My Life’s Story
by Eleanor Van Dusen Bowen
Chapter 6: Our Trip
During 1924 and 1925, we traveled through the Pacific States always looking for greener pastures, until Mother returned with Mr. Austin to Bayfield, Colorado and I was sent to Aztec, New Mexico to live with my father.
As I have written, the day was nice when we left McPhee, but as we neared the New Mexico-Colorado border it began to rain. The road became muddier and muddier, and by the time we got near the Ship Rock, it was dark, rainy and the mud was ankle deep. We had a hard time finding a place to pull off the road where we would not get stuck. If I remember correctly, we stopped in the middle of the road, not even an Indian was crazy enough to be out in this kind of weather. We ate the food Mother had prepared for our first day in the car. There were Mother, Mr. Austin, Charles, Bill Austin and me. We tried to sleep but I don’t think any of us slept soundly, except maybe Charles, who could sleep any old way if it was time to do so. I know I didn’t sleep very much. The rain beat down on the car top the whole night long and it was cold.
Soon after daybreak the next morning, the sun began to shine. We could see the Ship Rock real good, as we weren’t far from it. It looks like a ship from a distance and it is the only huge rock of its size, standing starkly against the sky, in that vast area of desert land.
The mud was lightly frozen so we were able to get started up. The car slid and slipped about so much that we were afraid of getting stuck, but luck was with us and we traveled slowly until we reached the graveled road at Newcomb’s Trading Post. From here, we made good time into Gallup, New Mexico, where we rented a cabin for the night, and we had a decently cooked meal. Charles, Bill and I put our bedrolls on the floor and Mother and Mr. Austin slept in the only bed there was in the cabin.
The cabins in those days were a one room, board structure with a double bed, a table and chairs, a stove sometimes, and once in a while a sink with cold running water. Most often, though, the cabins were for sleeping only. I don’t remember any cabin that we stayed in having hot water in it and they rarely if ever had an inside toilet. Most of the campgrounds had what they called community kitchens under a roofed over area which had open sides with back to back stoves or concrete grills for doing our cooking. Once in a while we would find a kitchen with gas piped to the stoves, cost us 25 cents for so many minutes, but most often we had to burn wood. There were quarter meters for the gas stoves and we had to pay by the bundle for wood to cook with on the other type of stove. Heat was furnished in the cabins by the owners. We got our fresh water from a faucet, usually, at the end of the kitchen. There were never any sinks for we just tossed our dish water or wash pan water on the ground out of the way of walking.
When we reached Arizona, the sun shone so brightly, I thought that my eyes would go blind again. They really hurt so bad for a while that I had to shut them and put a towel over them to keep the light out of them. My eyes finally got use to the bright light and the warmth of the sun felt good to me. It was very hot at Oatman where at lunch one day, Mother prepared two cans of pork and beans and corn over a campfire. She opened two cans of sardines packed in mustard sauce. In those days cars had wooden running boards to step on to get into the seat. Mother set our food on the running board on the south side of the car and somehow the mustard sauce got spoiled on it. It was probably my fault, because I was good at that sort of thing. Later as we drove along, the hot sun made it smell to high heaven. It stayed with us all the way through Needles, Barstow, the Mojave Desert and into Bakersfield, California where Mother got some lye and she scrubbed the running board for the third time to get rid of the fish and mustard smell. I’m not able to really enjoy Sardines in Mustard Sauce to this day.
The California poppies were in bloom on the hills of Bakersfield and it was a beautiful sight to see. As we traveled up through Tulare to Sacramento, we would stop and camp wherever the men folks could get a few days work on a farm.
The old Model T faithfully climbed the Siskiyou Mountains into Oregon. There was no work at the sawmills in Grants Pass Oregon, so we decided to stay a few days in a campground near Salem. Here I saw a lumberjack climb a tall pine tree with spikes on the inside of his boots. He would get up so high and then fasten his belt around the trunk of the tree. He would cut the top of the tree off, then he would come down the tree, always, anchor himself to it and cut off another section of the tree He would lower himself to the ground and finish felling the rest o0 the tree.
There was a light drizzle of rain as we went on to Portland. We found us a campground close to the Columbia River and not far from the main part of town. I bet you could not do that now. It drizzled rain the whole time we were there. We learned to eat and like smelt, even when cooked with their heads on them. They were really delicious. Mother liked them so well that we had them several times a week, and we ate fresh salmon from the river quite often, too. The people in this campground would huddle around the gas cook stoves in the community kitchen for warmth and so they would talk and get acquainted with each other.
