Dala horses, taquerías, provincial crests, bovine blood samples, aebleskivers, Rafer Johnson, plum orchards, drive-thru feed stores, token Swedes, plastic Viking helmets, roadside gimmicks, tattered sleeves & Kingsburg.
“Neither the Crusades nor Alexander’s expedition to India can equal this emigration to California.” —C. N. Ormsby, 1849
W hen people talk about a Dutch village in California, they mean the Danish Village of Solvang, located near the lush, coastal Santa Ynez Valley’s vineyards. But 130 miles inland, south of the “Jesus Is Lord” sign on the trailer on the hill, where the Kings River crosses Highway 99 outside of Fresno, is the self-described Swedish Village of Kingsburg. This 11,000-person town is the closest approximation of a Swedish village you can muster in California’s hot, flat, rural interior, and when it needed to distinguish itself from Fresno and boost its economy, it asked Solvang for marketing advice.
Modern Southern California has a distinctive red-tile-roof-and-shaggy-palm-tree aesthetic. In the mid-twentieth century, roadside businesses used themes to grab drivers’ attention: outer space, Polynesia, the Wild West, the vaguely defined “Middle East.” They created big mascots like the Pillsbury Doughboy, and Aladdin-type people riding flying carpets. They built gimmicks to entertain customers, from miniature trains to petting zoos. Approaching the Swedish Village on Highway 99 nowadays, you pass Selma, the self-described Raisin Capital of the World, where buildings start to dress themselves as vaguely Swedish. The Selma Holiday Inn has a giant Alpine-style windmill. The sign over the Motel 6 office says “Välkommen.” Across the street, the Valero station decks itself in the cream walls and bright-blue trim that count as Swedish accents. So does the ARCO ampm and tiny Jeb’s Swedish Creamery across the street.
Pulling into downtown in 2014, during California’s five-hundred-year drought, I realized that what little I knew about Swedish culture was clichéd: meatballs, mountains, Alpine-herb cough drops. That wasn’t a problem here. This town seemed built of clichés. The gold font that listed “Kingsburg Branch” on the library awning was in a Scandinavian font. So was its “Public Parking” sign. Down the street, the owners of a rusty Quonset hut erected a Swedish façade on the front. Downtown was so Swedish it was jarring. Like Santa Barbara, Kingsburg zoned for a unified vision. Instead of Santa Barbara’s Spanish Colonial look, Kingsburg required downtown commercial buildings use the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag. This architecture made more sense in a ski town, but with all the farmers in heavy boots eating at taquerías, you had to wonder whether identity could function as a town’s main economic engine, and if customers wanted it. Did locals really identify as Swedish?
On residential streets, old stately houses mixed with low-lying ranches, and yucca and deciduous trees decorated working-class bungalows, their leaves yellow with fall.
The Swedish village was essentially Draper Street, five blocks long with two stop signs. On this warm November day, two muscular white teenagers walked into a CrossFit gym. Hispanic men crossed the streets. A few restaurants advertised Swedish pancakes. There was a salon, a real estate office, a screen-printing shop and a Baptist church that looked like it could have been an attorney’s office.
One restaurant was named Dala Horse. Typically red with a brightly colored saddle painted on, the Dala, or Dalecarlian, horse originated in the 1700s as a wooden children’s toy and evolved into a popular symbol of Sweden that now appears on flags, T-shirts and small tourist knickknacks. It was Kingsburg’s official symbol, and red and yellow ones hung from streetlights along with American flags.
The town’s water tower was shaped like a hot-water kettle, with a black handle, red lid and white spout. It was cool. Beside it stood the historic Kingsburg jail in a tiny cement box. Built in 1925, the jail was open daily, but it was so small that you could see most of it from the outside. A sign hanging in an alley directed visitors to the jail and gave some history. In 1873, the Central Pacific Railroad built a switch in this location. They named it Kings River, but loaded so much grain here that they renamed it Wheatbury. Wheatbury changed to Kingsbury, which turned to Kingsburgh, then to just Kingsburg by 1894. Fifty Swedish families moved here from Michigan in 1886. The town incorporated in 1908, and by 1921 ninety-four percent of Kingsburg’s population was Swedish American. “Today, there is a rich mixture of nationalities and cultures,” the jail sign said, “but the town has retained its Swedish identity.” On Draper Street, I couldn’t tell if that was true, or if its Swedish façade was erected to protect what was left of the authentic settlement history.
On Draper, wooden crests with single words adorned the side of the Model Drug store: Närke, Jämtland, Västergötland, Dalarna, Varmland, Bohusan, Smaland. Were these family names? Places in the homeland? When I asked the cashier, she put her index finger to her lip and said, “You know, I don’t know. Let me ask.”
“Oh, geez,” the lead pharmacist said. “I used to know, but I forget.” She suggested the Kingsburg Chamber of Commerce down the street.
Downtown was so Swedish it was jarring.
I went into the library instead. The friendly staff didn’t know what the words on the wooden crests meant either. How about the water tower: coffeepot or teapot? “Coffeepot,” the librarian said. “That’s Coffeepot Park underneath it. When I first started working here, a person asked me where Coffeepot Park was. I didn’t know. Someone here was like, ‘Look down there,’ and pointed. It’s right there. You can see it from the highway. When they light it at night, it’s really pretty. They’re setting up the Christmas trees and it’s like, ‘Look, there’s where my property tax goes.’”
She said the city was getting ready for its annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Every year, they set the tree right on Draper Street’s center lane. “People have to go around it,” she said. She’d worked at this branch for eight years and used to commute forty minutes each way from Fresno. “Eventually I thought, ‘I should just move here.’ So I did. I like it.”
As we looked at the spot where the Christmas tree goes, rain began to fall. Drops speckled the sidewalk and windshields of parked cars. Thin clouds hung overhead, with holes showing streaks of blue, and the air smelled of moist dirt. “Oh, look,” the librarian said through a smirk. “Guess I won’t have to water my lawn tonight.” She laughed and the rain stopped seconds later.
In a region filled with tiny look-alive farm towns, Kingsburg was pretty cute. Its size encouraged walking. People were chatty. Its charm didn’t run off the charts like nearby Hanford’s, but few places did.
On residential streets, old stately houses mixed with low-lying ranches, and yucca and deciduous trees decorated working-class bungalows, their leaves yellow with fall. Streets with Swedish names like Linquist ran near those with names like Mariposa, and the gringo Washington and Earl. Kingsburg was quintessential California, with its mix of Spanish, American and European ancestries, though Native Americans were missing from the picture. Like most Valley towns, you didn’t have to drive far to reach farms. Some vineyards and plum orchards nuzzled right up to people’s backyards behind the Holy Family Catholic Church.
Yolanda worked in the parish office, answering phones and doing administration. The impressive building stood on a grassy corner south of downtown, with the sort of Spanish Colonial red-tile roof and square tower you see more often on the coast.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, to Mexican parents, Yolanda moved between Texas and California as the family chased seasonal farm work. They eventually landed in nearby Parlier, picking table and raisin grapes. People in the Valley call Parlier “the buckle of the Raisin Belt.” It has the Sun-Maid and Champion Raisins plants, but as local town names show—Raisin City, Wineland, Sultana, Malaga, Muscatel—grapes are the whole area’s popular crop. Then again, California’s San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in human history. More than 250 crops grow here, everything from mandarins and olives to almonds, cotton and pomegranates; eighty-four percent of the state’s dairy products are produced in the Valley. Naturally, there were also the towns of Avocado, Orange Cove, Lemon Cove and Navelencia, which signaled an abundance of seasonal work. Yolanda’s husband came from a family of migrant farmhands and railroad workers, and their families were close when they were kids. “That’s a long story,” she said with a grin. She had a sharp nose and taut face, and when she smiled, her teeth showed. She smiled a lot.
While she told me about the building, a person called asking if the church sold religious candles featuring biblical figures. “We get all kinds of calls,” Yolanda said after hanging up. Most callers were active church members, many retirees. After ten years working here, Yolanda knew most by name.
