Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Children of Owenyo, Part 1

Around 100 years ago, a small railroad community came to life at base of the southern Inyo Mountains on the flats of the Owens valley.  Few traces remain today, but thanks to one man’s reminiscences, we catch a glimpse of life in this little town. Owenyo was a transfer station where standard gauge trains from Los Angeles met narrow gauge trains of the Owens Valley.

 Isolated in the sagebrush five miles northeast of Lone Pine, Owenyo must have felt remote to the children.  But the relative isolation offered fertile ground for youthful exploits, as found in the recollections of Roy Cline from the oral history collection of the Eastern California Museum. They offer an intimate view of life in the early 1920’s.  But the name "Owenyo” goes back in time even further, to the beginnings of a Quaker colony.

 In 1900, Quakers purchased 13,000 acres of land about a half a mile south of the future depot.   The colony had a post office from 1902-1905 as well as a school and store.  Canals brought plentiful water from as far away as the Bishop area, 50 miles to the north.  Forty-acre lots were promoted as prime, fertile ground for agriculture. But in reality it was dry desert, and despite the fact it had plenty of water, few chose to live there. The colony dissolved and the land was sold to the City of Los Angeles in 1905.  Five years later, on October 18, 1910, a new depot briefly called “New Owenyo” was christened with a silver spike hammered into the last rail, finally creating a route south out of the Owens River Valley

Technically Owenyo should be called a transfer station, not a depot.  Trains from Los Angeles to Carson City generally ran on a large standard gauge railroad track. Problem was the connection was interrupted by a smaller narrow gauge track that ran through the Owens Valley.    Standard gauge trains had to stop in Owenyo while passengers and freight were transferred from one boxcar to another, and then the process was reversed in Nevada. The two tracks were never connected; they laid side-by-side in Owenyo.   So when a load of chickens was being shipped, all those chickens had to be hand-transferred from one boxcar to another.  Owenyo developed into a sizable station with a considerable population that ran the train yard, hotel, restaurant, railroad station and the entire supporting infrastructure.  Needless to say there was plenty of work to support a family.

 One such family was the Clines who in moved to Owenyo in 1921. They lived in a boxcar, the original mobile home.   Many remote depots in the early days used boxcars as ready-made structures.  Wheels removed, the boxcars were placed on foundations two to three feet above ground.  Sometimes the homes were elaborate as recounted by Roy: “They take two boxcars and separate them, and then they’d fill [the area] between [with a] floor and then they’d put the roof over them, so we had another room in between.” When families moved in, more boxcars were set up, and that went for school as well.

Owenyo children went to boxcar-school, where grades first through eighth were taught by various teachers who would come and go. One instructor stood out in Roy’s memory. H.B. Newton ran classes with an iron fist wrapped around a ruler. Among Newton’s high expectations was penmanship, a zealous requirement that had a positive outcome for Roy: “We’d enter all of our work in county fairs.  Owenyo, that little town there would take first [place] all the time.”
Living in Owenyo was a multi-cultural experience.  Roy recalled nearly all his friends were Mexican, everyone spoke Spanish, and when it was suppertime, “We would go to their house and eat Mexican food, and they would come to ours and eat American food.” 

 The children’s world revolved around the train.  Roy recalled, “For years and years I thought milk came out of tin cans and our water came out of tank cars.” With no wells at Owenyo, water was brought in from a source just south of Diaz Lake.  Everything was brought in by train: “Your coal was brought in on gondolas.  They had a coal bin up there [where] they just dumped it in and you helped yourself.  [If] the bridge crew had any excess lumber that was brought in, they had a pile of that and you helped yourself.”  Everything seemed free, “[the railroad company] gave you your kerosene, your lamps, you get your aspirin or anything you need for free.”  That included ice. 

 In those days, ice was the only way to keep food fresh since the first self-contained refrigerators weren't generally available until 1923. Owenyo’s ice house was a large barn filled with sawdust to keep the ice from melting.  “You go down [to the icehouse] and get your family ice according to the size of  your family , you’d be allowed so much ice twice a week then, if you wanted extra, you had to buy it elsewhere.”  Here was an opportunity for the children to make some money.

 “We had an ice business in Owenyo,” Roy recalled. The children would take orders from the families of Owenyo and head for a larger icehouse just south of Manzanar. 300 pound ice slabs were sawed into 100 pound blocks for easier transport. “We’d buy it for 25 cents a hundred ... and get a dollar a hundred for it.”  But their most extraordinary job was every child’s fantasy.

 Hunting and fishing were favorite pastimes of the train crew and engine watchman, Zip Myers was no exception.  Myers’s job was to get the train engine ready for its run up and down the Valley.  To his delight the kids showed great interest in every detail of his job, so he taught them how to run the train. They learned everything from greasing the wheels to firing up the engine.  Myers was so impressed with their abilities that one day he told the kids he was going on vacation.  The children of Owenyo were in charge of the train.

