The Story of Riley’s Farm
In the Beginning — Chapter Two
To give credit where credit is due, my older brother Dennis Riley is the pioneer of open-to-the-public farming embraced by much of the extended Riley family in Oak Glen. After Stone Soup Farm gave way to a tract of new homes, Dennis and his friends purchased twelve acres of apple-growing land from Clarence “Blackie” Wilshire in 1978. Subsequently, he and his three sons, Devon, Thad, and Tim opened their orchards for “u-pick” harvesting, an idea that many traditional apple farmers found unthinkable. When people are new to apple harvesting, the crop can fall victim to a number of perils. Careless picking can damage the tree’s spur wood (and next year’s crop). Children climb the trees, breaking off branches heavy laden with fruit. Some guests, looking for the perfect apple, pick one, inspect it, throw it to the ground, pick another, throw that one to the ground, pick another one, throw that one to the ground and, after a while, you have a carpet of good but discarded fruit on the orchard floor. Still other guests, insist on picking fruit that isn’t ripe, complaining about it, and asking for a refund. For old timers, this was a nightmare, but for the autumn-loving public, properly given some instruction, it proved immensely popular. Before long, Denny’s u-pick concept had the public lining Oak Glen Road for hundreds of yards in each direction.
The greater scope this experiment inspired, however – the expansion of the extended Riley Family into hosting dinner theater, living history field trips, and managing more than a thousand acres of Oak Glen land – was made possible by a salesman who swore he would never live on a farm again–our father, Ray Riley. His memories of farm life were cautionary, but the cautions had the opposite effect on most of his children, probably because, while the Great Depression had made him a realist, and a good businessman, Ray Riley knew how to tell a story.
His sense of story affected mightily the way we tell stories here on the farm, so it’s fitting we tell you something about the man.
Ray Ellis Riley was born February 26, 1918, in Bountiful Utah, the sixth of seven children born to William Lockton Riley and Harriet Amelia Ellis. Pictures of the entire family in the 1920s reflected a sturdy, three-piece Sunday suit prosperity. William owned a Studebaker dealership, a laundry, and the farm on which dad grew up. After the stock market crash of 1929, the family lost everything but the farm itself and dad recounted memories of bleak Utah winters, cracked wheat cereal, and delivering newspapers on horseback, hugging the horse’s mane for warmth. In order to purchase his school clothes, he weeded onion fields. In 1929, when Dad would have been eleven years old, his grandmother Sarah passed away. The next year, 1930, brought the death of his grandfather, Arthur, and his older brother Ellis, died unexpectedly at the age of 28, just prior to Christmas. (A family story has it that a University of Utah fraternity hazing incident several years before, requiring a pledge to be dunked under ice water in a barrel, resulted in the persistent infection that eventually claimed his life.) Dad’s father would pass away in 1937, at the age of 58.
I can’t be certain whether losing so many loved ones in such a short span was a common burden of the era, but, by all accounts, dad was reasonably resilient, elected senior class president, active in drama, the student newspaper, and a member of the Davis County militia, along with his father, who was a Captain in the same unit. In 1935, he even appeared in a play called “Henry’s Mail Order Wife.”
He once recalled for me a memory that would send shivers down the spine of any parent in any age. At eight or nine years old, he and his friends were playing a game called “Run, Sheepy, Run.” The game requires a “sheep pen” area and a “fox den” as well. Children are divided up into sheep and foxes, with a “Fox King” and an “Old Ram.” When all of the sheep have a safe chance of making it to their pen without being caught by the foxes, the Old Ram yells “Run, Sheepy, Run!” Dad, anxious to make the pen, which was fenced off with real barbed wire, slid under the lowest length of wire, thinking he had plenty of room. He didn’t. A rock kept him from sliding too far, but he was almost garroted by the wire, with a purple ring on his neck and a puncture wound to prove it. (In life, we aren’t just the potential victims of our own fragile mortality; we are potentially erased, back-to-the-future style, by a thousand accidents that might have claimed our ancestors.)
