Thursday, August 23, 2012

Life of a farmer

Pitchfork at Wintersburg's Furuta family farm off Wintersburg (Warner) Avenue and Nichols Lane in north Huntington Beach. (Photo, March 2012)

      There is little left to remind us of what life was like a century ago.

   In the early 1900s, Orange County, California, was quiet, open land.  No barrage of leaf blowers, freeway noise, or cell phone chatter.  The predominant street noise was the clip clop of horses or the rare automobile. Picking up the mail was an excuse to visit the post office boxes on Route 1 in Huntington Beach, see people, and get the latest news.

   For Wintersburg farmers, it was a quiet life of hard work, little sleep, and long hours out in the fields, coaxing a living out of what grew and sold best.   

Interior of the Furuta family barn.  The barn's construction features wide, hand-hewn redwood planks, once washed in a classic iron oxide red.  Some of the barn rooms likely were added as the farm developed.  (Photo, March 2012)

   "There are about 660,000 historic barns left in the United States. And while that may sound like a lot, at the peak  of farming in America, around 1910, there were 6 million farms. If each farm had only one barn we have lost on  average 50,000 barns a year. But obviously their demise does not come about ‘on average’. As the years pass more and more barns fall into ruin; making 660,000 seem like a frighteningly small number..."
                         Charles Bultman, The Barn Journal, National Barn Alliance, July 16, 2012

The American barn
   In a 2007 interview for the California Farm Bureau, Bob Crittendon, an Orange County resident and author of Barn in the U.S.A., said "barns in the West are disappearing much faster than anywhere else in the nation. In Southern California, for example, only a handful of historic barns actually remain...'The century-old barn that is a valuable historic treasure is too often knocked down to make way for a new shopping center...Soon they may all be gone.' " 

    The California Farm Bureau Federation (CFA) article, Tender timbers: Historic barns reflect farm and family histories (May/June 2007)*, writer Kate Campbell notes, "A barn is not just a storehouse for farming essentials. It's also a repository for family histories and cultural traditions."  The Center for Rural Affairs (CRA), a national organization based in Nebraska, declares "strong barns and the dedication and hard work of farmers and ranchers, past and present."  
   If you were a crop farmer, the barn was most likely red, washed with a paint made from iron oxide, milk and lime (dairy farmers preferred white).  In Barns Across America, writer Heber Bouland explored the theories on why red was such a popular color for barns. 

   "Some barn authorities claim...they used red to simulate brick and wealth.  Others say it was an abundance of stock blood or iron oxide that could be mixed with milk to make red paint. Others suggested it was esthetics (sic) - the red paint complemented the green fields," writes Bouland.  "Yet another theory suggests it was a supply and demand tradition.  Farmers, when asked why they painted their barns red, replied, 'red paint is so available and cheap.'  If paint manufacturers asked why they produced so much red paint, they said, 'because so many farmers want it.'  In any event, a rich dark red has become the symbolic barn color in America." 

   Bouland also notes "Even if a barn has been painted once, it is often not repainted but instead is left to fade over time."

   CFA's Campbell writes that "in California, barn builders have often preferred sturdy redwood," which is the case for Wintersburg's Furuta barn.  Charles Bultman further explains in Thinking about moving a barn?, The Barn Journal, National Barn Alliance, that "when you also factor in that the trees these barns are built of, came from slow-growing, first-growth forests you really can understand why they are still standing..."*

   The Furuta barn most likely was constructed prior to 1912, before the home was built.  Farmers typically prioritized the practical need for tool storage and animal shelter before themselves. 
Exterior of the Furuta barn, looking north.  There are regional and federal grant programs focused on saving heritage barns, typically for properties listed as historic.  (Photo, March 2012)

"Poppa-momma" scale farms
   "It wasn't farming on a large scale but what you call a "poppa-momma" scale. And with two acres of that, three acres of this, it was constant work, "recalled Takeo Yamada, during his 1973 oral history interview with Pat Morgan for the California State University - Fullerton (CSUF) Japanese American Oral History Project

   The Yamada family grew cantaloupes, raspberries, strawberries, cauliflowers,  and endive, among other crops in the Seal Beach area.  Wintersburg's Furuta family grew potatoes, sweet peas, and--after putting in goldfish ponds--water lilies.  Other local families grew potatoes, chilies, celery and sugar beets.  Farmers also had to make room to plant hay and alfalfa, or buy it from produce profits.

