March 23, 1998
AUTOBIOGRAPHY: of Matthew J. Smith; including the migration from Texas to California, by covered wagons.
I was born June 6, 1908, near Waco, Texas. I was number six of a large family of thirteen. My parents owned a little farm there, and grew fruit and vegetables. They made a living for the family there. But as the family grew in number, and the older ones were nearing maturity, my dad thought we needed a larger farm. So, he bought a 370 acre place near San Angelo, Texas. It was about 10 miles southeast of San Angelo, At a little settlement called Wall, Texas. There, we raised cotton, grain, fodder, and livestock.
We did pretty good there, as long as the rains came in time to water the crops. But the last two years we were there, 1916 and 1917, the rains didnít come. So our crops failed. This was discouraging for my dad. So he sold out, and decided to head west. He knew of the Saltriver valley in Arizona, where they had irrigation water available; so he decided that is where we should go.
In the selling of our place, my father had received a 1915 Mitchell automobile in the deal. He then decided to first make the trip by car with the four older brothers and two neighbor boys. They made it to Arizona, and my dad established them in jobs on this large cotton farm. They were to earn money and send it to us at various places along the way so we would have money to travel on. Then my dad left them and the car there, and came back to Texas on the train to get us ready to travel with the wagons.
In the fall of 1917, my dad equipped two wagons
for traveling. Each had a canvas covering stretched over rounded bows.
That is why they are called covered wagons; and each was equipped with
a stove for heating, and cooking our meals. We loaded the wagons with our
beds, clothing, utensils, water barrels, and things needed for traveling.
|By the end of the year, of 1917, we were ready to travel. Two loaded wagons, each pulled by a team of horses. My dad drove one and I drove one. On January first, 1918, we left San Angelo, Texas, headed for Mesa, Arizona. I was nine years old. My sister Ruth, who was seven, and my grandmother rode in my wagon. And, my mother and the four younger kids rode in my dad's wagon. He trailed the buggy behind his wagon. No paved roads in those days, so traveling was slow. We could average about fifteen to twenty miles a day.||
This is the wagon Matt drove on their trip: seated by twos, back to front, near to far side: Silas and Paul, Luke and Mark (Mark not seen), Ruth and Matthew (Matthew not seen), John and Mary, Dad and Mother with Peter in lap.
Now we were traveling in the dead of winter. The weather was pretty cold. It would freeze at night. We came to a little town, where we were to get our mail, and buy supplies. We camped just outside of town, by a little ditch of running water. We had to wait here for a few days. We had to have fires going in our wagons to keep warm. The stove was in the front area of the wagon. The stove pipe was elbowed out the front opening of the wagon and up. We had a heavy curtain hung in the front opening, draped under the stove pipe. The stove pipe got pretty hot and we let the curtain get too close, and it caught on fire. I yelled for my dad, and he came quickly. He jerked the curtain down, and I handed him a bucket of water, and he put out the fire before it did much damage. We were careful after that, to keep the curtain from getting too close.
We had to have wood or coal for our stoves, and sometimes it was hard to find. At times, I would let my sister drive the team, and I would take a bucket, or a sack, and walk along out to one side, and pick up pieces of wood, and bring them to the wagon. In the prairie country, wood was hard to find. So, I would walk along the railroad track, and find pieces of coal that had fallen off the train. In those days the steam engines that pulled the trains were fueled with coal. A small special car next to the engine was called the coal car. One of the train workman would shovel the coal into the engine furnace. And sometimes pieces would fall off his shovel to the ground. That is the reason I could find coal.
