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Sunday, January 18, 2004

Childhood was busy in the 1880s

Jerry Bowen

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Thomas Buckingham lost his sight at age 12

Much has been written about Elise P. Buckingham. She was one of the west’s first big women ranchers and her spread covered much of Lagoon Valley.

With the possibility of development of Lagoon Valley in the near future, perhaps a story about it through the eyes of a young boy might be interesting.

The boy I refer to was Thomas Hugh Buckingham III. He wrote about his memories of his childhood in the 1880s, from age 6 to about the age of 12. His boyhood was severely shattered at the age of 12 when he was badly injured in a ranch accident that cost him his sight and right hand.

Thomas was born in 1883 to Elise Buckingham’s son, Thomas Hugh Buckingham II, who ran much of the ranch’s operations for his mother.

The younger Thomas wrote that at the age of six, “My, I was a busy fellow. I had so much to do that the day was not long enough to take care of it.”

If he woke up early enough, he would have breakfast at 5:30 a.m. with the ranch hired hands. The meals were bountiful, with stewed prunes, mush, ham and eggs, and hotcakes, “food enough to carry a man through six hours of work.”

His day was crowded with events and things that today would probably bore a present-day child. He was fascinated with the daily operations of the orchards, cutting shed, packinghouse, the barn, fruit wagon and the many ranch hands with ladders climbing into the hundreds of trees picking fruit. He never seemed to get enough of the activity that surrounded him and the feeling that the outdoors was the greatest place in the world to be.

Then, to what to him was the end to all that he loved ... it was time for him to attend school! According to him, “There was a thing called school. School meant nothing to me. I didn’t know anyone who went to school. I knew my younger sister and my baby brother. I knew Vladimir Steinmetz. His home was half a mile from mine and he was my age. I learned of school from my mother. If I may take a twentieth century saying and carry it back to the late eighteen hundreds, I now realize my mother was brain-washing me. She was trying to make me eager to go to this thing called school!”

He described the one-room Lagoon Valley Schoolhouse as “One of those little red schoolhouses. Only it was painted white and had green shutters.” The school was located near the northeast corner of the intersection of Pleasants Valley and Cherry Glen Roads.

It was a one-room schoolhouse with a platform at one end with the teacher’s desk on it. A chalkboard ran the full length of the wall behind the desk. In front of the teacher’s desk was a bench where the pupils sat during their recitations. Behind the bench were the rows of desks with the smaller ones in front and larger ones toward the back. A wood stove sat in the middle of the building.

The day started when the teacher, Miss Morehouse, arrived by horse and buggy from Vacaville and started a fire in the stove. The older boys took care of the horse as the girls swept the floor. School started at nine o’clock when the teacher rang the school bell. The school averaged 35 pupils in 10 grades.

Thomas made an interesting observation about schools and teachers: “Miss Morehouse was equipped to teach those 35 pupils in 10 grades because she had graduated from the Vacaville Academy. The academy was privately owned, and the parents paid to have their children go there. Then the parents got the idea of having taxpayers pay for their children because the town had a public high school. So the academy died of starvation.”

Everyday life generally moved at a slow rate compared to today’s frenzied pace. The orchards had grown so large that the family couldn’t harvest the fruit themselves. They hired “tramps,” what we today call “homeless workers” who traveled from one region to another according to what needed to be harvested. The Buckingham family evidently treated many of the hired help as family as they returned year after year. Although shelters were available to the workers, most of them preferred to camp out on the property in the open in what they called “Circle City.” Decades later, Hugh would have the pleasure of running into many of the old hired hands who always talked about the ranch with very fond memories. Some of the men were even able to purchase their own properties in their homelands from money they saved while working at the Buckingham ranch.

Great care in the handling of the fruit was always observed. In the beginning it was even packed in the parlor of the home until a packing shed was built later. Vacaville fruit was relished in the eastern states and was shipped by train from Vacaville’s loading sheds on East Main Street next to Andrews Park.

The Buckingham fruit wagon that was used to deliver the fruit to the train was one of young Buckingham’s favorite diversions. He described the wagon as cream-colored with wheels and running gear painted bright red. It had black panels on the side with the words “Lagunitas Ranch” carved into them. The driver, Murdock McLeod, kept the wagon meticulously clean and polished it up especially for the trips to town with its two-and-a-half-ton loads of fruit.

Of course young Buckingham hitched a ride whenever he could. The ranch had an entrance on the Vacaville side that had a unique gate mechanism. As the wagon approached it, the driver would pull on a rope hanging from a pole overhead to open the gate and another on the other side to close it.

The road to town is today’s Cherry Glen Road. With a full load of fruit, the wagon worked its way down today’s Merchant Street - then a dirt road - toward town about a mile farther. Murdock had paid for brightly colored tassels that he proudly hung from the horses’ halters for the trips.

When the wagon pulled up to the railroad siding, Murdock would begin unloading at the docks and men quickly loaded the boxes into train cars loaded with ice cakes for the trip east.

When the cargo had been unloaded, “We drove home at a full trot. Horses are always cheerful when they are headed toward their barn. We were driving against the wind, and the team’s tassels stood out in the breeze. Murdock was also cheerful because he too was headed for the barn.”

Thomas went on to live a long life, apparently remembering his early days in Lagoon Valley with a great fondness, even though he was severely injured in the accident on the ranch. Today nothing is left to remind a visitor to the lagoon of the activities of the past. The ranch is gone, but memories linger.

Thomas wrote his memoirs while living in Berkeley and his wife Lotita published them for members of the family in 1973.