Farming in California in the Early Sixties
After a rest of two weeks I began to grow restless, and to look around for something to do. I finally concluded, until something should turn up, to engage in farming. The fact that I did not know the least little thing about farming seemed to influence me very little. Perhaps the fact that I had been driving an ox team, cooking, washing dishes and doing many other things of which I knew nothing before, had led me to believe that one, if he just puts his mind to it, can do anything without previous experience. I am not quite certain even to this day if I was not half right. I would not minimize the necessity of previous experience for the professions such as law, medicine, etc., but in the common walks of life I have seen some of the best farmers come from the cities, the best bankers come up from the janitor, even in engineering I have known some men near the top who did not have a scholastic education. I do not mean that any of these successful men would not have been better farmers, bankers, or engineers if they could have had an opportunity for a technical education, but I do mean that if one has the brains and perseverance he can overcome all obstacles.
I found between Mayfield and Mountain View a sixty-acre tract of farming land with a small house, into which we moved. With a little lumber I rigged up a kind of shed for my horses, and hay, and seed grain. The necessary expenses for a few pieces of furniture, for seed wheat, hay and barley for feed had exhausted every cent of the money I had on arrival, and it became necessary for me to put in the crop by myself. For my actual necessities, such as groceries, meats and vegetables, a merchant in Mountain View gave me all the credit I wished. It might not be amiss to say here that I have all my life been fortunate enough to possess abundant credit, and I count it among the greatest assets toward whatever success I have achieved. Credit is an absolute necessity, but must never be used to excess.
I procured a single plow and when the rains came in the fall I started plowing, and by the first of the year I had the sixty acres turned over and ready for the seed. As I could not risk my seed, I changed work with a neighbor, while he sowed for me. I watched his motions a little while and then asked him to let me try. He turned the sowing bag over to me and after watching a few minutes he said I had no use for him, and went home. I sowed and harrowed and in due season had my crop all in the ground. Then as it was yet early in the spring, I assisted a neighbor to summer fallow
This year of 1861 was rather dry, but nevertheless, I harvested six hundred sacks of wheat, besides cutting some hay. The land titles around the bay region were so unsettled and there was so much litigation that I determined to follow the other members of my family, who had established themselves in the vicinity of Gilroy, in the southern portion of Santa Clara County. I decided on this more particularly as my wifeís health, which seemed to have been re-established, began to fail, and I was anxious to get away from the harsh climate, which was more severe at that time than it is at present, since the orchards and other trees have grown up, breaking the force of the fierce winds that then swept up the bay.
Following up my intention early in the fall I took my family to my fatherís house and returned to sell my hay and settled up whatever I owed, and to straighten out the odds and ends that had accumulated during the year. In doing this I was detained until about the first of November, when taking what still remained of our household goods and my horses, I arrived in Gilroy. Here I rented a fine farm of two hundred acres of low bottom land, and started to repair the house so that we could move in at an early date. The repairs were never finished. My wife was taken seriously ill and continued to grow worse. We did everything possible for her comfort without avail, and on December eleventh, 1861, she passed away. Only those who have lost the companion of their young manhood can know the utter darkness that can come and the feeling that the bottom has dropped out of oneís hopes and aspirations, that the world has come to an end, so far as oneís own life is concerned. I realized, however, that hard work and unceasing work was the only panacea for me.
Leaving my boy, now nearly two years of age, with my parents, I moved into the old house without completing the repairs, intending to start on my farming at once. The winter of 1861 and 1862 was the stormiest I have ever passed through in California, and before I was ready for work the rains came in torrents day after day without cessation. The streams, swollen beyond all former knowledge, overflowed their banks, and the first think I knew my house was surrounded by water. I had left my horses in pasture, and there was no way out for me, except to wade, so I determined to stay by the house. Toward evening the water began to come through the floor and when darkness came on and I was endeavoring to strike a light, I found that the dampness had so saturated my matches that they would not burn. I used up a whole package in the futile endeavor. When I found it was useless, I felt around, put everything I could find on the tables, and taking my blankets, climbed on top of a pile of seed wheat which I had stored in a back room and resigned myself to pass the night alone and in darkness. But I soon found I was not alone. In the stillness I heard some animal climbing up the side of the sacks and I could hear it arrive on top and near my improvised bed, and then along over the bags. I recognized a pat, pat, pat, which I had heard before, and knew my visitor at once for a skunk. I suppose there is a prettier name for such a pretty little animal, but I donít know what it is. I have slept on the ground hundreds of times where horned toads, horned lizards and even rattlesnakes were likely to share my blankets, but none of those possessed the terror for me that this skunk did. I knew every hope centered in being perfectly still, so I lay motionless, not even daring to take a full breath. It is strange how easy it is to lie still when you donít have to do so, but how oneís bones ache and every nerve tingles when it becomes a matter of necessity. My visitor seemed to be having a real good time. It would thump around over the sacks, over my feet, on my body or head, which I had taken the forethought to get under the blankets. All seemed to give him perfect satisfaction. How long he kept it up I do not know, but it seemed to me for many hours, and when I could hear him no more I was still afraid to move for fear he should be watching for me. Finally I took courage to turn over, but not to sleep, and I lay awake the balance of the night listening to the "rain on the roof" and awaiting the coming of the light. Taking it all in all, I think it was the longest and most miserable night I ever passed.
