Who they were……

Aiko Hamaguchi Born June 15 1924, Died 25 Sept 25, 2006 San Gabriel California.

Miss Hamaguchi wears the nursing pin of the Los Angeles County Medical Center School of Nursing. She is just twenty years old and one of the nurses working at the Manzanar “War Relocation Center” hospital in 1944 when this photo was taken.

Ansel Adams had received permission to photograph in the camp from the WRA which ran it. Aiko is the subject of several of his photos and it’s obvious why. Adams was only allowed to photograph inside the camp, all of his photos had to be approved by the camp commander and could not show guard towers, barbed wire or armed soldiers. He focused mostly on personalities though the famous photo of the gatehouse and flag pole is his.

When the internees initially arrived the few doctors and nurses treated patients in a single barracks without adequate supplies or much equipment. The government had stocked the type of medical supplies which were provided combat units which was wholly inadequate to their needs. 

The dust howling through the floors and windows, the poor  and  inadequate food, and very crowded conditions of Manzanar’s early weeks heightened fears of serious illness and epidemic. Many of the older people were fearful of the governments attentions and had every right to be.

“There were only five doctors to serve ten thousand people. There were 90 year olds and babies, pregnant women and teens, every body had needs. Many were not vaccinated against the common diseases of the time.—-Dr. Masako Kusayanagi Miura.

“We started working as nurse’s aids for the Public Health Department, we were going from barrack to barrack in the howling dust storms, and around the still open ditches to urge residents to complete their typhoid shots. — Rose Bannai Kitahara

“Here people are all scared, worried, and . . . you can’t tell them not to worry because you’re in the same position . . . You don’t know what the outcome of the war is going to be. It’s just impossible to kind of counsel them. You have to console and comfort them.” —-Dr. Masako Kusayanagi Miura

Aiko Hamaguchi, Chiye Yamasaki, Catherine Yamaguchi and Kazoko Namahaga play bridge. Ansel Adams photo, National Archives

In July of 1942, patients, staff, and equipment finally moved into a new 250-bed hospital. Housed in sixteen connected buildings, the hospital housed operating rooms, laboratories,  a pharmacy, dental and eye clinics, a morgue, and quarters for the staff. 

Though there were more than 60 midwives in camp the administration would not allow them to practice and all babies were birthed without their assistance. A terrible waste of skill which added strain on the already overworked staff.

In February 1942, two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. targeted the Japanese Americans living on Bainbridge Island, Washington. One of them was 31–year–old Fumiko Hayashida, a pregnant mother of two. Fumiko was one of 227 members of her community who, dressed in their best clothes, assembled at the Eagledale ferry landing on March 30th, 1942. As they waited to be taken off the Island by armed military escorts, Fumiko, holding her 13–month–old daughter Natalie Kayo, was photographed by a Seattle Post–Intelligencer photographer. She is obviously not a dirty Jap but an educated American Citizen just beginning the process of race shaming. Note the little fuzzy dog she carries for her little daughter. Everything about this photo speaks to a mothers care.

One of the first of the 541 babies born at Manzanar  was Fumiko’s. The hospital clinic was not yet finished so she gave birth in her room lying in an army cot. A Japanese doctor, also interned, delivered the baby without anesthetic and with no access to blood plasma should she need it.

A 28 year old unwed mother had given birth to a stillborn just days before.      She hemorrhaged and soon bled to death The doctors had nothing to give her and she bled out on the wooden kitchen table that was used for birthing.  That stillborn baby, never identified is one of six graves left in the cemetery. There was no one to care for it and it lies there today all alone, never given a name and long forgotten. The baby was an American.

In 1990 the Smithsonian planned on using the photo of Fumiko in an exhibit and managed to track her down in Seattle where she lived at the time. During an interview she was asked if she angry “Well, no,” she said. “In a way, but you know you do your duty. If the President wants us to do it. …We didn’t like it but that’s okay. I think no use fighting the government.”

“I was known as ‘Mystery Girl.’ ‘Mystery Lady,’” she said in 2007. Her highest-profile appearance came in 2006, when she testified before a congressional committee considering legislation to build a memorial on Bainbridge Island to internees.

It was a role she assumed as a result of the photo, but not one she sought. Like so many Japanese Americans of her generation, she preferred to be quiet about the events of the war years.

“My first reaction was of disbelief and anger,” she told the congressional committee. ” … My disgust soon changed to fear, for I realized that I now had the face of the enemy. I was very scared of what people might want to do to us. Rumors began to fly. Will we be arrested? Will angry people come and vandalize our homes, ruin our farms, or do us bodily harm?”

“Nobody knew where we as were going, how long we would be gone or if we could ever come back,” Hayashida said. She packed only what she could carry, making sure to place as much cloth in her case that she could later cut up for diapers. “No disposable diapers then,” she reminded. “The train trip from Seattle to Manzanar was the worst time of my life. They kept the shades pulled and there were two armed guards in each car.” She was eight months pregnant and was holding a 10 month old baby.

Natalie Ong, the child in the photograph, finally asked about the camps when she was in the third grade. “One day,she came home from school … and she asked us, ‘Did we? Did you go into camp, you know?’ That was the first child in the family that asked because I have a lot of nieces and nephews who are older than her but they hadn’t heard about it. Somehow she was the first one. Then we told her because of the war we had to leave home and she said, ‘Mommy, Daddy, you are American citizens. How come? That’s against the law. She is still angry about it to this day.”

Natalie said of her mother, “She was nobody and yet, she was everybody.”

Fumiko Hayashida died at age 103 in 2003. At the time she was the oldest l,iving survivor of the camps. The baby boy born in Manzanar, a second generation Nissei served his country as a soldier in Vietnam and earned a purple heart. Loyalty is an ephemeral thing and must be constantly guarded.

Alan Nishio was born in captivity at Manzanar on August 9th, 1945 the day the United States dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. His grandfather lived there and was vaporized in the blast which killed an estimated 170,000 people. The story of his birth remained a closely-guarded family secret. It wasn’t until the 1960s,

while poring through the stacks of books at University of California, Berkeley library, that Nisho accidentally discovered the truth about his birthplace. He knew he had been born in a place known as Manzanar, but he had always assumed it was a farm labor camp in Northern California. The paper he found on campus identified Manzanar in quite a different way: as one of ten detention camps that held Japanese Americans during World War Two. He tried to discuss his birthplace with his family when he returned home for vacation, but was met only with silence. His parents would not speak of it.

Alan retired from CSU Long Beach after a career teaching in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies and serving as Associate Vice President of Student Services. Within the community, Mr. Nishio was a founder and co-chair of the National Coalition of Redress/Reparations, an organization that played a significant role in the redress campaign for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.

Dennis Bambauer, Senior Photo, Bishop HS. Used by permission

Manzanar had a section in the camp dedicated to orphans which was known as the “Children’s Village.”  Before 1942, the majority of orphan children of Japanese ancestry either lived with distant family members or foster families. Some were placed in one of three orphanages in California specifically for children of Japanese ancestry: the Salvation Army Home in San Francisco, the Maryknoll Home in Los Angeles, and the Shonien in Los Angeles.    One of the kids was Dennis. Of Japanese and French-Irish descent, his mother was Japanese American. He was born October 1, 1934, in Los Angeles, California. As a child he resided in the Children’s Home Society Orphanage in Los Angeles. During World War II, he was scooped up by the authorities along with all the Japanes staff and sent to Manzanar concentration camp’s “Children’s Village” for orphans. 

“Well, I was an orphan, and my mother took me from her familyto an orphanage, and I remember well my days in the Children’s Home Society in Los Angeles as a small child. I was the only Japanese American in the orphanage, but I really didn’t know that I was different than the other children. It wasn’t until we got evacuated that I suddenly discovered that lo and behold, for some reason, I was different. I didn’t learn until later when we, as small kids, were faced with the American patriotism of the workers at the camp. It was about that time, shortly after arriving there, that I realized that I was there because I was part Japanese. My mother was full-blooded Japanese; my father was French-Irish. So 50 percent.” Dennis laughed at that. When asked how much Japanese blood was necessary in order to be sent to camp, he said, “ I recall something that the director of the relocation, his name I believe was Meredith, who said if you had a drop of blood, you got interned. So any kind of Japanese heritage, you were interned if you were living on the West Coast. Even if you’re only six years old. Just like me.

The Village held children from newborn to high school age and was for the most part completely segregated from the rest of the camp. If you were born to an unwed mother you were immediately removed from the mother and placed there. If your parent or parents died in camp you went to Children’s Village. They took you even if you had relatives nearby.

“The worst memories was that we were prisoners. Every night the searchlights would flash, circle around the camp and would come through the barracks so you would see the light out the windows, searching. The barbed wire fence held us in. When little kids were playing and a ball rolled under the fence the guards wouldn’t let you go get it. Sometimes they just kept them. The fact that we were prisoners, that’s the worst memory. And the soldiers had to do their job. But the soldiers were a little lenient, it seems, for us little kids. They didn’t try to be mean. We would walk by the towers, and they would chat with us. So that’s a better memory about the situation, but that was because of the individuals more than the system.”

Dennis was adopted out to the Bambauer family and went to live in Bishop when he was in third grade. He had to be fingerprinted before he left and the soldier who did the printing told him, “This is in case you do anything bad; we’ll be able to catch you.” That was a, that was a traumatic experience for me, and I’m sure that the soldier didn’t mean anything by that, but it really knocked me for a loop. It was really… I was really sad. It didn’t make me angry because at that age, six or seven, you don’t get angry. You get scared. So it just made me even more scared. I didn’t know what I was — I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know anything about the Bambauers except that they had come to the camp and they wanted to adopt a child and so they selected me. But other than seeing them, I didn’t know anything about the family so it was a traumatic experience leaving my friends and a comfortable place, and then to have that warning, I just have never ever been able to overcome that. Also I was known as the yellow Jap in Bishop. Those things never go away. ——Dennis Bambauer  earned a degree at Occidental College and became a teacher and a philanthropist in Redding Ca. He died in 2017 at 84.

Lieutenant General John Lesesne DeWitt, Commander Western Defense Command.

John Lesesne DeWitt was a general officer in the United States Army, best known for leading the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War two. DeWitt believed that Japanese nationals and Japanese American citizens on the Pacific Coast were conspiring to sabotage the American war effort, and recommended they be removed from coastal areas. following the Roberts Commission report of January 25, 1942 accusing persons of Japanese ancestry of widespread espionage in Hawaii prior to Pearl Harbor, along with his perception of public opinion as anti-Japanese, he became a proponent of internment of all west coast Japanese. He felt that the lack of sabotage efforts only meant that it was being readied for a large-scale effort. “The fact that nothing has happened so far is more or less . . . ominous, in that I feel that in view of the fact that we have had no sporadic attempts at sabotage that there is a control being exercised and when we have it it will be on a mass basis.” DeWitt stated, “Let me warn the affected aliens and Japanese citizens that anything other than strict compliance with this proclamations provisions will bring immediate and severe punishment.” Numbers of studies into sabotage or any other spying both during and after the war revealed not one, not one single instance of sabotage by any Mainland Japanese or Japanese American, none. Zero.

DeWitt was never sanctioned by the military or government and went on to serve in many other military capacities including commandant of the War College. His grandchildren were completely unaware of his involvement in the transportation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. DeWitt died at age 82 in 1962. It is common for children who did not grow up in the camps to be ignorant of their family history. The adults kept their knowledge to themselves. My friends whom I have known all my life has never spoken about Gila River or Poston where they were born.They left there as infant or very young children and their parents never spoke about their experience. Much of the original research has been done by those too young to remember or who were born after the war. Without them and their activism most of these peoples stories would have been lost.




What they did was to build a brand new society where none had existed. Planners had not expected this.



Part Two

NOShikata Ga Nai, “It can not be helped.”

.Ten thousand and forty six souls. 10,046 in counting numbers. In 1942 Manzanar was home to over ten thousand Japanese Americans. It was one of ten camps scattered around the United States. From Camp Rohwer in the dismal, mosquito infested swamps of southwestern Arkansas to remote Tule lake in California, they had one thing in common, they were all isolated, inhospitable and barely livable. For the people who were incarcerated there it was to be a long time before the would see their homes again, if ever. On March 25th the first buses from the temporary assembly centers in California rolled through the front gate. Surrounded by barbed wire fences with eight machine gun towers at regular intervals they belied the fact that west coast newspapers and politicians were advertising the voluntary evacuation of patriotic Japanese Americans. There was no doubt that they were in for a hard time. They would have precious little to volunteer for.

