Times Past: Jobs and joy in SLO for two N. Dakota sisters

Special to The TribuneAugust 5, 2012 

"Russian thistle was the only thing that grew in North Dakota. The thistles came loose in the winds and blew against the barbed wire fences where they got stuck and collected the dust from the parched soil. Soon, all you could see was the faint outline of the fence posts. There was nothing for the farmers to do but give up. That was the setting of my teenage years."

Eleanor Willard Brown turns 95 on Saturday. She keeps up with current events and is a big supporter of President Barack Obama. She will never forget her family’s migration to the Carrizo Plain during the Great Depression.

Like Woody Guthrie, Eleanor could sing: "We rattled down that highway to never come back again."

Stanley and Emma Willard and their daughters Ada and Eleanor left virtually everything behind. Driven from their home by low agricultural prices, drought and dust storms, they journeyed west in 1934, first to the home of relatives in Preston, Idaho, where Eleanor finished her junior year.

Ada and her parents continued on to San Luis Obispo County, where Stanley Willard had arranged employment by mail as a Caterpillar operator at the George Lewis Ranch in the remote Carrizo Plain. He didn’t know how to operate a Caterpillar, but he needed to feed his family.

Willard was fortunate to have a job, unlike John Steinbeck’s Joad family, which found a gutted labor market in the San Joaquin Valley. But like Pa Joad and his family, the Willards enjoyed a new climate bathed in warm sun. Pa Joad sighed, "I never knowed there was anything like her."

Life wasn’t easy for the Willards, but they loved California.

Eleanor attended San Luis Obispo High School for her senior year. But where would she live? The Carrizo Plain was nearly 75 miles away over the rugged Pozo-La Panza Road. (Highway 58 was not completed until 1941.)

"In San Luis Obispo, my parents rented one side of a duplex for my sister and me. It was located on Monterey Street and belonged to the Muzio family.

"Ada worked in the homes of several doctors over a two-year period. There were not many steady jobs listed in the newspaper, but if one wanted to work, there was some kind of job. Through the summer, I got a few jobs doing housework. One lovely lady I worked for was Mrs. Welsh, mother of Mary Lu Borah.

"It was quite exciting. Two young girls 'bacheloring' together in the relatively big city of San Luis Obispo. We kept our meals simple and delighted in discovering inexpensive avocados. We would scoop out the pit, fill the center with French dressing and have a feast. What a treat for two girls from North Dakota, where avocados were seldom seen or heard of!

"I remember spending a few days out at the Lewis ranch with mother and dad. It was harvest time, and there was a lot of ranch activity, early and late, and every day. Mr. Lewis had at least three boys and one daughter who were students at San Luis High.

"My parents came to San Luis Obispo quite a few times through the winter to stay with us in the apartment. It didn’t seem much like winter to us, as the weather always seemed quite warm, except when it rained."

On one of their trips to town in January, they had a picnic lunch along the way. It was a warm and beautiful day.

Imagine, a picnic in January for a family from North Dakota!

"There were some disadvantages to our new environment.

“My father was quite familiar with poison ivy, which grew in abundance in the Middle West. Much to his painful regret, he failed to recognize California’s equally prolific and rather attractive poison oak while picking some beautiful leaves for mother one day."

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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