California Dreamin’: The tales of those who have left the well-worn path from Ozark County to California - and back
Nearly a half million people left California last year, some finding a new home and much different life here in the quiet hills of Ozark County. It’s easy to see why.
If earthquakes, fires, smog and traffic jams didn’t get to them, the cost of living did. The median price of a home in 2022 was nearly $900,000 in some cities! It lends new meaning to the song, “California Dreamin.”
The “California Exodus,” as the mass migration has been coined, reverses a westward movement that began in 1847 when Mexico surrendered California after the Mexican-American War.
Then the Gold Rush of 1848 attracted 300,000 seekers into the new territory with dreams of riches untold. Many in Ozark County were a part of the great westward movement for differing reasons.
By the time California became our 31st state in 1850, it had an “instant population” of newcomers and averaged 5 to 6 percent annual population growth between 1850 and 1860.
Driving cattle, wagons and supplies to California
A shortage of food and supplies resulted from the rash of settlers in California, and cattle prices doubled.
Many Ozark County farmers drove herds of cattle on a seven- or eight-month journey to Sacramento and distant mining centers to cash in on the spike in prices.
Local merchants took wagonloads of supplies for mining camps.
Some Ozarkers traveled the California Trail to start a new life. More than a few were driven by gold fever. Some of these stories are recorded in our wonderful big, brown Ozark County history book published in 1991 by the local Genealogical and Historical Society.
Abandoning baby here to search for gold in California
The father of George Washington Huse abandoned his newborn son to seek gold in California while his wife died in childbirth in Pulaski County.
Goodness prevailed, and the baby ended up in Ozark County where Harve and Harriet Sheppard took him in.
When Huse came of age he married Laura Bell Moore, another orphan, and raised 11 children on a homestead near Udall. Their farm is now the site of Mt. Pleasant Church and Cemetery where Huse has been buried since 1940.
Hidden from troops in Bakersfield
John Sharp Galbraith joined the second wagon train west in 1849 and established a successful business in California for a few years before heading back to Ozark County to marry his sweetheart, Elizabeth Fore.
By then the Civil War had begun, and a man out of uniform traveling alone risked violence, imprisonment or death.
Galbraith took a ship up the Mississippi River until he got close to the fighting. Then he walked west toward Elizabeth’s home near what was to become Bakersfield. Her father kept him hidden from Union and Confederate troops for weeks.
The exciting lives of Danny and Mandy Quick
After the war, times were bad in Ozark County.
Son of Pioneers author Omer Brown said people left “in droves” to seek work in Oklahoma or Kansas. Some kept going until they got to California.
Dugginsville native Danny Quick had a lot of adventures along the way.
He participated in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, but he was too young to make a claim.
He moved on to Kansas where he watched the Dalton Gang trying to rob two banks before the law shot all but one of their members. He went back home and married Big Creek native Mandy Hampton in the home of her brother Charley Hampton.
In 1908, Danny took Mandy and their five children to live in a small town on the Mexican border in southern California for 20 years. Three of their children stayed in California and had successful careers.
One of them, Aaron Quick, was a state senator from 1961 to 1966.
Danny and Mandy retired in Oklahoma. My great-uncle Allen Ledbetter and his wife Bertha Hampton Ledbetter came from Ozark County to Mandy’s funeral in 1956.
Leaving Hammond to enjoy the ‘ocean breeze’
Merchant John Squires emigrated to America from Devon, England, in the 1860s and eventually started the post office and store in Squires in 1888.
In 1905 he built a store and mill on the Little North Fork near Thornfield.
His daughter Jennie was the first postmaster for the new village he called Hammond, and he became the town’s first bank president.
Why anybody would leave such a beautiful place and lucrative position is beyond me, but in 1914 Squires gathered his substantial possessions and moved first to Arizona and then Gardena, California.
After a profitable career in real estate, he spent his retirement “sitting on his front porch enjoying the ocean breeze.”
Gardena is now surrounded by southern Los Angeles and called the “city of opportunity.”
‘thinking prety strong of coming back’
Los Angeles was also the destination for Abraham Mahan, a son of Thornfield’s King David Mahan.
He was still single when he traveled from Missouri to California at the age of 40 sometime between 1906 and 1908.
The big, brown book reprints a letter he sent to his sister from a Los Angeles hotel room in 1910.
The letter testifies to the beauty and excitement that attracted him to California and the loneliness of being far away from home:
“i have been terribel lonsome since i left you i hope it wont be long till i can come back and live close to you all the time . . . it is looking fine out here the fruit trees are all but in Blosom and grass is green I am going out to see a ball game this afternoon and then to movie . . . I am thinking prety strong of coming back there myself and grow farming sometime in the next year or so.”
Abraham soon returned to “Mahan Hollow” but died of “miners’ TB” (tuberculosis) in 1913.
A plan to get rich
Christopher Columbus Bell, known as “C.C.,” was living near the Bryant River in northern Ozark County with his wife and three children in 1916 when he decided to load up the entire family and head to San Diego “to get rich.”
It was his only trip outside Missouri.
Unfortunately, he didn’t make enough money to pay for the adventure, and they all came home.
After that experience C. C. was happy to be known for his skills as a gardener and farmer in Ozark County.
