Betsy Blanchard with brothers John and Jim on horse Pepper at the family ranch in Santa Paula, 1952. Photo courtesy Betsy Blanchard Chess
by Emily Dodi
Everywhere you look, the past and present are linked. It takes a keen and curious mind to see how they intermingle, and a gifted writer to craft a sweeping personal history that tells our own story, too. In her new book, Daughter of the Land, Betsy Blanchard Chess explores her pioneering ancestry, filled with colorful, hard-working men and women who helped build Santa Paula and the Santa Clara Valley.
One of the most storied is Chess’s great-great-grandfather, Nathan Weston Blanchard. He is best known for founding Limoneira with Wallace Hardison and helping to establish Santa Paula as “the Citrus Capital of the World.” But how many people know that Blanchard and his cousin Jotham Bixby led a sheep drive from Long Beach (which Bixby founded) to Saint Louis, Missouri, during the Civil War to supply wool to make uniforms?
Then there is Chess’s grandfather, Nathan Weston Blanchard, Jr., who had the reputation of being the rebel of the family. There are legends about his gambling in the Glen Tavern, being expelled from The Thacher School, and eloping with a dubious woman. When Chess began digging into her family’s exhaustive letters, photos and documents, however, a more complicated picture of her grandfather began to emerge.
“I read a letter he wrote after being sent to a military academy; he was just a homesick kid,” Chess explains, and the suspected gold digger he eloped with was actually a respectable woman to whom he was married for years. After discovering all this, Chess changed the title of the chapter about her grandfather from “Black Sheep” to “Lost Sheep.”
Chess writes also about her Aunt Sara and the other women who may not have shared the men’s spotlight, but who had the same strong spirit. Many of their stories were chronicled in a book by Chess’s great-aunt, leading Chess to think that there wasn’t anything left to say about her ancestors. Then, in February 2020, she was asked to speak at the Blanchard Community Library in Santa Paula.
“Talk about the room where it happened,” she says with a laugh. (Chess’s great-grandparents founded the library in 1906.) Sharing stories about her ancestors to the group gathered at the event, she realized that there was plenty more to say. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Chess suddenly had the time to write the book she was literally born to write.
The result is a fascinating narrative that Chess wrote with “open eyes.” She tells the complicated, inspiring story of a family that was larger than life, but who were also human. She weaves the story of her “free-spirited youth” with her family’s legacy, covering almost 200 years in captivating vignettes and an abundance of photographs. Daughter of the Landis a rich, page-turning history that is firmly rooted in the present.
As Henry Dubroff, publisher of the Pacific Coast Business Times, writes in the book’s forward, “Betsy’s gift is to look back not with nostalgia but with a growing awareness of bigger issues like farm labor, race relations, the role of women, and a company’s social responsibilities.”
Chess will return to “the room where it happened” for a reading and signing of Daughter of the Land at the Blanchard Community Library on Aug. 14.
Daughter of the Land book signing on Saturday, Aug. 14, 1-4 p.m. at Blanchard Community Library, 119 N. Eighth St., Santa Paula. For details, call 805-525-3615.
For more information about Betsy Blanchard Chess, upcoming events, books and more, visit betsychessbooks.com.