Return to Coalinga

A follow-up promised back in December. From my 12/7/22 posting “Coalinga Zwicky goes to war”:

in the mildly lubricious Our Armed Forces at Play genre, Army Air Force Lt. John K. Zwicky (hereafter JKZ) of Coalinga CA, sunbathing with two buddies in the Aleutian Islands in 1944:

(#1) Snapshot from the National Archives (in College Park MD), supplied by researcher Aubrey Morrison, who’s been tracking down JKZ

I can report that after the war, JKZ went right back to Coalinga and stayed there, with his wife and three kids (a girl and two boys), working in the local oilfields and living a very long life (into his 100s).

But Coalinga rang a little bell in my head, well, because of the oddness of the name but also, I eventually realized, because it was where photographer Jill Ann Zwicky, the subject of my 7/29/22 posting “The life she lived”, grew up: a place in the middle of the Central Valley, in between US Route 101 and I-5, out in the middle of nowhere (to my mind), but a place she remembered with tremendous affection.

Yes, Jill was JKZ’s daughter.

Well, then I have a lot to say about JKZ and Coalinga and the Swiss diaspora in the US, and Aubrey is still unearthing more stuff.

The JKZ family in Coalinga. From my posting about Jill, this information from a reminiscence of her after her death:

Jill Ann Zwicky July 31, 1948 – October 9, 2020 Jill grew up in the small Central California town of Coalinga, where everyone knew everyone else … Jill’s parents, John and Christine Zwicky, preceded her in death. She is survived by her beloved brothers, Mike Zwicky and Kirk Zwicky.

Morrison has unearthed the relevant page from the 1950 census, which lists JKZ, then aged 28, as a worker in the oilfields; that age would make him about 22 in the photo in #1, which sounds right. In any case, he was born and raised in Coalinga, and lived a long life there; one Yellowpages site lists him as 101 years old, living at 135 Harrison St. in Coalinga.

Some words about Coalinga. From Wikipedia on the town:

Coalinga (/ˌkoʊ.əˈlɪŋɡə/ or /kəˈlɪŋɡə/ [note the locals’ abbreviated pronunciation]) is a city in Fresno County and the western San Joaquin Valley, in central California about 80 miles (128 km) southeast of Salinas.

… The Southern Pacific Railroad Company established the site as a coaling station in 1888, and it was called simply Coaling Station A. [so: CoalingA for short, and that was then reinterpreted as an exotic-sounding name of unknown origin; this is, after all, the state that gave us Azusa and Cucamonga]

… The population was 13,380 as of the 2010 census

… The town is mostly surrounded by the Coalinga oil field whose principal operator, Chevron, is a major employer in the area.

In a map:

(#2) Note the three north-south highways here: California Route 1 along the coast; US Route 101; and I-5 further inland; and note the Central Coast towns, from San Simeon through San Luis Obispo, to the southwest of Coalinga

And in an aerial view:

(#3) In the Central Valley, a long flat expanse with mountains on either side (coastal ranges to the west, the Sierra to the east)

Many find such stark scenery (as here, or in the high desert of northern Nevada) forbidding and unpleasant, but many see great beauty in it. The town of Coalinga is so enamored of the majesty of the mountains on either side of the town that it instituted a limit on the height of buildings, so that views of the mountains would not be obscured. Meanwhile, the town is small and affords a wide range of good working-class and lower-middle-class jobs (in a large hospital, a prison, a community college, and the oilfields, and now a large cannabis-growing operation).

Why Coalinga? How does a Zwicky — in particular, JKZ — end up in Coalinga? We are all, ultimately, from a small town in Canton Glarus, in northeastern Switzerland. Most American Zwickys came here in search of a good place for either dairy farming or viticulture, and Coalinga isn’t a likely spot for either occupation. The Central Valley is noted for its gigantic industrial feedlots (and the accompanying stench of cow manure), but that’s not dairy farming. Land closer to the coast — see Paso Robles on the map in #2, and places to the west and south of it — is good for viticulture, but Coalinga is too far inland and too dry.

Well, JKZ grew up in Coalinga, so the question is how his father, John Jacob Zwicky, got there. And the answer to that is probably like the answer to the question of how my father and I ended up living in California (me in Palo Alto, because that’s where Stanford is; my father in Santa Barbara, Solvang, and Arroyo Grande, because that’s where the county health officer jobs were). He and I were Americans in the successor generations; what brought the family to America was the Textile Machine Works in Wyomissing PA, where my grandfather Melchior Arnold Zwicky came to ply yet another characteristic Swiss trade, industrial design.

Aubrey Morrison found JJZ’s WWI and WWII registration cards; the first has him as an oilfield worker in Converse County, Wyoming, the second as an oilfield worker in Coalinga; he was clearly moving where the jobs were.

In any case, JJZ was born 2/24/1885 in Oshkosh WI. His father Fred was listed in the 1910 census as a farmer — ah, now we’re in America’s dairyland. JJZ’s parents were both born in Wisconsin, but his grandparents (JKZ’s great grandparents) were from … Switzerland.  So JJZ was just an American in the successor generation, finding his own ways of earning a living rather than continuing Swiss traditions. That took him to Wyoming and then to Coalinga, where he raised JKZ, who followed him in going to work in the oilfields.



3 Responses to “Return to Coalinga”

  1. Mark Mandel Says:

    That toponymic* etymology is entertaining, though I’m sure there are many more equally twisted.

    * Edited from “topic”. Thank you, swiping keyboard.

  2. annburlingham Says:

    I have come to cheer at the sight of a WW1 draft card in my genealogical searches, from which I often get a full first and middle name, spelled correctly, and sometimes clarification of whether the next of kin is mother or spouse.

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