by Derryl Dumermuth
When you consider all the cities crowding the Southern San Joaquin Valley today, it's hard to realize that as late as 1850 there were no white settlers in what was to become Tulare County. In the fall of that year John Wood led a party of 14 men to a spot near the Kaweah River about eight miles east of present day Visalia. They set about clearing the land with the aim of planting wheat and barley. At the same time they built a log cabin and laid the foundations for four more. Little had been accomplished before Chief Francisco of the Yokuts gave the would-be farmers ten days to clear out. On the tenth day the Indians returned to find the intruders ignoring their ultimatum. The Indians attacked - two men escaped, Wood retreated to the cabin, the others were all killed. Wood fired on the warriors, killing at least nine and wounding several others, until he ran out of ammunition. His enemies climbed onto the roof, pried loose some shakes, and filled the hapless Wood with arrows. It was reported that they then dragged him from the cabin, tied him to a tree and skinned him while still alive. Thus ended the first attempt at agriculture in Tulare County.
Later that same year Elijah Packwood brought the first milk cows into Tulare County, a foretaste of the dairy industry to come. We can remember his contribution to agriculture when we cross the creek or drive past the shopping center that bears his name.
During the next few years a small settlement, known as Woodsville, grew up around the cabin. In 1853 an election was held under a nearby oak to decide whether the county seat of the newly formed Tulare County should be at Woodsville or at the year-old community of Visalia. Woodsville lost.
The gold rush of 1849 brought thousands of fortune hunters to California, and with them they brought a hunger for beef. In true American entrepreneurial spirit, San Joaquin Valley ranchers made ready to supply that demand. Steers that had been selling for only a couple of dollars a head suddenly commanded prices of 25 to 75 dollars a head.
By the 1860s farmers were flooding into the valley, many of them discouraged (or in a few cases successful) miners from the gold country. Most homesteaded a quarter section (160 acres), diverted water from the creeks and rivers, and planted their crops. Nearby Tulare Lake was the largest fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi, and the water table was close to the surface. Old-timers have reported that in some parts of the valley a posthole would soon fill with water.
Except for the never-ending struggle to find enough irrigation water during the long dry summers, the early settlers farmed in much the same way they had in the rainy East or Midwest - that is, they might have 8 or 10 cows, 100 hogs, sheep, beef cattle, poultry, and, of course, horses and mules to do the heavy work. Ranchers found plentiful grass, sometimes described as "belly high to a horse", for their cattle and sheep. The farmer's wife would tend a large vegetable garden, and perhaps a few fruit and nut trees. The families ate well and could barter the surplus in the nearest town, Visalia, for essentials that could not be produced on the farm.
But large-scale farming was out of the question until the railroad arrived in 1872. The trip for a freight wagon from Visalia to San Francisco took 14 days and cost a prohibitive $60 dollars a ton. Cattle and hogs could be driven the endless miles to the slaughterhouses in the bay area, but it was simply not profitable to ship large amounts of surplus grain, fruit, milk, and other produce from the valley. The railroad changed all that. Now trainloads of produce could be delivered by rail to the cities for only $10 per ton. The South Valley soon became the greatest wheat growing area in the world. It has been claimed that in the 1870s more wheat was shipped from tiny Traver than from any other railhead in the nation. Hundreds of acres of fruit trees were planted - now the fruit could be delivered to market with little danger of spoilage.
Before the dams were built to tame the Kaweah and Tule rivers, farmers were at the mercy of the weather, in particular of the snow pack in the Sierras - it was often feast or famine, flood or drought. The disastrous flood of 1862 covered much of the valley floor, including the future townsite of Tulare, and was followed by the drought of 1864. Little rain nourished the valley floor and virtually no snow fell in the mountains. Irrigation water disappeared, crops failed, cattle could find no forage and died by the thousands. The air was never free of the stench of decaying bodies. One Asa Porter was kept busy skinning the dead animals for their hides - in fact, they died at such a rate that many times they had been dead for quite a while before he could get to them. It was reported that his clothing so completely absorbed the odors that one's nose could detect his presence from several yards away.
The story of valley agriculture after the arrival of the railroad can be read in a later column.
Derryl Dumermuth is a retired TUHS mathematics teacher, author of "A Town Called Tulare", and co-author with his wife Wanda of "Tulare Legends and Trivia from A to Z". Both books were written as fund-raisers for the Tulare Historical Museum and can be purchased at the Museum's gift shop.