The first blocks of barracks were barely complete. The camp was organized like a military base with orderly rows of buildings designed to hold three or four families each. Buildings measured 120X20 feet and were divided into six one-room apartments, ranging in size form 320 to 480 square feet. Each block of 15 barracks shared bath, latrine, and mess buildings. Each family would be housed in a twenty by twenty foot “room.” The room itself was nothing but an undivided space in the barrack. There was no partition between families, no toilet or sink, no insulation or wallboard no ceiling nor carpet on the plank floors. Each of these building was provided with one oil heater to fight of the winters brutal cold and the only air conditioning was the gap between the floor boards which let in the 

Family life in a room the size of your garage. National Archives photo

wind, the sand and the dust, for it was nearly always windy in the Owens Valley. The city of Los Angeles owned the land the camp was on and when the US government condemned it for wartime use they simply bulldozed the already barren square mile of all of its vegetation. There was literally not a blade of grass to be found within the compound in the beginning. Keeping the inside of the building clean was a hopeless task, made even more difficult because the people imprisoned there came from a population where cleanliness and order were very important staples of their culture. There was also little or no privacy in the barracks and not much outside either. The 200 to 400 people living in each block tried to achieve some privacy by hanging blanket or sheets on ropes between families but it did little to help. They were provided no furniture, no chairs, tables or dressers in which to store their meager belongings. Nearly everything that made life comfortable was simply denied them.

——We couldn’t cook in the barracks. They told us it was a fire hazard plus they had confiscated our hot plates at the assembly centers. We had to eat in the halls. We stood in line outside no matter the weather, winter and summer We had to eat whatever they had to serve. In the beginning the food was terrible. Once we had jello over rice. I guess they didn’t deport enough cooks.——Yori Kageyama

For the women in particular, the showers and restrooms were excruciating. There were no stalls or enclosures at all. In a culture where modesty is a virtue, having to shower naked in the open or use the toilet was almost more than some could bear. The earliest arrivals had only outhouses located between the barracks. The cess pits were soon overflowing exacerbating the concerns of a people whose entire culture was built around privacy and order. 

——-My mother was so humiliated that she would get up at three in the morning with the hope that the shower room might be empty. It almost never was. She simply had to learn to live with it.——-Shigeru Ito 

,Absolutely no thought had been given to cultural differences, religious needs or education. There were no schools, nurseries or churches. No playgrounds, no ball fields and only a rudimentary hospital which would be staffed by the prisoners themselves. There were no farm fields for growing crops, no orchards and no parks. Rooms had no furniture beyond an iron bed frame and a mattress which you had to stuff yourself. Nothing had been done to provide for family life in a room the size of your garage. The absolute bare minimum of shelter, period.

At Manzanar, many residents complained about a lack of food. The white camp employees were stealing their already limited supply of food. Sugar and other supplies that were rationed throughout the United States, and many Americans were willing to pay high prices for these goods. The employees cheated camp residents out of part of their food, took the surplus into nearby Lone Pine, Bishop and Independence and sold it at high prices on the local black market. Camp administrators simply turned a blind eye.

Henry Ueno who headed the kitchen workers carefully monitored the theft of sugar and other food items, trying to verify that the prisoners were suffering from this lack of food. He found the supply of sugar delivered to the mess halls to be 6,000 pounds short and went to the camp officials showed them the records and complained. He was quickly removed from his job, labeled as a subversive and troublemaker and promptly jailed in Lone Pine. The next morning he was returned to Manzanar and thrown into the camp jail. People in the camp formed a large protest outside the main administration building. The camps military police quickly formed and surrounded the protestors, armed with fixed bayonets and canisters of tear gas. Someone in the crowd threw a light bulb which popped when it hit the ground. Soldiers then threw tear gas at the crowd. Ueno recalled: “That stifling smoke quickly covered the whole area. People were gasping and coughing and trying to get away. The sergeant in charge was yelling, “Remember Pearl Harbor, hold your line.” Some one amongst the soldiers fired a shot and then they all started firing.”  When the smoke cleared, one Japanese American boy, just seventeen lay dead in the dirt and eleven more were taken to the camp hospital where a twenty-one year old died from a terrible stomach wound. This became known as the Manzanar Massacre.

One of the results of this was the immediate removal to the Tule Lake punishment camp in northeastern California of all collaborators (Spies) who were working for special treatment and favors by the government officials who ran the camp. Things gradually settled down after this but the blackmarket thefts never stopped. The prisoners had no direct access to camp supplies in the warehouses and little was ever done by the camp director to stop the practice of theft.

One of the outcomes was that administrators came to realize that the prisoners were not just ignorant farmers or fisherman but were comprised of people from all walks of life. Highly educated people who represented every major profession. Lawyers, educators, business owners, bankers, college students, architects, engineers and union organizers were among those imprisoned. 

Manzanar had 36 residential blocks each with 14 barracks all separated by streets and firebreaks. There were no streetlights and it was hazardous to move around at night. The streets were unpaved of course and there was no water in the buildings. In the winter the ground became a sea of mud, often covered by snow and in the summer it baked under the heat to a brick like consistency. At its height the camp held nearly eleven thousand people of all ages who lived, worked and played there.

The blocks held people from they same area which turned out to be a blessing. People from Arroyo Grande or Guadalupe for example were mostly in the same buildings or were close neighbors. This wasn’t done through any sense of sympathy for the deportees but simply because when you were checked off the train or bus from your hometown it was simply easier to keep the group together.  For the initial internees it helped to build a small sense of community.

From the very beginning people tried to organize their lives. As thousands of people began to flood into the camps the authorities scrambled to organize and educate them in the rules and schedules of the camp. For people who had recently run their own lives it was a shock to be herded from place to place, stand in long lines and go through the humiliation of being treated as if you were just a number. Just like going to boot camp one said. Poked and prodded by doctors, issued numbers in lieu of your name, standing in line to be issued bedding, a thin mattress for your single iron bed and an two gray Navy issue wool blankets. In a nod to the temperature extremes each resident was also issued a Navy peacoat and in the old photos you can see small children wrapped up in these man sized jackets. Eligible citizens were even issued identification cards that would allow them to vote in the November election of 1942. Wrap your mind around that, imprisoned against your will, deprived of your property and livelihood, locked in a desert hell hole guarded by guard towers manned by soldiers with loaded machine guns and rifles but we are going to make sure you  can exercise at least one of the rights given to American citizens by the constitution, the right to vote for the candidate of your choice. The elected officials who sent you here without any due process who said, “It’s for your own protection,” but who also made sure the five wire barbed wire fence was constantly patrolled and machine guns pointed, not outward but inward.

Amongst different age groups two stand out as the most affected. Adults who had managed their own lives and businesses could and did organize themselves, electing block committees, advocacy groups and attempting to build communities within the many, many restrictions set down by the authorities. As with all government agencies, especially those removed from the center of power as the administrators of the camps were, they were charged with imposing rules they did not agree with or had no hand in writing. 

It was forbidden to speak, read or write Japanese, . For the oldest among the prisoners this was a major hardship as with many immigrants from foreign countries they had never learned rudimentary or perhaps no English. This was true of people of all countries who had come to the United States though it was only applied to the Japanese. Old folks who came with no family who could translate had real difficulties. Even the Buddhist churches were forbidden their own languages during services.

Then there were the young, the teenagers who had just left their home towns, and high schools where they had never given much thought to any differences in race or ethnicity. This was especially true in small towns like ours where there were differences between adults but not so much amongst kids. Elementary and Secondary schools are a world of their own. 

It was April 1942. Arroyo Grande’s Japanese were ordered to report to the high school. They were allowed to carry only one bag with them. Everything a family thought they would need had to be stuffed into that bag. High school kids stood in small groups talking in low voices. Amongst the crowd were kids who were not going, friends who had shown up. Friends who saw no differences.

The busses ground their gears as they pulled up the steep hill and pulled into the parking lot behind the school. The doors hissed open and the WRA officials began checking people in as they boarded. A group of teenage girls were holding each other, some crying out loud some just stunned. Only some were going to The collection center in Tulare, some were not, they didn’t have to because they were white. Really the only difference, they were white. Twenty five of the 58 students in the class of 1942 were Nisei. In one hour the school was reduced by nearly half.  Most would never return.  

Lapel tag for No. 04220 bound for Poston Camp.

At Arroyo Grande high school, as the busses pulled away and the woman  across the street cried, classmates and friends stood quietly, some girls quietly crying boys standing mostly silent, stoic in the way young men must be at times of stress and hurt, one or two reaching up to the window and shaking hands with other boys who they had known all their lives. Boys who they had played with as little children, boys they knew like brothers.  

High school kids are for the most part united against the adult world and though they have their differences they can stand together against what they consider unjust behavior by adults. Don Gullickson, Gordon Bennett, Marylee Zeyen, Tommy Baxter and the irrepressible John Loomis would never, as long as they lived, forgive what was done. Teenagers hate injustice. 

Clarence Burrell, the principal of Arroyo Grande HS took it upon himself to drive to the Tulare fairgrounds racetrack in June where his students were being held and personally deliver their diploma’s. The Arroyo Grande Women’s Club passed box lunches up through the windows of the busses to people many of whom had lived in this little valley for generations, my grandmother and her friends among them. Mrs Gladys Loomis, Miss Barbara Hall, Mrs Ole Gullickson, Mrs Chester Steele and Mrs J W Shannon, some but not all. Not everyone felt the same way. 

The owners had left their keys in the ignitionAt literally the same time, doors were being kicked in, windows broken and the homes and businesses of the departed were being vandalized. Furniture, farm equipment and belongings that could not be taken were destroyed. Cars and trucks were stolen. The owners had simply left the keys in the ignition knowing they could not be saved and before the busses left many of the cars were simply driven away never to be seen again. The hateful had a field day. It was the same town of just over a thousand people. Two sides of the same coin. Many still not reconciled to this day. Uneasy lies the issue of race.

The country the Japanese Americans loved had kicked them to the curb and they felt isolated and alone. Camp administrators at Manzanar did little help overcome this belief. The only thing they could do was to rely on each other as they were all in the same boat. Having a tight community and close friends to rely on would help make the suffering a little bit easier Though locked up in the camps and taken away from their normal lives they organized and tried to bring a sense of normalcy into the camps. The brought tradition with them. They brought philosphy with them and they brought religion. They brought what they had learned in America. They needed to somehow outlast the tough times they saw coming and they did it by relying on things that could distract them form the hardships and atrocities all around them.

Part Three

What They Did…. Their Stories.

Aiko Hamaguchi RN, Manzanar, National Archives, Ansel Adams




Yuki Okinaga Hayakawa aged three, National Archive Photo

I took my first trips up and down U S Highway 395 when I was just two years old. Manzanar had been closed for just two years. Over the decades I have passed it by many times. It was always notable for the fact that there was nothing there. No road sign announcing it’s site, no buildings other than an old run down auditorium and the cut stone gatehouse. It was like all the rest of the open high desert land that surrounded it, Saltbush, Mormon Tea, Rabbitbrush, and Lupine that, when in bloom gave just a splash of color in the dry, desiccated ground bookmarked between the eastern Sierra Nevada’s Mount Williamson and the massive Keynot peak, lurking in the Inyo mountains to the east. It was like all the rest of the open, high desert land that surrounded it, Saltbush, Mormon Tea, Rabbitbrush, and Lupine that, when in bloom gave just a splash of color in the dry, desiccated ground bookmarked between the eastern Sierra Nevada and the massive Keynot peak, lurking in the Inyo mountains to the east. Midway between the tiny towns of Lone Pine and Independence my dad would point it out in a matter of fact way as the place they kept the Japanese during the war. That was all. 

I’ve driven that stretch of road almost more times than I can count but on this trip something about Manzanar was different. We decided to stop. There were a couple buildings I had never seen before and it was obvious the National Parks Service which owns the site was making an attempt to make Manzanar accessible. The place was almost completely deserted and only a young woman from Germany and an older couple were there. You can drive and walk completely around what was once the home to more than 13,000 Japanese Americans. About one third of the disingenuously labeled internees who were in fact prisoners guarded by guard towers with armed soldiers on duty 24 hours a day, were ineligible for citizenship because Federal law forbade native born Japanese from becoming  American citizens. The other two-thirds were born in this country and by Constitutional right were citizens of the United States. 

