My first 75 years: the strands of chance cross in California

by on Friday, 24 December 2010 Comments

[dropcap cap="S"]o far in this epic of my origin, we have a Scottish boy born in England, a poor Irish lass in Ireland, a farmer’s son in Bologna and a pampered little rich girl in Genoa. It took quite a series of chance events that maneuvered them and history itself to bring about my conception and birth in Martinez, California in 1932.[/dropcap]

For reasons I am not aware of Grandpa Bergamini left home on June 3, 1884 and immigrated to California at the age of 29. He traveled on the La Normandie which arrived in New York on June 16 from Le Havre. After some time there he went to Contra Costa County. For a few years apparently, according to my Uncle Turo, he worked at a hay press in Pacheco near Martinez. He was one of the first Italian business men to locate in downtown Martinez. On Wednesday August 6, 1890 he was granted U.S. citizenship.

The same year he opened a grocery store at the corner of Main and Ferry streets, the present site of the Bank of California. It was a gingerbread wooden frame building known as the Bergamini Grocery Store with the declaration “M. Bergamini, Dealer in groceries and provisions, ham and bacon, cheese, fruit, cigars and tobacco.” He also sold fresh, raw, and roasted peanuts, knickknacks and notions.

The store must have prospered because in 1899 he purchased a plot of land on the corner of Green and Court St. and built a two story building there. The Great Martinez Fire of August 1904 leveled a four block area of town which unfortunately included the grocery store. Grandpa let the Bank of California have his corner spot and next to it at 624 Ferry Street build a two story building. Disaster struck again when the San Francisco Earthquake of April 1906 knocked down the new stone façade. This building is now an official historical landmark of the city. A picture taken in 1910 shows the building with advertising on the side: “M. Bergamini, fine groceries, fruit, nuts, candies, cigars and tobacco.”

Why my Grandfather waited until he was 45 to get married is a mystery, but if he hadn’t, my Grandmother who was twenty years younger than he was would never have married him.

My grandmother Adalgisa was born in Sestri Levante on May 4, 1875.  On March 31, 1889, her mother died suddenly when visiting a sick relative. Her father remarried almost immediately and life became very difficult at home, so the next year at the age of only 14 she accepted an invitation of her older sister Aurelia Lambruschini Molteni to live with her in San Francisco. She traveled in the company of an Italian family returning to their home in Petaluma north of San Francisco. She traveled second class, which was comfortable enough, but the ship was beset by violent storms and even reported sunk at sea, before it finally reached New York a couple days late.  She said she managed to remain calm but was praying “with all my faith”. After the processing through Ellis Island, they took the train to San Francisco, finally arriving at the Ferry building ferry terminal on Christmas Day, 1889 at 9:00 A.M.

Grandma was apparently a very skilled embroiderer and was soon selling her work to the Samuel Lace House, a fancy store on Market Street. She went to school at night to learn English. In 1900 grandma went to Martinez to live with her cousin Catarina Bonzagni. There she was introduced to a Bonzagni friend, who after a whirlwind courtship of only a few months, married her on July 19, 1900 at the old Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in San Francisco. Officiating was Fr. Raffael Piperni, a Salesian missionary who arrived in San Francisco on March 11, 1897 and started courses in English and citizenship in the parish Americanization School. Witnessing the marriage were Catalina’s husband Martin Bonzagni and Aurelia Molteni.  After a small party and reception after the ceremony, they went back to Martinez for another party at the Bonzagni home. Their first residence was grandpa’s apartment near his grocery store.

Grandma told me once, that she wasn’t really in love with Grandpa, but felt pity for him and consented to his proposal. At any rate they produced nine children, of whom my mother was the fourth. So thanks to grandpa’s loneliness and grandma’s kindness, I had a mother.

Here something needs to be said about the little town of Martinez, because just 80 years earlier it hadn’t even existed.