 The pint-sized engineers knew exactly what to do: “Us kids would get in the train and we’d go up to the Y and throw the switch and take it up there, and fill it full of oil and water and bring our pressure up there, and grease it all up like we were supposed to. Heck, it would be weeks at a time that he wouldn’t even show up.  He could depend on us.  And as long as things were taken care of, they (the railroad) didn’t care either.  We had a lot of fun. We’d run ‘em up and down the tracks.” The kids basically prepared the train for the “crew” who ran the train north out of Owenyo, though not always on a schedule.

 “A lot of times, the crew would go swimming,” Roy recalled, “They had no schedule ... if anybody else wanted to ride it, they’d stop and pick them up on the flats.”  As for the children, they didn’t need the train.

 The kids rode the rails on hand-cars they called speeders.  It took four children to pump the fulcrum handle up and down, sending them speeding down the track. “If we wanted to go to the river, we’d get on one of them things there and take it down there,” Roy recalled.  “Everything was open; I mean they [the railroad] didn’t care.”  The kids would head to the bridge to go fishing and if they saw a train coming, they’d move the speeder off the tracks.  When they were done, they’d head back to Owenyo.

 The opening of the southern route out of the Owens Valley, courtesy of Owenyo, connected farmers and ranchers with new markets to the south. According to Roy, come summertime in the early days, dairy farmers down in Los Angeles would send cows temporarily north to the Owens Valley “to camp” as Roy put it.  Roy’s dad would occasionally bring fresh milk back home from the transient cows.  And along with the cows came the hay.

 Never letting anything go to waste, the kids took advantage of the leftover hay found in the boxcars.  “Us kids there had rabbits so when all the leaves and stems were left in the car wed take these burlap sacks and split them, sew four of them together and put them on the ground there.  We’d take a rake and rake all that hay and get a wheelbarrow and wheel it up to our yard there.  We’d have a stack half as big as a house.”

 Roy Cline had an iconic life. In part two, we’ll follow Roy’s exploits through the many jobs he held throughout the Eastern Sierra.

Copyright © 2015 Ted Williams. All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Children of Owenyo, Part 2

In part one of The Children of Owenyo, the story began years before the birth of the small railroad community nestled at the base of the southern Inyo Mountains.  The name Owenyo was coined from the conjunction of Owens Valley and Inyo, and given to a Quaker colony established in 1900 just northeast of the forthcoming railroad station.  After the colony’s demise in 1905, the name was given to the Valley’s newest depot established on October 18, 1910 with the placement of a silver spike. Owenyo, five miles north of Lone Pine, was actually a transfer station where commodities and supplies were swapped between the valley’s smaller narrow gauge railway, and the wider standard gauge railway that headed south out of the Valley.  The standard gauge was over a foot wider, and the two tracks never connected.

 A very busy station, Owenyo offered plenty of work for men supporting wives and children.  And those children had plenty of escapades as revealed in Part 1.  The adventurous children of Owenyo scooted down the railroad tracks on hand propelled “speeders” to their favorite fishing spots, and actually maintained and ran the steam locomotive for Zip Myers, an engine watchman who would disappear for weeks at a time to go fishing.

 Based on the oral history of Roy Cline, the children of Owenyo entertained themselves by making money filling the niche needs of the little town:  hauling and selling ice to families whose monthly allotments ran out, or selling skinned rabbits for 50 cents each to the trainmen and then selling the stretched rabbit hides. “We’d trap along the river there and get skunks, bobcats, coyotes. Then we’d get a bundle of those [hides] and ship them to St. Louis, the nearest place you could send them.”

 As with most kids, imagination helped pass the time.  One imaginative activity was centered on “Bunker Hill.” Word got out that children were scaling the flanks of a hill whose prominence inspired epic battles and adventures.  That word reached a friend who made a special trip to Owenyo to see the “Hill” for himself, a mountain he couldn’t find on a map. With great anticipation he finally arrived, and there it was:  a mound of dirt, towering but a few feet above the ground. It may have been small, but it was a mountain in the minds of the children of Owenyo. 

 Another pastime in the valley was hunting.  In Roy’s later life, his then brother-in-law would regale him with stories of duck hunting at turn-of-the-century Owens Lake, a time when it was nearly full.

“He went there one day, he had this platform and looked out there and there wasn’t any ducks so he got on this platform and went to sleep.  Later on he said the ducks woke him up.  He said he parted the tules and looked and said the sky was black with ducks.  He said he shot two times ... and he picked up two burlap sacks full of ducks.” 

