California – Making A Living In The Land Of Sunshine

We were sitting on the porch after a good luncheon, enjoying the warmth of a sunny, win-ter midday. There was a fragrance of daphne blossoms in the air, and the music of humming bees. Beyond the lower end of the garden where the young folks were playing tennis in white flannels was an orange-grove hanging heavy with its Hesperian fruit, and beyond that across the green mesa rose the majestic range of the Sierra Madre, its crest white with snow. Now and then the ecstatic note of the meadow-lark floated down the air, and on every side mocking-birds were whistling. Automobiles filled with pleasure-seekers whirred by on the street, and occasionally a horseback party of tanned young men and girls bare of arm and head cantered toward the mountains.

“Another blizzard back East,” chuckled the old Californian from the midst of his newspaper; “little old New York’s street car service paralyzed, mercury two below zero, and wind forty miles an hour.”

Your Californian can never resist gloating over the eccentricities of the Eastern climate, as though the relative excellence of California were his own manufacture.

But my thoughts were on the scene before me.

“This is certainly the place to enjoy life,” I observed after a while, “if you have your pockets full of money and can stay away from business as long as you like ; but how about the poor chap with an in-valid wife and a bunch of children, or the man with weak lungs and a crippled bank account, shipped out here when the back-East doctor is tired of his case, to live an outdoor life and build up—in other words, the fellows who have to make a living while they live in California—what sort of a chance have they here,”

“That was my case,” fenced the Old Californian, “I had weak lungs and went to ranching on a place that couldn’t be seen for the mortgage. Look at me now. I’m strong as a bull and live on Easy Street.”

“I know,” I pursued, “but that was thirty-odd years ago when you came and things were different then. Any land then was high at a hundred dollars an acre, and by dumb luck you picked out your bit of acreage where the fates had decreed a tourist town to come. You dried peaches and apricots, sold greasewood and peddled honey, kept a cow or two on the scrub of the foothills, and lived, as be-came a pioneer, on the dried fruits of the land; and your wife made you hold on when you wanted to make a fool of yourself and sell out after three dry years; and then when the town took to growing and was crowding you, you let go on the basis of town-lots at twenty dollars a front foot.”

“The fellow that bought it, doubled his money in two years,” put in the Old Californian fiercely.

“That isn’t what I’m talking about,” I went on, “if you’re going to speculate in real estate, you might as well make it oil or grain or stocks and operate in New York or Chicago. Things go down as well as up, and men with limited means are often swamped over night. But you know what I mean, something that will make an income to keep the family in bread and meat and shoes. Take a spe cific case, there’s Ned Thompson’s son, I hear he’s in bad shape physically and is coming to California from Boston. He’s thirty-two years old and his as-sets are a wife and three children, a college education, eight years’ clerical experience in a wholesale ‘dry-goods house, and a couple of thousand dollars. What can California do for him’?”

The Old Californian bit the end of a cigar irritably before he replied:

