George Johnson’s family found Garden of Eden


George Johnson

Editor’s note: George Johnson, 88 and a long-time resident of Sunnyside will collaborate with us on a history of the old sugar beet industry. We’re doing a 2-part story on Johnson himself to introduce him.

George Johnson of Sunnyside lived the first seven years of his life during the depression and in the dust bowl.

When he came to the Yakima Valley with his mother, two sisters and three brothers in 1941, he recalled, his mother thought she’d found the Garden of Eden.

The Valley was so prosperous, Johnson said, that perfectly good fruit was left to rot in the grass under the trees. It wasn’t market quality.

Later, Johnson said, after a day’s picking, his family would glean the orchard floor.

The Johnsons learned to be grateful for any food in the plains of South Dakota, where Johnson was raised. There was the depression, a long drought and locusts.

“In the middle of the depression, they called it the dirty thirties,” Johnson said. “There were sand storms, dirt storms and locusts.”

These were not grasshoppers, Johnson said. They were something like a grasshopper with two sets of wings and ability fly long distances.

“You could hear them coming,” he said. “They came in by the millions. They made clicking noises.

“They didn’t bite, but they could eat up an entire crop in no time at all.”

Johnson said his father finally gave up farming in 1937. He went to northern Idaho and found work at a farm on the Coeur d’ Alene Indian Reservation. The family caught up, and the Johnsons stayed on the reservation four years.

It was 1941 when Johnson’s mother saw an ad and the future in the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

The Yakima Chief ranches in Mabton and Satus were looking for hop pickers. The Johnsons didn’t know what hops were, but this was work.

The large advertisement said there was free camping, 350 free cabins, electricity and bath-showers

Johnson’s father and two older brothers, who had jobs on the reservation farm, stayed in Idaho while the rest of the family drove west in a Willys. It was about the smallest car made in America at the time. It was designed for four people.

“Mom loaded it down,” Johnson said. “She packed up what she could put in it and what she could put on it.”

The Johnsons picked hops that season, and they learned they didn’t have to go back to Idaho because of the coming fruit harvests. They couldn’t believe their eyes when they walked into the orchards.

“There were rotting apples on the ground. It drove mother crazy,” Johnson said. “She was always scratching and pinching, and here everything was so available.

“We’d come to the Garden of Eden. We’d never seen fruit so available.”

Next week, George Johnson picks hops, one of last persons in the Valley to do that.


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