According to Roy, when he grew up in the 1920s the valley was still green with agriculture.  At the time, the fruitful settlement of Manzanar was still productive. Established in 1910, Manzanar, a Spanish word meaning apple, produced fruit of exceptional quality.  The Consolidated Produce Company in Los Angeles reportedly contracted for fruit there and needed people to harvest the crop.  The kids at the train station were more than ready to help out since they had a compelling reason.  “Us kids there, we used to get out of school by picking fruit ... we’d get 30 cents an hour, nine hours a day.” Life was good for the children of Owenyo, but things were about to change.

 Roy lamented, “Everything started going downhill about 1928.” Manzanar was abandoned after the City of Los Angeles purchased the water rights to virtually the entire area, and the great depression was around the corner. When asked about the feelings in the Valley regarding Los Angeles buying up the property, Roy recalled:

"At the time I think it was pretty good because they give [sic] them a good price.  But later on when the banks went broke they weren’t too happy about it.  [That’s] because I remember there about 1928 they had bombing on the aqueduct and they had guards at the Alabama Gates [just north of Lone Pine].  And they make a raft, put the dynamite on it with a delayed fuse, and float it down the aqueduct.  They [city of Los Angeles] had large searchlights at all the crossing." 

With lack of water and private land, farming was fading away and jobs in agriculture took a hit.  But there was one local industry that was flourishing.

 In 1930, 16-year-old Cline was one of 17 local kids who were employed by Hollywood when movies, mostly westerns, were being filmed in the hills around Lone Pine: “I believe I worked in every [movie] Hopalong Cassidy made.”  There were actors and there were wranglers.  Roy began as a wrangler providing movie makers with horses for the countless westerns filmed in the Alabama Hills. Soon he became an actor riding “western”, which basically meant playing a cowboy in the movies.  They made just 5 dollars a day, and they were very long days: “We decided we weren’t getting enough money for the work ... so we formed an association called the Inyo Riders Association [that] raised our wages from five dollars to seven-fifty.”

  In 1935, the Screen Actors Guild reportedly expanded its influence into Lone Pine. Roy’s routine changed and conditions improved:

"We got a call at the Dow Hotel, which was our main place, and then we rode the bus up to the set.  They had to feed us every four hours.  If we had to ride in the scene we got a horse from the wranglers, then [we gave] it back ... and waited for the next call.” 

Roy and the others worked in the movies from 1930 to 1940. Then, an opportunity to work at Manzanar once again came along; this time the circumstances were different.
When Roy turned 28, the abandoned settlement of Manzanar became a Japanese internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Roy’s initial involvement with the camp was helping build the dozens of barracks designed to hold the nearly 10,000 individuals of Japanese descent.

 Later, employed as a postal carrier running mail between Bishop and Lone Pine, he began visiting the camp daily delivering mail. Roy befriended the young people of Manzanar, most of whom couldn’t understand why they were there: “I asked them, ‘what do you think of this?’ They’d say, ‘we’re American citizens, that’s all we know is American.’“ 

 Soon, Roy and his crews began installing drywall at the barracks to improve their conditions.  By then internees had created orchards and gardens to supplement their diet.  “The kids liked me and I liked them.  They’d do anything for me.  In fact ... they always made a point [to] send apples out with me, potatoes out with me.”  It was wartime, and the Owens Valley felt the effects of rationing. “Inside the camps, when things were rationed on the outside, they had everything in there they needed.  I could go there and get coffee or anything else that was rationed.”  Although Roy enjoyed his life in the southern Owens Valley, other opportunities began calling.

 In 1945, 31-year-old Roy Cline went to work for Inyo Lumber, helping gather logs from timber cuts in Mono County.  His job took him from June Lake to Mammoth, the mountains surrounding Crowley Lake, and Sherwin Summit.  He hauled the timber down to a lumber mill north of Bishop, a place that would later become the Millpond Recreation Area.

 According to Roy, Millpond Park actually had two functioning ponds, “The far one as you come into the park now was the holding pond ... and the closest one near the slab was the working pond.”  The sloping concrete slab can still be seen today. “They would float them [logs] to the mill then lift them up onto the slab to roll them onto the saw.  They had the guys on the lifts piling lumber, the drying and stacking units. They had a 24-hour shop.” Millpond reportedly employed at least 100 men.

 Roy Cline was among many who seized jobs wherever they could find them; sometimes it was for money, sometimes it was for the adventure.  Roy’s various jobs were iconic in their representation of local rural life, from selling animal hides,  to working the orchards in a once fruitful valley, acting in local westerns,  logging, mining, and other jobs too numerous to share.  And it all started when a young boy moved to a remote train station in southern Owens Valley, and became one of the children of Owenyo.