Sept./Oct. 2005 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee
A small farming community in Butte County has become an epicenter for commercial rice production.
The birthplace of California rice
They were seduced by the name "Richvale" because the word implied a fertile valley, a place with soil so rich they could grow anything their hearts desired.
But when early settlers made their first footstep onto Richvale soil, they didn't exactly find the "rich" paradise they were looking for. Nevertheless, the small farming community in Butte County has become an epicenter for commercial rice production.
Today, many know Richvale as the home of Lundberg Family Farms, famous for its many varieties of organic rice. But the Lundbergs weren't the first to grow rice in the area when they settled in Richvale in 1937, decades after the first colony arrived. The Lundbergs' predecessors had laid the groundwork in 1912, when some 1,000 acres of rice were first planted in Richvale.
The town is often referred to as the birthplace of California rice, and it is rich with history and stories begging to be told. Now a group of descendants is putting ink to paper in an effort to preserve some of that history in a book they hope to publish in the near future.
Stitched together, their stories provide a mosaic of portraits, ideas and memories of life in early Richvale and how settlers took on the challenges of the land and built a community around what at first appeared to be a dismal situation.
"A lot of the people who came had no idea what they were getting into," said Teresa Ward, a Richvale resident and consultant on the project.
Most of them were Midwestern farmers who were lured to Richvale by developers who promoted the location as "a garden spot of Butte County where orchards, vineyards and row crops…could be produced in abundance," wrote Norm Lofgren, 83, a contributor to the project.
"One of our writers wrote a beautiful story about how her mother got off the train upon arriving here, sat down on her suitcase and just cried because what they saw was not at all what she had expected," said Ward.
The first settlers discovered that the soil in Richvale was nothing like the fertile soil of the San Joaquin Valley. Instead, it was a heavy, clay-like soil that is sticky when wet, bone-hard when dry and unsuitable for farming most of the crops they knew how to grow in their Midwestern home states.
"One is reported to have described the area as 'a muddy bog of impassable sloughs in the winter and a dry, useless desert in the summer,'" said Lofgren. "Anyone familiar with adobe soils will agree that there is some truth in that judgment."
Although the difficult soil was not appropriate for most crops, the settlers quickly learned through trial and error that it was perfect for growing rice, a crop they had no experience farming.
Forrest Rold, 77, said when his father came to Richvale in 1916, he had to hire a Korean man to teach him how to grow rice. As part of the deal, his father gave the man a percentage of the crop that they planted.
"It was a different type of farming than my dad was used to," said Rold. "He came from Ohio and he was more or less into cattle and corn. But he heard about rice and he liked Northern California because it's close to the mountains and he liked to hunt."
Denny Lindberg, a Richvale native and rice farmer, said the early settlers were good farmers to begin with and knew how to innovate, even in the face of adversity.
"Rice just happened to save the day," he said.
At 81, Lindberg said he was inspired to chase down his own history because of an old photograph that now hangs on the wall of the Richvale Café, a favorite hang-out spot for locals. The photograph shows his father with some of the original colonists who founded the town in 1912. Although Lindberg recognized some of the faces in the photograph, those he didn't recognize motivated him to search for their identities and stories.
"As a youngster, watching horses performing in the fields, I was witness to the transition of rice culture," said Lindberg.
He worked in the fields with his father when stationary harvesters, binders and 100-pound sacks were the norm. Today, Lindberg operates his farm with modern machinery that enables him to harvest, dry and store in bulk.
Members of Richvale's Historical Writing Group have been writing and collecting stories and photographs, as well as other historical information, for the book since 2000, when the group was formed.
"There have been portions of the history written, but not in the in-depth basis that we're including," said Lindberg, who is spearheading the effort. "We realized that if we don't capture it now, some of it is going to be lost. The whole story of the community has never been told. I thought we needed to capture that."
Ward said she became involved in the project while teaching a memoir-writing class at Butte College. At the time, one of her students, Vivian Potter, wanted to write a memoir about her life in Richvale, she said. Ward knew others in the community were also interested in recording their history, so they came together and began the process of writing their memoirs as well as recruiting others to do the same.
"It just evolved," said Ward of the project. "It's beautiful because all these people have become involved in writing, and they're active and vital and engaged. That's their nature anyway, but they've learned how to use computers and send files on e-mail."
The group, which currently consists of 15 to 20 members, meets once a month at the Butte County Rice Growers Association facility in Richvale to discuss the direction of the project. In addition to writing about what they know and remember, they have collected 400 to 500 historical photographs relating to Richvale and numerous other stories from area descendants and their relatives, some of whom live out of state.
Some members have died since the start of the project, while others have either moved away, lost their ability to drive or dropped out for other reasons. But new members have also found their way into the group and made contributions to the project, Ward said.
"They come out of the woodwork," she said. "They're still coming out of the woodwork."
Vivian Potter, 82, said she wanted to record her memories for her children, who tell her that they want to know how things were done in the old days.
"I find out that my children say it's interesting reading," she said. "They say, 'Tell us more about that, Mom. Write about the way you used to wash the clothes. Write about the way you used to kill a rooster so you could have chicken dinner.'"
Of the original settlers who ventured into Richvale, Potter noted that many of them also left. She suspects the ones who stayed did so "because they didn't have any money to move."
"In a sense, they were stranded in Richvale," Potter said.
Stranded or not, they banded together and worked to build a school, post office, store and church, Ward said.
"The beautiful thing about it, and this is what's so inspiring about early Richvale, is how quickly people adapted and did make lemonade out of lemons," she said. "They worked together and farmed, and gradually, everything started to thrive. If you look at the results of this today, you'll see very successful doctors and lawyers and teachers and mothers and everything. This community has really been productive in a human sense."
(Ching Lee is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at email@example.com.)