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The Italian Community of Santa Rosa. 1880-1945



Italians are the one ethnic group that has left significant and recognizable traces of its history in Santa Rosa's present-day built environment. These resources fall into two main categories, historically Italian residential neighborhoods with some long-standing Italian businesses, and the products of the local Italian-dominated basalt industry—the impressive stone buildings of Railroad Square and others, and remains of the quarrying industry itself. Santa Rosa, of course, had a branch of the Bank of Italy, and local "boss" Natale Bacigalupi was one of its directors,  but the Italian imprint in Santa Rosa was made by working people, not in politics or the professions (the first Italian named mayor was Charles DeMeo, 1966). The history of the Italian community has been documented mainly by Gaye LeBaron, whose Santa Rosa; A Nineteenth Century Town and Press Democrat articles on the canneries and the basalt industry are the main sources for the following discussion.

LeBaron gives histories of the major ethnic groups of early Santa Rosa: Irish and German and smaller European contingents, who had ethnic clubs and some degree of job specialization, but no clearly defined or enduring ethnic neighborhoods; Afro-Americans, always very few in the Southern-dominated town; Native Americans, who found their way into the written record mainly as farm laborers; Japanese, who drew respectability from Kanaye Nagasawa's success at Fountaingrove; and Chinese, who had a large and recognized community around Second and D Streets by the turn of the century. This Chinatown, however, was ground down by anti-Chinese and red-light abatement activities over the years (Sonoma County Historical Journal, Summer 1970, p. 7), and all physical traces were obliterated by urban renewal in the 1960s, leaving the large "Italian Town" of Westside as Santa Rosa's only historic ethnic neighborhood.

In LeBaron's account of the nineteenth-century immigration (LeBaron, 1985, p.83-86), “the county census for 1870 showed just one Italian-born citizen in a population of 2,834…The irrepressible Italians, welcomed as a labor force for their industry as well as their thrift, began to arrive in significant numbers about 1885. With so many of them coming from the marble  quarries of Carrara in the province of Tuscany, Northern Italy, the fine hand of the Toscano workman would change the face of the land with his stone wineries and hop kilns and hotels.

“…the worldwide depression and the political situation in newly unified Italy sent thousands of immigrants off to America. …Sonoma County, similar in terrain and climate to Northern Italy, attracted large numbers of Northern Italians, and many settled in the rural areas of the county where they soon engaged in grape growing and winemaking. The 'urban' Italian population of Santa Rosa settled into the area along the SF & NWP railroad tracks and west of Santa Rosa Creek extending to the arable delta land of the Piner District toward the laguna.

“The ridge east of the valley running all the way to Sonoma contained basalt deposits which supplied paving stones for San Francisco streets. Many of the men who had hoped to escape the quarries found themselves working once again as blockmakers, carting the heavy stones down the hill to the railroad in ore cars running on steep tracks. The blockmakers, usually single men, lived in boarding houses at Melitta Station and along the Sonoma Road until they saved the money for a piece of land of their own.

“…An Italian-language paper, Echo de Santa Rosa, was published for a brief period in the 1880s, and by 1889 there were nearly 200 Italians in Santa Rosa. Frugoli, Buzzini, Pedrazzi, Pedrotti, Casassa, Balbi, Lagomarsino, Giorgi, Righetti, Silvestro, Vanucchi the west Santa Rosa address list read like a Mediterranean litany in the 1890s.”

Deanna Paoli Gumina's history of the Italian immigration to San Francisco notes the same reputation for hard work and frugality, the same characteristic occupations (truck farming, stonework, scavenging, produce markets), and the same tendency for immigrants from a given region to settle together, to seek out areas reminiscent of the home terrain, and to be "slow to become Americanized, preferring to Italianize their surroundings." She notes that those who immigrated directly to the Pacific coast were usually comparatively skilled and prosperous, since the trip was expensive, and from those regions most likely to embark from Genoa and Sardinia, where the earliest direct passenger services originated. She credits the establishment of the Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony at Asti in 1881 with turning the attention of more and more Italian immigrants to the North Bay agricultural counties in the 1880’s (The Italians of SanFrancisco, 1850-1930, 1978, pp.35, 7-11, 133).

