Navarro, 1971: Betty, Osana & Cynthia

As one of my previous articles noted, the actual population of the 1971 village was not too different from what the State Highway sign declares today, Pop. 67. And that would include Russian Hill, the Salmela Ranch and two other dwellings, inhabitants there Pop. 4.

By the time my consort and I got to know the locals, about a year after our arrival here in 1971, we knew that from Mill Creek north only the village had any population density whatsoever. There was no Rancho Navarro subdivision, the Ingram Ranch home was uninhabited, the Perry Gulch Ranch owners were weekend visitors. For the rest of the community south of us for two miles to Guntly there lived seven families, including the forementioned Sam and Marguerite Avery, proprietors of the Floodgate bar and the famous local historian and sometime TV personality Bob “Chipmunk” Glover, a Guntly and Gschwend descendant.

The most important population in our end of the Valley was the sheep, who covered almost all the ranches on both sides of the highway from Salmela to the other side of Boonville. On a quiet early spring morning as I started the vineyard day, the wonderful acoustics the sidehills provide let me hear sheep and lambs baa-ing from north of me all the way to Mill Creek 3 miles south. And lest I forget, another inhabitant, the old shepherd Bob Coy and his dog lived in solitary bachelordom at the austerely grand Guntly House, now Milla Handley’s guest “cottage.”

Bob had two or three McNab Ranch sheep dogs, and he and they patrolled the ranch regularly on foot looking for illness or predators, no coyotes yet, just eagles and bobcats. But when he gathered the sheep for shearing and medication, he simply stood at the barn, sent the dogs up to the top of the hill on the seventeen hundred acre ranch, and they drove the bands down to the barn.

Back in the village, referred to by locals all over the Valley as “Iteville” because of the predominance of the Italian population in the Mill days, there was a grand total of ten families, eight of them indigenous, occupying the homes still standing. There were almost as many unoccupied still standing as there were the inhabited ones, from the Counts School, to the abandoned huge Mrs. Barnes house to the elegant quaint Victorian above the old Post Office/coffee shop owned and maintained by Iteville native and fabled North Beach restauranteur, Rena Nicolai, and Joe Pedro’s garage on the old highway just past Osana Pardini’s home.

That windowless two-story structure precariously alive today was a combination gas station and auto repair shop during the mill era and until, I believe, after World War II. City person Jerry Wagner, restored the building sometime in the early eighties and converted part of into a very productive pottery studio and kiln. Jerry lived behind the shop well up Fern Gulch in a post War ranch-style home whose origins I never have known.

The commercial and social center of Navarro revolved around The Store, the Navarro Inn across the street. Next to the Inn between the old and current highways was one more small chicken shed-shaped building of importance to the village, Taylor’s Coffee Shop and adjoining the Second Class Post Office, room out front for at least three cars to park.

For my consort and my daily life The Store was the most important Navarro destination week in and out. The proprietress was an extraordinary personage Betty Zanoni, about seventy years old back then, assisted regularly by her sisters-in-law of the same age, Osana Pardini and Cynthia (pronounced “Chinchia”) Modenesi.

Betty was a small, round, always elegantly dressed in high fashion with pearls, graying, redheaded Jewess born in Munich, Germany. Her father, part of the Munich professional legal class, was a judge in the Bavarian Kingdom state court system. I know this because one evening, as I was sitting after the store closed in Betty’s kitchen having a beer, she brought out her Munich High School Year book to show me something of her roots and family, and as the evening unfolded, about her odyssey to Navarro.

How did this evening happen? One of the reasons I even ended up in Navarro farming grapes begins with my US Army enlistment experience back in the early sixties. I was stationed in an intelligence post in rural Bavaria, a pure nine-to-five desk job with 500 other soldiers living in our own post-war comfort on an old German Air Force training base. What an education courtesy of the American taxpayer.

This was a remarkably sociably group of soldiers, professional and amateur, and one of my very best friends, was a fellow college kid named Mario Ludovico Francesco, etc., Mancusi-Ungaro, who claimed his ancestors were counts and had lived in the silk mill town of Sarno, above Naples, since the thirteenth century. Mario as a bit of a fabulist and adventurer, who also had kin in Florence, Italy, my most favorite old city in Europe, we visited a couple of times on leave from the “pressure” of military life in postwar “occupied” Germany.

