A bus for farmworkers in the 1950s

The Way to Town

By Cecile Lusby

In 1952, we moved to our grandfather’s ranch on South Fruit Avenue outside Fresno. Will Main and his wife had taken the train from Cheyenne, Wyo., where they saw fruit box labels painting California as a dreamscape for pilgrims to the great Central Valley. He finished building their house in 1884.

In those days, they rode to town by horse and buggy, Grandma selling butter and eggs on J Street, Grandpa and his brother working on the Fresno Water Tower. By the time we moved in, Grandpa was a retired widower going back and forth between the ranch and his other home in Pacific Grove, leaving his daughter Laura to watch the big house on South Fruit.

Mama’s aunts had taken my mother in after she was orphaned in 1936. Now penniless and exhausted at 29, my mother needed help again. She married at 18, then divorced six years later to be a bookkeeper, never earning enough to pay her bills. Mama looked for work and Aunt Laura watched us. I learned all the family stories over cups of tea, but my aunt told me Grandpa Main’s story first.

Will Main loomed large in my imagination. Aunt Laura said that in 1948 when he was 91, Grandpa ran an ad for a gardener. There were many eucalyptus and walnut trees, with leaves to be raked and grapevines to be tended. After a week there were two qualified applicants: Slim, a White man from Arkansas, and Arthur, a Black man from Texas.

Unwilling to turn either away, Grandpa Main hired both at halftime, but when he paid both men the same—a dollar an hour, that bit of fairness was 10 years ahead of local and national standards. Not paying a White man more than a colored man was a special affront to the man from Arkansas.

After Slim told some of his cohorts, they drove to the ranch one night and threw trash onto the property. The timing had been carefully planned so that Slim would be out of town. By daylight, there were heaps of loose debris on the front lawn. Arthur was to work that day and was the one who had to clean it up. For the next two nights, Grandpa sat out on the porch in his old rocker, his cane at his side, waiting in case the men came back.

“Thought they might ’a come by to say something to my face,” he said. When no one returned, Grandpa went back to Pacific Grove.

Early in January 1953, Grandpa Main died, leaving Aunt Laura in charge. Mama, my brother and I pitched in to help out, following the rules for poor relations in an extended family. Mama learned to drive and found a job nearby at Cudahy Meats, a slaughterhouse up the road a couple of miles at the corner of South Fruit and Church Avenue.

Mama brought home her fringe benefits of steaks and chops, extending her small bookkeeper’s salary, but Cudahy suddenly closed its Fresno plant. Overnight, Mama flew into rages over our table manners or our facial expressions. She found another job and we moved to town for a while, but since my father never paid child support, she couldn’t pay the rent.

We returned to the ranch again, and then I was 12 and soon 13. The familiar landscape had lost its enchantment for me over the years, but this was the route to my known world. Mama drove to St. John’s School and then to her new job at Roos Bros. When it was warm, I liked to roll the windows down. To feel the wind on my face with clear skies above and both Coast Range and Sierra mountains visible on either side gave me a sense of living with no visible limits or boundaries. And yet in any direction, there were fences and borders around cotton fields, cattle ranches and fruit orchards.

We went to school during the week and traveled into town to do our shopping on Saturdays. We traveled north on South Fruit about three miles to the twisty Snake Road past the city limits. On Sundays, we went to church at St. John’s Cathedral downtown. Along the way, we passed by the Fresno Water Tower with Grandpa’s plasterwork on the exterior, his brother Eugene’s intricate brickwork inside. It made me proud of my roots and my place in Fresno’s past.

By 1954, Aunt Laura had died. The Cudahy plant was closed and shuttered, and two blocks away, right outside the city limits was the local dump that stood for years, a massive mound with its own special stench. Directly across the street were tarpaper shacks set aside for Black farmworkers.

In winter, men huddled around fires in 50-gallon drums. Old battered buses in the driveway parked there to carry the laborers to their worksites, picking them up at daybreak and bringing them home by evening. No one in the main part of town saw these buses or their dark, sad-faced riders, yet it was an everyday sight in the country. I felt such sorrow for these people that I hunched down in my seat so they would not see me staring.

The contrasts and the separation between the rich and poor bothered me and so I spoke to the nuns at St. John’s about it. The sisters said this tiny Black district had a Catholic mission, St. Peter Claver on Church Avenue just beyond the old Cudahy plant. I don’t remember seeing colored families at St. John’s or the other Catholic parishes inside Fresno.

Every Sunday, the Blessed Sacrament sisters at St. Alphonsus drove out to the countryside to pick up folks in that area for Mass. I called the number and soon they were picking me up to go along to St. Peter Claver. My friend Catherine went along with her parents, and we were the only White people there. That mission had no regular caretaker, so I brought greens for the altar at Christmastime and roses in May to make the bleak altar a little cheerier. I had no idea what else I could do to help.

It was Mama who raised us, fed us, explained the world like a mother bird feeding her chicks, but in ways and words that now upset me. Her duty, as she saw it, was to help us fit into our rightful place in American society, following a narrow path to typing class, a good sorority and a business major. She parked and waited to pick me up every day after school in her 20-year-old Buick.

“Who lets those girls wear such tight skirts?” she said.

“I don’t know, Mama.”

“Where did all the Mexicans and Italians come from? What kind of private school is this?” Her blunt bigotry shocked me; her new opinions withered my ears.

“They’re St. John’s girls,” I answered. “Their parents pay tuition.”

In June 1957, Mama got a letter announcing a $20 increase in tuition after my sophomore year, reason enough to transfer me to the all-White Fresno High for my junior year. That was that. I suppose her lessons were the same ones other mothers were teaching their daughters to pass on 20th-century values about the modest role of women in the larger social order, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It sounded like a stunted life to me.

When Mama married her longtime boyfriend in 1958, we moved away to be near his job, first to San Francisco and then to Mill Valley. I put my life in the San Joaquin Valley behind me, but I remember learning the differences in my grandfather’s history, my mother’s story and what I saw and felt in the home I found in Fresno. It is the foundation of my world.

*****

Cecile Lusby is a freelance writer, retired English teacher and school counselor who has written a memoir, Lullabies from Liberty Street. Visit her Web site at www.cecilelusby.com, and contact her at cecilusby@hotmail.com. Read her follow up to this article in Community Alliance newspaper at https://fresnoalliance.com/my-mission/

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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