As far as I know nearly every kid of Japanese Ancestry I went to school with was born or lived in one of the ten so-called re-location camps spotted throughout the western United States. None of them were old enough to remember what it was like at Gila River camp in Poston Arizona or Tule Lake in the bleak scrublands of California’s far northeast corner, the camp built especially for the most troublesome prisoners. Freezing in the long cold winters, stovetop hot and constantly windy in the short summers, Tule Lake was reserved for those considered most disloyal. Sixteen guard towers, searchlights, a lighted perimeter fence and a fifty foot deadline manned by 1,200 fully armed soldiers all looking inward, “For their own protection”  said the camp commander.  All of this overlooked by the eternally frowning Castle Peak, it’s brow lowered and radiating disapproval. Whether it was the Japanese Americans or the military overseers know one knows but nonetheless, equally oppressive.

“Ashita wa ashita no kaze ga fuku,” Tomorrows wind will blow tomorrow. This Japanese saying means, “tomorrow’s another day” and to not worry about the future. I love this elegant proverb because it encourages perseverance in the face of hardship. Hardship it would be.

 A very old woman who lived across the street from Arroyo Grande High School stood on her front porch, holding the door knob to steady herself, unashamed tears rolling down her cheeks as she watched the Japanese-Americans loaded on the line of busses parked on Crown Hill. They were her friends and neighbors, each one with a dangling name tag in a button hole. The group waiting quietly, some sitting on suitcases or bundles of personal possessions rolled up in bedsheets or stuffed in gunny sacks. They did not know where they were going, only that their lives were completely shattered. They were leaving their homes, farms and businesses and as yet had not an inkling of how or when they would be able to return. 

There was Family #41605. The father, an American citizen, born right here in Arroyo Grande. His own father was also born here as was his wife. She was pregnant with their third child and she was destined to conceive and deliver another in the concentration camp at Gila River Arizona. It would be a boy with a kings name and we would be lifelong friends and high school classmates in the nineteen sixties.  The father was my dads age. They were friends too. We have an 11th grade high school photograph where they sit in the front row, right next to one another. They wear crisp white shirts, dirty corduroy pants, both destined to be farmers in our little valley. 

There was a 17 year old high school student, slim and earnest looking in his glasses, his family was #14436. His was a farming family too. A former Boy Scout in my scoutmaster father’s troop 13, Dad always said that he was one of the funniest boys he ever knew. There was no smile today, he stood with his brother waiting patiently.

They were all apprehensive and slightly bewildered by this turn of events. They were hardly surprised by the hatred that had so intensified since December 7th.They had heard General John L DeWitt, commander of the Western Approaches command which covered Washington, Oregon and California state that “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United State soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become “Americanized,” the racial strains are undiluted. It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these were organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will certainly be taken.”  A comment of such self serving purpose can hardly be believed.

That bewildering logic didn’t deter California’s Attorney General and the next Governor, Earl Warren. Warren, a future Supreme Court Justice was a proponent of forced evacuation and helped to drive public opinion to support the Army’s policy. President Franklin Roosevelt signed order number 9066 on February 19th, 1942 ordering that all Japanese and Japanese Americans be removed from the zone of the Pacific to evacuation centers and then taken to the so-called war relocation centers for internment. No matter the sex, no matter the age, University students, National Guard serving soldiers, Teachers, Professors, nurses and doctors and even adopted Japanese American children were ordered sent. Photographers, artists, architects, it didn’t matter. All.

Japanese Americans and other Asians in the U.S. had suffered for decades from prejudice and racially-motivated fear. Laws preventing Asian Americans from owning land, voting, testifying against whites in court, and other racially discriminatory laws existed long before World War II. President Roosevelt had ordered the FBI, Naval Intelligence and Military Intelligence to conduct thorough investigations into the loyalty and sympathies of Japanese Americans in 1940. Both the Munson Report of 1940 and a second investigation finished in 1942, written by Naval Intelligence officer Kenneth Ringle and submitted in January, likewise found absolutely no evidence of subversive activity and strongly urged against mass incarceration. Both were ignored.

General DeWitt was quoted as saying, “A Jap is a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is a United States citizen or not.” Mrs Roosevelt as well as some cabinet members in Washington were against the policy but with a by election coming in November 1942 the president was concerned about west coast voters so he turned a blind eye to those who though the policy was both unwise and wrong.

In August 1942 the busses from Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria and Guadalupe arrived at the little town of Yellem just outside Tulare in the San Joaquin Valley. 

 “…we had to get off and carry the things we could carry and march, walk into the town to the racetrack. People came out as if it was some kind of parade, but a parade with soldiers on the both sides, with their bayonets fixed and up. It was just a very humiliating experience.” – Yosh Nakamura, Densho Archives

They were ushered off the streets and into the stables and the infield of an old horse racing track. They waited quietly with their meager belongings while they were processed in. Some of the people were settled in newly completed temporary barracks buildings, so new that they still smelled of pine sap, the floors covered with construction debris. Others not quite so lucky were marched to the old stables and installed in horse stalls, still covered with dirty straw hay and reeking of horse urine and manure. 

Bedding was not provided, just an old mattress cover that the prisoners had to stuff with straw themselves. Quietly and stoically they set about making the best of it. One of the qualities of Japanese Americans at that time was not to make waves, strive to give no offense and to endeavor to fit in by remaining almost invisible to non-Japanese people.

Most were to remain at the racetrack for as long as five months. They were in almost complete ignorance about what their fate would be. Where would they be going. No one knew and no one in authority would tell them, Rumors and gossip had to fill the void. Radios had been confiscated and no newspapers were allowed. Nearly every periodical in the country was foaming at the mouth with outrage and printed every kind of rumor and falsehood. They encouraged removal of the “enemy race” from the West Coast as a military necessity, and fully supporting the president‟s final decision.

The prisoners themselveswere deliberately kept in the dark.  The justification for the removal was ostensibly to thwart espionage and sabotage, but babies, young children, the elderly, the infirm, children from orphanages, and even children adopted by Caucasian parents were not exempt from removal. In all, over 17,000 children under 10 years old, 2,000 persons over 65 years old, and 1,000 handicapped or infirm persons were removed.

“……my mother got us up before dawn. She had us dress in as many layers of clothes as we could wear. She had packed everything she though we could carry in suitcases and duffel bags the night before. They were left by the door. Just after dawn a military truck stopped in front of our house and two soldiers hopped down and marched up to our door. The carried rifles with the bayonets attached and pistols. One of them knocked on the door using the butt of his rifle until my mother came and opened it. No one said a word. She had us carry our little duffels down to the truck where the soldiers lifted us up. I looked back to my mother standing in the street, carrying her suitcase with my little sister held tightly against her breast. She had tears streaming down her cheeks.” ___James Ota Koga

 Stuffed into the fairgrounds in the blistering heat of a San Joaquin valley summer where temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, they waited patiently. Most followed the lead of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and cooperated with the removal as a means to prove their loyalty. A few were vocally opposed to the removal and later took legal action that eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. 

It was to no avail. In 1944, when the Pacific War was well on its way to being won and there was no rational argument for keeping Americans in the camps ,the court handed down its ruling in Korematsu vs United States.   In a majority opinion joined by five other justices, Associate Justice Hugo Black held that the need to protect against espionage by Japan outweighed the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. Black wrote that: “Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race”, but rather “because the properly constituted military authorities … decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast” during the war against Japan. The dissenting justices Frank Murphy, Robert H. Jackson, and Owen J. Roberts all criticized the exclusion as racially discriminatory; Murphy wrote that the exclusion of Japanese “falls into the ugly abyss of racism” and was akin to the “the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial  Fascist tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.”

The other side of the coin was represented by Harold L. Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior and personal friend of both the Roosevelts who wrote: ”It has long been my belief that the greatness of America has risen in large part out of the diversity of her peoples. Before the war, peoples of Japanese ancestry were a small but valuable element in our population. Their record of law-abiding, industrious citizenship was surpassed by no other group. Their contributions to the arts, agriculture, and science were indisputable evidence that the majority of them believed in America and were growing with America.

Among the casualties of war has been America’s Japanese minority. It is my hope that the wounds which it has received in the great uprooting will heal. It is my prayer that other Americans will fully realize that to condone the whittling away of the rights of any one minority group is to pave the way for us all to lose the guarantees of the Constitution. As the President has said, “Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.” ___Harold L. Ickes

Notwithstanding any of this resistance, the massive engine of the federal government simply rolled on. What had been put in motion could not be stopped.

Next___Part Two.

The Howlings of the military, government, and press drove the evacuation forward…..


Robert E Lee Prewitt

“The best bugler in the G-damned United State Army,” so said First Sergeant  Milton Warden, a soldier of the 298th Infantry Regiment, 25th Division stationed on Oahu in December 1941. A line spoken about Robert E Lee Prewitt, a character in James Jones novel “From Here to Eternity.” Made into a film, a quite wonderful film, in 1953. In the film Prewitt plays the greatest rendition of Taps ever recorded. He plays it for his dead friend Maggio and as an ode to the “Crummy Life” of the soldier.

Taps refers to the three traditional rim-shots, or taps played on the drum at the end of the call.

It ends with the words, “All is well, safely rest, God is nigh…”

To all our troops who gave up their lives for our country. Rest in peace.

The bugle call, “Taps”, was likely composed by Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, who commanded 3rd Brigade, 1st Div in the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac during our Civil War. Butterfield wrote the tune at Gaines Mill, Virginia in 1862 after a bloody battle in which his division suffered severe losses and he, himself was badly wounded. Gaines mill was one of the seven days battles fought near Richmond Virginia. My great-great-grandmothers young husband was killed there as was his brother. The third brother had died at Bull Run. Butterfield himself was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the Civil War Brigadier Generals led from the front and suffered enormously heavy casualties on both sides.

Within a year of its composition it was being played by both armies, Confederate and Union.

The actor shown above, Montgomery Clift learned to play the bugle for his roll in the movie though the recording was actually made by trumpeter Mannie Klein. Klein was a swing band trumpeter and played for such greats as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Paul Whitman and in the fifties, many West Coast Jazz groups. He played the bugle parts in “Here to Eternity” and Picolo Trumpet on the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

The book on which the movie was based almost perfectly encapsulated army life at Schofield Barracks, Oahu just before the of WWII. The characters are based on the old depression era professional army. These are the men that fought at Guadalcanal and the early island battles of the Pacific war. Almost all were killed or wounded holding back the Japanese while America geared itself up. There is a great debt owed their memory.

James Jones, the man who wrote “Here to Eternity” was an enlisted man who served during the war and was in fact, a shadow of these men and their times. He enlisted at 17, lying about his age. He served with the 27th Division at Schofield, witnessed Pearl Harbor and was wounded at Guadalcanal.

His book is considered to be one of America’s best wartime chronicles, ranked along with other combat veterans who wrote after the war.

Joseph Heller, B-25 Bombardier, “Catch 22,”

Kurt Vonnegut, Scout, 106th Infantry Division* “Slaughterhouse five,”

Paul Fussel, 2nd Lieutenant, 103rd Infantry Division “How I learned to Love the Bomb,”

Norman Mailer, Reconnaissance, 112th Cavalry, “The Naked and the Dead,”

Herman Wouk, Lieutenant U S Navy, USS Zane, “The Caine Mutiny,”

J D Salinger, Counter-Intelligence Unit U S Army France, “Catcher in the Rye.”

John Hersey, War Correspondence, “Hiroshima,”

Roald Dahl, Fighter Pilot, “The BFG,”

Eugene Sledge, Marine Rifleman, “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa,”

Martha Gelhorn, war correspondant, she was the only woman to land at Normandy on June 6th 1944. She was the first writer to enter and report on the Dachau Death Camp. She also served in Korea and Vietnam.*

And James Michener, Lieutenant U S Navy, “Tales of the South Pacific.”

I’ve walked through this quad at Schofield and yes it still exists as do the bullet holes from Japanese machine guns. It will give you the Chicken Skin, particularly at night when it’s filled with ghosts.