Mario’s family also had roots in Newark, New Jersey, near my suburban youth home, and we stayed good friends after my military career was over. His father was the doctor to the Newark Italian community, had immigrated to the US after World War I, went to medical school at Columbia University, and had a walk-in office in the family home I called the Palazzo Mancusi. The house, a wooden Victorian a half mile up the hill from the city-center, was four stories high, including the basement, and sat astride of two city lots, each with a family garden on both sides of the house, and a carriage house/stable in the backyard.

The mostly underground basement was divided into a front section with a door to the street for access to the doctor’s office and in the back the wine cellar where the doctor directed the crushing and pressing of 250 pounds, a hundred gallons more or less of Lodi, California Zinfandel, Petit Syrah blended. I participated in my first autumn crush in the back yard and cellar in October, 1963.

Early Saturday morning around Columbus Day Dr. Mancusi, Marion and I, along with cousin Jackie Trotta and his pick-up truck would go down the hill and into Ironbound Newark, the Portagee section along the Pennsylvania railroad freight yards, to buy the grapes in forty pound wooden lugs.

In those days about a hundred reefer cars would come off and on for a month or so from the Sacramento Delta Lodi area to Newark to provision the ethnic communities, Greek, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, living from Baltimore to Boston and in between with the raw material for their home wine-making needs. I wonder if those communities and the service still exist.

There was a local broker who administered sale of these tons of grapes for the California grape growers and sellers. His name, “Chester,” was all I ever heard, with doubt and disdain, from the Mancusi’s lips, as in, “come on, Chester, we’re not paying those prices for these kind of grapes. Let’s look in another car.”

Dr. Mancusi, eighty years old (married late) was the commander of our expedition, dressed in formal grey three piece suit, grey tie and an army fatigue soft hat. He made the decisions about which lugs to buy, typically from three or four reefer cars, while we loaded them into Jackie’s flatbed.

Back up on the hill around 11 AM the crush began on the backyard cement pad next to the cellar door down to the winery. Using our hands and feet as paddles we crushed the grapes two boxes at a time in open fifty five gallon wooden barrels cut in half, bucketed the must down the cellar steps into the fermentation cellar. There under the critical eye of the Doctor we filled open-headed fifty five gallon fermentation barrels about two thirds full each, while he the enologist added the yeast to begin the fermentation.

Around 1:30 or so, Mrs. Mancusi, born Sullivan in St Louis, educated at Smith College for polite young ladies, called out the kitchen window in high Florentine, “mangia, mangia...” time for lunch. Harvest lunches were at a large kitchen table where the open windows enabled us to smell the blackberryish grape must and yeast as we ate. The menu was typically four or five courses, often beginning with breaded and deep-fried winter squash flowers, on through fish, meat, then salad, fruit and cheese, all accompanied by Mancusi Zin vinted a couple of years ago.

At these tables is where the whole culture of wine, food, family, friendship and dinner comradeship in gossip, politics and Italian folk fables became the cultural epiphany that took me and my companion to Navarro and grapegrowing. Never seen anything close to it in my Anglo patriarchal Calvinist suburban family and its boring overcooked roast beef and mashed potato Sunday dinners with the grandparents.

And no race to get back to work either. Dr. Mancusi took a short nap, good call, and we three went back to crush a few more boxes to bring down the work load for Sunday to a manageable level. In five years of the two weekend crush, press and dine at the Palazzo I don’t remember a drop of rain, never mind a cloud.

Meanwhile back in Navarro, around the summer of 1972 my Newark friend Mario came for a visit and I of course took him down to the store to meet the ladies. Betty conversed with us for a few minutes, then invited us to come back after the store closed for a “cocktail.” When we came around about seven, the front door was open, we could hear the old ladies chatting in the kitchen. Betty came out, told us to take a beer from the refrigs.

Back in the kitchen we sat in circle around the small square space about five feet apart. Betty sat in a grand armed chair, beaming and smoking a Marlboro in a long gold filter stick. Cynthia did most of the talking, Osana added a few pieces to her sister-in-law’s tales, and Mario, Betty and I listened.

Both Osana and Cynthia were born and raised in the Po Valley, near Verona, I recollect. They were rural middle class, high school educated, before migrating to America retreated up into the Italian Alps, Bolzano more specifically, to work in the silk mills up there. That is where they met Betty.

Not long after her high school graduation the anti-semitism in the Hitler era increased in ferocity, and if I remember correctly sometime around the horrific Kristallnacht pogram in 1938, Betty left Munich by herself, migrated over the alps to Bolzano to the mills where she met Osana and Cynthia. What happened to the rest of the family at home I did not learn.

