It was April 1942 when my family chose to move from Los Angeles to Napa. I was 12 years old, in the sixth grade and was very unhappy to be leaving my life in the big city of LA for some place way up north that I had never heard of.
Our country was in the midst of fighting wars around the world and my stepfather was at his new job with Basalt Rock Company building small ships for the U.S. Navy at their new facility south of town.
My mother and I packed our belongings in our car and a U-Haul trailer and headed north. The trip was uneventful and we arrived at Napa about 10 hours later. In those days, there were no freeways and Highway 99, the main north-south route, was two-lane virtually all of the way.
Our first home in Napa was beside the railroad tracks on St. Helena Highway (Highway 29) about a half-mile north of what was then Union Station. It was in the country and outside the city limits.
We were the first occupants of one of the units of two new duplexes on the property that was next door to today’s Grace Baptist Church and across the highway from where Sierra Avenue now meets Highway 29.
Our duplex was surrounded by prune orchards. Across the highway, was a large area planted to tomatoes. Parts of Bel Air subdivision now occupy that area.
The site of today’s Bel Air shopping Center was also planted to tomatoes.
There was no north-south freeway and traffic to and from “upvalley” had to travel on a two-lane road extending from Jefferson Street at Trancas Avenue west along Trancas to Union Station/Redwood Road and then north up the valley.
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It was 1950 before the “freeway” connecting St. Helena Highway at Union Station/Redwood Road with Sonoma Highway at Old Sonoma Road was completed.
I was immediately enrolled in Miss Strohl’s sixth grade class at Salvador School for the last six weeks of my elementary school education.
During summer vacation of 1942, I had my first experience of picking prunes. Before that experience, I had assumed that picking prunes meant picking the fruit off the tree. I soon found out that to “pick prunes” you had to get down on your knees and pick them up off the ground.
(Actually, they were not “prunes”, they were plums. They became prunes when they were dried but, in the ag community, they were called “prunes.”)
Part of the prune harvesting process involved a very long pole with a metal hook on one end and a man on the other. Using the pole, the man hooked a limb with prunes and shook the limb causing the prunes to fall to the ground where they were retrieved by the pickers and put in “lug” boxes. Because of the large boxes and small prunes, it took a long time to fill a box.
I was paid 25 cents a box. On a good day, I might fill five boxes.
It was hard sticky work and no fun, yet it’s interesting how many of my Napa friends of today like to brag about their prune-picking days of yore.
I am proud to be able to say I was a “Prunepicker.”