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When Land Is History


In the good times, my grandfather drilled a well replete with a turbine pump, put in concrete pipelines, enjoyed canal water from the local irrigation district’s new ditches, and thus was able to plant much of the 40 acres into vines (Muscats mostly, with some Currants and sultanas, and a few acres of the wondrous new creation [“Thompsons”] of the brilliant viticulturist William Thompson) and a three-acre plum orchard.

There was always about a 20-foot variance in elevation across the rolling parcel. Rees “leveled it with pipeline,” as he put it. In a sense, that investment in miles of underground concrete pipes right before the Depression was foolish -- given that even prewar scrapers could have moved earth enough to level the parcel and made flood irrigation possible across the entire expanse.

But my grandfather liked the contours and the 50-year constancy of his land. I suppose he thought that with a latticework of 10-inch subterranean concrete pipes, tall standpipes and vents, and elaborate terraces, he could irrigate about 20 tiny 2-acre parcels and preserve the character of the land.   He did -- but spent more time on the 40 acres than he did with his other level, rich loam 95 acres, producing for his extra work no more than half the production per acre gained elsewhere.

By 1940 the Sand Hill was sui generis -- one of last few parcels that had escaped the modernization brought on by the land-leveling caterpillar. Its vineyards survived even the Depression. With pond, its terraced hills, tree-lined alleyways, cottonwood banks, and fauna, the 40 acres was not unlike what we now see in Napa Valley or, for that matter, Tuscany or in the Peloponnese.

Visitors often wondered at the beautiful corner of the farm that lost us money and thought land that was profitable elsewhere on the farm nondescript and boring. I have pictures of the Depression-era farmhouse -- 27 once moved into my present house. Cousins, uncles, and lost souls would write my grandmother the dates when they would arrive at the Selma train station; she would take the truck and pick them up; and they would cram into the smokehouse, shed, barn, and various lean-tos, working for their keep. Under FDR, Thompson "worthless" raisins were bought by the government for $30 a ton, dipped in newly legal surplus cheap grape brandy, and sold off as cattle-feed.


Over the next 20 years, the vineyards were improved, often by tearing out the old vine varieties and replanting with Thompson seedless on “wild root” rootstocks, which allowed the vines to survive the scorching soil temperatures and nematodes. I remember playing almost every day on the parcel; in the 1950s it was quite safe to let 6-year olds roam on their own. The pond and lagoon still brought in all sorts of wildlife, from turtles to great-horned owls. My siblings and I built a crude baseball field (backstop, fence, benches) out of scrap lumber on the 2-acre flood plain, and the hills allowed us to hide in the vineyards. Of course, the 40 acres still remained a nightmare to farm -- the north and south rows that fit the contour of the land made raisin drying almost impossible by shading the grape trays on the ground, but ensured the exposed crop while on the vine burned up in hot spells.

Around 1960, my grandfather used all his profits to replace the enormous Consolidated Irrigation District open ditch laterals that passed through the 40 acres with huge 48-inch underground pipelines. The result was far greater efficiency (no more washouts and no more bridges needed to cross from one side of the parcel to the other), but also the end of perch and pollywogs that came down from the Sierra, flowing across the farm, and sometimes into the overflow gate to the pond. I remember these years as a sort of Golden Age -- no locks on any of the doors, our three families as work crews picking grapes together, and communal gatherings to watch television on Saturday nights. There was no notion of saleable or non-saleable parts of the farm; it was just there, all to keep whole, improve, and pass on.