Howard Sahm: Nothin’ Was Easy

Howard Sahm has lived in Los Olivos his entire life, and was kind enough to share his memories of the good old days in the Santa Ynez Valley. He and his wife Ruth and their daughter Kathy welcomed us to their nineteenth century house, tucked on a back street of Los Olivos where time seems to have paused.


I was born on June 30, 1926, and I’ve lived here all my life. My mother was born in this house – it’s a hundred and sixteen years old. My grandfather, Frank Whitcher, built this house; he also built the main house at Midland School. And this was all our dairy property, operated by my father and me until 1964. We had prob’ly 65, maybe 75 cows. When we sold, we were milking 130, 135.My father came here as a relief mail clerk on the old narrow gauge railroad. My mother and grandmother had a store and post office over where the deli now is, and Dad used to have to bring down registered mail, certified mail, and so forth. That’s how he met my mother. Then they moved to Nevada, and they were up there for a year until he contacted typhoid and had to come back. My uncle, Charlie Whitcher, was up at Midland School at the time, so Dad did R&R there for a spell and then worked with my uncle.

My wife Ruth is from Michigan. Her first husband, Nat, was the principal up at school. She used to come down and get milk, and I’d lock her in the ice box. Then, after Nat passed away, well, then she moved back to Santa Barbara for a couple of years. We got together and I brought her back to the Valley

When I went to grammar school, there was four grades, first through fourth, in one room, and then sixth through eighth, in another, with two teachers. I don’t remember what the attendance was then, but maybe fifty or sixty. We used to walk to school, and up there on the corner near the school, why, we’d stop and have a marble game. We didn’t need anybody to tell us what time it was. A certain time of the year, the kites came out, then the marbles. In the spring, it was the kites. To make kites, we’d use newspaper, some slats about yay wide, and some string -that’s what we did. You can get the slats at a store. Then get some little rags, and tie ’em in knots for the tail.

The school was up there across the street from the present school. It burned down. There was gravel roads for a number of years, and then in the 1930’s they put down the black top.

Where the art gallery is, next to the post office, that building was there. The corner store was there; it burnt down and was then rebuilt. Across the street, there’s a service station — that was there.

Over on this side of the street, Uncle Tom Davis had a little one-room store, kids would go in there and get a penny jaw breaker and a five cent package of gum. Then there was another building that used to be a meat market, but it’s since been torn down. And there was a general mercantile store, and past that, there was the old theater building. The screen is now over at the historical society museum. And the church was over on the corner, across the bridge. There was another church in Ballard, and there was the mission in Solvang, and of course, the Danish church. There was also Mattei’s Tavern. We supplied milk for Mattei’s Tavern, Midland School, Dunn, the grammar school some…

In later years, if we wanted to go to a movie on a Saturday afternoon, we’d ride our bikes into Solvang. There was a theater there where the Bit O’ Denmark is. And there was a bowling alley next door. Solvang used to be Nielson, Peterson, Rasmussen. You could go down there ten o’clock in the morning, to the corner of Alisal and Copenhagan, and all the people would be in the back room having coffee and Danish. Nobody’d be in the store. You’d walk back and join ’em. You’d see ’em in the afternoon, two thirty, three o’clock.

I delivered papers with my bicycle, when I was in sixth or seventh grade for a penny a paper. I went five, five and a half miles every day on my bicycle, out to the store, by the schools, up Figueroa Mountain Rd, down to Hollister — 35 cents.

During the Depression, everybody was in the same boat. They didn’t have any money. You could get a good hired man for a dollar a day and room and board. With World War II, the wages started going up, but up ’til then, a dollar a day was good money.

There was a hobo camp up by the bridge at Mattei’s. The kids would go down there. There’d be four or five of us boys. We’d share their hobo stew with them. Road kill, whatever. They’d come here and ask my mother for a potato. She’d say, “Okay. If you wanna chop some wood.” They’d chop up a half a dozen pieces of wood, and she’d give ’em a potato, or whatever. I don’t think anybody ever got turned away from here. If they were willing to chop up three pieces of wood, they would get something. But she wouldn’t give it to them just for nothing. They had to earn it. The work gave them dignity.

