By Lisa Adams Walter
From that sensation of something in the air, to the ever-so-subtle change in the colors of foliage, to gathering up fresh school supplies, to the toasty-smoked fireplace fire aromas that gently spread across the now-cooler evenings, certain things signal the change of the season in the Napa Valley.
I remember feeling quite small beneath the enormous black walnut trees, with the rush of cold morning air swirling around me as some of the best natural light of the year filtered through the leaves. Cold cheeks and fingers to match moved quickly, while we chatted and laughed, scouring the crusty, fertile ground for the best picks. My autumnal memories include those early Saturday mornings with my best childhood friend Carolyn, gathering the harvest from her family’s walnut orchard on Redwood Road in Napa. If I remember correctly, her dad offered two options for compensation: 25 cents per flat or the reward of a snow skiing trip that following winter. We always chose the trip to the Sierras, by which time the natural black dye from the ripe walnut pick would have been long worn off of our hands!
Today, there are other things that signal the end of summer and the beginning of fall. School is back in session (though it now begins in mid-to-late August throughout most of Napa County, a time that not that long ago would have been considered the final days of summer), the grape harvest is in full swing, the number of visitors to the valley seems to rise (most of us can impatiently relate to the experience of the joys of traffic up and down the valley in September and beyond) and the bounty of the local farmer’s markets is at its prime.
Yet, even the most subtle change in the landscape, a back-to-school event, school bus sightings and my tradition of swapping out the shorts for the sweaters, takes me back to those walnut orchard days. Napa County locals, those that remain nearby, and many who now live elsewhere, also have vivid memories of what this particular change of the season was like, way back when.
Many of us remember earning money over the summer and local school clothes shopping. My own mother has long told stories about picking prunes to earn money for school clothes. Stay with me here, and keep in mind, that not too
very long ago there weren’t any malls nearby.
Marilyn Hicks recalls picking prunes in the 1940s to earn money for school clothes, usually in August. She also has memories of enjoying the foggy cool mornings, and of very sticky hands from picking the prunes, off the ground. “Got 25 cents a box! Had a few ‘prune fights’ with fellow pickers. Good memories.” “School started way after Labor Day,” Carol Blessing remembers, “So kids could continue picking prunes and grapes. I picked for Dr. Parrett on Garfield Lane,” who added that she also tried picking grapes, but it was really hard work.
Nanette Mitchell who now lives out of state, worked by babysitting, mowing lawns and she had a paper route to earn money to purchase a bicycle and some of her school clothes. “That always gave me extra money to go to the movies and maybe Nations after,” Mitchell added. Yum, the old-time Nation’s Giant Hamburgers. The Third Street location is actually still here!
LeeAnn Hefley Togstad picked prunes at 50 cents per box and recalls ending up with purple hands. She too wondered, like I did with the black walnut hands, “Why we didn’t wear gloves?” She also babysat at 50 cents per hour for up to five kids. Can you imagine the per-hour cost of childcare for five kids today?
Judy Gulke recalls that she picked prunes and delivered the Napa Register and then bought clothes at Mervyn’s, Trade Fair and JCPenney.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, Harry Gochenouer remembers working in John Hanna’s orchard at the corner of Dry Creek Road and Orchard Avenue, picking prunes and shaking the prune trees to buy school clothes.
School and school clothes dominate many of the memories. Trian Elan who lived out in the country in Carneros recalls passing smudge pots on the way to Schearer School and, “…the great old brick building with the polished wood doors and ramps and stairs that was Shearer, the smell of new school supplies in the fall, paper straws in the milk cartons. I remember shopping for school shoes at Schalow’s and clothes at Carithers or Mervyn’s.”
Other local retail establishments remembered include Albert’s Department Store (which later became Mervyn’s), Marlene’s, Roberta’s and Modern Eve. “Matching skirts and sweaters and Spaulding oxfords were the big deal,” remembers Blessing,
“Going shopping you always saw people you knew.”
I actually remember all of those stores in town, in addition to local merchants such as Brewster’s, IXL Toggery and the aforementioned Schalow’s Shoe Store (who could forget Mr. Hennessey, who owned that store on First Street for 35 years?). At Schalow’s Shoes every family had an index card where Mr. Hennessey kept track of purchases by hand, after reaching a certain number the next pair of shoes would be free! It is the first customer loyalty program I can recall.
Blessing also recalls catching the school bus very early for a long winding route to Napa High. It was cold on those early mornings waiting for the bus, and by afternoon it was very warm in those new clothes. She also mentioned Burrell’s Ice Cream Parlor, an authentic old-time establishment with beautiful wood fixtures and a black and white floor and Partrick’s. I too have memories of Partrick’s, a store filled with an unparalleled and intoxicating fragrance of chocolate and mint. It was a magical treat to get to go into Partrick’s, which is now Anette’s Chocolate Factory, on First Street. Elan also recalls the smell of the rain in the orchards, mentioning that it always smelled fresh as the hills changed from gold to green. The beauty of our still-relatively-rural community was as appealing then, as it is now.
With the local deer season opening every year in August and lasting into the fall, Gochenouer remembers wearing the same clothes during deer hunting in the hills of Napa to disguise his body scent, a hunting tactic learned from his father. There were many orchards and farms around Napa County that produced a wide variety of items other than wine grapes. Rather than deer hunting, some of us were hunting for fresh items to pack away for the winter months.
Our family always went to the Bucher Ranch on Big Ranch Road for apples and we would also hop over into Suisun Valley for crates of peaches. With my mom we’d make pies, LOTS of apple pies, which were frozen and saved for holidays and other special occasions throughout the year. John and Verna Bucher became close family friends as I grew up with their youngest daughter. Their legacy includes the rural memories of their ranch enjoyed
by several generations, as they eventually replanted the apple orchard transforming it into a Christmas tree farm and then later farmed wine grapes.
Mitchell has fond memories of riding horses with the Gibson and De Laca families through the vineyards and hills in the Dry Creek region. “It was so beautiful in the fall!” exclaimed Mitchell who also played soccer in the fall and
remembers a significant amount of physical work, “We also did a lot of wood cutting, splitting and stacking with my dad, to clear out the old prune orchard on Dry Creek Road at the old nursery.” I remember that nursery as well, which was actually just to the north of that walnut orchard where I “worked” for several years.
We were all pretty fortunate to be able to grow up spending time outdoors in Napa County. Thepreferred method of transportation for kids, was definitely a bicycle. Daryll Borges, now a professional musician and music educator in Las Vegas, fondly remembers riding his bike through mountains of freshly raked leaves.
Parents were not driving their children all over the place, to multiple destinations and activities, all day long. For those of us raised in more traditional neighborhoods, we’d stay out late until the sun set. Many times we knew that it was time to go home only because the street lights began to illuminate, or we would hear a family member loudly calling our name from a street or two away.
Tammy Lee-Madison concurs as she remembers playing outside until dark and hearing her parents call them inside and being sad that the day was done. There were no video games or computers back then she added.
When I was a bit older, the tradition of homecoming parades and the Big Game between Napa High School and Vintage High School were fall traditions that have lasted to this day. Fall is definitely football season in Napa whether attending Friday night games at Memorial Stadium or Saturday day games (this was before field lights) at Justin-Siena High School.
Today our landscape is obviously dominated by vineyards that evolve from lush to brilliant, providing a fitting backdrop for our county in the fall. Some things are unwavering, and there are traditions that continue to today. Eventually the days become shorter, the chill of the morning lasts well into the day,
normally the rainy season sets in, and then winter is on its way.