   Clarence Iwao Nishizu explained in his 1982 oral history interview with Arthur A. Hansen for the California State University - Fullerton (CSUF) Japanese American Oral History Project, "I had four animals, one team of mules and one team of horses; I had four horsepower. These animals had to eat to live. They had to be alive to pull plows and cultivators.  My father bought hay from the meager profit of raising vegetables with hard labor."

   For many, it was a variety of small crops for "truck farming," with a daily routine of picking, sorting and washing produce before hauling it to market early the next day. Takeo Yamada recalls his younger days were spent constantly working, particularly as the eldest son.   

   "I used to drive a car at 10 years old--that's how much I wanted to work. I wanted to do things, because things weren't plentiful," explained Yamada.  "Everybody seemed to be working, even if they were small. You were kind of an odd fellow if you were loafing because the farmers in general had big families and they all worked, so if you didn't work there was nobody to play with."

   Aiko Tanamachi Endo remembered her childhood in the Seal Beach area during a 1983 oral history interview for the CSUF Japanese American Oral History Project with Marsha Bode.   As a girl, Endo said her father "never asked us to work out in the field, except during the summertime when we transplanted our celery. Then everyone went out, and we would work all day."

   "With children that were left at home while the parents all worked on the farm, we had an awful lot of imagination," said Endo.  "So we had a marvelous time playing in the dirt, (laughter) in dusty areas, and also in the barns with the haystacks. We could do things there that our parents weren't aware of, like climbing up into the rafters and playing tag, and playing in bales of hay."

   "If our parents had known we were up there, they would have been most unhappy, because it was not the safest situation; but as long as they were not able to see us from the field, we had a ball there," recalled Endo.  

  She also remembered her family obtained a large wooden tub that she understood was used by the Japanese team that came to compete in Los Angeles in 1932.  They used the tub to wash radishes before packing them for market.   Afterwards, she recalled "it was our job to clean out the mud from the bottom of that big, old bathtub; (laughter) and then we'd all go swimming in it.  So most of us at least knew how to dog paddle."

Children playing at a celery farm in Huntington Beach, circa 1918. (Photo courtesy of California State University-Fullerton, Center for Oral and Public History, PJA288)

   When it came time for high school, Endo and other teenagers in the Seal Beach, Wintersburg, Bolsa and Talbert areas made the trip to Huntington Beach High School.  

   "There was a bus that came out all the way to Seal Beach, and served Tustin, Talbert, Los Altos...around through the countryside and back to the high school," explained Endo. "It was a very enjoyable ride because I rode with all of my classmates..."

 Keeping house
   There was no idle time for the woman of the house.  She was in the fields, watching children, continually preparing family meals, and doing laundry.  Out in the fields, she often had a baby nearby.  If a woman was sitting down, she most likely was sewing or preparing food at the kitchen table.

  Endo remembered her mother "was one that loved to work out in the field, and she was very particular about how the farm should look, more so than my father. (laughter) And so she always wanted to be there to make sure that everything was done properly, that the field was just so, that there were no weeds or anything."

   Mine Yabuki Kaneko told the translator during her 1984 interview with the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project that women often worked at the weeding and harvesting, while the men drove the large equipment.  

   One of Kaneko's regular chores was the family laundry.  She "used to wash her clothes in the bathroom. Outside the house was a bathtub. They had a Japanese style bathtub, not a Western style bath."  (Note: the Furuta family in Wintersburg also had a traditional Japanese style bath in back of their house, using gum tree wood on site for the bath fire.)  For a traditional Japanese bath, bathers wash themselves prior to stepping into the therapeutic hot water.  Kaneko recycled the hot bath water for the laundry; others boiled water for laundry.

