by Rose M. Albano
In 1924, fourteen Doukhobor families from British Columbia and Saskatchewan resettled to Manteca, California seeking warmer climate and economic opportunity. There they purchased 140 acres of land and established a grape growing cooperative. The “Russian Colony”, as it came to be known, was considered one of the most successful in the United States. However, by 1941, the colony was abandoned as colonists relocated elsewhere to find employment. In the following article, descendants reminisce about growing up in the Russian Colony. The following article by Rose M. Albano is reproduced from the Manteca Bulletin (Manteca, California: May 11, 1997).
Yes…there was a Russian Colony here in Manteca. That there was such a place here comes as a complete surprise to many area residents. “About the only ones aware of the colony’s existence are those who have lived here since before the 1950s,” said Ken Hafer of the Manteca Historical Society. “Those who were here then knew that everyone who lived in the 140-acre area at the south end of Castle Road were Russians. That’s why they called it a Russian Colony,” Hafer explained. After a big influx of people to Manteca in the 1960s, everyone ceased referring to the area as the Russian Colony. “The church was gone by then, and the people didn’t refer to themselves as Russians,” Hafer said.
Residents at the Manteca Russian Colony gather to celebrate the end of apricot-picking season, circa 1930’s.
Plenty of Memories
But memories of the old Russian Colony are still fresh in the minds of a few descendants of the first settlers who continue to live in the area. Nellie Richetta (nee Reibin), whose parents came to live in the colony in the 1920s when she was two months old, remembers a very cohesive community where everyone was treated like family.
“Every adult in that community was your aunt, your uncle, your grandfather. We called aunt so and so – tyotka – or uncle so and so – dyadya,” Richetta said, phonetically spelling the Russian words she used as a child. “The elders were grandfather and grandmother. We were safe. We could be at anybody’s house. It was a very safe environment to grow up in,” she said.
The children at the colony all became fast friends. Those friendships were further cemented by the fact that they all walked to the same grammar school together. Then they all went to Manteca High School, which was the only high school in town then. “We had a lot of friends here; it was still one of the best areas in the world,” remembered septuagenarian Peter Gretchen who came to live at the colony when he was two years old. He and his wife still live on Castle Road, just across the street from his parent’s old house. “I grew up with all ethnic groups – Greeks, Mexicans, Portuguese, Italians. The Indelicatos were there. We all went to (Castle) school together. It was just a mile away.”
The school was built at the south end of Castle Road on land donated by the pioneer Castle family. It was the Castle family which sold the land to the group of 14 Russian families who came to Manteca via Saskatchewan.
Phillip Bloudoff, who still lives next to the house where he grew up, likewise had plenty of happy memories to share about growing up in the countryside. “We had no problems growing up with the Italians, the Portuguese, the Greeks. No, no, no! We had no problems whatsoever.” Both he and Richetta are from Manteca High’s class of 1944.
Manteca, California in the 1930’s and 1940’s was home to various immigrant labourer groups.
Russian Speaking Children
Like all children growing up in the colony, Richetta spoke only Russian until she started first grade at Castle School. “My parents usually spoke Russian to us, and we spoke to them in English,” she said with a laugh. “I wish I had kept up with my speaking and reading Russian,” she says now with regret. “But it wasn’t important then. We wanted to learn English.”
“There were also Italians and Portuguese who didn’t speak English when I went to school. But when we graduated from grammar school, we all spoke English. That’s why I don’t believe in bilingual education. And I still speak Russian,” said Bloudoff.
Like many of the few dozen families who eventually settled at the colony, Richetta’s family used horses to farm their small lands, and a cow kept them supplied with milk. “They also raised chickens, so we had our own eggs,” Richetta said. “And we worked our own fields with our horses.”
She described the women at the colony as “immaculate housekeepers.” She laughed as she described to what lengths the women went to preserve that image. “When they hung their clothes outside they had to be white, because somebody might see them. That was their claim to fame: who was the best homemaker, the best cook,” she said.
Richetta also remembered how everyone supported one another in every way. She said nobody had a need to get hired help when it came to building a house or raising a barn. “Everybody helped each other. If somebody was building the barn, everybody came to help,” she said. And that meant men women and children. “While some got busy working on the building, others fixed lunch,” she said.
The same thing happed when women met for quilting sessions. “They all helped each other make their quilts. They bought raw wool, washed it and carded it. They did everything by hand,” Richetta recalled. “Back then, too, people did not have much money to buy a lot of things,” she said.
Besides tending their small farms where they grew grapes, apricots and other fruit trees and crops year around, the men in the colony took whatever odd jobs they could get anywhere. Many of them, like Gretchen’s father, took seasonal jobs. “My dad, many times, worked for a dollar a day,” Gretchen recalled.
Peter Gretchen working behind his home at the old Russian Colony where he and his wife still live today. Photo courtesy: Rose M. Albano.
