The year was 1932. The Great Depression was in full force. In 24 months 3,746 banks had failed in the United States. The national unemployment rate stood at 23.6 percent. And among farm laborers, the shortage of work was even worse.
Just outside Winters that June, hundreds of desperate migrants from Oklahoma and Kansas camped out on John Storland’s ranch. They had come, with their children, having heard there might be work in the fruit orchards.
Alas, there was none.
The migrants had no food, little water and no supplies. A syndicate called the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union was encouraging the workers to go on a “hunger march” in the town of Winters, demanding jobs, food and money.
After a similar demonstration in Vacaville led to violence, Yolo County Sheriff James Monroe feared what might happen in Winters. Monroe met with the leaders of the AWIU and told them he would find someone who could help.
Sheriff Monroe turned to William Ogburn Russell, the esteemed and long-serving Yolo County supervisor who represented Davis, Winters and everything in between.
Russell was a man who knew how to get things done. He quickly helped secure food, water, clothing and supplies for the migrants and averted the crisis. There was no labor violence in Yolo County.
Yolo Briggs, whose grandfather ran a large ranch near Winters, told historian Joann Leach Larkey, “Bill Russell came in on it and arranged relief for the destitute workers.”
William O. Russell (1867-1943) was a baby in 1868 when Davisville was created and the California Pacific Railroad first rolled in.
In honor of Russell’s 36 years of service as a Yolo County supervisor, the Davis-to-Winters highway was named for him upon his death.
Russell Boulevard runs 12.2 miles from B Street in Davis to Interstate 505 in Winters. It is the longest road in Yolo County named for a person.
It’s a fitting tribute. Not only was Russell elected over and over by the voters of Yolo County’s 2nd District, he was born on his family’s ranch, in the home that still stands, near Russell Boulevard and County Road 95, halfway between Davis and Winters.
The Russell Ranch eventually grew to 815 acres. It extended east to Road 96. The land where Fairfield School is — one mile south of the house — was donated by the family for the school site. All the Russell children, including William, attended classes there.
Outside of the years he was a student at California Wesleyan College in San Jose — that institution moved in 1923 to Stockton and is now known as the University of Pacific — William O. Russell lived his entire life on the Russell Ranch.
His father, Francis E. Russell (1824-1907), was a Yolo County pioneer. Francis was born in Canada and was living in Vermont, working as a teacher, when he heard about the California Gold Rush of 1849. Immediately, Francis set sail for San Francisco with a boatload of New Englanders. They arrived in 1850 after an eight-month journey around Cape Horn.
Francis headed for the mines of Calaveras County. Like most prospectors, he failed to strike it rich in gold. But he eventually succeeded as a farmer in Solano County.
In 1858, two years after he married Lucy Ogburn (1841-1921) in Vacaville, the Russells purchased 396 acres in Yolo County, just north of Putah Creek. (A different source says the original ranch was 670 acres.)
They principally raised cattle. But, like most farmers in the Davis region then, they also grew wheat. Near the house he planted black walnut trees, which he later grafted to English walnuts.
In 1867, Francis Russell and other local farmers erected the Stevenson’s bridge over Putah Creek, exactly where a (graffiti-covered) version stands today.
When Bill Russell finished college, he returned to the family ranch and took over its management. He purchased additional acreage and added a dairy operation. Russell also farmed barley, and he cut “five or six crops” of alfalfa annually. He later planted almond orchards.
At a meeting at the Odd Fellows Hall in Davis on Jan. 23, 1897, Russell helped organize California’s first almond cooperative, the Davisville Almond Growers’ Association. The Davis growers were led by J. Eugene LaRue, George Washington Pierce Jr. and Phineas Skinner Chiles.
When DAGA merged with other almond cooperatives, they collectively became the California Almond Growers Exchange (aka Blue Diamond).
In 1898, running on the Republican ticket, in a region that had previously been Democratic, Russell was elected to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. He served one four-year term. He then tended to his ranch and home life for the next eight years.
In 1907, Russell married Eleanor A. Carlson (1877-1937), a native of Kansas City, Mo. They had two children: W.O. Jr., a medical doctor, and Charlotte, a Hollywood film actress who, with her husband, Richard Ham, settled in the family ranch house, now known as the Russell-Ham House. Charlotte Russell Ham passed away in Davis at age 89 in 2002.
In 1910, William O. Russell’s old supervisorial seat opened up. He ran, won and held that office until he died in 1943. He was never defeated in any of his 10 campaigns. The people of Davis and Winters apparently loved him. Russell also was active for decades representing county government at the state level.
As long as Davis and Winters exist, the name Russell Boulevard will be sustained in Yolo County.
In 1990, his children sold Russell Ranch to UC Davis. Ever since, the ranch where W.O. Russell spent his life has been used by the university to study sustainable agriculture.
— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]