Monday, December 2, 2013

Updated: Adventures of a Librarian: Siskiyou County, CA -- 1937

This report came to me long ago from a friend who has connections with the author. I've misplaced the original, but I recently discovered the text on a floppy (yes, a floppy) disk. I read this to a mixed-age group at a bookstore 10 years ago, and I will read it to third graders soon, each time challenging them to create pictures in their minds. As you read, try to remember that this is a report; at least, that was the intention. The location is the far northern area of California; I'm looking for a period map to add. In the meantime, enjoy. And visualize!

I read the report to the kids today (12/10/13). Despite having a guest (substitute) teacher, and two restless days of indoor recess because of cold and snow (as in the report), they stayed with it, paying good attention. The hardest part seemed to be understanding that I had read them a real report, by a real person. One girl asked "Where can I get the book?"


No doubt you have received the two circulation reports, Dec. & Jan. sent you last week, but as the mail has been held up by snow in the mountains, it may be that the letter has been delayed.  I mailed the reports on January 29, and also two boxes of books (28 books), which left Cecilville at the same time (Feb. 1)  I put the books in two boxes so that they would have a better chance of going through, but snow began to fall again on the evening of Jan 31 and it stormed here very hard on Feb. 1, so probably the books did not get any further on their way than Snowden, which is the changing place from stage to mules on this side of the Etna mountain.

I waited a long time in Etna before starting for Sawyer's Bar.  The stage was not running, and it seemed as if I could not bring myself to the point of starting out on muleback at 6 A.M. with the temperature considerably below zero.  It is simply impossible to keep ones feet warm, and it takes four or five hours to make the trip to Snowden at best, and longer if snow conditions are bad. 

By waiting, I managed to get from Etna to Sawyers Bar by stage.  It was the only day that the stage did go through and then only because the contractors had a big load of freight they wanted to take over the mountain.

[For an idea of this trip, go to MapQuest and ask for directions from Etna to Sawyer's Bar to Snowden. Be sure to mentally adjust anything resembling today's Rte. 5 to be the smallest yellow line on the map!]
We left the post office at six, and crawled up the mountain to the rest cabin on the mountain, where we had to wait for the bulldozer, and then when the man did come we had to wait while he built a fire under it to thaw out the frozen grease.  The waiting was not so bad as the stage driver built a fire and we, there was another passenger, warmed up thoroughly.  It was interesting too, for the stage driver is quite a talker and a lover of horses, and he entertained us with the history of Arabian horses in this country; the origin of Pintos and tales of race horses which he named, and how they pep 'em up with dope and what-not, and so on, and then the passenger, who was a mining engineer told of his experiences with mules in Mexico.  All very interesting.

Then the bulldozer started up the mountain and we crawled along behind and finally went ahead.  It was hard going.  The road had been opened on Saturday (this was Monday) but the wind and squally weather Saturday night had filled the road with drifts, so it was slow.  Near the top it was worse.  We could see the other stage parked up there and two men coming down from the top tramping the snow down with their feet to make it easier for our stage to dig in and climb.  The wind was blowing a gale and although it was not storming, clouds of top-snow swirled over the summit and thin streams of snow shot over in places, something like water from a small nozzle on a hose, helping to build up the comb and filling the road faster than the bulldozer could scrape it out.

That machine came up behind us, dragging a coupe, for cars can not get up, when the stage, with its greater power, can.  On this side the road was not so full of drifts and several cars were lined up waiting to go over.  We had to change stages.  It was only about 60 feet between the two trucks but that was far enough.  The stinging wind-driven snow cut on ones face and the wind nearly tore ones hat and coat from them.

Before starting on the stage Monday morning, I had a sort of adventure.  The husband of one of my friends had driven across the mountain Saturday night and wanted to return Sunday to be at his work on Monday.  I started with him Sunday afternoon about 5 P.M.  The road was barely open on Saturday and it was squally Saturday night and while Sunday turned out to be a fine day, the wind blew hard on top, so it was uncertain whether he would make it or not.  We did not, but it was not the snow that blocked us.