The road from San Angelo to Fort Stockton runs southwest. As we got farther south, the weather became milder. We camped right at the south edge of Fort Stockton, on a little river, that was supplied by a large spring. We could get water there, and there was good grass there for the horses. We had to wait several days there for our mail. We ran out of supplies, and didnít have money to buy more. My dad hocked the buggy, and some other things to get groceries. That didnít last too long, and our mail still hadnít come. So my dad went up town, to look for a job to earn a little money to tide us over until our mail came. At the lumber yard, they had received two carloads of lumber that had to be unloaded right now. The man offered my dad a certain amount to unload the two cars, and he accepted. He came right down to camp, and got me to help him. We went to work on it. He got up in the car, and handed it down, and I would drag it to the pile. We worked into the night, I think it was close to bed time, and I gave out. I told dad I couldnít do it anymore. He said, go on down to camp, and tell your mother to come up. She went up, and helped him. I think they worked nearly all night. It was hard work, but they earned a little money to tide us over, until the mail came.
We experienced many situations on this trip, some amusing, and some serious. One time while traveling across the prairie country, at the end of the day, we pulled off the road and made camp. We were just by ourselves out there. When morning came, there was fog, and we couldnít see out from camp very far. After breakfast, I was back at my wagon getting ready to harness my team. Some distance out in the fog, I heard a bunch of coyotes yipping. I thought it was a big bunch of wolves coming into camp to attack us. I climbed up in front of the wagon real fast, and grabbed the ax, and facing the front of the wagon with the ax raised ready to chop those wolves. At this point, my dad came around to see how I was doing; seeing me in that position, he ask what I was doing. I told him I was ready to fight off those wolves. He said, they arenít wolves. They are just coyotes, and they wonít come into camp or bother us. That relieved my fear. I was scared at first but later it seemed amusing.
At another time, we had been traveling for two days without finding water. The horses were really needing water. Finally, I think it was in the afternoon of the second day, we came to a ranch house, where people lived. The windmill was pumping nice coot water into a big low tank, where stock could drink. We pulled in and stopped. The man came out, and ask us what we wanted. My dad said, we need water; we havenít found any for two days. The man said, I donít have any to spare. My dad knew how to deal with people; he said in a nice way, we have to have water, I will pay you for it. The man said, you can have water ther4 if you will pay. So he set a fee for each of the four horses, and a fee for filling our drinking water container. My dad paid him, and he let us have the water. I donít think it was a large amount of money, but it was the principle of the thing, that I remember.
Now, I'm going to tell about something that is completely opposite to what I have just told. There is a little place in the west edge of Texas called Kent. That is where our mail was to come to, from the boys in Arizona. My dad wanted to get to Kent as soon as possible, because our money was getting low. The road went right through a cattle ranch. About the middle of the afternoon, we saw a bunch of cattle, just a little way off the road, and cowboys were there putting out feed for them. As we came near, the owner rode out to the wagon. My dad stopped, and ask him how far it was to Kent. He said, it's about ten miles; but donít try to go there to-day. Your horses look tired, and need to rest and eat. He said camp right here. Put your horses in that pasture right over there. There's good grass and water, and let them stay for a day or two. He said we will be doing the chores in a little while, and gave the approximate time; and to send the boy, pointing to me, up to the house with a bucket to get some fresh milk. The house was about a quarter mile up from the road. I went up, and he filled my bucket with fresh milk, and said, take this down to camp, and come right back. When I went back, he gave me about a half side of bacon, about fifteen pounds of flour, and whatever else I could carry, and said take this down to camp. He wanted to do things for us. We stayed there a couple days, then went on in to Kent.
When we got to Kent, My dad went right to the postoffice and inquired about our mail. They told him it had come several days before, and had been returned already. We wrote to the boys in Arizona, telling them what had happened, and to re-send the letter to Kent, and we would wait for it there. Well, this took several days. Our money ran out. We couldnít buy food; and our supply didnít last very long. My dad was sick with the flu, or something, and had to stay in bed for several days. My mother said all she had, in the way of food, was some weevilly cornmeal. She tried to sift the weevils out, and made some cornbread. That was all we had to eat for one day. Things were looking kind of bleak. Then the letter came with the money. Now we could buy some supplies. My dad was feeling better, was up, and soon gained his strength again. Kent was a very small place. There was the railroad station, the postoffice, a store, and probably two or three houses. The water for domestic use, was brought in by train, and dumped into a row of barrels that set along side of the railroad track. I would take the water bucket, go up to the barrels, fill the bucket, and carry it down to camp. There was a pond of water about two or three hundred yards down from the station. We were camped near it, and the horses could drink there.
