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Another Frontier Icon: Lyle Luckert

George Zeni’s family represented, in my explorations into American family sagas, one pattern of immigration and settlement in our country.  Find the best piece of land to settle on, sink your roots, work hard, create a generations-long family dynasty, never mind its size and scope.  George in fact did die within a month of my last visit with him my previous story described, but his children, some of them still living on and caring for the ranch, maintain and enjoy Zeni Ranch a century and a quarter after their grandfather first settled out Fish Rock Road.

Lyle Luckert, Anderson Valley immigrant c. 1965 and close friend for thirty years of my time here, represents another kind of immigrant settler, one who settles on the place of his desire, but after a generation or less, gets disappointed in or bored with his acquisition and its community, pulls stakes and moves on to a more promising location (usually) somewhere west.  I just got finished reading the most  recent and best biography of Abraham Lincoln I’ve encountered, Abe (David Reynolds), which reminds us his family, 1630s settlers around Puritan Boston, thereafter moved every generation or two westerly to Pennsylvania, Virginia, then Kentucky.  He was born in Kentucky in 1809 and grew up on the frontier across the Ohio River in Indiana and Illinois.  Abe’s family then settled and worked on several farms in southern Illinois before as a young bachelor he kind of permanently found a home in New Salem on the Sangamon River.  It exhausts me even thinking about how a family survived pulling up stakes and rebuilding their farm- and homelife that frequently.

Lyle Luckert’s family story has a lot of the Lincoln-style settler experience attached to it.  His knowledge of his first immigrant generation was a bit thin, or I wasn’t aggressive enough in my interrogations of him, but I know his grandfather Luckert arrived in the US before the Civil War and settled near a German immigrant community, New Ulm, on the Minnesota River, about a hundred miles west of Minneapolis.    Deduction tells me his ancestors were possibly participants in the ill-starred Revolution of 1848, against the imperial monarchies of France, Germany and  Austro-Hungary.  I visited New Ulm one August afternoon on one of my regular blue line highway camping trips across America to visit my east coast family.  What luck.  My companion and I walked into the local Folksfest, an annual days-long festival imported from Germany to celebrate the harvest, the community and good times.  New Ulm’s main street was lined with food and folk art stands.  There was a small carnival with a ferris wheel, and most important a giant tent with trestle tables, dirndl clad Madchen serving mugs of beer, and a brass “omm pah pah” band blasting out danceable Volktunes.  Brought back such warm memories of the Bavarian volksfests I’d participated in during my Army tour of Germany, 1962-3.

Anyway, Lyle’s grandfather had farmed further up the River from New Ulm, growing, if I remember right, corn and wheat.  He also survived the memorable Sioux uprising, where members of the tribe, having been displaced from ancestral lands in violation of treaties, had randomly killed several hundred settlers up and down the River during the summer of 1862.

Sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century, Lyle’ father decided to try another family farm site, this time actually migrating east to a small village southwest of Minneapolis called Edina, now an inner suburb of the Twin Cities.  I wish I had asked Lyle more about his father’s decision, but I bet it had something to do with some shrewd analysis of industrializing America’s political economy and how it affected farmers.  Beginning in the 1870s the farm belt from Ohio west was at war with the eastern business monopolies, most immediately important against the railroads.  Rail lines to the big cities where the large milling factories were located were themselves regional monopolies, the sole transport service for the surrounding countryside.  Their hegemonic position enabled them to charge whatever price they chose for both freight and passenger services.  A New Ulm farmer, for example, had the choice of paying the prevailing rail freight rate or not being able to deliver his crop to the mill.  In the Twin Cities area General Mills dominated the milling industry by the 1890s and itself could pay the farmer whatever it chose per bushel of grain delivered.

So I bet Lyle’s farmer father not just understood the business problem, but also came up with a solution.  Move closer to his industrial customer on what was, I am thinking, better soil and weather conditions permitting him to grow more grain per acre then further west on the prairies.  Edina was only fifteen miles or so from the milling industry in St. Paul, and so transport costs, if by rail, would be a lot lower.  I bet his father may have been wise enough to resort to other forms of harvest transport more price flexible, such as wagon or later on truck.  Lyle told me the location of the family farm was in fact right under home base in today’s Minnesota Twins baseball stadium.  Once when I was text book selling in the Minneapolis area, I drove out to the stadium to try imagining a wheat and corn farm there.  Very hard to do.  But I did some kind of soil inspection along a small creek near the stadium parking lot.  Soil looked rich and deep to me.