By all accounts, dad’s father, William Lockton (“Will”) Riley, was a big bull of a fellow with broad shoulders and a massive frame. Dad once remembered him lifting the chassis of a truck off the ground while his boys put blocks under the frame. On one occasion, as family lore has it, he caught a stranger looking down grandmother’s blouse and he threw the man down a flight of stairs. On another occasion, a rapist was identified and frightened into the hills east of Bountiful. The Davis County militia, under Captain Will Riley’s command, mounted up on horseback and returned to town, keeping to their graves the outcome of the search. As a teenager, Will took the produce of his father’s farm to market in Salt Lake City. Ponder that reality in 1894. You are returning eleven miles home with a small case full of cash. There is no 911. There is no highway patrol. Farmers returning home from market were routinely the target of bandits. On one occasion, the teenage Will, spooked by a wagon firing shots behind him, pulled a pistol and shot himself in the shin by accident. Years later, a fragment of lead, lodged in the bone, was believed to be the cause of his death.
It was a tough life, and he grew into a tough man, enduring the pain of a leg constantly in pain. Against this father figure, his son, Ray Riley – thin framed, a bit curved in the spine – felt hugely inadequate. I count it a touching sign of my father’s humanity, and his candor, that he once confessed to me, “Jim, when I get to heaven, IF I get to heaven, I’m going to be broad-shouldered and straight as a board down my back.” He worried that he didn’t think he was built, physically or emotionally, for manual labor. This insecurity, and a natural shyness, along with a bitter hatred of being poor, all acted as a kind of motivational spur in his life. He made up his mind to he was going to learn how to present himself, how to kindle a conversation, how to tell a story. He wasn’t going to be a skinny, stoop-shouldered kid from Bountiful. When the 1936 economics of staying in college proved difficult, he took to the roads, as a salesman for the Coats & Clarke thread company. If the dapper photos we have of him are any indication, he appeared to be thriving at sales. He worked a huge territory, from Oregon to Montana and points south. When the radio announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he told me he stopped the car on a highway in Montana, turned around, and drove hundreds of miles back to Salt Lake City to find the naval recruiter. A few months shy of his 24th birthday, he was on his way to San Francisco.
On the maternal side of the family, just a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, my mother, Beatrice Winsor Riley, twenty three years old as well, had succeeded in talking her mother into letting her move off to San Francisco on her own. You would have to know my grandmother Beatrice Snow Winsor to understand how startling that sounds. Grandmother Winsor was as old school as they come. Her own father had a horse fall on him, ending his life at age 25. He left a young wife and two little girls behind, who sought refuge in Colonial Juarez, Mexico, becoming the fourth wife of the polygamous Miles Romney, (Mitt’s great grandfather). Grandmother Winsor didn’t have warm memories of being the youngest children of the prettiest wife in a sprawling, polygamous tribe. I had the sense her rations were shorted on many occasion, and – I could be wrong – but I don’t think she had the highest opinion of men, either. Sometimes, when she corrected me as a teenager, I thought I was getting the lecture she would have given her ruffian step-brothers, had she been given the chance.
The idea of Grandma Winsor allowing single, pretty Bea to re-locate on her own in Babylon by the Bay, well it doesn’t compute on a number of levels. Mom told me that after Pearl Harbor, Grandma Winsor begged her to come home, but mom wanted to brave it out. It’s difficult to imagine, but at the time the west coast was worried about Japanese bombers. Many major cities didn’t even have air raid warning sirens working, and Mom recounted a story of the lights going out in San Francisco, the whole city going so completely black she couldn’t see a thing. On the sidewalk, she froze, until she heard the sound of women’s high heels approaching her. One of those ladies, a total stranger, grabbed her hand and they found their way to the Bay Bridge train together.
Romance went pretty fast in those days. Mom’s roommate Bernice invited her cousin, Ray Riley, over for dinner. Ray and Bea met in February. They were married in August. My older brother Mike was born in June of 1943.
Maybe what follows is really “oral history,” but my thesis here is that dad contributed far more to the farm than just financial means to make it happen. He taught us how to tell stories..