He remembered having to live and attend school for some time in Modesto, Locke, and Thorton because that’s where his father found work in the fields or in the ranches. When the jobs were done, they came back home to Manteca. “They were difficult times, but we always had food. We had a cow and chickens,” said Gretchen who was the youngest of three children. “Because the men were away working somewhere, the women often had to do all the heavy work at home in the colony,” said Richetta.
“The men went to work in factories or they worked as carpenters – whatever jobs they could get. So they hitched up the women and built the roads in some of the Russian communities. It was all manual labor. They didn’t have the money to buy the animals because they were penniless,” she said. “Everybody worked hard. Later we had tractors,” she said.
Many of the men at the Manteca Russian Colony found employment at Spreckels Sugar. Richett’s father, who was born in Saskatchewan, found work as a mechanic at the old Manteca Canning which was then located near the rail road tracks on Yosemite Avenue. The women worked in the fields picking fruits, Richetta said. “My grandmother picked apricots, grapes, peaches. Later the women worked in the canneries.”
Homes With Big Basements
The houses they built at the Russian Colony were simple one story homes with big basements where such staple foods as milk, sour cream, canned goods, maybe a hundred pounds or more of potatoes, sugar and flour were kept. In the summer when the valley simmered and baked in three-digit temperatures, residents retreated into their basements where “it was nice and cool,” Richetta said. The homes also were equipped with huge furnaces fed with coal. Some had water towers built behind the house complete with an extra room which was often used as a bedroom. Those who could afford it had steam rooms called banyas which also invariably included a shower room.
A few of the old homes are still there, but the water towers are all but gone, replaced by huge satellite dishes and other comforts of modern technology.
The Russian Colony prayer home building today sits as an unoccupied residence. Built in the 1930s to facilitate religious gatherings and funerals, the building was sold in the 1960s and converted into a private home.
The community also had its own prayer home, which was a multi-purpose building where funerals, weddings and other social gatherings were held. The building is still there, but it has since been sold, remodeled and converted into a home.
Return of the Native
The children and grandchildren of the first Russian settlers have gone on to bigger and better things in the world.
Many of those in Richetta’s generation went into business in Manteca, Stockton, Sonora and Oakdale. Their children are now distinguished professionals in their fields. The Gretchen’s oldest son, for example, is managing director of a microelectronics company in Malta. Before that, he worked in the Philippines. His sister, Sylvia, owns a publishing company in Orinda and is president of the Tibetan Institute in Berkeley. Bloudoff’s daughter, who is married and living in Lindon, is a lawyer.
Bloudoff said that growing up, he too never wanted to live in the country. “I wanted to be a city boy,” he laughed. But then he got married, and soon he and his wife Helene were swamped with the patter of tiny feet around their home in Stockton. Recalling his carefree days in the open country at the Russian Colony, Bloudoff began to realize that his kids did not really have enough room to play where they lived.
Fog shrouds of an old vineyard planted by Doukhobors. They marketed their grapes under the name Ruscol, for “Russian Colony”.
So he and his wife made a decision to move to Manteca. “I wanted to raise my kids in the country because I remember my own childhood,” he said. “We had lots of room to play, plenty of space and lots of things to do. So I decided to build a house next to my folks’ where the kids could play out in the country.” The Bloudoffs and the Gretchens say that to this day their children are grateful for being raised in the country.
The Colony Today
The old Russian Colony still boasts a quiet, rustic and rural atmosphere. Surrounding almond orchards and vineyards still keep it isolated from Manteca’s urban sprawl. The area, just south of French Camp Road, remains an unincorporated section of San Joaquin County.
Some of the old homes are still there. Anna F. Reibin, whose husband was one of the three Reibin brothers who were among the first to come form Saskatchewan, continues to live in the same house her husband built more than half a century ago. Richetta’s childhood home and farm have since been sold. She and her husband now live on East Lathrop Road. But the house where she also grew up is still standing there on Castle Road with the steam bath and two-story tank house in the back.
The old Russian Colony today on Verigin Road.
The Bloudoffs and Gretchens now live in modern homes built next door to houses where they grew up. Phillip Bloudoff continues to work at Ted’s Meat Company in Stockton a company he has co-owned since 1935. The business now has two locations in Stockton. Peter Gretchen is now retired, but he and his wife continue to tend the family vineyard they bought form their parents.
But while the area still exudes a pastoral calm, Bloudoff said “it’s a lot different now; it’s changed a lot.” Gretchen agreed. “It was a lot more country then,” he said. We never locked our doors. Now you don’t know who’s here. But before, you knew everybody. Before, you used to talk to people. Now you watch television. Life has changed completely.”
For More Information
For a listing of 73 Doukhobors living in the Russian Colony in 1930, including their names, ages, family relationships, years of immigration from Canada, and their occupations, see the 1930 United States Federal Census enumerations under Castoria Township, San Joaquin County, California.