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.

COMMENTS are very welcome. You may reach me by clicking on the "view my complete profile".

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Ch. 1 Going to Dinuba

           Every couple of months during the years my family lived in Stockton, Dad would decide it was time to go to Dinuba to see his family.  On the appointed day, the four of us—Mom, Dad, my sister Nita and I—would climb into our big roomy Buick, back out of the drive and head out to Wilson Way.  Turning south, we would drive through the nondescript, stop-light punctuated commercial strip to the south edge of town where Wilson Way turned into Highway 99.  Commercial buildings now began to give way to farmland.  The ugliness of Wilson Way was behind us; ordinary life was now behind us.  We were now truly on our way, on the road that would take us to Dinuba.  Up ahead was the family—aunts, uncles, cousins, my Grandma and Grandpa Willems.  We would be guests, special people.  We would sleep at other people’s houses.  Grandma would make zwieback and chicken soup with homemade noodles.  There would be laughter and stories and singing.  Dinuba, my favorite place in the whole world, the place I longed to live.  Dinuba. 

         “Going to Dinuba.  Going to Dinuba,” a silent happy song that accompanied me as we drove through farmland and towns--Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Madera, Fresno—names learned while standing on the floor of the backseat so I could look out the window, names learned by asking over and over, “Where are now?  What town is next?  How far is Dinuba now?”
 One hundred and thirty miles, four hours of driving in those pre-freeway days—longer if we had to wait for trains, much longer than four hours during WWII when we got stuck behind a military convoy traveling the regulation twenty-five miles an hour.  Each town was a milepost, a name on a list I would tick off as we reached the place where our car speeded up, began to cruise again through open country.
                Manteca, just eleven miles south of Stockton, was the first town.  Here we would turn left at one of the street lights so we could follow Highway 99 as it angled from straight south to southeast, paralleling the Sierra Nevada, the mountains that formed the east wall of California’s big Central Valley.  As we left the main business area we would make sure to roll up the windows if they were open, prepare ourselves for the incredible sour stink of the cattle yards surrounding the big Spreckles Sugar plant whose processed sugar beet pulp fed the cattle.
                Modesto was the next milepost.  It came after a couple of little communities, Ripon and Salida, so small they didn’t really count as towns.  A real town had multiple stop lights, had stores and a business district.  A real town slowed us to a crawl, and Modesto had all that as well as a big arch with the words—Modesto: Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health—that went over a street that led into the heart of the downtown area.
                Merced was the next real town.  That was a long haul after leaving Modesto, much longer than the drive between Manteca and Modesto.  There were a lot of little communities along this stretch of highway, too—Ceres, Keyes, Turlock, Delhi, Atwater.  Turlock was almost big enough to count as a real town, but the others were just familiar, interesting names whose order—which came first, which next—I  didn’t bother remembering.  I was focused on getting to Merced, then Madera and after that, Fresno.  Fresno was the really big town, a small city as big as Stockton.  Fresno was Dinuba’s city, the place where our Dinuba family went for things they couldn’t get in any of the little towns around them.  When we got to Fresno we were within Dinuba’s larger domain. 
It wasn’t until we got close to Fresno that I began to look closely at what was outside the car windows.  What I remember of the countryside we passed through before then is quite vague.  There were areas with orchards, but long stretches of open land seemed to dominate.   As we approached Fresno, though, I began to watch for “Motel Row,” the long line of motels on the west side of the highway that preceded the entrance into the city.  These were attractive complexes, nicely landscaped.  Most, I think, had swimming pools.  To stay in one of them seemed like utmost luxury, and I would strain to see as much as I could of each one as we passed it, trying to decide which I liked best, which one I would choose if I were an adult and had a lot of money.  
Before long we were past the motels, getting close to Roeding Park, an inviting old park with huge trees and a zoo hidden somewhere among them.  The highway curved a bit here before heading downtown, into the commercial and business heart of Fresno, a long, slow drive through heavy traffic with signal lights at each intersection that eventually degenerated into the light-industry area on the south side of the city.  No big factories, just an ugly jumble of signs, warehouses and asphalt lots—visual chaos that I tried to ignore, reminding myself that it would soon be past and we would be out in farmland again, beautiful farmland—vineyards and orchards, my favorite kind of farmland.  We were entering raisin country, Thompson seedless grapes on wire trellises kept low enough for easy reach by pickers during the harvest. 
It was only a short distance now till Selma, a pretty tree-shaded town.  It was time to start looking for the sign, “Dinuba 11 miles.”  Here we turned left onto Mountain View Avenue, crossed the railroad tracks, headed straight east toward the Sierras.  We were here.  All this farmland was Dinuba to me. Everything outside the car windows was now deeply interesting—the neat, horizontal lines of the vineyards, the vertical lines of mature palms, blue-green eucalyptus and soft looking, dark green deodor cedars with sweeping branches and tender, drooping tops.  Sheltered among those trees were old farmhouses shaded by wide porches and deep eaves, houses that drew my eyes and called to my imagination.
 I longed to live in one of those of houses, one with two-stories.  I would have my own upstairs bedroom, play under the trees and in the vineyard, make a play house somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the farm buildings.  But not just any nook or cranny, though those were great for hide and seek.  I wanted a pump house like those I saw almost hidden among the complex of tall trees and farm buildings on the older farms, a two-story pump house,  two rooms stacked one on top the other, a water tank in the top room, the room below having real windows and doors.  This bottom room was the ultimate playhouse.  I would make this room my own, put curtains on the windows, find old furniture to put into it, a room where I could play or read, have friends in or be alone with my books and daydreams.
This lovely country along Mountain View spread out in all directions.  Orchards and vineyards, almond and orange groves, peaches, apricots and nectarines grew up to the every edge of the asphalt roadbed forming a corridor of green that took us all the way from Selma to the very edge Dinuba.  No ugly sprawl of asphalt intervened between farmland and town.  No chaotic jumble of signs.  Just weathered wood packing sheds and packed, dry earth next to the railroad tracks that formed the western town boundary.  Drive over the tracks and suddenly there were lovely old tree shaded houses, more deodor cedars, more sentinel palms.  Dinuba.  We were there.


Copyright: Loretta R. Willems, 2011