Whatever your personal views on war and the U S Military, this war was fought for all the right reasons. Not every war has been but the boys and girls who served in all of them and died for it deserve your respect today. They paid the highest of prices for you.

Note: She was also one of Hemingway’s wives and the only one to dump him for which she deserves a medal.


The Milkman

Part four

Barbara and her mother sat down on sofa. Side by side on the sofa. “Mother, I don’t know what to do? I’m scared, What should I do.”

“Barbara, you have to tell him. This is a small town not like Santa Barbara or Long Beach. People here will not look on a divorce lightly. You have to tell him. If he or anyone else ever found out, well, you can’t just let it go. If this relationship is that important, George has to know.”

The next time the were together she waited until the end of the night and then she found the courage to tell him. She told him all of it.

He didn’t call for a week.

Four years earlier Barbara had a boyfriend in Santa Barbara. She loved her life there. She lived in what was still a pretty small city, a city defined by wealth and privilege. It was like night and day when compared to Taft or Bakersfield, a couple of hardscrabble oil towns where she had lived growing up. She’d met a teaching pro at the Montecito Tennis club where she played when she could. She hung out with a crowd of high school friends who were financially better off than her parents and it was exciting to have a glimpse into theat life. At seventeen it must have seemed the weight of that existence, the constant moving, leaving friends, and then having to repeat the cycle all over again and again and again could be over. She felt she was in a place where she could stay a long time, as her father was fond of saying “We’ve lived in practically every hellhole in the state and I’m tired of it.” She was too.

As if to drive the point home they moved several times in the two years they stayed in Santa Barbara. Houses, apartments and even motels. Bruce was hoping for a promotion and expected to leave Santa Barbara and finally when they were living out in Goleta it happened. He was drilling out at the Elwood lease on the old Dos Pueblos rancho when they called and ordered him down to Long Beach and Signal Hill. The family was headed out again and Barbara didn’t want to go.

Her solution was to marry. Her parents weren’t happy, particularly he father, but she was determined to stay. After all she was eighteen and she could do what she wanted. Her father though that he was a poor choice and he let her know it. He had now spent nearly twenty years in a hard job with hard men to handle and he wasn’t particularly sensitive to her wants. There were some hard words spoken but she went ahead and married anyway. Bruce was hard on her about it. Her mother perhaps less so, her own mother had been divorced, though she was a fiercely independent woman and really didn’t care what anyone thought. She was entirely different than her granddaughter. Nevertheless Barbara was left to fend for herself. Neither Barbara nor her parents backed down.

Self Portrait 1937, Shannon Family Photo

He was a good looking guy, athletic and personable on the surface. He worked as a tennis pro and as a bellboy and bartender at the Biltmore Hotel. It was a ritzy place in the thirties and catered to the wealthy, movie stars and politicians. A short drive from Los Angeles, its Spanish California revival architecture set in 22 acres of land tucked between Butterfly Beach and the Santa Ynez foothills in Montecito would have been a paradise for a girl raised in the oil patch.

Barbara was a cocktail waitress and they lived in the workers bungalows on the hotel grounds. Barbara’s family saw them occasionally on the holidays. Her parents missed her but these gatherings were often strained by the disapproval they had difficulty hiding. In 1940,she and her husband came up to Arroyo for thanksgiving staying in the old motor court north of town. There is a picture of the family taken in front of it, everyone looking directly at the camera except Barbara. Here husband has his arm around her shoulders, a cigarette dangling from his fingers while she looks to her right. She looks desperately unhappy. She has the look of the thousand yard stare, something seen on the faces of soldiers who have seen combat. It’s prophetic.

Later that year her aunt Martha who lived in Goleta while her husband worked the Elwood Oil Field saw her niece walking down State Street in Santa Barbara. Martha crossed the street to say hello. Barbara looked unhappy and sported a black eye she had unsuccessfully tried to cover with make-up. They spoke just a few words, shed some tears and both continued on their separate ways. When Martha returned home she told Elmer and he said we need to call Bruce and Eileen and tell them, so they did.

Bruce got on the phone and called her in Santa Barbara. It was a rough conversation. She cried over the phone and Bruce was very careful not to tell her “I told you so,” instead letting her talk herself out then telling her that if she wanted to, she could come home. And so she did, arriving the next day, stepping off the Greyhound Stage at the depot in Taft. She was welcomed with open arms.

Bruce and Eileen helped her get a divorce, not a common thing in California at the time. Roughly two divorces per thousand couples were asked for and granted. People saw divorce as a failure both ethically and morally. “You must be attentive to your spirit and you must not be unfaithful,” Says the Bible in Malachi, the 39th and last book in the old testament. The feeling that divorce was a failure was common belief and that women were considered more at fault than men. It wasn’t the Scarlet Letter but it was close. Things like this were kept secret for shame, deserved or not. Barbara divorced him for good reason but the shame would have been entirely hers.

To top it all off she needed twenty-five dollars to legally change her name but didn’t have it and neither did her parents. She had to keep it. She very carefully stowed the marriage license at the bottom of her trunk and never spoke of it. It remained there until her death. Hidden away for fifty-four years, unknown to us.

Then after a week, George did call. It was alright. It was all put right.

Off on a date. The cat that caught the canary, Short Street Arroyo Grande. He’s grinning so hard his teeth must hurt. Shannon Family photo.

Jack and Annie Shannon and brother Jackie adored Barbara as Bruce and Eileen did George. Some common sense and a great deal of love made it alright. Bruce, Eileen and Patsy were to leave for Long Beach and Barbara didn’t want to go, but this time for a good reason. She stayed in the little house on Short Street and her new friends cheered her on for George was quite the catch and they all knew it.

George was a man of good character, he never lied, he would wave at you on the street even if you weren’t looking and I was once told by a man who knew him well that he was the “Finest man he ever knew.” A child can never know his parents as young but I saw the way men, and particularly the generation of women who watched him grow up treated him. Those old girls were indicators of the esteem in which they held him. I used to go with my dad to buy birthday presents for my mother. I Can’t remember anything he ever bought her, but in Louise Ralph’s dress shop, Louise and Florence fussed over him like a couple of mother hens, gently nudging him toward the perfect gift. I certainly remember that. The way they treated him said a lot, even to a kid. My mother was the recipient of a running commentary of hints and nudges, for a married woman can no more see a single man stay single than she can stop her own breath.

Things got serious in ’42. George was growing tomatoes for the army at Camp San Luis and Barbara was working steadily downtown and for the both of them the future looked bright. No need to worry about the war, he was deferred as essential industry and it seemed to both of them like it was inevitable. It was and he asked her if she would marry him. She said yes.

For those of you who have lived in small towns you will know what newspapers were like eighty plus years ago. Each and every event in town was chronicled, births, deaths, who was visiting out of town and where the boys in the service were. They printed addresses and phone numbers too. Marriages were a pretty big deal. The weekly Herald-Recorder made a science out of them. First the betrothal, then the bridal shower and finally the nuptials.

Arroyo Grande Herald Recorder 1943

In the wedding announcement above Barbara is listed as Barbara Hall which was her maiden name. When she signed the wedding register she would have to use her married, legal name and the paper would surely pick up on that.This presented a problem. Barbara’s divorce was not to be divulged, ever. It would open the door to sniping and moral judgements that neither family wanted to see. The question was, what to do? Run away, elope?

Elope it was. Georges mother Annie and family friend Billie Records would stand up for the couple so it was decided to motor up to Salinas and get married. They took dad’s little gray Plymouth coupe and my grandparents Chevrolet sedan and made the drive. My grandmother made the arrangements with the minister through the First Presbyterian church in Arroyo Grande of which she had been a member for over fifty years.

Marriage by a minister with only two people in attendance doesn’t take long and they were soon taking pictures and even made a short film celebrating the event. Eighty eight years later you can still view the little film. There are hugs for the new mother-in-law and Billie. A kiss by the newlyweds after which Barbara turns away from the camera in embarrassment and George takes his pocket handkerchief and grinning with absolute delight wipes off his wife’s lipstick, another big squeeze, a handshake with the minister who appears equally delighted. They say their final goodbyes and were off headed for San Francisco on their honeymoon.*

Billie Records, The New Mrs. Shannon, George Shannon and Annie Shannon, Salinas CA 1943. Shannon Family Photo

They avoided judgement and there the secret lay, hidden from view for over half a century.

They stayed together for 54 years until my mother passed away in 1997. Cancer is cruel but they hung in it together. Barbara’s friends came to say goodbye, some of the same girls who celebrated her marriage those many long years ago.

Barbara, George and Billie. Shannon Family photo.
Friday March 26th, Arroyo Grande Herald-Recorder.


Barbara was 79 when she died, young enough that many of her friends outlived her. Her funeral was a big one. The kind where people come to celebrate the life of friend, a well known community member, some one who spent her life working downtown in a very small town like ours. She knew everyone and they knew her.

Her only surviving sibling, little sister Patsy came down from Shingle Springs to say goodbye. If you’ve forgotten who she is, she’s the little girl Barbara took for a walk so it wouldn’t seem as if she was trolling Traffic Way for George. She didn’t fool anybody especially George. Who hitchhikes just a block from home. The rules of romance are immutable though and lovers must do what they must do. George used to tell us that story at the dinner table, he with a twinkle in his eye and she with a blush. We loved her the more for it.

A lingering death, a funeral, a wake are exhausting things. After Barbara was laid to rest aunt Patsy and her children had to leave for home and it was decided to meet at the Apple Farm for breakfast before they went on their separate ways. After eating we all sat around enjoying coffee and a little catch up when Aunt Pat turned to me and said, “Did you know your mother was divorced?” I was absolutely stunned. I was fifty two. My brothers and I kept wondering how did we not know this? They kept a secret for fifty three years, fifty three years and never told anyone.

Barbara’s family knew of course and Billie Records, my grandmother Shannon too but no one else. As far as we know not a single soul in Arroyo Grande knew of it and if the did they never spoke where we could hear them.

When I was a baby I lay in a crib with my life long friend Dwight as our mothers drank coffee and chatted in the kitchen. His mother was always a special friend of my mother and as I grew up, mine too. She was a kind and generous person and raised her son to be the same. Years after my mother passed he and I spent some time together and I told him the story and then he told me that his mother had been divorced too and he never knew until after she died and he found the divorce decree in her private papers.

In todays world where no one can or cares to keep secrets it seems to me that something has been lost. Mom and dad weren’t afraid of it. What they were afraid of was the effect it might have on their children and families. They weren’t the only ones either. So have we lost something? Tell me if you can.

George and Barbara Shannon, at my wedding. Shannon family photo

Notes: The honeymoon letter my mother wrote is in the index under “Letters.”


The Milkman

Part three

“Mom, Mom, there’s somebody at the door.” Eight year old Patsy yelled as she ran into the kitchen and began yanking at her mother’s apron. “There’s a man at the door.”

“Just a minute, Patsy, hold your horses please,” she said, wiping her hands on the apron and turning for the front door.

Bruce and Eileen had just returned to the little house on Short Street the month before, bringing Their daughters Barbara and little Patsy, the Midlife Surprise with them. Surprise it was too, supposedly Grandma had locked herself in the closet and cried all day when she found out she was pregnant again. Her youngest was already fourteen and it all seemed too much to bear. Little Patsy turned out to be a delight though and she got over it.

Bruce had been transferred by his boss at Signal Oil to oversee oil production in the Santa Maria and Price Canyon fields. They had had to wait for the renters to move out and stayed in the old Arroyo Motor Hotel on South Bridge Street. Eileen and her daughters had made the miracle Thanksgiving dinner that fall of 1941 in the tiny motor court kitchen, cooking the turkey and fixins’ on a single hot plate. Twenty two years an oilfield wife teaches those kinds of skills. Make do with what you got, learned the hard way.

Great-grandpa Hall and Patsy behind the motor hotel. Runels house in the distance. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

Eileen had called the Hillcrest Dairy as soon as they moved in and opened an account to have milk delivered. They had had milk delivered from the Shannon’s dairy when they had lived in Arroyo Grande in the early thirties. She picked up the phone and dialed 223 F-13, smiling to herself, remembering their slogan, “You can whip our cream but you can’t beat our milk.”

When she headed for the door she heard whoever was at the screen knock politely again. As she neared the door she saw a tall young man with a shock of dark hair standing there and smiling.

