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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

WHEN IT'S POT PICKIN' TIME IN HUMBOLDT

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

[An episode from “The Wonderbread Kids Play Cowboy”. Our protagonists, teenaged lovers “Jenny” and “Bruce”, are sharecropping on a marijuana farm in northern California, working for a marijuanero named Dave Gallagher and living in a cabin on his ranch. The year is 1976. Excerpts from Jenny’s journal are interspersed with commentary written twenty years later, with some minor editing.]

September 7.

Full moon time again, time for paranoia and precautions in the pot patches at night. Last night Bruce slept in our Patch [ I went to visit him after dark and scared him ] [and undoubtedly also almost got shot, editor’s note.] I slept on the porch here; Dave was going to sleep in his Patch down here by the cabin, but sometime during the night he came down to the porch and woke me up.

“I just sold thirteen pounds!” he declared excitedly, then tramped off to his big stash in the woods to get it all. On his way back, laden with white buckets full of dried leaf, he stopped again. “Thirteen pounds! The ‘Brothers’ are buying it up- they got a big deal going – eighty bucks a pound, but I can’t bitch. It’ll buy the motor for my boat.” A thousand dollars for one night’s business: this was profitable agriculture.

“Have you got a gun?” he asked. I didn’t, so he gave me his little automatic handgun, with one shot already in the chamber. “Just pull back the hammer, and you’ve got eight shots. To get attention. Just fire into the air.”

He happily packed on up the hill, and after listening to night noises for a while, and craning my head up to detect any possible movement in the pot patch, I fell asleep with the gun by my side and the kitten in my sleeping bag. And the moon set and no thieves came.

Dave came by this morning and stopped to reclaim his gun. As I took it out of the cupboard he mentioned, “Ya gotta always be careful with this gun- it’s hot, you know.”

High adventure in these twentieth century hills. Stories to tell my grandchildren.


Sept. 9

Noisy big owl flapping around outside tonight, hooting ponderously from the top of the fir next to the cabin to the huge white moon. Tonight Chuck [their fellow sharecropper] sleeps in the Patch, and Dave sleeps near the road, guarding the entrance to his garden. Fortress of forest: we will sleep under stars, moon, and owls; safe because our friends are guarding us.

By this time watering of the Patch had ceased. Now that the plants were big- the largest standing eight to ten feet high, with a three foot “wingspan”- the emphasis was on resin production. The plants were no longer pampered but were put on the defensive so that they would ooze more. The sun beat down. The mature leaves were pruned away.

The nights started to get cool. An early frost would also make the plants more hardy and aromatic, if they survived it. Then the real harvest would commence and the plants were felled, the patches levelled. Some people advocated pulling the plants up by the roots- their root system is very shallow- and the plunging the root into boiling water and hanging the plant upside down, to scare all the juice out of the roots and into the merchandise. Others, it was rumored, would mutilate or impale their plants for the same effect. The Gallaghers contented themselves with chopping the plants down with a knife or axe and hanging them upside down for a day or two. Then the plucking and sorting business commenced. The final harvest consisted of female or hermaphroditic plants. Female smoke was preferred, and all the male plants had been removed and processed earlier in the season. Piles and bundles of leaf and buds were spread out in attics and sheds to dry slowly, turned occasionally to expose it all to the air. Poor quality leaf might end up as goat food or as a substitute for toilet paper.


When most of his crop was sold, Dave proudly displayed his riches on the table at home and photographed them: baggies of prime sinsemilla buds, a sheaf of hundred dollar bills, a few firearms, a bag of cocaine. The harvest was in.

Oct. 2

A lot has happened since I last wrote- the “Big Bust” scare: a day of complete paranoia during which all of Dave’s plants were pulled [by us]. Plus my parents’ reaction to finding out about my involvement with marijuana, and the latest: Chuck telling us we’ve been receiving too large a portion of the Patch earnings, so we suddenly owe him close to $200. We’re almost out of money and we’ve got to deal with the car insurance before the 18th.

