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Coming to Mendocino

People sometimes ask me if I remember the 1906 Earthquake. Not only do I remember the Big One, but, Hell, I brought it on!

After leaving Northern Italy, crossing France, getting on a steamship and crossing the Atlantic in steerage and processed through Ellis Island, my younger brother John and I and my mother arrived in San Francisco by cross-country train the night before the big San Francisco earthquake. It was April 17, 1906. I was 8. Early in the morning, on April 18 things shook up. They couldn't stand our presence so they shook the hell out of us, I guess. Our father met us the night before the earthquake as planned. The morning of the earthquake we were scheduled to board the steamer Seafoam and go up the Coast. In those days there were all kinds of schooners that plied the coast mostly in lumber. They also carried some passengers. We were supposed to board the schooner for Point Arena. But the horrible thing shook everything up and a large part of the city was on fire. Of course our trip was canceled, no boat or anything. 

John and I got the measles. So we were quarantined in a chicken coop in the East Bay harbor area for several days. After we recovered we were taken in by another Oakland family. My father finally tracked us down after a month of desperate searching. He hadn't seen his family for six years.

So we eventually did get here. We had to come around by Greenwood Road. There was a stage that came out of Cloverdale, Ledford's Stage Line — came out of Cloverdale over the Greenwood Road and down to Greenwood.

My mother never recovered from the trauma of the whole trip. In the first place, she didn't want to leave. Her home and her relatives were back in Italy. She was a simple peasant lady. She didn't want to leave home, but, of course, when the call came from her husband in California, she had to obey. So we came out here. She had a trunk — all her most treasured possessions were in it. There were some linen sheets, and linen pillowcases and family heirlooms and so forth and she treasured them. The trunk disappeared. It was burned up or stolen, we don't know what really happened to it. So, that reinforced the trauma she already had. 

When we finally got up to Point Arena, my father had purchased a small lot over here. He thought it would be a money making idea to go into the saloon business. And I'll be damned if that winter — because of the quake, the following winter was a heavy rain year — all the streambeds were plugged up because the earth had been shaken loose and water was going all kinds of places. So it came over here into town, and just after my father had finished building the saloon, a big slide came down and washed it out. Mother was there. Just as she was starting to get settled that happened. She was even more convinced that leaving home was a big mistake. One catastrophe after the next. She never learned to speak English because she was so upset about it. We may laugh about it now, I guess, but it was really bad at that time. 

Point Arena c.1912

After the saloon washed out, my father built that structure that's still standing over there. He still thought the saloon business was the way to make some money. So he went into partnership with a young man. This young man was interested in some girls across the street. And he was attracting some business over there, instead of bringing business home to father’s saloon. It didn’t matter much in the long run though, my father never really got anywhere in the saloon business. As a businessman my dad just never had it.

He was definitely an influential man in his own way. The establishment here used him to deal with problems that came up with the Italian workers. The workers would go to him too because it was clear to them that he did know some things. He’d been here longer than most of them having arrived in 1898 and waiting until 1905 to send for his wife and my brother and I. 

He did have some schoolin', he could read and write. Many of the immigrants and workers could not. So they would go to him for help. He thought that was fine because all you needed to do to talk to him was go down to the cellar and open the spigot on the wine barrel and sit down at the table to visit and endeavor to tell him, by God, he was a smart man.

Scheming adults would take advantage of that though. He would enter into agreements and bargains that would condemn him and his family forever to get the short end of the stick. One time he told me, "You eat polenta, not words." In other words, once you give your word, you're bound. I always felt that way too. Once you give your word, your obliged. If you don't want to commit yourself, don't give the word. If you give the word, then abide by it. That's the way we operated. He was a good man. But, you'd have to say that he simply liked wine.

When we came to Point Arena, Eli White Lumber Company was the only big employer. Eli White Lumber Company owned most of the entire Greenwood timber tract and down to Point Arena. There was a wooden flume that traveled down the south side of the Garcia River way up into the hills about six or seven miles. There used to be a saw mill up there. They would saw the lumber. Then, to get it down to load on the boat, they'd have a flume of water. They were like the flumes up in the motherlode with the mountain sluices where they would run water. They'd just put the lumber in the flume and shoot it down. 

Then the mill closed down, and making ties took over. It was a 26-inch or 30-inch wide flume. They would staple three 8-inch wide ties together, set 'em in the water and they'd come down. At the foot of the hill there was huge water wheel. Water spilling from the flume was geared to some rollers. The rollers would run the ties up to the top of the hill. There were some fellas there who would take the ties off and put them on small gauge rail cars which would take the ties out to the dock where they were loaded onto the awaiting steamships. It was a hell of an engineering feat.

My brother John and I used to walk along the side of the flume. Sometimes we would run along. If they saw us now, they'd think we were trying to commit suicide.

