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Sulphuring the vineyards
After World War II, it became apparent to me that I would have to supplement my income. Getting one paycheck a year and making it last just didn't work. I was always broke and needed more money to date girls and etc!

Let me explain how I turned to farming the 40-acre homeplace on South Central Avenue in the 1940s.

I worked for Union Oil Company at its service station at 9th and H streets in Modesto. That station became a dealer station for a man named Manuel X. Gomes. I was told that my shift would be from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. which suited me fine. That gave me time during daylight hours to do my farming.

This shift, known as the night man, was one that I had worked previously at that unit for Union Oil Company when it was operated as a company service station. This Minute Man service station was very busy during the daylight hours, did many lube and wash jobs. It was the night man's duty to clean up the station when business was quiet, mopping the lube room and pump islands and driveways with cleaning solvent using rice hulls to finish the job off leaving a white and clean appearance. The restroom waste baskets always needed emptying and I scrubbed the wash basins, toilets and the floors. I polished the gasoline pumps and hoses! I swept the large asphalt lot. I was kept busy all shift long cleaning up and taking care of the drive-in gasoline customers. Regular 76 gasoline was nearly 23 cents while Union Ethyl was 2 cents more.

One customer fascinated me. He came in a few times each week with his Jeep with a sulphur machine in the back. He was a Guam native and since I had been there during the war we had something to talk about. He explained that he was dusting vineyards in the Modesto area with this rig and seemed to keep busy in this venture.

Dusting vineyards was done in the early morning hours before the winds started up. Using a Jeep was a terrific idea for it had lights and could run on the roads and highways to get about the fields that he took care of. To leave a road to go into a grape vineyard was simple by shifting into four-wheel drive, starting the sulphur machine, and driving between the rows to put out sulphur dust onto the vines to prevent mildew. During the early season DDT was used to kill cut worms and leaf hoppers, two adversaries to grapevines.

Since I farmed a few acres of grapes on the old home place and needed a Jeep to get around and to irrigate I ended up building a similar rig to dust not only my vineyards but those of other grape growers. Consequently I was known to run about in the early morning hours to dust vineyards not only about Ceres where Barbour's Station is today but some in the Modesto, Hughson and Turlock areas. I would arise as early as 2 a.m. to check the wind and leave to dust some vineyard perhaps on Scenic Drive in Modesto or way down Crows Landing Road.

This job was no bed of roses for it was dirty and the sulphur would never act the same on different mornings. It would plug the machine and need cleaning out in the dark mornings. And spiders building webs across the vineyard rows would end up falling on me and crawling over me.

Things went along quite nicely until Stanislaus County advised me that I needed a license to sulphur grapes for others than myself. I advised them that I was not interested in that and refused to obtain such a permit and pay the fee. I told them by phone that I would continue my dusting without such empowering authority! They told me that they would catch me in the act of dusting my neighbor vineyards and act accordingly! Since all this was done in the wee hours of the morning I felt there was little chance of them being out or bed to witness me at work dusting grapes. As a result I never got such a license and I was never caught as the officials promised!

One morning I headed home after a few hours of dusting some vineyards in the Modesto area. I was on Highway 99 near Hatch Road when the California Highway Patrol stopped me. I was tired and did not welcome such an intrusion. I had the windshield down because if I left it up going at highway speeds the sulphur would circulate about in the jeep. Putting down the windshield made the dust go out the back and not all over me and in my eyes. The patrolman felt that the windshield should be up and I explained to him in detail my reason for having it down.

I believe that this patrolman had never ran into such a situation before and when he saw my goggles nearby even though I was not wearing them he let me go!

The dust reacted differently on various mornings. I remember one morning about 6 a.m. while doing a vineyard at Service and Highway 99 the dust drifted from the vineyard and covered the lanes of Highway 99, thus slowing traffic. I didn't stick around to see the outcome of this menace to highway traffic and headed home down some back roads and parked the Jeep in the garage! I didn't want to run into the California Highway Patrol again!

I understand that vineyards are no longer dusted as described above but sprayed which probably is more effective. DDT was outlawed years ago! Anyway I wanted to tell you about my adventures while in the business of custom vineyard sulphuring! Trying to make enough money to get by on as farming alone wasn't enough.

Bill Noble may be reached via email at