My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Chapter 3: Leaving Navelencia

          “Nick and I moved into a barn on Jack’s place.  Jack had bought a little farm in Navelencia.  The barn had separate living quarters from the livestock.  The rooms we lived in had 1’x 12’ boards for a floor and I think there were 2 rooms.  We picked oranges that winter.  I believe Nick got married and moved out, so I slept there and ate with Jack and Agnes. …  On October 24, 1940, I married Velma Elsie Reimer. … Our first home was the same barn I mentioned previously where Nick and I lived.  It was clean, nailed out and warm.”                                                                                                                               Frank J. Willems (unpublished memoir, used with permission).        

         A few months after Uncle Frank and Aunt Velma moved into the barn at Navelencia, my dad lost the place.  Dad said he’d made a deal with the man who held the loan to forgo the first year’s crop payment so that Dad could put that money into improvements on the farm.  Dad leveled and planted alfalfa on nine acres of bare land next to the canal and also put in a new driveway from the road to the house and barn.  Dad said he had a nice crop of alfalfa growing by the time of the fall harvest, but when the crop came in, the man came out to the farm and asked for the year’s payment.  Dad protested,

            “We agreed we’d put this payment into the soil!” 

            “Do you have it in writing?” 

             You know I don’t.

            Well, I guess I’ll have to foreclose.

Dad said the man later gave him $200 to buy him out.

            Dad was convinced he had been cheated.  He said he trusted the man because he was a deacon in the Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church.  Dad had been reared in that church and was still a member even though he seldom went to church and very definitely did not live what could be considered a good Christian life.  Dad did, however, expect those who made that claim to live up to the standards they preached.  He was angry and very bitter. Soon after the foreclosure, Dad wrote the Reedley MB Church Council asking them to excommunicate him because he didn’t want to be in the same church with that deacon.

            Dad never again tried to buy a farm.  He was done with farming.  It was time to move out of the Reedley-Dinuba area with all its Mennonites and get a new start.  Mom’s parents, my Grandpa and Grandma Young, had a nice farm just south of Lodi on Highway 99. This was familiar territory for my folks, and the Stockton-Lodi area was prospering.  Lodi farmland was rich, and Stockton, a port city on the San Joaquin River with deep water access to San Francisco Bay, was bustling with construction in preparation for the nation’s entry into the war raging in Europe and the Far East. The Depression was far from over, but in places like Stockton men were being hired.  Moving there looked like a good bet, and when my folks hit the highway they were not alone.  Dad’s two youngest brothers, Frank and Ed, as well as Frank’s new wife, Velma, and Ed’s buddy Lowell, went with them.

            My dad called the house we moved into the “the Binger place.”  It was a two story house out in the farmland east of Lodi.  He said he paid $40 a month rent for it.  There was a big deodor cedar on the lawn in front of the house.  To me it looked like a beautiful Christmas tree, a perfect Christmas tree.  To me, this was the Christmas Tree House.

      “The house [in Lockford] was located where Highway 12 and 88 come together.  For a short time your Dad and Mom lived downstairs in the house and Frank and Velma lived upstairs.  Lowell and I slept in a shed also on the property.  From there I think Frank moved to another farm for a while.”                                                                                                               (Ed Willems, e-mail: 3/24/08)

            All my memories of the Christmas Tree House are winter memories—dark grey sky, a muddy driveway, mud around the outbuildings where Mom kept the chickens and a cantankerous cow with short teats her parents had given her.  That cold, muddy yard was no place for a small child to play.  I played inside the house.  That is the space I remember most clearly.

            There were six adults living at that place, though I can’t truly “see” any of them when I think back.  I am very aware that Frank and Velma live upstairs.  I know that Mom is somewhere near.  But what I “see” is the stairway going up from the big empty, linoleum floored dining room.  This was my play room, big enough for me to ride my tricycle round and round.  There are French doors that open into a cold, empty living room that extends clear across the front of the house.  The doors are closed to conserve heat, but I can see the linoleum floor and the bank of windows that extend across the front of the house.  On the other side of the dining room across from the French doors is the kitchen.  I can see a bit of the way into it, but not far.  It is dim and seems not very large.  I can also see a little way into my bedroom.  The door is at the foot of the open stairs that go up to the room where Uncle Frank and Aunt Velma live.  They have a closet I love to play in, a big walk-in closet with a built-in chest of drawers and a bench to sit on.

            I loved to “go visiting.”  I would climb the stairs and knock on the door.  When Aunt Velma answered it, I’d ask if I could “come visit.”  This game went on for quite a while, I think.  Then one time when Velma opened the door she told me that I couldn’t come in because there was a ghost in the closet.  I was truly terrified, and went running to my mom who reassured me that there were no such things as ghosts.  She explained that Velma was tired of my going up there so much.  I was making a pest of myself and shouldn’t go up there anymore, an admonition I heeded.  I was deeply offended that someone would deliberately try to scare me.  I could tell that Mom shared my opinion.

Frank & Velma
            Frank never found a satisfactory means of support in the Lodi area, and before the year 1941 was out, he and Velma were back in the Dinuba-Reedley.  Below is a passage from the short history Uncle Frank wrote about his life that talks about that time.