California before the Spanish explorers arrived was a land flowing with milk and honey. Wildlife was abundant. The weather was moderate in the valleys which were watered by many rivers and streams. The local Karkinez Indians of the Costanoan Group were rather primitive, since necessity is the mother of invention and they had few needs to spark ingenuity and development. They were also cut off from the other Indians of North America by the mountain ranges in the north and the east. They lived and died as simple hunters and fishers and harvesters of acorns and local plants, undisturbed by the outside world until the European explorers came. The Spanish missionaries did their best to educate the Indians they came in contact with and put them to work as artisans, laborers, and servants, but they were quickly decimated by the diseases the white men brought, and left behind no buildings, literature or language.

I was born in California on land taken from the poor Indians, who had no way of defending their territory or protecting their lives when the foreign settlers arrived.  In this day and age that pays such lip service to human rights, I find it hard to understand how supposedly enlightened Christians who professed to be guided by the Ten Commandments could so easily kill and steal with the blessings of their governments and the acquiescence of their churches. Had the Indians not been so easily overcome I might not have been born in California.

Christopher Columbus started it by sailing off and discovering the New World in 1492. Like my Grandmother Bergamini he was from Genoa, born there in 1451. If he had followed the wool weaving career of his father and not become a sailor, he would probably never have paid any attention to the rumors and tales that convinced him that the Indies could be reached by sailing west. In that case the Americas would only have been discovered by Europeans in a later century and the territory that is now the United States may never have become the safe sanctuary for immigration in the 19th century that welcomed the arrival of my great grandparents and grandparents.  I owe my birth in America to the adventurers and dreamers who dared to venture into the unknown and to the cupidity and ambitions of the Kings and Queens of Spain, Portugal and England who financed the explorations and colonizations.

In 1579 the Englishman Sir Francis Drake in the Golden Hind sailed along the California Coast along a vast unknown territory he called New Albion.  Whether or not he and his crew even set foot on land at an inlet now called Drake’s Bay is a matter of controversy, but what is certain is that he missed the opportunity of a lifetime by sailing past the entrance to San Francisco Bay without discovering it, quite possibly because it was shrouded with fog as it often is in late afternoons and early mornings.  Had he entered the bay and seen what a marvelous harbor it was, it might have eventually become a British colony. Would it have rebelled like the thirteen eastern colonies in the Revolutionary War of 1776 or remained faithful to England like the colonies in Canada? Would the Italians and the Irish immigrants have been as welcome to come as they were by the Americans?  In any case, thanks to the fog on that day, I was born on American not British soil.

On August 13, 1812 Russian fur traders dedicated Ft. Ross on the site of a Kashaya Indian village 18 miles north of Bodega Bay on the coast of California just above San Francisco.  In those days Spanish expansion did not extend beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.  The settlement lasted only 29 years.  The lucrative sea otter trade was depleted by overhunting and the trappers did not prosper when they set their hands to farming.  Had they stayed and colonized as did the English and Spanish, the territory of Northern California might today be part of Russia or an independent nation, unless of course it ended up like poor Mexico overcome in a war with the aggressive Americans.  So anyhow thanks to the Russians who went home.

From 1769 to 1834 the Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra and his companions evangelized California from San Diego all the way north to San Raphael and Sonoma just beyond San Francisco. Their efforts extended and supported the influence of the Spaniards from Mexico which became independent of Spain in 1821.

In 1824 The Mexican Government presented to Don Ygnatio Martinez a 17,000 acre land grant called the Rancho de Pinole. It extended along the south side of the Carquinez Straight about 25 miles east of San Francisco on the other side of the bay. It included at its east end the present location of Martinez where in 1849 his son Don Vincente Martinez built an adobe hacienda. He did not live there long, but the home remains today as a National Historic Monument.

California had Mexican Governors until 1847 when Mexico was defeated in a short-lived war with the United States and was forced to give up its California territory. At that time there were 150,000 Indians and 14,000 European and Mexican inhabitants. In one of his last acts before leaving office, General Mariano Vallejo, Commandante of the Presideo in San Francisco, permitted Dr. Robert Semple, a dentist from Kentucky, to initiate a ferry service from the waterfront near the mouth of Alhambra Creek (in present day Martinez) to Benicia a mile away across the water.

Then on January 24, 1848 John Marshall discovered gold in the South Fork of the American River at Coloma where he was inspecting a sawmill built there by his partner German-born Swiss Johann August Sutter, by far the most prosperous European settler in northern California.