“One of the innkeepers learned to play the elephant horn, twenty-two feet long. Then they scheduled him. He would come out at certain times of the day and blow the horn right in town.”
We stood in the small office. A circular table filled the middle. Books and candles lined shelves on the walls, and a small window, like at a doctor’s clinic, stood on the counter. This was the first place I’d been that showed no trace of Sweden.
Yolanda didn’t know the meaning of the crests, but when a new business opens here—anywhere in city limits, not just on the main street—she said, it has to have a Swedish motif on it. That’s why the McDonald’s has a Dala horse. As Swedish as Kingsburg used to be, Yolanda estimated that it was sixty percent Hispanic now, and it suffered growing pains.
Sweden is predominantly Protestant, and Yolanda believed that Kingsburg resisted the Catholic Church coming here because they wanted to keep the town as small and authentically Swedish as possible, but also because of discrimination.
This church used to be Protestant. When the owners decided to sell the property, Catholic buyers made an offer, but the owners refused it. “I know,” Yolanda said. “Talk about prejudice.” When a local Swedish farmer made an offer, the Protestants sold him the property, and he sold it to the Catholics. Yolanda wasn’t sure what people thought about the farmer’s decision, but she bet people thought he was a two-faced SOB. The town came around. Now, every Christmas, Kingsburg celebrates Saint Lucia. “And it’s interesting,” she said, “because they’re anti-Catholic, and yet Saint Lucia, hello, was a saint—Catholic.”
She showed me some stained-glass windows, a pointy arch and old barn-like doors in a room that used to be a fire station. Turns out, part of the church was new, part of it was old. “It’s still feels like it’s a hundred years old. See these drawers?”
She stopped herself and her nose crinkled. “Oh, my God, that smell is horrible.” Her coffee had been microwaving for about 20 minutes. “I’m surprised that my coffee mug didn’t blow up. Oh, mercy.” A higher power was protecting her from cleaning up the mess, I said. She pulled the mug from the microwave and found a thick brown stain baked to the inside. “Oh, it dried it all up, man.”
Identity seemed to have turned into a decorative novelty that non-Swedish people put up with in order to enjoy the small-town life.
There were a lot of ancient tensions and modern divisions between Christian denominations. Too many old Kingsburg folks still didn’t like Catholics, yet they loved Father Greg. “Everybody seeks Father Greg,” Yolanda said. She searched for her glasses so she could read me Greg’s official title. His ministerial council met with local people of faith once a month to focus on the things they all shared as Christians beneath their different denominations, in order to create a sense of unity.
Greg worked in ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Diocese of Fresno, some paperwork said. “So, he anointed a lot of people, and a lot of times, often, he will get invited to the big churches in Fresno to do invocation.” I didn’t know what any of that meant, but Kingsburg was fortunate to have him, because Greg was a uniter. “That’s his job,” she said. “And I know. I’ve been here ten years, and it was never like that before with the other priests or whatever, but that’s Father Greg’s job.” She also found it encouraging that Greg’s brother David was also a priest, and no one seemed to treat them differently because they were Irish. “He’s red,” Yolanda said, “and then his brother, Father David, who has been in Mexico for probably close to thirty years, looks Mexican.” She showed me a photo of the redheaded Father and his Hispanic-looking brother. “Isn’t that amazing?”
She rushed behind the counter to grab the ringing phone again. “Holy Family Catholic Church, how can I help you?” She flipped through a notebook and shook her head. “Did you see it in the bulletin? They usually start at five, and then they serve food between five and five-thirty, and the meeting starts at six.” She hung up and spun around, sniffing the air. “Oh, what a mess.”
A woman named Karen came in and asked, “Are you burning something?” Karen was a volunteer. Today she was making phone calls for an upcoming event: forty calls down, thirty to go. She moved here thirty-three years ago from Selma when her husband landed a job at The Kingsburg Recorder newspaper.
Selma was five miles from Yolanda’s native Parlier—pronounced “parlor,” rather than French-sounding “par-lee-yay,” like the palmier pastry. She liked growing up in a small town where everybody knew each other. Back then, agriculture made the community very multicultural, so there were Armenian, Japanese, Portuguese and Latino people. Her father-in-law was a Boy Scout leader, and his troop was always a mix of Japanese, Mexican and white kids. That cultural diversity made for a more international way of thinking, tolerant of religions, and for a home to incredible food. Locals threw huge, sensuous food bazaars to raise money for churches and other causes. Now Parlier had the highest percentage of Latino residents of any town in California—more than ninety percent in certain seasons. That’s why Yolanda left.
Not far from where Kingsburg cooks now shaped ground chuck into Swedish meatballs, William Brewer rode his horse in the 1860s, close to where Lieutenant George H. Derby, a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, complained about the inhospitable landscape.
She was Mexican American. She liked her community’s connectedness, values and faith, but connection came at a price. Parlier’s Hispanic community became too insular for her and her husband. “And everything there is Spanish, Spanish everything,” she said. “I mean, in school they teach nothing but Spanish, mostly in grammar schools. My husband says, ‘This is crazy,’ because it was getting crazier. ‘We need to get our kids out of here.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ We had to expose them to the real world, so that’s why we moved over here.” Immigrant communities in white America can become provincial. People move from far away. They don’t speak the dominant language, don’t understand all the customs or social norms, they experience racism and hostility and miss home, so some immigrants seek shelter among other immigrants. But by perpetuating old customs rather than learning new ones, and by speaking only their first language, that shelter can hinder their integration into society and their advancement, so Yolanda chose to break the cycle. She was trying to tell her five kids, “There’s more than this.” She wanted them to be able to learn from other cultures and navigate the wider world, to expose them to more opportunities than Parlier could afford. People there wouldn’t think of Kingsburg as multicultural, she said, but it was.
Her kids were upset. They refused to leave their friends in Parlier, seven miles away. Yolanda said they had no choice: “We got to do what we got to do.” Small as it is, Kingsburg was culture shock. “See, that’s all they knew,” she said, “and that’s all we all knew. And we knew that we had to do something different.”
She held up one finger and answered the phone: “Holy Family Catholic Church, how can I help you? I may have one or two, Mary. I need to look in the cupboard, but I know for sure we do have advent candles. Okay, all the colors you need, for sure.” She turned back to me and leaned through the small office window. “Well, because—oh, my God—I stressed education so much it wasn’t even funny. Even though my brothers all worked in the fields, they helped support the family, but yeah, you had to go to school. And my husband’s family, the same thing. So, it’s either you went to school or you had to be a really good worker. You had to work really hard. My husband became a good worker, but he’s really intelligent in just life things. He was really blessed to have a really good job. And then his sisters became teachers, and his brother, he was a plasterer and in the Navy for many years. But yeah, it’s just the way life was.”
Her husband worked at a slaughterhouse for a while and got to know a lot of people. One of the USDA inspectors told him, “Hey, Anthony. This pharmaceutical company is looking for a management position there in Selma.” Anthony didn’t think he was qualified, because he didn’t have a college degree, but after he met the people in charge, they hired him. It was a small operation headquartered in Saint Louis. Anthony supervised about ten employees at the Selma facility. He flew back East to meet the higher-ups. Because he spoke Spanish, he traveled to slaughterhouses all over the Valley, taking blood samples from cows, transporting the biomaterial on ice back to his plant where they used huge centrifuges to separate the white and red blood cells. It wasn’t clear what they extracted from the animals, exactly, but they used it in medicine and makeup and exported it to Korean and Japanese companies, too. His job was one of those invisible things that, when you drive by huge industrial plants, you don’t know it goes on in there, but you benefit from it.
This architecture made more sense in a ski town, but with all the farmers in heavy boots eating at taquerías, you had to wonder whether identity could function as a town’s main economic engine, and if customers wanted it.
“You know,” Yolanda said, “I worked in Selma many years before I got this job, and I always saw that plant was really busy. There were trucks backed up and there was a lot of activity going on. I would never in a million years [have] thought my husband was going to work there and run that plant one day. Anyway, very blessed.”