The Italian immigration to Santa Rosa coincided with the development of the basalt industry in the 1880s, when stone paving was in great demand in the Bay Area. James McDonald, brother of Santa Rosa's leading capitalist Mark McDonald, owned basalt-bearing land east of town. In the late 1880s the McDonalds arranged for Southern Pacific to establish a line (the Santa Rosa and Carquinez Railroad) through the basalt area with stations near the quarries at Kenwood, Annadel, and Melitta, and the Santa Rosa terminus on McDonald property at 13th and North Streets, where a stone-based warehouse survives. The quarries remained in Anglo-American ownership (McDonald, Wymore, Grey, Flynn, Tracy), but the quarry workers, blockmakers, and stone masons were predominantly Italian, and so were the contractors and brokers of stones and labor. LeBaron enumerates four master builders active in Santa Rosa around the turn of the century, Peter Maroni, Natale Forni, Massimo Galeazzi, and Angelo Sodini, who more or less controlled the industry as an on-and-off consortium. The Carnegie Library and Jack London's Wolf House are attributed to Forni, St. Rose Church to Maroni, the stone House to Galeazzi, and the Railroad Square buildings (NWP depot, freight depot, Western and La Rose Hotels) to the group collectively. The basalt-block industry is supposed to have died out after about 1912 as wages rose and automobiles required smoother streets (LeBaron; Peterson, National Register nomination for Railroad Square). In its heyday, it is estimated that 10,000 blocks a day were shipped out of the three Santa Rosa area quarries, two carloads a day from each station. According to LeBaron's informants, blockmakers were paid $22 per thousand blocks, twice that in later years. There were settlements of blockmakers around the stations, as well as  at Massimo Galeazzi's Rincon Hotel (Stone House) closer to town.

In town, Santa Rosa's Italians clustered in the produce, grocery, and wine businesses. They do not seem to have dominated large-scale viticulture and winemaking in the immediate Santa Rosa area, where the major wineries were Fountaingrove and Isaac DeTurk's (see DPR 523 forms). Sanborn maps show a number of small basement and backyard wineries in the Westside, Ripley, and West Third Street neighborhoods, sometimes in connection with hotels or restaurants; and other Italian residents worked as employees in DeTurk's and other wineries. DeTurk's was located next to the tracks and Italian Westside neighborhood. So were the California Packing Corporation (succeeded by Poultry Producers of Central California after 192S: see Railroad Square District), Max Reutershan's Tannery (on the creek at the foot of Madison Street), Santa Rosa Bottling Works, and, before it burned in 1909, the Santa Rosa Woolen Mills, all major employers of Westside residents.

There were Italian restaurants, bakeries, and groceries both in the Westside area and in the central business district (see Westside, West Third Street, and North Railroad District research files); proprietors, clerks, waiters, and cooks all came from the westside neighborhoods. Natale Bacigalupi, "boss" of the Italian community for decades, who assisted immigrants with loans, brokered jobs and stones and "wine from the many small vintners doing business west of the creek," had as his primary business a grocery on Third Street which "along with Bertolani's Grocery on Fourth, became the center of Santa Rosa's Italian community" (LeBaron, p.85). In the Westside and West Third districts many residents were listed as grocers or as clerks in grocery stores operated by other Italians : later, in the '30s and '40s, employers include Safeway and Pay-N-Takit, while the traditional occupations continue.

The Westside and Railroad Square hotels housed many Italian immigrants before they established themselves in the community. Several hotels were Italian named and operated: D'Italia Unita (1880s - 1910s), Fior d'Italia (1920s), Battaglia (1890s - 1910s), Torino, and Toscano (1870s- 1930s), and some of these had wineries, wine cellars, and bocce ball courts ("bowling alley" in Sanborn map) at various times.

Italian names in the 1883-84 directory are few but already in some of the traditional occupations and locations:

  • Louis Bacigalupi, driver fishwagon, r W end 8th (Natale's father)
  • Peter Bertolani, clothing, groceries, liquor, & r, 61-63 4th
  • P. Bertolli, gardener, Sonoma Road 5 miles from town
  • Noa Fazze, tanner, r W end 7th
  • Onesto Fougoli (sic), saloon & res. cor 7th & Wilson
  • Thomas Garbarino, gardener, r W end 8th
  • C.L. Gardella, prop. Hotel D'Italia Unita, 6th & RR
  • Lawrence Gardella, laborer, boards Hotel D'Italia Unita
  • L. Genazzi, farmer, 170 acres
  • Peter Giannini (no occupation or address)
  • Alfonso Montichelli, saloon, 4th & Davis
  • Antonio Nobili, barkeeper with Montichelli, 4th & Davis
  • V. Piezzi, 160 acres

In the 1913 Santa Rosa classified, Italian names are clustered in the occupations of Grocers, Retail Liquor, Meat Markets, Restaurants, Shoes and Shoemakers, Clothing, and Dairies, with all the businesses (except the outlying dairies) either in Westside and around the tracks or downtown in the Fourth Street area. In the 1910 census the small number of Italians who lived east of the tracks (about 30 households or individuals) were in the same types of occupations  as their Westside countrymen: tannery laborers, shoemakers, stonecutters, winemaker, proprietors and employees of restaurants, groceries, and pasta factory. According to LeBaron and other sources, it was common for many of these workers, or other members of their households, to take additional seasonal work in the canneries or picking fruit and hops.

