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The Road to Paradise 1893-1923

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook )


The Road to Paradise  1893-1923

From the birth of Clarence Wager in 1893 to the Wager family's arrival in Paradise, California, 1923

Clarence Wager as a young man
Clarence Wager as a Young Man - ca 1911


Shirley has a story to share, a family story, of people making a life for themselves in that old hardscrabble West that existed from the turn of the century and through the years leading up to the Great Depression. Shirley comes from this remarkable lineage, from characters as honest and compelling as any penned by John Steinbeck or Cormac McCarthy.

This thirty-year chronicle is an oral history of her father's side of the family, told as she remembers hearing it, conveyed by ancient voices across kitchen tables and at family gatherings. Her memories are pieces of a living puzzle slowly fitted together over the years, a puzzle never finished and still, but rather one that is ever moving, the way pack ice shifts and grinds up upon itself under the pressure of sea and tide. Since it is an oral history, collected incrementally by Shirley over the years, she will make no claim nor brook any complaint over its exact timeline or veracity. After all, the West is a mythic setting for a story and following the passage of many years, memory and legend merge together and become fact.

Shirley's father, Ed Wager (pronounced "WAY gur" with a hard 'g'), was the first child born of Clarence Wager and Bertha Patton. Today, in early 2011, Ed Wager is 96 years old. In the California of this era, that means he has seen and experienced more of the Golden State's history than anyone who grew up listening to the old and distant stories of Pilgrims and settlements in New England, as I did during the years of my youth in the East.

Ed Wager is a well-known and respected man in the Central Valley of California. Ed was a naval officer during World War II and served aboard ship in the Pacific from 1944 until his discharge in 1946. As an educator, he began his career as a teacher and served various schools in the capacity of Vice Principal and Principal before becoming the Science Coordinator for the Stockton Unified School District. His extended family and descendants continue to grow and flourish, and to make their own mark upon the history of the Central Valley. An impressive thumbnail biography to be sure, but the beginnings were decidedly more humble.

Clarence Wager, Ed's father and Shirley's grandfather, was born in 1893, the youngest child of an Arkansas miner's family. Clarence's mother was ill when he was a youngster. Some said she died when he was 6 or 7 years old, others said that his mother and father just went their separate ways. Whatever the truth might be, Clarence travelled with his father and several siblings as they moved around the country working jobs at various mining camps, struggling to scrape out a living.

When Clarence was 13, his father was contemplating a move back east to Arkansas. He offered young Clarence a choice; he could return with the family to Arkansas or remain by himself in the small cabin that his father had built near Lake Havasu on the border of Arizona and California. Clarence decided to remain in the West and make his life on his own. From that moment on, he had to survive in a harsh environment without the love and support of a family. It is hard to imagine the suffering and anguish young Clarence must have endured or what his day-to-day existence must have entailed, but somehow he survived, grew into manhood, and forged a life for himself out of nothing.

Shirley's grandmother, Bertha Patton, was born in 1895, and Bertha grew up in Arkansas as well. Her parents, George and Mary Patton, had both trained as teachers but local circumstances pushed each to work as administrators for a mining company, far removed from the dangerous and backbreaking manual labor of the mines. Yet in the mining world that existed at the turn of the century, danger was a relative concept. When Bertha was 13, her father was responsible for taking a group of visitors on a tour of one particular area of a mine. He had turned off the power to the heavy machinery that the miners used in that area of the dig, but while he and the group were within, some unknown person turned on the electricity and George fell dead, electrocuted by the unexpected surge of power. Bertha's mother, Mary, always believed that George's demise was an act of murder, that political intrigue or some sort of personal vendetta played a role in his death. Mary, now on her own and with three children to support (ages 8, 10 13) ran a boarding house and movie theater that catered to the men who worked the local mines.

Mary Patton became ill, and the search for treatment and a cure brought her to Los Angeles. When Bertha learned how sick her mother actually was, Bertha came west to Los Angeles to nurse and care for Mary, but those efforts proved futile. Bertha was 17 when her mother died from breast cancer. She never saw any proceeds from her mother's estate and soon found herself alone and destitute in California, fending for herself. Bertha did know the mining business, however, and knowing that she had relatives in Arizona, made her way to the mining town of Jerome high above the Verde Valley, hoping to make her livelihood.

The town of Jerome, Arizona established in 1883 on the side of Cleopatra Hill at an elevation of over 5000' above sea level, was famous for its copper ore as well as its wild ways. In February of 1903, the New York Sun called Jerome the wickedest town in the West. Because the mines ran shifts 24 hours a day, the town grew around meeting the needs of the mine and its miners. Hotels rented rooms to miners in 8-hour shifts for sleeping. Restaurants, bars, cleaners and other businesses ran day and night. Prostitution, opium, and gambling were but three of the many vices available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While working at a boarding house in Jerome, Bertha met a handsome young apprentice miner with a quick laugh and ready smile. Aside from being good company, this handsome lad could play any stringed instrument by ear and used this musical gift to earn extra money by playing the fiddle or banjo at dances and fairs in and around Jerome. Many a budding woman was smitten with this strong and stylish string player, and Bertha fell very much in love with this young miner and musician; his name was Clarence Wager. Aside from his musical talents, Clarence had the same deft ear for words and language that he possessed for stringed instruments; people who met Clarence always considered him intelligent, well spoken, and educated.

Before long, Bertha and Clarence had eyes only for each other and were soon married. They shared a humble room and made Jerome their home. In those early salad days, Bertha made Clarence one quart of liquor a month, and the men would gather at the mine dances and share a drink or two with Clarence. Ten months later, their first child, Ed Wager, came into the world. The year was 1914.

