Story and Drawing 
by Keith Tarwater 































The name jerk line came from the fact that the driver of a team of six to fourteen animals controlled them by a single rein or jerk-line. By pulling or jerking the line, he could turn and control the entire team.

   The animals could either be horses or mules, or they could be mixed; however, they were usually all horses or all mules. Mules were preferred for the leaders. This is in contrast to the belief that horses and mules could not work side by side. The animals were in pairs, starting at the wagon. The first pair were the wheelers; the next pair were the pointers. The next would be the sixes; the next the eights, etc., to the last pair who were the leaders. The left animals in the string were the near (or neigh), and the right ones, the off.

  The driver sat in a saddle on the near wheeler, his jerk line running through rings on the back strap and collar of each near animal to the bit of the near leader. To turn left he would put a steady pull on the line, and as the leader would turn, this would also turn the jockey stick. The jockey stick was a bar attached to a loop below the collar of the leader to the bit of the off leader, causing the off leader to turn. To turn right the driver would jerk the line, causing the leader to jerk his head up. This would jerk on the gee string, a strap attached from the off side of the leader's bit to the bottom of the hame (on the collar) of the off leader, causing his head to turn right. When breaking in, or having skittish animals in the team, the driver used the jockey stick on others besides the leaders.

  The tongue of the lead wagon reached to the front of the wheelers. From there a chain was attached to the tongue. Behind each pair of animals attached to the chain was a stretcher or doubletree (a pipe or a wood bar) with a singletree at each end. The animals were harnessed to a singletree and the chain continued to the stretcher of the lead team. A wood block was attached under the stretchers to keep the chain from wearing when scraping the ground.

In turning a team that stretched out possibly eighty feet in front of the wagons, it was necessary for the pointers to step over the chain to turn the tongue and the wagon while all the animals were pulling steadily. They did this by voice command, although sometimes reins were used.

   To keep the off leader from lunging forward, a back strap was used. This was a strap that went from one side of the bit around the head to the bit on the other side. Attached to this was a strap that was attached to the singletree on the stretcher bar. The back strap was also used on skittish animals.

   There were two or three wagons loaded with sacks of grain that weighed between 100 and 130 pounds each. Often hey or grain and water for the team were also taken along. The wagons were lashed together and a line ran from the brake lever of each wagon to the saddle of the driver. The brake handles were on the the left side of the wagons.

 The driver controlled the team by his jerk line, brake line to the wagons, a black snake (a long, flexible whip) and voice commands. It was not necessary to strike the animal with the black snake, but only to make a loud crack above its head, causing the animals to fall into line.

   It took two days to travel with loaded wagons to Paso Robles from Parkfield and one day to come back. This was approximately thirty miles. The first night was spent at the "Shed Place," later known as the Coburn-Brewster place and now owned by Pete Clark. This was just east of the "Fifteen-mile House," later known as River Grove, now known as Whitley Gardens.

   As all the farmers harvested and hauled their grain during the same period of time, there were usually several teams on the road at the same time. On the morning of the second day, there was a race at the Shed Place to get up the grade first at Fifteen-mile House. The dust would be so thick that the teams in the rear would not be able to see, and the ruts in the road so deep, it would be hard to steer.

Every team had a set of bells attached above the collar of the leaders (some teams had several on various animals in the team). The bells had a function: first, to warn an approaching team from the other direction, and second, to set up rhythm by which the driver could tell if the team was pulling efficiently. A team returning empty would have to pull off when the bells were heard, to let the loaded team pass. Some say they could tell who was approaching by the [particular] sound of the bells.

   When the teams arrived in Paso Robles, they would either unload at the Farmers' Alliance at Tenth and Riverside or at the Southern Pacific Milling Co. near Ninth and Pine streets. While waiting their turn to unload, they would meet in the city park to eat, swap stories and exchange new. Their monthly shopping and banking were done at this time.

Keith Tarwater spent time with his grandparents, 
Willis and Zora Truesdale, on their Shandon 
ranch when he was growing up. He graduated 
from high school in 1952 in Southern California, 
but returned to Paso Robles in 1953 to work for the 
city. He was with the police department from 1958 
until he retired in 1988, and continues to live in Paso Robles 
with his wife, Marcy.