1962: The Tumbleweed Wars

News from the January editions of the Lemon Grove Review.

A look back at Lemon Grove 51 years ago.

T Day, Jan. 20:  They fought on the lawn. They fought in the orchard.  They fought on Broadway.  They never surrendered.  It was defeat the dreaded Salsola pestifera or watch the Big Lemon go under as thousands of dry, demented, dastardly tumbleweeds, some seven feet in diameter, rolled through town sticking you, your kids, your pets and your property with prickly seeds that just wouldn't let go.

Some 400 anti-tumbleweed militia from Lemon Grove and Spring Valley, wearing gloves, goggles, boots and long sleeves, and armed with pitchforks, rakes and shovels, assembled at 8 a.m. on Jan. 20 at Mt. Miguel High School and Kerrigan's Liquor Store (Lincoln at Imperial), then fanned out across the region to slice off tumbleweeds at the root and burn them.

But, horrors!  At noon it poured with rain and 130 tumbleweed guerrillas were sent home--but not before several hundred of the weeds had been torched by firefighters.  The troops vowed to return at dawn on Feb. 3 and 10 and "fight this menace" according to anti-tumbleweed chair Hibbard Stubbs.

"Some think Tumbleweed Day is a farce," said Stubbs.  "But that was before they saw how many there are and how big they are.  You see six of those coming at you and you'll fight to the death to protect your property."

Several local TV stations sent crews to cover the battle for the nightly news, prompting anti-tumbleweed fighter, Howard Potts, to say, "Watch us while we give these weeds no reprieve.  If it rains again, we'll be back."

Aiding the take-no-prisoners effort were Boy Scout Troops 108 and 322 and Cub Scout Troop 308 all earning their community service badges in readiness for Boy Scout Week in early February.

On Feb. 3, as the tumbleweed warriors manned their stations, it rained again.  Undaunted the troops piled up tumbleweeds and covered them with tarpaulins to keep them dry.  Not until Feb. 11 could firefighters light the funeral pyre that reduced the invaders to ash.

Tumbleweeds, a species of Russian thistle, may have left outer Mongolia and arrived in South Dakota in the 1870s in a shipment of flaxseed.  In another story, the seeds hooked onto burlap bags and went west with the railroad.  Either way the seeds escaped and rapidly adapted to the great plains and deserts of North America. As they spread west, they became the stuff of folklore and legend.  

Roy Rogers' first hit song was "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds." No Western movie was complete without the sight of tumbleweeds chasing each other in the desert wind.  Western housing developments, restaurants, camps, shopping malls, singing groups, boutiques and you-name-it were named for the noxious weed despite its very real environmental threat.

A lone tumbleweed, with its 24-inch root, can remove 44 gallons of water from the soil, leaving vital plants like wheat to wither and die.  Erosion increases as the topsoil dries and blows away during droughts--no laughing matter on a planet engulfed in climate change.

But tell that to the chuckling family that filmed this tumbleweed invasion from their car and posted it on YouTube: 


Tumbleweeds have never surrendered.  Every spring they're ba-a-ack.  But, just as tenacious is the entrepreneurial spirit that has made tumbleweed culture a sizable part of the online arts-and-crafts market, to wit:

Tumbleweed Snowman, $59.99.

Cute L'il Baby Tumbleweed, $11.99 (down from $19.99).

Gigantic Country Tumbleweed, $41.99 for the 30-inch.

Christmas Tumbleweed--great with pine cones!  $28.99.

One tumbleweed marketer hails her crop as "straight from the Western frontier! A great decorative addition to any country western themed party…These babies were meant to roll so if they are placed outside make sure they are tied down good."

You can even get a tumbleweed ringtone for your cell phone, featuring lyrics by 1960s icon Joan Baez:

      Feel like a lonesome tumbleweed

      turning end over end.

      Once I pulled all my roots free

      I became a slave to the wind,

      a slave to the wind. 

Your correspondent vividly recalls seeing her three children gleefully rolling a humungous tumbleweed along Golden Avenue in 1984 with a neighbor, who shall be nameless, in hot pursuit.

"Stop that tumbleweed!" she shrieked, flapping a rake.  

Abashed, the kids stopped in mid-roll while the neighbor described the impending doom:  seeds hooked to every part of your anatomy as you scratch and draw blood, howling at the pain and screaming for mercy before fainting in the summer heat while the tumbleweed rolls on…and on…and on.

And so it went at the onset of 1962 when neither rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed the soldiers of the Big Lemon from the Tumbleweed Wars.  They were descended from ranchers and farmers.  They knew.

About this column: Compiled by Helen Ofield, president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society, from newspapers archived at the H. Lee House Cultural Center. Each week, we take a peek at the past with some news and advertising highlights from a randomly chosen edition of the Lemon Grove Review. In 2012, Ofield was awarded second place in non-daily reporting and writing from the Society of Professional Journalists for the column.

Ed Sorrels January 15, 2013 at 04:46 AM
Does anyone know the idenity of the first guy on the left, If it isn't James olney it is his twin brother, He would have been a volenteer from St. John of the Cross I think as at the time he lived over by the old cinema-dine just west of Massachusett's on Violet. I married one of his daughters.
Helen Ofield January 15, 2013 at 06:57 PM
Dear Mr. Sorrels, These men were instrumental in organizing the anti-tumbleweed effort. Front row, left to right: Rev. John Kerr and Bill England of Spring Valley. Back row, left to right, Frank Capron, Dr. Dennis McLaughlin and Frank Doolin of Lemon Grove. Jim Spears of Spears Ford was also a player in the effort. (By the way, does anyone have a snapshot of Spears Ford in its heyday? The Historical Society is looking for one.) Thanks for reading "The Way We Were"!
Ed Sorrels January 16, 2013 at 10:16 PM
Thank's Ms.Ofield, He sure looks like my fatherinlaw ! I grew up in and around Lemon Grove as did my bride, Worked for Ray Wright at the old High Dollar Auction Mart, and across the street for Dr. King the vet there on west Broadway, and for Puffy Johnson at Lemon Grove Auto Rebuilders at the top of the hill there on Broadway. Again thank you for what you are doing as history is a very important thing to gather and keep for future generations. Mostly you don't become aware of this till your own memory starts to fade and you have to go looking for what happened in your younger years, LOL ! Ed Sorrels
Helen Ofield January 16, 2013 at 11:25 PM
Dear Mr. Sorrels, As virtual native Lemon Grovians, you and Mrs. Sorrels might enjoy our March 7 "History Alive" event at 7 p.m. in the H. Lee House when "The Audience is the Star." We did this last September and the evening was a tremendous hit. We asked people to bring a three-minute memory of life in Lemon Grove -- and we videotaped the whole thing. People were wonderful! Funny, touching, insightful, with lots of unique memories of living here. You sound like people with good stories to tell. You also might enjoy historian Alex Bevil on Feb. 7 when he presents "Angels at 7 O'Clock: Women Aviators of the 1920s and 1930s."


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