As rough as Jerome was, the real danger lay in the actual work of mining. Conditions were often deplorable and the companies that controlled the mines placed production ahead of safety. The miners staged occasional strikes to demand better conditions and wages, and the owners often dealt with these strikers harshly. In July of 1917, after several months of organized strikes, a band of armed enforcers hired by the mine owners captured all of the union organizers and miners and herded them onto railroad cattle cars. The strikers found themselves released two days later near Kingman, Arizona, with instructions not to return to Jerome if they valued their lives. Historians called this event the Jerome Deportation.

Another hazard in the mines was fire. Fueled by flammable massive pyrite, fires in 1918 burned over twenty miles of mining tunnels, one of these fires burned for twenty years. This marked the end of underground mining in Jerome and the beginning of open pit ore extraction.

As WWI spread in Europe, word went out through the camps that the government planned to draft miners into the military and Clarence did not take this rumor lightly. With a new family to support and provide for, the battlefields of Europe seemed so terribly faraway and insignificant, yet the mining situation in Jerome was dangerous at best. Since Clarence was basically an itinerant worker, he moved the family out of Jerome and down to a large ranch on the Mexican border in Arizona, a spread owned by Clarence's sister and her husband. The family spent the war years on the ranch, far from the prying eyes of government, as well as the rough and tumble mining life of Jerome.

On the ranch, Clarence worked many jobs, he fixed everything, and Bertha worked the garden and cared for chickens and small livestock. They first lived in a derelict one-room shack that did little to stop the desert winds that blew hard across the barren terrain. In an effort to weatherproof the shack, Bertha jammed newspapers and other materials into the many gaps between the wood planks, gaps that allowed the blowing desert air access to the interior.

Several years after the birth of Ed Wager, a daughter was born; her given name was Bertha as well, but everyone called her Sis. Following the birth of Sis, the family moved out of the one room shack and for a time lived in a large cave above a wash out in the desert. Ed can remember Clarence building a raised sleeping platform for him on the floor of the cave. One night, a violent thunderstorm led to a fearsome flashflood that roared down through the wash and almost trapped the family in the cave; the Wager clan barely escaped with their lives.

World War I ended in Europe, and Clarence and Bertha continued to work and live on the ranch. Yet Clarence, as was his inclination, started gazing at the horizon; the life of an itinerant miner was in his blood, along with the dream of striking it rich some day on one big find. Bertha always hoped that Clarence could take to their life on the ranch; she wanted the family to farm the land and raise their own livestock.

The farming life, however, was not in his blood. Clarence had friends, fellow miners from the days in Jerome, who were living in Paradise, California where they earned a living by extracting gold out of the local hills. Paradise, a small town built around the lumber and mining industries, is located in the buttes north of Sacramento and east of Chico, just west of the Plumas National Forest. Enticed by the possibility of a fresh start in California, Clarence decided to make a change; they would begin a new life, perhaps by searching for precious metals in the gold country of California. The Wager's had no savings to pay for any family relocation so they planned to fund this new endeavor by working their way across country as best they could. With the image of this vague dream shining somewhere ahead of them out in California, the Wager's loaded their meager possessions into the old Model T and the four of them started out for a new life, leaving the arid ranch on the Mexican border forever.

In the early 1920s, the road to Paradise was an arduous one. Clarence and Bertha supported the family by joining the other itinerants that plied the fields and orchards at harvest time. The family camped along the road, staying in the temporary settlements that they shared with the other pickers and farmhands, living a life not far removed from the one described by Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath". (note: Bertha considered the description of the Okie's in Steinbeck's novel to be demeaning and degrading, but to Shirley and I the image depicts the will to keep the family together in the face of incredible hardship, and a strength and determination in confronting suffering and human travail that captures the finest qualities of the human spirit.) They arrived in Southern California and traveled around the circuit picking crops of vegetables and fruit. As the seasons changed, they migrated with the other itinerants up into the Central Valley of California where they harvested peaches, plums, apricots, nuts and prunes. In the autumn, they picked apples in Oregon.

Bertha was a great cook and knew her way around a campfire; fine skills to have when you are living on the road. Not only did Bertha know how to prepare and cook almost anything, she knew how to stretch their supplies and keep the family fed during hard times. One day she asked Clarence to stop and let her pick the blackberries she had seen growing at the side of the road. Refusing at first, he reluctantly agreed and Bertha filled her containers with fresh berries. That night, Bertha made a blackberry pie over a campfire in a cast iron Dutch oven that was marvelous. From that moment on, every time Clarence saw wild fruit growing along the side of the road it was time for Bertha to make pies.

On the road, Bertha canned fruits and vegetables as well, it added to the family's larder at no cost. Once they found themselves close to the ocean in Northern California. They went to a beach and Bertha found that the flats were rich with clams. They spent a couple days there, digging out the clams that she cooked and canned over a fire at their camp. This was work well worth the effort, the clams were loaded with protein, and it added to their diet and the larder with no outlay of money.

After picking apples in Oregon, the family made its way south into California once again. In 1923, the family arrived at Chico on the eastern side of the Great Central Valley of California. From there, they began the climb into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, gaining almost 2000' of elevation on their drive up into Paradise. Clarence and Bertha had seen these small roughhewn lumber and mining towns before; some locals said the town's name came from the old "Pair o' Dice Saloon". For better or worse, the family was now here. Clarence reconnected with his friends from the old mining days in Arizona and almost immediately, Clarence began working the local hills in search of gold.

For the moment, at least, the Wagers called Paradise their home.


Bertha Wager
Bertha Patton Wager - ca 1925


Bertha Wager, with Ed and Sis
Bertha Wager with Sis and Ed - ca 1920


Ed Wager, Sandy Wager, Clarence Wager ca 1946

Ed Wager, Sandy Wager, Clarence Wager - ca 1946



Laudizen King
Los Angeles, CA
January, 2011