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Boyhood Days in Early California
My boyhood days, from the time I was five until I was fifteen years of age, were spent on a ranch in Yuba County, California. We were located on the east side of Feather River, about five miles above Marysville. The ranch consisted of several hundred acres of high land, which, at its western terminus, fell away about one hundred feet to the river bottom. There were a couple of hundred acres of this river bottom land which was arable. It was exceedingly rich and productive. Still west of this land was a well-wooded pasture, separated from the cultivated lands by a good board fence. The river bounded this pasture on the north and west.
In the pasture were swales of damp land, literally overgrown with wild blackberry bushes. They bore prolific crops of long, black, juicy berries, far superior to the tame berries, and they were almost entirely free from seeds. Many a time have I temporarily bankrupted my stomach on hot blackberry roll, with good, rich sauce.
The country fairly teemed with game. Quail and rabbit were with us all the time. Doves came by the thousands in the early summer and departed in the fall. In winter the wild ducks and geese were more than abundant. In the spring wild pigeons visited us in great numbers. There was one old oak tree which was a favorite resting-place with them. Sheltered by some live oak bushes, I was always enabled to sneak up and kill many of them out of this tree.
I began to wander with the gun when I was but a little over eight years old. The gun was a long, double-barrel, muzzle-loading derelict. Wads were not a commercial commodity in those days. I would put in some powder, guessing at the amount, then a wad of newspaper, and thoroughly ram it home, upon top of this the shot, quantity also guessed at, and more paper. But it was barely shoved to the shot, never rammed. Sad experience taught me that ramming the shot added to the kicking qualities of the firearm. How that old gun could kick! Many times it bowled me over. St. George Littledale, a noted English sportsman, in describing a peculiarly heavy express rifle, said, "It was absolutely without recoil. Every time I discharged it, it simply pushed me over." That described my gun exactly, except that it had "the recoil." I deemed myself especially fortunate if I could get up against a fence post or an oak tree when I shot at something. By this means I retained an upright position. Armed with this gun, an antiquated powder flask, a shot pouch whose measurer was missing, and a dilapidated game bag, I spent hours in the woods and fields, shooting such game as I needed, learning to love life in the open, the trees, the flowers, the birds and the wild animals I met. I was as proud of my outfit as the modern hunter is of his $500 gun and expensive accompaniments. When I went after the cows, I carried my gun, and often got a dozen or more quail at a pot shot out of some friendly covey. If I went to plow corn, or work in the vegetable garden, the gun accompanied me, and it was sure to do deadly execution every day.
When it was too wet to plow, no matter how hard it was raining, it was just right to hunt. Clad in a gum coat, I would take my gun and brave the elements, when a seat by the fireside would have been much more comfortable. I loved to be out in a storm, to watch the rain, to hear the wind toss and tear the branches of the trees, to hear at first hand the fury of the storm, and watch the birds hovering in the underbrush, and the wild waterfowl seek the protection of the willows. In such a storm great flocks of geese would scurry across the country within a few feet of the ground. They usually went in the teeth of the gale. At such times they constantly uttered shrill cries and appeared utterly demoralized.
If there were game laws in those days, I never knew it. It was always open season with me. Often my mother would tell me to shoot something besides quail, that she was tired of them.
There was a slough on the place which was full of beaver and beaver dams. How I tried to get one of them, always without success! They were very crafty, very alert, and at the slightest indication of danger dived under water to the doors of their houses, long before one was in gunshot of them. Full many a weary hour have I spent, hidden in the brush, watching a nearby beaver dam in the hope of getting a shot, but always without avail. They would appear at other dams, too far away, but never show themselves close enough to be injured.
In the winter the slough fairly swarmed with ducks of every variety. They were disturbed but little, and they used these waters as a resting place, flying far out into the grain fields and into the open plain at night for their food. The beautiful wood duck, now almost extinct in California, was very plentiful. They went in flocks as widgeon do. They would go into the tops of the oak trees and feed upon the acorns. I killed many of them as they came out of these trees. In flying they had a way of massing together like blackbirds, and one shot often brought down a goodly bag of them.
