My family had been in the dairy business since 1923. Both my uncle Jackie and my father, George had literally been raised in a dairy barn. My father was barely eleven years old when my grandparents, Jack senior or Big Jack as everyone called him, and his wife Annie Gray Shannon started their business. They lived and worked on land she had inherited from her uncle, a prominent pioneer in the Arroyo Grande valley.
Both boys were at work as soon as they could carry a bucket or push a broom around the mangers after the milking was done. As they grew, more chores were added until many of the hours they weren’t in school were consumed by work. Anyone who has done it will tell you that it is the hardest farm work of all. Cows never take a vacation or a day off. Your customers expect their milk will be delivered on time every day. Jesus waits, Santa waits, even dinner waits until all the chores are done.
My grandmother was determined that both of her boys would go to college, a pretty rare thing for boys from Arroyo Grande. She herself was a graduate of the University of California, something pretty rare for women in the early twentieth century. Her uncle, a successful and wealthy landowner paid the tuition of numerous young women in order that they could attend college.
Two of those girls did teach, one the daughter of a neighbor has a local school named after her. The other was one of the Tyler sisters. Margaret and Harriet, more fondly known as Mamie and Hattie grew up with my grandmother in the big house on the hill above Arroyo Grande. They were part of an extended group of young people who practically lived in Patrick and Sarah Moore’s home. You see, the Moores were childless themselves, and so they welcomed any and all kids who wished to to share their home. Though my grandmothers siblings lived in Oso Flaco she never lacked for friends her own age. The promise made to my great-grandparents that the Moores would pay for my grandmother’s University education if they allowed her to be raised by Patrick and Sarah Moore was fulfilled when she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1908.
My dad, George, attended the Arroyo Grande Grammar school when the old building on south Bridge Street housed the elementary school kids downstairs and the high school upstairs. He spent his k-12 years, all in the same building. His teachers did a good job helping him prepare for college and when he graduated in 1930 he moved to the new Santa Maria Junior College. Already deep in the depression his parents didn’t have the money to send him to Cal for four years so the school in Santa Maria was his only option.
At the time it was housed in the beautiful old brick building on south Broadway where portions of it still stand today, chiefly the Ethel Pope auditorium. Ethel was one of my dad’s teachers. Allan Hancock College was still twenty four years in the future and the school was not relocated until 1954 when it was renamed for Captain Allan Hancock who donated part of the land for the new campus.
By 1930 when dad started Junior College, the highway from Arroyo Grande to Santa Maria had been paved in concrete but kids still did not have cars as they do today. He would hitch a ride with a classmate on Monday morning and spend the week in the home of Walter Word and his wife. Walter was the football coach and taught Physiology and was greatly admired by my dad. On my first day a Allan Hancock College, the renamed SMJC, he came to my classroom to introduce himself and offer me any help I might need. That was 33 years after my dad stayed with them. I could see why my father felt he was such a good man.
SMJC had about seventy students, freshman and sophomores and though small, featured the kind of campus life typical in the nineteen twenties and thirties.
Old photos in my dads yearbooks for that time are typical. They feature the same subjects you see today. Students, still just kids at heart recline on the lawn in casual repose, dancing, acting self-conscious and wacky. There are sports and their stars, poetry, including my fathers “Ode to Nature” for which he got an A in English 1B, Miss Pope’s class There is a little moral tale written by Arroyo Grande’s Katherine Routzhan too. You may have known her as Kay Phelan, wife to Gus.
In the above photo the girls are trying to look serious in their newly shortened skirts and “Middy” blouses. Note the feet. They no doubt have their stockings “rolled”* in a style once considered scandalous by their mothers. Simply shocking.
Dad had been student body president in his senior year at Arroyo Grande High School and his parents expected him to do well in college and he did. His mother Annie certainly expected that but perhaps his father Jack, even more so. Jack Shannon hadn’t completed the eight grade and though a successful man had learned the value of a first rate education. Dad was elected student body president his sophomore year at SMJC. He played football ran track and captained the basketball team where he earned the nickname “Ding.” I asked him why, expecting some funny answer like dingbat or dingus or some such thing but he said that in the 1930’s style basketball when you made a shot the bell rang. This was to both signal a scoring change and to stop play. In the 30’s they had to jump ball after every score. It was a much slower game then than it is today. There was no dunking, and the two-handed set-shot ruled the day. Foul shots were two-handed and under handed, the so-called “Granny” shot. Dad was a prolific scorer, hence the nickname. When I was young he couldn’t be beat in a shooting contest.