“Mrs Hall?” he said, “I’m George Shannon from the dairy and I have your bill.” Eileen saw that he was looking at Barbara, doing the I’m not looking but still looking as young men do. Not exactly sly but just getting a gander at her.

“Why don’t you come in while I write you a check?” She turned for the kitchen to get her purse and checkbook, walking back to the rear of the house her low heels clunking on the wooden floors.

George waited in the front room. He was looking out of the corner of his eye at the girl sitting on the sofa and playing solitaire at the coffee table. She looked up at him and smiled, laying down the Jack of hearts on the Queen.

Eileen could hear a conversation in the front room so she took a few more heartbeats to get the check written before calling from the kitchen, “Barbara come and get the check and give it to the young man, will you?”

Barbara went back, took the check and then handed it to the milkman, George, and smiled again. He smiled back, took the check and said “Thank you,” and walked out the door. Barbara watched him from the doorway and when he got in his car, he looked back and she was still standing holding the screen open. She smiled again and waved. He smiled too.

Eileen Hall, my grandmother was nobodies fool. She came into the front room and she could smell the ozone left from the lightning strike. Zap. Mission accomplished. She though perhaps the hook was set.

Hillcrest Dairy Builds Better Babies, 1928 Calendar, phone 223 f-13. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

After he was gone Eileen and Barbara talked a little bit about it. When George was talking he mentioned a his schedule, what he did each day and Barbara remembered that he brought milk into the creamery next to the Methodist Church each day. After a couple days when he hadn’t called or stopped by she thought she would try and force the issue so she took her little sister and walked up Valley Road toward Marsalek’s. She knew he’d be coming down to the creamery and about what time. Patsy was along so it wouldn’t be too obvious what she was up to.

Sure enough the old dark blue Hillcrest Dairy truck came along and he pulled over. She tried to appear casual as if nothing was going on, like she hadn’t even seen him. George offered her a ride home so she and Patsy climbed in, Barbara next to George and Patsy on the passenger door.

The milk truck, 1938 Chevrolet Panel parked on Short Street. Shannon Family Trust photo(c)

Remember that Arroyo Grande had hardly a thousand people at the time. That included people living in pretty distant outlying areas and the town itself was pretty small. Barbara’s home was just about a block away. George would have been pretty dense if he couldn’t read the situation. When the truck rolled up to the house, George reached across and pulled the door handle for Patsy to hop out. She climbed down and ran into the house. Barbara lingered. When she came in the door Eileen asked her what had happened and she smiled from ear to ear and said, “He asked me out.”

And so it began. Once a week or so George would show up at the door and the two of them take in a movie at the Mission theater on Bridge Street, sandwiched between the bus depot and the telephone exchange on one side and an old Saloon on the other. They went to first run movies of the day such as Walt Disney’s Bambi, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby which my dad particularly liked, being a life long fan of Crosby’s voice. They saw Casablanca there too.

The old Arroyo Grande hall known as the “Rat Race” had slowed down because of the war. Harry Chapek, a lifelong friend of my dad had joined up on January 21st and was training as a 5th Armored Division tanker. He had fronted the house band at the hall since high school but with so many boys gone already local bands were hard to come by. They danced there too when they could.

Weekdays touring big bands came to the Pismo Pavilion where George and Barbara danced to Benny Goodman and Woody Hermans “Thundering Herd.” The managers would spread cornstarch on the dance floor to make it easier to glide and slide when twirling to the Lindy and the Two-Step Foxtrot. There was The Ward theater in Pismo and the pleasures of dining at Plessa’s restaurant or drinks and dinners at Matties where Mattie herself would tell ribald stories to the customers waiting for a table.

Mattie Belle was from Texas and a “Corker,” my grandfather said, meaning she was loud, profane and knew all the little town secrets. She had the gift of remembrance and she could remember a person she hadn’t seen for twenty years. “Jack, how are you,” she’d say, “Let me buy you a drink.” The secret was, that if she could get one in you, you’d buy more, wherein lay the profits. As for the secrets, a secret well kept is a lever. She kept her girls down in the cribs on Hinds Street where she collected information as well as currency. It’s the secret to being a good operator and the security needed to stay in business and out of trouble. It was a wide open town in the early forties and if you needed it you could get it. If they didn’t have it , it didn’t exist.

Dad had it made with these places because his family delivered milk to all the restaurants and cafes, grocery stores and homes in all the five-cities. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Barbara was charmed.

For a girl raised on the go, moving and shedding friends was what she was used to. Dating a man who was firmly rooted and the recipient of all the friendliness and care a small town can lavish on a person was a wonder to her.

Our little town was so small that you could contract all your business in just one block. Barbara left her home and walked across the swinging bridge on the way to work. She was the Jill of all trades at Cornelias dress store. She could stitch and sew, she had a marvelous eye for color and she could charm, the residue of a life trying to find the popular girls and boys in each school she ever went to. “Corny” Conrow treated her as a daughter. Barbara was starting to feel as if she was living in a place where she belonged, not just passing through. She liked it.

The Conrow’s were good friends of George’s parents and played cards with them once a week. No doubt Jack and Annie heard about this new girl George was seeing. Cornelia liked her very much and they would have known that. The Women’s Club, The Rebekahs, the bridge clubs, local festivals was where women shared what they knew. This new young woman was being investigated. It’s a little town thing. Is she good enough for our George? In a place like this you marry everyone. The good is shared, the bad is locked away. It’s like a Mafia.

She soon knew everyone on the block. The Pruess’s who had the Rexall, Hilda Harkness who owned the other dress store. Buzz Langenbeck and his wife Vareen, he cut men’s hair and she gave women their perms right behind the pink curtain at the rear of the barber shop. Clair Gibson down at the bank on the corner. There was Madsen’s hardware store, The Greyhound bus stop and cafe, The Quitman’s in their little men’s store and Bill Zeyen selling workingman’s clothes just up the street. Across from Cornelias was Bennetts grocery where “Rusty,” a confirmed redhead and his wife Muriel held court in their apron’s. Judge Jerry Dana presided over his municipal court and was fond of leaning out of his second story office window and waving to folks on the street.

She told us kids that in those days, women didn’t smoke on the street nor wore trousers, it was just too daring. Men tipped their hands to the ladies, never swore where a woman or child could hear them and kept their business to themselves. A safe place to be with kindly people who made you feel welcome.

As George was doing his courting he was slowly changing from formal dates at restaurants and theaters to the more mundane but even more important time together doing the ordinary. He would pick her up dressed in his boots and jeans, she in “Overhauls”, her hair up in a blue bandana which was becoming the fashion for young women and off they would go in the old milk wagon hauling milk and cream to the Golden State Creamery or running the routes to the grocery stores. There is an old movie film where she runs around the truck, laughing, and climbs in the passenger door as George smiles and waves from the drivers seat. Thats how she met people like Jack Ford who owned Ford’s Market in Pismo Beach or the Montgomery’s who had a little corner market in Oceano. They delivered to the old CCC camp down by the Southern Pacific tracks which was being converted to an R & R Center for the tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors flooding the county and filling all the new training camps to capacity. The war was everywhere and it was busy changing the entire population. As my father would say, Adolph Hitler stamped out the depression just like stepping on a bug.

Early in 1943 things between them were getting pretty serious. When a young man writes songs for a girl its all over for him. He has willingly put his foot in the tar baby. If you think you know your parents, well, you only know the version standing in front of you. You really only know what they let you see. That younger version is packed away somewhere, a place you will likely never go. The sad tale is, most never have an opportunity to dig that young person out, either because they never ask or when they do, it’s “Oh, you don’t want to know about that. It was long ago.” A child who listens carefully to adults gets glimpses of those people but most of that life is hidden from them. When they talk to you, everything they say is censored to some extent. Snippets from their lives are presented as lessons for you to learn. They are building character and only some blocks fit.

Stay Away From Love by George Shannon, 1943. Shannon Family (c)

In the fall of forty-two, Bruce was promoted to Chief Drilling Superintendent for Signal Oil and Gas. This meant a move to Long Beach and the end of the families Arroyo Grande adventure. Barbara was not happy. She thought things were going so well that she didn’t want to leave. She had her job and she had George. She wanted to stay.

Part Four next.

Barbara and her mother sat down on sofa. Side by side on the sofa. “Mother, I don’t know what to do? I’m so scared.”

“Barbara, you have to tell him…..”


The Milkman

Part Two

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.

L-R Little Jack, Big Jack and George Shannon, 1925, Shannon Family Trust photo

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.

Annie Gray Shannon and Harriet, “Hattie” Tyler 1900, Shannon Family Trust (c)

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.

Annie Gray Shannon, Cal Berkeley graduate, 1908. Shannon Family Trust photo.

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.

On the steps of the auditorium. SMJC Mascot photo

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.

SMJC Basketball fall 1931. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

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.

SMJC underclassmen, fall 1930. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

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.

No “Shimmies” SMJC fall 1930. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

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.

George Shannon, first row far left. Fraternity house Cal Berkeley 1934. Shannon Family Trust photo.

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.

Cal, 1934. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

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.

The house on El Campo Rd, 1931. My great-grand parents 50th anniversary. My dad is second from the left. He is 19. Shannon Family Trust photo(c)

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.

The Milking Barn with the girls, 1930, Shannon Family Trust photo

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.



Part One

It has been said that fortuitous events will occur when the stars align in their courses.

My Great-Grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall came to the Arroyo Grande Valley around 1900. He had come west without his wife of  seven years, LaVance or Vancey as she was called. She had been temporarily left behind with two little boys, William and my maternal grandfather Bruce Cameron in Johnson City, Carter County, Tennessee.

Vancey was crowned with luck. Her father was killed along with his two brothers during the Civil War. Twenty five year old Tad was killed at First Manassas (Bull Run), McKamie, 23, at Seven Pines and her father Nelson Hooper who was just 21, died of wounds at Richmond. Nelson was shot at Malvern Hill on one of the bloodiest days of the war. Vancey’s luck was that her mother Mary Lucinda was six months pregnant. The Hooper family lost all three adult sons to the war. All served with the 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment which was mustered in from Iredale County as most regiments were in those days were, especially in the south. They fought and died with boys from their hometown which made it especially brutal for the families.

Sarah LaVance Hall 1893, Shannon Family Trust photo

Grandpa Sam, was the son of a Virginia veteran himself, his father William served with the 27th Virginia Infantry, part of Stonewall Jackson’s troops. Like many veterans and their families they went west after the war perhaps preferring to get as far away from the places that held such awful memories. More than 50,000 Tennesseans died for the south and roughly 5,000 for the north. For the men and boys this represented about 14% of the male population of the entire state. It created a world of widows. Prospects must have seemed awfully bleak. One out of seven is a staggering percentage.

Out west Sam he worked as a carpenter in Lemoore, California for a time before moving to Arroyo Grande’s Verde District, off what is now Corbit Canyon Road. Vancey waited almost two years before coming to California. She finally had had enough of the waiting and came on her own, bringing the boys with her. She joined him here in a little house which still stands in Deer Canyon. Sam Hall worked at farm labor and soon graduated to managing ranches which would be his life’s work.

Vancey and Sam’s son Bruce was living and working on a dairy near Creston when he met my grandmother Eileen in 1915. They were both at a Barbecue and he sort of sidled over to her while she stood around the campfire and said, “Smoke follows beauty,” which has to be the worst pick-up line ever devised. I worked though. They courted for three months and almost on a whim tied the knot in San Luis Obispo’s Presbyterian church. When you know, you know, I guess. Grandma Eileen was asked where they went after the wedding and she said, “Grandpa gave me a little glass of wine and we went to the hotel.” The questioner, my brother was both amused and taken aback by the answer. No young grandchild expects the answer to a question to even hint a sex.

They soon came down to Arroyo Grande to stay with his parents in deer canyon. Eileen was pregnant with my aunt Mariel who was their first child. She was born in that little house. Most babies were born at home in those days. Doctor Charles Clark, the towns “Baby Doctor” was likely the attendant. Perhaps he became a doctor because of what he had seen riding with Custer in the final campaigns of the Civil War. Delivering those new to the world might have made up for the losses he was responsible for. A balancing of the scales if you will. Regardless, aunt Mariel came out yelling’ and remained that way her entire life.