In Anthony’s twenty-third year there, the company sold, and the new owners closed their California branch after they found synthetics to replace the cow’s blood. Yolanda’s husband was retirement age, but wanted to keep working to add to his fund. The company set him up comfortably, but he felt horribly for his employees. His second-in-command had just bought a house when he was let go. Many of his employees sill hadn’t found good jobs after four years. Now Anthony worked part-time at a funeral home, which gave him time to stay active in church.
“My husband is so aggressive,” Yolanda said, “and four out of our five are aggressive.” Their kids were active, outgoing—did public speaking, jazz choir and FFA. “FFA is really big in the Central Valley, and it’s a great program because it teaches the kids responsibility.” I’d never heard of it.
FFA stands for Future Farmers of America. It describes itself as “an intracurricular student organization for those interested in agriculture and leadership,” one of the three parts of an agricultural education. All Yolanda’s kids did it. In FFA, kids raise their animals, make a profit on it, do competitions on a circuit and then use that money to buy another animal and feed for the following year, learning to grow their investment. Her oldest daughter went to Stanford and now worked as a physician’s assistant in Hanford. Her second daughter, Stephanie, won a $30,000 college scholarship, which she used to start the agriculture program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Now she worked as a loan officer for farmers at Bank of the Sierra in Kingsburg.
As a kid, Stephanie used her chore money to buy her first lamb. She always raised lambs. Her senior year, she decided to get a pig. Her parents tried to reason with her: What, you’re going to show a hog? You don’t even know about hogs. She bought the hog, took it to the Sacramento State Fair, where the family went every year to show their lambs with all the other FFA families, and won Grand Champion. “It was big stuff,” Yolanda said. “The media was there taking a picture of her with that hog, and they bring this big old spread, you know; they put it over the hog’s back with flowers. That was her beginning.” Along with the college scholarship, the prize included an enormous belt buckle and champion jacket. When her photo appeared in The Sacramento Bee, Yolanda framed it and the news story to give Stephanie on her birthday.
She had a fantastic sense of humor when it came to the absurd. Around here, it was never in short supply.
To stretch her money, Stephanie worked part-time at a chiropractor’s office and got to know people, including a wealthy family who kept horses and cows. So she could save more money, the family let Stephanie live in their fancy two-story barn for six or seven months and paid her to take care of their animals. That was her third job that school year. “Some people take sympathy,” Yolanda said, “and also really respect people who are hardworking like that, and there’s nothing as exciting [as] when you see some really driven young person.” On weekends, or if she was done studying, Stephanie went out to rake the yard. “Stephanie lived in a barn,” Yolanda said, as if still trying to believe it. “And I just don’t think that they would’ve had the confidence to do all that had we remained in a small town. They needed that exposure. There was a lot of competition. They learned a lot and now they thank us for moving to Kingsburg.”
It was interesting to hear, because a lot of people who drive by the signs for Kingsburg’s Swedish Village probably don’t think, Now there’s a multicultural place to expose your kids to different ethnicities and opportunities. They stop for the aebleskiver. “Absolutely,” said Yolanda. “This community now is like, ‘Oh, gee, it used to be totally Swedish.’” She liked Kingsburg, even though it was confused.
When we said our goodbyes, she stared at me a moment. “A messenger,” she said. “I like that.” It took me a second to realize she was referring to my name. “Aaron means ‘a messenger.’ He was a messenger for Jesus.”
I mentioned that my mom’s side of the family were Jewish Europeans and named me after Moses’ brother Aaron. In the Old Testament, Aaron oversaw the Israelites while Moses fetched the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Moses was supposedly the one who spoke directly to God, but some texts say, “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron.” I never read anything about Aaron and Jesus, but I wasn’t religious, and we could both have it our way. Father Greg would probably like that.
“And bless you on your journey,” Yolanda said. Stephanie named her son Aaron.
Down the street, I found a shop called Svensk Butik. It looked so Swedish that I went inside to ask about the crests. The clerk led me back outside to a table on the sidewalk, where a tall woman with dark hair sat reading a chicken recipe in The Swedish Christmas Table cookbook. She wore a bright-red dress with colorful accents and white sleeves whose wrists were slightly tattered, like a superhero costume approaching retirement. Her name was Joan Hess. She owned this store, was 100 percent Swedish and wore her traditional folk costume every day. It didn’t matter if it was the weekend or the weekday, if she was walking to work or driving to a town hall meeting. The crests downtown? “Those represent the different provinces in Sweden,” she said, “and each one has their own crest.” Svensk Butik means “Swedish boutique,” and she was, in her words, Kingsburg’s most Swedish resident—“the token Swede.”
All of Joan’s grandparents came from Sweden and settled in Kingsburg. Her mother’s family worked on what was once Sweden’s second-largest farm, and at sixteen years old, her grandmother lived in the servants’ quarters, working as a seamstress. The landowner was mean, though, and Sweden was going through difficult times, so the family did what a lot of Swedish people did and immigrated to America. They chose Kingsburg because it had a small, familiar community.
Her father’s family came from a tiny village in Dalarna, a county in central Sweden that Joan described as “the most Swedish of Sweden” because they still wear folk costumes, celebrate the Midsummer festival, which rivals Christmas, and created the iconic Dala horse. Her father’s family immigrated to Mexico first. While in Sweden, they bought land in a town called Colonet on the Baja Peninsula. The president of Mexico, Porfirio Díaz, was trying to get Europeans to colonize Mexico to help build their economy, and by the time Joan’s family arrived, the area had French, German and Swedish settlers. Her grandparents and great-grandparents moved to Colonet with two other families from their village, but stayed less than a year. The land was rough and hard to cultivate, and they felt swindled. One family returned to Sweden. Another settled in Salinas. When the Hesses heard about Kingsburg’s Swedish colony, both Joan’s grandparents and great-grandparents bought land here, in 1889. Raisin grapes grew well, so her grandfather planted vineyards, and he and other Swedish farmers formed a cooperative to market their raisins. The co-op later became Sun-Maid, and Colonet is now one of Baja’s most productive agricultural regions. They chose wisely with Kingsburg.
People had transformed William Henry Brewer’s “land of absolute desolation” into a verdant paradise of peaches and lush lawns, and although the chemical cost was extremely high, sitting here with Joan in the shade of tall trees, the result was easy on the eyes.
Joan was one of six kids. They all worked on the family farms, picking grapes and slicing peaches to dry. Her parents expected the kids to continue farming. One of her brothers lived on their great-grandparents’ farm. Another brother lived on their grandparents’ farm, where he replaced some of the vines with peaches, plums and nectarines to diversify. Joan never considered farming as her profession.
A woman walked over and excused herself.
“Hi. I was looking for a broom? She said somebody has a broom.”
Joan gestured to the neighboring store. “Oh, right here—Morgan’s Village Flooring.”
“The brooms that she bought for the beauty shop,” the woman said. “The broom?”
Joan’s arms lay folded across her lap, her shoulders a bit slumped. “I don’t know where she buys her brooms, but they sell brooms.”
The woman left. I had no idea what she was talking about, but Joan seemed unfazed.
She spoke softly and had an even, almost demure disposition that concealed the strength of her passion about Kingsburg. She lived to talk about it, but she didn’t sound animated. Maybe she’d gotten so used to people treating her like a joke that she was still gauging whether I was making fun of her.
“I had this idea when I opened my store,” Joan said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to wear a Swedish costume every day and everybody in the town should too,’ so I went door to door to every business and said, ‘I really think it would be neat if everybody dressed in Swedish costume every day,’ and I got the raspberries everywhere I went.” She understood why downtown business owners would refuse to wear the outfit. Many weren’t Swedish, and their shops already had Swedish façades, but Joan disagreed with them. If they all lived in the Bavarian Village of Leavenworth, Washington, she would dress Bavarian to fit the theme, just like she would dress the part if they lived in a Portuguese-themed town—not that the ancient Portuguese dressed as colorfully as the Swedish. Instead of dressing up, shop owners told her, “Why don’t you just be our token Swede?”
