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Stories from the valley

Here once stood…

Contributed by Tim Johnson

I’m a huge fan of the roadside monuments that dot the freeways and side backroads of California. You know the ones: “Here once stood…” There you will find the name of an important place founded by a notable person or some other notable historic event. My family can attest I stop for as many as I can.

They key is they all speak to what once was.

One of my favorites (among the many for the railroad which was a big deal once and the Pony Express, an icon of the West) is a landmark to the Thompson Seedless Grape on Highway 20 west of Yuba City. Yes a grape! It started here and is still grown in many backyards and gardens.

While it’s natural for people and places to come and go, I always wonder what was lost when these things faded? Is the region better or worse at their passing?

Rusting Beet HarvesterOnce there was a thriving sugar beet industry in the Sacramento Valley. The only monuments that mark their passing are the rusting beet harvesters and some old sugar mills. The stories of those that worked in the fields and plants however can still be found like those from Steve Beckley who grew up in Grimes.

Sometimes I wonder what will become of other crops in the Sacramento Valley. Will rice, safflower or wheat still be a part of the landscape in 100 years?  If these annual crops are no longer grown, what is the permanent loss?

45 NORTHThe first to go will be the wide–open vistas. Drives along meandering roads like Highway 162 from Richvale to Bayliss will be forever changed, as will my favorite road trip along Highway 45 north from Knights Landing. Nut trees are great but it’s really hard to get a feel for the landscape under a canopy of leaves.

Next to go will be the iconic silos and dryers that dot the valley. Filled with rice, safflower and wheat, they reflect the breaking light during spring storms and stand proud against summer sunsets. They are a unique and picturesque feature of our valley.

Rice fields in Live Oak, CA, Photo Brian Baer

The largest void will be the skies empty of migrating waterfowl. Skeins of geese far above, ducks tumbling into every rice field and the cacophony of their calls on a moonlit November night will all be lost.

Sometimes a place is defined by the very land at our feet and the crops that spring from the fields. Certainly that’s the case in the Sacramento Valley. As much as the rim of mountains and ribbons of rivers, fields of grain are part of the very soul of this place.

No bronze plaque on a granite face can capture that loss.