Gaye LeBaron: Taking a look back at Sonoma County’s long agricultural, immigrant history

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This is a column about plenty of questions with just a couple of answers.

When I was invited to talk at an appreciation dinner offered by a Sonoma County business as a thank-you for its clients, I was asked to choose the topic.

I chose to turn that question around. Since it was to be a clearly defined audience — the organizers knew who would be there — why not take a new tack? How about asking what they wanted to hear?

It looked easy. Get two or three questions, make notes of the answers and you’re home free, right?

Not exactly. There weren’t two or three questions submitted. There were 28. And they were all over the place. The only unifying theme was the county boundaries.

My first response was to move to Fresno and change my name. Obviously, no one can speak on 28 topics — and live to tell about it. But a closer look revealed that this wasn’t such a bad idea. Two jumped out of the pack, offering a new approach to some very familiar topics. One asked about the history of immigrant populations. Another was about the history of agriculture here.

Back to back, these two highlighted a pivotal time in the county’s 170-year history — a decade that changed directions, set things off on new paths. The questions about crops and about immigration went directly to the 1870s.

That’s when the first railroad line reached Santa Rosa, bringing a second wave of pioneers — not the “westerers” of Gold Rush days bowled over by the valleys where wild grass grew tall enough to hide a man on horseback.

The rails brought a new breed of pioneers, people who were looking for more than a farm that would feed a family. They had heard about the land, and they intended to feed the whole country.

With quicker access to cities around San Francisco Bay making a market for fruit, Charles Juilliard planted the first commercial orchard in the county in 1875 to find out what grew best. It was 13 acres south of Santa Rosa Creek on the Petaluma Road, and all his fruit did well — until the town grew around his enterprise.

The trains also meant that dairymen in southwest county no long needed to rely on the little “butter boat” schooners that bounced through wind and waves along the coastline to San Francisco. And new vineyards focused on wine that “shipped well.”

The people the railroad brought in were significant, not only in numbers but in skills. People like Luther Burbank who got off the train in Santa Rosa in 1875 eager to work with people like Kanaye Nagasawa, who arrived the same year (maybe on the same train?) to plant vineyards at Fountaingrove, producing one of the first California wines to “travel well.” There were others, many seeking Burbank’s “plant wizardry.” Nathaniel Griffith, who planted the first Gravenstein orchard since the Russians left Fort Ross, would make that apple a Sonoma County brand.

Warren Dutton set out to find a nurseryman to deliver 20,000 young French prune trees in time for planting. Burbank, the new guy in town, offered to try. He grafted prune buds to almond seedlings and delivered 19,500 on time, jump-starting a century of bountiful prune harvests.

In 1878, a young man from Upper Canada named Lyman Byce chose Petaluma as the “warmer climate” he sought for experiments with a poultry incubator that would hatch more (many more!) eggs than one at a time. His success set the south county river town on course to become “The World’s Egg Basket.”

In all the agricultural wonders of the 1870s none was greater than hops. The vines where beer begins were first planted by Amasa Bushnell at the upper end of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. With a railroad to carry the bales of dried hops to eastern breweries, hop kilns and hopyards quickly became a familiar sight along the Russian River and its tributaries, from Mendocino County south to Santa Rosa.

All this agricultural activity in and around the 1870s created ag prosperity into the next century. Fifty years down the lane, in 1920, the county ranked eighth in a national agricultural census — first in wine grapes, eggs and poultry, second in hops and cherries — among the leaders in apples, dairies and livestock.

All of it was still moving out the county and into the world by railroads.

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It doesn’t take much explanation to connect the immigration question to the crops. Think for a minute about cherries, apples, hops, prunes and grapes ripe for the picking within a single season.

It requires a lot of workers, all at once. The job was done — is still done — by seasonal workers. They are almost exclusively Latinos who have started in the Imperial Valley and picked through the lettuce fields of Salinas to gather at the Graton Center or a corner in Windsor or Healdsburg waiting for a grower to come hiring.

It was different in the beginning, in the 1870s, when travel was harder. Most of the workers came to stay. And they came in waves, from other countries, other cultures, from the 1870s to early 1900s. All were reacting to a worldwide financial depression that turned America into an immigrant’s dream.

In Sonoma County, the first wave of workers were the Chinese, arriving after they had mined the gold and built the railroads. They lived apart. They kept their customs. They hadn’t come to stay. China was their religion as well as their homeland. There were “Chinatowns” in every Sonoma County community. They were indispensable in the 1870s and ‘80s as a workforce.

The Chinese Exclusion movement of the 1880s charged them with taking work from white men and resulted in boycotts of Chinese labor on the Pacific Coast. From San Francisco Bay to Seattle, it became dangerous to hire a Chinese. Businesses posted signs saying, “No Chinese employed,” and newspapers, including Santa Rosa’s, celebrated the numbers seen leaving town on the train. Those were the stories in the winter. In summer the headlines were “Hop pickers needed,” and “Who will pick the fruit?”

The answer was another wave of immigrants, very different from the first. They were Italians, mainly from the northern provinces, part of a diaspora precipitated not only by the financial depression but by the politics of their newly united nation.

From the 1870s well into the 20th century they came in big numbers, whole families. California — particularly Sonoma and Napa — looked like home. Unlike the Chinese, they came to stay, become American. Soon they had their own land, with vineyards and truck gardens and were joining the lines of wagons at the train stations waiting to ship their wine to immigrant populations in other cities. And they needed crop pickers.

Their place in the immigrant line was taken by the Japanese, who came as contract labor by way of the pineapple fields of Hawaii. They, too, came to stay. They leased land, grew their own crops, primarily apples around Sebastopol and chickens in the Petaluma area. Asian land laws prohibited them from owning property; so, like the urban Italian families, they still doubled as a workforce, going from farm to farm through the Great Depression years of the 1930s.

Filipino workers were also contract laborers. The first men arrived in the 1920s and, like the Japanese, came to stay.

Those years brought other workers: The Dust Bowl migrants. If you have read or seen “The Grapes of Wrath” you know their story. A government farm labor camp in Windsor was a “first home” in Sonoma County for a good many Southwesterners who never went back.

World War II changed everything. Able-boded men went to war. The Japanese — U.S. born citizens included — were sent to “internment” camps. Defense work in Bay Area shipyards offered higher pay for the Dust Bowl migrants. That’s when a series bilateral agreements between Mexico and the United States created the Bracero program. It brought short-term Mexican workers with labor contractors. (Later, there would be German war prisoners at the Windsor labor camp, another government project to aid farmers.)

The first Braceros into Sonoma County told happy stories of changed lives and prosperity. But illegal border crossings began almost immediately, as soon as the first word of money made and decent living conditions required reached Mexico — and beyond.

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The questions I received were like a big jigsaw puzzle with pieces of varied shapes and sizes and colors. Fit together and viewed from a respectful distance they are the history of this place.

It is good news when people want answers. And there is a “magic” place where they can be found. It’s the History Library, a modest structure at 725 Third St., across the alley from the Sonoma County Library, where the county’s archivist, Katherine Rinehart and staff will guide the search.

Meantime, if anyone is in need of a topic for an after-dinner speech, I know where you can find one — or two, or 28. You’re welcome. No extra charge.

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