Lyle’s migration west, he told me, occurred right after World War II when he was about 45 years old, his wife Grace the same age.  He sold the Edina family farm, packed the wife, two kids and their worldly possessions into a station wagon and headed west-  to California.  After some reconnaissance around the southern coast area, he found the place he was looking for outside the village of Vista, a few miles east of the Marine Corps training post , Camp Pendleton.  In a matter of years he had established a successful chicken ranch, selling eggs locally and benefitting from the fragmented chicken processing plant industry that typically had several distributors around each metropolitan area, no matter how small.  Vista was in between Los Angeles and San Diego, for instance.

Lyle liked it there in Vista, still rural, no suburbs encroaching yet,  ten miles from the ocean, nice seasonal temperatures, warmish summers, winters soft compared to Minnesota with just enough rain to keep the grass green into summer.  But in a few years he was ready to move on, selling his place in Vista into a rising market as the San Diego suburbs crept northward, taking his gain and heading up the Coast to a new destination, Costa Mesa in Orange County south of Los Angeles.  The move date I don’t know but do know from Lyle’s stories and my own readings that the waterfront village was simply part fishing port, and a little bit of recreational yachting by the LA gentry, no wealthy suburbs yet.  Nor do I know what Lyle farmed there in Costa Mesa, but understand that back then most of Orange County was both extensive citrus ranches and small family plots dedicated to the local farm-to-market for vegetables, herbs and fruit.

But never mind, a couple of years in Costa Mesa and it was time for Lyle and family to do it again, sell out into a rising land market and head north once more in search of a new agricultural adventure, this time south of San Jose on the Santa Clara/San Benito counties boundary.  The new Luckert homestead was a small mixed fruit orchard, a farm type which anchored this temperate valley’s economy from the edge of San Jose along Highway 101 all the way to Gilroy and Hollister.  And still did until the 1980s when Silicon Valley suburbia  crept south all the way to Gilroy.  I knew this area well back in the time Lyle migrated there.  During my military career in Monterey part of my self-education agenda was driving up to San Francisco on weekends to explore its environs and opportunities for girl-chasing in North Beach bars.  I loved the Old 101 wandering through each town in the San Benito Valley from Coyote to Gilroy and knew exactly which local bars to stop in for the most entertainment.  Coyote and Gilroy’s were the best (more another time).

But Lyle didn’t last very long in the south of San Jose area either.  Around 1965 he reverted to his speculative property investment strategy, inadvertent or not I never did discover, and moved on up 101, this time to Anderson Valley.  In The Valley he bought a fascinating piece of the Nash Ranch subdivision about two miles up Nash Hill Road and on the left.  I believe I described the place in one of my previous articles about Anderson Valley vistas from the ridgetop east and west of highway 128.  The new Luckert Ranch was sixty five acres or so, mostly west-facing benchlands looking over The Valley toward Greenwood Ridge, across Pinoli, Clark and Gschwend ranches and down the Navarro toward the ocean.  The north and east sides of the property sloped precipitously and brushily down into Mill Creek.  The house was very accommodating for a small family, a “modern,” 1960s style single story ranch house built not long before Lyle arrived.  Efficient with no rural charm I could ever find.

From my front deck three miles away I can see the  west side of the house and, when the current owners, Kathy Bailey and Eric Labowitz are home, after dark the  glow of their dining room  light.  Their home seems about the same elevation as mine, though the topographic maps tell me it’s about 150’ higher in elevation.  I can’t see the outbuilding’s Lyle’s entrepreneurial farming schemes added to the property, nor the elegant hay and  milking  barn when one first enters the property from Nash Mill Road.  An important engineering curiosity of Luckert Ranch, for reasons I will explain later, was the 3,000 gallon tank on the highest piece of ground and under the shade of a huge live oak tree, even in late summer always overflowing with its water input each time I drove up to visit Lyle and Grace.  What a successful well system that worked like this.  Down in a tributary of Mill Creek and on the bank above this then all season stream, was a dug horizontal well about twelve feet deep.  The submersible pump in this shallow well delivered off and on all day more water to the tank up the hill than Lyle and Grace and their various domestic and farm enterprises consumed.  And the tank was high enough above the house, it gravity-fed the whole place.

