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Growing Up On The Mendocino Coast

I’ll begin with a summary of family origins in Delebio, Northern Italy. My brothers Joe and John were both born there in the late 1800s. Delebio (which I finally visited in 1975) is a small town in Northern Italy very near the Swiss border near Lake Como.

My father Carlo came to Northern California in 1900-1901. He worked in the woods in Cleone and also worked loading lumber boats.

When he went down to load a boat at Little River one weekend it got stormy and the captain decided that he better get out of there. So the captain put out to sea and didn’t put anybody ashore. He headed down toward San Francisco and finally put my father ashore in a rowboat somewhere near Stewart’s Point. Dad had to walk all the way back to Cleone. It took him a couple of weeks, according to my brother Joe [Scaramella]. But part of that time he spent stopping and visiting Italian people along the way, and probably he had a couple of sips of wine.

Steamer Pomo at Point Arena Harbor
Steamer Pomo at Point Arena Harbor

In 1906 my father had finally saved enough money to arrange for my mother and brothers Joe and John to come to California.

My mother and Joe and John, who were seven and eight at the time, took the train from Delebio to Genoa and then from there they took a boat to Northern France, and then by ship to New York. They were steerage all the way across. They were down in the hold and according to Joe the conditions were pretty miserable. They arrived at Ellis Island and hooked up with a friend who spoke English. They took a train to San Francisco, arriving there on the 17th of April, 1906. That was the day before the big San Francisco earthquake on the 18th. Father had arranged to travel to Point Arena by the steamer Pomo. It was supposed to leave at 10 o’clock the following morning.

The earthquake came a little after 5 o’clock in the morning and there was a fire in the hotel and everybody had to get out. Mother lost all her belongings, including her laces and other prized possessions she brought from Delebio.

Joe and John got the measles and the family was quarantined in a chicken coop in the harbor area for several days and then Joe and John got taken in by a local family in Oakland and in a matter of weeks they arranged travel to Point Arena. They took a train to Cloverdale and a horse-drawn stage to Elk and a horse-drawn wagon down to Point Arena.

Mother’s sister, Maria Ceceliani, and her family lived there, so they stayed with them until they found a place to stay. I’m not clear on exactly where they stayed originally, but it wasn’t long before Father bought a hotel and saloon at the bottom of a hill opposite the house where Joe now lives.

There were several problems there including a slide which destroyed the original building. There were also problems with dad’s saloon partner. At that location my slightly older brother Charley was born on April 25, 1907, and I was born on May 30, 1908. Dr. Pitts was the attending physician and he didn’t register my birth. This gave me a lot of trouble later establishing a birth date for use in entering the Navy in 1942.

My own recollections start at Brush Creek, which was my first home after we moved from the hotel. As I understood it, father was a tie contractor. He had a contract on the Garcia River at a place called Caruther’s Camp. I probably was there but I don’t remember it. I do remember being at Brush Creek.

Our house there was a small log cabin and as I remember it had no floor. My mother would cook for the family and do all the washing and cleaning for the three or four hired men who were mostly Italian immigrants.

A tie contractor worked something like this: The owner of the lumber company would assign a section of the wooded area to a contractor who would be responsible for cutting down the trees and then cutting them into eight foot lengths and splitting them into ties of various sizes, 7x8 or 6x8, or 6x10. These were split out of the logs and then trimmed with a broad-axe. Subsequently they were hauled to the railroad siding by horse or hand where they were counted and paid for based on the number and quality of ties that were delivered.

Access to that house was very precarious. There wasn’t any road so we… The only time we could go up from the road (which now goes over the Mountain View Road)… we’d have to go up by streambed. It was inaccessible in the winter during the flood stage.

One incident I recall while living there was about 1912. The hired men were teasing me about drinking wine. They offered me 25¢ if I could drink the remainder of the wine that was in the bottom of the bottle. I looked at it and I thought it was one of those bottles with a fake, push-up bottom. So I drank it all. It turned out to be two or three inches of wine. I promptly walked off the porch and fell into some bushes there. All the hired men had a big laugh at that.

About 1912 we moved to Valley Crossing. You probably know it better now as the area called Twin Bridges which is east of Sea Ranch headquarters.

My father had another tie contract there. We lived about a half a mile downstream from Twin Bridges on the Gualala River. We had a house and a few acres where we kept horses, chickens, and cows, and we had a garden. My mother and father made cheese and sausage and butter and they made our soap from the various parts of the pork which we killed. Mother cooked on a big woodstove for the family and the hired help.

