California Council for the Humanities

California Stories Initiative

Years of Valor, Years of Hope

Tulare County and the Years 1941-1946

Tulare County Library

The Friends of the Tulare County Library

And the Tulare County Historical Society

Interviews in 2003-2004

Interviewee: Verna Curtis

Date: October 16, 2003

Interviewer: Ginger Curtis

Place: Tulare County, CA

Place of Interview: Santa Rosa, CA

OUTSTANDING POINTS IN INTERVIEW:

SPECIFIC QUESTIONS TO TULARE COUNTY

HOME FRONT: FAMILY

HOME FRONT: COMMUNITY & NATIONAL

VALLEY OAK CREDIT UNION

THREE RIVERS BUYERS CLUB

CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR PROGRAM

GC: My name is Ginger Curtis, and I’m interviewing Verna Curtis for an oral history interview. We are in Three Rivers, California and the name of this interview is called Years of Valor, Years of Hope: Tulare County and the Years 1941-1946. Good morning Verna, I’d like you to share, into the tape, your name, including your maiden name, and if you would spell them please.

VC: I’m Verna Curtis, my maiden name is Godsey.

GC: Great, and Verna could you tell us when you were born?

VC: Yes, I’m now 82 years old so I was born October 13 1921.

GC: And can you give us the names of your parents and where they were from? Where were you raised?

VC: I was raised in Indiana. My mother’s name was Rachel Ellis. My father was Earl Godsey, from Kansas.

GC: And where were you raised? And where were you born?

VC: I was born on a farm in Canada , but moved and lived all my childhood in Indiana. I then finished a college degree in California.

GC: Specifically, what we want to understand in this interview is for you to share experiences that you had in Tulare County during the years of 1941 to 1946. What brought you to Tulare County and when did you come to Tulare County?

VC I came to Tulare County in 1944 in the spring. To back up just a bit, perhaps I should say that I had a couple of romances that were causalities of the war. But I was married in 1943 in Washington D.C. and together we came to Tulare County in the spring of 1944. We stayed in Three Rivers, a small town at the entrance of Sequoia National Park, and I have later spent three separate times, extended times, in Tulare County, each time enjoying the similarities rather than emphasizing the changes.

GC: Why exactly did you come to Tulare County in the spring of 1944?

VC: We were sent here by the draft board, but you expressed interest in our reaction to the war. Actually everybody in America knew that we had declared war in Germany in 1939 and it was affecting all our lives. Our brothers and boyfriends were dropping out of college and out of jobs and we all were being asked to adapt our lives. There was rationing, for there was little gas or sugar or meat or butter.

GC: So in the spring of 1944 you came to Tulare County because . . . could you explain again why you were living, a newly wed in Washington D.C, and then, all of a sudden, you are all the way across the country. I don’t quite understand that. What happened there?

VC: After Pearl Harbor, I thought I should drop out and become a nurse instead of finishing a degree. But I was talked out of that and proceeded to finish and met the young man I married and, of course, the main thing in all our lives was your draft number. And that was the subject of every conversation. Once the draft number was called, it was necessary to make plans to do what the judge instructed us to do, to go to a camp.

GC: Your husband was given a draft number that sent him to a camp. What kind of camp was it? He came to Tulare County as opposed to going to the war front. Could you explain a little bit more about that?

VC: Our major socializing, of course, was with young people who were Quakers, and Quakers or Friends, as they are otherwise called, are one of the major peace churches. They show their religious opposition to war and they very strongly feel that a war doesn’t solve anything. It only makes problems worse. So beyond that, one’s life, besides objecting to a world war, should be working on the problems and the injustices that cause a war.

GC: Your husband was assigned a Conscientious Objector status and was assigned to come to Tulare County. Is that what you’re saying?

VC: That’s right. I think we didn’t have much choice in the matter.

We were offered the chance to work in a camp in California and as a native Californian, he was eager to do that.

GC: Your husband was from California, so when he was assigned the possibility of coming to a conscientious objector camp in California, he decided that was his decision for the two of you.