As soon as it was fairly light, I put on some old work clothes, and tying my suit in a bundle, I started for a neighborís house a quarter of a mile distant. Their house being on some rising ground, the flood had not reached it. The minute I stepped out of the door I was in water two feet deep, and in some low places it came nearly to my breast, and running like a mill race. At last I reached the house, changed into dry clothes, had a warm breakfast and was all right. The water was soon down, and on investigation I found that the fences in a dozen places and for a hundred yards in a place were washed entirely away, and down into a swamp a mile distant. As soon as it was possible for us to do so, we went down into the swamp, with infinite labor gathering the pickets, taking them back, and driving them again into their places; no sooner had we finished than the deluge came again, and washed away the same fence, and with it, more. This was repeated three times during the winter and it was not until March that I could get on the land with a plow. After my many misfortunes I only succeeded in seeding part of the land, and though it was so late, I had a fairly good crop, threshing about two thousand bags of wheat and barley.
When my crop was all in, I had rented a hay field of two hundred acres, and in May, I cut and stacked about two hundred tons of hay. I contracted it to a sawmill owner at a good price, set a hay press to work, and had teams ready to haul as fast as baled. The press had worked only a few hours when some way the stack took fire and burned, not only all the hay, but the press also. I lost, or thought I had lost in this fire, some two thousand dollars, and I had put everything I had in it. But later on I thought how true is that
"Thereís a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough hew them as we will."
For the party to whom I had sold the hay failed a few weeks later and paid only five cents on the dollar. So if my hay had not burned, I would have lost not only the hay, but would have been out for the baling, the rope and the hauling beside. This summer, in particular, with my father, I had bought a header, and we cut and stacked considerable grain for others, beside our own.
I had, by this time, had a sufficiency of bottom lands, and for the coming season of 1862-3 I rented some upland north of Gilroy, put up a shack for myself and men, and a shed for the horses. My ill luck seemed to follow me, and this season was very dry. In fact, the ground was wet enough to plow only for a few days. If I had stayed where I was, I would have hit it just right. All the luck I had was that the ground was so hard, I could not plow, and so saved my seed. Having had enough of renting, during this summer I purchased a farm of two hundred acres, four miles north of Gilroy, for two thousand dollars, built a house on it, and on December ninth, 1863, I married Emma Day, a daughter of a neighboring farmer, C. M. Day, and early in the year we moved into our little house and started housekeeping. The summer of 1864 was even drier than the preceding year and no grain or hay grew in our vicinity. Having no crop to harvest, and hearing there was grain on the coast beyond Watsonville, I took our teams and header over there and found employment for three months, earning enough to buy seed and feed for the coming year. I think it was the first heading outfit ever taken into the Pajaro Valley.
The winter of 1864-5 set in very early, with a tremendous storm of wind and rain. Almost all of the large barns in our vicinity were blown down, including the one on my place, exposing my little bunch of hay and seed grain to the elements. Luckily I had become alarmed and had made my way to the barn and loosened the horses and got them out just before it fell. I hastily improvised a slight cover from the debris and during the winter I seeded sixty acres to wheat, the balance went for hay.
During the next two seasons I farmed most of the two hundred acres, and all three years I had good crops. I had to haul the grain to San Jose, thirty miles, and I drove a team of five horses and two wagons, making the round trip in two days. It was pretty brisk work, and to load, drive the distance, unload and return, and take care of five horses took all of sixteen hours each day. In fact, these were strenuous years. In the spring, after the crop was in the ground, I would go to the redwoods, twelve miles distant, purchase from first hands a few thousand pickets, haul them home, and at off times sharpen them for driving. Then, after the crop was hauled to San Jose in the fall, we would distribute them where I intended to fence; then in the winter when it was too wet to plow, we would drive them and nail on a slat. In the three years in this way I had the whole place well fenced into four fields, at small expense. As proof that I did a good job, I went by the old place in an automobile a short time since, and those fences that I built forty years ago are standing apparently as good as ever.
In the meantime my family was increasing. In December, 1864, just one year after my marriage, our son Charles N. was born. In April, 1866, our son W. Irving, and in October, 1867, our daughter Kathryn followed. Having by this time increased my stock of farm horses, I needed more land. The place being in fine condition, I was offered six thousand dollars for it, just three times what I had paid. I accepted the offer, and in October, 1867, moved to San Felipe County, in what is now a part of San Benito County. This was then virgin soil. I rented a field of over one thousand acres, whatever I could seed, and arranged to put in two hundred or three hundred acres. The rains came early this fall, and we went to work with four single plows, and by the end of the year had all my seed in the ground. It looked so favorable that I took one team off and commenced bringing additional seed from Gilroy. The roads were so nearly impassable that it took four horses and two light spring-wagons to bring twenty bags, and the trip occupied a whole day. I kept pegging away, bringing in seed and sowing it until the second day of April, when we had in something over five hundred acres. During the winter, while I was hauling seed from Gilroy, the road between Bells Station and Gilroy was infested by a band of desperadoes, who robbed stages and travelers almost every day, but fortunately I never chanced to meet them, or if I did, they passed without noticing a ragged farmer.
In was a favorable year, and I harvested over ten thousand centals of wheat, which I sold, delivered in San Francisco for two dollars per cental. At this time there was no railroad, so the grain had to be hauled by team to Alviso and taken thence by boat to the city. I found in San Jose a freighter with three big teams, fifteen or eighteen mules each, with a large and two trail wagons to each team. They could take from two hundred to three hundred bags of wheat to each team, and it took a week to make the round trip. With some additional help, however, they had it all in San Francisco a few days after I had finished harvesting. The freight to Alviso was forty cents, and from there down by boat ten cents per cental, so that the freight bill was five thousand dollars. With all the drawbacks it was a very profitable yearís work.
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