One of the first things my father did when we moved to a new location was to make a brick oven. He made a floor out of bricks which were made out of some kind of clay which we collected. We put kind of a dome shape over the top of the floor out of brick and then it had a little dent in the back and we would put wood in there for maybe eight or ten hours and heat the bricks up and then make bread by working the dough by hand and forming it into loaves and putting it into the oven, usually overnight. That made enough bread to last maybe a week or so. Some of it got pretty hard. It was probably nourishing but it wasn’t very tasty.

After about year there, Joe left home. I think he was about 14. My father had a tendency to make deals after he had a few glasses of wine. And the family was expected to make good on the deal and had to do a lot of work. Joe resented that and finally left. He went to work in North Beach in San Francisco.

My brothers John and Charley and I went to school there. It was then known as the Del Mar School. It had all eight grades in one room. John graduated there. Charley and I went through the fourth grade. I was five when I started school. They needed one extra person — me — in order to have enough pupils to qualify to get a school designation.

There were a lot of exciting events that happened there.

One of the most unusual things was due to our difficulty in talking good English at that time. Our lunch was rather unusual in that all we had was some dry bread and some dry cheese and salami. I think once in a while we had a small bottle of wine. We would go and eat our lunch in the woods and we wouldn’t fraternize with the other students because our English was poor.

In the wintertime sometimes when the Gualala River was in flood stage we would have to take a boat to cross it to go to school and then cross it again when we came back. Each time we had to put the boat in several hundred yards upstream because as we rode it across it would float down. If we wanted to land at point A, we would have to set the boat in about 200 yards upstream on the opposite bank and row and then finally get across to Point A. In the evening on the way home we would reverse the procedure.

In late 1914 the work in the woods dried up and there was no work. So the family had no cash income. We had animals, lots of game and fish, and a garden. Of course we needed salt and spices and sugar and things like that. We had to buy that on credit at the company store. I don’t know how Father ever paid it off but he finally did. We had quite a bit of hard work to keep things going but we made it.

I recall that my father used to make home-made cheese — we had racks and we had the cheese and we’d have to salt it and turn it. It was lots of work. Meantime my mother had to wash clothes in a boiler. She’d put that on top of the stove and boil some of the clothes. It was really a lot of work. Of course we never had running water at any of these locations nor did we have an indoor toilet. We either had a “shit pail” or we’d have to go out in the woods wherever we happened to be.

In 1918 we moved to Alder Creek, north of Manchester. It took two days to get up there from Valley Crossing. We had all our belongings in the farm wagon driven by a four-horse team. We had two bales of hay in the back of the wagon and the cattle followed the wagon. We got along fine without getting too many strays. I wish we’d had a camera, it would have been quite a scene to see this grouping of animals, wagons and people and horses going over the hill from up at the top and down to where Sea Ranch is now and on to Highway 1 and then on up to Gualala. We stayed there with the owner of what later became the Milano Hotel. It was owned by an Italian fellow by the name of Burt Lucanetti. We called him Big Burt. He was friendly with Dad and he put us up overnight and had a corral to keep the cattle in.

The next day we started on up the coast and we got as far as my mother’s sister’s, Maria Ceceliani and her family. They had a small ranch near the intersection of Highway 1 and Mountain View Road. From there we went on to the Alder Creek Ranch which is where Ray Stornetta later lived. We rented that place for five years, from 1918 to 1923.

There again it was an older house as I recall. There were three rooms and we had no indoor toilet or running water, as usual. We had to get our water from a well which was maybe a half a mile from the house. We’d go down there with cans and bring it up. We had a separate place where we had a smaller well where we got water for the animals. Some of the animals… there was a spring down there next to the well that they could drink out of.

The fall of 1918 was when the big flu epidemic hit the coast. I can recall every day seeing a hearse go by taking people to the cemetery. Fortunately, out of the five of us in the family at that time, Dad was the only one who caught it. He was quite sick but he recovered. Charley and I and John and Mother never contracted it. It was really a very, very serious epidemic.

At the ranch there we started out with about 20 cows and eventually built the herd to about 40. At that time we sold the cream. We’d milk the cows and put it into a tank. It had a hand separator which we cranked by hand and the cream came out of the top spigot and the skim milk came out of the lower spigot. It ran across to where we had our pigs. We fed the skim milk to them in those days. People who drank skim milk were very, very poor and there was kind of a stigma to drinking skim milk. Now it’s all in vogue.