Dr. Semple’s ferry became very important as the only crossing across the Straight to the gold fields for miners and goods coming the San Francisco and points south. The ferries continued in service until 1962 when the George A. Miller, Jr. Memorial Bridge was completed from Martinez to Benicia. My brother and I used to get on the ferry with our bikes for a dime each and go to explore the countryside on the other side of the water. My mother told us that when she was small, she used to go swimming in the bay, but that would certainly be impossible now. Too much pollution and the water has receded. Originally it came almost up to the railroad tracks, but tulles started to take root along the shore and slowly pushed the shoreline out. Nowadays the edge of the water is several hundred yards away from the train station.  While I was growing up there was still an old sailing ship anchored on the shore about a mile away from the train station. We sometimes went along the tracks on our bikes and climbed aboard.

Warehouses and trading posts soon sprang up around the ferry dock and in 1849 an enterprising Col. William M. Smith who had married into the Martinez Family persuaded the Ygnacio Martinez heirs to capitalize on the business opportunity and accept his detailed plan for a township west of Alhambra Creek and the Welch Family expended it east of the creek.

So thanks to the Mexican Governor who gave a 48,000 acre grant of land to Johann Sutter in 1839 and to John Marshall’s sharp eye that noticed the gleaming gold, causing a population avalanche that descended on California eventually bringing my Italian grandparents and to the dentist who started a ferry and an army officer who envisioned a town, there grew up a community for me to be born in.

In 1850 when California became the 35th state, Martinez was the only town in the District of Contra Costa, so in 1951 when the county lines were drawn, Martinez was named the County Seat of Contra Costa County, a distinction it still holds today. But since it lacked the required 200 registered voters, it was not incorporated until 1876 and reincorporated as a sixth class city in 1886. In 1880 there were only 875 people in Martinez. There were around 3000 or 4000 when I was born. The present population is around 38,000 and city has grown in size to over twelve square miles.

The ferry wasn’t the only thing that attracted people. The climate, the fertile soil with a long Spring and Summer growing season attracted farmers. The first crops were wheat, but orchards were planted of pears, peaches, figs, cherries, apricots, and walnuts.  When I was growing up Castro Street where we lived was lined with walnut trees. We had two in the front of our house and another in the back together with a fig tree and an apricot tree. There was an almond tree next door. I remember going with my dad to the Swett Ranch and the Bartlett Ranch to buy pears and peaches for my mother to preserve in vacuum bottles and make jam. There were warehouses and a railroad siding with refrigerated train cars waiting to be filled with produce. The orchards and tracks are now all gone replaced by residences and businesses.

In the beginning the market for produce was limited to the bay area. But in 1869 Dr. John T. Strentzel developed a special process for preserving the freshness of fruit so it could be transported great distances and soon there were ocean going vessels at the Martinez wharf loading produce for ports all over the world. In 1890 the famous environmentalist John Muir who had married Strentzel’s daughter Louie, built his home in Martinez and took over management of his father-in-law’s orchards and vineyards, though his continuing travel and environmental advocacy often kept him away. I remember as a boy riding my bicycle into the countryside and discovering his grave back under some trees surrounded by a low metal fence near the Alhambra Valley Road. His home is now a museum, but I have never been inside it.

In 1877 the Central Pacific Railroad (now the Southern Pacific) reached Martinez and in 1879 connected with the transcontinental line. At Port Costa near Martinez trains going north had to use a ferry to cross the Straight. The two ferries were then the largest in the world. It wasn’t until 1930 that the ferries were replaced by a train bridge from Martinez Since the bridge was low, the central span has to be raised every time a large ship has to go by on its way to the Avon Refinery near Martinez or to Stockton on the San Joaquin River or Sacramento on the Sacramento River. When we were kids we used to enjoy watching the bridge go up and the ships pass underneath. Sometimes trains would have to wait.

When I was little my parents would often take us to the train station at night with a big jug of milk shakes and cookies and we would watch the big steam engines and count the freight cars as they passed and watched the conductors helping passengers on and off the coaches and the porters pulling the heavy wagons loaded with baggage. It was a thrill to stand next to the big wheels of an engine that were almost as high as we were. And then there was the noise of the steam engine and the billows of smoke as it huffed and puffed pulling its heavy load. If you were lucky the engineer might even wave at you as he went by. There were almost always a few cars lined up next to the station facing the tracks filled with children like ourselves eager to watch and enjoy the spectacle.

