Women of the Delta: Hidden No More

Modern women performing the roles of historical Delta women

WALNUT GROVE, Calif. (March 20, 2024) – The role women have played in Delta history has been somewhat invisible, said Maryellen Burns, president of the Sacramento River Delta Historical Society: “They’re the ones who did the interviews, they’re the ones who transcribed them, but the people they interviewed were men.”

The Society took steps to remedy that Tuesday with its program, “Hidden Figures – Women of the Delta,” at the Walnut Grove Library. The program highlighted four historical figures using the Readers Theater Method, with modern women acting out their roles.

Jean Harvie: The woman for whom Walnut Grove’s Community Center was named helped teach three generations of students in the town as a teacher, then principal, then superintendent. She was a woman of small stature, poor eyesight and little tolerance for tomfoolery. Harvie was played Tuesday by community leader Linda Van Loben Sels – lower right in photo above – whose father earned Harvie’s wrath by hotwiring her car one day and going for a joy ride.

Charmian London: Charmian London and her better-known husband and novelist Jack spent two months every year in the Delta – an experience that shaped his writing, and her substantial contributions to his work. Her eloquent recollections of that time included a passage about her and Jack contemplating going aboard a “red light” boat docked next to them, but thinking better of it as they considered being seen there, or seeing others who might not wish to be seen. London was played by Delta Mello, executive director of the Sacramento History Museum, upper right in photo above.

Aoifee McCarthy: McCarthy was a copywriter in the 1930s and 1940s whose work saturates the labels and advertisements of fruit and meat packers of the region. An immigrant from Ireland, she had intended to settle in New York with her brother, but he sent her to California, where a transcendent slice of peach pie on the train journey lit up her imagination. “I had never eaten a peach,” she wrote. “Those peaches came from seeds that John Sutter himself planted,” the chef told her before sharing the recipe for the pie. McCarthy was played by Burns, who has copies of that very recipe – which she’ll share on request.

Connie King: King was the informal “Mayor” of Locke who fought both to preserve the historic town, and to buy the land on which the town was built – something that was originally made impossible by the Alien Land Law, which prohibited Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and other East Asians from owning land or leasing land for more than three years. King was also known for her famous “Toilet Garden,” made of toilets that were being thrown away by a new property owner. When she asked him why he was getting rid of them, he told her, “We don’t want to sit on a toilet Chinese people sat on.” King was played by Cynthia Lee, a retired teacher, upper left in photo above.