1856-1998, SALINAS, CALIFORNIA
Elias Howe’s wagon was heavy with lumber as he made his way north. An enterprising individual, he surmised there was money to be made from the hordes of immigrants moving onto California soil, and he hoped to build a tavern and cater to the travelers. The site he had selected was east of Monterey and south of San Francisco, at the north end of the long valley he now traveled. It had been an arduous journey to bring supplies, but the promise of wealth spurred Elias through the mustard weeds growing wild and tall across the valley floor. Near to his destination, his wagon finally gave out. Overcome with fatigue and lacking the parts he needed to repair the broken wheel, Elias decided the location would suffice for his tavern. He purchased land at the intersection of the Monterey-San Juan Bautista and Los Angeles-San Francisco stage lines from Jacob Leese and built his tavern. When the tavern was complete, Elias dubbed it the “Half Way House.” And on this same site, 142 years later, the National Steinbeck Center was built.
The Man Who Listens to Horses:
The [rodeo] grounds came to exist when Eugene Sherwood died and willed to the city of Salinas 2,300 acres to be used solely for horse-related activities. (pp.36, 37)
The area thrived. In 1867, Alanson Riker, William Jackson, and a cattle rancher named Eugene Sherwood drew plans for the town that would become Salinas. Between 1868 and 1869, Salinas grew from a small complex of twelve buildings to a community of more than a hundred buildings. By 1872, Salinas was bustling with seven hundred residents.
As the city grew, Sherwood planned for parks, schools, and churches, designating land for each. He thoughtfully mapped out the city and charted for future development.
For a seventy-acre parcel north of town, he made special plans. In 1872, the Monterey County Agricultural Association built a racetrack, grandstand, stable, bar, and restaurant on the site. It became known as the Sausal Park Racetrack.
The property was given to the city with a proviso that a fair and horse races be held every two years or the title would revert to the former owners. In 1878, Sherwood was honored when the name of the park was changed to Sherwood Park. Eventually the stables, racetrack, and grandstand areas would be called the Salinas Rodeo Grounds.
More than one hundred years later it would be renamed the Salinas Sports Complex, and today the annual rodeo and horse races remain a lasting tradition. Eugene Sherwood left a notable thumbprint on the city of Salinas.
By 1924, Salinas had become the wealthiest per capita city in the United States of America.1 With a population of 4,304 at the onset of the Roaring Twenties, Salinas continued to attract newcomers. Jobs and financial opportunities awaited those who found their way to this growing community of farmers, ranchers, laborers, and financiers.
The history books may recall Salinas as wealthy in 1924, but the division between families with money and those that provided the backbreaking labor to till the soil and pave the roads was nearly impassable.
Salinas lies at the north end of a long valley. The Salinas Valley-lush with crops of lettuce and beans cultivated from acres and acres of rich soil. Through the valley runs the river. The Salinas River- water for crops, livestock, and a rapidly increasing population.
Protecting the valley are the mountains. The Gabilan Mountains rise to Fremont’s Peak in the east and the Santa Lucia range boasts Mount Toro on the west-all awash in wild oats and mustard, imbued with the heady scents of oak, pine, and sage.
Clustered in the city and scattered across the valley, along the river, and in the mountains, are the people who have chosen to settle here. From varied backgrounds and ethnic persuasions they came, strong and determined people-committed to honesty and hard work.
This would become the land, the city, the home, and the very existence of Marvin and Marguerite Roberts. Never considered affluent, their wealth would someday be measured by one of God’s greatest treasures-the love of those who knew them. It was here in Salinas that their story began.
1924, MARTINS’ RANCH, SALINAS
It had been more than a month since the devastating fire consumed the small crop Frank Martins planted. He had a family to feed. With four children and a fifth on the way, there was precious little time to waste. He and his wife, Mame, had to make a decision about their future. Without the money from the bean crop, the ranch might be lost to creditors. This was unthinkable. Tuna and salmon were abundant off the California coast, and Frank heard talk of the growing demand for seafood. He discussed options with Mame.
Together they made a decision. Frank would return to the sea and the fishing trade of his Portuguese ancestors. Mame would stay on the farm and care for the land, livestock, and children. The arrangement was not ideal, but times were not ideal.
Salinas was their home. They would do what was necessary to keep the ranch. Despite the rigors of work, Frank, Mame, and the children were happy here. Their oldest daughter, christened Marguerite, was eight. Still very young, she was old enough to help her mother with some of the chores and help look after her three younger brothers.
INTERVIEW WITH BUD MARTINS, MARGUERITE’S BROTHER, 1998:
“Marguerite loved to be in charge. From the time we were small children she liked to tell me, and everyone else, what to do.”
1924, CARUTHERS, CALIFORNIA
About one hundred miles inland from the Salinas Valley, east of the Gabilan Mountains and still west of the imposing Sierra Nevada’s, lies California’s largest valley-the great central valley-the San Joaquin. Farming and ranching communities like Salinas were sprouting everywhere in the state, including the San Joaquin Valley. One of the towns built there is known as Caruthers. California continued to lure newcomers. Green pastures, sandy beaches, and sunny skies brought scores of immigrants in search of the good life. Though many were disappointed, fortunes were also made. Earl and Eliza Roberts didn’t make a fortune. The income from their small dairy didn’t go far. As a young man, Earl had worked on a road crew for the government. The back-breaking work was not what he had dreamed of for himself, but it was an opportunity to get a paycheck and a start in life. The job also brought Eliza Parker into his life.
