My home is 980 square feet.
But I live in a mansion compared to the home my grandmother Edna Towle built by her own hands.
It was a wooden two-story structure of less than 700 square feet with three bedrooms, a bathroom, a front room, dining room kitchen, and service porch. There was a small cellar.
The upstairs bedroom tightly squeezed within the sharp confines of an inverted V-roof allowed for two beds that would make a modern twin bed look like a queen-sized bed in comparison. There was room for nothing else. A small crawl-space style attic closet provided the place for clothing as such at the landing at the top of the stairs that were so step and shallow that they would give a modern-day Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer a massive coronary just looking at them.
The downstairs bedrooms accommodated slightly larger beds. My grandmother’s room actually had a closet to hang perhaps two dozen articles of clothing and space for a dresser as well as the bed.
Her pride and joy was the dining room with a built-in hutch with glass doors.
IKEA couldn’t replicate the functionality or simplicity given the house was built for her and three of her youngest children still living with her in the mid-1930s after the Great Depression forced her to sell her cattle ranch in western Nevada County.
It was a ranch where the home she helped her husband built lacked indoor plumbing making her truly appreciative of the bathroom of her new home which you could barely turn around in between bathtub, toilet, and wall sink.
Hard times forced her to sell the ranch that had evolved from land her maternal grandmother’s family settled in 1845 near the outpost known as Camp Far West along the Bear River. Today the ranch — which was in hilly terrain resembling hollows in West Virginia — is part of the Spenceville Wildlife Area east of Beale Air Force Base that was once home to what is still today the fastest spy plane ever built, the SR-71 Blackbird.
It is stunning to realize that land rutted by the first wagon wheels just 175 years ago in just over the passage of a century of time it would be home to a craft that circled the planet in less than 12 hours while photographing 100,000 square miles of earth every 60 minutes.
It is equally impressive grasping the resiliency, determination, and the drive of those that managed to settle California and in less than 175 years create what today is the world’s fifth largest economy if it were a standalone nation crammed with engineering marvels and populated with 40 million people.
Looking back to those times I was lucky enough to spend time at grandmothers for an evening or overnight while my parents went out of town, I realize that our divisions may have a lot to do with how we have segregated ourselves economically and the fact we don’t realize just how good we really have it.
Grandmother bought a lot to build her home in Lincoln directly across the street from the McBean Mansion, a grand three-story brick house on the edge of what is today McBean Park. It was the largest house by far in town and was home to its wealthiest family. It was built by Peter McGill McBean who — in 1875 along with his partner Charles Gladding — founded Gladding, McBean & Co. The firm produced clay building products such as bricks, sewer pipe, roof tile, terra cotta architectural facades, and at one point china from one of the country’s purest deposits of kaolin clay discovered when county road crews were cutting a new roadway. The plant is still in production today 145 years later.
The same year grandmother built her home, Trini Nevarez bought the lot next to hers to build his own home for his family. Trini had emigrated from Mexico to work at Gladding, McBean & Co. He was able to save up enough money to bring his family to America.
Grandmother went to work after building her home at the cannery as well as doing odd household jobs for people.
Her skills were extensive and her challenges many compared to what most of us are encountering today. She was left with six children to raise when her husband decided he preferred the bottle and other activities to running a ranch where ends were barely met.
Grandmother actually had eight children. One died at birth and the other was kicked in the head by a horse.
Her husband’s departure was in the mid-1920s. By the time the Depression hit grandmother was already struggling.
The decision to move to Lincoln allowed her to salvage something from the land that had been owned by her family for generations. It would also end the need for her children to have to board in Nevada City when they went to high school or for the younger ones to walk four miles to a one-room school house where, in her younger days, she filled in as a teacher.
When World War II hit grandmother added a job at Gladding, McBean & Co. to her workload.
She was hired to run an elevator that moved clay silos the plant had been commissioned to build for the war effort. Meanwhile her two sons were sent to war zones and her two oldest daughters became nurses to backfill the shortage of medical personnel in the country the war had created.
Mom and her twin sister graduated high school and immediately went to work. They ended up spending their first year out of high school — a time where today graduates are trying to find themselves or are caught up in the revelry of college — filling critical jobs keeping the phone system working as operators for the Bell System hammered by manpower drains due to the war. Their place of employment was Firebaugh. It was — and still is — about as far removed as one can get from Daytona Beach.
Grandmother would share such memories during my stays. She was usually in her chair near the wall heater that would be replaced in the heat of summer with a portable water cooler atop those old-fashioned kitchen carts that had two shelves.
Grandmother spent most of the time in her chair as the hard work of the ranch and afterwards supporting her family in Lincoln had given her crippling arthritis. She used a cane carved and shellacked by her grandfather for his use to get around.
We’d play Chinese checkers or solitaire for hours on end between my talking my head off and her patiently working in family history lessons and what I now see as words of not just wisdom, but words to live by.
Without fail, every time it was just grandmother and me she would make it a point not just once, but multiple times during the course of our visits between when I was 4 and 8 years old to remind me of the words. She had me repeat them to her and then she would ask me what they meant.
They were 18 simple yet potent words she had me memorize and then re-enforce by providing examples from her life and that of the world.
“Don’t go around with a chip on your shoulder.”
“Do unto others as you’d have done unto you.”
One can only wonder how different things would be today if we all tried to follow advice drawn from a time that makes today seem like living on easy street.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation.