Presenting the Past: Women on the farm | January 4, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - January 4, 2008

Presenting the Past: Women on the farm

by Beverly Lane

Author Rose Emery recalled some of the work her mother accomplished on the Peters Ranch at the turn of the century in her autobiography "Footprints in the Soil." Her mother, Rose L. Peters (1874-1967), was raised in the Tassajara Valley, one of 12 Lawrence children.

"First and foremost on her list of jobs was the task of providing meals for the family and the farm workers. Food for hardworking men had to be substantial, nourishing, and as tasty as possible. And it had to be ready on time, whether served at home, as was usually the case, or at the Butcher Ranch, or out in the fields at harvest time. Ma was expert at this.

"Three big meals were served daily - breakfast, the mid-day dinner and supper at night. In addition, when they were doing exceptionally heavy labor like harvesting, a high calorie second lunch would be taken to the field in mid-afternoon for the men in our family and the hired crew. The men would be sitting or lying around on the ground as in a Brueghel painting when Ma arrived in her sunbonnet with a basket over her arm. In it she carried slabs of her own bread and huge hunks of cheddar cheese. I would come behind her with homemade doughnuts and a pot of hot coffee. How good that must have tasted after all that hot, hard work!

"It took great quantities of food to feed the eight or nine people who usually sat at our table. Many of the staples, such as hams, bacon, eggs, milk, butter, potatoes, and certain other vegetables came from the farm itself, along with an occasional chicken. Whenever possible, supplementary food was bought in large quantities, which not only saved money but the time and energy of trips to town with a horse-drawn wagon. Considerable storage space was necessary."

The family was largely self-sufficient but, as Mrs. Emery describes: "We counted on people who came to the door to sell us things we couldn't or didn't want to produce for ourselves. The butcher wagon came around twice a week. Rather like a large box, it had doors in back and carried ice inside to keep the meat cold. The owner, Mr. Joe Lawrence (no relation to my mother), the local butcher, no doubt sold us back some of the beef that Papa had sold to him. Though our family butchered pigs, killing a steer was too big a project for us. Ev and I liked to accompany Mama to the butcher wagon because usually we would walk away from it nibbling on a slice of bologna the butcher had given us."

"The fish man came on Friday, the fast day for local Catholics. I remember that the flounders were delicious, though it seemed freakish that both their eyes were on one side, the top side. Other types were less tasty - barracuda, for example. As the fish man didn't carry the salt cod (baccala) that is a Portuguese favorite, we bought that at the general store."

"It may seem strange, but we bought many of our vegetables from a vendor who delivered them to the door. The farm operation took so much time that Pa couldn't give a lot of attention to his garden. The vegetable man was a middle-aged Italian with black sparkling eyes and magnificent mustachios that curled up on the ends. Papa use to refer to him as 'gaitado' (the bagpipe player), because he was given to sudden, startling bursts of shrill laughter at the slightest provocation. The variety of vegetables he carried was limited but he always had cabbage, carrots, turnips, beets, iceberg lettuce, string beans and sometimes peas - no exotics like artichokes, asparagus, or even broccoli."

The author recounts a daunting list of other tasks tackled by her mother, which included canning, bread-making, washing clothes for the family and the farm workers, ironing, sewing and mending clothes and curtains, raising turkeys and chickens, producing cream and quilting. Her father paid his wife a high compliment in the 1930s which Rose Emery recalls: "She did a lot of work in her time."

Source: "Footprints in the Soil, A Portuguese-Californian Remembers" by Rose Peters Emery.

Beverly Lane, a longtime Danville resident, is curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and co-author of "San Ramon Valley: Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon."


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