Lives & Times of Valley Folks: June Lemons
by Steve Sparks, March 10, 2010
As the rain came pouring down I drove to the outskirts of Boonville and met with June at her home on Ornbaun Road. She graciously offered me either a tuna or ham sandwich for lunch but I settled on some delicious homemade cookies along with a hot cup of coffee and we sat down to talk.
June was born in rural Lincoln County, Oklahoma in 1927. She grew up in the very small town of McLoud, with Shawnee being the nearest town of any size with the much larger Oklahoma City about thirty miles away. She had one older half-brother and four younger full siblings — three boys and a girl. Her father, Joe Basinger, was of German descent while her mother Maude Brown, who was Scottish/Irish with 1/32 Cherokee Indian blood, had come to Oklahoma from Texas around the turn of the century when she was eleven years old.
“During the 30s, there was the Depression of course and Oklahoma was among the worst affected States. We had no means of transport so my father moved the family wherever there was work to be had, mainly in the agricultural industry, and we would crowd into whatever living quarters were available near to the job, mainly simple little cabins. Years later he told me I had lived in sixteen different places by the time I was thirteen years old. We all had our chores to do and being the oldest girl I often cooked dinner — it wasn’t much but I could fry potatoes and cook beans, and we’d have cereal and eggs. We had no refrigeration and did not have meat very often in those days, except Sundays when we’d have chicken and that was a treat.”
From when she was thirteen to eighteen, June stayed in the same place. “My father found work in a grocery store, eventually becoming the manager, and we lived on the store owner’s property. My Dad played the violin and his brother the guitar and they would often perform at social gatherings, passing the hat round for a little income - every bit helped. I can say that we never went to bed hungry though. My parents made sure of that. We had a vegetable garden and my Mother would can things for use during the winter months. Although we moved often it was always within the same area, so apart from two different one-room schoolhouses for the 2nd and 3rd grades, I went to the same place in McLoud for both grammar and high school. I loved school so much that I was sorry when we were out for the summer. I went to school with some Indian kids — they were just a regular part of the community. It was Indian country when my maternal grandparents settled there and homesteaded in the early 1900’s. I don’t think Oklahoma became a State until 1907. I remember that the Indians celebrated July 4th separately though — they dressed up in their tribal dress and it was very colorful... I was very studious and was the Valedictorian in my class, my favorite subjects being math and general business, plus typing and shorthand. I’d say I was a well-behaved child — I knew the rules and went by them. All of us were good kids and my four brothers were all in the military at one point. My oldest in World War II, the next fought in Korea, the next was in the Air Force for twenty-nine years, and the youngest served in Vietnam. There were twenty-two years between the oldest and the youngest and I remember that my youngest brother was just learning to walk when I was getting married.”
Growing up in the Depression years meant that the family social life was spent at home or at neighbors’ homes nearby or “as my Mother was one of 13 and my father one of ten, we’d see relatives. With the wood heater going, we would sit together in the evenings around the radio that had been ‘commandeered’ by my Dad and listen to music, comedy, and soaps. I remember the show ‘Finbar McGee and Molly’ and Dad loved the ‘Grand Ol’ Opry’. We also played cards a lot, plus in those days families just sat together and talked... My parents were Methodists but they were not particularly religious and did not put pressure on us to go to church. We lived by the Golden Rule — ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ However, I did go to both a Baptist Sunday School and a Quaker Sunday School at an Indian Mission but these were both social occasions to me, not religious.”
During the summer between her sophomore and junior years, June got a job in the town’s department store in the ready-to-wear section. “That place sold everything, from lingerie (behind a curtained off area) to dry goods and groceries. I spent most of my earnings in the sewing department, getting materials for my mother to make us clothes — she made most of them for us kids. Women and we young girls always wore dresses whenever we went out in those days — no slacks, and shorts were out of the question, apart from at home. I earned $18 for a full week. I guess I did a good job because I distinctly remember my boss telling me one day that my cash register was the only one that balanced. The following summer I worked away from home, at the Navy base forty-five miles away in Norman where I was in the kitchen doing prep and clean-up. It was my first time away from home and I was terribly homesick, getting to go home about one weekend a month. This was 1943 and the War was raging but I was not really aware of it that much other than the scrap metal drives that took place to gather things for use in the war effort. My brother was in the Engineering Corps in Italy and he wrote and told us that he spent his time building bridges only to see them blown up again.”
