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Former Petaluma poultry worker is 101 years old

The year 1937 was a memorable one for many of the approximately 8,100 residents of Petaluma. In addition to the great fanfare surrounding the heralded opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Petaluma Garden Club’s annual spring flower show drew a record 604 entries, water was flowing through the city’s water mains following a renovation to the Oak Hill reservoir - and an electric fly killer was for sale at Tomasini’s Hardware for $12.50.

For Sol Grushkowitz, 1937 was memorable for being the year he married the former Ruth Pinsky, a marriage that lasted for 79 years before her passing. It was also the year he purchased seven acres on Skillman Lane for $1500 to start a poultry ranch. His recollections are precise and his memories are remarkably vivid, a testament to the sharp mind that motivates Gushkowitz, who’ll celebrate his 102nd birthday in August.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Grush- kowitz was destined for a life in rural Petaluma soon after his family came out west, in the late 1920s, to visit an aunt and uncle who were in the chicken industry. His mother, Bessie Gruskowitz, fell in love with the area and the farming, and knew it was the place she wanted to live, along with her husband Nathan and two children. The family relocated to an egg ranch near Penngrove, where Sol learned to till the soil with a horse-drawn plow and to grow kale. He attended Penngrove School and graduated Petaluma High in 1932.

After attending UC Davis for one year, Sol took a job with the Bihn Hatchery where it was suggested he go to the Sales & Bourke Hatchery to learn to be a chicken sexer. A vital job in the poultry industry, chicken sexing requires on-the-job training to learn the proper method of determining the sex of day-old chicks. On egg farms, only the females were needed. The job is fast-paced and repetitious, requiring the same task performed over and over, day after day.

Serving as independent contractors, the sexers worked at hatcheries as needed. Sitting at a table flanked by two helpers, called swampers, the sexer was continuously handed baby chicks, which he quickly evaluated. A good sexer could handle 700-1,000 chicks an hour and was paid one cent per bird, with most ranches requiring between 3,000 and 7,000 chicks. Grushkowitz’s three-man crew, including himself, Vern Dahlquist and Tommy Shimizu, remained close friends and earned good wages. In addition to the local hatcheries, the crew worked up and down the California coast and in the East Bay.

“All we did was just sit on our fanny all day,” quipped Grushkowitz, of the rapid but tedious routine.

One of Sol’s favorite hatcheries was Gus Payson’s place on Liberty Road, where in addition to being family friends, Sol fondly remembers the mouth-watering apple pies baked by Gus’ wife, Gretl, many years ago.

When he started his own meat bird ranch on Skillman Lane, Grushkowitz chose to raise the meatier New Hampshire Reds and Rhode Island Reds, over the more common White Leghorns. But first, he built six chicken houses and a large granary for his 10,000 bird operation. The cow Sol and Ruth received as a wedding gift provided milk for them and their three children Gary, Barry and Susan.

An avid horse lover, Sol once bought a horse with a big belly for $25. When it surprisingly gave birth to a frisky new colt, he sold the colt for $100. Of the seven horses he owned, one was a purebred Morgan, which prompted Grushkowitz, in 1939, to help found the Petaluma Riding and Driving Club. The club, which retains its original name but no longer includes the horse-drawn conveyances that made up the driving portion, is still going strong as it approaches its 80-year anniversary.

With the downturn of the local poultry industry in the 1950s, Grushkowitz decided on a career change. He gave up ranching and learned everything he could about the car washing trade. He sold the ranch, including the architect-designed new home he had built while his family lived in the granary, and moved to Hayward, where he enjoyed the responsibility of operating six automated car washes in the vicinity.

The legacy of his former property continued to live on, however, through the care and imagination of its new owners, Jack and Verna Krout, who operated it as Krout’s Pheasant Farm for many years.

Despite suffering a stroke at the age of 99 — from which he’s mostly recovered — Grushkowitz keeps active by digging in his flower garden, reading the newspaper without the aid of eyeglasses, baking apple strudel using his grandmother’s recipe and making challah. At 101-years-old, he’s never smoked or drank, has a full head of hair, and still possesses a keen sense of humor.