Presenting the Past: Work on the farm was never-ending | January 18, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - January 18, 2008

Presenting the Past: Work on the farm was never-ending

by Beverly Lane

At the turn of the 20th century, many agricultural labor-saving devices were still in the future for San Ramon Valley farmers and ranchers. In her book "Footprints in the Soil," Rose Peters Emery describes men's work on the Peters Ranch.

"For men on the ranch there were two main lines of work, the raising of grain and animals, though plenty of other jobs had to be done. In both of these divisions the work varied according to the season of the year. Spring was the time of sprouting wheat and baby animals. Summer was the period of growth. Fall was harvest and breeding time. Winter was for hog-butchering and all those tasks that had been neglected in the busier seasons, mainly repairs and construction."

Draft horses did all their work until 1918 when Joe Peters bought the first tractor. Peters himself was most comfortable with horses.

"In early spring before the sowing of the wheat crop could begin, the ground had to be tilled," wrote Emery. "Papa had a cultivator with four rows of shares like small shovels that sped up the work. He also had an ordinary plow with one share that was more maneuverable to fork around trees. Every year he plowed the orchard with the lines for the horse ties in a loop around his shoulders so his hands were free to guide the plow by the handles. A chicken or two followed behind, happily snapping up the worms that the plow dug up."

"We did not irrigate and California summers are dry," she recalled. After seeding, "the sown field soon sprouted. A faint green mist spread over the brown hills, then turninf a rich emerald green. The wheat grew tall and thick in the hot summer sun."

"When the harvest was in, a hired threshing machine and crew arrived at the farm at a designated time to do the work. The threshing was a thrilling sight. A steam engine with a long, wide revolving belt powered the machine. When bundles of hay were fed into the thresher, a heavy stream of grain would come pouring out of its side into the gaping mouth of a gunny sack. A man stood guard there and sewed up the filled sacks with a large needle and twine. They were then stacked into a huge pile. My parents must have been thrilled to see that mountain of wheat! It was the culmination of a year's work."

Similarly, when the hay was ready, for Rose "the arrival of the haypress and crew was another exciting event, more amusing to a child than any of today's movies."

"The men who fed the press had to be in top physical condition, like football players, to do such hard labor. They worked stripped to the waist and sweating profusely, feeding big charges of hay into the maw of the machine, which clamped them all down in a bale-sized mold. Another charge was added and compressed as before, and another and another until a complete bale was formed. Wires were then poked through the slats in the cage and wrapped around the bale in several places."

The bales were then stored either in the hay barn or in a warehouse in San Ramon to be kept until sold. "In winter, when grass in the pasture grew scarce, the cattle (and horses) needed some hay as supplementary feed. … Papa's cattle, in fact all of his animals, were always well fed."

The care, breeding and branding of cattle was an important part of farming too. Rose wrote, "The part of the animal growth cycle that had to do with procreation and birth in anything bigger than a chicken must have been carefully concealed from us girls, for I have no memories at all of such things. The twice-yearly cattle roundup, with the animals jostling in the corral, was exciting. ... At the roundup, young males were castrated so they would develop into steers (beef animals), not bulls, although of course we never witnessed that procedure either."

Branding, horse care, hog-slaughtering, cutting and stacking wood were all men's work. Of course, Rose's brothers were expected to work like men from an early age. In the slack season there was fence building, road graveling, tree grafting and pruning, mending harness, building a shed or digging a septic tank. "When I picture Papa he is always busy - with the animals or the farm machinery or working with his sons at all the jobs that must be done."

Rose's father, Jose Pires Azevedo (called Joe Peters), came from the Azore Islands in 1872 at age 18. Like many Portuguese immigrants, he worked hard and succeeded in California at many levels. He married twice, had 12 children and, at the urging of his wife, sent three of them to UC Berkeley. "Footprints in the Soil" provides illuminating stories about one family's life in the San Ramon Valley.

Source: Rose Peters Emery's "Footprints in the Soil, A Portuguese-Californian Remembers", museum archives.

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."