Among June’s parents’ friends was a family who had a son called Elmer Lemons who was a couple of years older than June. He had left school early, much to his parents’ disappointment, but his father told him it would not be easy, as Elmer soon discovered when he began work in the sawmills at an early age. The Lemons eventually moved their family to California for work but the son did not like it and he returned to Oklahoma and stayed with his grandparents, finding work at the Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma City. Elmer and June started to date in her senior year at high school. Meanwhile she had received a couple of offers for scholarships to college and also could have found work as a teacher, with many of them away at war. “I would probably have become a teacher but looking back I would not have made a good one - I do not have the patience. Anyway, before I made up my mind what to do, Elmer and I became engaged and soon after, when I graduated in 1945, I too found work at the Air Force base, traveling thirty miles to work each way on a bus. I was a secretary/typist and worked on the payroll in the Engine Repair Building where they worked on B29 bombers. Then when the War ended our jobs were terminated and Elmer asked my parents if he could marry me. I remember my mother saying, ‘Yes, but you must promise not to take her to California.’ Elmer said he could not make that promise. Nevertheless, we did get married soon after and my parents gave their blessing. I guess they had been reluctant because I was the first one to leave home apart from my older stepbrother who was in the War.”
By September 1945, even though some jobs were available in Oklahoma, (June’s father was now doing carpentry in Oklahoma City), Elmer and June moved to California, joining the Lemons family in Firebaugh, not far from Fresno in the Central Valley. Elmer was a mechanic by trade and he found work in the agricultural industry for Waldo Rohnert, a wholesale vegetable seed company. By 1947 June and Elmer had started to raise a family of their own with the arrival of William Thomas ‘Tom’ Lemons, followed by daughter Beverly a few years later.
In 1952, Elmer, June, and the young children, visited friends in Anderson Valley for a week. Elmer had a friend who worked in the Sharp and Kirkwood sawmill located where the Fairgrounds parking lot now is. “Elmer was tired of living in the hot Central Valley and had already been looking around for work elsewhere, applying for a job at a sugar factory in Vallejo. Fortunately he did not hear back from them because as we stood in the sawmill yard in Boonville a man asked Elmer if he was looking for work and what could he do. Elmer replied, ‘I can do anything you have.’ He got a job on the spot and we moved into a mill cabin on the property. It was the time of the lumber boom in Anderson Valley with jobs for all and there were three mills on that site alone — ‘Hess’ and ‘Weeks’, as well as where Elmer worked — and between Cloverdale and the coast there were over 30 in total.” Elmer started as a millwright, working on the equipment on a shift that went from late afternoon into the night. With his skills as a mechanic and in welding he was never to be out of work in all their years in the Valley that followed.
June and Elmer soon began to make friends through their contacts at the mill - people such as Howard and Janie Morse, Wilma and Walter Brink, Carolyn and Jeff Short at the gas station, and Harold and Alma Perry. “Most of those we met were from Arkansas, not that many Okies were here in this part of California, despite what you may hear. The old-timers of the Valley slowly accepted the newcomers, although quite a few of these initially said they’d ‘be glad when we’d done what we came to do and moved on.’ I was never mistreated but I did hear some stories. Obviously over time many of them became my friends. That is what happened with all of the newcomers here — it takes time to be accepted.”