It was here that Bill overhauled the engine of the Model T. When it came time to grind the valves, I was drafted to do the job. I seemed to have had a feel for things like this because I could hold the tool, evenly, that I used to do the grinding with. We used a special compound to smooth them down. This tool was on the order of an old fashioned brace and bit, except it had two prongs on the end.
The men tried to get work in the sawmills at Longview, Washington. There just weren’t any jobs to be had, so, we went up to Seattle where it was still raining. We went up on the hill east of Seattle where we could see all the town. I sure couldn’t do that the last time I was in Seattle in 1972. It is just too big.
We backtracked to Portland, Oregon. Then drove along the Columbia River to Baker, Oregon. All along the way, we were allowed to join the mushroom pickers to earn money. Mother could not tell a mushroom from a toad stool and therefore she never made any money at it, about one half of her pickings were always discarded.
We were in Pendleton, Oregon during their famous Rodeo. It was very colorful with cowboys and Indians who were in their blankets, everywhere. There were many pretty girls riding their beautiful horses about the streets.
We had used up all of our money by the time we got to Baker, Oregon, and we had to camp at the edge of town, while we waited for a draft to come through that Mother had sent to her bank in Delores, Colorado. We got very short on food. We only had biscuits and gravy until our shortening gave out. I was able to get a job washing dishes at a small café for one day. Then Bill got a job baking in a large café. He was a pastry cook by trade. He decided to stay on until he earned enough money to go back to Texas where his family was living. When our money came, we went on to Caldwell, Idaho, where Mr. Austin and Charles got jobs on separate farms. Charles decided to stay in Idaho for a while, which lasted two hears, before he came back to Bayfield, Colorado. We stayed only until the haying crop was in, then we went down south to Nampa to work at prune picking and packing. We worked in the Brown Orchards. Mr. Brown’s daughter and I became friends and we worked together, side by side at the packing tables. There were several young boys serving the tables with fruit, boxes and paper. They also removed the full boxes to the tables where they were nailed shut and labeled. Being young, Eleanor Brown and I, got the best service and we mad the most money. It was fun.
We were camped at the edge of the orchard near a ditch of water. After supper was over, Eleanor, her brother and several other people would come to our camp. We’d sit around the campfire and sing songs while Mr. Austin played the harmonica or guitar. Stories were told by nearly every one of his or her experiences in the fruit harvest from here to Southern California. It was seldom that we heard a personal story. We never knew much about these people except their names and where they originally came from. The men and women seemed happy in their marriages and the children content with their lot in life. They seemed to have no other ambition, but were content to follow the crop harvesting trail. This is one time I hated to see the job done, as I had made some nice friends and I would have like it if the folks had decided to settle down here. But no, we were to move on like the rest of the people. This time we were going into Boise, Idaho, to look for work.
When we got to Boise, we rented housekeeping rooms in the downtown area. Mr. Austin went to look for work while Mother and I went sightseeing as far as we could walk. We saw our first enclosed swimming pool. It was called the Plunge. It was huge and an ugly building with screened in side walls. We thought the Capitol building was grand. Mr. Austin found a job, but it was in Mountain Home, Idaho, so we packed the car and left immediately.
The ranch where we were to work, belonged to a lawyer, in Mountain Home, by the name of Green. The ranch was six miles south of town in the middle nowhere. Mr. Green had summer wheat ready to harvest and he needed Mother to do the cooking for the hired hands and he needed a man in the fields to drive a team. That is the reason Mr. Austin got the job. We lived in a two story house and the foreman, Mr. Cramer and his two daughters lived in a small cottage. The out buildings consisted of lambing sheds for the sheep and corals for shearing them. There was the usual chicken and turkey houses, a barn and of course the usual outdoor privy.
The sheep were driven in from the north while we were there. There was bleating a plenty. There were lambs being born and men shearing sheep. The Indian women were allowed to kill a sheep when it was needed for food. When a baby would cry too much, I’d see a mother take an entrails of the sheep, zip the stuff out of it with her thumb and forefinger, then she would rinse it with water and hand it to the baby as a pacifier.
