I’d get up and light the gas lamp in my room and the bathroom. Wash up and brush my teeth. Then it was downstairs to the kitchen. My mother would be up, and the kitchen would be warm in the glow of the gas lamps.
Jacket on, I’d collect the milk buckets and head down to the barn for milking. Within an hour the milking was done, and it was time to feed the rest of the stock such as the calves and hogs. The horses got fresh alfalfa and some grain. Then it was time to collect eggs and feed the chickens.
All of the fresh milk was on the back porch as we started the milk separator. Cream out one side and skim milk the other. Most of the cream went into the refrigerator, and the skim milk went back to the barn to be mixed with cracked corn. The milk and corn mixture would be fed to the hogs the next day.
Now I could go back to the house and get ready for school. Maybe a bath and a change of clothes that didn’t smell like farm animals.
A walk to the county road and the bus stop. Off to school. I got to repeat most of those chores after school.
Did you notice that the only modern convenience was the school bus? Some of you might have thought it was the milk separator, but it was hand cranked. Just like our ice cream maker.
I’ve just described life for me in Mentryville from 1960 until 1964 when we got Southern California Edison electrical power.
Such a life was about the same in 1900, except for the bus. Transportation to Newhall in 1900 was called the “stage,” but it was really a freight wagon with a two-horse team. Nobody riding shotgun. No strongbox and no robbers. I heard that the cookies Mr. Cochum made at the Mentryville bakery were worth stealing.
We were the last family that lived in Pico Cottage that used the gaslights because we had to. We had a generator that produced maybe 1.5kw of electric power. That is about enough to run five 60-watt bulbs and an iron. Our refrigerator was powered by natural gas, too.
Of course, the heating of the house was by the fireplaces. Natural gas … very natural gas. Right from the wells, so it had a tendency to smoke a little and leave soot on the ceilings. It also meant the mantles didn’t last too long and the lamp glass needed cleaning often. Got to love that job. Not.
We had a television. A small black and white Emerson, I think. We got Channel 2, 4, 5 and sometimes 7. Television was on only when all of the chores and homework were done. We did have radio. AM only, and it was always tuned to KMPC. That was the station with music from the ‘40s. There was a dial telephone. It was on the desk in the dining room. That was about as modern as we got.
Pico Cottage was modern in 1892 or 1893 when it was built. It had running water inside, with two full baths and three inside toilets. The one on the back porch was not replaced during repairs to the house after the 1994 earthquake. The basement was small, but it served as a lower-level pantry. At one time there was a dumbwaiter to take stuff in and out of the basement. I broke it not long after we moved in. It wasn’t an elevator for a 10-year-old boy like I thought it was.
My friends who lived in town thought it was a great place to visit. Of course not one of them could milk a cow or feed a calf from a bucket.
Loading some hay bales on our pick-up was a chore I loved. I got to drive the truck to the Wolcott barn for our calves. That barn was across the creek from the Felton School. It burned down in the 1962 fire.
There were fences to build and mend, along with branding, castrating the bull calves (making steers), herding the cattle and finding them when they wandered off. This was ranch work. Few of my classmates in Newhall had any idea about ranch work.
We also hunted deer, quail and dove. There were the annual hog and steer butchering days in the Fall. We didn’t have a freezer, but the locker club at Newhall Ice Co. had freezer spaces, and they did all of the cutting and wrapping of the pork and beef. We sold both for a price of 50 to 60 cents per pound.
So this was the romance of living in Pico Canyon. Work. I’ve so far written about the good work. Then there was the bad work. Cleaning out the calf barn and the hog shed, along with my least favorite, the chicken house. Worst chore you can imagine on a hot summer day without a bit of wind. Those smells could make the odor from the onion fields and stockyards during classes at Hart High seem almost like an expensive and desired perfume.
Living there couldn’t have done me much damage. I developed a strong work ethic, and since retirement I’ve tried to avoid it. I can no longer eat a homemade cake frosted with fresh whipped cream and sliced bananas. Diabetes ended that. Of course I can’t lift large bales of hay from the ground to the stack, either.
For future reference, I still look on riding a horse as work and not play. But I still do it. Some of my happiest hours in all of my travels have been astride a horse.
I grew up in an old town of the old West. The movies don’t show the real cowboys and the real work that had to be done. They show something romantic and glorified. In reality it was work. Lots of work. We never ran out of that.
Do I miss it? You bet. Using fresh cream to make ice cream with a hand-cranked maker. Sitting in front of the fireplace in the dining room, reading a school assignment by gaslight.
You say I don’t look that old? Thanks. It was the 1960s, not the 1890s. We didn’t have to hitch the horse to go to town. We fired up the pickup truck instead.
When I think of what it was and what it is today, I can feel old. How many folks do you know who used gas lights at home? Now you know at least one. Me.
Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s and attended Hart High School. After a career in the U.S. Navy he returned to live in the Santa Clarita Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com and his commentaries, published on Tuesdays and Sundays, are archived at DManzer.com. Watch his walking tour of Mentryville [here].