History Article – June 2007

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article June 2007.

June 2007

Following the Trail
By Lauren Coodley

O bees, sweet bees! I said: that nearest field
Is shining white with fragrant immortelles.
Fly swiftly there and drain those honey wells.
—Helen Hunt Jackson, “My Bees”

In a recent article, I described my curiosity about Wash Mannering. Little did I know that when I knocked on a beekeeper’s door on Spencer Street, I would find an old friend of his! Rena Johnson (whose current husband, Swede Johnson, raises bees and sells honey out of their home) knew Wash Mannering because her first husband, Winston Tennant, was Wash’s friend from Napa High School. Rena describes how Marian Mannering ran the grocery store at Seymour and Oak Streets, “It was a two- story house, and they lived on the top floor. Wash worked cutting shirts at Cameron Shirt Company, great big stacks of them, while his wife ran the store. She helped lots of people during the Depression, letting them pay on credit—how they did it, I don’t know.”

Ken Munk, nephew of Wash Mannering, sent a favorite photograph and wrote:

“The photo shows both of them standing out front of ‘the store,’ when I was the stock boy stocking shelves. I always liked to hear Uncle Wash call me to me from behind the butcher counter with a hearty, ‘Hey K Munk’ whenever I would show up. The old-timers who may have worked at Cameron Shirt Factory came to ‘the store’ for homemade sandwiches made by Aunt Marian and her sisters in the kitchen behind the store.”

The Cameron Shirt Company, which opened in 1901, was the first union shop in town, turning out one hundred dozen work shirts a day. WH Cameron, a salesman for Levi Strauss in San Francisco, founded the company and brought a young cutter named Bert Gans to act as superintendent in l90l. Rita Bordwell, former secretary to the Napa Central Labor Council, wrote, “I don’t believe there ever was any superintendent that was as popular as Bert Gans. San Francisco requested his help to affiliate with the Shirtmakers Union. All joined, at the request of Messrs. Cameron and Gans.”

Swede Johnson came to California from Missouri in July l938 to work in the quicksilver mines in Lake County. After the country entered World War II, Basalt Rock Company (which had already built its first barge for the Navy in July l940) built a complete shipyard on its property. Lorraine Kongsgaard, daughter of Basalt owner Al Streblow, told an interviewer, “People used to say, why did you build this shipyard in a hayfield? He’d say, ‘Because it’s home.’”

Basalt hired Swede Johnson as a boiler-maker. “I had never seen a ship, except in pictures,” says Swede.

He eventually became a foreman. “The union made the blue collar people powerful. I don’t think we’d have a pension plan without one.”

Swede was originally married to Lillian Johnson. He and his wife would square dance with Winston and Rena Tenant at the Grange Hall on Hagen Road. After both lost their first spouses, Pastor John Fernandes married Swede and Rena in her son’s walnut orchards on Second Avenue. Rena and Swede celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary on May 5.

For forty years Swede has raised bees and made honey and hasn’t needed allergy treatment since the Sixties. Originally, Swede’s hives were at Spencer and E Streets, where he lived for thirty years and kept up to twelve hives. Now he has five hives, which produced 48 quarts of honey last year.

Meanwhile, Rena lived on Hermosa Drive for 5l years, where she had l/3 acre of fruit trees and “canned everything I could get my hands on.” She bought nothing. “I made it all,” she says and her cinnamon rolls were particularly valued.
Rena had a pet squirrel monkey named Shorty. “Salvador School children would come over on field trips to watch him ride on top of our dog’s back.”

Swede and Rena describe with nostalgia a “little town” that ended at Jefferson and Trancas, at the airport. There were no hotels and “I used to go downtown and know everybody,” says Rena wistfully. They describe the disappearance of the dairies, and of the Chinese markets that once operated, one at the present site of Albertson’s on California Street and another at the Learning Faire site on Main Street.

Rena has been a member of a women’s group for 67 years. The group originally met at First Baptist Church during the War, “when we all were pregnant—Marian Mannering already had her twin girls.” The group called itself “The Club.” During the War, the women rolled bandages at the Hospitality House on Main Street; during the Fifties, they met at 8pm, after the kids were in bed, and “our husbands babysat.” Fifty years later, “we still meet twice a month at Sizzler.”

As I commented in my article on Community Projects Inc., for many decades, when hearing that I taught women’s history, people responded with confusion and misunderstanding. Women’s history encompasses not only the story of renowned national figures, but also the untold quiet heroism of the citizens of our own towns. Likewise, the devotion to work and family lived by men like Wash Mannering and Swede Johnson has not been noted by official histories. It is my interest and respect for Wash Mannering, fabric cutter and storekeeper, and for Swede Johnson, boiler-maker and bee-keeper, which make “doing local history” so endlessly fascinating.

Bordwell, Rita. “Napa County Labor Movement was Born of Depression,” Napa Register, March 30, l963.

Coodley, Lauren, “Fancy Fair and Community Projects: Women’s History in our Town,” Napa Valley Marketplace, June 2006. https://nvmarketplace.wordpress.com

Courtney, Kevin. “Napa Steelworkers tell their Stories,” and “Napa Pipe plant loads its final rail car,” Napa Register, September 30, 2005.



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