Doctor Charles Clark. Bennett Loomis Archives

The population of Arroyo Grande was quite small then. In 1900 it hovered around 500. An interesting thing about our family is that with such a small population it’s very likely that Sam and Vancey Hall knew my paternal great-grandparents John and Catherine Shannon who lived on Printz Road just a short distance from the Hall home in Deer Canyon. They would have also known the Patrick Moores. Mrs Moore was aunt to my future grandmother.

Sam and Vancey were living up in Madera, California when my mother was born in 1918, but it wasn’t long before Bruce received a phone call from his brother Marion telling him that there were good jobs in the oilfields around the Casmala/Orcutt area. The pay was good, the work steady and it included housing. The housing was a company owned lease tent or Shebangs as they were fondly called, not gracious nor palatial but a place to live. It was an improvement on living three families in the same home as it was in Madera. Bruce and Eileen moved down to Casmalia and shared a Shebang* with Marion and his wife Grace. They hung blankets on clotheslines to create some privacy. Something like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert did in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Nevertheless my Uncle Bob came along soon after. Uncle Marion didn’t like the work and he and Grace soon left but Bruce and Eileen stuck it out and never left the business. Thirty eight years, wherever the job took him, she and the kids followed. Bruce worked the rigs but Eileen and the kids were oilfield workers in their own way. She kept up with him the whole way.

Grandpa Bruce Cameron Hall on the left about 1920, Casmalia California. Shannon Family Trust Photo.

So, my mom was an oilfield girl. The new job required them to move to the oil patch, where they would remain for the best part of the next 38 years.

It’s hard to imagine her life as she grew up, she lived in dozens of different houses, 78 to be exact, sometimes more than one place in the same town. She and her sister Mariel were only a year apart and became each others friends and most of the time, allies against a world in which it was difficult for girls to find a solid footing because they were here for a short while and then they were there. A necessity if nothing else, for they changed schools more than once a year for 11 of their 12 years of education. My grandparents were fortunate enough to remain in Santa Barbara long enough for them to complete two full years of high school so they could to graduate together. The very first time that had happened to mom in her entire school career.

Don’t think they didn’t move though. Dad said grandma would rather move than clean house. He said she was so good at it she could pack up the car, load the kids and be off in two shakes of a lambs tail. When they were living in Santa Barbara, they moved four or five times so maybe the joke about cleaning house had some merit.

Santa Barbara in the thirties was quite the place to grow up. Wealthy and exclusive it was a playground for the elite. Movie stars, rich landowners, some who who dated back to the very beginnings of California and pioneer money raked in during the development of the southern California desert now known as Los Angeles.

Bruce was transferred in 1936. He worked for Signal Oil now. The work good and he was busy. He had been sent down to Long Beach and the family would follow, Eileen and the the kids would pack up and go as always. The problem was, my mom loved Santa Barbara and the life she had there. She played tennis at the country club and hobnobbed with some of the wealthy kids she met in high school. Riding in a convertible around Montecito with Leo Carrillo was pretty heady stuff for a girl whose father worked with his hands and came home smelling like gas and oil, everyday. She had a job at the Biltmore Hotel on State street serving cocktails and a boyfriend who was a tennis pro at the country club. She stamped her foot and refused to go.

Things had been very tough while the lived there. Bruce had worked for Barnsdall Oil at Elwood north of Goleta and in Summerland but Barnsdall went belly up and in the middle of the depression and he was out of work. Gasoline prices had dropped by nearly forty cents a gallon and the oil business was staggering. It got so bad that Eileen packed up her pride, put it away and went down to the office of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Known as Relief, it was a pejorative term even then, working people were shamed by having to ask for help. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance in the thirties. The women in the office told Eileen that they didn’t qualify because they owned a car and would have to sell it. There was no way to get to work without it, they couldn’t sell it. At the last possible moment Bruce got a job with Signal Oil. He was so grateful to Sam Mosher, Signals owner and president that, though in later years he was offered more lucrative work, he stayed with the company. Such was loyalty then. He worked for Mr. Mosher until the day he died.

Elwood Oil Field, Goleta. SBHS photo

In 1940 my grandparents moved back to Arroyo Grande to the house my great-grandfather built on Short Street. Grandpa Bruce was transferred up from Long Beach to oversee Signal Oil production in Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande’s Dolly Adams lease in Price Canyon, east of Pismo Beach.

Mom was living with the family again and wanted to stay in Long Beach but her Woolworths job didn’t pay enough for her to be able to live on her own so she came too. Not really willingly, but she did come. She worried that she wouldn’t find any new friends or a job. She was wrong on both counts. Finding new friends was something a girl from the Oil Patch could do. When her dad was transferred the kids had to move schools and all of them learned how to spy out the popular kids. They learned how to make friends quickly. It was a defensive mechanism. New kids in school are suspect, and have to find a way to fit in right away. It was her greatest social skill. If you ever talked with her you felt like you were an old friend right away.

In 1940 Arroyo Grande had a population of about a thousand people. The census area in those days included all of what is now Grover City, Oceano, Halcyon and the Western addition. All of the valley as far south as Los Berros was included. It was a pretty typical small town, the kind that were all over the country in the 1940’s.

Every bit of business was carried on between Crown Hill and Buzz Langenbeck’s orchard west of town. It was all of three blocks. There were a couple of old Saloons left over from wilder days, three grocery stores, two women’s dress shops, Hilda Harkness’ and Cornelia Conrow’s, directly across the street from each other. the Hub, the Quitmans mens clothing store which smelt of rich fabric and the only place in town where you could but a Homburg hat for dress up occasions. A man needed to look good at an Odd Fellows, Masons or a church meeting. There was Morris Pruess Rexall Drug store, complete with a soda fountain where high school kids hung out when the school on the hill let out. There was the library, next to the ice cream parlor and across the street from the Commercial Company. At the Commercial you could buy groceries along with what were once known as “Notions,” the variety of small objects and accessories, including items that are sewn or otherwise attached to a finished article, such as buttons, lace, greeting cards and post cards. Practically anything you wanted, including furniture, they stocked it. Next to the old Pacific Coast railroad tracks, the Loomis feed mill and just down the street two Blacksmiths, even in 1940 a dying breed. Across the street was the old two story newspaper building where the Herald-Recorder was put together each week.There were several mechanics, two auto dealers, a hardware store, four churches, the Arroyo Grande grammar school and the high school. The Bank of America sat imposingly on the corner of Branch and Bridge Streets. Nearly every one who came to town for Saturday shopping knew each other.

An old home movie taken during the “Gay Nineties” celebration in 1938 features nearly everyone in town. You can sense the fraternity amongst the people as they wave and smile at the camera. If there were disputes or social problems, family secrets, they were kept under lock and key. Folks did not broadcast their dirty laundry. Secrets were meant to be kept. Many forever.

A few homes sat up on Crown Hill by the brick building that was the High School. Most people in town lived in the Western Addition across the state highway near the old horse racing track and the Chataqua grounds or east of the Arroyo Grande creek along the several little streets named for pioneers. Ide, Myrtle, Nelson, and Allen streets were bisected by Mason, Short and the eponymous Bridge Street. Poole Street was still just a dirt path. There were three automobile bridges and one walking bridge at the end of Short Street, named for the man who built it so he could conveniently cross from town to his little farm on the opposite side of the creek.

My mother lived on Short Street. She lived with her parents and her baby sister Patsy at number 225, a little white house with a tiny garage in the back. The same house her grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall built in 1934 after the death of his wife Vancey. She was new to Arroyo Grande, she was 22 years old, single and beautiful.

Hall Residence, 225 Short Street today. Shannon Family Trust photo.

Note* An oilfield Shebang in the Kettleman Hills.



swimmin hole

Aunt Mickey and Mom in the swimming’ hole.

My Aunt Mickey and my Uncle Ray had a little ranch in Watt’s Valley, not too far from  Tollhouse. Tollhouse is not a city or even really a town, in those days it was little more than a wide spot on the road to Shaver Lake. It marked the place where the tan and brown Sierra foothills changed to the stacked and twisted granite that make up the great backbone of California, the Sierra Nevada.

Their place was built on a sidehill above the little creek than ran through the property. The creek had a great advantage for the kids that lived and visited there. You see, it’s hotter’n the dickens in Watts valley in the summer. The weather slows things down some. Afternoons are for dozing on the porch and drinking lemonade, trying to stay in the shade because you might as well take aunt Mickeys Sad iron and rest it on your forehead as step out in the sunlight. The air grows heavy, taking a breath is a bit of work and the kids wait for Uncle Ray and my dad to get back from Humphrey’s Station with that 50 pound block of ice they use in the homemade swamp cooler in the living room. Works like this; a tin washtub for the ice which is then covered with an old burlap sack,  the cooling water on the sack is pushed around by an old electric fan. It sorta works, but really, it lets you think something is might be happening when it not. Such is the power of suggestion.

For us kids the best thing was Uncle Rays swimming’ hole. What could be better? Around ten o’clock mom and her sister would drift into the old kitchen. Not a modern kitchen with retro appliances made to look like old times, but the real deal. It had an old sink set in a wooden countertop just under the window that looked out on the corrals where the branding, notching, and nut cutting took place in the spring and fall. Back of that was a view up the hills covered with California Live Oaks, the occasional Hereford doing the same as us, resting under the shade of a tree. In the corner next to the dining room wall was the hulking cast iron stove where uncle Ray made breakfast most days. Bacon and eggs, fresh homemade biscuits from the oven served on plates stamped with ranch scenes, ropes,  brands and handsome white faced cattle. A jelly glass with milk fresh from the cow, a scattering of yellow cream on top, even the occasional captive fly. Put in front of each kid sitting around the kitchen table, some sitting in chairs, some on the bench under the row of windows looking over the road coming up to the house from the creek crossing, breakfast a comin’.

Aunt Mickey and my mother would gather up the fixings and make sandwiches for the trek to the swimmin’ hole. Pure white bread from the bag with the multicolored spots, mayonnaise from the jar kept in the cupboard standing out on the screened porch. Bright yellow mustard smeared on a piece of baloney and squished together with a firm hand then  folded into a waxed paper envelope and stacked in the bottom of an old wicker basket. Throw an apple or two in, some old tin cups and top it with a piece of red and white checkered oil cloth. By the time they were done they were surrounded by boys and maybe a girl, my cousin Karen, a tough little bird surrounded by some boys whom she took no lip from. The kids could hardly wait, they were literally dancing up and down with delight.

Busting out the back door, the only door we ever used, we headed down to the where the pasture gate crossed the road. The little guys would squeeze between the bars, a bigger boy would show off by opening the gate in a manly way. I’m almost grown it said. Down the road we would go the kids wanting to run ahead but held in check by the thought that the big black gobbler might be lurking in brush and trees along the left of the road. If he came at us there was no escape. The right side was a cutback you couldn’t climb, the left side was enemy territory and the only sure fire way to get by him was to be stealthy quiet. If he appeared the whole group would bolt, little legs carrying us a fast as they could go, helped by the downhill slope to the creek crossing. Aunt Mariel carried a kitchen broom for defense. Once we made the turn at the bottom we were safe, at least until the return trip.

Just before the creek a two track road veered off to the right and this we would follow through the pastures watched by phlegmatic cattle gently chewing their cuds. We knew to leave them be, no cowman ever runs cattle. Fat is currency in the cow business. It seemed forever before the little creek gently curved in front of  the cut bank that indicated where the swimming hole was. Down to the edge of the water, kids pulled off there Levi’s, tee shirts and jumped right in. No bathing suits. Modesty might indicate keeping your underwear on, thats what the moms did. They stripped down to their underwear and were mostly content to sit on the bank and watch their kids play.

We did what kid do, splashed water on each other, did a little dunking, big against little and pretended to swim. None of us could, you know. No need to worry much because the water wasn’t over 18 inches deep. Aunt Mickey and mom couldn’t swim either.

Those girls grew up in the oilfields. Oilfield brats didn’t get swimming lessons and they almost never lived near the beach or a river. In fact my mother was scared of the water and it took a whole lot of encouragement just to get her into a pond as shallow as this one. Temperatures in the nineties probably helped. Of course saying it was ninety would just have been a guess. Watts Valley in the summertime didn’t take a genius with a measuring instrument to tell you it was hot. Really hot.

