Lives & Times of Valley Folks: James ‘Jim’ Gowan
by Steve Sparks, April 22, 2010
I met with Jim at his home on Highway 128 near the Gowan Oak Tree fruit stand north of Philo. His wife of almost 64 years, Jo, joined us for our chat as Jim has a hard time hearing these days and perhaps she would also be able to “fill in some of the blanks.”
Jim was born in 1924 in Anderson Valley, with his family living in a house behind where the fruit stand now sits at that time. He is the youngest of five with three older sisters (Lucille, Bernice, and Mary) and one older brother (George), who have all now passed. “I was the spoiled baby!” he claims with a glint in his eye. Jim’s father, Cecil Gowan, came from an old farming family and was a young boy of about twelve when they moved to the Valley in 1902 from Wisconsin. Jim’s paternal grandfather, George, raised cows and other livestock here in the Valley and lived on property where the Farm Supply now stands. They first planted apple orchards in 1910. The family of Jim’s mother, Alice Studebaker, who was born in the Valley, had arrived here in 1876 in covered wagons and settled on forty acres they bought from the Nunn family behind where the Scharffenberger Winery now sits in Philo. “They had come here from Boonville, Missouri, and because they had been here for some time and were a family of inventors before they became farmers, they thought they were something special and may be looked down on the Gowan’s when they arrived. They had invented the special wheelbarrow that is used in mining.”
From 1st through 8th grade, Jim attended the Shield Schoolhouse, just a short way north from his home on Highway 128 as it became known, with about a dozen other kids, one of them, young Hegermann, walking five miles there each way from his house on the Greenwood Road. Jim’s parents had also gone to there and had been school sweethearts. Jim enjoyed his school years, particular music and he played the baritone horn. He went to high school in Boonville at the location next to where the current elementary school now sits and among his contemporaries were Ray Pinoli, Bob Burger, Emil Rossi, Katherine Nobles, Bill Presley and Marilyn Tindall, these last two getting married at some point. “I played in the school band and really enjoyed being in the Future Farmer’s of America classes. My main project was raising pigs. I never penned them up but because I fed them so well they never went too far away.”
“Growing up on the farm meant that doing chores were just a part of every day life, and an important part of sustaining life too. I’d pick apples — timing myself for every bag I collected so that I could get faster, and I’d collect wood from what is now Hendy Woods — mainly the ‘widow-makers’ as we call them, the low dead branches on Redwood trees that can kill you if they break off, fall, and catch you. I would haul these out of the woods to use in the apple dryer on our property. Daniel Studebaker was the first peddler around here, taking the fruit and vegetables out of the Valley to the coast — Point Arena, Mendocino, Fort Bragg. Then when transportation increased and more people began to drive through the Valley after the Second World War we eventually opened the Gowan Oak Tree fruit stand there on Highway 128 at the side of the road. In those days we’d leave a coffee tin and trust people to pay for what they helped themselves to — apples, berries, peaches, cherries, vegetables, corn, tomatoes, etc. We did that for many years, until the 70s, I believe, but then some of the hippies who had come here thought they had the right to take what they wanted without paying — because it was all “God’s food for everyone” was their argument. My mother did not like that and was upset that they did it. We stopped that ‘trust’ method for a few years but did go back to it later.”
The dry fruit business began to die out in the 40s and the Gowan’s started to sell fresh fruit wholesale to different outlets. “The Valley was very different in those days. Apple and fruit trees were everywhere and there were thousands of sheep — of course you could kill coyotes back them so your sheep had a chance of surviving. It’s very hard now. We would hunt for food to eat and fish for trout on the Navarro River. My mother loved trout and my Dad would get her some really big ones for breakfast and lunch. There’s no trout there now of course, and if any fish are caught it’s all ‘catch and release’ so that kills them anyway. I wasn’t much of a hunter really. I was more of a trapper — skunks and raccoons — and then I’d sell the fur. That was my spending money. It was a simple life — chores, school, my FFA project, more chores. I think I got $1 a day for chores and more if I sold a fur.”
Jim graduated from high school in 1942 and stayed around for a time working for his Dad. Then he decided he wanted to “serve his country” even though he had been given a deferment due to his work in agriculture. “I signed up for the Army Air Force to become an aerial gunnery instructor. I would show these young city kids how to shoot guns — they knew nothing about that, and sometimes that would scare you to death with their lack of caution. I was in boot camp in Amarillo, Texas and caught pneumonia there. Winters in that part of Texas are very severe and I nearly died. They say ‘you can never get out of the wind in Amarillo.’ It didn’t help that they used sulphur in the treatment and found out later that I was allergic to it... During training I was moved around and spent time in Malden, Missouri, then Laredo, Texas, and then I spent three months on guard in the White Sands of Alamogordo, New Mexico. We had no idea why we were there guarding this wide open space but we were told to shoot anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there. Turns out it was the sight where they were building the atomic bomb.”
