Henry Fenton owned the Bandy Canyon Ranch in the San Pasqual Valley from the early 1900s until his death in 1952 at the age of 80. He left behind an unfinished memoir, which was incorporated into Henry Fenton: Typical American, a book written and privately published by his granddaughter, Laura Fenton, in 1952 and now in the public domain.
Fenton was only eight years old and living in Iowa when his schoolteacher father’s sudden death forced his mother to send her young son to family members in California for support. He arrived in the San Pasqual Valley in 1879 and was immediately put to work as a farmhand on the San Pasqual Valley ranch owned by his uncle, William Thompson.
Young Henry would eventually own that ranch, but that’s a story in itself. For now, a brief anecdote from his memoir offers a snapshot of a day on the farm and young Henry’s interaction with the blacksmith in the nearby farm town of Bernardo.
Fenton arrived on the farm on July 18, 1879, and his first task was to help another young farmhand “bring a mule to the blacksmith for shoeing.” His companion, also a boy, “was trying to lead the mule on horseback,” recalled Fenton, “but the mule wouldn’t lead. The old man [Fenton’s uncle, William Thompson] told me to take a switch and start the mule away from the barn.” Fenton wound up walking along with the mule and rider several miles down to the blacksmith shop in Bernardo.
“We were late getting down there,” Fenton wrote, “and Billy Ober, the blacksmith, had a couple of horses to shoe, so it was noon before he could get started on our mule.”
The young farmhands hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and Fenton remembered that “about 1 p.m. I was feeling pretty empty.”
“The blacksmith gave us 20 cents—two great big dimes,” Fenton wrote, “and sent me over to the store to buy some crackers and cheese.”
That would have been the Bernardo General Store, which was near Ober’s shop, as seen in this drawing from a late 1870s book on southern California:
Fenton brought the crackers back to the shop and Billy Ober gave each of the two boys four crackers. He then “laid the cheese on the anvil and took the knife he had been paring the mule shoes with and cut the cheese as near the middle as he could. I remember watching him and hoping he would give me the piece with the curve in it, as it looked larger. And sure enough he did.”
You wouldn’t think the size of his hunk of cheese would have been the first thing he was thinking of, but hey, I guess it was a different time.
Sources for this post included the Fenton book, historic San Diego newspapers, and The Grapevine, newsletter of the Escondido History Center.
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