Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” April 2011.
Rocks Were Broken and Foundations Were Poured
By Lauren Coodley
Farmyards were stages for concerts of sound. Doors squeaked and slammed. Boards were sawed and hammered. Boots made great sucking sounds when pulled out of the mud. Sweeping was a snare drum, raising clouds of dust. Rocks were broken and foundations were poured. Restive horses whinnied and neighed, cows bellowed…all the while the clinking and sucking pump filled buckets with splashing and swirling water. ~ Joseph Amato, Rethinking Home
Recently, I wrote about the challenge of finding the story behind a box of artifacts given me. It contained receipts for egg sales, pages of farm labor minutes, and a few photographs with obscure handwritten notes on the back. I asked the public to help me identify those pictured. Marilyn Grover responded. As a close friend of Beatrice Luhmann, she was uniquely able to paint a word picture of this Napa pioneer. The two women met in l972, six years before Beatrice’s death, when Luhmann was already eighty one years old.
Beatrice and Henry Luhmann had travelled by covered wagon in l9l3 to Napa and “pitched their tent downtown,” until they earned enough to buy the farm on Big Ranch Road. They lived their whole lives on that farm. Marilyn commented, “Her marriage was tough, life was hard.” Beatrice Luhmann wrote: “My upbringing was, ‘if you owe money, never buy anything you don’t need.’ We had a mortgage with crop failures and low prices for poultry.” The neighbors’ friendship began when Beatrice came calling on behalf of her church, St Mary’s Episcopal. As the friendship developed, Marilyn, who lived at the end of Soscol, would bike over to visit. Beatrice told Marilyn how she would gather up the neighborhood kids and carry them to Sunday school in a wagon along the dirt trail of Big Ranch Road, “always getting more kids to come along.” She also gave Marilyn a handwritten story about her discovery of a cross from the original church. It is a rare document of one woman’s life:
Planted a young orchard of prune trees. While we were waiting for fruit, went into the chicken business. The babies survived that meant more chickens…To make ends meet we raised fryers, the wholesale price was so low we dress them, price 20 cents a pound…(illegible) for the pan and delivered, that was my job, at the crack of dawn would get dressed from l to 3 in the morning and deliver in the afternoon.
Now the cross enters. A Mr. Jorden, living on Calistoga Ave., whose business was buying old houses wrecking them and selling the lumber. He bought our lovely old St. Mary’s church. Underneath the stage was a catchall for junk. He found the old cross all broken in pieces. One day his wife ordered some fryers. He came to the door. He asked me if I taught Sunday school at St Mary’s. I said yes. He says “come with me, I have something you should have.” Went down in the basement, on the wall was hanging a cross. He told me where he found it and spent a lot of time fixing it. I thought he was going to give it to me. How wrong I was.
He told me that was how he made his living and it would cost me five dollars, a lot of money to spend on something I loved but did not need. One Sunday morning at Sunday school, I told Mrs. York about the old cross. She was the superintendent of the Sunday school. She said “Don’t worry. Connie, one of the workers on the altar guild, she will get it.” They both belonged to the same lodge. I waited a long time, one day I asked. She said Connie had no luck. A few weeks after, Mrs. Jorden ordered more chicken. Mr. Jorden came to the door; I asked if he had the cross. He said “you can have it for $4.50”…just about as bad as $5. This went on for over two years, every time it was 50 cents less. One day I saw him walking in town with a cane, barely able to move. It flashed into my mind if something happens to him, the dear old cross will be lost to us. Soon after, Mrs. Jorden ordered more chicken as usual. He came to the door. I asked about the cross, price $2.50. I said,
“Sold at last”—it was safe.
At the time the women met, Beatrice still tended a garden and fruit trees. She also “grew beautiful orchids to give away,” as well as gourds: Marilyn Grover remembers, “I never seen such large gourds.” Beatrice used a special drying process for her figs, and she kept boxes of feathers from her chickens, separated carefully by colors. With those feathers, she decorated hats.
Marilyn and Beatrice took drives around the valley together, an experience Marilyn loved, because “she knew everyone, and could point out much of what you were looking at.” In her last years, she had a dog, MacGregor, who “wouldn’t let me near her bed,” when she became ill. She died within a few days of her illness, working on the farm right up to the end; she was “energetic, animated, and generous.” Marilyn’s last act of friendship was arranging her friend’s funeral. Out front of the farm was a thick plank painted with the letters Luhmann; Marilyn herself repainted the sign. It is still there, the old name covered with the name of the new residents, JK Farm.
Beatrice Luhmann is buried in the family plot at Tulocay with her husband, two brothers, and two of their three sons. George Nichols, pictured in the photograph, was also laid to rest at the end of the family plot. Who was George Nichols? I wondered in my earlier essay. Marilyn Grover knew the answer. “He had done the chores around the farm, feeding chickens, always pushing a broom around. Had a railroad pension…lived at a little place on their farm.” When Beatrice died, Nichols had nowhere to live, and Marilyn became his conservator. Beatrice left her beautiful silver service to the church before she died, and the cross she found is still displayed in the lobby of St Mary’s on Third Street.
Beatrice and Henry Luhmann are included in the upcoming book by Arcadia Publishing, Napa Valley Farming, by Paula Amen Judah and Lauren Coodley. Thanks to Marilyn Grover for sharing her memories and of Beatrice Luhmann, and to Lauren Ellsworth for recording Marilyn’s story and helping to interpret Beatrice’s handwritten memoir.