“It is astounding,” she said. “I am the most photographed person in town. If I were dressed wearing regular American clothes, I mean, they wouldn’t even notice, but because I’m in costume, I am a photo opportunity. People say, ‘Well, how come your picture is always in the paper?’ or ‘How come you’re always on TV?’ or ‘Why are you always in the magazines?’ and I say, ‘Well, you could wear a costume too, and I’d be happy to share it.’”
On Draper, wooden crests with single words adorned the side of the Model Drug store: Närke, Jämtland, Västergötland, Dalarna, Varmland, Bohusan, Smaland.
With her hands on her lap, she gave a little smile. I’d traveled all over California, the West, the South and half of Canada, and she was the first person I’d seen who wore Swedish garb on the street.
The costume was good for tourism, she explained, and what was good for tourism was good for Kingsburg, so rather than dressing at the shop, she wore the costume as she walked the six blocks from home. Tourists loved the sight of the Swedish commuter. They probably assumed she was out picking berries or hiding from the Big Bad Wolf. “When tour buses come,” she said, “we have them park right here in the middle of town, and then I board the bus and tell them the story of Kingsburg, and then, when we can, we have Swedish music and dancing on the sidewalk for them.” The town used to have Swedish music playing from speakers up and down Draper Street, but the CD player at city hall broke a while ago, and the town went silent. It irritated Joan that they hadn’t fixed it. It didn’t seem like they ever would.
Locals were so used to seeing Joan dressed this way that if they ever saw her out of costume, they’d probably take it as a sign of the apocalypse. She and her daughter go shopping in Fresno or run errands in Selma, and her daughter will say, “Mom, do you notice that everybody is staring at you?” Joan no longer noticed. “I’m so used to being like this,” she said, “that I don’t even give a second thought that I’m different from everybody else in another town.”
It was as hard for locals to imagine Hess without her costume as it was to imagine the town without her, but she left Kingsburg for more than twenty years. Instead of farming, she joined Campus Crusade for Christ in 1963 and moved to whichever city they assigned her: LA, Tampa, Salt Lake. Many childhood friends couldn’t wait to get out of Kingsburg, but she never wanted to leave. When she moved back twenty-nine years ago, one of her brothers suggested she open a Swedish-import shop in the building they owned. The retail space used to be a car dealership. Before that, it was a feed store where customers drove through the store in order to load their heavy purchases. As a kid, Joan frequently came here with her father, who would bring eggs in exchange for chicken feed.
At first she didn’t have enough stock to fill half her store, so Joan hung a curtain in the back to shrink the space. As it filled with inventory, she moved the curtain back until she no longer needed it. She sells dishes, magnets, plastic Viking helmets, gnome statuary, local honey, soap and cookbooks like the one she was reading. She used to sell a lot of Dala horses. Now everything sold about equally, which was not fast enough. She ran the shop because she loved her heritage, but with the slow place, the thing she enjoyed most was meeting people.
“I have met the greatest people in the world,” she said. “I met the man who is responsible for all of the photographs of the moon. He was from Norway originally, but lived on the East Coast of America.” She met Princess Christina, one of Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf’s older sisters, and decathlete Rafer Johnson, who won gold and silver medals at the Olympics and parlayed that into an acting career, including a cameo in License to Kill. Kingsburg named a junior high after Johnson and painted his mural on the library. “He was on the cover of Time magazine,” Joan said. She couldn’t remember what he bought at the Butik.
She wore a bright-red dress with colorful accents and white sleeves whose wrists were slightly tattered, like a superhero costume approaching retirement.
People assumed Joan was related to Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy Führer, but Hess was her husband Ken’s last name. He was half Swedish, one quarter Norwegian, one quarter mutt. His name had no cultural significance. His grandfather chose it at random. Joan’s maiden name was Olson. Her brother’s company was Olson Family Farms. They did their own packing and had their own salesman and sold to people who wanted specialty fruit. Her brother’s business was organic; she mentioned it with great pride, but without modulating her voice too much. “They don’t use any pesticides, fungicides or herbicides—all organic,” she said. The Olsons continued to grow organically because it was the ethical thing to do, not to capitalize on a trending market. She wished organic produce was the only market, rather than a niche, which was how it used to be.
When her family planted in 1889, they didn’t use chemicals, because there were none. “Everybody used to be organic before World War II,” Joan said. “After World War II, there was, you know, the chemicals—this is a horrible story—the chemicals used to gas, kill, the Jews? Oh, what are we going to do with all these chemicals? Oh, they realized it kills insects, so we’ll just use it for killing insects, but I feel like they’re just cumulative.” Meaning the chemicals accumulated in ecosystems and in our bodies over time. Once chemical sales representatives started working hard to sell their products in the mid-1900s, local farmers started using them, but the Olsons decided they wanted nothing to do with it. Although the term “organic farming” first appeared in Lord Northbourne’s 1940 book Look to the Land, demand increased as the American environmental movement grew, and after Rachel Carson’s famous 1962 book Silent Spring alerted the public to the dangers of agricultural chemicals like DDT. “But back then, when I was a child,” Joan said, “everything was kind of priced the same and you did not know you were buying pesticide-free or organic fruits or vegetables. Nothing was labeled or controlled like that. It was just mixed in with everybody else’s.” She blamed modern agricultural chemicals for the massive, nationwide die-off of bees, called colony collapse. This human colony where she lived in the Valley worried her too.
“You can take all the precautions and eat the right thing[s] and everything, but it’s everywhere,” she said. “And see, now the scary thing is that so many of the farmers put it in their water, so it’s systemic, and it’s in the seeds, and then it gets in the water, so if you eat a watermelon that’s not organic, you are getting chemicals like you would not believe, because watermelons are mostly water. And strawberries are the same, and blueberries are probably the worst. Peaches, too.” When farmers put the chemicals in the irrigation water, she said, the chemicals completely permeate the fruit, and consumers can’t wash the chemicals off. “See, Monsanto is behind a lot of this,” she said. “If you put it in the seeds and it kills insects, you know then you don’t have to worry about the weeds. That’s why organic farming is so labor intensive: because you have to pull weeds instead of, you know—you don’t kill them with the poison.”
Granted, I preferred organic produce over conventional when I could afford it, and I knew enough about soil building and topsoil retention to know that organic methods often kept land in production longer than highly chemical-dependent monocultures. But Joan’s representation of chemical applications sounded simplistic and a bit paranoid, and I questioned their scientific foundation. She was right that chemicals were cumulative, but I would have to research the rest further. It still fed my fear about life in this region.
“Some of the farmers around here,” she said, “they use the pesticides, and then after they’ve harvested the fruit, they will dip it in a fungicide and then they wax it. It looks beautiful and lasts a long time, and a lot of these people sell to Whole Foods, and Whole Foods has a humongous display of their stuff. People think it’s better, it’s okay, because it’s at Whole Foods.”
There was a sucker born every minute, I said. I meant the consumers, not her.
Maybe she’d gotten so used to people treating her like a joke that she was still gauging whether I was making fun of her.
If it isn’t organic, Joan doesn’t buy it. “I think I’d rather be spending money on my health now than later with medicine because I haven’t been eating right or because I’m taking in all the chemicals. It used to bother me. I used to think, ‘Oh, well, this is cheaper; it couldn’t be that bad,’ but now, it’s so bad. It is so bad.” I wished I could afford the same diet. Hers seemed to be working. She was in her mid-sixties.
Halfway through our conversation, Joan’s husband, Ken, pulled up in a minivan, parking so close that the van’s dusty nose stopped inches from my left leg.
He slid open the side door to let fresh air in for their granddaughter Annika, who sat in the backseat, doing homework. With bright eyes and bright blonde hair—Swedish hair—Annika spent time at Svensk Butik after school until her mom could pick her up. Because her mom worked full-time as a speech pathologist and had been fighting breast cancer for three years, the Hesses helped get the four grandkids to school and monitored their homework. Annika was the youngest. She stayed in the van with her seatbelt on.