One of our horses died while we were there; and we had to find another horse before we could go on. My dad was feeling pretty good by now. He put the saddle on one of the horses, and road out to one of the cattle ranches, to see if he could buy a horse. The owner said, I donít have any horses to sell; but I may be able to help you. I have a good horse, that I have retired from the hard work of riding after the cattle. He's in good shape, not too old, very gentle, and will do anything you want him to do. I'm sure he would love to help pull your wagon for you. I will give him to you. My dad was very grateful for his generosity, and brought him in. He became one of our best horses.
With two teams again, we traveled on to Van Horn, Texas, where we were to get mail again. Here we camped in the wagon yard in the edge of town. Van Horn was a pretty good size town. While we were there, another horse died. The trip had become very tiring for the family, and hard on the horses. My dad and mother talked things over; and decided at this point, it would be wise to ship the big wagon, with its load, and things we didnít need out of the other wagon; and my mother, grandmother, and the five kids younger than me would board the train, and go on out to the boys in Arizona. This they did. My dad had been trailing the buggy behind his wagon. Now we could take that off. We had three good horses. Two for my dadís wagon, and one for the buggy. He would drive the wagon, and I would drive the buggy. He and I would make the rest of the trip that way. The loads were much lighter, and we could make better time.
The next place I remember for getting our mail, was El Paso, Texas. We pulled into the wagon yard right in town. A wagon yard is a place for travelers to camp in. It is an enclosed area, with a high board fence all around. It has stalls for the horses; and feed that can be purchased. There is water, and toilet facilities, and the wagons can be parked in the middle. It is a real convenience for travelers, and people who come into town, and want to stay over. We stayed there a week or ten days.
Now the man that ran the wagon yard, had a big stallion horse; that he had sold to a man in Deming, New Mexico. He had to deliver him there by train; and had to go with the horse on the train, to take care of him. He also had a saddle horse; and ask my dad to take him along with us to Deming; so he would have a way to get back to El Paso. One day as we were traveling through the prairie country; My dad thought it would be nice to ride the saddle horse for a while. He took the horse from the back of the wagon; and had me tie my buggy horse to the back of the wagon. He let me drive the wagon, so he could ride along out to one side. We were doing fine, till the road went over a little levy. As the wagon went down, it started rolling real fast. The buggy horse was still coming up, and couldnít keep up. The lead rope jerked her down flat on her side, and dragged her for about thirty feet. My dad saw what was happening, and had me stop the wagon. It scraped a little hide off her hip and side, but otherwise didnít seem to hurt her too bad.
We traveled on to Deming, New Mexico, and camped in the wagon yard in the edge of town. We stayed there for several days. The man got his saddle horse, and headed back to El Paso. One day my dad went up town, and left me in the wagon yard. A bully sort of a boy, came into the yard, and seemed to want to make trouble for me. When I saw his attitude, I just picked up the ax, and chased him out of the yard.
One stretch of country, we traveled through, was not too far from the Mexican border. In this area, Mexican bandits would come across; and make raids on the ranchers, taking their stock, and sometimes killing anyone who tried to stop them. My dad heard that they were active at this time; and that caused fear, while traveling through that area. One day we were trying to get to a little town, thinking we would have more protection there, but couldnít make it, and had to camp out there. My dad pulled down off the road a little distance, and stopped behind a clump of mesquite trees. This hid us from the road. We unharnessed the horses, and tied them right to the wagon, and fed them with feed we were carrying. We fixed supper, and ate. After supper, my dad got his guns out, and saw that they were loaded. He belted the colt pistol to his side, and had the automatic rifle in his hands. He told me to go on to bed, and he would sit up for a while. I went to sleep right away. It seemed like I had been asleep about five minutes, and I woke up, and it was morning. My dad was sitting in the front of the wagon, with the rifle across his knees. He had been up all night on guard. We got breakfast and hit the road early. During the day, we came to that little town, bought some supplies, and went on our way. After about three days, we got news, that the very next night, after we were there; the bandits rode into that little town, and shot it up. We were very fortunate, that we didnít encounter the bandits.