In 1879 the Christian Brothers built a school on a hill in Martinez on seventy acres of land. Since they had 12 acres free they put in a vineyard and thus began the famous Christian Brothers’ Wine which was produced in Martinez until the brothers moved away to Napa in 1932. When we were small, my brother and I used to play around all that was left of the building foundations and a small grotto that had some bamboo trees.  It wasn’t until the late 1940’s that the property was subdivided and roads were put in. My parents bought a lot at the bottom of the property where the brother’s cemetery had been. I remember once finding in the dirt something we thought had been part of a casket.

The ferry and the agriculture were not the only attractions for immigrants. The waters of the Straight were rich with fish and by the 1870’s there were Italian and Portuguese fisherman. In 1882 two of the twelve canneries on the Pacific Coast were located in Martinez. Thousands of tons of salmon and other fish left Martinez for export around the world. In 1957 the bay area was closed to all commercial fishing, but when I was in grammar school there were still the mothers of some of my classmates who were working in the cannery.

The availability in Martinez of a deep channel for ocean going ships as well as the presence of the railroad was undoubtedly an important factor that influenced the decision of the Shell Oil Company in 1915 to locate its west coast refinery and chemical plant on a big parcel of land right at the outskirts of the town. From downtown it does not visibly dominate the town since it is largely out of sight just on the other side of a small hill, but its presence is inescapable. When the wind blows right the town is filled with the strong odors of the refinery. I grew up with these fragrances and I like them. Every time I go into a gasoline station and smell the fumes, I take a deep breath and think of home. I am forever grateful to whoever it was who suggested Martinez as the site and to the board members in a conference room somewhere who eventually made the decision to construct the refinery in 1915.  Without it my dad would never have met my Mother.

The first Italians arrived around 1858 to work in local mines near Mt. Diablo. From 1880 onwards peaking in 1905, many Italian fishermen, followed by farmers and merchants arrived for fishing, growing wine and as merchants.  A flourishing Italian section grew up with bakeries, pasta shops and grocery stores.  It was during this period that my grandparents arrived. So thanks to the friends who invited my grandfather to Martinez and to the cousin of my grandmother who asked her to visit, my mother was born in that small community.

In 1900 my paternal grandparents were married in New York and all my father’s younger sisters were born in New York, but my father was born in North Plainfield, New Jersey on Sept. 9, 1901. He must have had a high IQ and good grades because he won a scholarship to the most prestigious Jesuit Regis High School in New York City.  He is probably one of few graduates who never went on and distinguished themselves in college. His family was too poor, so he went to work for a trading company as accountant.  He also did a stint in the National Guard.  Had my dad gone to college, he would probably never have ended up in California to meet my mother, so thanks to his humble origin.

Finally in 1926 or 1928 my father decided to leave home and go west.  Together with a friend he packed his few belongings into a Model T Ford and looked for jobs along the way to support himself.  Their destination was the state of Washington, but it so happened at that time that there was a huge forest fire somewhere ahead and when they finally saw the smoke on the horizon, they turned south because they did not want to be pressed into service fighting the fire.  One of my dad’s relatives had given him a five or ten dollar bill for emergency use only. By the time they reached California and were nearing the bay area, they were down to that last bill when they heard that the Shell Oil Refinery in Martinez was hiring and my Dad got a temporary job as account clerk in the refinery office and ended up working there the rest of his life.

When my father started to work at the Martinez refinery, my Mother was already working as a stenographer in the same office. It also turned out that the room he rented in a boarding house was right across the street from my Mother’s home. So thanks to that forest fire in Washington, the running out of money, the opportune job opening and the empty room in that boarding house, the paths of my parents finally crossed and I was born.

Robert Ronald

Bob was among the most prolific writers of eRenlai. He passed away peacefully on January 2 2009 in Taipei. A tribute to his life and his work can be found here on eRenlai: http://www.erenlai.com/index.php/en/focus/2011-focus/bob-ronald-challenged-but-not-disabled

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