For the first year, Joan’s daughter fought the cancer with a regimen of natural foods, supplements and herbs, but the cancer was aggressive, so she eventually did chemo and radiation. Joan believed that because she initially did everything naturally, she built up her immune system enough to endure the chemo. Her cancer was in remission. “I know,” Joan said, “but you know, the sad thing is that there’s still cancer in your stem cells and chemo will not touch that, so that’s why so many people are cured and then in a year, two, three or four, whatever, it recurs, because it never totally went away. Do you know what is supposed to kill that cancer? Broccoli sprouts.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s the magic formula?”
“It has to be organic, so you don’t get the chemicals in it, and you just sprout it and eat it.”
I never read anything about Aaron and Jesus, but I wasn’t religious, and we could both have it our way. Father Greg would probably like that.
Eventually Annika came out to whisper in her grandmother’s ear, then she hid behind her. “It’s a very Swedish name,” Joan told me. “You heard of Pippi Longstocking? Pippi’s best friend is Annika.”
Annika made her own folk costume, like Joan’s. At last year’s Santa Lucia celebration, a little girl came up and told Annika, “I like your princess costume.” Joan didn’t correct her. I couldn’t tell if that was her politeness or her subversive sense of humor.
So what about Kingsburg: how did it become so Swedish?
When Joan’s family arrived in 1889, Kingsburg already had a rich Swedish culture. Before that, it was a rough, violent frontier town. “It was a real Wild West, shoot-them-up town,” Joan said. “Bullet holes in every building—seven saloons and one church. It was a hangout for the outlaws like Joaquin Murrieta and the Dalton Boys. In 1872, the railroad came through. This place was then known as Kings River Switch, and two years later, it was called Wheatville, and when it came time to ship the wheat, the railroad would raise their rates. Well, it made the farmers mad. They were mad at the railroad anyway for taking their land, so they would feed and hide the train robbers, and then, in the mid-1880s, there was a group of Swedes that had settled in Ishpeming, Michigan. They got tired of the severe winters, so they sent a delegation out to the West Coast to look for a place with mild climate and good farmland where they could all come and settle, and this little group was led by a man named Andrew Ericksen, and in their travels on the West Coast, they ran into his cousin in San Jose, but the cousin lived here, and the cousin was Judge Frank Rosendahl. Besides being the justice of the peace, he was a landscape architect who helped lay out Golden Gate Park and Central Park, and he told his cousin from Michigan, ‘Don’t decide on any place until you check out my town,’ so they did. They thought this would be a good place, so they notified family and friends and sent out brochures and the Swedes came and cleaned up the town. And then, right around 1900, the town was almost 100 percent Swedish, and then there were seven churches and one saloon and people called it the Holy City.…[I]n the ’20s, it was ninety-four percent [Swedish] within a three-mile radius of the town.”
From her precise, flawless delivery, I could tell this was the speech she gave to tourists.
When grapevines leafed out, the land turned to green velvet.
Once the town started to lose its Swedish identity, it began working to preserve and market it. The Valley is serviced by two highways: Interstate 5 on its vacant west side, and Highway 99 on its densely populated east side. The 99, as locals call it, runs parallel to the old Southern Pacific Railroad tracks and connects the Valley’s largest cities, from Bakersfield to Fresno on up to Stockton. From the road, Kingsburg appears like any other Valley town—just another unfamiliar name like Fowler or Chowchilla that flashed by your window. Before Interstate 5 offered a faster route to drivers, it was easier to attract visitors here.
“Backing up to in the ’60s,” said Joan, “Highway 99 became an expressway. It wasn’t a freeway yet, but an expressway. Fresno put in an indoor mall, and so until that time, Kingsburg had everything, so that you never needed to leave town. We had probably three car dealerships, a couple of hardware stores, a couple stationery stores, couple dime stores, a music store—everything, shoe stores. Never needed to leave town. But when that mall went in and 99 became an expressway, the local people said, ‘Oh, in no time at all now we can be up and shopping in that mall,’ and eight businesses closed because there was customer flight, and our town then, our city fathers, thought, ‘We need to stop this trend. What can we do and [how can we] capitalize on the theme of our town?’
“They had never done much with the theme of the town. We’re just a bunch of Swedes living here. We had the traditions, we had the food, we had the language, but the town didn’t look necessarily Swedish, so our city fathers, a bunch of them, went to Solvang, because that was a Danish colony, [and] this was a Swedish colony, and they asked them how they could become like Solvang. And they said, ‘Don’t do what we did. We made ours a Danish Disneyland, and our local people have to go out of town to do their grocery shopping, to get their hair cut or get their car fixed,’ and they said, ‘Keep what you have and just gradually add to it.’ So our city then got an architecture review committee where if a building is remodeled or built from scratch, it has to pass through that committee so that it has the right look.
“We have several Swedish celebrations. That’s when they started the Swedish Festival, back then, as well, to bring people to town so people would see that we are a Swedish town. It’s a natural marketing theme, Swedish theme, because that’s what we are. So, they had the Swedish Festival in downtown Kingsburg so people could come and see our town, come for the event and then come back, and then we also celebrate Midsummer in June and Santa Lucia in December.”
For a while, they even had a Crayfish Festival, which is very popular in Sweden. Locals used to set lutefisk out on the street for people to eat during Christmas.
President Reagan gave Kingsburg a big unintentional boost when he declared 1988 the Year of New Sweden, marking the 350th anniversary of the first Swedish colony in Delaware. “There were three original colonies,” Joan said. “It was the Dutch, the British and the Swedes, and so that entire year, our town celebrated. We had all kinds of exhibits and dance groups and bands, and Princess Christina came for lunch, and we had it all year long. Wonderful things happening, and that’s when those provinces’ coat[s] of arms were put in place. Swedish flags were put on the lampposts. People would get out of their cars and there would be this Swedish music playing.”
The thing about this place was that, inside this windowless hall with no views of the palm trees and yuccas, you might not mistake your location for Sweden, but you definitely wouldn’t think you were in interior California—until you heard the light country twang in the waitress’ voice, and you looked at the headline on The Fresno Bee’s front page: “Tulare County Issues Warning About Bad Cheese.”
Fresno got a bad rap, but for a city with such an image problem, it was surrounded by tons of quaint little towns. Besides Hanford and Kingsburg, there was Selma, Sanger, Reedley and Dinuba, with their cute little downtown streets. Even Del Rey was neat. People had transformed William Henry Brewer’s “land of absolute desolation” into a verdant paradise of peaches and lush lawns, and although the chemical cost was extremely high, sitting here with Joan in the shade of tall trees, the result was easy on the eyes. That’s partly why locals feared Fresno would drain the life from them. California’s sixth-largest city cast a larger shadow every year. Although it wasn’t clear if Swedishness had the long-term market power to sustain them the way grapes and stone fruit did, so far it sure helped.
“We don’t want to be a cookie-cutter town like all the towns along 99,” Joan said. “We want to be unique, and it is hard work to keep it that way.”
Joan gestured to the red Dala horse standing in some bushes across the street. Her brother made it. He wasn’t even a woodcarver. After he made one for his son that ended up on the back of a truck in a parade float, a city employee saw it and asked if he’d make one for the city. “That was for our New Sweden in ’88 too,” Joan said. “Everything happened in ’88.” That year was such a high point that she said 1989 seemed dull by comparison. At least her grandson was getting his doctorate in cancer research in Sweden.
They get tourists coming through in the summer and spring, and lots of Fresno folks come down for the day to eat and walk around. Some of them pose on the Dala horse for pictures. “I really feel, though, that somebody should be marketing our town better,” Joan said, her hands still folded on her lap, “because we’re the best-kept secret in California. I mean, everybody knows Solvang, they really market themselves, but our town does not.” Kingsburg’s government had no official marketing program or department. “None. None,” she continued. “You know, we’ve had a couple people passing through—well, at one time a part-time chamber director that was really good at marketing. He was just gifted that way. He hadn’t had any training in it, but he was really good. And then the owner of the Swedish Inn was a marketing major, and he really marketed our town, but he’s gone. He sold his inn and then he died and then the other guy is long gone, but we have chamber directors that really don’t know how to market. They think if somebody walks in and asks for a brochure and they hand them a brochure, that’s marketing.”