Blimp, Five Man
Ray and Bea’s rush to marry had something to do with the fear they were about to ship dad out, but the Navy found out Ray Riley could type and they kept him stationed on Treasure Island where he eventually made storekeeper (petty officer) first class. He came to have enormous respect for the enlisted man during the war, describing them as “good men anxious to get the job done and go home.” In civilian life they were accountants, executives, plumbers, tradesmen, even a few lawyers, who used their skill set to keep the war time Navy supplied, and they came to be very good at it. On the other hand, dad recounted career officers who seemed to be coasting. One of them would breeze into the office every morning and sign enormous supply requisitions without looking at them, and then go out for a little golf. Wasting taxpayer money, and going AWOL on the lynx felt like a betrayal to the men and the cause, so they hatched a scheme for a little justice. A combined cabal of anonymous petty officers created a dummy requisition for something the navy desperately didn’t need. The requisition called for a “BLIMP, FIVE MAN” at a 1943 cost of $1.7 million. Sure enough, the young commander came in, signed the requisition without looking at it, and, two weeks later, when it reached the admiral’s desk, the telephone scolding the man got was so loud, and so Anglo-Saxon, (“Who the F*** ordered a F****** FIVE MAN BLIMP?) the young officer came to learn there was a war on. He began paying attention.
Coming off the Great Depression and then witnessing entire supply rooms full of gold leaf chinaware, requisitioned for a dinner honoring Admiral Halsey that never took place, Dad came to have an abiding contempt for the sheer unaccountability of government institutions. “If the Navy,” he said, “an institution that has a noble purpose, commits that kind of waste, can you imagine what they’re getting away with over at the EPA, HUD, Social Security, HHS, BLM, Park Service? It’s got to be one shameless spending spree, one big warehouse full of goodies paid for by us poor goons.”
A Treasure Island story: while fighting the navy’s supply war, Dad had a black friend, a Baptist deacon, who he referred to, if memory serves as, “Brother Henry.”
Brother Henry: “Rile, you know what a dilemma is?”
Dad: “I think I do.”
Brother Henry: “A dilemma is when you are in charge of the church choir and your wife wants to sing.”
Dad: “Why is that..?”
Brother Henry: “When your wife can’t sing? No, sir. Not one note. She can’t sing AT ALL. Know what I mean?”
Brother Henry: “You know what friendship is, Riley? Friendship is when all of your friends gets as CLOSE to your wife as they can and they sing as LOUD as they can sing. That’s friendship, Riles.”
The Riley Luck
Our Rileys actually come from Nottinghamshire, England and, while, ancestry.com once called me 10-15 percent Irish, I note, with no small sadness, that I don’t appear to have one small drop of Irish DNA in me blood. Nevertheless, in our family, because of the name “Riley,” the myth persisted, despite the English accent of great grandfather Arthur, that there must be a little clover in there somewhere, so dad named me ‘James Patrick Riley.’ Certainly luck – the idea of luck – had something to do with wanting to be Irish, and the strange thing is that Ray Riley actually had it.
As a young father in the Navy, dad said he was so good at poker, he often had trouble finding places in his sailor’s uniform to carry home the cash. I believe dad had the smart entrepreneurial talent of being cautious with his bets, never going all in, never trying for a single large score. In Navy poker, and in life later, it paid off for him.
One day, years later, at Santa Anita Race Track, my younger brother Scott and I — too adolescent yet to place wagers – were given this challenge by Ray Riley: “Jim and Scott, I’m going to give you $5, and you can keep it, or I will place an exacta bet and you will lose it, and you will learn the evils of gambling.”
We decided to learn the evils of gambling. Dad picked the horses. Dad placed the bet. In order to win, you need to bet on the horses finishing first and second, in just that order.
Dad won. We won. At thirteen or fourteen years old, we were each handed $140 in cash.
Later in life, with my first real girlfriend, Young Jin Yoon, I tried to recreate that magic, but I kept picking loser after loser, and, after dropping $80 or $90, I rode the escalator down out of the grandstands feeling a different version of what my father felt towards his own father. I wasn’t quite him. This must have been very transparent. An old black man was coming up the other side of the escalator, and without knowing the details, he saw the look on my face and offered this baritone sympathy: “Don’t worry son, you can’t win all the time.”
Getting Home on Commission..
After the war, Dad worked for his older brother Stephen in Los Angeles. Uncle Stephen was a self-taught chemist who prospered on bubble bath formulas packaged up in larger brand names (Disney, Dodgers, Bozo the Clown). Anxious to go out on his own after a few years, Dad broke off and took straight commission work as a manufacturer’s representative specializing in sewing notions and hair care products. In those days, there were thousands of independent grocers, yarn shops and drug stores. A salesman really could walk in the door and chance making a sale on the spot, to a store owner who was actually anxious to find new product. A traveling salesman could even deliver shelf merchandise from the sample stock in his car, collect the cash for the manufacturer, and pocket his commission.
