STANISLAUS COUNTY — Farming has been a staple of life in Stanislaus County from its foundation to the present, but in long-ago decades, the life of a farmer was a difficult and sometimes extremely dangerous one. Stories about farmers recall frequent accidents and a time where death was just another part of a day's work. Even the times farmers took off from work were danger-filled experiences.
Modern machines were intended to make farmers' lives easier by reducing the number of workers needed and the time necessary to both plant and harvest crops; however, there was a downside to the new contraptions.
In August 1873, as told in the Sacramento Daily Union, field hand Oscar Bouckon was working on a threshing machine "at Richardson's ranch, four miles south of Oakdale" when he was killed. "Working on the table, he fell into the cylinder, and his legs were crushed," the paper reported. There are more details but you really don't want to know them other than "he lived 20 minutes" after the accident.
In July 1875, a man named McSilvis was driving a threshing machine near Modesto when his leg, just below the knee, was caught in the cogwheels of the machine. He did survive, but had the lower part of the injured leg amputated. In December 1901, Martin Pope was plowing his field when his right foot was caught in the "swivel wheel of the plow and was torn from his leg," according to the San Francisco Call, which reported even more details of the accident. His leg was amputated below the knee.
Machines were a tough part of a farmer's life, but combine them with animals and things became even more dangerous. In January 1897, Blakeley Wallis was running a scraper on his family's farm four miles south of Modesto when he lost control of the horses that were pulling the scraper and fell in front of the implement, which hit him on the back of the head and fatally injured him.
Henry Molye was killed in an accident while working on his father's farm in March 1897. The team of horses he was leading were puling a "1,000-pound road roller," wrote the Call. Molye lost control of the team and landed in front of the roller. The half-ton weight rolled over him.
In August 1891, local farmer A.P. Boyd jumped out of the way of an out-of-control team of horses and, according to the Call, "broke the bones of his right leg so badly that amputation, midway between his ankle and knee, was necessary."
The next morning, to make matters worse, a worker of Boyd's carried an oil-burning lamp into the barn, where the lamp exploded and the barn burned to the ground.
Getting away from the constant danger of working one's farm provided little respite for the residents of early Modesto.
Harry Spenker, the son of a local farmer, went hunting for rabbits in November 1902 with Charles Eldridge, a laborer on his father's farm. According to the Call, a rabbit "ran in front of Spenker just as Eldridge fired, the charge passing through his body. The victim lived four hours after the accident, exonerating his companion from blame."
Another hunter in 1891 found a rabbit and "was chasing it with shotgun in his hand when the gun was discharged, the charge entering his left side, penetrating his heart and lung," the Call reported. The paper went on to say the death was "instantaneous."
In December 1877, some local boys out hunting became separated when they heard a gunshot and noticed one of their friends' hats flying through the air. It was a fatal wound.
Even the act of getting the gun out of the buggy was a dangerous act. In November 1895, D.D. Vezey decided to get a blanket from a cart, which also contained his gun. While pulling out the blanket, the gun fell to the ground and shot the 67-year-old Vezey in the left arm near his elbow. The Call reported he had his left forearm amputated.
In March 1897, Henry Nelson saw some geese, got out of his buggy and pulled his gun out. However, the "hammer caught and the full charge took effect," killing him, wrote the Call. The Nov. 18, 1898, Los Angeles Herald reported of a similar death via a buggy with a gun. J.D. McDouglad, who had won the contract to excavate the Modesto irrigation canal, was just outside Stockton when he pulled his "shotgun out of his buggy, muzzle first, when the trigger caught on something, causing the contents of the gun to be discharged into his heart." He died instantly, according to a witness.
While life in the area has its difficulties today, the lives of early Modesto residents was a much more harsh one. It was a time when farming was a daily battle with machinery that could kill its user in unimaginable ways or when even trying to relax a little mistake could result in one's maiming or death.
Sources: Sacramento Daily Union, Aug. 19, 1873; San Francisco Call, Aug. 27, 1891, Sept. 28, 1891, Jan. 18, 1892, Nov. 13, 1895, March 3, 1897, Dec. 23, 1901, and Nov. 4, 1902; and Los Angeles Herald, Nov. 18, 1898.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.