A lot of places have really good marketing, but no distinct identity. Kingsburg had the opposite problem. Joan offered Leavenworth, Washington, as an example of effective cultural marketing. That tiny mountain town 130 miles east of Seattle had transformed its economy by remodeling itself as a Bavarian village in the 1960s. It had long been a small ski town, but they never had a Bavarian community before the rebranding. This little logging town used to have the second-largest sawmill in the state, and it was the headquarters for the Great Northern Railroad. After the railroad moved, the economy started to wither. A group of business interests and concerned citizens formed a partnership with the University of Washington to reinvigorate the town. Representatives went down to Solvang in 1965 to study their approach, then they replicated it. In the late 1960s, the owner of Chikamin Hotel remodeled in a Bavarian style and renamed the place the Edelweiss. Now the town has an Oktoberfest. They collected more than five thousand nutcrackers inside the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, and the town’s thriving.
The town used to have Swedish music playing from speakers up and down Draper Street, but the CD player at city hall broke a while ago, and the town went silent. It irritated Joan that they hadn’t fixed it.
Ken insisted that Kingsburg could be the Valley’s Leavenworth. “It had no identity,” he said, “and they said, ‘Look around you: Spokane Mountain is 360 degrees from downtown,’ and they said, ‘Think Bavarian town. How do we do that? Go do some research,’ so they did. And they started having a Christmas tree lighting evening, and within three or four years, they had a whole week of Christmas tree lighting in the evening. One of the innkeepers learned to play the elephant horn, twenty-two feet long. Then they scheduled him. He would come out at certain times of the day and blow the horn right in town.” Point being, they figured out a way.
The Hesses believed Kingsburg was missing its opportunity. Leavenworth had a small mountain highway to capitalize on. Kingsburg had one of the biggest corridors in the state running right through it. They needed to turn those drivers into customers. The difference was that Leavenworth is located near ski slopes, an advantage that Kingsburg doesn’t exactly have. Millions of people pass by on Highway 99. Unlike the scenic Cascade Mountains, few drivers want to stop in the Valley for the weekends, and a Bavarian village makes sense in snow-clad peaks. Not so much here. If Kingsburg can’t attract tourists, they can at least get highway travelers en route to Yosemite to stop for the novelty and for some Swedish pancakes. That tactic worked. Vernacular architecture like the windmill in Selma, and all those old roadside gimmicks, have been luring highway travelers since the 1950s, when the automobile still felt new. For Kingsburg, the theme helped them keep hold of their roots, but it also preserved them as a gimmick.
Joan shook her head, as if exhausted by a never-ending conversation she’d had for decades. “Well, supposedly we have a fairly new city manager. He’s from Wisconsin, but supposedly, he’s working on marketing, but I have no clue of what he’s thinking. I don’t even know if he’s thinking of marketing the Swedish theme of this town. I have no idea. I have heard nothing from them or our current city council.”
Despite the drought, Joan said, the city allowed some developer to put in a whole bunch of houses this year, and citizens raised concerns: What about the water?
“Pretty soon the groundwater is going to be gone,” Joan said, “and then we’re really up a creek. Well, I wish we were up a creek with the water—a creek with water. Right, Annika?”
Annika had sat down to color. She looked up. “What?”
Joan smirked. “Never mind.”
Annika said, “The water?”
From her precise, flawless delivery, I could tell this was the speech she gave to tourists.
Joan said that some of farmers on the west side had sold their water to Los Angeles. Years ago, before the drought, she knew somebody who sold their land for seventeen million dollars an acre. “If they have an acre of land and they sell the water that is on the land,” she explained, “below that land, seventeen million dollars, and now somebody told me it was seventy [million dollars]. Don’t quote me, but it just seems out of sight.…
“Do you know they’ve been working on this freeway for years? They’re making it wider, making it three lanes each way. It just seems like everything came to a screeching halt and nothing was happening for months, and so our city inquired: ‘Why aren’t you working on this?’ And they said, ‘Well, there are some birds that have built their nests here, and they’re an endangered species, so we couldn’t do any work, anything with noise or any kind of work because of the birds.’ But after the birds hatched and flew away, then they could get back to work, so they didn’t work for months.” Water, economics, cultural identity, Fresno—even tiny towns confronted big problems, never mind the Delta smelt, Joan said, that tiny fish that lived far away, yet interfered with local farmers’ access to water.
“The Valley feeds the nation,” Ken said. “Well, we used to. If we don’t get water, we won’t be feeding them anymore.”
“So we won’t have food, but we’ll have a smelt. Probably can’t eat it, because it’s endangered!” Joan laughed. She had a fantastic sense of humor when it came to the absurd. Around here, it was never in short supply.
She was referring to the federally protected endangered Delta smelt. Smelt used to be one of the Delta’s most abundant fish, so numerous that people harvested them commercially to eat. Now that it was one of the Delta’s rarest fish, it functioned as an indicator of ecological health, a way to measure the large-scale drop in the amount of freshwater that entered the Delta, and a way for water-conservation interests and environmentalists to use the Endangered Species Act to stall further pumping from the Delta. As an endangered species, the smelt’s habitat needed some measure of legal protection, and any activities that threatened its population were prohibited. Forty percent of California’s drinking water and forty-five percent of its irrigation got pumped from the Delta, so pumping was monitored closely. This tiny fish kept pumping in check, so to many people in the Valley, the smelt was a symbol of environmentalists’ love for animals over people, and of the way outside influence determined the fate of Valley farming. The following year, in 2015, the smelt’s population would drop to its lowest numbers in history. What that meant to Westlands Water District general manager Jason Peltier was that “redirecting water from human use to environmental use in the name of helping the fish is not working.” Westlands had already fallowed half of their farmland during the drought. They argued that they needed more water now, not less. The smelt stood in their way.
Diane’s was a lively, cramped space filled with the kind of rickety plastic tables used at picnics: easy to wipe down, okay in the rain.
When I mentioned that it had rained earlier that day, Joan laughed. “Yes,” she said, “I felt both drops!”
Ken said goodbye and drove off. Annika sat coloring, keeping an eye on me.
While we talked, a pedestrian stopped beside our table and asked Joan, “Do you want to do an on-camera interview for Fresno State on Friday morning?”
Joan didn’t budge. “At Fresno State?”
“No,” the woman said, “they would come here. It’s for a mass-communications-something course, and they have four questions about Kingsburg.”
“Sure, I’ll do it.”
When the woman walked off, Hess looked at me and grinned. “I don’t know what I’m getting into.” As the token Swede, public outreach had become her responsibility.
She let me take her photo. As a tourist, I couldn’t resist.
“It’s tough being Swedish,” she said, “but somebody’s got to do it!” The line sounded practiced, but for her it was true.
Joan was right: Kingsburg was a little jewel that too many people missed, but it seemed a better place to live than to vacation.
I missed their annual Kingsburg Swedish Festival by many months. It was too sunny and warm to spend any time inside a Swedish cultural institution, but all the walking eventually worked up an appetite. When I asked the woman at Common Ground Coffee where to get real Swedish food, she leaned on the counter and smiled. “There’s Dala Horse down the way,” she said. “They have sandwiches, really good burgers, Swedish pancakes.” I didn’t expect a whole restaurant of lutefisk and salmon gravadlax, but I expected more than Swedish pancakes at a place named Dala Horse. “I know,” she said. “There used to be a place right here that served all kinds of Swedish food, but I just noticed this week they closed down. I was walking by and was like, ‘What? They’re gone?’”