“Hang your specific cases, it’s a whole lot easier to talk in generalities. Well, I tell you, a lot depends upon the man. Some men will pick up a good living on the Sahara Desert, and others are just plum no good in a land of flowing milk and honey. I don’t know what sort of stuff young Thompson’s made of, but it’s a good thing he has a little money. He’ll need it to live on while he’s looking around for `congenial occupation’; for that’s what he’ll be after, being town-bred.” He won’t find it, though. He’d better start right in by cutting ‘congeniality’ out of his vocabulary and substitute willingness to take what he can get. This is a young country and mighty democratic. There are no social distinctions in business; everything honest is respectable; but it is also a very different country from the East in its climate and in the way things are done, and the first year of a new-corner’s life here should be largely educational, getting acquainted with these novel conditions. The sort of people that California wants, more than any other, is the farmer sort, the developers of the soil. The State is stocked up with mechanics and top-heavy with the genteel vocations —lawyers, doctors, merchants, bookkeepers, clerks, brokers and. land speculators, and purveyors of one sort and another to the rich tourists. Being in need of an outdoor life, of course, young Thompson might get a job as street-car conductor—lots of college graduates get the air that way—or he might drive a laundry-wagon if he wasn’t too proud, or take care of people’s gardens. My neighbor across the way has a weak-chested Methodist ex-preacher to mow his lawn and trim his vines. Or he might hire as a chauffeur if he knows anything about motor-cars, or nerve enough to learn at the owner’s expense. But jobs like these are not to be picked up the day after arrival, but will probably have to be waited for for months ; and meantime he might peddle patent mops or soap or the latest breakfast-food from door to door as many a fine fellow is doing to-day in this Golden State, though I don’t recommend it, except for the exercise. Then again, as long as he has a bit of money he might buy a carriage and a pair of horses, or a last Year’s automobile, and drive tourists about, though that’s a gamble to make expenses, for there’s lots of competition; but one gritty `lunger’ that I knew, did do that and studied law while waiting for patrons, and made good. You see it’s largely a question of the man after all.

“But it seems to me if I were Thompson, supposing he is so as to do ordinary light work and has horse-sense, I’d take one thousand dollars of my two, and buy a half-acre of land, or more if I could get it for the money, with a little old California house on it, on the outskirts of a live town. There are lots of places of that sort, the house not worth “figuring in the price, but yet good enough to be patched up at a light expense so as to last quite a while. Get a place if possible—and it won’t be hard—that has a few established fruit trees on it, peaches, apricots, figs, better still if there is an English-walnut tree or two and some grapes, and start a vegetable garden. There may be a little sale from these crops, but even if there isn’t, they will count materially in feeding the family. Then I’d go in for raising chickens for eggs—there’s no end of a market for eggs, and the young roosters can be eaten or sold. A clerk’s experience, like Thompson’s, is a poor start in the chicken business, but I’m supposing he has horse-sense, and I’m giving Mrs. Thompson credit for being no fool, and then there’s a thousand dollars reserve fund, isn’t there? Of course, there’ll be all sorts of mistakes made and a dozen times in the year the bottom will seem to be dropping out; but knowledge comes that way, and then the neighbors will help some in bad emergencies; and I shouldn’t be surprised if at the end of a year the bank reserve had not been much depleted, though it is to be expected that it would have shrunk some. The second year ought to be better, in the light of what had been learned not only about the innate depravity of chickens, but about the requirements of the fruit and vegetables —the spraying, the irrigation, the cultivating, trapping gophers and one doggoned thing and an-other. But the thing especially to guard against in the second, and third, and fourth and every succeeding year, is the natural conceit of a man that he knows it all, for there is never a season in California since I’ve been here that wasn’t different in some way from the others, and that meant some-thing new to learn each year.”

“But I don’t see that there is much of a fortune in a half-acre and a little old shack of a house,” said I, “unless you strike oil in the garden.”

“Well maybe you will,” resumed the Old Californian with the cordial optimism of his kind. “You’ve seen derricks in peoples’ forty-foot lots in Los Angeles, haven’t you? And I’m told that some places have pretty fair placer-mining in the back yard. However, I’m not figuring on that for Thompson; but if you’ll remember, I said he was to buy on the outskirts of a live town. Well, I think after he has scratched along with Mrs. Thompson’s good help for three or four years in the way I have sketched out, that little ranch of his will find itself nearer town than when he bought, and will consequently be worth more money, maybe two or three thousand dollars; besides, he has learned some general principles that will make it worth his while, if he wants to, to sell out and buy a little larger place where he can spread himself some and do some real ranching if he likes it—deciduous fruits for drying, olives, walnuts, almonds, dairying; or alfalfa or bees—they are the lazy man’s jobs; citrus fruits, if he will, but they run into money, the land is so high, twelve or fifteen hundred an acre with bearing trees. But whatever he does, be sure he keeps the place small enough to run it himself with his family’s aid, for ranch laborers will eat up any profits until he learns how to manage them. He will find ten or twelve acres ample, unless for alfalfa—he will need two or three times as much for that to make it worth while. Then after a few years, when the land has appreciated, as it is bound to if he buys right, sell out again. Or if he prefers another sort of occupation after three or four years, he will by that time have learned enough of his environment and made acquaintances enough probably to hear of openings for occupation coupled with the investment of a bit of capital to advantage. You see, the first year or two is the most dangerous time here for a man with a little money—all the sure-thing operators in the country are after it, and the tenderfoot doesn’t know legal tender from bogus. After he has been here a couple of years he is wiser to the graft and there are often real bargains he can pick up—for we Westerners are a: restless lot and when we want to move on we have been known to put a bonanza on the bargain counter.”