VC: Yes, he had run out of all kinds of educational deferments, so we packed one trunk and traveled by train to California. We were to go to the CO camp in Sequoia Park in Tulare County. This was certainly an unforgettable experience of community and survival. But, let me tell you a little more about the trip. We were traveling with friends heading for a similar camp in Southern California. They had no gas, so they dropped us off at the ’198 exit to Exeter. We unloaded our bikes and proceeded up the canyon, having no idea where we were going.

GC: So you’re describing, Verna, this is quite interesting, the story of arriving in Tulare County in the spring of 1944. What it was like starting a new chapter in your life and the beginning of your chapter is your life in Tulare County, is that correct?

VC: That’s correct, and I have us on our bicycles in the springtime, blue sky and green hills, snow on the peaks ahead. We had a name and an address to head toward in Three Rivers. We passed through Lemon Cove, a small town, which is almost exactly the same today. Then, on and on along the riverbed. There was no dam and no lake and so we gradually climbed up to Three Rivers. We pedaled and pedaled and finally when it was nearly dark, we reached the town and sought out the person that we were to meet, George Burcham. He was a Methodist minister during that time and was doing work with the farm laborers in the County.

GC: What was the name of this gentleman again?

VC: George Burcham. He was running a youth hostel and he was welcoming to all the conscientious objectors that were headed toward the park.

The next day we went out in search of a house and we found one for $15 a month. My husband was assigned to work in the park and he was to live in a barracks at Ash Mountain.

GC: So you were able to find housing for yourself in the small community of Three Rivers, whereas your husband . . . what was your husband’s name again?

VC: His name was Russ, or Russell, Curtis. There were a hundred or so young men in that camp and it was a confinement situation, not a concentration camp, but it was a difficult time for Russ. Most of the boys there were either Mennonites or Amish and they were objecting to the war on religious grounds; thou shall not kill, a Biblical injunction.

GC: So what was it like? Your husband is in a conscientious objector camp in Sequoia Park and you lived in Three Rivers. Can you describe what the community was like and how welcoming the community was, not only for you, but for this small group of fellow conscientious objectors?

VC: Yes, I’ll be glad to try to explain. The fellows were assigned to park maintenance, fire fighting and trail building. All the jobs that had been done by the CCC boys and by park employees. All these men now had gone to war. So, the wives lived in a group situation and our husbands, whenever they had leave, would come (bicycling) down to Three Rivers.

GC: There was a small group of women, wives of the conscientious objectors, that created a support group for you as a young bride?

VC: That’s right. We learned to survive by gardening and picking fruit on shares and raising chickens. I even learned to butcher and skin rabbits and one special treat was a deer that we had to feast on one winter.

(Ed. "shares": The picker keeps a "share" of the fruit picked.)

GC: Were you given rationing as a spouse of a young man assigned to do his Conscientious Objector term?

VC Yes, I think we shared the same numbers of rationing coupons that everyone did. It didn’t seem to matter a lot because there was more of a subsistence life in Three Rivers. There was some need for a little money, because the men were not only not paid, but they had to pay to stay in this camp, so the $30 a month that was needed was soon exhausted from anybody’s small savings. It was up to the wives to try to find a little money. I remember I painted the interiors of houses and did a little caring for children.

GC: It sounds like the cash that was generated between the two of you was your responsibility. I mean, your husband not only did not make any money, but he was asked to pay $30 a month to live in the camp.

VC: That’s true. We managed somehow and we were really very happy. Best of all was experiencing the community and I remember the community consisted of three groups. There were the ranchers, who were the cowboy type, and they were, for certain, the largest group. And, then there was a group of remnants of a Kaweah colony, a utopian community had been formed the last part of the last century, and so there were still remnants of that community. People who stayed on and were socialists and liberals from various parts of Europe. The third group was a small group of artists and sculptors and painters.

GC: It sounds like you were able to enjoy this community during that period of time. Was there any event or any circumstance where you didn’t feel welcome or where you found difficulty living in this small town during those war years?

VC: I could describe a little bit about the first section of the community. It was certainly a difficult time for the families here who were suffering war time separation and losses. The pacifists were often considered slackers or traitors. I do recall that at the Saturday night dances it was okay for us to do-se-do and swing your partner. But then on Sunday mornings there were people who turned away from us and refused to shake hands. That was a reaction of that part of the community.

