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Billy Owens: An ‘Okie’ Family’s Migration

I met Bill right after my wife and I first moved to The Valley fifty years ago. Our meeting place was the Floodgate Store bar along Highway 128 toward the Deep End of Navarro. Moving to the country from San Francisco introduced me to the playbook of American country music. In those days “Country” was most of what was on rural California radio, and that’s what I listened to on my pick-up’s radio at full blast while I was working the vineyard rows. I could get KRAK radio in Sacramento, KFRE in Fresno, and all sorts of North Coast Country stations, sometimes listening four or five hours a day, nothing but “Country.”

Then there was what I later called Karaoke Night on Fridays at Floodgate. Around 4 PM two “crummies,” station wagons hauling Shuster Logging’s Anderson Valley’s woods crews would pull into Floodgate, a dozen or so dusty, caulk-booted woods workers would fill the bar area, order a beer, and soon start singing “country” music, sometimes solo, sometimes a trio, sometimes half a dozen voices or more. The choirmaster and lead singer was Billy Owens. 

And those brief Friday night jams at Floodgate provoked in my wife a great idea: one Thursday afternoon she brought down to Floodgate an old guitar she couldn’t play, and Floodgate owner Sam Avery put the guitar on the backbar. Friday afternoon, when Shuster’s work crew piled into the bar, Billy Owens eyes lit up when he saw the guitar. He got Sam to give him the instrument, plucked it once, frowned, tuned it by ear and broke into one of my favorite Country songs, “Wabash Cannonball.” The rest of that story comes later.

Bill Owens was born in October, 1929, in a log cottage in a farming area a few miles outside of Stillwell, Oklahoma. I looked Stillwell up in a twenty year old American atlas. In 2002 the town’s population was 3,200 and lay ten miles west of the Arkansas border and closer to Fayetteville than to Muscogee, in northeast Oklahoma. Bill’s dad, Mack Emmitt, was a blacksmith with a shop in Stillwell who was also a skilled livestock trader, buying the best horses and milk cows at the local auction and selling them to needy neighbors. 

His “smithie” skills went beyond horse shoeing and included making wagon steel tires and spokes, sharpening plows, repairing broken farm equipment and so on. Bill apprenticed to his dad’s forge at an early age, handing him metalwork tools and pumping the forge bellows to keep the fire hot. He also learned the shoeing craft at this early age. Once during the early forties his dad got a contract job with Hollywood’s RKO movie pictures to shod dozens of horses for one of their western movies, and Bill and his older brother helped with the actual shoeing work.

By the mid-1930s, the Great Depression forced Bill’s family to begin its migration that ended up in California ten years later. First destination was El Reno, a town twenty miles west of Oklahoma City and on Route US 66 and the Rock Island Pacific railroad line. The Owens, husband, wife, fourteen kids, in fact lived in a single story cottage thirty feet from the railroad’s freight yard, two mainline tracks and 11 sidings. The family lived day and night to the sound of steam engines pounding, their whistles blowing, sounds Bill still today can capture in his yodels.

Bill’s dad secured several part time jobs around El Reno, including doing rail laying and working in the local warehouse alongside the rail yard, unloading groceries, dry goods, farm equipment, etc., servicing retail stores in the area. But the Great Depression was at its depths, and the family moved again to be near his mother Linnie’s kin up north in Sapulpa near Tulsa. Some of the Owens children moved in with uncles and aunts. Then in 1940, the family decided Oklahoma could no longer support them, and it was time to head west seeking better employment opportunities.

The family owned a 1932 Chevrolet sedan. So they acquired a double axle trailer, loaded their worldly possessions aboard it, and Emmitt, Vinnie, seven kids and the family dog headed west. The three oldest daughters stayed in Sapulpa and later hitch hiked out to join the family in California. Bill’s dad’s next stop was on a farm some forty miles south of Phoenix, where he became a sharecropping cotton grower. Bill remembers at age 13 he was doing the plowing and cultivation to prepare the ground for cotton seed. Power to drive the farm equipment wasn’t a tractor but a pair of draft horses.

Sister Cleo and the 1932 Chevy. Bill’s not sure where.

By the end of World War II, the Owens realized that sharecropping cotton also couldn’t support the large family. So they were back on the road again, this time settling in Madera where his Dad opened another blacksmith shop and continued doing “smithie” work for the San Joaquin Valley ag community. After two years living and going to high school in Madera, Bill headed out, and ended up in Anderson Valley. His older sister Cleo had preceded him here and had married Louisiana “Arkie” and logger Buck Clark, and Buck helped Bill find work in Anderson Valley’s timber industry. Bill lived in a “shack” at the Whitaker Ranch along Anderson Creek behind the Philo Grange.

Bill and his Guitar, possibly Madera.

Bill’s first job was working for Glen Schaefer, a “gyppo” independent logger, himself a recent arrival, not from the South, but from Tensleep, a nowhere town atop Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains. I tried to find Tensleep once on one of my camping trips across America. All that was left of the village was a sign on Highway US 12 announcing “Tensleep, pop 10, altitude 7,800’”, no sign of a building or a human. 

Bill began his woodsman career with Shaefers helping fallers move their tools from tree to tree and working on the landing limbing and bucking logs with a huge sixty pound, six foot bar McCullough saw. He retired from the woods in 1994, age 64. During his career he worked both in the woods and in The Valley’s saw mills, and once at the Greenwood mill in Elk, mostly pulling green chain. 

Since then He and his wife Wanda have pursued some less stressful employment. They retired three years ago from their most recent job, delivering from their car to local subscribers the daily edition of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The only reason they finally left the labor force was because the PD ceased to sell newspapers in The Valley.

Bill met his wife Wanda Housley when she was an employee in the meat department at Jack’s Valley Store in Philo. They began dating, and after Bill invited Wanda to dine with him in Cloverdale, forgot his wallet and let Wanda pay for the meal. In 2000 Wanda told the Anderson Valley high school journalists for the Roots of The Valley project she decided she already had an investment in Bill and could accept his marriage proposal. In 1963 they married and first lived in a Benny Mills cottage rental south of the Philo Grange, and raised four children, Bobby, Michael, Vicky and James. 

Today, fifty years later, fully retired, they live happily on Mountain View Road on the property where his sister Cleo and her husband Buck lived.

(Next Week: Bill Owens’ Life in Music)

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