What follows is both what Ballico is, which is not history, and what Ballico was, which is history. However, what Ballico is will someday be history; so what I am writing here is both history and future history.
Anyway, each community has its own history; often they are unwritten but they are histories still. Ballico for its place in history is part of what was once claimed to be the largest underground irrigation system in the world, an irrigation system that is still vital to this intensely cultivated area. Ballico was an early center of turkey culture, including the development of superior breeding stock. At one time the hub of the Del Monte peach empire, it is still at the center of hundreds of acres of peach orchards, many of which boast of having the latest and best varieties ever developed. Supporting the field operations is a state-of-the art peach handling, boxing, and shipping capability. Seasonal workers arrive as green turns to gold, do their work, and depart year after year. Dwarfing all other enterprises, however, is Ballico's almond industry, including one of the largest cooperative hulling and shelling plants in the world. Also starting at Ballico and extending far to the east into the Sierra foothills are cattle ranches that make a major contribution to the state's beef and dairy industry.
Although they are gone now, they are only recently gone, those intrepid pioneers who first tilled land granted to them by a government that was wiser and more farsighted than it knew. They brought horses and plows, first for dry farming, then for crops that could be grown only after dams were built and canals constructed, these venturous ones. They erected pole barns and lived in them until better days. They lit and heated their primitive dwellings with candles and wood fires. They drilled through the hardpan for drinking water and waited, first for windows, then for kerosene, then for electricity and still later for telephones and radios. They leveled the land, broke the hardpan by hand, and planted trees where the roots could get to the moisture below. They built roads and wagons to traverse them; and the dragged the roads in summer to remove the ruts they made in the winter, each from his own farm to the next. They were there unasked when first a barn, then a home, was to be built. There suffered through depressions without the loss of hope or honor or integrity but often with the loss of home and health and goods. They shared and suffered and rejoiced together, often over a deck of worn cards and a bowl of popcorn by lamplight. Then they shared the better days, remembering the others and having learned moderation without miserliness and self-preservation without selfishness.
Their candles and coal lamps turned into single clear glass bulbs hanging in the center of the room, then to floor and table lamps. Their dirt floors turned first into planking, then into tongue and groove hardwood. They asked for little: rural electrification and later telephone lines, and still later moratoriums on farm indebtedness to government agencies, which the paid off as their horses changed to tractors and as trains and boats and refrigeration brought their products to a nation and a world.
But Ballico did not grow, not, anyway, by normal measurement. It changed in kind, but not by much, as an occasional home was occupied by persons who did not own or work the land. In September, October and November, Ballico night and day has a sound that is all its own, humming almond plants that produce tens of millions of pounds of almonds for three months, then all is quiet. With few exceptions, houses are distant from each other. Dogs bark, in the distance, and dogs answer, sometimes in chorus. Especially is this true when coyotes hold their convocations in the open fields as they have from the beginning of coyote time. Great blue herons land silently on fresh-turned fields, then equally silently lift their legs, fold their necks, are airborne and are gone.
Geese and ducks swirl in season and depart. Magpies choose their mates and noisily protect their nestlings from crows and hawks. Every spring the barn owls take nightly residence in the sycamore and later a nocturnal vigil over the orchards. Occasionally what must be an eagle, always alone, can be seen high in the sky heading, in season, west to the coastal range or east to the Sierras.
There are no more deer at McConnell Park, otherwise it is still shelter and forage for those wild ones whose existence depends upon the river. There's still an occasional sturgeon in the Merced, maybe only further downstream now, and more trout and bass than seems likely by the number of hooks in the water. The river rarely submits to boat travel now except when water is being released from the dams above, but in the old days one could comfortably float much of the year from Ballico, 100 miles to the delta, then on to the bay. At least in season, things are much the same as they were 150 years before and forever beyond that.
The homemade sign as you near Ballico says "Population 150." Maybe so. There are no signs that say where Ballico ends and everything else starts, but somehow you know if you live there. We used to say that it was a one-post town, that the "You are Entering" and "You are Leaving" signs were on the same post. That was a fond self-deprecation. It has a hardware store, a post office, a volunteer fire station, a little grocery and an elementary school, all run by people who care about people.
Ballico isn't going to change. Except for the huller it hasn't changed in many years. It's a "saturated area," its land is at optimum production of crops best suited to the soil and climate and because of better equipment constantly becoming available, it has less rather than greater need for people to work it. I'm not going to tell you what it is "miles from". It's a couple of hours west of Yosemite, a couple of hours east of Carmel and Monterey. Its a little more than half-way between Sacramento and Fresno and a little off the beaten path. If you go to San Francisco first, you probably will forget about finding Ballico. If you are in the area and go for a drive other than along a major highway, you will find other Ballicos. Each will have a history that is well worth the investigation. Stop there and snoop around, leaving Ballico to the Ballicans. You already know this Ballico.
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Story copyright by Robert Haney.
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Last updated January 5, 2003.