The road ran most of the time, along side the railroad tracks. One day I was just riding along in my buggy, probably half asleep, when all of a sudden I heard the chugging of a steam engine right behind my buggy. Before I looked back, I thought the train had run off the track, and was going to run over me. As soon as I looked, I could see it was a stanley steamer automobile. The driver, just pulled out to one side, went around us, and went on down the road.
Another time, a young married couple came along in a fairly new car; and tried to go around us the same way, and got stuck in the sand. When I looked back, the young lady was out behind the car pushing; and the man was trying to drive, but they couldnít get out. My dad stopped, took the team back, and pulled them out and around us. They talked a while, was very friendly, said they were going to California for a vacation. They appreciated the help. We traveled on for several days. One day, a couple came along, in a stripped down model T ford, going back the other way. they stopped to talk. They recognized us. It was the same couple. They had finished their vacation, and was on their way back home, with this model T ford. They seemed to be having a good time.
I had a big greyhound dog. His name was Jack. He traveled with us, all the way, from Texas to California. He was my protector, and he did a good job of it. He was always with us. At times, we would be traveling through open prairie country. He would be out to one side, and occasionally, would scare up a jackrabbit, and start the chase. Now those jackrabbits could run fast; but they couldnít outrun jack. It was a thrilling sight to watch that chase. At the start, the rabbit may be two hundred feet ahead. When they would get stretched out in a full run, I could see that every jump that jack made, brought him a little closer to the rabbit. Soon he would pick him up. He could always enjoy a fresh rabbit dinner.
After five months of traveling, we finally arrived at our destination. It was on a large cotton farm, about four or five miles from Mesa, Arizona.
When we arrived there with the wagons, the summer work was just starting. So, we all worked there through the summer months, June, July, and August. The four older brothers drove mules with cultivators, cultivating the rows of cotton. My dad was field boss over a large group of cotton choppers. Choppers use wide sharp hoes to thin the cotton, and hoe out the weeds and grass along the cotton row. I was water boy for this large group of farm hands. I had a little white donkey, and a little saddle. I would fill three canteens, with water and hang them on the saddle horn, and climb on and ride down through the field. It wouldnít take very long for the canteens to become empty. So, I would go right back to the well for another load.
The cotton they grew there was long staple cotton It grew in a very small bowl, only three locks, and was hard to pick. We didnít want to pick cotton there. They needed pickers over in Blythe, California, where they grew the regular, big bowl cotton, that we were used to; and was offering two cents a pound for picking, so we went over to Blythe to pick cotton. My dad contracted with one farmer for our family to pick his whole crop. We did pretty good. The combined earnings of the family was about thirty dollars a day. That was pretty good for those days.
For the trip, from Mesa, Arizona, to Blythe; we loaded everything in the two wagons. My oldest brother, Paul, drove the biggest wagon; and I road with him. My little white donkey just followed along. Mark, and Luke, drove the other wagon. We had the Mitchell automobile also. My brother Silas, drove the car. My dad, and Mother, and grandmother, and the five youngest kids, all road with him in the car. We would start out early with the wagons. The car would come later. They would pass us about noon; and go on ahead, and pick out a place to make camp. They would set up camp, cook supper, and have it ready to eat, when we got there with, the wagons. We would follow this same procedure every day.