Mirages are quite a common occurance in Idaho. Once in a while in the late afternoon, I could see by mirage, a ranch at the end of a small mountain which, ordinarily, could not be seen at any seen at any other time. I could see people and the animals moving about the yards between the house and the barns.
Mr. Green ask me to take charge of the turkeys and the chickens. I was to see to the setting of the eggs under the turkey hens as he wanted to be sure and have a good crop of them to sell that fall. I was able to give an account of over two hundred baby turkeys when we were ready to leave the ranch. They were healthy ones, too.
We were on the ranch only a few days when Mother became very ill. Mr. Green suggested that I do the cooking as it was too late for him to get another cook. Besides he needed Mr. Austin with the team and wagon. I said, “Yes, I would do it.” I had six days to see if I could do it. There were already six of us on the ranch. There were three of us, Mr. Cramer and his two daughters, and the second day, Mr. Green’s son, showed up to stay for the harvesting. It was agreed that Mr. Austin would take the first day off and show me the ropes, and then after that, he would take off early at noon to make the hot bread for dinner which was a must for working men. He would, also, help me put the meal on the table.
The first meal, I cooked myself was supper on the second day. It turned out good except that I didn’t salt a single dish of food. Mr. Cramer and Larry emptied the two salt cellars that were on the table, twice, during the meal. They, also, did a lot of teasing. What I often wonder when I think back to that night is, “where did they stash all that salt?” I know that I was embarrassed and that I didn’t think it odd at the time. I’d just refill the salt cellars when they would ask me to do so. Remember, I was only fourteen at the time. After this meal I did all right with the cooking for the twenty three men who came to work in harvesting of the wheat. What helped me do a good job was Mother coaching me from her sick bed and Mr. Austin baking the bread and helping me to put the meal on the table at noon. Even when mother was up and around again, I had the heaviest work to do and she worked as my helper for a while. I really did learn how to cook to please men. Mr. Green liked to eat and as I think of it now, I believe that be lived, only, to eat and he was a big man and a fat one too! He especially liked my green salads. When the meal was nearly over, he would take the salad bowl and make a motion as though to pass it around the table, but he never waited for an answer to his, “Does anyone want some?” Then he would dump the rest of the salad on his plate and he would eat it with gusto. He loved pie and other desserts, too. We soon learned to leave a portion for us in the kitchen if we wanted salad or dessert. It there was any dessert left on the serving dish, he would eat it all.
There is an unforgettable memory that makes me laugh today; but it was anything but funny at the time. An old desert rat and his mule came to the ranch for a few days. He was a prospector, also he had most of his worldly goods on the back of his mule. He was about Mr. Austin’s age or he may have been a little older, but he looked about a hundred years old to me. I can’t recall his name, but I remember his face well. He had a face full of whiskers and held a corn cob pipe between his lips. He decided that I would make a fine wife for him when he went back to his shack in the hills. He asked Mr. Austin for my hand in marriage and offered a span of mules in exchange for me. I don’t ever remember seeing Mr. Austin as angry as he was then. I thought that he would mop up the floor with the old man. The man left the ranch that night. But he had nerve to write Mr. Austin, saying, “That if two mules were not enough, he had a few ounces of gold that he was willing to give for me, too.” Mr. Austin blew his stack and he said, “That idiot can’t understand plain English, not even a big fat NO!”
I spent my fifteenth birthday at the home of my stepbrother, Clyde Austin, in Provo, Utah. He and his family lived in a nice apartment above the bakery where he worked. Clyde was a baker, and he baked me the most beautiful cake I had ever had. It was a red devil’s food cake with thick, creamy frosting on it and his wife gave me a lovely pin as a gift.
We camped a little way out Green River, Utah on the bank of the river. It was almost forty seven years later that I camped in the town of Green River in a comfortable camper, with my husband and daughter Ruth.
Our next stop was Grand Junction, Colorado where we took light housekeeping rooms for a week while Mr. Austin looked for work. He looked up the Farmer’s Headquarters for information on what crops were ready for harvesting. He was told to go to Delta, Colorado where the onion crops would soon be ready for the pickers.
While we were here, we got mixed up with two men who wanted to join us in seeking field work. One of them Mike Flaharty, was a real migrant worker because of his restlessness and his hating to stay put in one place. He was a true Irishman and a fine, honest man, but his friend was something else, as we did learn the hard way. Baxter appeared to be educated, well-mannered and a very likeable young man. They went with us to Delta where were told that the onions would not be ready for three weeks or so, but that the peaches up north at Paonia were ready to pick and that we could get work picking them. We picked peaches for three weeks up on a small mesa north of the town; then we returned to Delta for the onion harvest.
