A Glimpse of Woodlake Meandering Through Time

My friend Sally Pace commissioned me to write about the history of Woodlake for the Kiwanis Magazine, maybe 300 words or less.  Woodlake, a sleepy town born in 1910 in the foothills of the big trees, became famous for cattle ranching, and oranges.   Its history is a collection of tales about hard-working farmers, farm workers and, of course, cowboys.  Most of the life in Woodlake takes place in the hills beyond the town, but there is a town that is home to about 7,000 people.  

Writing history is so much more difficult than I had ever imagined that it would be.  I’ve never been great at making snap decisions, and that is the one thing that writers do constantly, word to word, story after story.  One story sounds good, but must not be told to save room for the story that the writer thinks is great.  The good story that was left out may have changed history, but history is forgotten, except what is written, so that piece of history remains a mystery. 

The other issue about history is that as soon as you write it you worry about offending someone.  I am so frozen in fear that I might tell the wrong story, the wrong way, that it’s hard to tell any story at all.  I never understood this dilemma of writers, which is why history books are so bland, until I started writing this.  The real story, someone else’s story, has tons of nerve endings attached to it that I may or may not touch.  People reading history also have opinions.  Even I have opinions, and they seep out ever so quietly into my words.

Cow PokingIn this case, the story revolves around a town built around ranching.  Ranching means eventually killing cattle to eat.  Former neighbors of mine are vegan, meaning they eat no meat products, even milk or eggs.  Animal rights activists might object to marking cattle, and other groups might have other grounds for opposition, but cattle ranchers are proud of their work, and their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  If I were writing a documentary, I would tell all sides of the story, but in this post, I’ve got only the rancher’s side.

Straddling a calf getting stuck with a hot branding iron is not my idea of a safe job!
Straddling a calf getting stuck with a hot branding iron is not my idea of a safe job!

Another problem with writing history is that the beginning story is told and retold, but the middle of the story, the later years don’t seem like real history.  I started my project a couple of months ago I started interviewing a friend whose great-great-grandfather pioneered in this area.  What I really wanted to find out what life was like in the 1940s to the 1970s.  He let me borrow his photo album from the 1970s, and he had great shots of cowboys, many of whom are still not retired from ranching even though they are approaching  or into their 80s.  Ranching seems to be a healthy lifestyle, if you don’t get killed doing it!

Cow Poking
Imagine, you, a bull-calf, a sharp knife, and the knowledge that if he flinched, the knife might miss its mark…  Notice also that you don’t see obese ranchers here!  These guys can move quickly when necessary!

 

Gary spent about two hours with me helping me realize how difficult and dangerous it is to work with cattle.  That hasn’t really changed any over the years.

Branding and marking ears is still practiced on cattle today, so that the rancher can identify his cows easily.
You can see on my March, 2013 that branding and marking ears is still practiced on cattle today, so that the rancher can identify his cows easily.  I was trying to count flies!

Gary and I examined the 1895 atlas I have of Tulare County as he described where his ancestors settled, and where he took a group of people back-backing into the mountainous country.  Gary said if I wanted to hear the history of Woodlake, I should talk to his cousin, Roy Lee Davis, a cousin of his nearing 80.

Roy Lee Davis, retired farmer, back-pack guide from age 13.
Roy Lee Davis, retired farmer, back-pack guide from age 13.

I made an appointment and spent several afternoons with Roy Lee and his wife, Donna.  Roy lived in Woodlake all his life, and Donna moved to Woodlake from Porterville, 20 miles away, when they got married in the 1950s.  Our first afternoon getting acquainted we talked about the town of Woodlake itself.  After 15 minutes or so of introduction, our recorded conversation reached into the depths of Roy and Donna’s memories.  Transcribing the exact conversation is the first step to creating an oral history.  These are the first words recorded on my transcription.

D:  Grandfather started the Presbyterian church. (pause) Well she was a Davis.  (I’m not sure who “she” is at this point in the conversation.  I’m just listening.)

R:  No, she was a Pogue.

D:  She got married to a Pogue.  I’m filling you in on his background, and they started the Presbyterian church in

R:  160 years ago

D:  And his name was Jonathan Blair, and he raised Roy’s Grandmother, so  they’ve been, and then through his mother the Mussens came out and started a little store in Woodlake

R:  In 1913 because Mom and her family came out, but their grandpa was already out here.  That’s why they came out to help him in the store.

When you take an oral history, you try not to interject too much.  That was hard for me for several reasons.  First of all I didn’t always understand where the conversation was going, and as you can tell conversations jump mid-sentence sometimes.  Secondly because I AM a conversationalist, not a historian, I wanted to interject.  What they said reminded me of something in my life, and I’d wax autobiographical, which is not a great thing when you are taking an oral history.  Third, sometimes there would be a long lull in the conversation, so I would ask a question or make a comment.  As a result, the topics that emerge in the recording may be incidental to the story that the historian will eventually write.  Or it may be that the historian’s story changes.

