The Construction of History – February 2011

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “History” February 2011.

Bernadine and Henry Luhmann of Napa

The Construction of History
By Lauren Coodley

How is history constructed? All we have to help understand the past are the traces that people leave behind. It might be a rusting tractor, or a quilt glowing with color; it may be a Corona typewriter or a Magnavox record player. With these traces which are all around us, we can try to imagine what came before.

One such box of traces was handed to me several months ago. It was found in a barn, and bore the marks of many rainstorms. What emerged from the box were the farm records of one man, Henry Luhmann. He was an egg farmer who had invented a particular kind of brooder; his patent slip was in the box along with numerous guidebooks for raising poultry, and his receipts for the eggs which he shipped to San Francisco by steamer as early as 1926. There were only two or three photos in the box. So, I am hoping that those who remember them might tell more of their story. The first photograph is inscribed “building a garage for the Platts”; on left, wife Bernardine; on right, Ally Platt. The second photograph is Bernadine with her dog; in the third, she is pictured with farm manager, George Nichols. How photographs long for a story to go with them! If you can contribute a memory of the Luhmanns or Mr. Nichol, please contact the Napa Historical Society.

Henry Luhmann was not only an egg farmer and a husband, he was also a leader in the community of farmers that came together during World War II. In the box were carefully typed minutes from a farm labor committee which he chaired. The minutes for the first meeting on April 24, 1943 note: “The committee asked Mr. Henry Luhmann and others to interview Mr. Owen Duffy regarding the use of the buildings at the Napa State Farm for housing seasonal labor.”

At another meeting on June 17th: Henry Luhmann explained the progress made in securing housing facilities at the Silverado Farm Labor camp. “Andrew Fagiani suggested that part of the camp at Yountville be set aside for family groups. …The chairman stated that Mr. DB Parker had offered to give Napa County a building located at the Stockton Japanese relocation center. HJ Baade offered to take the Monticello committee to Stockton to look over the building…Will Gosling submitted data about the production of Berryessa Valley in l943: nearly 3000 tons of hay; about a thousand tons of grapes; 700 tons of dried prunes; l000 tons of pears; 90 tons of plums; almost 4000 tons of grain; almost 7000 head of cattle; 2000 head of sheep; 3000 head of hogs; all of this entailing about 45,000 ‘man hours.’ The period of harvest was August l5-October l5; 150 laborers needed.” This information about the Berryessa Valley is especially poignant since it would all be destroyed with the building of the dam in 1957.

The committee met on May 13th 1944: “Mr. Fruehauf, treasurer of the Napa Valley Farm Labor Association and a member of this committee, stated that there are now working on the ranches, 78 Mexican nationals, and that there will be 492 working in this county at the peak of the harvest season…the labor shortage in Napa County is more critical than that in many other parts of the state, and therefore a special effort must be made at once to provide housing for harvest help if a portion of the crops now in prospect are not to be lost.” Later that month, “It was agreed that the District Fair would put up a building. The state would try to supply cots, mattresses and blankets, housing l50 persons at the Fairgrounds. The committee asked for a 500 man camp to be established at the Silverado Farm Labor Camp at the State Farm at Yountville.”

Six months later, June 1945, a new dilemma emerged for the committee. Clyde Casady, secretary of Napa Valley Farm Labor Corporation, wrote to Mr. Luhmann asking him to “lend every effort possible in helping us solve the problem of security measures at the Silverado Trail camp. This camp is to be used to house German prisoners-of-war…The prune and grape crops…look to have the greatest tonnage to be harvested in the history of the valley…With a definite shortage in Mexican nationals, the only other source of labor available is prisoners of war.”

In July of 1945 the minutes of the Farm Council reveal an interest in the wartime temporary housing: “The committee urges the state to take all possible steps for bona fide farmers of the state to acquire such of these facilities as are needed for housing of themselves and/or personnel working on their farms. …members of the Armed forces during the War should have the first opportunity to obtain units of these facilities for housing themselves and their immediate families [and] the farmers of the state be given the next opportunity to acquire the units.”

That same month Henry Luhmann wrote to Dr. Theo Miller of the Napa State Hospital to say that the farm labor committee had been advised of the “splendid help the patients have been in past years in our harvest….We were also advised that you have again granted permission to certain patients to aid in our harvest again this year. Indications are that we will have a very heavy crop of prunes and tomatoes and every person who is able and willing to help with this harvest will find employment.”

In April 1946 Henry Luhmann recorded “the amount of foreign labor in the county last year, reaching a peak of 345 Mexican nationals in July and a peak of 645 foreign laborers in August, including Prisoners of War and Jamaicans.” In July 1946, Luhmann was able to write triumphantly “There have been allocated to Napa County seven steel barrack buildings: portable, prefabricated, angle frames, insulated, two doors, sixteen windows without partition, equipment of plumbing. Size 20 x 48.”…It will be the duty of the committee to select the first seven growers to whom the offer to purchase shall be made.” A week later his last letter from this box is to W.D. Butler. It reads: “According to the decision of the committee, a notice has been put in the Napa Register giving all farmer veterans a chance to purchase surplus housing allotted to Napa County… Please be present and assist in allocating these buildings.”

We can only imagine the emotion behind these letters, as well the conflicts that undoubtedly occurred behind closed doors over the complex challenge of harvesting Napa’s crops in war time. Surely, other farmers recorded their own impressions of these discussions. Did any of the State Hospital patients or prisoners of war write letters or diaries about being here in the Forties? What about the groups described as Mexican nationals and Jamaicans? What did they tell their families about their experiences in this luscious valley? We do know that, until very recently, Napa was dotted with the Quonset huts built during the war, and that State hospital patients were prevented from helping with the harvest after the 1950’s, when drugs replaced vocational therapy.

For all we know, there are a hundred things we don’t know. Because someone saved these minutes, we know a little bit about the official business of growing crops during World War II. We don’t know what Bernadine Luhmann was doing during that period at the family farm on 2275 Big Ranch Road. Perhaps she has neighbors, relatives or friends who can help fill out the picture. All history is a mixture of official sources and private memories. Every document saved is a gift to the future, and for that we can be grateful to Henry Luhmann for saving his records, and to Deb Jachens for preserving them.


One comment on “The Construction of History – February 2011

  1. […] To understand why so many historians scoff at the notion that history should be taught as an objective science, we should consider the relationship between fact and interpretation at the heart of the profession. In 2006, the eminent Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton wrote a New York Times op-ed responding to an education law passed by the Florida state legislature, which stated that history should be fact-based, and not constructed. Norton was puzzled. Historians from a wide variety of persuasions are practically unanimous in agreeing that all history should have a solid grounding in facts. The point is not whether a history course is fact-based or not. It is that facts do not speak for themselves. You need some kind of model, paradigm, theory, or interpretative framework to put them together into a coherent narrative. If Florida Republicans really wanted a history course that was “not constructed,” they would have no history course at all because all history is constructed. […]

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