   Through her translator, Kaneko  explained that "at night she hung her clothes on a wire to dry them out. That was the way she washed her clothes. But later on she bought a washing machine...they were one of the first families who bought a washing machine. There were a lot of other families who didn't have a washing machine."

   Many of the farmers' wives spent the majority of their time on the family farm, depending on traveling vendors who might bring by clothing or food items for sale.   

   Kaneko explained she often did not go with her husband when he went into the market in town "because she had seven children, and taking seven children to any place was such a trouble. And then, also, at that time the road was a dirt road. So every time they would go someplace, the children really got dirty, dusty. So it was just more troublesome work for her to clean every child after that kind of excursion. So, really, she'd rather stay home."

   The women often socialized with those closest to their farm, although Keneko remembers the farmers' association holding an annual picnic (reportedly in the Irvine Park area).  Also, once or twice a year, the family traveled into Little Tokyo in Los Angeles to purchase clothing and favorite foods.  Kaneko recalled fondly "they ate Chinese food in downtown Los Angeles and bought some Japanese confectionery and other things and then came home in the evening. Such an excursion!"

Corn growing on the Furuta family farm "high as an elephant's eye," present day.  (Photo, August 2012)

Financing the farm
    As non-citizen aliens, many of the Issei leased their land from larger land owners and used store credit to purchase seed and fertilizer.  Since they had no land as collateral, banks would not lend to them.  In Wintersburg, the Asari and later Tashima market allowed local farmers to purchase on credit.

   Takeo Yamada recalled, "...Dad would figure out exactly how much fertilizer he needed, how much money for rent, and everything else, and then he would go and borrow...if you were real lucky and had a real good crop, then maybe the following year you didn't have to borrow any money."
   "You see farming, in a way, goes in a three year cycle: if you have one good year, the following two are usually mediocre; then comes a real good year and then a mediocre one," described Yamada.  "If you have a good wet year, you won't have three good wet years in a row, you'll have a good wet year and then two dry ones. 

   "Somehow it works in that cycle," said Yamada, remembering it was hard for anyone to get ahead.  "When everybody would make a little money, they would pay for all the debts they accumulated the two previous years, so by the third year you're in about the same spot."

   Yoshiki Yoshida--born in Huntington Beach in 1919-- remembered in his 1983 oral history interview with the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project that bartering was common and that some of the wagon peddlers and the iceman would extend credit to the farmers.  

   "The iceman used to come...we used to call him the fish man. The Japanese liked fish, raw fish, cooked fish, or whatever it is, so he'd bring fish", explained Yoshida.  "And with his fish and stuff he'd bring other supplies that he thought he could sell. Sometimes he used to feel sorry for us. You know, they put it down on the bill...or maybe he got paid once in awhile with tomatoes; he had to go sell those tomatoes to his customers in Los Angeles to make out."

    "I always tell my kids what I went through--that we had holes in our shoes and no real nice clothing. People weren't supposed to be spendthrifts," Takeo Yamada commented.  "If you went through what I went through, you just don't spend money that easily!"

Horses and wagons, ready to load up.  (Photo, T.B. Talbert Collection, Courtesy of Orange County Archives)

To market
    At harvest time, crops would be loaded into wagons and taken to the house or barn area for washing and sorting.  In the early years, some took their own produce to wholesale markets, while others used a haulman.  Kaneko explained there was an amount of uncertainty about some of the haulmen.

   While some haulmen paid a flat amount per crate to take it to market and received a commission on what sold.  Kaneko recalled with others "the farmers never knew the price at which he sold the farmer's produce at the market. And sometimes, if the market was not good, the 'haulman' came back and he just said, 'Your produce could not be sold. I couldn't sell your produce and I dumped it.' And he never gave any money for such a situation."

