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Roving Chocolatiers

Recent news about the sand bar at the mouth of the Navarro River blocking the stream so thoroughly that Highway 128 remained flooded by the backed up waters sent me searching through the 1879 archives to find a report stating, “As soon as there is a freshet to wash sand out of the mouth of the river, Mr. Kent will drive new piles in the Big River Bridge.”

Mr. Kent was one of the earliest Anglo settlers along the Mendocino Coast, arriving not long after the Fords of Mendocino in the mid 1850s. For the better part of a century the Kent family owned much of the land on the ocean side of the coast road north of Little River. Their house was on the east side on what is now known as the Spring Ranch.

In 1879 you could have stayed high above that flooded river at the Navarra Ridge Hotel. The place name was then interchangeably spelled with either an “a” or “o” vowel at its conclusion.

Speaking of alternate names, that same year, 1879, a close reader of newspapers up and down California might have noticed the trademark notice for Domenico (or Domingo) Ghirardelli of San Francisco for chocolate, broma, and cocoa. More than a decade earlier, around the time of the end of the American Civil War, one of the employees in Ghirardelli's San Francisco chocolate shop hung a bag of ground cacao beans in a warm, enclosed room. Cocoa butter dripped away, leaving a fine residue that could be made into ground chocolate. This so called “Broma process,” finally trademarked in 1879, has come to be the foundation methodology in the modern production of chocolate.

Mr. Ghirardelli was born the son of a spice merchant in Rapallo, Italy, in 1817. He apprenticed with one of the foremost chocolatiers in Genoa, then, at the age of twenty, made his way to South America. He spent less than a year in Uruguay before settling in Lima, Peru in 1838. He spent a over a decade in Lima, establishing a successful confectionery business and adopting “Domingo” as his first name.

In the late 1840s one of Ghirardelli's customers in Lima was a native of Stumpstown, Pennsylvania, James Lick. Born a generation before Ghirardelli in 1796, Lick had been trained as a carpenter in his youth, but mastered the techniques necessary to craft pianos as a young man. Finding that pianos were selling more plentifully in South America than in the fledgling United States, Lick sailed to Buenos Aires in 1821, leaving behind his pregnant girlfriend, Barbara Snavely, supposedly because her father had rejected Lick for not being economically successful enough.

Lick did prosper in Argentina, not just as a piano maker but as a wise trader in furs. By 1825 he was able to afford a trip to Europe where he spent the better part of a year. On the return voyage the ship Lick sailed on was captured by a Portuguese man-of-war. Lick and many others were put ashore as prisoners who were marched to a compound in Montevideo. Lick eventually escaped, then walked one hundred miles to Buenos Aires to take up his piano making business once more.

In 1832 Lick ventured back to Pennsylvania, only to find Barbara married to another man. Argentina was embroiled in a deadly civil war at the time, so James Lick moved on to Chile then Peru where he met the confectioner, Domingo Ghirardelli.

After the U.S. victory in the Mexican War, Lick apparently saw the business possibilities inherent in a move to California. He sailed for San Francisco, then a metropolis of less than a thousand residents, arriving seventeen days before the discovery of gold on the American River in January, 1848. He brought with him his carpentry tools, about $30,000, and 600 pounds of Ghirardelli chocolate, which was soon bartered for more cash that helped Lick buy up dozens of pieces of property in and around San Francisco as well as places as far flung as Santa Catalina Island, Los Angeles, and the Lake Tahoe shoreline.

It was Lick who sent word to Lima about the popularity of the chocolate he'd sold. Thus, Mr. Ghirardelli packed up shop and came to The City to permanently make his name known.

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