With the youngest out of the water and napping in the shade it was time to take all that pink wrinkled skin home and get ready for dinner. The trip back was slower than the trip out kids completely worn out. As we neared the road up to the house, aunt Mickey walked a little ahead to spy out the pasture in front of the house, broom at the ready, to see if the big black Tom turkey was in sight. If he was hiding in the bushes we could be in trouble. If he was out in the pasture, same thing. He figured he was the boss and he wasn’t interested in having anyone trespassing on his territory. He would put his head down, spear you with his malevolent eye and charge like Ghengis Khan, blood in his eye, beak ready to draw the same. Flapping his wings he grew in size, seemingly moving like an express train as he boiled up the little hill. Kids, moms and aunts bolting for the gate, surrounded by shrieks like the General Jackson’s secesh coming out of the trees and through the wheatfield. We, like the Yanks at Chancellorville, skedaddled as fast as we could. When we hit the gate, kids were squeezing through the bars like Cheez-It from the tube. Mom and aunt Mariel fumbled at the latch and at the last moment squeezed through. Turkey ran right up to the bars and stuck his head through, hissing, gobbling and jumping up and down, enough to strike terror into any kid. Just to show him who we were, we gave ’em the raspberries and skipped up to the house, triumphant.

About 7 o’clock we were all out on the front porch aunts and uncles, mom and dad sipping whiskey, smoking and telling stories, the kids quietly picking foxtail and clover burrs out of their socks, sipping lemonade and enjoying the cooler evening weather. Down in the pasture, uncle Ray had turned the sluice gate into the grass to keep the permanent pasture alive. Every few hours the gates had to be closed and the next one opened. He called out to my oldest cousin Bruce to “Get your fanny down there and move the watergate before dark.”  Bruce, being fourteen was reluctant to take on any job he could possibly get out of, grumbled his way down to the walk-through gate and ambled down across the pasture toward the creek not paying much attention to where he was. Whatever he was thinking about it wasn’t old Tom, that is until he heard the hiss of the charging turkey. Bruce yanked his head around toward the sidehill and saw the bird coming at him on the dead run. At fourteen you figure you’re almost grown and to show any sign of cowardice is the worst kind of self imposed sin. I’m sure he gave a moment of thought to standing his ground but self preservation won out and he bolted for the house as fast as his lanky frame could go, Mister Turk gaining at every step. Bruce didn’t bother with the gate, no time for that, no, he lifted off like a fighter plane and soared right over that four wire bob wire fence, clearing it by a foot. As he was airborne it occurred to him he’d just been humiliated by a bird in front of the whole family. Instead of stopping, he continued his flight right up onto the porch, flung open the screen door and raced inside emerging a moment later with his .22 to be greeted with gales of laughter by the big folks. Uncle Ray laughed so hard I swear he had whiskey coming out of his nose. Just a moments hesitation on his part was all it took for uncle Ray to say, “Jughead, put that damn rifle down, you’re not shooting that bird.” Bruce silently retreated back inside to nurse his ego and the little kids slyly smirked at each other to see their big cousin put in his place, not so much by uncle Ray but by a bird. In family lore the great turkey race has lived down the decades, each telling adding some little detail. Cousin Bruce became a legend with us little kids but perhaps not in a way he wanted to be.

Bruce got some measure of revenge though. Uncle Ray dispatched that Tom with an axe and we ate him up at Thanksgiving. I never have figured out what part was the best, the delicious terror at being chased, my cousins teenage humiliation or the taste of old Tom with all the fixings. Perhaps its all of them.


An Immigrants Tale

The Universe is not made of Atoms; It is made of stories. —Muriel Rukeyser. Like this one.

Halcyon, Adelaida, Estrella, Santa Rosa, Saint Patricks and an almost lost Santa Manuela, places where our first immigrants found their final resting place. Some are small family graveyards spotted on private properties. They are all old and sad, barely cared for or visited.

Located near the famed San Andreas Fault, the Parkfield Cemetery is a chronicle of heartbreak. With no sign at the entrance, no grass and no noise, this cemetery marks a nearly unknown place, an Old West-style graveyard where intense summer heat discourages visitors and dries out the soil. It is a sere, dusty place of forgotten people. Many of the 94 bodies buried here once belonged to children who died from the diphtheria outbreak in the 1880s. Also, here is the tombstone of Louisa Kidwell Lee, who died in 1893, According to her tombstone, she was the granddaughter of the Rev. Jonathan Kidwell, a soldier in the American Revolution.

Not too far from the home I grew up in was a little spot reached by a short walk up behind the elementary school I attended. At the top of a small canyon in a spot shaded by an old oak tree lie Francis Ziba Branch, his wife Manuela and their children. Like most family sites it is seldom visited and normally only by those that have some distant connection to the family and its history. Don Francisco was buried there in 1874. After nearly a century and a half this little place of peace is nearly completely forgotten.

Though there are likely no earthly remains below ground, the markers raise questions in the mind about who they were, what kind of lives did they live and how did they get here.

Up past Port Orford, Oregon, over on the coast is another private graveyard, located alongside a road that leads to the Cape Blanco lighthouse. It is situated on a bluff overlooking the old Hughes ranch which is nearby the Sixes river. It is small. Just a very few people are buried there. There are some members of the Hughes family who ranched on the rivers plain just below. There are some laborers who ended up at the ranch and served the family for decades. There are also a few neighbors buried there.

The Sixes flows only about 31 miles through coastal forests in southwestern Oregon. It drains a rugged region of the Klamath Mountains. The river rises in the mountains of northern Curry County, south of Sugarloaf Mountain. The Sixes flows generally west, and eventually enters the Pacific just north of Cape Blanco, the westernmost point in Oregon. The mouth of the river is along the coast just to the north of the Cape. Directly offshore the river, the magnificent Castle Rock appears to sail off towards China attended by its convoy of smaller rocks thrust up from the ocean floor. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a hard place too. Howling winds in the winter and spring, fog, cold and damp descends like a pale curtain much of the year.

When Patrick Hughes arrived here in 1850 it was quite literally the end of America. That wandering man Daniel Boone crossed the great barrier of the Appalachian mountains into Kain-Tuck-Ee in 1775 and in the next 24 years moved himself west to Missouri Territory. He explored 800 miles towards the Pacific in his entire lifetime. Lewis and Clark went west in 1805, John Coulter, the first mountain man followed and within thirty years our valley, 2,100 miles west of Missouri found its first Irish settler in Francis Branch. The Sixes River had its first Irish in Patrick Hughes.

One of the variants of the name used by the Kwatami, was “Sik-ses-tene”, which is said to mean “people by the far north country”. This is most likely the real source of the name for the river. The spelling “Sixes” was used by miners drawn to the Oregon Gold rush who were familiar with the Chinook word “sikhs”. In the way that we do, a local name with unfamiliar spelling or pronunciation is quickly bastardized and becomes the name of record. So Sixes it is.

Patrick Hughes was himself an emigrant. Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1830, he immigrated to the United States in 1850. He met and married Jane O’Neil in 1853, and the couple sailed for California in 1856. Patrick Hughes worked at gold mining before traveling north to Curry County, where his wife joined him. The Oregon gold rush started in 1850, around the same time people started digging up California. The first miners found gold in the Klamath Mountains of southwest Oregon, working their way along the Rogue River to the Pacific Ocean. Hughes was attracted to the Oregon Coast by the gold in the Sixes River. Like most gold seekers this didn’t pan out and instead he homesteaded along the river. He built a large dairy operation over the next fifty years and shipped his products south to Port Orford by wagon and on to destinations along the west coast including San Francisco, less than a two day sail away.

Patrick Hughes house on the Sixes River

The Hughes Family Cemetery was built around the little Catholic church (St. Mary, Star of the Sea) which Hughes and his wife built. Buried there are various members of the Hughes family and their Irish immigrant neighbors. Hughes built the little church in that isolated little place in order for the tiny community to worship. Much of the original Hughes family was laid to rest there along with neighbors and those who worked on the ranch. Stones commemorate Michael Duffy, a neighbor, Frank McMullen and his wife Catherine. Buried nearby is William O’Shannon. A curious thing, beyond the fact that they were all born in Ireland is they were almost all the same age and died within just a few years of each other.

Denis McCarthy has a stone there. He worked as a stock raiser for the Hughes for the most part of his life. He was born in 1819 in Icheegeelagh Parish, Cork and baptized in the Catholic Church by Father Humphrey before he was a year old. He father Denis held him as the Priest anointed him with oil, all praying for a baby’s future. As with an enormous number of Irish he served time in an English jail for theft. In Denis case, hay. Upon release he bolted for America arriving in New York aboard the steam packet St. Patrick. He was 22.

He was lucky in a couple of ways. One, he wasn’t transported to Australia, for it was they heyday of Britains policy of ridding its population of the so-called criminal element by banishing them to the penal colonies. Penal records for the time list Denis McCarthys by the dozens, all transported to the penal colonies in Australia or even sold as chattel slaves to the British sugar plantations in Jamaica. Most of them were shipped off for crimes so inconsequential as to be laughable today. It was the Irish/British courts way of ridding the Island of the “Pernicious Scum,” the native Irish. The obverse of that coin is that the Irish were so poor that theft was a risk people took in order to simply survive.

The English overlords had introduced the Penal Laws in Ireland in 1695. It was a purposeful attempt to crush the Irish, both as a people and as a state. Ireland had stood in the shadows of the great powers of Britain for centuries. From the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I thereafter, to the invasion by Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s puppetry over Ireland had continued to dehumanize the Irish peoples. The British intensified the injustice brought upon Ireland when they stripped the Catholic Irish and other religions known as Dissenters of their religious freedoms and nearly all of their holdings including land.

Dissenters and Irish Separatists were Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dissenters (from the Latin dissentire, “to disagree”) could be members of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Free Thinkers, Seekers (Quakers), Puritans and Unitarians. They all in some ways disagreed in opinion, belief and other matters with the established Anglican church. Various rules were created to suppress the Catholics in order to make sure they did not rise to challenge British power. Any practice of Catholicism and communication in the Gaelic language was forbidden and labelled as rebellious against the powers of Britain. Catholic priests were banished, Catholic schools were banned, and Catholics were forced to pay a tithe to upkeep the Anglican church. Brave teachers who continued to teach their students their religious beliefs and their history in the forbidden Gaelic tongue did so in remote areas, hidden and away from the Protestant English. These were the Hedge Schools and the hedge master, if arrested was subject to immediate hanging. Suppressing the religious and linguistic practices of the Irish were a few of Britain’s many strategies that contributed to the weakening of a cohesive Ireland as a whole.

A recreation of a nineteenth century Hedge School.

Irish immigrants were absolutely desperate for land. The Popery Act of 1703, passed by the British parliament, forbade Catholics to pass down their land to their eldest son, and instead required landowners to distribute the land equally amongst all sons. If the family bore only daughters, the lands were to be also split equally amongst the daughters. By the early seventeen hundreds, the Irish who made up 90% of the population owned less than 10% of the land. When Denis was born, hope for improving the lot of the family was gone.

Laws for tenants insured that survival for Irish farmers was and always would be at a subsistence level. If a farmer’s production exceeded his land rent by more than 31% he and his family were subject to eviction by the landlord. The entire system was designed to crush the Irish and drive them off the land. This made them laborers subject to the whims of the great lords who controlled the country. It was a tenuous existence at best. Dispossessed people died of starvation, lying in roadside ditches like so much trash. People died with green around the mouth from eating grass and nettles. At least a million Irish died in the six years of the potato blight.

“Rotten potatoes and sea-weed, or even grass, properly mixed, afforded a very wholesome and nutritious food. All knew that Irishmen could live upon anything and there was plenty of grass in the field though the potato crop should fail.” (The Duke Of Cambridge, Adolphus, Son of King George III, January 1846)

“The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Filthy Irish people. The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”.” (Sir Charles Trevelyan, 1st Baronet KCB, 1st minister of his Majesty’s Treasury charged with administrating relief for the millions of Irish peasants suffering during the Famine. 1847)

With the coming of the potato blight in 1840 even this meager existence became nearly impossible. Potatoes were the primary diet for the Irish. Ireland was a very productive land, but nevertheless, wheat, mutton and pork, which were still produced in abundance were sent out of the country in order to profit the landlords. The vast majority of these products where shipped to Britain to feed its citizens.

