Wheatland’s Got Game
Wheatland is a small town in Yuba County, California, about a half-hour north of Sacramento. After growing up as an Air Force brat, I stopped off in the slumbersome little town long enough to raise my only child, Ginny. I never really considered myself very Mayberryesque, and I certainly never envisioned myself as a small town resident long-term, but it appeared to be a great place to raise a kid, so we stayed. During this time, in the 90s, Wheatland boasted a population of about 1300. Nearby Beale AFB transfers their students past 6th grade to Wheatland for instruction. The town joke was that the population doubled when school was in session. If that was the case, it tripled on Friday nights in the Fall during football games.
Once my daughter was grown, I left Wheatland for the bay area to finish college at Cal State Hayward. After college, I was offered a teaching job back in YubaCounty. Upon returning to the area, I lived in Marysville and then Yuba City, but I found that my heartstrings were often pulled towards Wheatland. Maybe it was because my parents lived there, maybe it was because I had fond memories of my daughter’s childhood there, or maybe it was the one place I felt was a little like ~ well ~ home.
Wheatland really was (is) a great place to raise a kid. Wheatland fathers and their kids often hunt and fish on the weekends. (Which means that the residents own guns and knives, but we will get to more of that later). Sometimes moms go too. On any given day, you might see someone riding a horse through town, a kid walking her 4H pig, or a neighbor lending their goats to mow another neighbor’s overgrown field. Wheatland hosts an annual pet parade with live animals. Horses, dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, goats, hamsters, birds, and even the occasional llama or emu, and no thought seems to be given to law suits that may arise from such a function.
Wheatland began life as an agricultural town that grew wheat and hops. When my daughter was in high school, a Sacramento newscaster visited WHS and asked her how Wheatland got its name, obviously expecting the obvious answer. Not missing a beat, she smiled into camera and replied, “Because we grow RICE!” She said that because it was true, and I suspect because she knew it would get tons of laughs. And it did.
This all makes Wheatland sound like a little redneck town in the boonies, even though highway 65 connecting Sacramento to Chico goes right through the middle of town. A while back, I decided to explore this possibility and try to see my beloved little town from an outsider’s point of view. Is it a redneck, white bread, white bred town? Hmmm. This meant learning a little history I didn’t already know and a lot of reminiscing with friends and family. I enjoyed both and perhaps you will too.
The barbershop, which is the oldest continuous business in Wheatland, provides one of the most interesting stories about the little city. (Yes, it is by definition, a city, it is incorporated). In the old west days, the business was set up as a barbershop and bathhouse. The original owner and operator was a man by the name of Edward P. Duplex. He was a leader in the Mt.OlivetBaptistChurch and was elected mayor of Wheatland in 1888. He was also a member of the Negro Masonic Lodge. He was the first African American mayor in California and in what we know today as the old west. To put this in perspective, he was sworn in as mayor two full years before California state law put an end to segregated schooling. Wheatland, a redneck town? Probably not.
Years ago, I brought a bay area friend to a Wheatland football game. As we were taking seats, he turned to me and asked, “Where are all the kids and who are all these people?” I was perplexed as to what he was asking. Upon more discussion, I realized that he was confused because there were very few kids in the stands. They were all busy, playing, cheering, playing in the band, setting up for the dance, and running the concessions stands. Then it was time to discuss the parents, like the children, who were of mixed origins, religions and nationalities, with all the colors of the human rainbow represented. Asian, African American, Latino, Indian, Native American, Caucasian and interracial mixes of all of the above. I also knew from experience that every religion that one could think of, was also represented. My friend looked at me and laughed and said, “This is hilarious; I was expecting a backward white-bred little town.” So, Wheatland, at least during football games, is definitely not white-bred.
That made me really think more about Wheatland. Why did I really decide to raise my daughter there? Why did I decide to stay put when my parents were planning to move to Florida when Dad retired? Why did my sister insist on staying there, even if they left? Why did my parents return after their short stint in Ohio and Florida and buy a house in Wheatland? I had almost forgotten. To make a very long story short, my dad retired from Beale AFB and Wheatland was the closest town. And, we just seemed to fit in. For a family that had lived everywhere and seemed to now fit nowhere, that was a lot. We stayed because it was a terrific place to live. We stayed because we liked the safe, neighborly, child-friendly atmosphere. We stayed because the town was well-grounded and culturally diverse. We stayed because they had great schools. We stayed because Elkins made shakes the old-fashioned way. We stayed for a hundred other reasons, but mostly we stayed because we were welcomed.