I’ve heard poverty stories from most small business people, especially a half year out, when the savings are gone. Only about fifty percent make it five years and only about a third make it past the ten year mark. Dad had all the same challenges. He told me that when his little family was living in Inglewood, California and Dad was pitching hair care products in Santa Maria, California, 160 miles away, he would need to make two cash sales on a Friday, or he wouldn’t have the gas money to get home, to say nothing of being able to buy dinner along the way.
Dad would routinely put thirty to forty-thousand miles on a car every year, along with all the cold sales pitches that went with them, and eventually the word got around. He became the west coast face for Tip Top Hair Care (later purchased by Faberge), Rhode Island Textiles, Singer Sewing Notions, Fiskars Scissors, and literally thousands of other little brands that couldn’t afford an advertising budget. Eventually what dad came to sell, of course, was his cordial relationship with drug and grocery buyers all over Southern California. If you wanted to get a certain kind of product into Ralph’s, Vons, Thrifty, Alpha Beta, you went to Ray Riley.
Some of these buyers, as the Southern California market expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, came to have such enormous power it could go to their heads. Salesmen wooed purchasing agents with fishing trips, golf tournaments, and hours of pure flattery. Dad wasn’t above giving away Christmas presents every year, but he couldn’t stand the notion of a bribe. He thought it cheated everyone, especially the customer, so he made his pitch as best he could and let the cards fall where they may. He made genuine friendships with the buyers, and one year, after one of them, a fellow named Wayne Cripe, retired, Dad drove over to his house to say hello, and see if he wanted to drive some balls at the range. Wayne smiled, a little wistfully, and grabbed Dad by the arm. “You know, Ray, at Christmas, when I was a buyer, I got hundreds of presents. Revlon called me at home. Johnson & Johnson called me at home. Hallmark called me at home. This year? Now that I’m retired? You’re the only one who even bothered to say hello.” Old Wayne Cripe had tears in his eyes.
One day, home from college and working in dad’s office, I got to talking to two of his long term secretaries, Barbara and Bonnie. Bonnie volunteered this about him: “a lot of guys in this industry buy booze and women for the buyers. Your dad doesn’t play that game.” I got the feeling, then, and on many other occasions, that the people who worked with dad sensed I needed to know what he was made of, on the theory, sadly confirmed in many quarters, that most young men haven’t the foggiest appreciation for how wise their dad really is. One morning, programming dad’s computers at 4 in the morning, a call came in from an east coast executive. I had met the fellow once before. He was Ivy League, New England bred, and he apologized, profusely for the time difference. “Sorry, Jim, it’s just that there’s a situation at House of Fabrics and your dad is the only man in this entire world who can fix it.”
Dad had a mentor in the hair care business by the name of Carl Rentstrom. Carl was a restless inventor who formulated a successful epoxy glue using aluminum. A few years later he employed the waste product from that process, punched aluminum sheets, to create hot curlers, an item that eventually led to the creation of “Tip Top Hair Care.” Carl made a 1960s multi-million dollar fortune off brushes, barrettes, curlers, and combs. He bought villas and restaurants in Acapulco, a mansion in Nebraska, and a fine collection of carrier pigeons that brought him back to Southern California one day to fetch Dad for a trip to a local breeder.
Men who make great fortunes are usually pretty good at more than just sales. They know how to grind. They know how to beat down their suppliers to the last penny, and when Carl considered the man’s birds – which were considered champions – he began by observing that they appeared to be sick.
“No, no,” said the breeder. “They’re in perfect health.”
“I just can’t see,” Carl responded, “paying for sick pigeons. You want $200 for them?”
“THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS?” Carl exclaimed. “Are you kidding me? They smell like they’re about to die.”
Dad stood by and watched as Carl got the man down to $100, from his original $300, and then, as though to assert total dominance, Carl got the man to throw in their cages for free.
In the car, Carl noticed that Dad appeared irritated.
“What’s wrong, Rile?”
“That’s how the guy makes his living.”
“You think I worked him too hard?”
“What do you think, Carl?”
This couldn’t have been easy. Carl was more than just Dad’s mentor. Carl was his bank. Dad purchased a warehouse on loan from Carl, and Carl gave Dad a lucrative commission warehousing his hair care products. Carl even throttled back some of his own managers, who wanted to save money by cutting all warehouse contracts and going completely in house.