More important than ranching to Roy and Donna, was what was important to Roy’s mom, that her grandfather started the Presbyterian Church in Woodlake.  One year after Tulare County was established, a little Presbyterian Church was erected in the non-existent town of Woodlake, by Roy Lee and Gary’s ancestors.  My story shifted into another direction, from ranching to religion.  In the lives of Roy and Donna the two facets of life were inextricably intertwined.  In writing them down, the subject went outside-in, and from a male driven narrative started by Gary to a female one ended with the writing of a teacher, Grace Pogue.  It meandered in and out of years from 1860 to 1995 when I quit teaching in Woodlake.

Woodlake Presbyterian Church
Woodlake Presbyterian Church

Finally, a historian has to validate oral histories.  In this case I had a primary source document.  Roy Lee’s relative, Grace Pogue, authored Within the Magic Circle telling about the beginning years of Woodlake. She wrote, “On April 18, 1866 Rev. Jonathan Blair and Rev. S. T. Gilliam organized the Kaweah Cumberland Presbyterian Church at the Hamilton School house about three miles south of Wodlake” p. 91.  These 19 charter members met in the school-house until “1881, (when) Jon H. Blair gave a tract of land for the school, the church, and the cemetery.  The school was moved from Section 24 to the newly acquired site west of the Presbyterian Church on Narranjo Blvd” p. 66.  Interestingly, Jonathan Blair must have been well off because according to Pogue, he served without out “financial remuneration” on a regular basis until his death in 1886.  The school and the church were part of each other, moving together into new buildings, sharing property when they no longer shared buildings. Pogue described the church inside and out, listed favorite hymns, descriptions of the horse-drawn buggies that transported them to church, then later by Visalia Electric Railroad by 1913, and humorous anecdotes.

The front of the brick building
The front of the brick building

Anyone interested in church history would be interested that in 1906 the small independent Kaweah Cumberland Presbyterian Church united with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and changed its name to First Presbyterian Church. p. 97.

Many denominations were pulling together nationally for the first time at this time.  The East and West coast churches in the early 1900s were less rigid, and according to the Nazarene Church history I learned in college, they compromised many liberal beliefs in order to attract the more conservative southern church goers, and consolidate into national denominations.  So Kaweah Cumberland Presbyterian Church joined the movement of nationalizing the denominations.  In writing this brief post I also used some knowledge that I learned when attending Nazarene Bible College, and if I was truly a historian, I would document my source of knowledge here.  Before the Civil War the country was “these United States”, and after it became “the United States.  I found it interesting that forty years after the Civil War, there was a vast movement within the churches all over the country that helped the nation become “One Nation Under God.”

600 W Naranjo Blvd, Woodlake, CA 93286
600 W Naranjo Blvd, Woodlake, CA 93286  Naranjo means orange.

 

The First Presbyterian Church remained very influential in the Woodlake community and political structure until probably the mid-1990s when it split.  Some of the members broke away from the more liberal Presbyterian church and founded a non-denominational church called Foothill Bible Church.

By the end of my conversation with Roy Lee and Donna I had copious amounts of recorded information to sift through and still no linear picture of life in the 1950s to 1970s, but I had made two new friends.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the distant past from the recent past because it changed so gently.  This differs greatly from the 1850s to 70s when white Americans, seeking their fortune in gold fields and later hay and cotton fields, came in droves to Central California, where only Native Americans living for centuries. It was a time of drastic and exciting change for those pioneers and their descendants.  What followed is an established pattern, yet still different from life today.

I made more appointments, scanned more pictures, and borrowed another book or two of Grace Pogue to learn about the early history of Woodlake.

Almost sunset
Almost sunset

Later one evening, I drove into town to take pictures of the historic Presbyterian Church.  As you can see it is a quaint, very simple, yet picturesque church that still stands on Jonathan Blair’s donated property over a century later.

38 thoughts on “A Glimpse of Woodlake Meandering Through Time”

  1. Wow, my first thought is how can you write the history of ANYTHING in 300 words or less, that is about an opening paragraph for me. LOL You have so much to work from already, maybe you could do a series of – say – four 300 word articles??? Or perhaps a small book. I wrote the history of Newcastle, OK and it was (with contributed photos) a 248 page book. It spend from 1890 to 2008 and took me about 3 months to complete with editing and design. I also had to do my other newspaper writing along with it.
    I wouldn’t worry about offending anyone, history is history – we have to take the bad with the good. But if it is a real issue, just focus on the uplifting stories, the ones that make a positive contribution to the community.
    As far as interviewing, you can interject if you are not clear on where the conversation is going. This is especially true when interviewing the elderly, because they have so many stories and some of them tend to blend together.
    Sounds like you are on your way – the only problem is cramming all of this in 300 words or less.
    All I can say is, Good Luck!

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    1. Good advice, Darla. I welcome it! :) I really think a series is the way to go. I mean here I am with this brief post – well over 300 words, and not really telling much history at all. I think I’ll do the church for the first post.