At school, boys who played any sport apparently had to have a nickname . Going through the books you find Herb “Tog” Tognazzini, “Buster” Rice, “Artie” Classen, and Albert “Gunboat” Souza who obviously had the biggest feet, hence the “Gunboat.”
A funny point of contact between us was a father-son discussion we had when I was in high school and I was explaining that kids were feeling oppressed by Mr. Hitchen and his strict dress code. He laughed and said that all teenagers push against parental restrictions. He said that when he was in high school and college the style was for boys to wear a sparkling clean white shirt every day and that each would endeavor to have out do all the other boys with the filthiest corduroy pants. He and my uncle Jack would wear their cords to work in the dairy barn where they would be spattered with cow manure and milk mixed with a dash of sticky adobe dirt and some dead flies thrown in for extra measure. It was considered lucky if you lived on a farm because you had a great advantage over town boys. He said he used to compete with his friend George Oliver for cords that were so dirty they could stand up on their own. His mother didn’t care for it one bit either. She had to hand launder those shirts and she made the boys leave their pants outside at night so as not to disturb her delicate sense of smell, being “Lace Curtain” Irish and all. I didn’t believe any of it of course because I knew my grandmother to be a stickler for cleanliness. Long afterwards when I got ahold of his SMJC yearbook and his photos at Cal I found out it was all true, perhaps even more then he described. Ralph Hansens’s cords predict his future as the owner of the largest tractor dealership in Santa Maria. Perhaps oil and grease are even better than manure and milk.
Those old photos were also part of my “Sex” lectures. When I was in high school, creeping hemlines were the bane of Miss Varian and Mrs Mankins existence. Girls would secretly roll their waistbands to hike the hem just a little too much for the dress code. My vote, of course, was all for it. It had a tendency to reduce grades among boys but I don’t think that bothered anyone but the powers that be. At least in my senior year typing class Mister Simons had the good sense to place the few boys in the front row demonstrating his male astuteness. Dad and I were looking at the old Mascot yearbook and I commented that the girls dress was pretty conservative with high neck blouses and mid calf skirts, and loose fitting too, like they weren’t trying to draw any attention to themselves. Dad laughed out loud, he said, “Mike, girls always find a way, they didn’t wear their “shimmies”** under those cotton dresses and when they walked through the sunlight you could see right through them.” It was one of those revelatory moments when you begin to see your father as perhaps not the grown up you’ve always seen him as but a once young guy like you.
My father went up to Berkeley in 1932. Sadly, one of the few from his Junior Class to do so. Nearly every person in his graduating class in Santa Maria indicated in their bio’s that they planned on attending university, particularly the girls. For most it was not to be. The depth of the depression in the mid-thirties was a reality and many of that generation weren’t able to further their education beyond Junior College. Instead of an education at one of the finest universities, a job as a typist was what the the future held. An awful lot of “What ifs” are connected with the Great Depression, sad to say.
I have a letter written by my dad to his parents on his first day in Berkeley. He visited his aunt Sadie, my grandmothers sister and stopped by to visit Flora Harloe, a very old friend of the family and widow of the renowned sea captain Marcus Harloe. Later he went to the Bursars office to pay his fees and collect his books. What is most striking about it is the cost of that education. His class fees and books for fall semester 1932 were $37.50. A very modest sum by todays standards. But, if you take into consideration that the Average hourly wage across the country was .45 cents an hour and could be as low as .15 cents it was not quite so modest. The average annual income for a family of four was roughly $1,300.00 a year and not coincidently my grandparents paid income taxes on $1,372.76 in 1932. To help support himself he worked as a waiter/busboy at a nearby fire station and pledged a fraternity where he lived. Jack and Annie were able to send him $5.00 a month to supplement his living. Gasoline was .10 a gallon but he had no car, when he came home to Arroyo Grande for summer he hitched a ride with someone he knew or stood on the side of the highway with his thumb out. He said that sometimes it was hours between cars and he depended mostly on trucks to get home.
My father was fortunate to attend Cal during its largest expansion. In 1930, Robert Gordon Sproul became the first native Californian and alumnus of the University to serve as its President. He was to guide its fortunes longer than any of his predecessors–through three cataclysmic decades that included the Depression, World War II, and the birth of the atomic bomb. And he was to see the University attain world renown for scientific achievement in a period when the body of scientific knowledge began to expand at a rate unprecedented in history.