Carl turned the car around and counted out $500 in cash. “Go pay the man, Riley.”
Rentstrom was apparently not a student of American religious sects, because he was under the impression that Dad, a Mormon, was actually a New England Pilgrim, one of the few practicing pilgrims left on the North American continent. Perhaps he was thinking “Quaker” or “Shaker,” but it didn’t appear to be a gag. It might be that Dad didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t appear to have any obvious vices, but Carl actually introduced Dad to people as a “real live pilgrim.” This ritual made Dad laugh out loud, but it was never really explored or corrected. The salesmen who came back from World War II didn’t seem to be too comfortable exploring religious questions in any depth. It just hung there as a kind of comic novelty, along with the invisible buckled shoes, hat, and blunderbuss—Ray Riley, the pilgrim.
I left the Mormon church, my first year at Stanford, and I wandered down a long path that went from agnosticism to Catholicism to fundamentalism to reformed Christianity, so that now, in my senior years, I’ve come to enjoy a rousing debate over scripture, the way some guys enjoy good cigars or the NFL or fly-fishing. I doze off at night to the pleasant erudition, and the optimism, of R.C. Sproul and Greg Bahnsen and Jeff Durbin.
So when I write about Mormon culture, I’m not giving theological endorsement. My endorsement, if there is one, lands squarely on the side of something Mormons did, despite their theology. They claimed to restore the gospel, but the gospel didn’t need restoring. They didn’t restore anything; they wound up preserving some pleasant New England traditions, by taking it all out to Utah and agreeing to be peculiar together. I can’t remember one divorce in our congregation growing up. I can remember the sharing of burdens, two meetings on Sunday, road shows, concerts, parties, picnics, weddings — and the feeling that every adult in the congregation was something like my aunt or uncle. It was that close.
Our own “ward” was full of very successful doctors, dentists, college administrators and businessmen. The parking lot actually had a Rolls Royce or two, and then, Dad, at the height of his prosperity, when he was selling million dollar orders for Fiskars scissors, drives to church in a Honda Accord.
“You see that,” Art Oronoz told me, as a teenager, “your dad’s car? THAT is reverse snobbery. Your dad can buy and sell all of these guys ten times over and he drives a little compact to church.”
Oronoz was a plain-talking Basque convert to the church. He had the Super Bowl as a client for his publishing business and he was one of those golfers who took the game so seriously, it could get a little frightening, but he shared a kind of spiritual humility, a “no BS piety” that my dad appreciated. The Mormon church placed a huge premium on a kind of somber, sweet spiritual serenity that was plainly easier for some professions than it was for others. A Mormon doctor, dressed all in white, could relieve pain and administer casual Sunday School lessons on the side. He was a fee for services fellow. He wasn’t up against a monolithic corporate buying office and daily happy hours and vulgar-tongued, thrice-divorced sales managers. Dad’s world was very real, and on occasion I think he felt sullied by it.
“One of the general authorities,” Dad said, “was presiding in the temple one day and he stopped abruptly. He said ‘I have the impression someone is not worthy to be here.’”
Dad paused. “I’m glad I wasn’t there because I would have stood up and walked out.”
Dad loved his church but he wasn’t afraid to call a few of its members stuffed shirts; I think “having to make the sale” might have had something to do with it. There are times, in sales, when you have to play the advocate for a product that might be second-string on some front, and he knew when he had to do it, or just fess up. Lawyers get to know liars, and they have to make the best case for them. Real soldiers get to see a few cowards–and then pretend they deserve regimental honors. Salesmen have to deal with constant flim-flam, and when Dad saw it in the church, it bothered him but not as much as having to pretend it was “holy.”
He had to close his eyes on occasion. Looking back, I’m very grateful he didn’t put on the sing-song, sonorous, “by dear brothers and sisters” routine. He knew his weaknesses, and the wickedness of this world, and when it was time for him to impart some wisdom one day, on a week-long hike across the Sierras, he looked off at the mountain cathedral, and then at us boys. “I can tell you this,” Dad said. “He loves you.”
..and then he wept openly.Tags: Chapter Two, Ray Riley, Riley's Farm History
Categorised in: Farm Journal
This post was written by Jim Riley