To go back to the utopian Kaweah Colony residents, they shared their hopes and fellowship and food with us right away. They took us in, for they had come here from persecuted situations in Switzerland and Germany . They were so helpful to us. Although the colony had disbanded, these were people who were here and active and eager to share with the pacifists that had come here. So together we formed a cooperative buying club that was operated successfully in a little shed. And a similar club still operates in Three Rivers today. At that time we also formed The Valley Oak Credit Union which still exists with thousands of members and millions of dollars of assets. I can recall how it operated out of a cardboard carton set up on our dining room table. There were 26 members.

GC: Is this true, that you and your husband had a cardboard box that was the beginning days of Valley Oak Credit Union?

VC: Yes, we were very active, first as treasurer and on the committees. Yes, it was the beginning of something that’s very valuable to Tulare County and the valley now.

GC: And this buying club - I’m not quite clear about what a buying club is? Was this for food, or other necessities in life? What was the buying club?

VC: We would find a wholesaler in Visalia and have a little stock of basic things that were safe to be stored, such as canned goods. Merchandise also came from a wholesale cooperative. It was a service to people who had no cars or a car and no gas. It operated as a cooperative, selling and returning any profits to the members if we made a profit on the items.

GC: There were a few stores in Three Rivers. Were they food stores or something? And this is kind of an alternative food store, is that correct?

VC: You’re right, it was a food club.

GC: Cooperative food club. Great! Well, it sounds like you were able to make a pretty interesting life and become involved. You were able to become involved in the community and found some people who supported you and also found people who had some misunderstanding about your belief or intolerance to your belief. Because you said something about . . . I didn’t quite get it, that on Saturday nights you had community dances and different young people from all walks of life could dance together, but on Sunday, what were you talking about? You went to church . . . ?

VC: Well, it was a little different group, I think. It was not the same people.

GC: Not the same people were at church. But at church: what happened when you went to church?

VC: We liked the minister very much and he would invite us to his home. So certainly he was sympathetic. But there were families represented in the community who were suffering separation and even losses and they were resentful of these pacifists who were sent here, really, to take the place of their sons who were away at war. I’ve described that part of the community and the utopian, Kaweah Colony, but that third group, too, had a great influence. And, here, I could mention Gene Gray and Carroll Barnes, a sculptor and a photographer and artist. They together built a little adobe store on the road, a shop, and sold their arts and other arts and crafts from other people. I worked some in that store and in fact, had a stock of books that were part of another cooperative we were working on called Books Unlimited. And that was a mail order thing, totally operated by mail just like the Reader’s Digest book club that hadn’t even started then. But this one ordered books and shipped books and it grew from nothing, practically, to a viable economic business. It went on to Berkeley and became quite well known in the state as serving cooperative stores and book outlets. It was started right there in that little adobe shop on the road still there.

GC: This is remarkable. You talk about the Valley Oak Credit Union. You talk about a cooperative food store that still is operating in Three Rivers. And you talk about the beginnings of artists having little displays of their work and some of these artists are fairly well known in Tulare County, for instance, the gentleman by the name of Carroll Barnes. How do you spell that?

VC: Two r’s and two l’s. And Gene Gray too was very well known.

GC: And he was an artist?

VC: An artist. He and his wife were very fine artists and, of course, he became the manager of the Valley Oak Credit Union for many years.

GC: All these people were living in Three Rivers in those early years when you were here?

VC: Yes, yes.

GC: Thank you for sharing. It sounds like, you know, you and your husband felt a degree of support and opportunity to be a part of this community during that time when he was confined to a Conscientious Objector camp. How long did you stay here? Did you stay here until the war ended?

VC: Yes, we did. Several of the other Quaker families left and I think that’s interesting. Some of them felt that the camp wasn’t as strong of a testimony against the war, so they did what was called "walk out" and of course they were promptly arrested and put in jail for several years. And then there were others who didn’t choose to do something quite so dramatic but they would ask to leave to go to a mental hospital to work with patients. Then there was also a group that left to work in prisons. The work in the mental hospitals has resulted in a lot of new theories and practices of treatment and humane treatment of the mentally ill. There were others that were smoke jumpers who fought fires . There were all kinds of opportunities beyond staying in the camp and working in Sequoia National Park. And it certainly was quite delightful to become a park worker in a part of American life.