By winter of 1919 Joe had married his beautiful wife Geneva in San Francisco and they came to live with us. That was a big treat because mother was a notoriously poor baker. She hardly ever baked anything except an occasional Italian panatoni at Christmas time. But when Geneva came, she started making cakes and pies and boy, she was really a hero around our place — particularly for Charley and me. We liked the sweet stuff.

Charley and I started Grammar School at Manchester. From the ranch there on Alder Creek we would walk, oh, it’s about two or three miles every morning and return in the evening. Manchester Grammar School at that time had two teachers. One teacher had grades 1-4. Charley and I were in grades 5-8. I was in the fifth grade and so was he. We completed all four grades there. Our first year’s teacher was a Mrs. Dorah. I don’t recall her as being particularly effective. But she was succeeded by Mrs. Morse who was an excellent teacher. She was an elderly lady and she drove a Model T Ford. She was very responsible for my interest in history and also in getting me to write and spell accurately.

While we were there we participated in a lot of escapades at Halloween, taking down gates… One time we took a buggy apart and we re-assembled it on the roof. People couldn’t figure out how that buggy got up there the next day.

They also used to have rodeos on the school grounds because one of the students used to ride a rather elderly horse and we were able to induce him to buck. We would take turns to see who could stay on the longest. Fortunately none of us ever got injured. It was sure an unusual thing to do.

Sometimes we’d sneak out during the noon hour to go skinny dipping down in Brush Creek. Several times we got back late and we were told to assume the angle. The teacher applied the ruler to our butts. It didn’t affect us too much, but it did sting a little.

We really didn’t have too much money in those days. So I started trapping. I had a trap line along the banks of Alder Creek. I caught a number of skunks, mink, raccoons and a fox or two. I would skin these out and send them to St. Louis to a company called H. Liebs and Company. They would send me checks based on what I sent them. Out of this I got enough money to buy several baseball bats, a first-baseman’s mitt, a fielder’s mitt and two or three baseballs, those cost about $3 each in those days. It was a lot of money. Whenever it got to raining or looked like it was going to rain Charley and I didn’t have to go to work in the fields, we’d go up behind the barn and take turns pitching and catching. We had a lot of fun. Charley was a left-hander. He could throw a pretty good curve ball. I was a right-hander but I didn’t have too much athletic ability in those days, I was kind of awkward. But when I got to high school I got a little better coordinated and I got on the basketball team as a freshman and played every year, and it was the same way in baseball. Of course the competition wasn’t very strong either. We only had about 12 or 13 boys go out for baseball, so it looked like almost everybody who went out made the team. We played all the coast teams and Anderson Valley within our league.

We also made our own wine. We had a tank that held about 200-300 gallons. My father would go over to Cloverdale and buy some zinfandel grapes and then they’d dump them into the tank a box at a time and all the rest of the family would get down in there and traipse around crushing the grapes. Later we finally got a hand crusher. That was quite sophisticated. In addition to that, after the wine was fermented the pomace was drawn off. We dumped the pomace into a makeshift still we made out of a ten-gallon milk can rigged up so we could put it on the stove. The lid was tapped with a lead coil which took the steam that came off and condensed it and caught it. That was what we Italians called grappa. It was pretty strong stuff. The amazing thing is that we weren’t aware that by using a lead pipe we were endangering our health. Of course a person didn’t want to drink too much of that stuff because it was mighty, mighty strong.

Charley and I both graduated there in 1922. We had quite an interesting graduation ceremony. There’s a copy of the program in with some of our old records. It included us participating in a small play and other things like that. As I recall I was the valedictorian. I don’t know what I talked about, but that’s what Mrs. Morse said I should do and I did it.

In 1924 our lease was going to be up at our ranch there at Alder Creek. Meantime, my Dad had bought what was then known as the Janigen Ranch. John and a hired man took some of the cattle and went out there for a couple of years. I stayed home and worked on the ranch with Charley. Neither one of us had gone to high school on completion of grammar school. I wasn’t supposed to go to high school either, but sometime after graduating from grammar school I contracted some severe tonsillitis and also something else, I forget what it was. But I was quite ill for about three or four months. Eventually I wound up in the hospital in San Francisco. It was called the Lane Hospital. It was a medical school for Stanford University at the time. I was there for several weeks and they gave me some kind of treatment and I recovered, it seems unusually well. After that bout I had hardly any health problems. I never was hospitalized again until I had a gall bladder operation in 1973.

