In 1935, when I was five, we moved to Grass Valley in Sherman County. Grass Valley was both the name of the town and the meadow-like valley in which it nestled. Besides the town, the only other man-built thing in the valley was my grandparent’s ranch. It was a short valley, just big enough for them both. The ranch was a wheat ranch with wheat fields far out on each side of the valley, but there were some sheep and cattle too at various times. We thought it was the prettiest valley, the prettiest ranch and the prettiest town in all of Oregon.
For my mother, the move was a homecoming; it was where her parents and her youngest brother Wallace lived, and it had been her own home at one time. Catching my mother’s enthusiasm, I felt I was going home too.
My father was a school teacher and, as the depression got worse, teachers in some places were not being paid with real money. They were given “script” that had little value. Single teachers might have been able to live on it but not teachers with families. So my grandfather told my mother to come home and he gave her a house on four acres that was part of the ranch property. Although my mother was the recipient, it was a package deal; her whole family got to come too. My grandfather didn’t like my mother’s husband, but he loved her and her children with an outgoing devotion.
I remember when we arrived at the ranch. It was sometime late at night. It was dark, and we girls had been sleeping in the back of our 1920’s van as it rattled along over the headlight-lit highway. We all tumbled sleepily into my grandmother’s kitchen. She was wearing a bathrobe, sitting in one of the kitchen chairs. She spread her arms wide in greeting. I walked right into them and was engulfed by her loving warmth. Then a door opened and my Uncle Wallace walked in. He seemed almost a boy, but he was as tall as a man. Actually he was in his early thirties. He was smiling. I wonder if I had ever seen a man smile before. I looked up at him, my head still on Grandmother’s shoulder. He reached down and tweaked my nose. He said, “Hello Dutch!” He called me Dutch because of my blonde hair. I fell in love. Later my grandfather came into the kitchen. Soon I was sitting on his lap. It was all so new and wonderful. What a heady surprise! What joy!
Yes, what joy! These people were MY family! And we now had a house that was our very own that was within walking distance of the big house that held that family. Our house even had a barn. It was OUR HOUSE, OUR barn, OUR chicken house, wood shed, cellar, windmill, garden. There was even a smokehouse, which was a great place to hide when mother sent Gracie out to find us and tell us to come to the house for some unpleasant reason. The smokehouse was one of our secret places. It was about three feet square and tucked into the hillside next to the path to the barn. The lower part of it was open on the downhill side. When we hid there, holding our breaths so as to be completely silent, we were visible from the waist down if one bent over and looked into the dark interior. Gracie never did that. She would walk by calling our names over and over without seeing us. When she finally gave up after walking clear to the barn and back, we would sit down on the dirt floor convulsed with laughter.
Even though our new home had originally been part of the ranch, it was a separate fenced property. Perhaps it had been the original ranch house. It was actually in town, but in a remote corner, way back under the hill that bordered the valley. It was OUR hill too. From the top you could see forever. Mount Hood was so close that I thought, if it had a saddle, I could put my foot in the stirrup and swing on up. Much later, the people who bought the ranch built a house on OUR hill. They get to see Mt. Hood and Forever every day.
Our house was surrounded on three sides by the ranch land (the other side was the road) and was about a half mile from the ranch buildings, accessible by a path down through the “Flat”: the flat green part of the valley which was one big pasture.
The pasture was the ranch’s only uncultivated land. The south end of it, the end toward our house, was the bane of my grandfather’s existence because it was covered with blue flags (wild iris) that the livestock would not eat and therefore reduced the amount of grass that grew there. In the late spring the Flat would be blue with flags in bloom. I later learned that these same blue flags are the famous fleur de lis of France as depicted in their national emblem. I wonder if French farmers hated them as much as my grandfather did.
Another menace was Canadian thistle. It was nice to be able to blame the Canadians for those, and the Russians for Russian thistle. In his spare time, Grandfather would toss a hoe over his shoulder and go on long treks from one end of the Flat to the other, a distance of at least a mile, as part of his ongoing battle against thistles. I sometimes wonder why he never thought of goats which would probably have eaten both the thistles and the flags.
Grass Valley got its name from a kind of rye grass, which originally grew in elephant-sized clumps all through the valley. In the early days it was said to be “as tall as a man on horseback.” Cattle didn’t eat rye grass, and when it was grubbed out, the flags came up instead. This was before the time of herbicides, which I am sure that Grandfather would not have hesitated to use. It was the same with Morning Glory in the wheat. He would come into the house mumbling angrily under his breath because the Morning Glory had clogged up the combine again–or the disk, or the plow, or some other piece of farm machinery. It was no wonder that ranchers in the county started having their fields sprayed by airplane with 2,4D as soon as that modern opportunity became available, which it didn’t in his lifetime. Little did they dream what would be the disastrous result of that miracle!