What hope did a Swedish town have for marketing itself if they served so little old-country food? Identity seemed to have turned into a decorative novelty that non-Swedish people put up with in order to enjoy the small-town life. Or maybe Swedish descendants just liked greasy American food. The woman recommended Diane’s Village Bakery & Cafe next door. She said they made really good sandwiches.
Diane’s was a lively, cramped space filled with the kind of rickety plastic tables used at picnics: easy to wipe down, okay in the rain. By the restrooms, a tall wooden nutcracker statue stood in the empty pay-phone frame. The matriarch was blonde with bright eyes and an angular face. Besides sandwiches, Diane’s had a Swedish lunch plate that included meatballs, potato salad, rice pudding and a cardamom roll. Under “Scandinavian Specialties,” they had a breakfast including two fluffy puff aebleskiver pastries, eggs and a Swedish potato sausage made of mildly spiced beef and pork spiked with little potato chunks. Their “Little Vikings” section for ages twelve and under almost made me wish I had a kid.
People came in and out at a brisk pace: an elderly lady with a jowly Swedish face clutching a hardback novel; a late-thirties-something with a bleached ponytail, curled bangs and gold UGG boots holding a small dog and a pink smartphone blaring pop music. Behind her, an old man walked in holding a young woman’s hand for support. “They got those buzzers on your car that let’chu know you left the light on,” he told her. “I’ll be going somewhere and hear that and go, ‘God darn it, I didn’t shut the lights.’” At a long table in the center of the room, eight middle-aged women ate lunch around a paper placard that said “Reserved.” They laughed and lifted forkfuls of aebleskivers to their lips. “I take about an hour nap,” one woman said to the group. Another said, “Me too!”
The Lincs understood better than anyone how even being on the 99 didn’t guarantee that anyone knew their town existed. They liked it that way. It kept people from moving there.
Not far from where Kingsburg cooks now shaped ground chuck into Swedish meatballs, William Brewer rode his horse in the 1860s, close to where Lieutenant George H. Derby, a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, complained about the inhospitable landscape. The thing about this place was that, inside this windowless hall with no views of the palm trees and yuccas, you might not mistake your location for Sweden, but you definitely wouldn’t think you were in interior California—until you heard the light country twang in the waitress’ voice, and you looked at the headline on The Fresno Bee’s front page: “Tulare County Issues Warning About Bad Cheese.” The subhead read: “3 people ill from unlicensed maker.” Below that, an article about “Secret talks on water bill underway.” And then: “Manson linked to city’s image.” Charles Manson lived in California State Prison, Corcoran, thirty miles away.
Watching all the fun the women were having, I asked if I could talk to them about Kingsburg. They were all teachers, mostly retired, and met once a month. “We call ourselves the Missing Lincs,” Jeanne said, “because we taught at Lincoln School, and we no longer work there. So, the Missing Lincs.” She was their de facto leader.
Only one of them had worked as something other than a teacher. She was the school secretary. Jeanne yelled, “She was our boss!”
The secretary said, “They could be hell, let me tell you.”
They did a round robin to introduce themselves, like you would in a class of new students on the first day of school. When I told them about my trip, Ellie said, “You went to Alpaugh? You’re going deep, buddy. That’s the armpit of California.” We laughed, and I marveled how even though outsiders called this area the armpit as part of a statewide regional hierarchy, there was clearly a hierarchy among Valley towns too. Yes, Ellie said, unequivocally. “We don’t want to be Fresno.”
Palm trees and pine trees, redwoods and beach sand. Across those hundreds of north-south miles, allegiances fall apart, a sense of connection frays and bitterness forms as one side feels drained of water and resources, and disrespected, by the other.
They universally liked Kingsburg. It was the right size. It was close to the mountains and coast. It had a nice balance of warm and cold days, with lots of sunshine and just enough variation between seasons to not feel like LA. If you needed a medical specialist, you could find plenty in Fresno, Visalia and even UC San Francisco. Not that they wanted to visit San Francisco. Kingsburg was a great place to raise kids, a great place to retire and, of course, they said, gesturing at each other, the schools were great. Look who ran them.
Everyone at the table knew nearly everyone in this restaurant. The Lincs taught them, they taught their kids and their kids might even have kids with their kids now. And the Lincs’ families had farmed, ranched or logged in the area, making most of them third- or fourth-generation Valley residents.
Ellie was born and raised in Kingsburg. Jeanne’s family were some of the first settlers in Kings County—in Millerton Lake, precisely. She lived in Fresno, taught in Kingsburg and had a cabin in the Sierra foothills. “It’s so dry up there,” she said. “One match and poof!” Some houses didn’t have water at all, and residents had to shower at churches that set up service for them.
Judy’s family used to log. She lived in north Fresno, where water restrictions meant residents could water yards only two days a week. You needed a special nozzle to wash cars with a hose or you got fined. Judy’s house had a rain gauge, which had measured an inch and a half in eleven months.
Linda’s family were Armenian settlers who probably came to work the grapes. She had a family ranch where she’d just installed another well to keep it running during the drought. “We had to drill a well deeper,” she said.
“We had to put a well in.”
“We did too. It was not good.”
“There went that vacation home.”
“Oh, look,” the librarian said through a smirk. “Guess I won’t have to water my lawn tonight.” She laughed and the rain stopped seconds later.
On Linda’s grandparents’ ranch, they installed a new well that went 320 feet deep, and they had to drop their home well deeper too. “It’s bad,” she said.
“My place is on the west side. They’re going deeper, not finding water.”
“My son-in-law, he’s a packing-house owner in fruit trees [in Reedley]. He’s put in five wells this year.”
As tied as they all were to agriculture, the drought made it clear how tied everyone was to agriculture in general.
“I just keep telling the developers, ‘You can’t eat asphalt; you just wait,’” Jeanne shrugged. “Every time an orchard comes down: ‘You can’t eat asphalt.’”
Distrust and distaste for the coast was high at this table. The topic of water got everyone talking at once.
“You know, our government leaders that go from this Valley, nobody takes it serious. Nobody could care less, because San Francisco and LA, they get everything because there’s so many people there and we don’t have the population here.”
“So we get outvoted.”
“They’re always sucking the water from us.”
“And some of the farmers sold their water rights to LA.”
“They store it down out of Bakersfield, I think.”
“Some of it down in LA.”
“It’s really a political issue.”
“And then the water goes down the Delta for the fish, and we’re here, and our crops are growing up, and our trees are dying.”
“But then the smelts are not needed.”
“They’re not native.”
“If it’s striped or bass or something, they’re not native, so the whole fish issue is about non-native fish, and we’re being hurt and penalized and not given the water, but LA and San Francisco—”
“You know, we could go on for, like, three or four hours.”
I didn’t expect a whole restaurant of lutefisk and salmon gravadlax, but I expected more than Swedish pancakes at a place named Dala Horse.
I could too, though it was hard to keep up. They had reason for their anger and I sympathized. I disagreed on one main point, though: the Delta smelt. It was native. It had evolved in the Delta, like the sequoia had evolved in the Sierra, and pumping freshwater from the Delta had to do with so much more than species conservation.
“And if you have the time, you know, all of the rest of the United States is getting more snow, more rain, floods, and we’re sitting here going, ‘I just want to see rain for one day.’”
“It’s like, ‘What’s rainwater?’”
“We want a pipeline that brings water, not oil.”
“From over there.” She pointed east toward the rest of America.
Someone suggested a trade: people in wetter states give the Valley water, and the Valley will keep giving them food. They joked that the eastern US got too much water.
Judy said, “I mean, we’re praying.”
Growing up here gave the Lincs a more direct sense of farming’s importance in their lives than many big-city natives had, and it fused their lives with the lives of those around them in a profoundly communal way that they not only liked, but wouldn’t have in a larger town. “I think it’s more like a camaraderie if you work with them or you have your support,” Jeanne said. “I mean, when I worked at school I saw my classmates’ kids come in, and then I was seeing the classmates’ grandkids come in, and I’m like, ‘I got to retire,’ because not everybody leaves here.”