I started to school at the Delta Junior High as an eight grader.
Mother, Mr. Austin, Mike and Baxter picked onions. They met a Mrs. Hinkle, her two boys and one girl, who were from Oklahoma. She and Mother decided to rent a big, two story house together and divide up the rooms, but they would share the kitchen. Mike and Baxter were to spread their bedrolls under a big tree in the yard. It was agreed that they were to take their meals with us, that is Mike and Baxter, at so much per meal.
Since we were allowed all the onions we wanted, Mother decided, the first night that we were in the house, to cook a big pan of fried onions for supper.
Mrs. Hinkle said, “Oh, no you’re not, not in this kitchen. I can’t stand the smell of onions cooking.”
So, Mr. Austin built a campfire in the yard and Mother cooked them over it. Mother instead that Mrs. Hinkle taste them and she ate half of them. From that day on until we left, there was fried or boiled onions cooked every day.
Our house set back from the Gunnison River about three hundred feet. One day, Mother announced that she was going to learn to drive the car. She got under the wheel and Mr. Austin go in beside her, while I got into the back seat. She did just fine until she got near the edge of the river, where there was a sharp turn in the road. Here she panicked and drove straight toward the edge of the river, but Mr. Austin managed to stop the car before it went into the water. Mother sat still for a minute or so, then she opened the car door and got out. She walked back to the house and sat down on a chair that was outside of the kitchen door. She had not said one word to either of us. Mr. Austin had backed the car along the road to the house and he stopped the car closed to her.
Mother looked at him and said, “I’ll never drive a car again.”
She arose from the chair and got into the car with us, and we drove into town with Mr. Austin doing the driving. She never did suggest driving a car again during the rest of her life.
One night, I was late getting home from school and Baxter hadn’t come in either. Mother was worried sick, and she had Mr. Austin to look for me. The uproar was because the Police had been at the house that evening asking for Baxter. It seems that he was married and had deserted his wife and baby. He had stolen a car an abandoned it and he was an escapee from prison where he had been serving time for check forgery. Mother was afraid that he had coaxed me into running away with him or else had kidnapped me; but he came in before I did, and when he heard that the Police was hunting him, he left again. We learned that he belonged to a well-to-do family in Denver. They told the folks that Baxter was not his real, name either. I came in soon after all this had happened and explained that I had been at Lena Pendergrass’s house and forgot what time it was.
This is one time I didn’t not have to listen to a long, angry lecture, because Mother was so relieved that I had come home safe and all in one piece.
After the onion harvest was over, went to Montrose. We were told that a ranch up in a canyon, south east of town, was hiring help for the winter, and though we did not get the job, we were in a happy holiday mood. Coming back down the canyon, near the bottom, we lost a pin out of the steering rod connection and as luck would have it, Mr. Austin had to turn the wheels toward the mountain to make a sharp curve, and the car ran into the side of the mountain. Mother went up the road to watch for cars and I went down the road for the same purpose, while Mr. Austin put a new pin in the connection. We were soon on our way again, but the holiday mood had left us and we drove back to town in silence. Since the job did not become ours, we all agreed that we would go back to Bayfield, Colorado for the rest of the winter. It was mid-November when we started up the mountains over the highway to Durango.
It began to rain before we got to Ridgeway. The road became muddy and very slippery. It was getting dark so we ask a rancher if we could camp on his place for the night and he said that we could camp down by the barn.
The next morning we got an early start while the mus was cold and lightly frozen, but it was slow going. We had to push the old Model T a lot of the way up to Red Mountain Pass. I truly believe that we pushed that car most of the way up the mountains to the top of the pass. It wasn’t too bad going down from Silverton to Durango, but it could have been dangerous for us if it had kept on raining. I remember that it was difficult to keep warm when we had to stop and sleep in the car at night. The side curtains didn’t keep much cold, but it did keep out the wind.
When we reached Durango, Mother sent me to Aztec, New Mexico by train, to live with my father. She and Mr. Austin were going on to Bayfield, Colorado in the car.
To be continued…
Thank you for reading.
J. R. Findsen