The Old Californian was warmed up now, and hitching his chair closer to me, continued confidentially:

“But I tell you what Thompson and any other friend of yours ought to be mighty careful about, when they set out to buy any land in California—that’s the title and the water supply. What with Spanish people and Indians and mining rights, titles are sometimes as spotty in this country as a cayuse pony, and a tenderfoot with a lean wad doesn’t want to take any chances. We had to, when I blew in here thirty years ago, but fortunately things are different now, and there are responsible title companies just as in the East, who will give you a clean certificate of title and back it up with their guarantee. You tell Thompson to be sure to get that be-fore he pays out his cash. And then as to water—”

The Old Californian paused and looked reminiscent.

`Well, sir, I guess the books of the Recording Angel show more liens entered up against Californians’ title to glory through lying about water than almost any other one count, unless it’s frost. It seems as though when it comes to selling a bit of land a fellow is just obliged to romance a little about the purity and unfailing character of the water sup-ply; and the sources of water being hidden away underground from mortal ken, what’s the stranger going to do? It’s a hard nut for him to crack, and that’s where a year or two’s experience in the country before he buys may save him a lot of trouble. Few places have private wells as in the East, and if they have, their permanency is by no means a sure thing. Water is bound to be a relatively scarce article in a country where the rainfall is, roughly speaking, but half what it is on the Atlantic sea-board, and its availability so clearly sets the limits to the development of our Coast that the philanthropic gentlemen who organize trusts and monopolies to keep the people from wasting the country’s resources, long ago bought up pretty much all the springs, water-rights, water-bearing canons and such sources of supply, and created water companies. To some one of these the land buyer has to look for his supply and take what they give him, subject to certain laws of control which the Government imposes on them. Some of these companies are first-class, some passable, and some so weak that their supplies pinch out after a winter of deficient rainfall. I don’t know any better way for the new-comer to do than to inquire of the honestest looking residents what their experience has been, particularly in dry years, and see how what they tell checks up with the looks of vegetation. If the neighborhood is strong on grapes, apricots, olives and such non-irrigated crops, it is pretty safe to conclude that there’s no extra water running loose in that part of the earth. Then if he is satisfied with the investigation, let him be sure his purchase papers cover his right to the water. And oh, yes, then there’s the little matter of alkali. That’s the very deuce and all in some localities, and the deceiving thing about it is that it is thick in some land and right along-side of it the ground mayn’t have a trace of it. I can show you as pretty a bit of land as you want to see, that five hundred dollars an acre wouldn’t touch, and right across the road is a bunch of acreage that’s not worth a tinker’s cuss just alkali. Yet both tracts are part of one ranch and originally sold at the same price. And of course, there’s hardpan under some soil, which is bad for deep-rooted crops or trees-that ought to be looked out for.

“But, sir, you can bet your hat that if the title is flawless and there’s plenty of water, and the land isn’t alkali or hardpan, the boy stands to double his money by the time the Panama Canal is floating ships through.”

And so did the Old Californian come around to the essence of the money-maker’s hope in the California philosophy—the expected rise in land values.