The slough I mentioned above was not a stagnant one. It was fed by water from Feather River. After winding around an island, it emptied its waters back into the river farther down stream, so that fresh water was continually entering and flowing from it. Along its banks grew a fringe of tall cottonwood trees. Many of them were completely enveloped with wild grapevines, which bore abundantly. The slough was full of two or three varieties of perch, or, as we called them, sun-fish; also a white fish called chub. These fish were all very palatable, and I caught loads of them. In the fall, when the wild grapes were ripe, they would fall off into the water and were fed upon by the fish. Beneath the vine-clad cottonwoods the fishing was always good.
One afternoon I was following a path just outside of the pasture fence, through heavy wheat stubble, left after cutting time. I saw a pair of pink ears ahead of me, which I knew belonged to a rabbit. I blazed away at the ears. The gun, as usual, did execution at both ends. I went over on my back. When I regained my feet I saw a great commotion on the firing line. Rabbits' legs and feathers were alternately in the air. Investigating, I found two cottontail, one jackrabbit and three quail in the last stages of dissolution, all the result of one shot at two rabbit's ears. I felt bigger than Napoleon ever did as I gathered up my kill and started for home.
On one of my wanderings I came across; the barrel of a rifle on an Indian mound, which had been plowed up when we were preparing the land for planting. It was so coated with rust that the metal was no longer visible. Floods had covered the ground many times. Not knowing how long it had been buried there, I dug the rust and dirt out of the barrel as best I could and took it home. On my first trip to Marysville I took it to a blacksmith named Allison, who did all of our work, and asked him to cut it off about a foot from the breech end, so that I could use it as a cannon. He put it in his forge, and pulled away upon his bellows with his left hand. He held the muzzle end of the rifle barrel in his right hand, and poked at the coals with it so as to get it properly covered. He intended to heat it and then cut it off. All at once, Bang! and that horrid old thing went off. The bullet went through Allison's clothing and slightly cut the skin on his side. He was the worst scared man in all California. When he felt the sting of the bullet he threw up his hands and fell on his back, yelling lustily. I was almost as badly panic-stricken, thinking surely he was killed. I began to see visions of the gallows and the hangman's rope. He recovered his self-possession, and when he found he was not hurt, his fear turned to anger. He threw the rifle barrel out into the street, and then drove me out of the shop. When I got outside and my fear had left me, I sat down on an old wagon tongue and laughed until I was entirely out of breath. Allison came out, and my laughter must have been contagious. He leaned up against a post and laughed until he cried. His anger had left him, and we were soon fast friends again. At the proper time I ventured the opinion that the rifle could not go off again, and that it would be well enough to finish the cutting process. He consented and soon had the barrel cut off. I took the breech end home with me, and endangered my life with it many years. I generally loaded it with blasting powder, for the reason that it was usually on hand and cost me nothing, and so loaded, the cannon made more noise than had I used gunpowder.
During the campaign in which Gen. George B. McClellan ran for the Presidency against Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats of Northern California had a great celebration which lasted two or three days. Among other things was a barbecue at the race track, two or three miles out of town. Great pits were dug which were filled with oak stumps and logs, and burned for about twenty-four hours before the cooking began. These logs were reduced to a perfect bed of live coals. Over these, old-fashioned Southern negroes, of whom there were many in the neighborhood, cooked quarters of beef, whole sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese. There were at least five thousand people on the ground. My blacksmith friend, Allison, was firing a salute with an old cannon. He fired the cannon after it was loaded, with an iron rod, one end of which was kept heated in a small fire. I attended to the fire for him. After the discharge the gun was wiped out with a wet swab. The powder was done up in red flannel cartridges. Allison, with heavy, buckskin gloves on his hands, would hold his thumb over the vent or tube of the cannon. Two men, first slitting the lower end of the cartridge, would ram it into the gun. During each loading process I straddled the gun, looking towards Allison. After a number of discharges, the heat burned a hole through the glove that Allison was using, and his thumb, coming in contact with the hot metal, was withdrawn for an instant, while the assistants were sending home a charge. There was an immediate premature explosion. I was sitting astride the gun, and felt it rise up and buck like a horse. Allison's eyes were nearly ruined, and his face filled with powder, the marks of which stayed with him the rest of his life. The two assistants were horribly mutilated, but neither of them was killed. For a time I thought I never would hear again. My ears simply shut up and refused to open for some time.
