My friend Sally Pace commissioned me to write about the history of Woodlake for the Kiwanis Magazine, maybe 300 words or less. Woodlake, a sleepy town born in 1910 in the foothills of the big trees, became famous for cattle ranching, and oranges. Its history is a collection of tales about hard-working farmers, farm workers and, of course, cowboys. Most of the life in Woodlake takes place in the hills beyond the town, but there is a town that is home to about 7,000 people.
Writing history is so much more difficult than I had ever imagined that it would be. I’ve never been great at making snap decisions, and that is the one thing that writers do constantly, word to word, story after story. One story sounds good, but must not be told to save room for the story that the writer thinks is great. The good story that was left out may have changed history, but history is forgotten, except what is written, so that piece of history remains a mystery.
The other issue about history is that as soon as you write it you worry about offending someone. I am so frozen in fear that I might tell the wrong story, the wrong way, that it’s hard to tell any story at all. I never understood this dilemma of writers, which is why history books are so bland, until I started writing this. The real story, someone else’s story, has tons of nerve endings attached to it that I may or may not touch. People reading history also have opinions. Even I have opinions, and they seep out ever so quietly into my words.
In this case, the story revolves around a town built around ranching. Ranching means eventually killing cattle to eat. Former neighbors of mine are vegan, meaning they eat no meat products, even milk or eggs. Animal rights activists might object to marking cattle, and other groups might have other grounds for opposition, but cattle ranchers are proud of their work, and their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. If I were writing a documentary, I would tell all sides of the story, but in this post, I’ve got only the rancher’s side.
Another problem with writing history is that the beginning story is told and retold, but the middle of the story, the later years don’t seem like real history. I started my project a couple of months ago I started interviewing a friend whose great-great-grandfather pioneered in this area. What I really wanted to find out what life was like in the 1940s to the 1970s. He let me borrow his photo album from the 1970s, and he had great shots of cowboys, many of whom are still not retired from ranching even though they are approaching or into their 80s. Ranching seems to be a healthy lifestyle, if you don’t get killed doing it!
Gary spent about two hours with me helping me realize how difficult and dangerous it is to work with cattle. That hasn’t really changed any over the years.
Gary and I examined the 1895 atlas I have of Tulare County as he described where his ancestors settled, and where he took a group of people back-backing into the mountainous country. Gary said if I wanted to hear the history of Woodlake, I should talk to his cousin, Roy Lee Davis, a cousin of his nearing 80.
I made an appointment and spent several afternoons with Roy Lee and his wife, Donna. Roy lived in Woodlake all his life, and Donna moved to Woodlake from Porterville, 20 miles away, when they got married in the 1950s. Our first afternoon getting acquainted we talked about the town of Woodlake itself. After 15 minutes or so of introduction, our recorded conversation reached into the depths of Roy and Donna’s memories. Transcribing the exact conversation is the first step to creating an oral history. These are the first words recorded on my transcription.
D: Grandfather started the Presbyterian church. (pause) Well she was a Davis. (I’m not sure who “she” is at this point in the conversation. I’m just listening.)
R: No, she was a Pogue.
D: She got married to a Pogue. I’m filling you in on his background, and they started the Presbyterian church in
R: 160 years ago
D: And his name was Jonathan Blair, and he raised Roy’s Grandmother, so they’ve been, and then through his mother the Mussens came out and started a little store in Woodlake
R: In 1913 because Mom and her family came out, but their grandpa was already out here. That’s why they came out to help him in the store.
When you take an oral history, you try not to interject too much. That was hard for me for several reasons. First of all I didn’t always understand where the conversation was going, and as you can tell conversations jump mid-sentence sometimes. Secondly because I AM a conversationalist, not a historian, I wanted to interject. What they said reminded me of something in my life, and I’d wax autobiographical, which is not a great thing when you are taking an oral history. Third, sometimes there would be a long lull in the conversation, so I would ask a question or make a comment. As a result, the topics that emerge in the recording may be incidental to the story that the historian will eventually write. Or it may be that the historian’s story changes.
More important than ranching to Roy and Donna, was what was important to Roy’s mom, that her grandfather started the Presbyterian Church in Woodlake. One year after Tulare County was established, a little Presbyterian Church was erected in the non-existent town of Woodlake, by Roy Lee and Gary’s ancestors. My story shifted into another direction, from ranching to religion. In the lives of Roy and Donna the two facets of life were inextricably intertwined. In writing them down, the subject went outside-in, and from a male driven narrative started by Gary to a female one ended with the writing of a teacher, Grace Pogue. It meandered in and out of years from 1860 to 1995 when I quit teaching in Woodlake.
Finally, a historian has to validate oral histories. In this case I had a primary source document. Roy Lee’s relative, Grace Pogue, authored Within the Magic Circle telling about the beginning years of Woodlake. She wrote, “On April 18, 1866 Rev. Jonathan Blair and Rev. S. T. Gilliam organized the Kaweah Cumberland Presbyterian Church at the Hamilton School house about three miles south of Wodlake” p. 91. These 19 charter members met in the school-house until “1881, (when) Jon H. Blair gave a tract of land for the school, the church, and the cemetery. The school was moved from Section 24 to the newly acquired site west of the Presbyterian Church on Narranjo Blvd” p. 66. Interestingly, Jonathan Blair must have been well off because according to Pogue, he served without out “financial remuneration” on a regular basis until his death in 1886. The school and the church were part of each other, moving together into new buildings, sharing property when they no longer shared buildings. Pogue described the church inside and out, listed favorite hymns, descriptions of the horse-drawn buggies that transported them to church, then later by Visalia Electric Railroad by 1913, and humorous anecdotes.
Anyone interested in church history would be interested that in 1906 the small independent Kaweah Cumberland Presbyterian Church united with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and changed its name to First Presbyterian Church. p. 97.
Many denominations were pulling together nationally for the first time at this time. The East and West coast churches in the early 1900s were less rigid, and according to the Nazarene Church history I learned in college, they compromised many liberal beliefs in order to attract the more conservative southern church goers, and consolidate into national denominations. So Kaweah Cumberland Presbyterian Church joined the movement of nationalizing the denominations. In writing this brief post I also used some knowledge that I learned when attending Nazarene Bible College, and if I was truly a historian, I would document my source of knowledge here. Before the Civil War the country was “these United States”, and after it became “the United States. I found it interesting that forty years after the Civil War, there was a vast movement within the churches all over the country that helped the nation become “One Nation Under God.”
The First Presbyterian Church remained very influential in the Woodlake community and political structure until probably the mid-1990s when it split. Some of the members broke away from the more liberal Presbyterian church and founded a non-denominational church called Foothill Bible Church.
By the end of my conversation with Roy Lee and Donna I had copious amounts of recorded information to sift through and still no linear picture of life in the 1950s to 1970s, but I had made two new friends. It seems nearly impossible to separate the distant past from the recent past because it changed so gently. This differs greatly from the 1850s to 70s when white Americans, seeking their fortune in gold fields and later hay and cotton fields, came in droves to Central California, where only Native Americans living for centuries. It was a time of drastic and exciting change for those pioneers and their descendants. What followed is an established pattern, yet still different from life today.
I made more appointments, scanned more pictures, and borrowed another book or two of Grace Pogue to learn about the early history of Woodlake.
Later one evening, I drove into town to take pictures of the historic Presbyterian Church. As you can see it is a quaint, very simple, yet picturesque church that still stands on Jonathan Blair’s donated property over a century later.