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Sunday, December 07, 2003

‘Good old days’ were not always good

Jerry Bowen

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A breakneck ride in cart was hard on bones

We like to reminisce about the “good old days” and indeed many of the earlier times were in fact just that.

There were, however, times that tested a person’s resolve to the limit, and yet those experiences are remembered with a fondness that sometimes may be hard to understand. Perhaps it is because the “bad times” are what builds character and strength in an individual.

I recently came across the Laurence J. Maglio file at the Vacaville Heritage Council and his stories of his early life reflect much of just that.

His father preceded the family from Italy and purchased a 40-acre fruit ranch in the English Hills north of Vacaville. Laurence was 4 years old when he and his mother arrived at the Elmira railroad station in 1908. His father was to pick them up in Vacaville but they had missed the train from Elmira to Vacaville. So, with Laurence in tow, with packages and a couple of suitcases, they trudged on foot to Vacaville where they met his father.

It was still about eight miles from Vacaville to the ranch and as Maglio wrote, “The conveyance he brought was a two-wheel cart, a neck breaker, as your neck bobbed back and forth as you rode. As buggies were pretty expensive, the two-wheel cart was all my father could afford. It had a seat for three people and just enough room for a few bags. No top or other enclosure.”

The ranch consisted of a small house with a cellar, no inside plumbing and a Dutch oven outside to bake bread. There was a barn and a shed for drying apricots and for water they had to go down the hill to a hand-pumped well about a hundred yards from the house. Maglio commented, “I made many a trip up and down that hill with a three-gallon bucket. You can see how frugal we were with water since we had to carry it that far.”

About 20 yards from the house was a privy that was okay in the summer but was “pure misery in the winter.” A wood stove in the kitchen was the only warm spot in the winter.

His sister, Theresa, was born on the ranch Aug. 2, 1909. It took Laurence’s father about three hours to go to Vacaville and summon Doctor Jenny who rode back to the house on a bicycle to deliver the new baby.

School days at the Peaceful Glen School were not particularly laced with fond memories for the young Italian lad who spoke no English. Another Italian child that sat next to him would try to translate for him but it wasn’t enough and often resulted in the teacher disciplining the young boy.

There were about 40 kids in the school, all in one room. The youngest was 6 and the oldest 18. The older children would steal from the younger ones and according to Maglio, “if you had anything to say, they would beat the hell out of you.”

He only went to school for three months when his mother took him out because he was always beat up. He commented, “The teacher never came over to see why I didn’t go to school. I guess she figured good riddance.”

The three years they lived on the English Hills Ranch were the hungriest years he spent in his life. During the summer there was plenty of fruit to eat, but the winters were rough. His father bought burlap sacks full of rock hard doughnuts for 25 cents, telling the baker he bought them for the dogs. The dogs never got any of the doughnuts, and as Laurence said, “I’ve never tasted a doughnut since that was as good as those.”

In 1911 his father sold the ranch and went to work on a ranch owned by the Pacific Portland Cement Co. They moved from English Hills to what is today, Paradise Valley, into “an old house there that had a leak in the bedroom where I slept. Right next to the bed we had to put a washtub under the leak in the bedroom where I slept. The rent was $10 a month. Also, that’s where I got my first dog. His name was Tony.”

Laurence was 7 years old and started school again in the first grade at Dover School about two miles from the ranch. The teacher was Miss Burton.

His experience at the new school was similar to that at Peaceful Glen. But his situation was about to change for the better because of a teacher who cared.

“The only kids that treated me right while I went to Dover were the Swanson girls - Elaine and Gladys. The rest of the kids treated me like I was a pariah or something. I’ll relate an incident that happened when I was going to Dover school. Since I still didn’t speak English, and having heard my father say some words in English, I thought I would try them on a girl by the name of Annie Bortano. She turned me in to the teacher, Miss Burton, and she sent me home. When I got home my mother asked me why I was home. I told her, ‘I don’t know. She told me to go home, so I went.’ My mother said, ‘I guess she don’t want you in her school, so I guess you stay home.’ After about three weeks Miss Burton came by and asked how come I hadn’t returned to school. My mother said, ‘You sent him home, so I figured you didn’t want him in your school.’ Miss Burton said, ‘He cussed one of the girls in school - that’s why I sent him home.’ My mother told her that as we speak only Italian in the house, he had learned those few bad words from his father, and he thought he was learning English. Of course, my mother only spoke broken English. Miss Burton said, ‘Send him back to school and I’ll see that he learns English.’ She took great pains to teach me the rest of that semester.”

In 1912 the family moved again, this time to the town of Cement about three miles from the ranch. He described the town as having two streets and, “The elites - such as foremen and superintendents - lived on Store Street and the workers on the other street. I don’t remember its name. The town had a company store, a hotel and a hospital.”

He was 8 years old and in the second grade: the school he attended then had two teachers. Miss Bailey taught the first to the fourth grade and Miss DeLaye taught the fifth to the eighth grade. That’s where he met what would be long-time friends, Mrs. Ann Matson Digerud and her sister and brother, Hazel and Carl Matson.

But by 1913 another move was in the making. The family moved to Vanden on a little 20-acre farm with a one-room house that his father bought for $175 an acre. His father hired Mr. Matson, Mrs. Digerud’s father, to add three rooms to the house. The house had a long hall through the middle and all four doors opened into the hall. There was no plumbing and no clothes closets. His comment on the closets was, “Naturally we had no clothes to store in them - so who needed clothes closets?”

The farm was located next to what now is Vanden High School. At that time it was bare land. But as he said, “There was one good thing - the hand pump was close to the house.”

I’ll continue the story of Laurence Maglio in my next column.