Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1995

Going to California

Bob Bilyeu, eldest son of Thelma and Hosea, was a small child when the family went to California in 1941. The following is from his tape recorded reminiscence, done with Thelma in January, 1995. "BB" is Bob; "TB" is Thelma.

BB: I remember when I was about three years old, I was sleeping in a baby bed in the living room and looking through the bars at night. We had an old King heater, and you could open the top and it would make a flicker on the ceiling. I remember laying in the bed and looking up at the flicker. The house had two outside doors. One door went into the kitchen and one went into the living room. On the living room side was the heating stove. Right behind it was the cook stove. Against the back wall was some cabinets and there was a back door. Right across from the back door was some kind of a little building; a smoke house or something. Just to the fight of that was the cistern.

I remember how noisy the wind was in that house! In the living room at night it would just moan and groan and make all kinds of noises. In the kitchen we had linoleum, but it didn't reach clear to the edge of the walls. There were cracks in the floor of the kitchen and the wind would get up under that linoleum and lift it up.

Sometime that spring [1941], Dad decided to go California. Barbara and I didn't know a thing about this. The night before he was going to leave we went down in Dry Hollow to New Haven Church. I don't think the church was completely built then. It was at a brush arbor down past the church. People were telling Dad "bye" and I began to wonder where he was going and how long he was going to be gone. Then I got the true story and it did not appeal to me. I set up quite a howl.

Dad was going to California with Emery and Minnie Williams and their baby girl. He was going to fide with them in an old car, like a '31 or '32 Chevy. It had a tire that fastened on the back. There was some kind of contraption on the back to haul extra stuff, like a shelf strapped on the bumpers. The next day when they got ready to leave, [the decision had suddenly been made] that Mom and Dad and Barbara and I were all going, l We had boxes sitting in the floorboard between the seats. The Williams' baggage was strapped on here and there.

So all seven of us started off for California in one little old car with no trunk. I remember once we had a flat. The road was dusty. It was not black topped even though it was a main road.

TB: It wasn't a flat tire. The car was drinking as much oil as it did gas! Emery [Williams] overhauled the car before starting and he'd left off a gasket. We stopped close to Salida, Colorado and--

BB: --had to borrow tools from somebody. Another time on the way, early in the morning, there was a place where we stopped for something. Someone was running a gasoline engine-powered Maytag wash-mg machine without a muffler. I had never seen or heard anything like that in my life and someone said it was a "washing machine." I'd never seen anybody wash with anything but a tub and board, so "washing machine" meant nothing to me.

TB: One thing I remember on the trip [to California] was the only time we ate in a cafe or restaurant. We mostly got things at stores and made sandwiches. We stopped at a place called Truckee and that was the lousiest meal I ever got in my life. I left there mad as a wet hen. I ordered pancakes and syrup. The syrup was homemade and it was burned. And the children were used to eating oatmeal for breakfast and they didn't have any oatmeal.

BB: After we got to California I remember sleeping in a shed of wooden fruit boxes--

TB: Drying trays. The shack was built out of them.

BB: It seemed to me like that it had just a roof and no sides and we used the boxes up around the sides. You laid the quilts on the boxes and that was our bed. The boxes stacked around us gave us a little privacy.

I remember too, staying in a barn. We lived in a tent inside the barn. Another man lived in the other end of the barn. You could see across the fields to some little town.


TB: The town was Suisun. We could see the water tower.

BB: The man who lived in the barn would catch mice and show us the mice he had caught.

We went to a little church, What we could call now a "storefront church."

One time I was out in the orchards while Mom and Dad were working. There was an immense lady there, maybe Filipino. She was different from the people I was used to at home. She was a real nice lady, but I'm not even sure she spoke English. She sang--sang in a different language. There was a Chinese family too. The kids spoke English but I don't think the parents did. We really liked them. At an early age I learned there were a lot of different kinds of people.

I remember once visiting in a big house. In the middle of the kitchen table was a radio. An electric light hung down on a cord. The radio was electric and was plugged in to that light. You could look in the back of that radio, and see all the tubes. I had seen some cities on the way out and it looked like a town inside that radio. It was all amazing to me.

I remember one woman, she was one of the first women I ever knew who smoked cigarettes. She would give me a penny and send me over to a little bitty store to get matches for her. I could not look over the top of the counter, and I would have to make a noise to get their attention. I would hold that penny up and they would bring the matches out. I felt really big going in and purchasing matches and taking them back to her.

When we got ready to come home Dad bought a car, a Model A Ford. We loaded up and headed home. On the way home, I remember coming over the Oatman Pass. Those cars made a horrible noise when they were in second gear. Coming down the pass from California, there was a town at the bottom. At night, that town looked like it was way, way down.

In the desert we had those water bags. They would hang them on the radiator in the front of the car--looked like a burlap bag. Those bags always felt damp. We would drink water out of them and even in the desert they kept the water pretty cool.

Driving down the road one evening, it started to snow big. This was late October. The car had windshield wipers, but they were the kind you had to do by hand with levers, and the lever on the driver's side was missing. There was just a little slot. Mom got out a tablespoon and would reach over to do the lever so Dad could see to drive in the snow. Finally we got to Flagstaff, Arizona, to find a place to stay. We ended up staying at what looked like a house, but I guess it was some kind of inn. We had the attic room. It had a window, like a ceiling window. All of us slept in a great big thick feather bed. The next morning we woke up and the sun was shining and it had quit snowing.

TB: When we checked in the night before we asked about the weather. They said about every year at that time would come a snowstorm that would keep them in for about two or three weeks. We went to bed with that on our minds. In that attic there was no fire and I swore we'd freeze to death. But we got in that feather bed and there was a wool comforter that we covered up with. We didn't get cold. I never slept better in my life. I guess we were tired.

BB: We came back Highway 66 through southern California, Flagstaff, etc. Later in my life we went out again and it seemed backwards to me. I know I viewed it out the back window of the car instead of out the front window. I must have been standing in the back seat looking out the back window.

It was a big excitement, an adventure. While we were driving it seemed like every car on the road passed us. Of course, a lot of them were newer cars. It was 1941, and they looked real snazzy and modern to me.

The last thing I remember about this trip, was coming into a town that had a big rock archway over the road. Something was written on it and I assumed at the time it was the name of the city, but I couldn't read it for sure. I found out later it was Oklahoma City. The moon was up over the arch, and Dad said, "See that moon? That same moon is shining on Grandpa Bilyeu's to night." I started watching the moon, and it seemed like it was moving. I couldn't figure out how the moon could be with us now, moving, and how it could also be at grandpa's.

TB: That's pretty good remembering for a three year-old!

BB: I also remember getting back on Halloween. The next thing, people were talking about Pearl Harbor.


Copyright -- OzarksWatch

Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues | Keyword Search

Local History Home

 Springfield-Greene County Library