MY GRANDMOTHER'S GROWING UP

IN MODESTO, CALIFORNIA IN THE '30s, '40s & '50s

Amber Stepp

July 22, 1999

The history of my grandmother, Shirley Anne Tyler, is one that is very significant. She tells me first hand of the stories from her adolescence, growing up in Modesto, California. She feels the most significant part of her adolescence is her high school years in the 1950s. Her story is interesting in its events even before this time. In some ways her life was atypical because her family, being from a small town, did not feel the wrath of the economic problems that were taking place during the depression, and the World War II did not touch them as dramatically as it did other families. But you will see that she might have walked out of the movie "American Grafitti" in her high school years.

In order to tell the history of my grandmother I must first tell you the background of the Tyler family. The Tyler family originated in England, and an early member set sail for Chesapeake Bay in the New World in 1630. "Peace between England and Spain, concluded in 1604 by Elizabeth's successor, James I, opened the way for new colonization attempts in the New World." (Boyer, p. 34) Throughout the generations to follow, the Tyler family migrated through the Virginias, the Carolinas and Arkansas where my grandmother's father was born. He was born in 1901 and lived on a farm where they raised hogs, cows, chickens, and grew a garden. My grandma's mother was born in 1903 in Missouri where she lived very similarly. In 1920 my grandparents got married and moved to Michigan where they both had lots of family. In 1930 they migrated together to California. Americans moved not only from the city to the suburbs but also North to South and East to West. "California's climate and industry lured millions." (Boyer, p. 646) In order to survive, her parents worked in the harvest picking peaches and apricots in the vast orchards along the way. The hopes of being more prosperous and having a better future and also better weather is what brought them here to California.

My grandmother was then born in Modesto, California in 1936 where her parents ended up settling in a home on a farm that her father built. This was a time of hardship for everyone because it was at the end of W.W.II and the depression. When the stock-market crashed in 1929 the American economy went into a prolonged tailspin that locked the country in a profound depression, but eventually bottomed out in 1933. (Boyer, p. 549) My grandma was the youngest of nine children and because she was born toward the end of the depression she doesn't remember hearing much about it. Her family had already learned to adjust to the hard times which meant everyone in her family had to work together. Shortly after my grandma was born, her father acquired a job for an Irrigation District that was west of Modesto, and her mother was a home maker.

My grandmother was never a spoiled child because times were hard and there wasn't a lot of money for anything but the necessities. Everyone was assigned chores that were to be done everyday or they would get their bottoms paddled. In the mornings my grandmother helped to milk the cows and to feed the other livestock they had on their farm. After she came home from school she would help gather vegetables and fruit, wash clothes, and do other household chores. Her family was also involved in canning fruits. This was the "in thing" for the majority of other families. As a child my grandmother would go into the orchards and pick the apricots, prunes and peaches from the trees. After gathering them together she would slice them up and put them on flats where they would dry in the sun. It was usually very hot because it was summer when the fruits become ripe, but she had a lot of fun. She even made a little spending money.

The home that they lived in was on two acres of land where they raised chickens, cows, and hogs. Her family also had a huge garden which her father was exceptional at cultivating. He was known as having a "green thumb." This was their main food source. In the 1950s while most Americans were spending less on necessities and enthusiastically buying powered lawn mowers, air conditioners, frozen foods and dehydrated foods (Boyer, p. 646), my grandmother's family was making home cooked meals. For dinner her mother always cooked meals from scratch, and they never ate junk food. Her family ate foods such as ham, pork, bacon, chicken, beef, fried rabbit, biscuits, gravy, potatoes, and of course they always had lots of vegetables.

Not only did they make their meals from scratch, but they also made their own butter. My grandmother would often times help to do this. They would first use cows' milk and separate the cream off of it and churn it to make the butter. The butter would turn out white, so in order to turn it yellow they added a package of color and then mixed it all together.

Many things during this time had to be done by hand. Another one of these things was washing and drying the clothes. As part of my grandmother's chores she remembers helping wash the clothes by hand. She would first put the clothing one by one into a wash pot to wash them. They would them put each piece of clothing through a ringer machine that is connected to the wash pot. The ringer would squeeze the water out the clothes by pulling on the handle. After the clothing was washed she would hang them on the clothes line to dry.

In 1950 my grandmother began ninth grade at Modesto High School, the only high school in Modesto at the time. Throughout her four years at this school she studied subjects such as arithmetic, English, history, along with sewing, cooking, etiquette, typing and book keeping. The domestic classes were to reinforce the "popular culture throughout the fifties," that paints "a women's devotion to life in the home with the children as the most cherished goal." (Boyer, p. 647)

As in every generation, there was a very popular trend in clothing that developed in her high school days. My grandmother and most of the other girls at her school wore long poodle skirts, sweaters or blouses, white Oxford shoes with the socks rolled down to the ankles. This was definitely a new style for this time and her mother often made her clothes, but some of them were bought.

