Thursday, September 22, 2005

Ygnacio Valley and the Starbucks on Mars

Out to the Ygnacio Valley library this morning, for a talk by Priscilla Couden, director of the Walnut Creek Historical Society.

Ygnacio Valley, until relatively recently, was entirely agricultural; first grain, then fruit, and then nuts—walnuts, in particular. Priscilla talked mostly about the Penniman Ranch, which is now the Shadelands Ranch Museum.

Engraving: No. 59 Home & Farm of H.P.Penniman, Ignacio Valley.

At the turn of the century, it was managed by Mary Penniman, one of the daughters of the family, who sounds like a remarkable woman doing a man’s job in a man’s world.

The Shadelands Museum has correspondence between Mary and other members of her family which paint a vivid picture of the day-to-day realities of ranching. It doesn’t sound like a happy life. Fruit farming was very sensitive to weather: a dry summer could result in a poor crop, and a wet autumn could ruin the drying process. (Most ranchers dried fruit—apricots, peaches, and in particular prunes—making it easier to transport without spoilage and allowing them to sell outside the short glut season of fresh fruit.) Purchase prices varied hugely; and labour costs were always a worry. (Ranch hands in the 1900s were almost all Japanese, and would be managed by an overseer who would pay them from a share of the profits.) The work was gruelling. And Mary, who feared becoming “an old maid” was dissuaded from marrying a suitor by her disapproving family, who feared he was a gold-digger.

A fascinating view into early Walnut Creek life. My favourite moment, however, was a recollection from one of the audience members, who moved to the area in 1954:

Driving up Oak Grove Road was like driving through a tunnel; the walnut trees met overhead. And then suddenly you’d come upon the Shell gas station; so unexpected, so out of place, as if the Pathfinder robot on Mars suddenly found a Starbucks.