Nor did I learn the details of how Betty continued her journey across the oceans to become a Nanny to the Grace family, wealthy Italian-American Santa Rosa brewers and merchants. The Graces lived in a substantial residence near their Hotel La Rose across the street from the railroad station, and one day while Betty was tending to their children in a local park, she met an out-of-towner loitering there on I presume a warm day. Soon after she married the gentleman, Gino Zanoni, a/k/a “Jumbo” due to his stature, and moved to Navarro to help him run The Store. On April 1st, 1940, twins, Jane and Gene, were born to Betty and “Jumbo.” What an odyssey.

Meanwhile back at cocktail hour, Cynthia was telling Mario and I some stories about life after migration to Anderson Valley, including her family being land lessees to Hayward Scott’s huge grass and timber ranch up Mill Creek. She couldn’t have been more praiseworthy about the kindness and respect Scott showed his tenants during leaseholds, including lending families money, no interest, when they were having a bad winter feeding their families.

As the evening ran down, Betty continued to smoke and beam, while quietly guiding me with her finger through her Munich High School Yearbook I have mentioned earlier. First there was her senior photo, a lovely svelte young woman in bathing cap and suit, captain of the swimming team. Under her achievements column she was described as a scholarly student, photographer and a class officer.

And then just as Mario and I were eye-signalling our departure Cynthia delivered the evening’s benediction: she leaned across from her seat, put her fingers gently on my knee, and said, “You know, Brad, we Italians brought civilization to this valley...” Bingo. Later that year, Charlie Ciapusci, Fish Rock Road grape grower, Gualala hotel owner and founder of California bonded winery #2 after Prohibition, said the same thing one family harvest luncheon he invited all the Mexican and hipper grape pickers to. His mantra was something like “we Italians, we were grateful to own our land, we respected and enjoyed it, never fought it to make more money logging and overgrazing it like the southern ruffians who got here here before us.”

Cynthia and Osana were sisters-in-law whose husbands had worked at the Mill and in the woods around Navarro. After the husbands died, Cynthia moved across the Old Highway and lived together in the house owned by Osana and her husband, the elevated, gabled one right on the highway after where the hotels stood and just before Joe Pedro’s garage. It’s the one right on the road with the covered porch across its front, also the one where the morning sun first visits Navarro and the evening sun last.

I occasionally stopped by to visit Osana and Cynthia, any excuse to listen to them reminisce about life in the “good old days” when their families were still in residence. The back of the house also supported a raised porch looking over a medium sized fenced kitchen garden cultivated to the inch with the vegetables important to the Italian family kitchen, beans, squashes, some corn, tomatoes and even some artichoke and Jerusalem artichoke plants (a species I had never seen before). Not a weed in sight.

Osana described the garden back when her husband was still alive as twice as large. She also recounted his combat scheme for fighting the endless gopher wars part of any family garden in Mendocino County. After an extended family luncheon, Amadeo would repair to the shady corner of the garden, arrange himself and a last glass of wine in a straight-back chair leaning at a comfortable angle against a fencepost with his .22 rifle within reach. Each time he awoke from his post-lunch doze, he would scan the half a dozen or so gopher runs around the crop rows. If there was any motion in the ground framing a tunnel, he’d reach for the rifle and fire a shot at the appropriate site. He’d dig up the corpses after his nap.

As part of their daily life Osana and Cynthia each, sometimes both, would assist Betty running The Store. The work included serving the out of town tourists, gossiping with the locals, and keeping the old bachelor woodsmen, Angelo Bacchi and Emil Niemala from quarreling over who should properly have Betty’s hand (realistically we all knew neither qualified).

And sometimes when Betty went shopping over the hill in Ukiah Cynthia and Osana would be the sole managers of Betty’s busy establishment.

And those trips over the hill. Once or twice I happened to be standing there one morning as she departed. Betty owned an early sixties Porsche racing-style convertible, stunningly bronze in color. There it was parked by the gas pumps across from the store front door as Betty descended its step clothed neck to ankles in a heavy silk dress of a golden hue matching the car, a huge blue bejeweled woolen handbag and a small cloche hat, a living replica of a Viennese aristocrat at the end of the Hapsburg dynasty, 1918. This elegant, graceful, animated vision was to me as powerful as meeting the Louvre Museum’s Mona Lisa.

And so Betty, Osana and Cynthia were the heart of Navarro fifty years ago, both commercially and socially. The rest of the cast were all important to the community, we will see in the next article in the saga. But it was they and The Store that tied the rest of Navarro together. All of them are gone now, of course. And of course the texture of the village has changed too. But for me they all are still there in vivid recollection as clear as yesterday, recollection I can only be grateful for.

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