I wish I had a video of some of the characters we used to have here in Los Olivos. At the post office, they had a big bench out there, and they called that the spit ‘n argue club. Those guys would come there in the morning, waitin’ for the mailman, sittin’ on the bench, and they’d tell stories: the biggest fish, or the biggest spread of horns on the deer. There was a fellow who lived up there, Frank Cooper – staunch Democrat – and George Harvey had this station across the street, and Mr. Galupin’s father-in-law was a little bantam rooster kinda guy. If he thought you were a Democrat, he’d argue Republican. If you were a Republican, he’d argue Democrat. He’d be struttin’ around, chest forward, rooster-style, arguing. Well, they were over at the station this one morning, and he made some crack about the Democrats, an’ old Frank Cooper, he says, “Well, if you weren’t such an old guy, I’d swatcha in the mouth.”

He says, “Be my guest.” And he fought little Frank clear across the street.

When I was in high school, there were maybe a dozen cars on the campus. A few of the teachers had cars, and I had my brother’s car, a 1936 Ford coupe, but most of the time, we had to ride the bus. Later, when I got to driving, after I became sixteen, there’d be a dance every week. Usually, we’d go to the dance every Saturday night. They had an old time dance here at the grammar school or Santa Ynez, and then the regular dances down in the Vet’rans Hall in Solvang. As for dating, well, it was prob’ly no different than now.

We listened to some of the Big Band type of music. Our band instructor was Bob MacDonald, and the principal, Hal Hamm, he played the clarinet, and then there was a man and a wife, Ivan and Ellen Sorenson, he played the fiddle and bass fiddle, and Ellen played the piano. And that was our music. We had live music, not albums. For the dances up here, it was Edna Craig, Charlie Murray, Rosemary Hardwood … banjo, fiddle, piano….square dancing.

We danced with everybody – two-step, fox trot, polka. Girls asked boys, too. We liked Melancholy Baby, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Let Me Call You Sweetheart…songs like that.

Ruth and I used to dance and we never missed a polka, but then I had the stroke a number of years ago, and my right foot just wouldn’t quite track. And now I wouldn’t have air enough to polka.

I was draft age during World War II. My brother was a Naval Air Corps. I had to stay home and help Dad milk the cows. We’d look out and down there by the creek, there’d be half a dozen or so jeeps, and the guys would be on maneuvers. They’d pull in there under the willows, some of them. You wouldn’t ever know when you’d see a bunch of those jeeps…

We furnished milk to Camp Cooke and we furnished milk to the creamery in Santa Barbara, and they in turn furnished it to marine bases, hospitals…

Operatin’ the dairy was hard work. Nothing was easy. We had registered Guernseys, so they all had names. In later years, we put in some Holsteins with them – a little more volume, less butter fat. They were all different. All of ’em had names: Bossy, Opal, Suzy, Fanny, Petunia…We had one that always had twins every year. It was easy to tell ’em apart. Even the Angus, when I worked over for Mr. Lushon – black as shoe leather, but every one of ’em was different.

Before we sold out, our contract was big enough for one man, but it wasn’t hardly big enough for two, yet it took two to operate. Then they closed the plant down in Santa Barbara and started shipping our milk to Los Angeles. That increase in the freight, and the contract and all that, was just economically hard for us. You see, at one time, it used to be twelve or fourteen dairies right here in the valley, and about 55 or 60 in Santa Maria. Now there’s one here in the Valley – Jacobsen’s out on Baseline Avenue – and one in Santa Maria.

So the late fifties, early sixties was time to think about selling. It wasn’t easy. One of the dairy men over in Buellton bought the cows. Yes…

It wasn’t easy. You know, you’re born and raised with somethin’…

Back when we was operatin’, my mother, you know, you had to cull a cow sometimes. It didn’t bother her; you’d come back, there’d always be one to take the place. But the last day, it was…it wasn’t easy.

So you just work hard. My dad always had a philosophy – never ask a hired man to do something that you wouldn’t do. And it stands true.

An afterword from Cynthia: I recently came upon this item in the online archives of the Santa Ynez Valley News:


A graveside service for Howard Sahm of Los Olivos, who died July 2, is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, July 22, 2011 at Oak Hill Cemetery in Ballard.

Sahm operated a dairy in Los Olivos for many years and had celebrated his 85th birthday on June 30. His daughter, Cathy Garley, said his heart gave out and he passed away peacefully at home.

With his wife of 55 years, Ruth, he had five children, three girls and two boys. Sahm was a tireless volunteer for the Santa Ynez Valley Elks and Valley Youth Recreation. The Sahms’ home served many times as the Youth Rec campaign and ticket headquarters.

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