Sproul instituted expansion of the library until it was considered the finest in the nation. He attracted professors like Ernest Lawrence whose study of Physics resulted in him developing the Cyclotron and smashing the atom. The Lawrence-Livermore laboratories are named for him. Robert Oppenheimer was a professor during my dads tenure. Some of the finest academicians in the country were on campus in the 1930’s. Cal was famed for professors who had or would win the Nobel Prize for physics, medicine and economics. My father worked hard, made good marks and received a first class education.
Dad graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1934 and though his parents thought he should become a lawyer, his only desire was to come home and be a farmer. Thats what he did too.
Both he and my uncle Jackie worked for their parents on the dairy for the rest of the depression and were still there when the war began. They lived at home in the little house on the state highway now called El Campo road and built by my great-grandparents in 1922. It was pretty typical of houses built in those days. Simple board and batt siding, you went in the back door every day of the year except Christmas eve when you used the front. Family and friends knew those kinds of social graces. A knock at the front door meant a stranger to that house. It had one little bathroom, two bedrooms and a tiny office for my grandmother to do her books in. The entire dairy operation was run from that room. Dad said he nearly bought a house in town on Garden Street next to the Kitchell’s for $1,500.00 dollars but his brother convinced him to rent some property together on the mesa and grow hay to sell to my grandfather for the dairy cattle. It was a drought year, the oats didn’t amount to anything and the money evaporated. A lesson in hard farming. No money, no house. He figured that it was a lesson about buying real estate and didn’t buy another a piece of property for another forty-four years.
Through all the years after University dad kept his head down and worked. He worked for himself, doing some farming on the side but primarily worked the dairy for his folks. He once told me that in all those years he was never paid. He said he was just given room and board. He said jobs were very hard to come buy then so perhaps he was fortunate in that. I don’t ever recall him showing any desire to see the world. He was perfectly content with where and who he was. He once asked me why I wanted to travel so much, saying, “Why you can spend your entire life in San Luis County and never drive every road or see everything worth seeing.”
The war started in ’41 and he took the train out of Oceano for Oakland and volunteered for Navy OCS on December the ninth, a Tuesday. People on the west coast were anxious, confused and afraid. No one knew what might be coming. Young men like my dad were enraged and wanted to do something, anything. His parents took him to the depot and waved him aboard the train in a scene all too familiar to folks of that generation or any generation for that matter. With his degree in hand he left his aunt Sadie’s house in Oakland and walked into the Navy’s recruiting office. They were more than happy to sign him up right there. He filled out the paperwork, was interviewed and sent for a physical.Thats where he ran into a problem, during his physical. The doctors found that his right leg was quite a bit shorter than the left. This was likely from a football back injury he suffered in high school. He always had some nerve damage after that but In those days kids just toughed it out until it stopped hurting. At the beginning of the war, the Navy was only taking the perfectly fit so they sent him home. He told me that if he’d done it again in 1943 they’d have taken him, saying “You don’t ever standoff a level floor in the Navy. Things would change a great deal for him by then though so he couldn’t. He went home, back to the dairy.
So there he was, 29 years old, living at home working for his parents again. Get up at 4:30 and go milk. Hook up the milking machine, strip the teats, run the Pasteurizer, run the bottler, load the delivery trucks, hit the road on the routes, take the leftover milk up to the creamery, do it all again in the afternoon and when necessary go out to the customers houses with the delivery receipts and collect the money.
He didn’t know it yet but he was about to catch a break, a lucky break. A very lucky break
My grandmother said, “George, can you go make the collections today, please?”
“Sure mom,” he said, and he went out and got into his little grey Chevy coupe with the box of delivery receipts on the seat next to him and set off.
He was 29, single and very handsome.
Note* The rolled stocking, complete with roll garter, had its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. It was sandwiched between a period when women wore corsets with garters used to hold up stockings and a time when women’s undergarments included less bulky, but still cumbersome garter belts, also with attached garters. So how’d it work? You’d slip on your stocking, slide the garter roll up your leg to the edge of the stocking (mid-thigh, usually) and fold the stocking edge over the garter, rolling it down your leg until it was just where you wanted it (generally below the knee).
Note** In Western countries, the chemise (Shimmy) as an undergarment fell out of fashion in the early part of the 20th century, and was generally replaced by a brassiere, girdle, or a full slip. Panties for the first time came to be commonly worn.