Gainesville merchant Melvin Bushong left his comfortable home next door to the Ozark County Times building when his 25-year old wife died in 1908.
Leaving his two sons with his mother-in-law, Melvin went to California to work.
I imagine his time there was full of grief and loneliness over the loss of Cora and the distance from his young sons. Eventually he returned and opened the first Bushong store at Howards Ridge.
In 1913 Melvin married May Gibson and expanded his business by leasing Dawt Mill.
After seven years, he sold the cotton gin and store and headed back to California with May and their three children in two Model T Fords. The trip took 23 days.
Again Ozark County called him back after only a year out west.
He ran mercantile establishments at Tecumseh, Rockbridge and Lead Hill, Arkansas, before coming back to Gainesville for good.
He built a fine rock house and helped start the Church of Christ.
Hitting the migrant-worker trail
before returning home
Historian Brooks Blevins said “tens of thousands” of Ozarkers hit the migrant-worker trail to California during the Depression. The region had opportunities for them in citrus orchards, oil fields and military industries responding to the Japanese buildup of the late 1930s.
Bill Bradley, a descendant of the Bradleyville founders, worked in a citrus nursery and lived with his brother Clyde before coming home to marry Mona Belle Warrick in Thornfield in 1939.
A wild ride in the Willys Whippet
Quincy Reich also joined California dreamers on the open road sometime in the 1930s.
Route 66 had been commissioned in 1926, and by 1938 it was fully paved all the way to California.
However, when Quincy’s wife Shirley drove out alone in 1937 with her two small children in a zippy Willys Whippett automobile, she risked having a slow-go through some unpaved sections of highway in New Mexico.
Whippetts were fast, but navigating a dusty road at high speeds might be a nail-biting trip.
She did it again the same year when she returned to Ozark County. By the end of 1937 paving was complete, and Route 66 became New Mexico’s first paved highway.
Quincy’s uncle, Bishop Reich, moved to California in the early 40s and organized a church in Sacramento.
He was one of three Reich preachers, but the only one who had visions of new spiritual soil in California.
He lived there until his death in 1971.
From San Joaquin Valley to Bryant Creek
Novie and Flo Hodgson Martin moved to California in 1942 and worked in the San Joaquin Valley where Flo’s parents had lived since 1938. Novie and Flo lived in California twice before buying the George Hodgson place on Bryant Creek near the now-famous Hodgson Mill.
Building equipment for WWII
Many workers came to California during the 40s and 50s to help build planes and equipment for World War II and the Korean War.
You probably know Melvin Lawrence as a guitar and harmonica whiz, but did you know that he worked at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California, for the duration of WWII?
How about Thornfield High School grad Charles Elmo Wright? He became a career Navy man who “participated in the design and testing of most major airborne weapons in use by the United States,” wrote over 50 technical publications and became an honorary member of veteran organizations.
Commander Sam Q. Baker from Isabella was a Pacific Fleet Navy pilot who “shot down aircraft, sunk ships and rescued flyers.”
We have a long list of war heroes in Ozark County.
A branch from my own family tree
As statistics might predict, some of my kin also went to California.
My mother, Wasola native Joy Hicks Ledbetter, worked in an airplane factory during World War II. The photos I’ve seen suggest that she had a lot of fun as “Rosie the Riveter.”
Dad’s uncle, Weldon Jones (son of Ben Jones of Theodosia), lived right down the road from Camp Roberts in Paso Robles. He lived in Oregon and worked as a long-distance commercial truck driver for a while, but he was managing a popular bar when he was in Paso Robles during the early 50s.
Coincidentally, my father came out to California for basic training at nearby Camp Roberts before he went to Korea in 1952.
Mom went with him and worked as a cadet nurse at the Camp Roberts hospital. Her colleagues took a photograph of my birth in December 1952. It’s a keepsake most people never dreamed of at that time.
My mother’s sister Ruth moved from Wasola to California for about ten years. Her new husband, Max Mahan (son of Gainesville’s Homer and Pansy Mahan), found jobs in construction and door-to-door milk delivery in Alhambra, where their four children were born.
My cousins remember the time when Aunt Ruth got free tickets and took them to the new 160-acre theme park that had just opened on July 17, 1955, called Disneyland.
The family moved back to Ozark County in 1956 and launched a poultry business in Wasola.
Finding gold in California
Many Ozark County natives did find gold in California. Not the kind that glitters, but the kind that produces a rich, full life.
Red Piland and his wife Bernice sold their belongings and moved to Santa Barbara in 1941.
He worked in the Bethlehem Steel Shipyards in Long Beach until after the war. He also had a dairy and moved the entire business to the San Joaquin Valley in 1956.
He raised Holstein heifers while working for Hershey Foods until he retired in 1977 and moved to Modesto.
He never returned to the Ozarks.
‘no place I would rather have my roots’
Red’s daughter Loretta was born in Thornfield in 1936 but lived her childhood and most of her adult life near her parents in California.
She became an educator and developed an interior decorating business in Modesto named Bernice’s Custom Drapery and Interiors after her mother.
She retired and moved back to the Ozarks in 1989 with her husband Chet.
In her story published in the big, brown book, Loretta wrote: “If the choice had been mine, there is no place I would rather have my roots than in Ozark County.”