We were nomads around this area. There would be a layout, tie-making for example. We started out here by the Garcia River, we moved across the river and went up to Brush Creek, finished that up and went down to Valley Crossing. That's down there by Sea Ranch near the road to Annapolis right over the hill there. That was the last layout we had. After that we bought the ranch out here near Alder Creek north of Manchester and went into the dairy business. That's where our father lived and our younger brothers who were born here grew up. That situation was really made to order to do something in business. My father didn't like the notion of just taking orders from someone else. He wanted to work but he wanted to be the boss too. My father came up ahead and rented the place first. Then he later bought it after some success in the dairy business.

Italians weren't accepted very well at that time. The Dagos were something that the area could do without, but they were here. 

I’m not sure what was behind that prevailing opinion among the original coast settlers. It intrigues me because my father was anti-clerical in Italy. At that time there was a progressive movement and a lot of socialism in Northern Italy. And he tended to rebel against the existing order. He felt the church was largely responsible for the condition of the peasants and everything like that. He had that attitude. It was prevalent in northern Italy at the time. He brought some of it here. He later realized that faith in something is essential to human beings, so he moderated his tone and let it go. Mother was a devout Catholic. She had an uncle who was a parish priest. But I never got in the habit of going to church. We were way out in the woods and there was no way to get to church. So I never got heavily involved in religion. I accept it and in fact I encourage it as a moderating process in life, but I don't necessarily like the forms and rituals and everything they have to do to be devout. But my father was definitely anti-clerical.

My father was a peasant. That's why he felt he had to leave. Some went to Switzerland for the summer. Some would go to South America. Most came to America. A lot came to California. The region in northern Italy where we come from — we were from the small town of Delibio — most of them came to California. Most of the southern Italians — the Sicilians, the Neopolitans — stopped on the east coast — Boston, New York, Philadelphia.

We were country people when we came through Ellis Island and we were used to accepting people in authority. We were told what to do and we did it. I do remember seeing people crying, people who must have had something wrong with them or their papers.

A few were sent back, or to a holding camp. Luckily, we went through. We had an advantage. We had a man who had been here before to kind of chaperone us. He could speak some English and he could communicate for us. Many others couldn't speak a word of English. I suppose some of the government agents could speak some Italian, I don't know. We did exactly what we were told to do. That was all we knew to do — do what you're told. 

In the Bay Area when the Italians started arriving they did then what they do now — they would congregate together. North Beach was the Italian Quarter. Oh! So you'd go to North Beach and you had all the culture and language. That was there, that's what brought us together.

At 14 years of age, instead of going to high school I was packing seven by eight ties from down the hill up there up to the top all day long. No pay —it was a family operation. The old man would get these jobs and contracts and he had to make good. So I had to help him make good packing the ties. Ten to twelve hours a day. All day long. Like a human donkey.

There was one brothel in Point Arena at the time. Most communities around here had at least one. There was one in Navarro. There was one in Ukiah, a famous one. I was a kid, what the hell did I know about any of this? I don’t think it was regulated, if it was it would have been very minimal. 

I always had a high regard for the inhabitants of the brothels as a kid because they were right next door to us. One of them had a weeping willow tree outside. They'd put a parrot out on it, squawking, squawking. All of a sudden the parrot disappeared. Gone. So the lady was frantic trying to find it. We were there, so she got us to try to help her. So when we brought back the parrot she gave us five dollars. Wow! That was great! I went to my father and said, "Look what I just made!" He said, "Give that to me." (Laughs) So I thought they were pretty good people. They gave me five dollars for catching the bird.

I used to go to school at Brush Creek. We had to go across the river on a boat, so I learned to scull a boat across the creek. Then across the Indian reservation and then up the road to Brush Creek. That's the only way my brother John and I could get to school in those days.

There wasn’t much big game then. There might have been a few bears around when I was a kid, I didn't take much notice of it then. But by the time I was old enough to be aware, there wasn't any.

I didn’t hunt or fish much myself, but a lot of the workers did. I used to trap for hides. The fishing was fine and we did it as a kid. You'd have a goddamn willow stick and a line and it was no trouble catching fish. But that early fishing was the only fishing I've done. I bought a hunting license once. I did it to validate an illegal deer. A man I knew wanted to claim I killed a deer that he had killed so that it would be legal. I had a valid hunting license that once but I didn't kill the deer. I thought I might get some deer steak out of it, but I didn't. But no more hunting after that.

On the Fourth of July there were horse races right up through town here. Later they went over the the flats and had horse races over there. The Fourth of July was an occasion for oratory and all this. They ran the horses right up the main street! Fred Bishop and some of the other high-falutin’ young bucks made a big production of it at the time. They had a good time prancing their horses. It was a part of the Fourth of July celebration after the oratory. They would get a court judge or a legislator to deliver a pot-boiler, enthusiastic, patriotic speech.

As I began to grow up I would look around and I thought I'd hit the old man up for a dollar or so for my work. Christ, he'd sternly admonish me. I was totally out of order. Finally, it got to be more than I could take and I left home at about age 18 and went to North Beach and didn’t come back until my mid-20s when I started the Point Arena Garage.

(Joe Scaramella went on to run for Fifth District Supervisor starting in the 30s, losing four consecutive times, a County record, before being elected in a special election in 1952 and serving for 18 years until 1970.) 

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