It was a beautiful afternoon but oh, so cold at 5 P.M.  I went prepared; experience has taught me how to keep the heat in.  First a long unionsuit, then bloomers and a snug woolen slip-over sweater; two pairs of stocking, overalls; a second woolen sweater high in the neck; a woolen skirt; a pair of men's heavy woolen socks; a pair of gum boots with the overall legs tied down around the ankles; a leather coat; a tweed coat; a muffler around neck and head; a felt hat; gloves; but when I brought out an extra large thick and heavy blanket, my friends had to laugh.

It was a little difficult to climb into the car, but I sat on the blanket and brought it up over my feet and legs and as soon as we were out of town drew it up over my head and shoulders; at least I intended to be warm!

We crawled along.  It soon was dark.  The temperature went down and one could see it getting colder because the snow began to glisten in the car-light and tiny icicles formed on the edges of the drifts where the sun had thawed the snow a little in the afternoon.

At every turn the driver had to maneuver his way, backing and filling and crushing down the snow so that his wheels had traction.  At every steep place I thought we could not make it, because the road was icy under a powder of snow, but we kept going until we were within about a mile of the top.  Our progress was slow, but we went ahead steadily.

Then we came to a turn in the road, and out of the darkness ahead, two men came running and waving us back.  It was not a holdup!  Their car, out of sight around the bend was on fire!  They had seen our lights and were waving us back for fear of an explosion.  The men and my driver walked back around the bend, and of course I had to see too, so climbed out of the car and followed behind them.

It was an eerie sight!  The still dark woods mantled in snow, the snowy road, the three black figures ahead, silhouetted against the glowing back window of the car (the fire was still in the interior of the car) no light except the glow in the car and star-light. There was no wind; everything was so still except for the squeak, squeak of the frozen snow underfoot and a faint hissing sound from the fire.  Weird is a good word to describe the picture.  We seemed so far away and detached from the world.  We looked on; the trees looked on; nothing could be done.  The fire had started under the floor and had a good start; there was no way to extinguish it.

I went back to our car; the men stayed and watched the fire; it did not show from where I sat, but presently a pale glow lighted the tops of the trees around the bend, but there was no sound.  The thing I will always remember was the profound silence; it was like sitting out alone in nowhere.

When the men came back the three squeezed into the seat with me, a seat built for two in the days when two were meant.  They had low shoes on their feet and thin socks, so their feet were soaking.  One of them said he did not know that feet could get so cold.  They had started out without even a shovel and were helpless when the fire started as their car was wedged in a snow drift.  The owner had been demonstrating the car to his friend, a possible purchase.  It was a new Super-Charger Grahame Page.  He had intended to show how his car would take the top with ease, but that was one sale that was not consummated and of course the other man will never buy a Super-Charger Grahame-Page now.
 [I'm not certain of the date, but that ill-fated Graham-Page may have looked something like this:


At Sawyers, there was no mule for me to ride the next day, so I had to lay over, and of course it stormed.  14 inches of new snow fell and piled up on that already on the ground.  But there was more or less excitement; cars came "around the Horn" and owners knocked at the Hotel at all hours.  About 2 A.M. a resounding knock at the door wakened everyone, a male voice pleaded, "Please Betty, please Betty." Betty appeared to be cross but finally softened and told the wayfarer to go around and take an upstairs room.

In the morning it turned out that people from the White Bear had gone out the day the mountain opened but had had to come around by way of the Klamath.  They were still marooned in Sawyers when I left.

That day more excitement; the road dropped out from under the front end of a car passing the Hotel.  Soon all the men (or so it seemed) and all the dogs and most of the women in Sawyers came to see and give advice.  The car was finally hauled out onto the road again, and the Constabule put a flare over the hole as it was evening.  No harm was done, the crowd and the Constabule went home (it is always constabule in small towns).  Just another old drift had caved in.

