It's raining in July at the Macdonald ranch. Here it proves a welcome sight, damping down dusty roads and dry grass. Any rain in drought years seems precious. We are almost certainly undergoing some sort of climate change, but drought is not a stranger to this neck of the woods. I have written before about devastating drought years here in the early 1920s.
My mother grew up in various parts of California, one of those being the Central Valley during the Great Depression. In 1938 she gradated high school a month before her sixteenth birthday then spent the next two years attending Modesto Junior College while she resided with her Uncle Enoch Ward in Riverbank. There, she worked the evening shift at the Riverbank Tomato Cannery. After work she barely had time to race home to wash and iron her one and only tomato-splattered uniform, then snatch a few hours sleep from the Sandman, before getting up to catch the bus that took her to Modesto Junior College in time for 8 a.m. classes.
Those were drought years similar to what we are experiencing now. My mother's maternal uncle, Enoch Ward, was in charge of the distribution of irrigation water in his district. As such he possessed two separate telephone lines, which rang nearly constantly, day and night. Even decades later, my mother could repeat the desperate words of farmers of alfalfa or vegetables or fruit trees who called on those phone lines: “Mr. Ward, we're burning up over here. When can I get some water? I have to have water.”
During those same years my great aunt, Susie Ward Carter (then just approaching thirty years of age), and her husband lived in nearby Modesto. They both worked for low wages, just enough to pay rent and buy food for their four grade school children (doesn't sound much different than many a family's situation today). During the summer school vacation months those children spent most days at the coolest places around, the three local movie theaters. One kid would buy a ticket (it only cost a dime) and he would walk down the theater's side aisle, step behind a curtain that disguised the fire exit door, and push it quietly open for his siblings to enter free of charge. One could spend the whole day in a movie theater in those days as long as your behavior didn't attract the attention of the rarely seen usher. Even into the early 1960s this was true at the old Coast Theater on Main Street (Highway 1) in Fort Bragg. I sat through three showings of Savage Sam (something of a sequel to Old Yeller) along with a short documentary and a couple of cartoons. One of my sisters had to come and fetch me. If memory serves, Savage Sam was supposed to serve as a diversion for me, then eight or nine years old, while the rest of the family tended to Harry Johnson, my mother's stepfather, who was in failing health in a house on Fir Street. Harry's bedroom was conveniently adjacent to an alleyway that led directly to the Redwood Coast Hospital.
Harry Johnson owned a ranch/farm at Sunny Slope, on the south fork of the Albion River, approximately seven miles east of the Macdonald Ranch. In the early summer of 1940 my mother, Margaret Fay (later Macdonald), returned to Sunny Slope after completing two years at Modesto Junior College. During that time she participated in one of the first successful strikes against cannery owners.
In June of 1940, the Albion River and environs was experiencing something of a heat wave. Eighteen-year-old Margaret Fay lay in bed one night trying to think of a cool, soothing place to walk to the next day. Her first thoughts pulled her toward Soda Spring Gulch, approximately two miles on foot from Sunny Slope. Until the late 1970s/early 80s not only did Soda Spring Gulch offer up cooling soda water, the nearly hidden bubbling spring was only a few yards away from a tree that contained the names and initials of visitors dating back to the previous century. At the close of Masonite Corporation's ownership of most of the Albion timber lands, the company's employees bulldozed the initial tree as well as blocking off entry to the mouth of the gulch. From the outset of its ownership Masonite was particularly adept at obliterating centuries old Native American landmarks and trails along with 19th Century survey markers, cemeteries, and wagon roads.
The hot June of 1940 did lead young Margaret Fay westward from Sunny Slope one morning, but she didn't stop at Soda Spring Gulch, she set her sights on a far cooler clime: the coast itself, at the mouth of the Albion River. She didn't quite make it all the way to Albion. Perhaps it was the broad patch of nettles west of the Albion River Boom that stopped her or the fact that along her way she laid eyes for the first time on the man who would become her husband in sixteen months, Lorne Macdonald.