June and the family settled down and enjoyed life in the Valley. “I did not have family in either Fresno or here so I did not mind coming to the Valley. I must say that when we first drove into the Valley along those winding roads I did think that if we stayed here I’d be tied to the Valley. Around Fresno it’s all long straight roads, easy driving. I did get used to them, but the traffic has got too much and I no longer drive over the hill to Ukiah. With Elmer at the mill, I was a homemaker and raised the kids. He loved to hunt for deer and fish in the ocean and now he was so close to the sea, instead of having to leave at 2am from Fresno for the ocean. His parents were with us until 1958 when his father fell while working at the mill and was badly injured, returning to the Fresno area to recuperate and never coming back.”
On most weekends during those days of the 50s and early 60s, the family would head to the Coast for a picnic on the beach. “Elmer would catch his surf smelt and we’d fry them up right there. The kids would have a great time with their dune buggies and playing softball on Alder Beach — between Elk and Manchester. Sometimes it would get too foggy so we would come back to the Valley and go to the river by the bridge near to what later became Hendy Woods.”
The Sharp and Kirkwood Mill was not run very well so despite the timber boom it went out of business in 1953 and Elmer, his father, and another partner opened their own stud mill up in the hills behind Philo. They produced nothing but 2 x 4 x 8 studs and sold them to Barnes Lumber in Cloverdale. At that time the family moved to a property behind the Philo Market store, with young Tom, in the 3rd grade, attending the nearby school in the building now used by PG&E on Philo School Road. The stud mill was not a success and Elmer found work driving a lumber truck and then in 1955 he became the yard manager and maintenance man at Golden Lumber Company opposite Jack’s Valley Store, north of Philo.
The family continued to live in Philo for a few more years during which time, in 1958, Elmer moved once again. This time to work in the woods where he worked on a loader. The lumber industry remained fairly busy for a few more years until it started on a long slow decline that culminated in the final one closing in 2009. By 1960 the kids had finished school and Elmer and June moved into the house in Boonville where she continues to live to this day. Around that time, June found some part-time work in the apple sheds during the fall harvest for both the Schoenahl’s and Gowan’s. She did this for about five years but eventually settled into a job at Jack’s store, then owned by (and named after) Jack Clow, where she worked for eight years.
“Elmer was in the woods for 15 years, working for different logging companies such as Willie Tucker, Crowfoot Logging, Van Pelt, and equipment repair for the Hiatts. He much preferred this work to that at the mills and took great pride in his loading skills. It was tough work and he would say, ‘There is no job more dangerous than logging except crab fishing’ — something else he liked to do!”
In 1973, when Elmer retired from the woods, he and June bought the store in Philo from ailing widow Elsie Skrbek, and it became Lemons Philo Market. “I liked my years at the store very much but by the time I left I was burned out. We used to do longer hours than we do now — thirteen hour days, seven days a week, open until 9pm in the winter months. We felt we had to do it for the customers. Elmer did not enjoy the job. It was just not his cup of tea. He lasted about four months before we could afford to get an employee to replace him. Inventory was very small at first so that was fine. He did come in on Fridays and weekends but basically he became a freelance welder in the Valley and did a lot of fishing. We eventually bought the property too, in 1981, and our son Tom and his wife Connie, a local girl, joined us as partners. The family still owns the store; Tom, Connie and our grandchildren have done a great job and are still involved, with my grandson Matt’s wife, Erica, managing it on a daily basis. Once Tom and Connie became involved they obviously helped out a lot, although Tom did work in the woods for a time at first. We finally got a meat and fish counter in 1985 and for years we caught our own fish. We still get our own crabs — thanks to my grandson Tom Jr.”
With Connie having pretty much ran the business for a couple of years, June finally retired in 1993. “Elmer’s health had declined and he had heart surgery. He did recuperate but his arthritis was so bad at that point, most likely because he had been worked so hard in the sawmills at such a young age, I believe.” Elmer then became ill with leukemia and died in October 1999 since which time June has been greatly comforted by having family nearby, son Tom and Connie just down the road in fact, not to mention that three grandsons are all in town too — Tommy, Matt, and Wade, with Matt and wife Erica (Wallace) providing June with great grandchildren Will and Riley, while daughter Beverly and husband Steve Daniels (also of Boonville) have two daughters, Tanya and Tracey, who in turn have five more children between them, giving June seven great-grandchildren in total.