My brother Paul, who drove the biggest wagon, was always last in the procession. One day late in the afternoon, something happened to his best horse; and he couldnít pull any more. Paul unhitched him, and transferred the harness to the little white donkey. The harness was way too big for her; but she held up her side of the wagon tongue; and they made it in to camp that way. Paul had tied the old horse to the back of the wagon, and led him into camp that way. It was hard for him to walk; so they were a little late coming in. The next morning, the horse wasnít any better; so it was decided he couldnít go any farther, and would have to be left there. My dad always tried to choose campsites near water; so we would have water for the horses, and ourselves. At this place, off to the left, about a quarter mile, was a windmill, that pumped water for cattle that grazed in that area. The water was caught in a big low tank, that the cattle could drink out of They took the horse down near the water, and left him there. There was grass nearby; so he would have food and water both easy to reach. Now the problem was, we had two wagons, but only three horses. They decided to leave the smaller wagon there, and go on over to Blythe. Then the boys would bring two horses back, and bring that wagon in.
As we traveled on, one day we were coming near to the Colorado river. Night was coming on, so we had to camp in the low lands before we reached the river. We didnít get much sleep that night. The mosquitoes tried to eat us up. We made several smoke fires, with cow chips, in and around camp, to help keep them out. Some of us were busy all night, keeping the smoke fires going. The smoke helped some; but we didnít get much sleep that night. The next morning, we came to the river. The river here, is the borderline between Arizona, and California. There was no bridge for crossing here; but they had a ferryboat system to take people across. It was called a cable ferry. There was a big strong cable stretched across the river; and each end of the ferryboat, was connected to the cable by pulleys. By adjusting the pulleys, they could change the angle of the ferryboat in the water; and the flowing current of the river would push it across. It was quite a large boat; and I think we got the car, and the wagon, and all of us on at the same time, and was taken across. Now we were in California, near Blythe; and soon reached our destination.
Early in the morning, Mark and Luke, each riding a horse, started back to retrieve the wagon that was left in the desert. They got there 0 K; and found everything just as we had left it. On their way back, late one afternoon, they were looking for water, so they could camp for the night. They came to a dry creek. Thinking they might find water farther up; they pulled off the road, and started up the creek. after a short distance, they met an old prospector walking down. They stopped and talked a while; and told him they were looking for water, so they could make camp. He said, a little farther up there is water, and an old cabin is there, and a good place to camp. They went on up, found the place and made camp. When they got ready to make their beds, they decided not to use the old cabin. It didnít look too good. Mark said he was going to sleep in the wagon. It was warm weather, and Luke said he would make his bed right out there on the sand. I think it was sometime after midnight, Luke woke up. When he opened his eyes, he was looking right up in the face of a big lion, that was standing right over him looking down at his face. He was so scared, he was afraid to move. The horses were frightened, and was making quite a bit of noise. That woke Mark, and he leaned out and yelled, "whats going on out there?" That scared the lion off. Luke went to the wagon fast, telling Mark what happened. Mark grabbed the gun and shot a couple times, to help scare the lion away. After all the excitement, they weren't sleepy any more. Even though it was still dark, they decided to harness the horses, and get out of there. The horses were plenty willing too; so they hit the road. They finished the trip home, without any more excitement.
There was an empty house on the place where we were to pick cotton, so we moved into it. We picked cotton for about two and a half months, and it was all finished. That was about the middle of November.
My dad saw that the land there around Blythe was very fertile, and available, and plenty of water for irrigation. So he decided to start farming right there. He leased eighty acres of land that was already developed, and under irrigation. He bought two more teams of horses, and we were in the fanning business. We raised cotton and alfalfa hay. We farmed that place for two years. The second year, we bought a tractor, and leased another eighty acres nearby, and put it all in cotton. We did pretty good there, and my brother Silas bought a new 1920 model T ford. This first place, only had a tent house to live in. My dad found a place with a better house, with shade trees all around, a family orchard, and garden plot; and the soil was real good, and easy to work. He leased it; so we gave up the first place, and moved there. That was a nice place; we enjoyed the fresh fruit and vegetables. It was only a mile or two into Blythe, so we went to school there. We farmed that place for two years, raising cotton and alfalfa hay. We did pretty well there; but the summers were so hot, and hard on the family, we decided to move to Costa Mesa, California, where the climate is nice all year.
