Thursday, September 25, 2014

my environmental history

Photo of my grandpa, Ralph Beebe, and me
a few years ago when we got to teach a class together
(Photo credit: Joel Bock)

For my Environmental History class this semester, I got to conduct an interview with a family member regarding my own environmental history. I enjoyed meeting with my grandpa, Ralph Beebe, and talking with him about his recollections of his own life and lives of his parents as they established homesteads in Idaho. It was fun talking with him about issues we'd never thought to talk about before, like how his family got food when he was a kid. I learned I have a lot in common with his mother, canning and growing a lot of our food, and I'm a composite of him, his mother, and my own parents: connected to the land, focused on faith and social justice, and interested in organic, healthy food options. These come down to me through different generations so that I do not share the same concerns and worldviews as do my ancestors, but I can see how each of these values came to me through my family history. And do, without further ado, my story.

I spent some time with my maternal grandparents recently. My grandpa, Ralph Beebe, has a PhD in history, and at age 82 he's currently working on a memoir of his life. This assignment gave me the excuse to talk with him about memories I hadn't discussed with him before. I greatly enjoyed meeting with him and learning more about his life and perspective. (My grandma, unfortunately, has Alzheimer's, and so I learned about her family through my grandpa, as well as through stories my great-grandma Hazel wrote down, but I don't have the space to discuss that part of my history here.)

He and I both live in a small town in western Oregon's Willamette Valley. To me, this feels like my family's home. This is where I grew up and where my dad grew up; it's where my parents went to college and met. But just a few generations back, my ancestors lived in the midwest and then in Idaho and eastern Oregon. I'll mainly focus here on my grandpa's recollections, due to the brevity of this paper. I'll add a few thoughts about my dad's side of the family toward the end.
My great-grandparents' grave stone

Ralph's father, Glen, was born on a farm in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1894, and his family moved to Rupert, Idaho around 1914 for now-unknown reasons. Similarly, Ralph's mother, Fanny, was born in 1900 and grew up on a farm in Missouri. She moved to Rupert, Idaho with her father and two brothers (out of a total of 10 siblings) in 1914. She conducted all the chores that go along with running the house as her father and brothers homesteaded their new land. This included cooking, growing vegetables, butchering and preparing meat, and going out with a rifle to shoot rabbits. There is no current family memory of where these families came from before the midwest, although we are presumably mainly of European descent.

Cattle ranch in Idaho,
similar to my great-grandparents' homestead
After World War I, Glen and Fanny married, and moved to another town in Idaho called Wilder. They rented farms, living on 21 farms in 20 years, and they had to give the landowner half their profit each year. Finally, along with the New Deal and the subsequent damming of the Owyhee River, new areas were opened up for homesteading along the Oregon-Idaho border. Glen and Fanny moved their family just across the Oregon border from Adrian, ID in 1939, homesteading a 240-acre farm, 160 acres of which was "under water." Ralph was almost 7 years old.

Ralph remembers their cash crops as dairy cows, alfalfa, wheat, sugar beets, and corn (though the alfalfa mainly fed the cows). He remembers his mother gardening and raising chickens and pigs, along with the farm's many dairy cows. He helped weed the garden and gather eggs. He also remembers harvesting beets. They lived mainly on the food his mother canned, as well as the eggs, milk, and meat from their animals. He remembers getting a refrigerator after World War II.

He had the opportunity to go to college, which he considers very lucky, because he says he's not smart enough to be a farmer. He's book smart, of course, but not as mechanically minded as one needs to be in order to fix tractors, fences, and everything else that can go wrong on a farm. He moved off the land, but his brother stayed, and his nephew now runs the same farm. I've been there a number of times, floating the irrigation ditches on inner tubes as a kid.

I asked my grandpa his thoughts on the changes that have occurred in his lifetime. He recognizes that some people are really connected to the land that they work, the land that raises food for them and their families, but he never had that sense of the land. He likes the farm, and he appreciates the people who work it, and the hard work they do, but for him, a connection to the land seems like more of a personality characteristic or personal interest someone might have, rather than something everyone will experience.

My dad's 12th birthday
He went to college in western Oregon and stayed in this area for his married life, quite happy with the life of an academic, loving his students and providing excellent classroom experiences for them, living into his own talents.

One final note regarding my dad's side of the family is that my dad moved to Oregon, from Iowa in 1963, and the house he grew up in is now part of the property of the university where I coordinate a community garden. There are fruit trees in the backyard of his old house and the neighboring houses--apples, pears, and plums--and I've been preserving the apples from those trees this week.

In the scope of human history, my family does not have a long history on this land. But in the scope of present-day American experience, I'm incredibly connected to this town, this little corner of the Willamette Valley called Chehalem Valley. I'm putting down my own roots here, benefiting from the forethought of my grandparents and their friends when they planted the fruit trees that will sustain my family this winter.

As an aside, I've attached a photo I took of my grandma's ration card booklet from World War II!

2 comments:

Jan Hibbs said...

I read this with interest and enjoyment. Glen and Fanny Beebe were such a part of my beginning years in Homedale! I thought they were my grandpa and grandma. Rex Beebe is my Uncle. My parents, Clayton and Dorothy Barnes met in the Homedale Community church. They had a homestead on the Idaho side of the boarder and my maternal grandparents were close on the Oregon side. Many fun gatherings with these families! Thanks for sharing. Bev Barnes Davenport

Cherice Bock said...

I just noticed your comment, Bev. Thanks for letting me know about our family connections! I'm so glad to hear about the great impact Glen and Fanny had on your growing up years. I only met Granny a few times when I was a baby, but from what my grandpa says, his parents were pretty special people, especially his mom. I wish I could have known them better.