The Last Straw

By Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel


It started fifteen years ago when Southern Pacific discontinued service to Dugans Mill. The grain mill itself was the first casualty. It closed the second year after the railroad pulled out.

The three-story building now stands spectral dark beside the rusting tracks. Its interior is festooned with cobwebs and inhabited by pigeons and ghosts of a generation of departed employees.

Each ensuing year has contributed its own erosion to the neighborhood. The juggernaut of citizen neglect and apathy, once set in motion, seemed invincible. Even the elements echo this sorry fact.

Today, a crying wind is blowing down Dugan Mills’ seedy main street. A lone tumbleweed travels a few feet past the old IOOF building and stops. A fresh gust lodges it between the laundry and the Baptist Church. It will likely remain there until the county planners bring in the wrecking crews.

• • • • •

Maisie Bartell was born and raised in Dugans Mill. Her late father operated the local butcher shop for many years.

Maisie now lives ten miles south. She rarely returns to the old neighborhood. It has become another world, cut off from the past by cyclone fences and a snarling new freeway.

Today, Maisie had an errand at the County Court House. She found old familiar roads had been chopped off, angling into confusing short streets with exotic names, such as, Hibiscus and Gung Ho.

She had to guess about one turn, and took the wrong way to get back on the freeway. She missed the on-ramp sign, and accidently drove into Dugans Mill on Old Highway 99. It runs through the old neighborhood where she used to live. She felt irresistibly drawn to Main Street, and turned off the highway at the ice house. So far, she had not encountered one person or vehicle.

Rounding the corner at the bakery, Maisie saw a shiny pickup, parked in front of Shorty’s now-defunct barbershop. It bore the logo Acme Antiques. Two men in smart blue BarberPolecoveralls were loading something into the back of the truck. They got in the pickup and drove slowly past Maisie toward the freeway entrance.

Maisie got a clear view of their cargo. It was the barber pole that turned so many years in front of Shorty’s.

She stopped her car in disbelief and got out. She stood looking down the street after the pickup until it turned left and disappeared. She had a sense of loss, as if someone had looted her life of precious possessions, perhaps possessions of whose true value she had been unaware.

A gust of wind blew a yellowed sheet of newspaper down the street. Maisie wondered what year it had been published. Maybe she was still living in Dugans Mill at that time.

She was startled by a familiar voice from the past.

“Maisie, have you come back home?”

She turned to see old Nils Peterson. He had been a lifelong neighbor. He drove the milk truck. He elected to remain in his home after everyone else moved away from Dugans Mill.

Maisie was near tears. She embraced him. “Nils, it is so good to see you again.”

Nils, too, was emotional. He still spoke with a slight Norwegian accent. “Maisie, what are the outsiders doing to our world? Everywhere I look, they are taking it away from us one piece at a time. That barber pole from Shorty’s was the last straw. I got my hair cut there for forty years. It was like I owned a part of that pole.” His voice choked. “Maybe I am only a sentimental old fool. Other folks may not feel the same way as I do.”

“Nils, I agree with you one hundred percent. Something beautiful that belonged to all of us went out of here in that pickup. My little brother Clint and I used to wait on the bench outside while Daddy got his hair cut. Clint was so fascinated by the barber pole the he would watch it turn until he became dizzy.”

Maisie paused and looked at the boarded up windows along the street.

She said slowly, “Dugans Mill has turned into a slum. It is so sad that I feel like crying.” She shifted her should-strap purse. “Maybe part of the blame rests with me. I didn’t stay here with you and fight the decay. I thought loss of the railroad meant life would just dry up. Then, too, poor people had false dreams of life. It was always better out there somewhere, anywhere—except in Dugans Mill. I was as guilty as anyone in my aspirations. I had no vision. Like most outhouse folks, I thought indoor plumbing must be the ultimate in civilized living. Someone took me through the new housing project in Peachville, with those six hundred mustard-yellow tract houses. I went inside one and found a tiny bathroom, with pink and red tile on the sink and floor, made of scraps leftover from another job. There was a low toilet with a plastic seat that proved flimsy in all the houses. … I had no guts. I caved in and joined the exodus from Dugans Mill. Of course, I came to realize later that plumbing had nothing to do with being civilized.”

Nils’ eyes were watery. “You are right, Maisie. Some people with a dozen bathrooms do terribly uncivilized things.”

He looked wistfully down the road, as if trying to spot the departing pickup carrying away the revered barber pole.

Maisie read his thoughts. She put her hand affectionately on the old man’s shoulder.

"Nils, I know it is wrong of me, but I hate antique dealers! Last week, I saw one drive into Peachville with a fine wooden Indian tied down in a flatbed truck. I know it’s wrong, and God will punish me, but I wanted to shoot that dealer with a bow and arrow. Or something else fatal.”

• • • • • • • • • •

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel’s poetry and fiction recount her long, colorful story and those of the times and places she has lived, from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to the California Central Valley. It’s there that her family settled and she picked produce for the tables of the landed gentry as she gathered the words that became her art.

In the 1990s, Wilma sent me dozens of stories and poems, handwritten on unfolded envelopes and yellow legal pad pages, crammed into the blank spaces on bill inserts and bulk mailings, political propaganda and solicitations from the Diocese of Fresno. Occasionally, she would send something “typed for me by an angel with hazel eyes.” Although we published her regularly in our little journal, The Bridge, we intended to devote an entire issue to Wilma’s writing, but alas, life overwhelmed us, The Bridge washed away, and Wilma’s fabulous scraps of paper were pushed further and further toward the back of the file drawer, with a promise to one day resurrect them.

As I reread them now, I weep that many of them went unpublished while she was alive. But Wilma would have none of that! She joked as her eyesight diminished and her handwriting grew larger. She made fun of her dependence on a cane. She wrote that, “You will without any doubt live longer than I will. You had best have this bookmark”—a postcard touting a Charles Bukowski poster. How perfect.

The Poet Laureate of Tulare, Wilma died in 2007, and we’re damn lucky that her words live on, for which I will remain grateful until I, too, kick the bucket.

Love, K-B

• • • • •

Here’s a white man’s history of Tulare County and Visalia, circa 1952. You might recognize some of Wilma’s Dugans Mill in its descriptions.

Barber pole image by Phillip Pessar via a Creative Commons license.