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Tahoe pioneer approaches 96th birthday

Susan Wood, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Alva Barton, who turns 96 on Sept. 6, giggled and covered her mouth at the thought of having her favorite food on her birthday — lamb.

The highly respected elder Barton –who donated the 6 acres of land where South Lake Tahoe’s hospital named after her parents broke ground four decades ago — raised, named and nurtured sheep in her early years.

“They’d be cold, so I’d give them whiskey,” she said.



Animals represented a big part of life on the W.D. “Bill” Barton ranch.

“Papa Bill,” as Alva calls her late father, manned a stable full of horses he rented to people wanting to take pack trips in the Desolation Valley.



“Papa would say ‘never let a horse get the best of you,'” she said.

Alva even rode one of the horses to school in Sacramento County, where she graduated from high school in 1926.

Alva was born in the Truckee area, and as she does these days, split her life between the Elk Grove and Lake Tahoe homesteads, where the dairy operated after the family packed up the household for a weeklong cattle drive into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Alva rode in the wagon with her mother, Ouida Kyburz.

“There was nothing out here,” she said, sweeping her arm across the living room of her Emerald Bay Road home. “It’s not much, but it’s mine,” she said of the house.

In 1939, the Bartons moved into the house that was a schoolhouse two decades before.

In nearly a century, Alva has left the hill several times to visit Alaska, Europe and Russia. But it’s Tahoe that Alva loves, saying she wouldn’t live anywhere else.

The Barton family made a living selling farm products like butter, eggs and cream.

Alva still has a fondness for ice cream. She recently enjoyed a cone at the Fallen Leaf Lake general store, where she and her late sister, Fay Ledbetter, would deliver milk.

Alva recalled at age 8, she and Fay delivered cream to the train near Folsom and she nearly walked into a locomotive when she crossed the tracks. Flying overhead was an airplane, the first Alva had ever spotted.

“He stopped the train,” she said of the engineer.

Alva received another lesson in motion when her step-brother, Jesse, who died in 1985, drove the family car. Jesse, who was one year older than Alva, allowed his sister to steer.

“I would sit in his lap,” she said.

Alva was so adept at driving, she could back up a truck with a horse trailer on the Fallen Leaf Lake road.

The South Lake Tahoe matriarch has been in motion ever since then.

Alva finally gave up the keys to the Chrysler 13 years ago, but she rode on the back of a Gold Wing motorcycle last year.

People have come and gone in Alva’s long life. She never married or had children, but she experienced the professional fulfillment of holding down a clerk’s job at a Sacramento attorney’s office. Through the years, she’s remained close to family and friends, who place flowers at the doorstep on her birthday, her caregiver Linda Souza said.

Alva gleamed, showing off a blue-sapphire necklace Souza made for her. The deep Tahoe blue is Alva’s favorite color.

Her life is also fulfilled watching the wild birds snatching bread crumbs outside in the courtyard alongside her black Labrador retriever.

Alva has been a character to those she encountered.

When Dawn Armstrong of the Lake Tahoe Humane Society met Alva, Barton warned her dog to be good “or this lady will take you to jail,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong also recalled fond memories of sipping sodas on Alva’s back porch with Barton’s niece, Melba.

When living a long life, one endures obstacles relative to health and loss as Alva Barton has.

Alva, in good health now, has injured her hip, leg and knee as well as surviving lung cancer.

Tears filled her eyes as she confessed to missing her sister, Fay, who lived on the Emerald Bay compound in a cabin behind the house. Fay died at age 95 three years ago.

Fay’s son, Bill Ledbetter, said the two women were like bookends, they were so close.

“When they’d go to town together, people who didn’t see them so often would confuse them,” he said.

Although ranching life is difficult, Ledbetter attributes his mother and aunt’s long lifespan to the type of existence one gets from the farm.

He said Alva has lower blood pressure than he does.

“Her biggest advantage is the fact she’s small and was never overweight,” he said, adding she also never smoked.

Memorable moments of his aunt consisted of those times he accompanied her on the milk runs and watched her corral sheep with his mother as the evening cast long shadows across the Tahoe meadows.

“She’s had an exciting life,” he said of his beloved aunt.

Close friend Marjorie Springmeyer agreed.

“She’s a gem. We’ve been friends all my life, and it’s been a great life,” she said.


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