It would seem that this disaster should have been sufficient for one day, but it was not. That night there was to have been public speaking in front of the Western Hotel, by many prominent politicians. Opposite the hotel was a two-story brick building, with a veranda built around it. All of the offices. on the second floor opened on this veranda. It was crowded with people. The weight became excessive. The iron posts next to the sidewalk, which sustained the veranda, slid out, and the platform swung down like a table leaf, spilling everybody onto the sidewalk. Eight or nine people were killed outright, and many more very severely injured.
When about twelve years of age I got hold of two greyhounds, sisters, named "Flora" and "Queen." During the winter time I spent much time chasing jackrabbits. In summer time the ground got so hard that the dogs would not run. The ground hurt their feet. But in the winter we had great sport. There was an immense open plain east of our property, miles long and miles wide, and level as a floor. There was a dry weed, without leaves and of a reddish color, which grew in patches all over this plain. These weed patches were the hiding places of the jackrabbits. The game was exciting and stirred one's sporting blood. I found a great difference in the speed of jackrabbits - as much in fact as in the speed of blooded horses. Occasionally I would get up one that would actually run away from the dogs, which were a fast pair. I followed the sport so persistently, and paid so little attention to fences when they interfered with my going, that I got the appellation in the neighborhood of "that d d Graves boy."
When we got up a hare, away we went after the dogs, just as fast as our horses would carry us. The sport was hard on horseflesh, so much so that my father finally forbade me running any of our horses after the hounds. There lived in our neighborhood a man who owned, and who had put upon the track some of the fastest horses in the State. At this time he had retired and raised horses for the fun of it. He also had some good hounds. He enjoyed the sport as much as I did. Having plenty of good horses, he furnished me with as many as I needed. We spent many days in trying to determine which of us had the best dogs. Incidentally, we wrecked some promising thoroughbreds. The question of the superiority of our dogs was never settled. We always left the door open for one more race.
Our place was the haven of all the boys of my acquaintance. When I was attending school at Marysville some boy came home with me nearly every Friday night. We would work at whatever was being done on the place Saturday forenoon, but the afternoon was ours. With the old gun we took to the pasture, hunted for game, for birds' nests and even turtles' nests. The mud turtle, common to all California waters, laid an astounding number of very hard shelled, oblong, white eggs, considerably larger than a pigeon's egg. They deposited them in the sand on the shores of the slough, covering them up, leaving them for the sun to hatch. They always left some tell-tale marks by which we discovered the nest. Often we got several hundred eggs in an afternoon. They were very rich, and of good flavor.
There were many coons and a few wildcats in the pasture woods. With the aid of a dog we had great sport with them. Hard pressed, they would take to the trees, from which we would shoot them. On one occasion we found four little spitfire, baby lynx, which we carried home and later traded to the proprietor of a menagerie. We got some money and two pair of fan-tail pigeons in exchange for them. When quite small they were the most vicious, untamable little varmints imaginable, and as long as we had them our hands were badly scratched by them.
On the bottom land, each year, we had a large and well assorted vegetable garden. It produced much more than we could possibly use. We boys would sell things from the garden for amusement and pin money. During one summer vacation, a boy, one Johnnie Gray, a brother of L. D. C. Gray of this city, was visiting me. We took a load of vegetables to Marysville. After selling it, getting our lunch, paying for the shoeing of our horse (which in those days cost four dollars), and buying some ammunition for the gun, we had $1.50 left. We quarreled as to how we should spend this remnant. Not being able to agree, we started home without buying anything. On the outskirts of Marysville was a brewery. The price of a five-gallon keg of beer was $1.50. We concluded to take a keg home with us. It was an awfully hot summer day, and the brewer was afraid to tap the keg, thinking that the faucet would blow out under the influence of the heat before we got home. He gave us a wooden faucet, and told us how to use it. "Hold it so," he said, showing us, "hit it with a heavy hammer, watch the bung, and when you have driven it in pretty well, then send it home with a hard blow." We were sure we could do it. We drove home, put the beer in the shade by the well, spread a wet cloth over it, and then put our horse away. My parents chided us for throwing our money away on beer. In the cool of the evening we concluded to tap the keg. One of us held the faucet and the other did the driving, but we did not have the success predicted for us by the brewer.