   George Jiro Abe remembered picking and hauling produce in his 1984 oral history interview with the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project.

   "...We picked the produce--usually tried to pick it in the afternoon--and then in the evening we'd wash it and load it on the trucks," explained Abe.  "And then, about two o'clock in the morning, we'd get up--and that was my chore--to bring it to the wholesale market. And then from three to seven in the morning, the store people used to come and buy, because there were no supermarkets in those days."

   Abe said "the smallest buyers were what we called peddlers...They'd get a small half-ton truck, fix it up so they could display vegetables and fruits on it. And they'd buy that in the morning, and about eight o'clock in the morning they'd start off to the homes. And they had a little bell or whatever, and the housewives would come around." 

Abe remembered his father first sent him with a truck full of produce from their Seal Beach area farm to a wholesale produce market on Seventh Street in Los Angeles.

   "That didn't go over so good. About that time, I know I was under fourteen...I drove into the Long Beach market and sold the produce during the summer, and I'd lose half of it," recalled Abe, explaining he had difficulty dealing with older adult produce buyers. 

Los Angles wholesale produce market, circa 1920s. (Photo, Japanese American Historical Mapping Project)

    Clarence Nishizu remembered, "we usually loaded the truck after the harvest was done, ate dinner, and arrived at the market in Los Angeles about 7:00 p.m. We delivered the vegetables to the jobbers in the market...they then sold these vegetables to the retail store merchants who came early in the morning...others who we sold our vegetables to were the wholesalers coming early in the evening from different cities in California--Fresno, San Bernardino, San Diego, Bakersfield, and the like. The buyers bought produce before midnight."  

   Nishizu and his father often spent the night in the wholesale market.  "My father and I laid out a comforter and blanket and slept on the truck bed between the sample vegetables laid out in the back of the truck and the unsold produce stacked toward the front of the truck...around four or five o'clock, just when I was in the midst of my sleep, the early morning buyers would start to come. Many times the customers would wake me up around two o'clock in the morning." 

   In addition to the wholesale markets in Los Angeles, local growers also sold at a wholesale market in Santa Ana.  Nishizu described it as "a small market located on Broadway south of Fourth Street, adjoining Birch Park...some of the Japanese farmers were Mr. Roy Kikuchi of Wintersburg, Mr. Doi, and Mr. Nitta, who delivered asparagus on a small flatbed Dodge truck adorned with a beautiful sign that read 'Green Spear Farm.' Farmers going to the Santa Ana market had to be there early in the morning--certainly no later than four o'clock. Therefore, my father woke me up around three o'clock in the morning to go with him to sell our vegetables."

   Later, groups of farmers organized, bought supplies together, and jointly hired a produce shipper.  Orange County farmers survived drought, floods, blight, the Great Depression and World War II.

Looking back   
   While farm life was tough, many of the oral history interviewees felt farm work was a productive way to start their life in America and one that eventually paid off for their families. 

   Yukiko Furuta recalled in her 1982 oral history interview with the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project that after years of trying other crops, she and her husband, C.M. Furuta "became happy in the sweet pea business and continued in it for thirty years."  Successful also with water lilies, Yukiko Furuta was still selling lilies from the Furuta farm to local nurseries in the 1970s.

   Mine Yabuki Kaneko felt her family farm provided well for them because they grew "very good quality produce, vegetables and was worth doing . . . I mean, the hard work was worth doing."

Yukiko Yajima Furuta and her sister, Masuko Yajima Akiyama, in front of the Akiyama barn on the Cole Ranch in Wintersburg, circa 1915.  Among other crops like sweet peas, the Furutas grew water lilies in their goldfish ponds for local nurseries.  The Akiyamas eventually developed the largest goldfish farming business in the western United States.  (Photo courtesy of California State University-Fullerton, Center for Oral and Public History, PJA514)
Tender Timbers, Historic Barns reflect farm and family histories, California Farm Bureau Federation,

Thinking of moving a barn?, The Barn Journal, National Barn Alliance,

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The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.