Spent about four hours today cleaning dope, which isn’t very long compared to what Bruce, Dave and Chuck have been doing for the past few days. Very tedious work.

On the 29th, about a week ago, Bruce and I were over on our Patch, innocently picking leaf in the morning. Gradually we started hearing Dave’s voice from over near our cabin, talking to someone in the most furious tones imaginable. We were glad we weren’t anywhere near him, because he’s really a terror when he’s that mad. Just then, of course, Dave yelled, “Bruce! Get over here!”

Oh God, I thought, what have we done now? Bruce hurried off, and I tried to think of what could have made Dave so mad. Soon enough, however, I hear “Jenny! Come here!” and rushed off to find out the reason for his wrath.

When I got over to our cabin, Dave was gone, and Chuck was frenziedly raking leaves over the path to the Patch. “Go up to the barnyard”, he told me. “There are supposed to be about a hundred cops on their way here from Eureka. If they come up the road, run back down here and let us know.”

Bruce was up in the loft of the cabin, gathering up about five pounds of leaf that had been spread out there to dry. I ran up the path to the barnyard and crouched behind a fallen fir tree for an hour or so, listening and keeping my eye on the road. I could hear Bruce and Chuck crashing around in the woods below me, hiding dope, guns, letters and other things with our names on them, ammo, roach clips, etc. I watched Dave from my hiding place as he hid a bucket of leaf in the barn, and then drove his jeep down to block the road. Then he got into the VW bug and drove away.

After a while he came back. A little later I heard him down at our place, yelling, “Olly- olly- in- come -free!” and “Jenny! Come down here!” Back at the cabin, with Bruce and Chuck back from wherever they had been hiding out, I finally got the story.

“It IS real, and it IS happening,” Dave explained. They’re busting people on China Creek and up Salmon Creek near Ettersburg”. That morning a friend of a friend had seen “about a hundred cop cars” [more life twenty] on the freeway between Radleyville and Eureka, headed our way. He had warned a few folks, and the word had spread. New reports and rumors were coming in fast and furious, and everyone had been warned. Dave had cut his four best plants, and hidden them, to be on the safe side. But there was no imminent danger. It was all happening pretty far away, so we all relaxed, let the adrenalin settle down, and listened to the latest news from a neighbor who came to see how we were doing.

It was so strange. I hadn’t been really scared, just sort of in shock and trying to handle the situation the best I could. You know the song “It Can’t Happen Here” [ Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, editor’s note] – well, that’s how I felt. It was just too unlikely, it wasn’t going to happen, it was all unreal. Dave, Chuck, and the neighbor left to go back to Ettersburg and find out the latest. I relaxed, lay down and dozed off for a while. Just as I was waking up and about to go back to the Patch to finish my morning’s leafing, we heard Dave get back and yell “BRUCE!”

“What?”

“THEY’RE COMING!”

And THEN I was scared! We scampered out of the house and down to Dave’s garden. Chuck appeared from somewhere and began hacking down Dave’s big beautiful plants! It was so sad and such a terrible thing to have to do! Bruce got an axe and helped him. They chopped down the plants and threw them over the inner fence; I picked them up and threw them over the outer fence, and Dave, who had come down sometime with the past thirty seconds, dragged them down to the creek bed.

“They’re at Sawyer Creek and on Elk Ridge. They’ve got airplanes,” Dave said briefly as I heaved a couple of plants at him. Sawyer Creek runs parallel to where we are on Panther Gap, on the other side of the ridge closer to Ettersburg . With airplanes on the cops’ side, we wouldn’t have a chance if they decided to look for us. A helicopter could land in Dave’s garden if it wanted to.

It was hot, high noon, and we worked as fast as we could. The bigger plants took three good whacks with an axe to fell them; one of them fell on Chuck and nearly knocked him over. After they were all cut, we dragged them far into the woods and stashed them. Then Dave went up to his house, after trying to cover up the signs of what we had been doing, Bruce and Chuck went up to our Patch and pulled six of the biggest plants.

