Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article February 2007.
By Lauren Coodley
As California’s agricultural revenues plunged by $400 million between l929 and l932, its rural areas became poverty stricken. Two of the state’s chief products-tourism and specialty crops-made California particularly vulnerable. In the Thirties, life expectancy was 58 for men and 62 for women, the average salary was $1368 per year, unemployment was 25%, milk cost l4 cents a quart and bread, 9 cents a loaf.
The story of Napa in the Depression has yet to be thoroughly told. Recently, I found a fascinating article written by Rita Bordwell about that era. Bordwell recalled: “A friend of mine, a member of a union, rang me up one day and asked me if I would be interested in a position as secretary to the new business manager that the Central Labor and Building Trades expected to hire. He took me to the Labor Temple to meet them: Otis Brown, Carpenters; Earl McCall, Laborers; Earl Mack, Painters, Will O’Keefe, Plumbers, Will Gellinger, Lathers; Bob Findley, Electricians; and Washington Mannering, Garment Workers.”
In l938, this group hired George Bobst, who had been a labor leader in both San Francisco and Vallejo, as its business manager. Bordwell recalled that the first union office was on Pearl Street, in back of the Napa City Bakery. Bobst realized that they needed larger quarters. He surveyed the town and found the Prohibition Hall at Main and Vallejo Streets. The Carpenters Union, who had the most funds at the time, purchased it, and later on the other unions paid their share.
Napa was full of jobless men and women. Bordwell explains: “Mr. Bobst operated an apprentice school at night to assist the unskilled workers. He spent most of the time in the field, contacting employers and employees, looking for work…The unions were unable to hire more office help, so often Mr. Bobst and I came back to the office in the evenings and on weekends. Often we had to wait for our paychecks.”
What were Rita Bordwell’s origins? Where was she educated? Was she married, and to whom? I know her only through her published article. She wrote: “I will admit the local boys did try to keep their workers busy, Sawyer Tannery, the prune plants and fruit sheds…but the waiting room in the Labor Temple was filled with unemployed men and women…John Steinbeck, when he wrote Grapes of Wrath, must have met some who came to Napa in broken down machines wired together, and in trucks with undernourished and sick little children. Mr. Bobst went to the Red Cross and begged funds and his wife Flossie made baby layettes for them.
“Mrs. Otterson (the longtime Fire Chief’s wife) had a kettle of beans and stew on the stove all the time to help feed those unfortunates. Union men’s wives donated blankets and Mr. Bobst put cots in his rumpus room; other families camped in tents on jobsites. Work was so scarce and we had so many unemployed workers that we had to divide the work, giving each two days and Mr. Bobst would say, ‘Well that will give them bread.’”
John Steinbeck himself described a typical diet in good times as beans, baking powder biscuits, jam, coffee, and in bad, dandelion greens and boiled potatoes. He created numerous fictional characters that experienced the Depression, yet for me, the real-life Rita Bordwell continues to fascinate. What I know about her is based on Nancy Brennan’s research.
Brennan wrote: “If there was a major effort required for anything in Napa, it was likely someone would suggest ‘asking Rita’ for help and most likely received it.”
Bordwell was secretary of the Napa Labor Temple for a decade, Fire Department historian, life-long member of the First United Methodist Church, and member of Order of Eastern Star, Keystone Chapter. If anyone has photographs or specific memories of Rita Bordwell, please send them to me so I can include her more thoroughly in our history.
Another Napan who interests me is Wash Mannering. Like so many people, I first met him as an obituary. I read that he quit his job as a fabric worker at Cameron Shirt to open the Fitch Grocery Store, which he operated with his wife at the corner of Oak and Seymour, the corner where I pushed my daughter in a baby carriage. Mannering, I learned, had been a member of the Garment Workers Union, as well as Secretary and President of the Napa Labor Council. He was a member of the State Grange. He and his wife worked at the monthly pancake breakfasts at the Grange Hall on Hagen Road.
The lives of working people have been little preserved in the historical record. Howard Zinn, son of immigrant parents, wrote: “I saw what hadn’t been told about labor history, what magnificent events had taken place, what struggles people had gone through, what sacrifices, what risks, what courage had been shown, what had been demonstrated about the possibilities of what human beings can do once they get together.”
Rita Bordwell, in the Sixties, tried to describe the feeling of living in Napa during the Depression, and by her words, she created a piece of what historians like Zinn call labor history. Wash Mannering’s story was told only in his obituary and leaves us wanting more details about his life. My work as a college history teacher has been to help students tell the stories of their own families, so that these people, and the events they witnessed, do not go unrecorded. As George Orwell continues to remind us: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
Rita Bordwell, “Napa County Labor Movement was Born of Depression,” Napa Register, March 30, l963.
Nancy Brennan, Napa County Historical Society, “This Was Napa,” Spring, 1998.
George Orwell, l984.
John Steinbeck pamphlet “Their Blood is Strong,” l938
Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit, 1993.