Eliza was a spirited woman with a modicum of Native American blood in her veins-one-sixteenth Cherokee. She married Earl when he asked for her hand and bore him five children.
The couple worked hard to provide for the needs of their family but their early dreams of making a fortune had died long ago. They were resigned to an existence on their small dairy operation and hoped it would be enough. The oldest of their children, Lester, had already left home to make it on his own. The next to go would be Marvin.
Marvin was already eighteen. He helped with the livestock and did odd jobs to help the family out, but he sensed it was time that he should head out and make it on his own.
Nineteen-year-old Marvin had heard that a man who was good with a horse could find work in Salinas. He could think of nothing he would like better than to spend his days working with horses.
Growing up, he said his best friend had been Nellie, the mare his family used to pull the buggy. Marvin often claimed with a chuckle that he used to sneak out of the house at night to spend time with her.
The Man Who Listens to Horses:
I wish I knew [my grandmother’s] Indian name; they called her Sweeney, [named] after the agent who had transported her family to Nevada. Among her few possessions were papers qualifying her as a full-blooded Cherokee . . . . (p.67)
When Ray, her youngest child, was eleven years old, Sweeney decided that her marriage contract with Earl had been fulfilled. . . . [Months later] they discovered that she had walked . . . to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, a distance of 600 miles. . . . [She] spoke little English . . . (p.67) Ray was adopted into the Cherokee tribe and raised to adulthood. . . . learning the Indian way as well as the white man’s way. Uncle Ray told me [how] the Cherokee . . . capture wild horses . . . . (p.67) [Eventually] it would form the basis of my technique in working with horses. (p.68)
INTERVIEW WITH RAY ROBERTS, MARVIN’S BROTHER, 1998:
“It was sometime around nineteen twenty-seven or nineteen twenty-eight that I took off one day with three other boys to go fishing. When we got home, my family was gone. They had moved. Just like that. I was on my own. I guess I was around thirteen [years old].
“I ended up staying with my friend Henry and his mother who lived on a ranch up above [the town known as] Porterville. I was lucky because I was able to finish school while I lived with them.
“There was an Indian reservation near Henry’s place. When it came time for me to move on, I went there. I told them [Native Americans] that my mother was part Cherokee and they let me stay. Our mother was actually only one-sixteenth Cherokee Indian.2 Her name was Eliza Parker and she spoke perfect English.
“Anyway, I worked for the Indians for a few years. I tended their cattle, and they gave me food and a place to sleep in return. Thankfully, I wasn’t at the reservation too long before my older brother Marvin helped me find work across the mountains in Salinas.
“I was never adopted into any [Native American] tribe and I never told Monty that I was. I have no idea why he thinks that I told him how they [Cherokee Indians] capture wild horses or how they do anything else. I couldn’t have. “He’s correct about my mother leaving the family, but I was older than eleven [years of age]. However, she didn’t walk to any reservation six hundred miles away! She left with a salesman named [Jack] Sweeney. I guess that’s why Monty used that name for her.”
By 1930, Marvin Roberts was doing what he liked to do best. Just south of the high school on Main Street, Jack Taylor had a few acres where he took in horses to be trained. Marvin went to work for Taylor and began to make a living riding the horses he loved so much.
While working for Taylor, Marvin met a genial fellow by the name of Bert MacIntosh who would become a lifelong friend. Bert said that it was Marvin’s job to gentle the horses and turn them into riding mounts. They called it “breaking and training” in those days.
Taylor, like others, had confidence in Marvin’s abilities. Bert remembered the way Marvin was unruffled and understanding around the horses. Bert said Marvin was especially patient with horses and would tell others not to push them to learn too quickly. He reported that Marvin always said the horses needed time to learn their lessons well, and only by watching Marvin closely and observing the response of his horses, was Bert able to comprehend what he meant.
Marvin loved his life in Salinas. The only thing missing was a family of his own. Someday, he told his friends, he would meet the right girl. Until then, Marvin was content to work with horses and ride at a few rodeos on the weekends.
Marvin missed his little brother Ray. When he learned that Ray was ready to find a paying job, he asked his little brother to join him in Salinas.
INTERVIEW WITH RAY ROBERTS, MARVIN’S BROTHER, 1998:
“When Marvin learned that I was looking for work, he got word to me almost immediately. He was sure I could find a job in Salinas. “I arrived in town around nineteen twenty-nine or nineteen-thirty, and spent my last fifteen cents on breakfast, then I met up with Marvin. I stayed with him for a time, and we worked to build a riding arena in [the nearby town of] Gonzales.
“Later on, I worked for the riding school on the rodeo grounds. I even worked for the police department for a time. Eventually I landed a job at the Jeffrey Hotel, where I worked for more than twenty years. During that time, I managed to get a ranch of my own, horses, and a wonderful family. Before that, Marvin was my only real family.”
The first time Marguerite laid eyes on Marvin he was riding a horse down Main Street. A student at Salinas High School, Marg