GC: So, what was your husband, Russ Curtis, doing as he worked in the park? During this period of time, while you were living in Three Rivers and he was in that camp, what was he was assigned to do for the Department of Interior? Who gave the assignment to work in the park and who supervised this camp?

VC: It was supervised by members of these peace churches. But of course, they had to report to the park officials and do the work that the park needed. I believe I haven’t explained that they were fighting forest fires whenever that was needed, and making trails and doing rock work along the General’s Highway. Some of that rock work is quite lovely and still remains. My husband also worked in the kitchen and learned to make bread and pies. That was the sort of work that they did.

(Tape turned off, transcribed by JW to end of Side A)

GC Verna was sharing, just before I turned off the tape recorder, some of the experiences of some of the other conscientious objectors during the war. Some chose to go off to help out in mental institutions or prisons or to make a difference stance against the war and to solidify their beliefs about being pacifists. Verna, if you would share a little bit more: how long did you live in Three Rivers while your husband was living in the conscientious objector camp? Could you please explain a little bit more about that?

VC Yes, I’d be happy to do that. We arrived in the gorgeous Spring of ’44 and worked in all the various jobs in Sequoia doing the work that rangers and crews and employees had done before.

GC Your husband was a part of the maintenance crew in Sequoia. Or did he do ranger and natural history presentations during the war?

VC No, I think no one was asked to do presentations, but Russ did work some in the office for the chief ranger but it was mainly fire fighting, trails maintenance, rock work, carving signs for the park, just general work and learning about the fragile environment of the foothills and the Park and so it was a rich experience . We liked it, and had so much fun in the community. We did take one break in the Spring of ’45 and we were sent to what is called a "spike" camp in Mount Rainier National Park. I was doing cooking for the crew of other young men, so we were there in Rainier in August of ’45 when the war ended in Japan . Again we were on our bikes and were going on a trip. People who had gas were out celebrating and they were calling to us, "Don’t you know the war is over!" And so it was a wonderful time but of course that spike camp ended at the end of summer and we returned to Three Rivers. The conscientious objector camp remained at Sequoia Park for another year.

GC That spike camp, as I understand, is also a conscientious objector camp. Is that correct?

VC That’s correct. And I was the kitchen crew and Russ was my helper and the crew was doing the same kind of work at Mount Rainier.

(Ed: "Spike" is the term Verna used for a satellite camp of the C.O. camp at Sequoia National Park. She said there were many "spike" camps set up for temporary projects in various Park locations.)

GC Can you say a little bit about the parks, such as: who came during those war years knowing the country had rationing and people didn’t travel as they do these days? Do you have any memories of what it was like in the Park?

VC Yes, I remember, you could use a campground any time, any place.

There were very, very few tourists. We noticed few tourists in the little adobe shop in Three Rivers and certainly in the Park. It was a very slow time.

GC What was it like for you, as a young girl from Indiana? Do you have a memory of your first impression of seeing those big trees?

VC The trees and the mountains were all pretty awesome and then we grew to love the river and I had never before seen a Sequoia tree.

But different artisans were chopping them down and making bowls and all kinds of things that wouldn’t be allowed now. I guess they were trying to make a little living out of that resource. But we had wonderful days in the Park, camping and riding bicycles down the hill. It was great.

GC It sounds as if you created a nice community for you and your husband, not only in the Park but in the surrounding community of Three Rivers.

VC But the war was never far away from us. We didn’t have a radio and we seldom saw newspapers, but letters would come to the community. Conversations were about the war and the anxious times were deeply felt by everyone. Another thought about this community is that there were no racial differences here. There were no blacks or Hispanics or Orientals. I’d seen Japanese in college being dropped from their classes and disappearing, so we knew that the retention camps for them were miserable places. It was said here, about this community, in the early days after Pearl Harbor, that residents went up the hills and positioned themselves ready to defend against an invasion by the Japanese. All this had stopped, of course there was no more of that kind of fear by ’44 and ’45. At the same time we were hearing from our relatives in Honolulu that the Japanese were so essential and such a majority group there that they were allowed to live on and do their work and be a valuable part of the life there and there was no internment.

