?

Harry: It came this far around 1888, '89,1 think.

Rob: And this is as far up as it got?

Harry: That's right. It was passenger and freight. It arrived up here about 12 o'clock and left at one. You could take the train at one o'clock and be at the best hotel in San Francisco by 8 o'clock at night.

Rob: Better than it is today!

Peter: What was the peak population in Rumsey or the valley generally? These towns were quite a bit bigger at one time, weren't they?

Harry: Yes, because the mountains then were full—well, not full, but cabins here and there—quite a lot of them. A family would live there year-round, and of course no one lives up in there now.

Bob: Used to be a bank in Guinda and of course a number of blacksmith shops, so it was a fairly good sized community for that time.

Harry: They had blacksmith shops in Rumsey and Guinda, Brooks and Capay.

Annie: How big was Rumsey then?

Harry: Oh, about what it is now. There were probably fifty people in it.

Annie: Was a percentage of that population black, or was that just in Woodland?

Harry: Right after the Civil War several black families moved in up on the hill. They planted orchards, small orchards, and more or less lived off the land. Raised hogs and had cows. They would come down in the valley and work for the farmers and get a little bit of money that way. They would cut wood, haul it down, and ship it out in boxcars to San Francisco.

Annie: When you say "up on the hill," how far up does that mean?

Harry: At Guinda there's a road that goes up to what we call Casey Flats. There's several flats up there. My mother was raised up there, and she moved from there to Canyon School down here. My grandparents lived up there and raised five children. Grandpa used to cut wood in the winter time. They'd started a high school in Esparto the year my mother was in eighth grade, so Grandpa said, "Well, we better move to Esparto because Della has to go to high school." So they moved out of those flats. People lived in the hills, too. Casey Flats, from the valley, that would be probably three miles.

Annie: So when you saw this valley in fruit production, was it pretty filled with apricot orchards?

Harry: On both sides. On the east side they had no irrigation water, but most of that was in early fruit, like apricots and plums, a few almonds. In the valley here they could irrigate.

Annie: So was the valley fruit or was it vegetables?

Harry: Fruit. Some almonds, but not too many at first. There were more prunes than now. You irrigate prunes. Everything you irrigate, you could raise twice as much or three times as much as you could on the east side.

Will: People always had cows?

Harry: Well, sure, everybody had cows, they had hogs, they had turkeys, they had chickens. Very self-supporting.

Annie: So why in the thirties did the train get taken out?

Harry: Well, in the thirties there was a depression of course, there was the stock market failure in '29, and then it really went fast. '32 was terrible. '33 and '34. And I started farming in 1935.

Jan: That was a bad year!

Harry: Pretty rough.

Annie: Was it mostly apricots that were shipped by train to Chicago and other cities?

Harry: To start with, early varieties. And when they dried they were beautiful! My brother ran the Kraft's baby food cannery in San Jose. One time they bought all the apricots they could get hold of up here. He told me afterward, "well, kid, that's the most beautiful fruit we've ever put up in glasses!"

Annie: Yeah, because of the rosy color.

Harry: From minerals, I guess, in the soil. And then they shipped plums. All kinds of plums. If they had one variety they must have had twenty.

Will: Prunes were pretty big, too, weren't they? Because my place has one of those old concrete prune vats.

Annie: To do the lye?

Harry: Yes, because every farmer, if he had enough acreage, did all his own work when he dried his own prunes. We didn't have dehydrators. They were all sun-dried.

Annie: So they'd dip them in the lye treatment to break the skin and then sun-dry them?

Harry: Oh yeah. They had a machine that was slanted, and looked like phonograph needles sticking up, and as it rolled over them, it would make a hole in them and then dry them. Otherwise they didn't dry right. The lye, well, I don't know what it did to the people who ate them. Then after they were dried you put them in a building, tons of them in big piles, and they went through what they called a sweat. They got warm—they almost got hot, and then they'd cool off. And, in the meantime, they went through a process that concentrated the sugar and made them really good.

Annie: So when did the almonds come?

Harry: Oh, early in the 1900's. They took most of the fruit trees out, and went to "ahmons". It's walnuts now. When I took over the ranch from my mother we had all fruit, very few almonds. Just about ten acres I guess. And then I took all the fruit out, and everything was in almonds. Well, they start going haywire, price got cheap . . .

Annie: When did the price get cheap on almonds?

Harry: Well I was 29 when I went in the army, and I got out in September of '45. I was in four years, five months, and 26 days. That's when I changed over to almonds.

Annie: And then when did you change from almonds to walnuts?

Harry: Well, gradually. I planted my last almond orchard in about—this is '99, '89—about 1987. I planted the first one in the 60's. I didn't pull them all out at one time. I had to keep some almonds, I had to have a income—I thought I did, anyway. That wasn't the way to do it, I found out afterwards. You have to think about outflow, losses.

Will: You know that joke Harry? The farmer that won the lottery? It was big time, like 25 million dollars, so they asked him what he was going to do with all that money and he said "Well, I'm just gonna farm until it's gone!"

Annie: So when did you come, Will?

Will: '74. It was only yesterday. I was looking for someplace to live in the country and some realtor said "have you ever heard of Capay Valley?" and I said "no." He gave me directions and I drove out here, and I thought "it's pretty nice."

Annie: And it was in almonds?

Will: Yeah, the whole thing was.

Dan: Still in almonds now?

Will: No, I cut most of them out. I have a little fruit orchard and a lot of horse pasture.

Annie: And you didn't plant walnuts?

Will: Nope. I always plant whatever is going out of style. I planted some apricots, plums, just a little orchard-some apples in there, used to have peaches, took those out, so it's mostly Asian pears and plums and apricots. I married a woman who had two horses, and we've acquired another one, so that takes hay and pasture.


David: Can farmers make any money here?

Harry: No. They can't make a living up here.

David: So how are people making it up here?

Harry: Well you saw the cars that are going down in the morning-people going to work. That's how there are farmers up here.

David: They commute to Woodland, Sacramento?

Harry: My neighbor goes to San Francisco. He's a pilot for United. He's been up here for 20 years. That's how he's subsisted on his ranch.

Will: There is one exception, and that's the small core of organic farmers. That bunch has proven pretty well that you can make a living on as little as 20 acres. Somewhere between 20 and 40 acres. All that's required is considerably more than the average intelligence and workaholism. You gotta be young, you gotta stick together, and you got to work your ass off. Organic farming has a certain messianic flavor because big ag had sort of determined the way the whole consumer market worked, and now it's been dented a little bit.

Dan: So what is it about the valley in particular that makes it so that the commercial farmers are less successful than the organic farmers?

Will: Well, I don't think it has anything to do with this valley, I think it's just true generally. What they call small farmer—for this coming census, they are no longer using the category "single family farm" because it's way less than one percent now.

Annie: You can't do it anymore.

Will: And as short a time ago as, I think, 1930 it was something like 25% of people in the country! That's a tremendous decline.

Previous chapter
Upper Cache Creek
Next piece
Lost Soul ...
Next chapter
Lower Cache Creek