Charles Peterson is my great-grandfather. Although I spent time with him as a child, I know little about him. Fortunately, he saved everything -- every photograph, every postcard, every receipt he ever got.
My grandfather did not view his father's packrat tendency in the same positive light however, and one early morning when I was child, heaped all his boxes onto the curb. A packrat myself, I ran out onto the lawn in my slippers, racing the garbage truck heading up the street, and carried back into the house as much as I could hold in my young arms. I had no time to choose or review what I took, but buried my stolen treasure in the back of my closet, and never discussed it with anyone.
A few months ago, a friend convinced me to open one of the many letters tied in neat bundles I had never dared to open. The letter inside was a simple one of an old hometown friend to one who had moved far away, my great-grandfather, about a regular week in his life. It was written in 1914, a world that to me might be another planet and in other ways hasn't changed at all.
I will record those letters here, typed just as they were written, reading each only as I post it, in the order they are bundled. I don't yet know what they contain, but look forward to the gradual process of unraveling.
I know just a few scattered trivia about my great-grandfather Charles. His parents were Swedish, and came somehow to settle in Funk, Nebraska, where Charles was born in 1896. By his late teens, Charles and some of his family had moved to Richvale, California, where they entered the business of rice farming. Charles spent time in the military in World War I, but as far as I know, never went to combat. He often said that he did not receive his first toothbrush until he went into the military, and yet he died in his mid-90s with his original teeth. He worked for Standard Oil later, and in 20 or 30 years with them, never took a sick day. He was always playing one of the two electric organs in his living room, but as far as I could tell, knew only "Old Black Joe." He took pride in being able to recite all the Presidents in order, loved especially President Reagan, and in his 90s, could still read a newspaper without glasses. In their youth, he and my great-grandmother traveled the world in a square-dancing troupe. He collected nail puzzles and wooden pyramid puzzles that only he could put back together. One of his favorite possessions was a small globe containing a spinner powered by the sun. He had every issue of National Geographic. He loved photography and travel, passions passed somehow directly to me. I never saw him without suspenders. His favorite meal was turkey gizzards with a drink of plain hot water. He had long, graceful fingers, and was always drumming the table edge. He grew the tallest gladiolas on his street.
Funk, Nebraska, is even today a village of 200 people. In the early 1900's, when Charles was a boy, it was a village of mostly Swedish Lutheran immigrants. The NEGen Web Project has posted an album of the church that must have formed the social center of Funk at that time. Many of the people mentioned in these letters appear in church photographs here.
Richvale, California, formerly Selby Switch, was founded as a rice-growing region in the early 1900's. My great-grandfather and his family would have been among the first settlers, preceding even the first school, church, and grocery store.
Legend says that the name "Richvale" (meaning "fertile valley") was coined by con men to sell worthless plots of land to wheat farmers from Nebraska and Kansas. The developers (Richvale Land Company) changed the name from Selby Switch (a railroad siding) to Richvale in 1909.
Farmers in the Midwest were shown lush pictures of California's San Joaquin Valley and Central Valley and sold land at outrageous prices. The soil near Richvale is nothing like the fertile soil of the San Joaquin Valley, being comprised mostly of clay instead of loam. The locals call the soil "adobe" due to its high clay content. The land is unsuitable for vineyards, orchards, and most other crops. Some buyers took one look at the soil and returned to the Midwest. Those who stayed built a community from the muddy ground up: a post office (1912), roads, an irrigation and drainage district, a hotel (1913), a church (1913), a cooperative (1914 and still operating, the Butte County Rice Growers Association), a school (1914), and a grocery store (1920). During a second wave of migration Dust Bowl farmers came west during the Great Depression.
Due to the adobe soil's ability to retain water and remain flooded, the ground makes a near-ideal rice paddy, and rice has become the primary crop of the area. Irrigation is provided by surface water from the plentiful Feather River.