Since I was not too strong in those days my father decided that I should go to school and try to take on a life that wasn’t quite so hard. There was a farm advisor here by the name of Mr. Foote who talked about UC Davis. He was instrumental in getting agriculture as part of the curriculum at Point Arena High School. The first ag teacher there was named George Stanley. He also was instrumental in getting me interested in going to Davis.

Later on Ted Liefrink was the second ag teacher who came over to Point Arena. He and Mr. Stanley were able to make contacts for me so that when I later went to Davis I had some work lined up — places where I could go and people would put me to work so I could earn some money to pay my college expenses there.

While this was going on we moved to the Janigan Ranch in 1924. That’s where I actually started high school. I used to walk down to the road from the old ranch and catch the bus. I had to get up about five o’clock in the morning, milk seven or eight cows, have breakfast, and walk down to the road and take the bus to high school and be there all day. About four o’clock I’d leave there and get home by about five o’clock and then out to the barn again and do the chores and the milking and have dinner and then do whatever homework we had, which wasn’t really very much.

While we were in the high school ag program we went to several judging contests at Davis, dairy cow judging mostly. We also went to the State Fair. I was exposed to the Davis campus as a high school student and it wasn’t really all that new to me. But it was quite an experience for me to go there.

At high school, since I was in the ag class, I got to know some of the more progressive farmers in the area, Walter Stornetta, Dan Jensen, Wes Christiansen, and another, I can’t think of his name. Anyway he had a ranch right there in town. They were forming a committee to start a dairy show here. At the first show they were going to take their prize cattle down to the stream by the Garcia River, just north of it, and east of where the Manchester Cemetery is now. A man named Elias Bishop owned the property there. It was kind of a protected spot. We’d have a picnic and speeches and a judge from Davis would come over and he would judge the cows in the various classes, older cows and young calves, one-year-olds and some bulls. I remember a couple of our Jerseys got prizes and that was kind of exciting.

I was a part of the group that was organizing this fair. They wanted to get a permanent kind of a building for meetings and things like that. So Walter Stornetta donated some property which is now where the farm center picnic center is, where they have the Fourth of July picnics. To get enough money to buy the lumber we had a number of barn dances down at Walter Stornetta’s ranch. He helped us build a new barn and the second floor had a good lumber deck which was a good dance floor. We’d spread some soap chips on there and we’d get a band over and everybody danced until two or three in the morning. We made several hundred dollars there. Each time we’d have two dances. We used that money to erect the building that is now at the farm center. It didn’t have a roof on it at the time.

Later, as it turned out, that was the place where I first met Mary who had come up for one of those dances. (We were later married in 1936.) I graduated from high school in 1928 and that fall I went to Davis, majoring in Dairy Science.

(Eugene Scaramella was Mark Scaramella’s father. He died on December 31, 1999 at the age of 91 about 20 hours short of the millennium after a long career as a creamery manager, mostly in California’s central valley.)


  1. Lisa Miller-Hobbs January 24, 2015


    Thanks for sharing Uncle Gene’s story with the world. Wish the rest of the Scaramella brothers would have left something like this.

    • Mark Scaramella January 25, 2015

      Hi Lisa. Nice to hear from you!
      It certainly would be nice if John and Charley had left a record of their early lives. But in fact we do have some pretty good stuff from Uncle Joe. A mini-autobiography of him is included in Bruce Levene’s “Mendocino County Remembered.” And there’s some Scaramella family material in Tammy Durston’s recent “Legendary Locals of the Mendocino Coast.” The best is the 14-part interview we at the AVA did with him back in the 90s that probably out to be re-run one of these days.

  2. George Hollister November 13, 2018

    This is a great history. There must have been 100+ rural families from the the same region in Northern Italy who immigrated, at about the same time, to Mendocino County. Many of those families are still here, and have a significant presence. Most of these families I have spoken with say their original ancestors came and worked logging redwoods, or in association with that industry. There is a history there that needs writing.

    Why did these rural families leave Italy? That would be the first question. Where are these families today? What are they doing? Many of these families are mentioned here in the AVA. Canclini, Pardini, Philbrick(Jerry’s mother was from there), to mention a short list. Historically, these Italian families have played a significant role in Mendocino County business and government. Many have remained rural, but can be considerably different in temperament, and politics. About the only common organization that they are, or were, members of is the Catholic Church. Many of these descendants of families from Northern Italy, are acquainted but are oblivious of their common ancestry. My guess is, many are related and don’t know it as well.

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