It really was small-town USA, and people watched out for each other. I liked that when I was out of town when my daughter was a teen-ager and her boyfriend’s car broke down when he was dropping her off and it was left in our driveway for two nights, that I got a phone call. And as soon as I arrived back to town, several people told me what they saw. Despite the fact that she had already called me and informed me of such, and that she was spending the night at her grandparents house two blocks away, I was happy to know we had neighbors that noticed and cared. Wheatland is a place where everyone knows your name and business, whether you want them to, or not.
Some of my most vivid memories of Wheatland and the caring residents took place in the aftermath we experienced the week Ginny was crowned Miss Teen Yuba-Sutter at the fair. When we came home to our petite house, at the dead-end of a lightless street that leads to Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm, (which is a whole ‘nother post in the waiting room) what we saw as we pulled into the driveway was gut-wrenching. The car’s headlights shone on toilet tissue hanging from every branch of the sizable oak tree in our front yard. My daughter was trying hard to hold back the tears, and my stomach knotted as I placed the car in park. She wailed, “Why would anyone do this, so many people from Wheatland were there cheering me on? Why, Mom, why?” I didn’t have time to do anything else, mama mode kicked in, and I shrugged and responded with, “You know, it was probably some jealous out-of-towner, their sister or cousin didn’t win, you know how that goes, dear.” But I KNEW that could not be the case, I knew no out-of-towner would have ever, could have ever found our secluded little house. What I couldn’t figure out was, how on earth someone from Wheatland got away with this, and not ONE person from Wheatland saw them, or stopped them, or called the cops,, or called me. Were they all at the fair?
Arriving at the side door, which was the door around the corner and everyone knew we used, it all began to make sense. We both had a good long hardy, but giddy laugh. There was a huge poster with “congrats” in the middle and a ton of signatures in neon bold magic marker, colorful envelops containing cards tacked to the door, and balloons. There were toilet tissue bows on the windows. This was the work of all her friends that had been there and cheered her on and beat us home, as she had to stay until closing and do “queenly” duties. She gathered her gifts and took them inside to read them all. I could tell by the look on her face that those paper gifts meant more to her than the crown on her head or the roses she left on the hood of the car. By the time we got home the next night from a full day at the fair, all evidence of said “vandalism” had vanished.
A day later, I was on an early morning mission to get a 3 inch high bumper-car-ridden-bumper-car-smashed rhinestone crown repaired in time for the queen’s noon rodeo appearance. I called all kinds of places the night before – jewelry, car repair, welding shops in Marysville, Yuba City, Sacramento and no such luck. I opened the small Wheatland directory and crossed my fingers once more and dialed an auto shop. I got an answering machine stating that they were open, and probably out working in the shop, and to swing by if you needed anything. As I parked and walked up the gravel driveway, two teenage boys and several dogs greeted me. The boys recognized me right away as Ginny’s mom and told me they were so excited about a Wheatland girl winning the fair title. I held up the pitiful, mangled mass of rhinestones. They ran to wake up their father, telling him it was an emergency. He looked none too happy – it was Saturday at 8 am after all. I watched this man I had never met, meticulously solder the mass back into a crown. I had my checkbook out and was ready to write a check for every dime in my account if need be, but he looked at me with a smile and shook his head. He said, “No charge for royalty in Wheatland, tell her I said congratulations, and to stay off the bumper cars in that thing, she could get hurt.” Yes, Wheatland, as progressive as it seemed, had royalty.
The year my daughter was a senior at WHS, they had the highest SAT scores in Yuba County. The school had raised professional football players, professional basketball players, and professional cheerleaders. While my daughter attended, a female track star got a four year ride to West Point and she did an internship for Newt Gingrich in D.C. Like him or not, that is impressive. Another student went on to Olympic trials in swimming. One boy won the state rodeo championship. Gin won the over all state community service award at Miss Cal State and went on to become a TV producer. And I know that even now, I can’t remember even half of what that group of impressive kids (the class of 99) did, or are doing. The list is just too long long, and too diverse. Wheatland kids amaze me. Even when they are down they don’t give up. The JV football team that lost every game but one, as freshman, went on to become Varsity league champions their senior year with an all out battle with their biggest rival, Sutter. But that was not enough; they went on to win the Nor-Cal division for small schools. These are not normal kids, these kids are the stuff from which legends are spawned.
Once at a football game, I went to the concession stand on the visitor’s side. The girl helping me recognized me immediately. She called me a traitor and encouraged me to go back to the home side. I knew full well she was trying to remind me that the food was fresher and prices were cheaper across the field. I didn’t care, I ordered my tri-tip (on white bread, Wheatland does do white bread) and hot chocolate and handed her a bill. She winked and gave me the same exact change I would have gotten back on the home side, but didn’t count it aloud as she had for me the man in front of me. OK, so the kids at Wheatland have a business sense that may seem a little unethical to some, but it is not like they are cannibals. Some of their relatives from the Donner party may have been, but they aren’t.