At the critical moment we drove in the bung, but not with sufficient momentum to fasten the faucet. It flew out of our hands into the air, followed by the beer. In about a minute the keg was entirely empty. We were overwhelmingly drenched and drowned by the escaping beer, but never got a single drop of it to drink.
On another occasion some of us children were coming home from Marysville. We were driving an old white horse, named "Jake," who knew us and loved us as only a good horse can. He submitted to our abuses, shared in our pleasure and would not willingly have hurt any of us. We were in a small, one-seated spring wagon. While driving through a lane, moved on by the spirit of deviltry, one of us whipped Jake into a run, and the other one threw the reins over a fence post. The result was as could have been expected by any sane-minded individual. The horse stopped so suddenly that he sat down on the singletree, and broke both the shafts of the wagon. We were hurled out with great force, and got sundry bruises and abrasions. We wired up the shafts and got home as best we could, and, I am sorry to say, we lied right manfully as to the cause of the accident. We told a story of a drunken Mexican on horseback who chased us a considerable distance, and finally lassoed the horse, bringing him to so sudden a stop as to cause the damage. Instead of being punished, as we should have been, we were lauded as heroes of an attempted kidnapping.
One of my uncles made for us a four-wheeled wagon, the hub, spokes and axles being made out of California oak - such a wagon as you can buy in any store today, only a little larger. We made a kite of large dimensions, and covered the frame with cotton from a couple of flour sacks. At certain times of the year, the wind across the Marysville plains blew with great velocity. This kite, in a strong wind, had great pulling capacity. We would go out into the plain, put up the kite, and fasten the string to the tongue of the wagon, three or four of us pile on, and let her go. The speed that we would travel before the wind by this means was marvelous, but we tried the kite trick once too often. We got to going so fast we could not slow down nor successfully guide the wagon. It ran over an old stump, spilled us all out, and kite and wagon sailed away clear across Feather River into Sutter County and we never saw either of them again.
The boys of the present age have no such opportunities for out-of-door sports as we did in the olden days. Now it is baseball, automobile exhibitions and moving picture shows. Increased population, high-power guns, cultivation of the soil, the breaking up of large ranches into smaller holdings, have resulted in the disappearance of much of the game with which the land then abounded.
Fifty years ago in California, conditions of rural life were necessarily hard. Our habitations were but little more than shelter from the elements. We had none of the conveniences of modern life. At our house we always made our own tallow candles. We hardened the candles by mixing beeswax with the tallow. We made the beeswax from comb of the honey taken from bee trees. We corned our own beef and made sauerkraut by the barrel for winter use. We canned our own fruit, made jelly and jam from wild berries and wild grapes. We selected perfect ears of corn, shelled it at home, ran it through a fanning machine, and then had the corn ground into meal for our own consumption. We raised our own poultry and made our own butter and cheese, with plenty to sell; put up our own lard, shoulders, ham and bacon and made our own hominy. The larder was always well filled. The mother of a family was its doctor. A huge dose of blue mass, followed by castor oil and quinine, was supposed to cure everything, and it generally did. In the cities luxuries were few. To own a piano was the privilege of the very wealthy.
Speaking of pianos, in the flood of 1863, before Marysville was protected by its levee, which is now twenty-five feet high, the family cow swam into the parlor of one of the best mansions of the town, through the window. When the flood waters had subsided, she was found drowned on top of the piano.
Life under the conditions here given was necessarily hard. Our amusements were few. We, who lived in the country, had plenty of good air and sound sleep-two things often denied the city resident. Our sports were few and simple, but of such a nature that they toughened the fiber and strengthened the muscles of our bodies, thus fitting us to withstand the heavy drafts on our vitality that the hurly-burly of modern life entails upon the race.