Luckily, they didn’t pull any more, because after all that hysteria, the cops never showed. They accomplished their purpose pretty well, though. 99% of the people in Panther Gap pulled their plants.


It was getting to be harvest time anyway. The garden looks pretty empty and barren now, and if the cops come there isn’t much for them to find. Apparently several people were arrested and a couple hundred plants were pulled by cops in various places, but now everything is calm again.

[ Clipping from “The Redwood Record” [‘In the Heart of the Redwoods’] published in northern Humboldt County, Garberville California, price 15 cents, Thursday, October 7, 1976 Vol. 42 no. 20]

CROP LOSS IN SOUTHERN HUMBOLDT

Sheriff’s Department Raids Marijuana Farms in Southern Humboldt”

By Larry Parsons

Last week took its toll on California cash crops.

Unseasonal rains in Central California created havoc in the raisin and lettuce harvest. Closer to home, a seasonal daylight raid by 35 Humboldt County Sheriff’s deputies on about a dozen small farms in the Salmon Creek and Ettersburg areas resulted in the confiscation of $75,000 to $100.000 worth of “Humboldt Homegrown” marijuana, according to officers’ estimates.

The operations last Wednesday were the largest marijuana raids in Humboldt county since 1973, Sheriff Gene Cox said, although similar activities reportedly occur almost annually.

Seven squads of deputies, four of them going into Salmon Creek and three into Ettersburg, began the raids at about 9:00 am and continued until mid-afternoon. The ground parties were guided by officers in spotter planes to plots of marijuana ranging from only a few plants to fields one-half acre in size.

Since the growing season is nearly over, most of the plants confiscated were ready for harvest, officers said; some reaching heights of 12-14 feet. An estimated 2,500 plants were uprooted by deputies and some amounts of marijuana already cleaned and dried were also taken.

Five persons were arrested, four on felony charges of cultivation of marijuana and one for possession of more than one ounce of marijuana. Arraignments on these charges were scheduled yesterday morning in Eureka Municipal Court. Those arrested were: Mary B. La Pierre, 21; Jeff R. Lucas, 37; Daniel G. Delsanto, 28; all of Salmon Creek, and Elizabeth D. Horton, 23, and Steven T. Block, both of Ettersburg.

One officer who took part in the operation said, “It wasn’t our intention to arrest anybody.”

He said that squads had “specific orders not to hassle anyone, not to damage any property, not to search residences, not to use unnecessary force, and not to pursue any fleeing persons.”

Cox said the primary purpose of the raids was to confiscate plants rather than to arrest growers.

The raids were conducted without search warrants, according to one officer, with the approval of the District Attorney who gave the go-ahead to “cut chains and bust padlocks” in order to reach marijuana plots. Detective Roy Simmons said warrants were not necessary since the growing marijuana was visible from the air.

The raids came after a citizen in the Ettersburg area reportedly lodged a complaint with the sheriff’s department and demanded that something be done about the illicit crops. One officer said the citizen was prepared to go to the state Attorney General’s office with the complaint if no sheriff action followed.

“So a few weeks ago, narcotics officers [Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department] flew over the area, got all excited, and saw what they believed to be many pot gardens,” said Lt. Merle Frame.

Frame said all the marijuana collected was done so in front of a sheriff’s department identification specialist who tagged, photographed and assigned a case number to it.

He said all of it, other than a small amount needed for evidence in the cases of the five persons arrested, was turned over to the division of the State Justice Department for destruction.

All in all, it was a tough week on California’s cash crops with the full economic effects yet to be realized.

One person, sympathetic to the persons who grow marijuana on the county’s marginal farmlands, said the raid’s effect will be to take $100,000 out of the southern Humboldt cash- flow.

A prediction a bit more likely would be that the cost of raisins and green salads will be sky-high next year.


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