I got to know Lyle within a year of settling here in The Valley when Sam Prather and he partnered to lease my rangeland to run sheep on.  Though that business relationship only lasted a year due to their overstocking practices, Lyle and I developed a special friendship to the end of his life.  More specifically we both were interested in not necessarily mastering a single farming activity to perfection, rather to learn new skills and outlets to increase our annual incomes.  And we were both speculative political economists of a “socialist” orientation, exploring dialectically the nature of the capitalist society and other matters as might arise in our discussions on the way over to Ukiah to the livestock auction or during my frequent visits to his home up Nash Mill.

In a previous article about the historic road trip Sam Prather and I took in my brand new Jimmy pick-up truck back in 1978, I described an event that occurred during the second afternoon of our voyage from Boonville to Salt Lake City  and the National Ram Sale.  Somewhere on 1 80 in the Nevada desert between Winnemucca and Elko, Lyle leaned around to make sure Sammy was asleep on my shoulder.  We had been discussing futurist authors like Immanuel Velikovsky, Robert Heinlein, and Frank Herbert.  Or rather Lyle was educating me in a field in which he and Grace had read thoroughly.  Sleepy at the driver’s wheel, I had run out of questions.  So rather wistfully Lyle confided to me that he and Grace were firm reincarnationists, he knew he was coming back to earth in a next life.  I was very touched by his confidence in my respect for his worldview and asked him a few questions about his understanding of his past and possible future lives.  A rich discussion indeed until Sam woke up as we came to the only stop  sign in downtown Elko, right at the hotel/casino, the largest building in town.  Later I will describe another political philosophical conversation I engaged in with Lyle a number of years later.

Lyle’s farm income experiments during his Anderson Valley time were always fascinating to me.  I certainly understood the logic of running sheep here in the seventies, and he did have a small band that ran on his and adjacent neighbors’ grassland properties.  But the diversity of his other ag business trials were astonishing to me.  To this day I have never met another person raising guinea pigs for market.  Lyle did it in a cluster of cages in chicken shed barn behind his house, after finding a market with a wholesaler somewhere in the Bay Area who distributed to urban pet stores.  Then there was on a far more ambitious scale his attempt at raising milk-fed calves Provimi style for the veal beef market.  This was a livestock business funded by the slaughter house Provimi by name, who provided in a rental agreement the livestockman  the slatted platforms the calves were chained to day and night while living entirely on powdered milk.  You could smell the operation the minute you stepped out the back door of their home forty feet away, even after Lyle washed away the shit and piss on and around the benches twice a day.  That business lasted about fifteen months, if I remember right.

I also have limited vignettes of a couple of other small scale farming businesses Lyle also experimented with.  One was again for the pet store industry, song birds, canaries or parakeets, if I remember right.  Then there was a growing season where he planted and harvested hybrid comfrey, a lovely, single flower plant with soft  grey green leaves looking like young tobacco and a single stem and large flower at harvest.  Comfrey was for the health food herbal market, took a lot of water per plant and that business lasted one growing season.  

Lyle’s last ag entrepreneurial experiment before leaving Anderson Valley was almost as aromatic as the veal calf one.  Somehow he found out about a soy bean, edamame refining factory somewhere in the Petaluma area, I think.  A by-product of boiling the beans for the restaurant and canning market was a curdy foam that remained in each cooking cauldron after the beans were removed.  The enterprising manufacturer dumped this output into salvaged open headed forty gallon ag chemicals plastic barrels and sold the product to Petaluma pig farmers. Once a week Lyle drove his kind of pick-up truck, a family van with no rear seats, down to Petaluma and loaded it up with all the pig feed the vehicle could more or less safely haul, about twenty barrels or so and brought them back to his new pig farm out back of the old veal calf shed.  I don’t remember now many hogs Lyle was raising inside of the rickety wire corral he constructed back there; seemed the space was about 20 X 20 feet.  But the soybean curd was so rich that it and water was their sole diet, except for, while they lasted, the remains of the comfrey plant plantation.  And the rate of gain on wiener pigs was incredible, ready for the slaughter house feed lots in about six months each.

Sometime in the early eighties Lyle and Grace got the “time to move” fever again.  I didn’t detect the illness myself, but one day Sammy said to me, “did you know Lyle has bought a place somewhere in Oregon?”  I was stunned for three reasons: I had detected no evidence from Lyle, second at age almost eighty I thought he was too old to move on to another “frontier.”  And most important I couldn’t imagine losing to Oregon one of the best friends I had in Anderson Valley.

Next time:  Lyle and Grace in coastal Oregon, The End of the Road.

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