In the winter of 1918, 1919, after we had gotten settled on our farm at Blythe; I entered school in the third grade. I was ten years old. I had missed a whole year of school , because of the long trip. I attended school all four years that we lived at Blythe. In the winter of 1922, when we moved to Costa Mesa, I was fourteen, and in the seventh grade. I finished the seventh and eighth grades at Costa Mesa. There was no highschool there, so I was out of school then for three years, working for my dad on the farm. In 1927, at age 19, 1 became interested in getting more education. So, I entered high school, in a Christian school, and attended there for one year. That is where I met my wife. She was going to the same school. We were married in 1929. I was 21, and she was 19. We lived at Santa Ana and Costa Mesa for about one year. I was working at the printing shop, helping to print the daily paper. My salary was twenty dollars a week. We worked six days a week.
In May 1930, we moved back to Forestville, California, my wife's home town; and went into business with my father-in-law, on his fruit farm; which became mostly apples. I operated this farm for twenty four years. During this time, my family was growing up. I took part in many things in the community. I was on the school board for six years. I was on the Forestville County water board for eighteen years. I was on the board of the Forestville Processing plant for several years. I was manager of the Cherry Growers Association for several years. I was director of a singing group for a radio program for about ten years. All this while, I was furthering my education by taking courses in various schools and colleges. I earned a state real estate license. I learned to fly an airplane; and had a permanent pilot license.
After twenty four years of running the apple ranch, I sold the orchard, but kept the home. I bought a hundred and forty five acres of farming land in the Sacramento valley, near Dixon California. I and my son William, working together, farmed that, plus some leased land for five years. The first three years was pretty good. But, in the fourth and fifth years, things went wrong, and I lost money. I had to sell out, and I wound up in debt. I had to borrow money from my brother Silas, to pay out of debt. My brother Silas, and I were always close all through life. And if I needed help, he was always ready to help. I am sure he influenced me a lot, as well as did my parents. That was my toughest time; but we worked out of it.
I had a lot of happy times with my wife, and family. We made several trips to southern California, to visit my parents, while they were still alive. I took my family back to Texas, retracing the route we traveled with the covered wagons. We went right back to the farm, where we were living when we left Texas. Ifs near a little place called Wall, Texas, about ten miles southeast of San Angelo. We visited the man, who ran the little store there at Wall, where we bought supplies thirty years before. He remembered our family. That was an interesting visit.
After I quit the farming business, I went to work for the school system. I was four years with the grammar school, three years with the high school, and nine years with the Sonoma State College. After nine years with the college, I retired, having worked sixteen years under the state retirement system.
After I retired, I bought a travel trailer; and my wife and I traveled quite a lot, especially up and down the west coast. My brother Mark, lived at Burbank, CA. My brother Luke lived at Desert Hot Springs, CA. My brother Silas lived at Anza, CA. We visited all three of these brothers. We took our trailer, and was self sufficient where ever we stopped. We had friends up in Oregon, and we made several trips up there. One time we planned a trip with Silas and his wife, to go back to Atwood, Kansas. We took our trailer, went down to Anza, picked them up; and the four of us traveled together to Kansas, an stayed there for two weeks, then made our way back home. After a few years, my wife Irrnaís health began to fail. She passed away in 1984. In 1985, 1 went down to Desert Hot Springs, and stayed with my brother Luke for a while. One day I went over to Anaheim, CA to see a widowed lady, that I had known since childhood. Her name was Alice. She invited me to come back again; so I went once a week, for several times. We became interested in each other; and got married that year. We both enjoyed traveling, so made quite a few trips. Alice had two sons in Texas; and my sister Ruth lived in Arkansas; so we would make the round. We would go to Houston, Texas by the southern route. Then up to Arkansas, and come home on Highway 40. I had a cousin in Oklahoma; and Alice had a niece in Arizona, so we would hit those places, on the way home. Alice and I, and Luke and his wife, went together on several trips; and had a wonderful time.
I have been wonderfully blessed in my life time. The Lord has been good to me. I owe it all to hirn; and took forward to live forever in His presence.