Jim was sent to Albuquerque to teach new recruits. His friend was dating a local girl and they set up a blind date for Jim with her friend Jo (Josephine Hackley) another local girl who was in attending the Cadet Nursing School. “The other couple left after five minutes and we spent a couple of hours at the amusement park together. We arranged a second date but I cancelled it, telling her I had to fly a plane. I didn’t really and went into town on the bus but when it dropped me off by the movie house there she was, standing in line right there in front of me. Boy, was I embarrassed. Anyway we started dating and it turned out the best thing I got out of my service was this girl!”
Jim was sent to Greensboro, North Carolina to the Overseas Replacement Center but just before he was to go overseas the war ended. “They asked for volunteers to join the Army of Occupation but I decided to stay and moved to San Antonio, Texas to work in the Army Discharge Center dealing with discharge papers for the soldiers. My name and that of a friend somehow ‘appeared’ near the top of the list! We were caught but they let us leave anyway.”
In March 1946, he brought Jo and her girlfriend to his home in Anderson Valley to meet his folks. “They approved and I took Jo for a walk in Hendy Woods. She was in shorts and of course there was lots of poison oak and berry briars. She left the next day to se her mother in Fresno and a week later she called to say she had weeping sores all over. She came back here and she looked so bad. I felt so sorry for her. I had to marry her! She went back home and I told her I could get a job near her home but I really wanted to stay here and work with my Dad. Jo knew this and told me to come and get her. She would move here and give up her nursing career. Her mother had told her she could not marry a ‘soldier boy’ because she had done that herself and had seen what we are like, I guess. I went to get her from New Mexico and we got married on the way back in a little chapel in Vegas on May 23rd, 1946.”
Jim and Jo lived with his parents for a couple of years and he worked with his Dad. “I just loved to farm the land. Jo was an outdoor girl and she followed me around helping where she could — she could out-pick many of the guys.” In 1947 the first of their seven children, Cecil, was born. He was followed roughly every couple of years by another — Henry, Raymond, Carl, Vivien, Grace, and then, after six more years, Don in 1962. They have twenty-three grandchildren, “about” thirty great grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren. (Meanwhile, on Jim’s mother’s side, with no sons been born for a couple of generations, the Studebaker name has now died out here in the Valley).
Jim’s parents liked having the young family around the house for a time but as it increased in number they needed more space and so they moved to another house on the property, eventually building a new home, in which they live today at the same spot, in 1961/62. “We had six kids and another on the way, with just two bedrooms. My Dad said, ‘Get this finished’ and we did. My mother bought us a dryer to deal with all the laundry we had each day.” Jim went into partnership with his parents and in 1948 they began to ship fresh apples to San Francisco as the dry fruit business dropped off. “We took them down to the City in an army surplus truck. We then built the first fruit stand in 1950, right where it is today. My Dad said it was way too big but it has been enlarged three times since then! The timber industry was booming and we employed the mill workers’ wives as pickers. They were very good and much more dependable than the men.”
The timber industry was already dropping off by the late fifties and some people returned to the southwest. Gowan Orchards was doing well and the sixties were very busy. In 1965 they brought in their first Mexican workers but the day-to day employees were not very reliable. “If those guys were paid they’d get drunk that night and not come back to work the next day. These guys were sent by the Employment Board, which was of little help. We found better workers through referrals from other apple farms, the Sanchez and Espinosa families being among the first — great workers. Vidal Espinosa is still with us. In those days some workers did not like working with those from a different part of Mexico but it’s much better now.” By the seventies the apple industry was in trouble. The first wineries arrived and began to take over the Valley. In the early eighties the wine boom really affected the apple production here in the Valley with just the Schoenahl’s (in the Boonville area and a little way to the north) and the Gowan’s (in and around Philo) surviving amongst the old businesses.
Over the years Jim and Jo have enjoyed a full-life when not working in the orchards. For many years they were in the ‘Redwood Squares’, a square-dancing club that used to meet at The Grange twice a week and they also frequently got together with friends for card evenings. “Our social group included people like the Ingram’s, the Tuttle’s, the Clow’s — Jack and Kay and Bud and Eleanor. We would play canasta and pinochle on our card nights — they was great times... For many years while our kids went through school we were always involved with their activities there. I was a member of the Farm Bureau and on the board for a time, and we have always attended the Methodist Church in Boonville and got involved with events there too.”
