The Zeni Ranch
by Robert Zeni, October 23, 2013
with influence from Jane Zeni
When asked to do this story, I was hesitant as to where to start. So let us start at the beginning. The year was 1894, when Eduino Zeni was granted 120 acres on Fishrock Road, by the U.S. government for homesteading. After clearing the land he built an outhouse and two-room cabin, then planted a vineyard and a small orchard containing figs, apples, and cherries. He then sent a letter home to Austria telling his mother, “I have accumulated a few dollars, bring me a bride.”
On July 1st 1901, Catterina (Eduino’s mother) arrived in San Francisco by ship with Filomena Leonardelli. Filomena was to become Eduino’s bride. They were married only two days later on July 3, 1901. The three of them left San Francisco by a stagecoach heading to Cloverdale. From there they walked with their baggage to the homestead on Fishrock Road. Upon their arrival at the homestead, Eduino rushed to add another room onto the house because Filomena did not wish to sleep with the mother-in-law in the same room.
Our large family began when Fausta was born in 1902, followed by Theresa 1903, George 1904, Albert 1905, Alick 1907, Mary 1908, Gus 1911, Raymond 1915, and Anita 1917. They lived off the large garden that they worked together on, along with the goats and a few dairy cows, which gave them milk, cream, butter, and cheese. Meat consisted of wild game along with salmon that they caught and preserved by smoking. The land was all worked by hand, being too steep for work animals. Shovels, pickaxes, and a wheelbarrow were the only tools used to work the fields. Three times out of a year the family went into Cloverdale by horse and wagon to buy sugar, salt, flour, and coffee. When the coffee started to run low they would gather black acorns that were roasted and ground to mix with the remaining coffee. Eduino made his money by farming the Luchinetti and Zarucchi families’ farms on Fishrock Road. He bought both their properties in 1917, which is now known as the current Zeni Ranch. In 1920 Inez was born.
Tragedy struck the family in 1921 when Eduino bought pork from a butcher shop that was tainted with trichinosis. Grandma (Catterina), George, Albert, Alick, and Raymond all died. Filomena had a miscarriage. Eduino went into debt with hospital and funeral bills. He sold the original homestead for 1,000 dollars. In 1923 my grandfather, George, was born to Eduino and Filomena Zeni. Dolly was the last child born in 1926. She still lives today in Cloverdale.
Life became easier on the new ranch as the land was flatter and therefore easier to farm. They could now use a horse to pull a plow and had a blacksmith shop to make repairs on their own equipment. Eduino also used the blacksmith shop to produce knives and other odd tools for other homesteaders. We still use the same old plow, now pulled by tractor, to work our garden. Eduino’s income during this time frame was peeling tan-oak bark for use in tanneries to tan hides. Grapes and wine, sold out of his bonded winery, were also sources of income. Moonshine was sold during prohibition, but that’s another story. Filomena started a guest ranch for recreational vacations. Word spread fast and the ranch become very popular. She charged a single dollar a day for a room, lunch, and supper. It is rumored that Filomena become upset when she was forced to charge two dollars because of inflation.
Filomena was a very hardworking woman--without her many things on the ranch that today we take for granted would not exist. Without her influence we would be without a mail route and telephone. When her children became of school age, she had a school built and a teacher stayed on the ranch. When the Lombardi School was going to be shut down due to the lack of students, Filomena started a foster home for wayward boys to keep the school open. Recently an individual that attended school here in 1943 visited us. The school finally closed when Dolly graduated. Filomena even had the county pave the road bordering our current property for dust reduction. Eduino and Filomena celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1951. Eduino died a year later in 1952; He was 84. Filomena died in 1955; she was 72.
After returning from World War II, George bought the ranch from his brothers and sisters. In June of 1953, George married Alice Fluke. They had three children: John, Linda, and my father Raymond. Grandpa made his living by logging, running 1,000 head of sheep in the surrounding 7,000 acres of mountains, which he leased, along with cattle. He also sold roughly 14,000 pounds of chestnuts yearly. He was known as the Chestnut King of Northern California. He continued to maintain the vineyard planted by his father in 1896. By now Grandpa was using a tractor to plow the vineyard. In 1968, he started Trees by George, a Christmas tree farm. We sold Christmas trees all over the state of California. Grandpa sold his sheep in the late 1970s because of predators and the drop in wool prices. He sold the cattle raised on neighboring property in the mid 1980s until the owners ended his lease when they sold the land to a logging company. He continued to work the grapes, chestnuts and Christmas trees with his son Raymond until his death in 1999. Raymond married Jane in October 1983 and had two children, Robert (myself) and Mike who grew up and worked on the ranch.
As you can see the Zeni Ranch has been around for quite some time. While we still maintain the grapes, chestnuts, and Christmas trees, in more recent years Jane and I have added a commercial meat rabbit operation and well-known, established swine farm. The rabbits are all sold live off the ranch for many different uses. The pigs are sold live off the ranch for uses in 4-H and FFA shows and for breeding stock. Many local buyers have purchased our live wiener pigs for personal use. Owen Family Farms buys wiener pigs from us at 35 lbs. to raise and finish themselves for selling at farmers’ markets in the Hopland area. Zeni pork is also available under the Wyland Orchards label at Oliver’s Market, online sales at www.goodeggs.com (also under the Wyland label), or by request through Golden Gate Meats. The Zeni pork they both sell is USDA inspected. Chestnuts are available on the ranch during the fall months. My mom also makes homemade soap and wreaths during the Christmas season.
John lives in Santa Rosa with his wife Bonnie. Linda lives in Gualala with husband Butch and daughter Amanda. They can be found on the ranch on some weekends working in the vineyard. Joe Zeni, John’s son, with girlfriend Morgan, recently moved fulltime onto the ranch. They grow a large garden in the old victory garden spot, originally planted during World War II. They sell most of their vegetables to restaurants in Gualala. They also have jobs in town.
We can be contacted by phone at (707) 895-2309, email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or snail mail at 30995 Fishrock Road in Yorkville, CA 95494. Electricity still has not reached the Zeni Ranch, so we usually only check email when we go to town.
The 32nd annual Chestnut Gathering will be held this year at the Zeni Ranch on November 2nd (see separate announcement this week). The next in the AV Foodshed’s Connecting With Local Food series will feature Pam Armstrong and Tom Brewer ‘s Chestnut Ridge Ranch. To read previous articles in the series, please go to www.mendocinolocalfood.org.