I've never been much interested in Americana--that is, the history of our culture as a discipline or record. Each State has its own demarcated field--Californiana, Western Americana. The opening and settlement of the American West is certainly an exciting story--really, thousands of stories--and to read any one of them is an adventure. Carving out a civilized life in the wilderness, far from established settlement is difficult, and those who do it must have stamina and energy and dedication.
In the early days of California, nearly everything that hadn't been carried in wagons, or on boats around the Horn, had to be made from scratch. Food was home grown. In the 1840's, Dr. Edward T. Bale, an Englishman, who had come to America the decade before, married a well-to-do Hispanic woman and obtained a tract of land in the Napa Valley from the Mexican Government (which owned much of California at that time). One of his first ideas was to build a grist mill to provide flour for the growing local population. It was completed about 1847, and was regularly in use until just after the turn of the Century, at which time it was acquired by a local fraternal organization and run as a historical tourist attraction.
In the 1950's, when I was eight, my Third Grade Class went on a field trip "up valley" from Napa, where we lived, to the Old Bale Mill. I think my parents may have taken me there before that--or, since memory is fickle, this may have happened after the field trip. In any case, while there I found a beautiful black flint Indian arrowhead--something that used to be common on the ground in historic California backwaters. The fifth photo (below) looks very much the way the unrestored Mill did when I first saw it circa 1955. It was maintained by a resident "overseer's" family who lived in a building behind the Mill itself, and I remember they complained that no "improvements" could be made because it had to look as "authentic" as possible. The old redwood timbers used to build it had settled and leaned in the years since it had been in use, and it had an especially picturesque quality.
These first two photos below were probably taken sometime between the First and Second World Wars, there's vegetation grown up around the structures, and it's clearly an "abandoned" place, no longer being kept up. The third photo--in color--though it looks a bit romanticized, probably looks most like how it was when I saw it the first time. The entrance in those days was right off the shoulder of Hiway 29, which tracks up the Western side of the Napa Valley. The Mill is located about halfway between St. Helena and Calistoga. This is heavily given over to grape growing now, as is nearly the whole of the region, though fifty years ago, the wine business hadn't yet begun to grow beyond its sleepy Prohibition Era profile.
In the fourth photo, stairs have been added, to the front wall, but I'm not sure if the restorations--which took place in the 1960's and 1970's--resulted in the stairs, or if the stairs were later removed for authenticity to the original structure.
Flour mills like this function by diverting a water course conducted up over the top of the great wheel via a flume, though it's unclear to me where the water drained to, since there was never any apparent course for it to take, unless it was sent underground and spilled into a course alongside or under the old highway.
Nowadays, the Mill is accessed from a visitor area behind (to the West--not visible in these shots). The concluding two images are taken from the backside, under the over-arching flume structure, sort of like an aqueduct. I can still remember going inside to look at the great cylindrical grinding-stones, where the grain was processed into flour. Stories about that flour claim that bread made from it tasted wonderfully, perhaps due to the somewhat damp air where the grinding took place.
Original structures like these allow people to connect with their own pasts, or with the past of their ancestors, or with the lives of those who preceded them in a specific region. In my case, looking at these pictures, I feel a continuity not only with my own childhood and growing up, but with the life of a rural community which had been formed 150 years before I'd first seen it. Conditions were relatively primitive in rural California in 1850 (a century before), the year it became a State in the Union. One traveling North from San Francisco during that period would have found it hard going, riding horse or wagon over unpaved roads, hot and dusty and sparsely populated, most of the land given over to subsistence farming or ranching. A commercial enterprise like the Bale Mill was a center of activity and congregation, almost like a church. People might ride their wagons all morning from the other side of the valley to fill up a sack of freshly ground flour--which might last them for several weeks. It had to be kept dry, though, lest it get moldy and stale, and it had to be kept away from rodents.
Our parents and teachers believed in instilling in their children a sense of history, and visiting an old relic like this was the most immediate vehicle for making a real connection with stuff we only read about in books. We heard the stories--about the Indians, the Mexicans with their churches and haciendas and great estates. General Vallejo [1807-1890], who gave his name to the nearby town of Vallejo, was an important figure during the strife and turmoil which resulted in Mexico relinquishing its authority in California. Vallejo eventually threw in his lot with the American authorities, despite losing nearly his whole land and agricultural holdings in the process.
From the Wikipedia entry on Vallejo: "Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo formally protected the legal rights of Mexicans now part in the United States, a long legal challenge to Vallejo's land title cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees and finally deprived him of almost all his land and farm animals. Most Californios could not afford the legal expenses to claim their lands, which were thus lost to wealthy Americans and the flood of immigrants, beginning with the Gold Rush, which left the Californios outnumbered and unable to protect their political power."
I find this assertion very relevant to the current state of affairs in the State of California. Citizens in other parts of the country tend to regard the Hispanic diaspora moving northward as a minor social problem, which can be solved with a bit of fine-tuning of our national immigration laws; but a little historical perspective can be very useful here. If trends in illegal Mexican and Central American immigration continue, California will undoubtedly become overwhelmed with Hispanics. Just as the sparse Mexican population in California was overwhelmed politically, and through sheer numbers by the middle of the 19th Century, California may become inundated with foreign arrivals, and end up becoming, in effect, a kind of extended Mexican province, officially a part of America, but in reality controlled politically by a people and an ethnic tradition that has its roots to the south.
Life in Alta California was certainly pleasant in many ways, and the coming of the "white" population from the East (and abroad) was by no means an unalloyed blessing to the land or its original indigenous population of Indians, or to the Mexicans who'd first settled it. But the California I grew up in, a century after it became a State, was a much nicer place than it's since become. Post-War suburban in-fill is rapidly being replaced by sprawling cheap cookie-cutter tracts, and our cities have steadily ghetto-ized, with large, alien groups of Spanish-speaking living in barrios. The American culture and way of life owes some of its "riparian" culture to the Spanish and Mexicans, but few would advocate that we allow our country to be turned into another version of Mexico--an outlaw nation, burdened by corruption and poverty and overpopulation on a frightening scale.
The Old Bale Mill was a harbinger of the aggressively enterprising American commercial instinct, which built California in its first hundred years. It would be a shame to see it sold out to a vast, refugee, peasant population of immigrants. We need to secure our borders against further incursions, and to prevent a reverse "takeover" of our country, as occurred 150 years ago. If we don't preserve our heritage and our birthright, our sovereignty will be seized from us, in a "quiet" revolution of rapid foreign occupation. But it seems these days that no one's minding the store. California could eventually look and feel just like Mexico. It's not something we should look forward to. Our children deserve better.