All of the older kids gradually left the area or quit the business as the apple market plummeted. They were losing money so their two hundred acres was reduced to one hundred. It is doing o.k. now. Youngest child, Don, left for college but came back and now takes care of the day-to-day running of the business and the work crews, all of which they try to get from amongst the local population. Daughter Grace runs the Oak Tree stand while Jo still does the books and pays the bills. Jim is the last of his siblings still alive as he enters his 86th year and yet he and Jo, following a bad year of health for both of them in 2009, plan to return to doing the Farmer’s Markets this summer. With the Valley already taken care of by the fruit stand, they go to the markets in Ft. Bragg, Ukiah, and Willits. “Hopefully, with my stomach cancer cleared up, our health will allow us to do it this year. We’ll take apples, apple related products and some asparagus. Other than that we like to go to the Senior Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays for lunch if we can. Jo drives us there and on Thursday we then go over to Ukiah so she can do some banking and pick up any stuff that is needed for the business.”
Jim and Jo have never thought about leaving here although they have enjoyed some traveling over the years, including trips to Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Hawaii, a Caribbean cruise that took them through the Panama Canal, and even a very enjoyable train trip to Florida and back. Jim loves the peace and quiet of Valley life although the gradual loss of the River Navarro is disappointing. “Our favorite place here has always been Hendy Woods and with most of the family being inlanders we used to also love going to the coast for family outings. We’d go out that way most weekends in the summer, to the mouth of the Navarro, or to Alder Creek by Manchester or north of Mendocino and we’d often take family outings to Lake Berryessa in Napa County. We also like to get to San Francisco sometimes and look around the Wharf and watch the Giants at their new stadium.”
I asked Jim for his brief responses to a couple of the Valley issues.
The Wineries and their impact? “One thing I will say is that Roederer, Brutacao, and Navarro Vineyards have all been good neighbors. I do think that some of the owners who don’t live here do not care about the Valley as much as others do.”
The AVA? “We haven’t bought it since the kids were in school. Jo thought some of the language they printed was bad and so we stopped buying it. We read the Ukiah paper sometimes, and watch the television for weather and news.”
Changes in the Valley? “They are going to happen but not always for the better. In the old days you could do whatever you wanted but now there are too many rules and regulations in this business, and life in general, and our independence is slowly being lost.”
I posed a few questions to my guest from a questionnaire featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” plus some I came up with myself.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Riding around the ranch, seeing the trees blooming, watching nature work.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Crowds. Too many people around bothers me. I also get upset that I can’t hear well... And there’s an old chicken we have back behind the house that really annoys me by always eating the cat food.”
Sound or noise you love? “The piano playing at our church in Boonville.”
Sound or noise you hate? I guess really shrill noises. Sounds normally don’ bother me though because of my poor hearing.
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’? “A good hamburger with mashed potatoes and gravy. And fruit of course. My favorite apple out of them all? That would be the one that’s at its best that particular week. If I had to choose, I’d go with Golden Delicious.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? “I’d love to meet up with my Dad again. Maybe Ronald Reagan would be a good one too. He was a bit of a hero to me.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “My watch. I’ve got to know what time it is, not that it would make any difference in this case; a surf net to fish with; and some sort of book about nature or horticulture.”
Favorite hobby? “I like to watch game shows on television — to follow the other stuff you have to hear it and I can’t. I enjoy feeding the chickens and cats every day too.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance? Your fantasy job, perhaps? ‘Since I was about five or six I have always wanted to be a pilot and fly a plane, either a fighter plane or a bomber.”
Profession you’d not like to do or are glad never to have done? “A doctor.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “The day I married Jo.” (At this point Jo explained that she was named Josephine but only her father ever called her that. She was Josie to her mother, and then at school in Albuquerque, where there were no boys, just thirteen girls, some of them altered their girl’s names to sound like boy’s names for fun. ‘There was a Billie and a Lee, and others. I became Jo).
Saddest ? “The loss of each of my parents. I was very close to my Dad particularly. I came back to the Valley after the war to specifically work beside him and be with him.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I try to treat everybody the same, regardless of their race or class, etc. We are all created equal and I try to live by that.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? — “I guess, ‘Welcome Jim’ would be a good thing to hear.”
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Tom English.)