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  2. Hi MVBF Marsha. So what’s your brand?? ;)
    I agree with Darla. History is about stories and anecdotes, whether they are true or folklore I don’t think it matters as people love to read about people and what they have to say, not just a string of dates which I hated to learn at school. 300 words?? …… no chance!! Good luck!! Ralph xox

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  3. What a heck of a lot of work; and for only 300 words – you have to be keen, Marcia..!

    I don’t think it’s possible to write if we take everyone’s particular lifestyles and viewpoints/arguments into consideration; we’d never be able to tell a story convincingly…! Just sticking with objective facts seems to be the only avenue to take. One that doesn’t commit us to any one side or the other, so to speak..!

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    1. Well, I think it will end up being a series. I may start with the church. I’m more familiar with church things than saddles and branding irons, although the latter may be more exciting. But what is more exciting than a church controversy? :)

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      1. Love the look on the first emoticon! Indeed??????? hmmm Maybe not the church. Maybe the field of cotton that he didn’t know to mow down because he was only 17 when he bought his first 10 acres of land? Maybe the switchboard service that was a job for teenage boys in Woodlake? hmmm Not church?

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      2. So many interesting tales to be told – perhaps a lovely balance in portraying many historical and personal events..! :)

        I found a brilliant WP page for emoticons. I’m now using them at every opportunity… :cool:

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  4. Fascinating stuff, Marsha.

    Ew, so many flies. Reminds me of a pigeon from the movie “Valiant”. He had three flies constantly buzzing around his head (until a falcon squished one). ;) Yucky!

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    1. Now I’m going to have to watch the movie!!! Thanks for the fascinating. Coming from you, that means a lot because you actually write fascinating stuff! How’s the book coming?

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      1. Gee, Marsha, you’re going to give me a big head. This was one of my favorites of your posts.

        Oh it’s coming along. In fact I’m getting ready to edit a chapter now.

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      2. Another blogging friend of mine and I share stories on private blogs just to get feed back. If you are interested in doing this, let me know. I’d be glad to read and comment, though you may have a professional editor, etc. I’d definitely not professional, and I’m not a great proofreader! :)

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      3. Ha, professional editor? I wish! ;) When a person starts visualizing spoken words on paper you know they’ve done too much editing.

        Yes I would be interested in doing that. And it’s private you say?

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      4. Yes, you can set up a private WP site and invite who ever you want. You would probably want to set up your own site, and invite people that you like and trust to be part of it to read your work and make comments. I’ll invite you to mine, and you can see what I mean. I don’t add to it very much like some people do because I don’t do enough writing! :)

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  5. This is very interesting, Marsha. You do a great job of describing the process and considerations when writing a piece on history. I had to condense the Oregon Trail experience into a fifty minute storytelling program to share with school and museum audiences. To do so, you definitely have to pick and choose your stories, and find the balance. In your case, you might tell your story balancing and even emphasizing the two outstanding aspects of the town as two sides of the same coin. You demonstrated very well with your snippet of conversation how easy it is to get distracted with unimportant and irrelevant details. When I am doing an oral history interview, I try not to let folks get bogged down with dates and stop the flow of the story with facts that I can looked up afterwards. For me, the story is what is most important, as that is what engages your readers and what they will remember. Good luck!

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    1. Ooooh I’d love to listen in as you do an oral history. How fun. I had a hard time getting the stories out at first. They came later. they come in spurts. How do you keep them from bogging down? What are some of the expectations that you share with your folks? I just told my friends what time period I was interested in, and I was interested in stories from their lives.

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  6. That sounds like quite a job you’ve been landed with, Marsha. I agree with Ralph about the anecdotes rather than a lot of dates etc. History was never my strong subject at school, probably because the teacher was very dry and boring. :( Good luck with your 300 words.

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  7. With all your research and understanding, the only problem will be getting it DOWN to 300 words!
    This could be a book, rich with family stories and tales of the land. And I loved the pictures.
    Well done!

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    1. Thank you so much Marylin! 300 words is going to be a challenge for me. That’s about the size of a good comment! Ops just went over! JK I could use a lot of abbreviations! :)

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  8. As I read this post, I kept thinking of the old TV show, “The Big Valley,” which was set in and around Stockton, CA. I had no idea that ranching continued in CA — I usually think of Texas and Montana, Wyoming and Idaho for that. It sounds like you have a rich resource in that couple. People love to talk about their lives, and I think the meandering character is what makes oral histories so wonderful. You can get a real feel for the people who are talking. And it sounds like you love being a collector of oral histories and writing history. I hope you have a sturdy tape recorder!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a note! C. C. Yager

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    1. Thank you for stopping by as well. Yes, I used my iPhone. But now comes the problem of transcribing. I only did a small portion of our first interview. I’m afraid to go back because there is so much, and I don’t get te transcribing all done, plus reading the books. :) I feel like I’m in college again. And yes, I’m loving it! Thanks again for your encouragement! :)

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