“This is a wonderful place to live. We moved here 65 years ago. Do you think that being here that long means I am an old-timer myself yet? I have gone back to Oklahoma to see family a few times, and after Elmer passed I went there with Tom and Connie; and to New Jersey to visit my sister. Oh, and to Alaska with my daughter and son-in-law; but overall I have done very little traveling since we came here. Apart from just a few doubts in the early times I always have known that I’d stay here. I have thought about joining various societies and groups here but at this point I am happy to just drive to the Senior Center twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday, and sit and talk with old friends and have some lunch. I met many people during my years at the store too - you don’t own a store, it owns you - and I still visit there and many people stop and talk to me. I go to some of the Valley events and enter my quilts in the County Fair. Talking of the Fair, my daughter Beverly once used my dill pickle recipe and won first prize even though it was the adult section. I don’t get involved with talking about politics or religion so don’t ask me. I vote but I don’t campaign, and even then I only vote on things I think I have a valid opinion on.”
I did try to get some thoughts from June about a couple of Valley issues and she felt comfortable in offering the following.
The wineries and their impact? “They have definitely added to our business but I do wonder whether we have enough now. We don’t know what the long-term effects on the water will be, but having said that we’re not sure at this point what taking out all of those trees has done either. Fishing has definitely been affected. We’ve had no salmon season for three years now. Tom Jr. goes out in his boat and gets the crabs for the store but that’s about it”
The AVA? “Well, many years ago Elmer fixed the printing press when it was owned by Homer Mannix and we were given a life-time subscription. That has not happened though. That’s fine. I do read it but only if I remember to pick it up at the store.”
I posed a few questions from a list devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”
Favorite word or phrase? “I can’t think of anything. Others could probably answer on my behalf.”
Least favorite word or phrase? “I don’t like to hear curse words, especially from children. Not that I’m a prude but it’s not nice and we never heard it when I was growing up.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “I have learned to be pretty content with my life and I never yearn for things I don’t have. I thrive on having my family nearby; I am very thankful that they have all stayed around and seeing them is very important to me.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “That is not for print,” she laughed.
Sound or noise you love? “The ocean. Tom and Connie have a cabin by the coast and at night you can hear the waves and sometimes the barking sea lions.”
Sound or noise you hate? “A dog barking late at night.”
Film/song/book that has greatly influenced you? “Well I can’t think of a favorite but I do like to read light fiction and I do read a lot, even more as I have got older.”
Favorite hobby? “That would be my quilting. I enter my work at the Fair most years and normally come home with a blue ribbon or two. I make mostly quilts for Queen size beds and for wedding gifts. Now my great granddaughter Riley is beginning to show an interest. I do like some television also — drama, romance, and western films; plus one soap, The Bold and the Beautiful. I don’t know why. How can people live like they do on that show? I guess you get addicted to those programs. I have been watching the Winter Olympics, particularly the skating and ice dancing and I like to watch Giants baseball too. I would like to spend more time in the yard and with the garden but it’s hard these days.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? ‘To have owned a fabric store. But that would probably have meant that I would have had all the fabric in the world but no time to quilt!”
Profession you’d not like to do? “Very briefly I worked at a laundry and wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Who wants to handle other people’s dirty laundry?”
Happiest day or event in your life? “The birth of my first child. Not that I didn’t love the next one just as much of course. And the birth of my first grandchild too.”
What was the saddest? “Elmer’s passing in 1999, after 54 years of marriage.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “Oh, that is such a hard question. I really don’t know. I can say that people always seem pleased to see me so I guess I must have done something right.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “That’s a question that for various reasons I just can’t answer.”
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Leslie Hummel of the ‘All that Good Stuff’ store in Boonville.)