Kingsburg’s schools did something noteworthy. Instead of dividing public schools by neighborhood districts and spreading age groups across town at different schools, kids in each grade are in one class at the same school: all third-graders here, all kindergarteners there. This helped eliminate the very racially driven perception of “bad schools” versus “good schools,” the west-side schools versus the east-side schools. There was only public school. You could do that in a small town like Kingsburg.
Small size meant they had the best class reunions, and being a teacher meant no one worried about you picking up someone else’s kid when you saw them walking down the road in football gear.
Small size also meant that the Lincs all told their kids not to misbehave in class, because they’d find out before their kids even got home. In this town, kids knew that if they smoked cigarettes in a field or rode bikes on ditch banks, parents would find out. Even in a flat land, the hills had eyes.
Linda said, “You make sure you come to town in clean clothes!”
Jeanne said, “See, that’s why I worked here and lived in Fresno.” She liked small-town life, but needed a bit more separation.
Pulling into downtown in 2014, during California’s five-hundred-year drought, I realized that what little I knew about Swedish culture was clichéd: meatballs, mountains, Alpine-herb cough drops. That wasn’t a problem here. This town seemed built of clichés.
Many of the town’s charms stemmed from its small size and low visibility. Being near Fresno was a threat, but the Lincs understood better than anyone how even being on the 99 didn’t guarantee that anyone knew their town existed. They liked it that way. It kept people from moving there.
“But if you go out of state,” Jeanne said, “and they say, ‘Oh, you’re from California,’ they think you’re from LA or San Francisco, so you say, ‘Oh, I’m from Fresno,’ and they go, ‘Huh?’ Fresno, well, it’s like in the middle of the Valley, and we say we’re twenty miles south of Fresno, in Kingsburg, right on the 99, because we don’t really want to be associated with Fresno, either. We’re actually pretty much halfway between San Francisco and LA.”
The Valley contained another loose halfway point. South of Madera, two trees growing on the median of Highway 99 marked the midpoint between both ends of California: a palm to represent the southern half, and a pine to represent the north.
Located between Avenue 10 and Avenue 11, the trees stood like any other highway decoration, surrounded by orchards and vineyards, blending in so well that drivers easily zoomed past without noticing. The trees weren’t native. One was a Canary Island date palm from the islands off Morocco, the other a Deodar cedar from the Himalayas, but they were planted widely enough throughout California to now seem native. People agree that the trees predate Highway 99, but theories abound on their origin. Some people credit Fresno agriculture students for planting them in 1915, after which engineers laid the lanes around them. Others say the Leyh family planted them in their yard as part of their motor camp and market; when the Feds seized the Leyhs’ land with eminent domain to establish US Route 99, then the main highway between Canada and Mexico, the family demanded the highway get built around their trees. Others speculate that the early engineers who paved the old road through here also planted the trees to mark the halfway point, before they had more-advanced surveying technology.
Whatever the truth, locals have grown protective. When Caltrans planned to remove the trees to update the highway, locals and Caltrans employees convinced the agency to build around the trees, just as engineers always had. After a 2005 storm blew over the original cedar, it was Caltrans who planted the replacement.
The state’s true center lies thirty-five miles northeast of there, in North Fork, and Highway 99’s halfway point lands in Fresno. Even though the trees don’t stand exactly center, they offer a profound visual representation of the division between California’s wet north and dry, dependent south, and also a cultural divide—not just one area being fancy and beachy, and the other rural or mountainous, but about how residents feel disconnected from each other. The state is so huge that entire countries fit inside its borders. Many inland Californians feel as removed from San Franciscans as they feel from Angelenos and Oregonians, but they have strong feelings about the others, viewing coastals as people who hang on the Valley’s coattails, tug at its farmers’ sleeves and only give back grief about the way their land looks and people seem to be. Coastal folks take Valley food and water and only give back attitude. And how would these regions feel connected when so few things unite them? What are Californians’ shared values and goals? The struggles that shape their larger identity? Or even unite people in Bakersfield with people in Fresno? Palm trees and pine trees, redwoods and beach sand. Across those hundreds of north-south miles, allegiances fall apart, a sense of connection frays and bitterness forms as one side feels drained of water and resources, and disrespected, by the other. Water issues divide California, but from another perspective, it’s water issues that should unite the state. Water is one of the main themes of their whole narrative, and the solutions many nonprofits propose to help California are called “water sharing.”
When a local Swedish farmer made an offer, the Protestants sold him the property, and he sold it to the Catholics. Yolanda wasn’t sure what people thought about the farmer’s decision, but she bet people thought he was a two-faced SOB.
The Lincs acknowledged that there were times when the region was ugly—like right now, in drought, when the grapevines were dormant and farmers had yet to start pruning. And sure, the dairy manure stunk sometimes. But Kingsburg’s streets looked pretty. When grapevines leafed out, the land turned to green velvet. In spring, the blooming vines were beautiful, and all the fruit trees flower in what’s called the Blossom Trail.
Beauty wasn’t an issue for everyone. “You know what my dad used to say about the smell of the chickens: ‘It smells like money to me,’” said one of the women. It sounded like something my granddad would have said. When he got confused later in life, he said, “I was like the duck who didn’t know which farmer’s pond he was on.”
“See, that smell don’t bother me.”
“You learn to live with it, or if they come in and they fertilize with the cow manure, you’re going, ‘Well, you know, that’s just the way it is.’”
Jeanne smiled and locked her eyes on me. “I am so glad you are doing this,” she said. “Talking to us here, talking to a group of women.”
Ellie said, “To tell you the truth, just to put it in a nutshell: If women ran the state and the US and were the president, none of this shit would happen. We’d get everything done.” She held her hands up, like “Isn’t it obvious?” I agreed 100 percent.
Jeanne draped her arm around her. “We’re going to nominate her.”
Ellie nodded. “I’m going to be president.”
The land was rough and hard to cultivate, and they felt swindled.
They gathered their stuff and surrounded the cash register before rushing off to appointments. As they filed out the door, I realized I forgot to ask how many of them were Swedish.
After lunch hour ended, the place went quiet. The cook came out to eat. Nearby, a twenty-something employee ate salad and soup alone until an older customer sat down with her.
“No work today?” she asked.
“I took time off.”
“How’s Uncle Bob?”
“Still having problems with his truck.”
“I ran into him Friday at the gas station.”
“He was probably going to work on his truck.”
When someone came out of the kitchen to set a salad in front of the man, he nodded thanks. The two discussed their Christmas plans, how things were going with her new relationship and her boyfriend’s family in Sacramento, then she got back to work. The conversation reminded me of one between two worn, bearded, wandering miners that William Brewer overheard in a tavern in Pacheco Pass in 1864. Both men had been prisoners in the Mexican–American War and found their way back to California’s mines. Brewer had eaten at a French restaurant in San Francisco five days earlier, and he recorded this backcountry exchange as a simple back-and-forth, unadorned:
B. “Is your name Smith?”
B. “Why, how do you flourish? My name is Brown—don’t you remember me?”
B. “Why, d—n it, we were together at ─── in Mexico, in ’47.”
S. “By G─d, that’s so, but I didn’t know you—you’ve changed.…Where do you live?”
B. “Up here in the mountains.”
S. “How long you been here?”
B. “Since ’49. Where do you live?”
S. “By G─d, nowhere, and I have been almost everywhere since I saw you.…D─n me, it does me good to see an old friend. I hain’t seen one of those old boys afore since I came here fifteen years ago. I left here soon. Let’s drink.”
Aaron Gilbreath has written for Harper’s, Kenyon Review, The New York Times, The Dublin Review, Saveur, Paris Review, Brick and Southwest Review, and writing has taken him from Haruki Murakami’s Tokyo jazz club to the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. An editor at Longreads, his books include This Is: Essays on Jazz; the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know, which was a finalist for the 2018 Oregon Book Awards; and the forthcoming The Heart of California: Through the San Joaquin Valley.
Lead image: Clint Patterson