Cannibalism. If one takes a two mile drive away from town towards Beale AFB, you will find a California monument to the Donner party. This is one of three state monuments in Wheatland, go figure. Wheatland was the place some of them originally settled after coming out the mountains. The monument is a nice gesture, but when I look at the engraved inlaid rock monument, I can’t help but think, this really doesn’t do those survivors justice.
Speaking of justice, the inhabitants of Wheatland seems to have their own sense of it. Wheatland folk don’t necessarily call the cops if a kid is speeding through town or doing donuts in the parking lot, they follow the kid home and knock on their door. If kids have a loud party and their parents are gone for the evening, they better hope no one hears them and has their parent’s cell number. When the cheerleading coach was caught embezzling cheerleading booster funds, she was told to pay it back over time and resign. No cops, no charges. She knew she could get away with it. The coach before did the same thing and the same thing happened. History tells us that this is the way it is and this is the way it has always been. When a deacon for a local church in the 1800s was found stealing a dollar a day for six month, no charges were brought, he was asked to apologize, pay the money back, and resign. Wheatland does forgiveness.
Wheatland, as best as I can describe it, is based on the brother/sister mentality of I will smack my sibling, but I am not going to allow anyone else to do it. Not even the law. Wheatland seems to have its own laws. It’s a town where beer keggers are held for high school graduates BY their parents, knowing full well the kids are too young to drink legally. Partiers must be prepared to give up their keys to the adult in charge to enter the party and sleep off any drunkenness in a barn or a tent. The first time I attended one was my sister’s senior year. I was amazed that the cops stopped by just to chat. As they left, they yelled to the father to call if he had any problems. I asked one of the dads about the reasoning of such a party, he responded simply, “None of these kids will be dead in the morning from drinking and driving and they won’t kill nobody else either.” As I watched the graduating seniors, their friends, and their siblings celebrate, some drinking, some not, I thought, “These people really love their kids, they will break the law for them, and they own guns – if there is ever another revolution in this country – I want to be here.” Wheatland has guns.
Wheatland is where they evacuate Marysville and Yuba City residents when their towns flood. During floods, people from Wheatland shake their heads and wonder why anyone would live outside of Wheatland, especially on low ground; they do so while flocking to the schools with groceries, toiletries, diapers, and formula. Many open their homes to perfect strangers. Wheatland has heart.
Once, due to a levee break, Wheatland itself almost flooded, and the town was forcibly evacuated over night. This much I know is true because we were among the evacuees. Legend has it that the farmers and the ranchers stayed behind, (illegally I should add, which is why we are calling it a legend) and used their tractors and backhoes and had the levee patched well enough so the town wouldn’t flood. They accomplished this long before the army core of engineers arrived the next morning. I do know the Wheatland Police Chief and the Yuba County Sheriff had a difference of opinion on arresting those involved. No one involved was arrested and no shots were fired and one house near the levee got a little water in their garage. A few months later, when Marysville was almost completely submerged due to flooding, I was reminded again how much I loved Wheatland. Wheatland and the residents have true and honest grit, and it’s not just from the levee. Wheatland has grit.
If you ever have the chance to drive up north past Roseville on hwy 65, you will pass through the small community of Wheatland. Don’t think of it as just another speed trap – but slow down because the speed limit is 35 and it is enforced and we have four cop cars. Turn off hwy 65, drive down main street, sit on the bench under the gazebo by the train tracks, listen to the train whistle, smell the roses, get your hair done, have dinner, talk to the locals, get a milkshake at Elkins, get a steak at Bill’s Place and think of simpler times, come to Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm in the Fall, or plan to come during the pet parade in the Spring. Come to a Friday night football game at WHS, have a hot dog and a hot chocolate, and watch the game.
When I think about all the things I know and have learned in life, one of them is that ~ Wheatland’s got game.
Footnote: Wheatland is building and expanding, has a couple new housing developments, and a population of over 3000. It even has two stop lights now, but it still has that small town charm. When I married my husband, we planned to live in San Francisco, but every time he heard me speak of Wheatland, I know he heard my voice crack a little. He was born and raised in the city, he knows where his hometown is, he didn’t have to search for one like I did. He works in the city and I work in Marysville. We drive and divide our time, but the house we refer to as home ~ is in Wheatland.
More about Wheatland: http://pweb.jps.net/~wheatlandhistory/index.html
A special thanks to my husband, he snapped that awesome goat pic at Bishop’s when we were there on a class trip with my 1st graders.