GC You were saying something about college. Where exactly were you going to college where Japanese American students were attending?

VC This was UCLA, where I had many Japanese friends and they were, as I say, disappearing. After Pearl Harbor they had to leave and go to camps.

GC What year did you graduate from UCLA and what did you study?

VC In ’43. I studied sociology and psychology and English. But it is wonderful now, 60 years later in Three Rivers, to see such welcoming diverse groups here, blacks, Latinos, African, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, all making a life here together. Today I’m the only pacifist of that group in the 40s that’s still here. Most people left Camp Buckeye and never even returned for a visit.

GC What you are sharing is that you are the only one from that conscientious objector camp to return to Tulare County. Do you still know some of these people? None of them made a life in Tulare County?

VC No, I think none of them did. They come back very rarely. The Amish and Mennonites came from Pennsylvania and even Reedley a couple of times for reunions.

GC As far as you know, none remain in Tulare County, is that correct?

VC Yes.

GC You described very well your life in this community. Just a little bit more about this period, the war years: how did this affect your economic circumstances?

VC Well, life was pretty much on hold during that time; we were just trying to break even and survive. But I remember not so much of the frustrating time, I guess, but the rather resourceful and creative people that we came to know and projects that we undertook. That seems to be the dominant memory.

(turn to side B of tape)

GC Verna was sharing more about what it was like to live in Tulare County during the war years and their economic circumstances. Is there anything else about how it was economically for you and your husband during those years? Have you pretty much covered it all or is there something else you’d like to share?

VC: Our life was certainly centered on Three Rivers. We perhaps went to Visalia twice a year; we found everything here. That was probably true pretty much all over the country during the war time when people were not moving and resettling. I was mentioning about the spike camp in Mount Rainier National Park, the summer of ’45 when the war ended and how we were happy to come back here in the Fall. The camp here in Sequoia closed one year later.

GC: So can you explain again. When exactly did the camp close in Sequoia?

VC: I think it closed in the fall of ’46, because then employees were returning to the park. People were being discharged from the Army to come back to their old jobs. So we again got on our bikes and left Three Rivers, actually for 34 years of village work in India , and for many years of developing cooperatives in the Pacific Islands. The life I described that we headed into in ’46 was really life in projects that were enriched by our experiences and those years in Tulare County. So we were very grateful for that.

GC: Ok, great. Just kind of a little different slant here. You were a young bride, basically, when you came to Tulare County, as I understand you were married in Washington D.C. Then you came to Tulare County shortly thereafter. Do you have any thoughts about how the war affected your courting or your romantic relationships during that period? Did the war affect these sorts of things, either specifically for you or for your friends that you knew who were of the same age that you were in the early to mid 40’s?

VC: I think it didn’t affect marriages very much, because changing partners and divorcing was not common earlier and consummated romances would be a change and were altered by the terrible upheaval and the whole nation being at war. But, personally, the friends that we made in those early days remained strong and together and perhaps that’s true of everybody’s life; the friends that they make in their early 20’s are lasting. But I didn’t feel that it affected marriages adversely. In fact, it probably made them stronger by going through hardships.

GC: So, you said something about you having some experience of some romances prior to your marriage to your husband, which involved the war. Could you elaborate a little bit about that?

VC: My experience was no different than anyone’s. I mean, all the friends we made when we were 18 and 19. Those were torn apart by separation and most of them couldn’t survive. Mine was nothing unusual, I believe.

GC: But what were your experiences? What happened in those late teens, early 20’s? You weren’t married. Before your marriage to Russ, did you have other serious relationships?

VC: At the time, you think that they’re very serious, but most of them you can’t keep alive by letters. E-mail and telephones weren’t common. And no, it’s nothing to suffer about now. It was a universal experience of those years, you know. Countries were being torn up, so you can imagine relationships being torn apart.

GC: You said about the small community of conscientious objectors, that there were six or eight of these men. How many men were actually in the camp?

VC: I think several hundred, but, of course, there would be some coming and going. It started before we got there, and we were there to the end. But, people would go for other assignments, as I said, they’d choose another park or assignment.

