California Genealogy and History Archives
San Bernardino County and Riverside County
MRS. WINNIE WATJE. — A stimulating example of what a determined woman can do when left largely to her own resources is furnished by Mrs Winnie Watje of Redlands. Her husband died while in the midst of developing an orange grove, and Mrs. Watje immediately took charge, and has achieved a success remarkable in itself and one that makes her a recognized authority and leader among the citrus fruit growers of this district.
Mrs. Watje was born in Germany, near the Holland border, March 26, 1879, daughter of Chris and Henrietta Kahl. Her parents were farm laborers in Germany, her father frequently receiving only ten cents for a day's labor. Three of the daughters and one of the older sons managed to save enough to get them to America, where they struggled along for three or four years before they saved enough to send for their parents and younger children.
Mrs. Watje was thirteen when she came to America. Her parents settled in Iowa, and Mrs. Watje had a few terms of the common schools in that state.
In 1897 she was married to William Watje, an Iowa farmer and also a native of Germany, who had come to America with his parents when nine years old. Mrs. Watje has three children: Barney, born July 4, 1903, now studying mechanics; Adele, born August 31, 1905, attending the Redlands High School and planning a career as a professional nurse ; and Wilburt, born September 21, 1908. These children were all born in Iowa. In 1909 the family moved to Redlands, where William Watje bought ten acres of Valencia oranges on Alabama Street, and with the assistance of the family began the business of fruit growing. He died in 1913, leaving Mrs. Watje with the responsibility of her family and the care of the orchard. That was the year of the great freeze. Mrs. Watje had closely studied practical methods of caring for orange groves, and she wisely carried out her ideas in that crisis. Immediately after the freeze she purchased large quantities of blood fertilizer, and made an application to the groves and a second one in the fall. The result was that in six weeks the trees had apparently recovered their normal vitality, and the crop for that season totaled 7,634 boxes, netting $6,300, whereas other growers who had not fertilized secured either a light yield or none at all. The results continued even in the second year, when other groves were extremely affected. In 1918 Mrs. Watje harvested 8,000 boxes of oranges, for which she received almost $16,000. She now has a fifteen acre grove and gives it her personal supervision.
This is a wonderful achievement, showing what a live woman can accomplish in the fruit industry, but the story is not complete without some reference to the early environment and conditions under which Mrs. Watje and the other members of the family lived before they came to America, the land of opportunity. Mrs. Watje was one of nine children. Her father was a farm laborer in Germany, and after they all came to America the boys worked on rented land and the girls went out to work in private families, and all their earnings were pooled so as to enable them to buy land. Mrs. Watje when only eleven years of age in the old country worked out during the six weeks school vacation, did heavy house work and also assisted in the fields in the cutting and hauling and threshing of grain. Her task was to cut the bundles as fed into a horse driven threshing machine, and she was so small she had to stand on a box. For this six weeks labor she received one dollar and enough gingham for an apron. At other times she cared for the children of rich people, but was never allowed to eat at table with her employers, and she cooked many meals, while the only food allowed her was a dish of soup. When she reached Iowa she at once went out to work, and found herself handicapped by her lack of knowledge of English. For the first week she received fifty cents. Her mother at home spun and made all clothes by hand, working late at night, and from this labor eventually her fingers became deformed and worn. Mrs. Watje generously assisted in providing for her parents. Her mother is now deceased, and her father, seventy-five years old, lives in Mrs. Watje's California home. In the old country the family ate the coarsest of food, and yet were hardy and rarely sick. Her grandfather was a tailor and sat and sewed by hand nearly all his life, yet lived to the age of ninety, was never seriously ill and never wore glasses. Frequently when Mrs. Watje's father was absent from home at work the rest of the family would sit in the dark' at night waiting until her grandfather could come home with his wages to buy food and oil for light. Six weeks at a time the family fare consisted of buttermilk, rye bread and syrup.
When the family came to this country they not only improved their material conditions but readily adapted themselves to American ways and became enthusiastic citizens. Mrs. Watje has deserved every degree of her generous prosperity. She has educated her family and during the World war was not only a liberal buyer of bonds, but an energetic worker in the local Red Cross.
Transcribed by Peggy Hooper 2011