Throughout my grandmother's high school years she did little jobs to make some spending money. She knew her family did not have a lot of money and she just wanted to do the things other kids were doing. She remembers doing a lot of baby-sitting, and there is one job that stands out the most in her memory. She used to baby-sit for a doctor's family that had two daughters. At one time they asked her if she would like to stay with them permanently. They also offered to send her to college. After thinking about it she chose not to, and feels that God had other plans for her.

A popular custom developed in her family when my grandmother was a teenager. She always loved and looked forward to it. Every year around Christmas time her entire family, eighty to one hundred people, gathered together to have dinner. After they ate dinner everyone would put their name into a hat. Each person would draw a name and you would buy a gift for the person whose name you drew. There was, of course, a price limit on the gifts. My grandma always felt this was nice because she always knew she would get a gift from someone outside the immediate family every year.

"In 1946 several thousand households had TV sets; by 1950, 5 million did. By the early 1960's, 90 percent of all households owned at least one TV." (Boyer, p. 649) Considering it was the 1950's my grandmother's family was not one of those 5 million people. Her family never got a television while she was growing up but one of her friends from school did have one. The television was really small and in black and white. There were very limited channels. On Saturday mornings my grandma and her friends would watch cowboy shows that featured cowboys such as Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry.

During my grandmother's high school years her family went on a special trip at least once a year. They traveled to a place called Westwood near Lake Almanor. The trip would take one whole day traveling on a two lane highway, which would only take a couple of hours today. "Federal spending on highways skyrocketed from $79 million in 1946 to $2.6 billion in 1960."(Boyer, p. 646) This was a very special trip for my grandmother and she always had lot of fun. They had other family that lived there so when they visited they showed them a good time. They went swimming, had picnics, and played lots of games. they even went to a nearby roller rink. "It was a real treat!"

By 1954 my grandmother was a junior at Modesto High School. This was a significant time because she purchased her first car. In order to purchase the car she got a job at the telephone company. This was her first job as a long distance operator on the switch boards. She earned $45 a week and was able to save up $400 to buy the car. Her dad co-signed for a 1950 two door, Chrysler Plymouth. It was a baby blue color and the dash on the inside was green and in great condition.

Immediately after my grandma purchased her car, she hit the cruise which became popular in Modesto during this time. Her and her friends would cruise up and down Tenth Street in Modesto as they listened to country western music. My grandmother's cousin Glenn was a disc jockey and knew all the famous country western stars. She even went cruising with country western star, Dell Reeves. Often times they went to the dance halls where her cousin Glenn disc jockeyed and was able to hear some of her other favorite country western stars like Buck Owens. When Buck Owens made his first solo recordings he became associated with a type of music that could be called sound originality, or the California sound, which became very popular. (Malone, p. 291) They all danced and had a great time.

Whenever my grandma and her friends went cruising they always stopped at Burgess drive-in for cokes and hamburgers. She remembers being able to purchase ten to twelve hamburgers for only $1. There were always lots of cars surrounding the drive-in, usually four cars deep. When you pulled your car around the drive-in, a waitress would come up to your car and take your order. The waitresses wore uniforms that consisted of a short pleaded skirt and a hat.

In 1954 the cost of gas was only 27-32 cents a gallon. This was always a concern when they were out cruising because they did not have a lot of money. In order to cover the cost of cruising each of her friends shared in the expenses by each pitching in a quarter. The movie, American Graffiti, that came out in the 1970's was based on the cruising atmosphere and the drive-in.

My grandmother then graduated from Modesto High School in 1955. In January of 1956 my grandmother met my soon to be grandfather and in March 1956 they were married. She was only nineteen years old, but she felt her age group was more mature. She just wanted to be a good mother and to do the right thing. They stayed in Modesto where their first son, my dad, was born and then their daughter. They also bought their first car together. "Americans purchased 58 million new cars during the 1950s." (Boyer, p. 646) The car was a two door, hard top 1957 Ford Fairlane that was $2,400. They even drove it off the showroom floor. And at the approach of the 1960's they bought their new home and settled in a small town, Forest Ranch, California. They still continue to have a long courtship with two children and nine grandchildren.

 

Bibliography

Boyer, Paul S., et. al., The Enduring Vision: A History Of The American People, Concise Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Miffflin Company, 1998)

Malone, Bill C., Country Music U. S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968)

Tyler, Shirley A. (San Jose, California to Chico, California; 14 July 1999)