         Together with Jack and Agnes [we] moved to Lockford, east of Lodi.  They rented a house and we slept upstairs in a large room.  Later I got a job taking care of a dairy.  We bought some furniture, a stove and washing machine and moved into the house [on the dairy].  I don’t think the driveway dried out the whole time we lived there.  When we got company one of us would have to start the tractor and pull their car in from the road.  When they got ready to leave we’d pull them back to the road.  My guess now is the driveway was about 150 yards long.  I don’t remember why we left the dairy, but we moved back to Lockford, this time with our own furniture.  We lived independently but in the same house.

     “I got a job driving tractor for Ed Baumback and got pretty good pay.  The trouble with this was I breathed so much dust.  I had no appetite to eat, and even the next morning I would still spit mud.  Consequently, when Stanley asked me to come to Seaside, a suburb of Monterey to work for him I grabbed it.  We moved to Seaside only find he didn’t really have anything for me to do.  So without money we moved to Castroville.  We were there only a couple of months when a man I had talked to when we were in Reedley sent word asking if I still wanted to drive for him.  Believe me, we were there the next day.  We rented a house in Reedley, and I worked for V. J. Nielsen till I was drafted into the Army.

     “When the trucking season was over we moved to Parlier into a house that was on the property Nielsen had bought.  During the winter I pruned vines and did whatever else there was to do.  On December 20, 1941, Madeline Jane was born.  She has since changed it to Sunny.  I drove for Nielsen another season, and while being in charge of a crew of grape pickers I got my notice from the draft board that I was to go into the Army.  I was sworn in on October 27, 1942.”

            My sister Juanita was born March 25, 1941 in the San Joaquin County Hospital at French Camp.  Mom was pregnant when we moved to Lockford, and she prepared me for the birth of the new baby by making a quilt for my “new” bed.  I had been sleeping in a crib until this time, and the new baby would need it.  The quilt had alternating blocks of white and sky blue fabric with baskets of flowers appliqued on the white blocks.  The petals of the flowers were cut from scraps of fabric left over from clothes Mom had sewn, fabrics with tiny flowers and dots that seemed to pull me into a different world when I looked at them, a world I wanted to enter and play.  I loved that blanket.  It was mine.  I still loved it when I was in high school and the quilt was essentially a rag, the inexpensive fabric worn and disintegrating.

            After Nita was born, Mom had to go back to the hospital for a while because of problems with her kidneys.  One of Mom’s friends, a pretty girl named Wilma, came to stay with us to help Mom.   Mom was nineteen when Nita was born, two months shy of her twentieth birthday.  I have few memories from the time after Nita’s birth, just a vague awareness of her birth and her crib in my room.  What I remember most vividly is my dad taking me with him in the truck on one of his hauls.  It was a big rig, and sitting up in the cab with him I could look way ahead over the tops of the cars.  When we passed them, I could look down into the cars and see the people inside.  It was fun being up there behind that big powerful engine.  It felt special being allowed to go with my dad.  The only problem was the restrooms.  I wouldn’t go with him into the men’s room.  I insisted on going into the women’s by myself.  However, I got locked inside one of the stalls early in the trip, and Dad had to rescue me by going into the women’s restroom and crawling under the door to unlock it for me.  I made sure to never lock a restroom stall again, but I was still afraid that somehow the stall door would lock itself, and I would again be trapped, again have to be rescued.

“Another Trucking Experience”
         “I had been hauling gasoline for about three months for a man in Stockton when the boss said to go to Long Beach and pick up a load of gasoline (a load was 74 hundred gallons to the high markers).  The truck was new.  It was a large Diamond T, with a model H Cummings engine in it, 22 wheels on the ground, but it still had four-inch rag brake lining. 

         “I went to Long Beach and loaded the gasoline.  Coming back all went well until I came down the Grapevine, on this side going towards Bakersfield.  I was rolling nicely, when, about half the way down, I tried the brakes—first the trailer brakes.  There was none.  Then the truck [bakes].  There was very little.  The truck was gaining speed.  As I was passing Grapevine my tuck had gained speed up to 90 miles-an-hour, and the trailer brakes were on fire!  –(If you walk on top of a truck with shoe nails in your shoes you will start a fire, and my rig was on fire!)

         “I drove another five mile to Wheeler Station.  The station was open, so I stopped and ran to the station to get a fire extinguisher.  The station operator said, “No.  I have lost too many that way.  Let her burn.  I don’t care.”

            “What to do now!  Here I was on fire, and he wouldn’t let me put it out!”
“I got back into that truck and started towards Bakersfield.  Maybe I could crush the fire.  By using the trailer brakes, in about three miles I did just that.  When I arrived in Bakersfield and stopped for breakfast, I couldn’t eat.  Even though the fire was out I was too shook up.”                                                                                                                             Jacob (Jack) Willems

             Dad started driving truck when I was a baby.  He would pick up a job here and there, and by the time we moved north he was an experienced and skilled driver.  Stockton, a transportation hub servicing the whole Central Valley, was a good place to take advantage of that skill.  Less than a year after they lost the farm in Navelencia, sometime during the summer or fall of 1941, they were able to buy a house in Stockton, a house that cost them $1,100.

~ ~ ~

Copyright: Loretta Willems, October 8, 2011