TWO VIEWS OF THE RANCH FROM THE NORTH
There was a ditch that meandered the whole length of the Flat. It had water in it only when the snow melted in the spring. Then, sometimes, the whole Flat would be flooded, and water would roar through the ditch in roiling streaks and waves that we imagined might be what the ocean looked like, never having seen the ocean. It was exciting: all that water in this dry land! Water all over the ground! We would put on our galoshes and go splashing around in WATER! We were careful though, not to get too close to the part that was rushing and piling up on itself. Things would float down from town, mostly old boards and whisky bottles, because the ditch went along behind the lumber yard and the town’s only tavern. After the water subsided we would take our red wagon and go all through the flat picking up boards. We burned these in our cook stove, wood being hard to come by during the depression years in a country with no forests.
Later in the summer, when the ditch dried up, there would still be small ponds downstream from the horse barn. There were pollywogs in them, and later little green frogs. We would lie on our stomachs and play with the pollywogs—or tadpoles as some people called them. These ponds and the tiny trickle between them were supplied by the drainage from the big, spring-fed watering trough that was between the horse barn corral and the pasture. The trough was made of concrete and there was a little short ledge on the pasture side, so if there were sheep in the pasture, they could put their front feet up on it and drink too. It was long enough for two teams of horses to drink from at the same time, and it was big enough for us to use as a swimming pool. The Hollywood stars had nothing on us, except that we couldn’t swim. But it held that same wonderful substance: water!
Another wonder of the ranch involving water was that there were two abandoned gravel pits on the hillside adjoining the north end of the Flat. After the gravel pits were dug, water seeped into them. The result was just one more children’s delight: a shallow pond in the larger of the two pits. My oldest sister Gracie and some of her friends built a raft out of old boards on which to navigate this magical phenomenon, and since there were islands, it became our South Seas paradise. We could paddle from island to island and even get marooned on one of them, or pretend to be, because the water was never more than two feet deep. To add to the South Seas atmosphere, there were trees, albeit not palm trees. First, one lone cottonwood sprouted and, because Gracie had discovered the gravel pit, it was her tree. One summer she saved it from tent caterpillars, which cemented their bond. Today, when we drive by on highway 97 and look out over what is no longer our ranch, I see, on that far hill, a whole grove of cottonwoods growing out of those old pits. The holes are not visible, so the trees look a little strange because they have no trunks. They look like their branches are sprouting from the ground.
But enough about the pasture. The ranch buildings were what we usually meant when we said “The Ranch.” Besides the big white two-story house, there were three big barns: a cow barn, a horse barn and a sheep barn that all seemed made exclusively for us to play in. And half way between our house and the ranch house, cut into the side of the hill was the straw shed which was almost as large as a barn. It was filled each year at harvest time with straw from the combine. Its side toward the pasture was a continuous manger and was protected by a wide overhanging roof so the animals could eat straw at any time and in any weather. The straw was a grand, itchy medium in which we made tunnels, dug out caves and slid down slides.
Between play times, we did small chores at the ranch. We gathered the eggs, fed the chickens, fed the bummer lambs that were temporarily housed behind the wood burning cook stove in my grandmother’s immaculate kitchen, set the table, cleared and dried the dishes, swept the kitchen floor and helped plant, water and harvest vegetables from the garden. Later we were able to pitch hay, milk cows and turn the milk separator.
GRACE WITH ME AND MARY ON DIXIE
Shortly after our move to this magical place, our grandfather got us a horse of our very own. She was a quiet even tempered mare. She was white, and her name was Dixie. We were too small to lift the saddle onto her back, so Grandfather rigged the saddle to hang from the ceiling of the horse barn by means of a rope threaded over a pulley. One end of the rope was around the saddle horn and the other end around a cleat on the wall. When we wanted to ride, all we had to do was lower the saddle on to Dixie’s back as she stood at the manger, and tighten the cinch. Then, because at first the stirrups were too high for us to get on board, we would lead this patient animal broadside to the manger and use it as a mounting platform. Mary and I often rode together. We would take turns, one in the saddle and the other behind. The saddle cantle had two hand holds carved out of its top so that the one behind had a place to hold on—not that Dixie ever did much more than walk, so holding on was seldom required. Later, we simply dispensed with the saddle and rode bareback.