The 1840s saw a significant number of people flee from the island to countries all over the world. Between 1841 and 1857, death and starvation led to mass emigration mostly to Great Britain and North America. Ireland’s population fell by over 2 million. The population fell by almost 35% and in some rural counties by as much as 50%. This Diaspora meant that Americans of Irish descent make up more than five times the population of Ireland today.

However, the common argument of the mass emigration from Ireland being a “flight from famine” is not entirely correct. The Irish had been coming to America since its inception. After all, eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish, three of them born in Ireland. My own ancestor Leachllain Shannon served in the 1st company, 8th regiment of the Pennsylvania volunteers during the French and Indian war. His son Daniel was a soldier during the revolution.

Once conditions in Ireland were improved, emigration did not slow down. After the famine was over, the four years following produced more emigrants than during the four years of the blight. The famine was considered the final straw in convincing people to move. There were several other factors in the decision making too. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution was generating a voracious appetite for cheap labor. The Erie Canal and the coming of the railroads, the rise of vast cotton mills in the northeast and the opening up of the western territories needed workers. During the civil war, Irish men were signed up for the Union Army as they came down the gangplanks of the the ships that brought them. Around 200,000 Irish served in the Union army alone. A high percentage of Scots-Irish from earlier immigrations fought for the confederacy.

The Bridge of Tears, Donegal. A place where families said goodbye to their loved ones.

As with most immigrants, the money for a ticket to the US wasn’t easy to come by. Average wage in 1840 Ireland for a days labor was six to nine pence, less than a shilling. 240 pence to the pound meant that it took a minimum of six months work by a day labourer to raise the money. A ticket to New York in steerage, the lowest class of passenger was about 5 pounds for the trip. For many emigrants, payment of the passage to America was one of the most significant events of their lives. Some who could afford it paid their own, but the majority of emigrants received the passage from a family member, usually a sibling who had already made the journey across the Atlantic, paving the way for younger brothers, sisters or even parents to follow.My great uncle Pat Moore brought his three sisters and his father after he established himself here. In the 18th century it was common to sell oneself into indentured servitude in the west in order to make the passage. Indentured Servitude was a binding contract in which the servant agreed to work for his or her master for a specific period of time until the cost of passage was paid off. Contracts ran as long as seven years in which the person was essentially owned by the lien holder. Thats right, owned, having no rights under the law and bound to serve the master in all things. Imagine signing the documents in Ireland with no idea of who or what you might find when you arrived at your destination. Indentured servants were auctioned dockside.

The trip itself could take anywhere from a month to three or more depending on the season. Winter in the Atlantic can be unbelievably brutal with constant gale force winds, ice and the pounding of the ship in the furious waves. For the first time, steam allowed sailing ships to buck the northern passage and its prevailing winds. Steamship companies made huge profits since it only cost about 60 cents a day to feed each immigrant, they could make enough profit on each crossing to pay off the cost of building the ship. The shipping companies sent traveling salesmen throughout Ireland and Scotland to hustle tickets. They placed advertisements in newspapers and attended public gatherings. Working on commission, they earned a very good living during the potato famine, signing up young men like Denis McCarthy.

The Steam Packet Saint Patrick.

The ship Denis traveled on was the Saint Patrick pictured above. She was sailing ship that had been converted to steam and powered by paddle wheels. Built in 1827 she was already old in 1840. Passengers would be crammed into every part of the ship. Locked below decks in the hold and the lowest part of the hull were hundreds of people, packed into every available space. They were seldom, if ever allowed up on deck. Glasgow, Scotland was the beginning of the ships passage. Here they loaded Scots displaced by the Highland Clearances, for they were a “Troublesome People” and were being forcibly removed from their homes by the British. They sailed to Londonderry in the north of Ireland and then Belfast on the east coast and finally Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork.  The majority of emigrants left as teenagers or in their twenties and many would never have needed to travel very far from their homes. The prospect of a move to America must have been monumental. There was the distinct possibility they would never, ever return to their families. For parents and siblings it must have been as if the immigrant had died. Denis would have left from his home in rural Cork boarding the Saint Patrick in Queenstown.

Going Aboard

Many, many did die. With nothing more than buckets for toilets, and only sea-water to wash with, disease was rampant. Cholera and Typhus accounted for a great many deaths. Those who died were buried at sea, although buried is simply a political term for someone whose remains were simply dragged on deck and tossed overboard. Perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, sharks learned to follow the ships looking for a meal. With death rates commonly reaching 20%, and horror stories of 50% dying, these vessels soon became known as “Coffin Ships”. Long cónra in Gaelic was how the ships were styled. The shipping lines, among the most famous in western history, White Star and Cunard could not get ships into service fast enough and consistently shipped passengers on old and nearly derelict vessels in order to generate massive profits. Ships agents fanned out across Ireland and Scotland touting the accommodations of their ships. The promised three cooked meals a day, clean and spacious accommodations when in fact 300 to 400 hundred passengers would be crammed below decks in rat infested holds and fed on the cheapest food that could be found. Typhus carrying fleas, mites and lice infested the dark, dank holds of these ships. The British sailing ship Larch left Sligo in northwest Ireland with 440 passengers; 108 died at sea, and 150 arrived sick in Boston. Consider the Sir Henry Pottinger, a P&O ship which left Cork with 399 in steerage of which 98 died and 112 were landed sick in Montreal. Many of the Famine ships carried few if any cabin or first class paying passengers, they weren’t necessary because the people in steerage were vastly more profitable. Death on board was of little consequence as passage was paid up front.

In the St Lawrence River, some 30 miles east of Quebec City, the quarantine station at Grosse Isle was soon overwhelmed with the numbers of sick passengers crawling or carried off the coffin ships. It couldn’t treat those that were ill, let alone provide for those that were not. So those that appeared healthy remained onboard their immigration ships and were simply waved on to Montreal. 

Unfortunately, many had already caught typhus ,–the fever that ran rampant on their overcrowded and filthy vessels – and they were to become ill further upriver. Soon, it was Montreal that was overwhelmed with the dead and dying. 

Ten years after the year of the coffin ships, workers building the city’s Victoria Bridge unearthed a mass grave containing the remains of over 6000 Irish immigrants. A 27-tonne granite boulder marks the spot beside the bridge’s entrance where an annual ceremony remembers those who died escaping poverty and hunger. Their families in Ireland likely never knew their fate. They were simply dumped in a mass grave and forgotten.

As the old saying goes, “When the Irish arrived in America they thought the streets would be paved with gold. But not only were they not paved with gold, they were expected to pave them.”

The politicians and the press of the time excoriated the immigrants, referring to them as vermin, drunkards, louts, animalistic in their desires and the worst example of humanity on earth. In the cities that they settled in, signs stating no Irish, no Catholics need apply were common.

The Irish Monkey. Cartoon, Frederick Burr Opper**

In countless cartoons the typical Irishman (“Paddy”) was shows to be violent, ignorant, drink-prone with a pronounced prognathism of the jaw-line to indicate a simian personality. An ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering long after the period of its most deadly potency. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser or the caricature that is the mascot for Notre Dame University. Perhaps the Irish survived by embracing the negative stereotype and making it an inside joke that they have ownership of.

Many of these Irish immigrants came to the major port of New York City, as well as Boston and Philadelphia.

Denis McCarthy, Uncle Patrick Moore and Leachlainn Shannon arrived before there was any formal receiving station for immigrants. The ships would anchor off Staten Island where officials came aboard for the quarantine check. The obviously diseased were detained aboard but the rest of the passengers were loaded onto lighters and towed across the inner harbor to the foot of Manhattan and simply herded ashore. There they were met by a mob of thieves and pickpockets, pimps and men hawking fake Railroad Tickets. Other men pushing land sales in the west and for the extremely lucky a friend or relative.

Because of the large increase in immigration in the mid 1800’s and in an effort to protect the newly arriving immigrants from scam artists, the State of New York opened an immigration processing center at Castle Gardens in August of 1855.

The complex that made up the Castle Gardens immigration center included a labor exchange where jobs were posted, a hospital and medical offices, a currency exchange and a translators office with employees who spoke dozens of languages and dialects including both Irish and Scots Gaelic which was the spoken language of the majority of Irish until three-quarters the way through the 1800’s.

The ships let the first class and cabin passengers of at one of the piers on the Hudson River side of Manhattan and then proceeded to Castle Garden where the steerage passengers were herded down the gangplank. All immigrants had to land at the depot which was closed to anyone else such as thieves and the scam artists. Individuals had their names checked against the ships manifest, underwent another brief medical exam and passed through customs. If there was no-one to meet you, you were free to go.

Castle Gardens, print collection Maggie Land Blanck
Harpers Weekly September 2, 1865
“Since 1847 about three million of emigrants have arrived at this port. Last year the number of these was 182,916, being an increase of 30,000 over the pervious year. The largest number on record is 319,223 — the number of arrivals in 1854. If we take the number of arrivals at this port in 1864 we shall find that 90,000 were from Ireland, nearly 60,000 from Germany and about 24,000 from England. These countries are the main sources of emigration.”
Immigration statistics 1864

These new Irish immigrants entered the country and found that the New World had as many challenges at the Old. Coming from rural backgrounds, many Irish found themselves without the necessary skills for the new industrialized, urbanized economy that was springing up in the United States. Many Irish had to seek jobs as laborers to make ends meet, paving the streets and digging the canals of an expanding New York City while the women were obliged to take jobs as maids and laundresses. In the old city of San Francisco there was a place called Washerwoman Lagoon where women went to launder clothes in the small freshwater lake at the foot of Telegraph Hill. It was hard, brutal and demeaning work but it was all they could get.

Choosing a “Girl.” collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Unfortunately, the Irish faced another major challenge in the United States – racism. Much of the same prejudices against the Irish, for their race and their religion, followed them to the New World. American politicians, fearful of the Irish, sought to marginalize them and created a political party, the Know-Nothing Party, whose major focus was anti-immigration xenophobia. This party believed that the Irish could not be trusted because of their “allegiance” to the Pope in Rome and because of their insular “clannish” tendencies to look after each other. When John F Kennedy was running for president in 1960 politicians complained that if he was elected, the Pope would run America. Hatred, xenophobia and demagoguery die hard.

From Harvard University’s Neiman Reports, 1960

Denis McCarthy. William O”Sullivan, Michael Duffy and Patrick Hughes all lived in the windswept, foggy Sixes valley for half a century and they laid down their burdens in the little Saint Mary, Star of the Sea Cemetery on the hill above the land they lived on. For the greatest part of their lives they toiled in a new land, laying down a foundation upon which this country is built. Only Patrick ever married. O’Sullivan had two brothers in America according to a newspaper ad run in Chicago in1864, in which he asked for information as to their whereabouts. One brother served with the 90th Illinois infantry on Sherman’s March to the sea but there his record ends. Neither of the two other O’Sullivan brothers passing is marked.

Here at our home most of the first settlers were Irish born. Great Uncle Patrick Moore and his wife Sarah, his three sisters and his father too. Great Grandfather and grandmother Jenny and Samuel Gray, John Corbit and his wife Mehitabel, The brothers Donovan, the Ryans, the Sullivans, McNeils, Daniel Rice, the Phelans and the Steele Brothers all put down roots here. I think, in most cases they bet that there was something better here in this country that made the hardship, and the separation from their homes worth the price they paid.

Sam and Jenny Gray wedding photo. Shannon Family Trust photo

My great-grandparents Sam and Jenny Gray. Both born in Ballyrobert Dough, county Antrim Ireland. Married on the 12th of May, 1881, they took the ferry to Glasgow and boarded the States Liner SS Alabama for America. They arrived at Castle Gardens on Manhattan Island on June 6th, ’81. They came here because Jenny’s aunt was Mrs Patrick Moore of Arroyo Grande. Their honeymoon to America lasted until May 1st, 1941 when Sam died at his home in Santa Maria. Neither of them ever saw their families again.

So, Boyo, on the 17th, raise a glass o’ Guinness to your ancestors and wish them a long and merry life, for it was their courage and determination that got you here.

Note*: I have a personal friend, an Englishwoman, who once said to me, “Whats the matter with you Irish, you’re all crazy.”

Note**: Notice the goat in the background of the cartoon. My grandmother hated goats, she said “Only the shanty Irish kept goats” She wouldn’t have one around.