I left Sawyers riding the best mule in Siskiyou.  A good mule helps but it is not everything.  Anyway, I put on the sweaters and the socks and the coats and the boots and did not forget the blanket!  It went over my knees and dangled below my feet.  It not only kept knees and feet warmer, but shed snow.  The trees were bowed with snow.  The branches met over the trail, great masses tumbled down; the mules went down to the bottom and broke trail.  My feet dragged in snow nearly all the way to Cecilville, but my good old blanket acted as a buffer and kept the snow off of my boots and out of my stirrups.

I did not melt snow with my feet all that day as did the two packers.  The coldest thing on earth are feet wedged into stirrups by snow.  It packs tight and makes a ball of ice under the sole, not only cold, but difficult to balance on.

I took us from 7 A.M. to nearly 4 P.M. to wallow through with only two short stops at Black Bear and King Solomon.  At King Solomon an Angel in a cook’s cap served us coffee and hot food to stimulate our stomachs so that we could finish the trip alive.  Never until we take such trips do we realize how many muscles we have that we do not use and every one of them protested against the constant slipping and jerking especially toward the end of those weary miles.

And then -- no car at Cecilville!  Road closed!  Saddle changed to horse, old horse!  mount! ride! or rather just sit and endure, until home in sight at last.  Good old home, just like Heaven.  Next day?  I can not write about it yet.

But then, I started to tell you about the circulation reports and my letter has brought me to Heaven, which is really quite some distance from Cecilville, I am forced to believe.  But the book reports -- they are good. This surprising winter has made our branch extremely popular.  People snow-bound, nothing to do but read.  Mr. Ball kept quite a good record, too.  Between times he shoveled snow and looked after the stock.  He loaned books and books and magazines.  The men at the mine are marooned, can not work.  The books have been a Godsend to them, as well as to the East Fork people who live here all the time, one a boy who came from Chicago to visit his father.  He thought of mining as a great game, but has seen nothing of it so far.  Poor lonesome kid, 17 yrs.

Shall I mail this immaterial letter to the Librarian?  I should have sent a nice understandable report about this branch, and here it is an irrelevant three-page letter, but you know so much happens in the mountains; it is not like town where everything is so hum-drum and all of a sameness, that is because everyone follows his little routine there, and here we see or do everything.

I loaned some books yesterday, but before that at 4 A.M. we found a new calf in the snow, nearly frozen; would have been dead by daylight.  We dragged it to shelter of a sort, and brought the good old blanket mentioned already and wrapped the new baby in it.  We heated stovelids to put under it and rubbed it vigorously and kept it warm until daylight, then got a man from the mine to carry it to the kitchen where we finally got it onto its feet and now it is a fine husky fellow out with his Mama.  It is quite an experience, not exactly pleasant, but could never have happened if I had been a branch librarian or custodian in a town; so many things happen in the mountains.

Oh yes, the books!  The boxes contained two recalls besides the others, I also want to ask for an extension on the State book for Mr. Dukes.  Owing to the unfavorable weather and poor traveling conditions the book was not delivered promptly; no way to do so. I hesitated about returning it before Mr. Dukes had it, but finally decided to send it to him and ask for more time.  It did not appear to be such a popular book, that a little more time would matter, but I remembered your plea for "no overtime" on State books.

Between us all, this branch is, in my opinion, one of the most valuable, and with that I must close or write another page!

Sincerely yours,

Lottie Ball




  1. Ah; little did Lottie know that her "immaterial" letter would one day end up on something called the Internet and able to travel all around the world.


  2. I remember trying to explain to Thelma that a computer was like a typewriter in front of a TV, and as you write the letters show up on the TV instead of on paper.


Comments are welcomed, and I will generally respond to them. Please be tasteful; comments that are in poor taste will be deleted.
Sorry about the "verification" step; I added it after a rash of spammish comments.