GC: So, out of that couple hundred men that went through that camp, you spoke about six or eight women with whom you became close. They were associated with that camp, is that true?

VC: Yes, there were only six or eight wives that ever came to Three Rivers. The others were all single men from Pennsylvania, Reedley, and other Mennonite and Amish communities. Only a few Quakers and Methodists and Unitarians and other groups of religious pacifists were assigned here.

GC: I just want to understand a little bit more about your experience of romance and all. During these war years, your romance was not any different than anyone else. But do you think that war time romances, so to speak, were unrealistic, or, as a result of that war, did people take relationships more seriously? Can you expound on any of this in general terms?

VC: I don’t think I can generalize on that. I’m sure that some romances survived and others didn’t. I think the main thing I found was a direction of our lives in small communities and cooperatives. The work and our experiences here in Three Rivers became our life and our philosophy.

GC: So those years were fairly formative for you and your husband in shaping the pattern of your future, of your life together beyond Tulare County.

VC: You’re right, you’re right.

GC: That’s interesting. So the richness, as I hear you describe Three Rivers in those years: it was a rich community. There was some diversity among the community, some great artistic talent and maybe a little intellectual talent, is that correct?

VC: Oh yes, I didn’t mention that there were groups studying The Great Books of the Western World and poetry. I don’t really remember music as coming forward much, but intellectual life certainly was here. Maybe it wasn’t dominant, but it was here. The small community skills and the work of cooperatives was certainly formed as a way to live out a peaceful life.

(Ed: Robert Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler developed a list of books in Chicago in the 40s that they felt contained the greatest ideas of the Western World and called them the Great Books of the Western World. The specific books have changed in the decades since then, but the set continues to be read and studied both in colleges and individually. A book club in King’s County devoted to discussing these books exists today.)

GC: You said something about how you didn’t really read. You didn’t have the newspaper. You definitely talked about not having a radio. But you remember hearing about the war. How did you hear about the war? Did you talk about the war amongst your small group of like-minded friends, or did you talk about the war outside of that like-minded group?

VC: We did not talk about the war, except perhaps through part of the Kaweah Colony, the utopian community that shared the same views.

GC: Why didn’t you talk about the war with the greater community?

VC: Well, we did with the minister, but I don’t recall that he preached sermons about the war. We, of course, had no children in our young families here. We didn’t have any occasion to meet with them. It didn’t seem like an isolated life without general participation.

GC: Yeah, so I understand. It was a different life from present day, where there is a lot of media. Now, just in summary . . . .

VC: Well, we knew when the war was starting. The European war started for us as a college students. But we didn’t have time to be very involved, except when my Japanese friends started disappearing and Pearl Harbor, of course, brought the whole nation into action. It has been well documented as the greatest generation that pulled themselves up from a low standard to a great accomplishment.

GC: Reflecting a little bit, I know that you came to Tulare County in the spring of ’44, and essentially stayed here in ’44 through ’47. So during the latter part of this oral history summary, you were here. You didn’t truly know Tulare County prior to ’44. But do you have any concept of this community, a memory of this community changing as a result of the war, or changing as a result of you and your husband’s part in Tulare County, being conscientious objectors, being pacifists in a small rural town in California?

VC: I like to think that we made an impact on the park and on the community and certainly the reverse. It made a big impact on us. We were not involved much in the work of that man I mentioned, George Burcham, but there were times that we would go down and work in the labor camps, Linell camp for the Mexican and other farm laborers at that time. And I think that’s led to a continuing interest in serving a community that’s in need of housing and all kinds of services. So that was a fairly major side effect, I think. But locally there are people of all groups who were here and remember what the pacifists did and how long we were here. The rock walls and signs remain up in the park that were done by the pacifists. This work was done by the C.O. camp, the Conscientious Objector camp boys.

GC: Thank you, Verna, very much for sharing your memories of the Years of Valor and Years of Hope, 1941 to 1946. Is there anything else that you would like to add, sort of in summary of this period of your life?

VC: I just want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to go back in memory. Thank you.

G. Curtis/pd 12/09/2003/Ed. JW 7/08/04

(Ed: This transcript is significantly different from the taped interview. Changes were made to correct grammar and to make this interview more "readable," at the request of Verna Curtis, our interviewee.)