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When Land Is History


I was told that my ancestors -- who came to California on the newly completed transcontinental railroad -- picked out such sandy ground because the pond on it was artesian. The water table was less than 20 feet -- making hand-powered pumps of the age feasible. Before the advent of electrical turbines, a high-water table meant easy access to water and the possibility of farming some gardens and thus survival -- before even the gravity-fed canals from the Sierra were built by the local farmers (ca. the 1880s-1890s).

Until 1981, the original homestead and temporary shack of my great-great-grandmother rested on a hill above the pond. They built it from local cottonwood and camped out for the first decade in it: about 400 square feet, the walls hewn from rough planks, dirt floor, hand-cut bark shingles, tin-can lids nailed over knot-holes, the inside wallpapered by 19th-century newspapers, a rusted hand pump in the kitchen. Those who huddled in it apparently suffered things like malaria and typhus; at least I gathered that by stories of relief when such diseases disappeared in the early twentieth century in these parts.

I regret that we did not restore the shack. In 1982, it sort of finally collapsed on its own after 110 years. We salvaged some of the wood. My great-grandfather planted the first crop on the ground in its history -- apricots and some Muscat vines. His mother brought a walnut seedling from Missouri that grew to enormous proportions before collapsing in 1985 after a century. In these stories of the early family, the Civil War loomed large: the Davises were Missouri Unionists and strong Northern pro-Lincoln Democrats escaping postwar score-settling -- a point of contention when my grandfather married my grandmother, a Johnston whose family were Southern cattlemen that had fled postwar Alabama to New Mexico and to California -- and were looked upon by the Davises with suspicion.


My grandfather told me as a little boy that his father kept them going by selling dried apricots, Muscat raisins, and some white peaches. As a kid, I remember uncovering abandoned primitive iron tracks where iron carts had been pushed into the nearly collapsed drying shed. Before tractors, half the land was open pasture, to feed the horses who pulled the disc and harrow -- both still rusting outside my barn -- to work the other half of vineyards and orchards.

In my earliest childhood, I could still see on this corner of the farm traces of the early 20th century -- a single surviving sixty-year-old apricot tree, and an even older Hale peach tree, the remnants of my great-grandfather’s efforts to turn some of the ground into orchards. After a rain, we periodically would find in the dirt alleyways dozens of square nails, and horseshoes. There was an old family dump by the pond (cleaned up by us in 1980) where you could uncover turn-of-the-century medicine bottles, ancient machines, and everything from homeopathic books to “Keep Cool With Coolidge” rusted signs.

Rees Davis, my grandfather, also told me that even in his teens (ca. 1905) the poor sandy ground was once quite rich, due to aboriginal stands of natural lupin that over the eons had fixed nitrogen in the soil. But as the 20th century wore on, the parcel became known as the “Sand Hill” -- a curse to irrigate, given its sandy porousness, poor nutrients, and hilly terrain. What had originally lured in the family off the railroad was lost to memory; certainly what was once rich in 1870 by 1920 was dry and substandard soil.

My grandfather was a modernist who, in the big house nearby, put in running water, electricity, and indoor toilets; and talked about them as if the World War I era was a golden age. Prices spiked at $300 a ton and most of the sheds and buildings went up between 1917-1922. To work the parcel in 1920 was to look forward to unending prosperity. My grandfather also reminded me once that all the grand rural Victorian two-story farmhouses of the area went up during the boom times of World War I -- and many of them mysteriously burned down (for the insurance) in the Depression that followed.