By the 1920s, when block book and reverse directory information becomes available, Italian names form a clear majority in the Westside and West Third neighborhoods and a significant minority in Ripley, among both residents and owners. LeBaron reports that in the late nineteenth century "the area where most Italians lived was dubbed Tar Flat by the townspeople because of the tarpaper roofs on the small houses . Residents felt the sting of being 'from the other side of the tracks' " (p.85): an 1888 complaint about sewer service identifies Tar Flat as "the Wilson and Morgan Streets area, 5th to 10th" (p.122)—what is now considered Ripley. The Italian neighborhood expanded west through the early twentieth century, as the ages of the Westside houses show, and in the 1920s beyond North Dutton to the adjoining blocks of Trowbridge and Hewitt Streets. The historically Italian neighborhoods to this day have a distinctive somewhat rural character, with gardens and sometimes stonework (original structure or later adornment) on the foundations, entries, and landscaping.

St. Rose Catholic Church is located near the Italian neighborhoods. It was the church for the whole Santa Rosa area, and not thought of as a national parish, but was a social and spiritual center for the Italian community. Other community organizations and activities  included  fraternal groups—those noted in the WPA survey of 1936 were the Sons of Italy, Italian- American Club, and a Verdi Circle of the Druids (p.228-30). There was an annual Columbus  Day celebration with a queen and a ball, and "social events included dancing at the ice cream store on Pierson Street…and 40 to 50 people playing bocce ball at the Callori's" (1975 Westside Neighborhood Study, in Press Democrat, February 3, 1975). The cannery ran a nursery for workers' children, and other social-service functions were served by people like Natale Bacigalupi and cannery superintendent Carniglia who helped immigrant cannery workers with citizenship papers and letter-writing (LeBaron, Press Democrat). 

Significance of Property Types of the Italian Community

Residential Neighborhoods

These three neighborhoods are historically where Santa Rosa's working Italian population was centered, Westside the oldest, largest, and most closely tied to jobs in the businesses and industries along the railroad, West Third developed mostly after the turn of the century and home to many market gardeners and produce dealers, related to the larger market gardens out West Third in the Davidson Tract, Hewitt developed mostly in the 1920s by Italian-named owners expanding from Westside. These neighborhoods, as well as Ripley and St. Rose on the other side of the tracks with smaller but significant Italian populations, were more contiguous than today, though today's strong traffic boundaries generally coincide with historic differences in the neighborhoods.

Directories, censuses, and ownership records all show the west side residents in the first half of this century to have been predominantly Italian, working class, and homeowners. Their occupations clustered around food and wine, hotels and restaurants, leather, and the local  stone industry. A significant number of these working people developed second houses which they rented to countrymen, and home winemaking and "vegetable gardens sustained families through the Depression" (Press Democrat, February 3, 1975). All three neighborhoods retain  this character of small-scale self-sufficient living—gardening and home improvements are on a scale that one working household can do themselves. In 1975 the city's Westside Neighborhood study enumerated among the neighborhood's assets "A significant number of Italian residents that promotes the history of Santa Rosa and the Italian culture," and "four of the nine members of the neighborhood's citizens 'committee which developed the report had Italian surnames" (ib.).

Italian Businesses

Many of Santa Rosa's Italian residents historically worked in businesses related to food and lodging, and buildings associated with some of these businesses survive. The Hunt Bros.-Del Monte-California Packing Corp. cannery, though not Italian-owned, was a major employer of Westside residents, and had an Italian superintendent. A number of hotels around and west of Railroad Square were Italian enterprises, and housed newly-arrived Italian workers . These included the Forni, Torino, Venezia, Toscano, D'Italia Unita, and Battaglia Hotels . One of these survives, much altered and embedded in a newer building, as Lena's at 509 Adams: the 2-story portion, the Battaglia Hotel, has been continuously owned and operated by the same family for over a century. The most famous of the Italian groceries, Bacigalupi' s and Bertolani's on Fourth Street, described by LeBaron as community gathering places and mutual-aid centers, were downtown and have vanished, but smaller historically Italian groceries survive in North Railroad Square and Ripley. Paolini's was shoe repair, then clothing, at 1510 Wilson since 1920, and other Italian-owned businesses are along Wilson Street in the North Railroad  commercial district. The North Bay Monument Company was originally Fisher & Kinslow's marble works, but Massimo Galeazzi joined the partnership in the 1930s, so it represents a tie to the Italian stonework tradition.

Stone Buildings

The four Italian stonemasons, Forni, Galeazzi, Maroni, and Sodini, are important in Santa Rosa history both for the imposing buildings they left behind and for their place in economic and  ethnic history. This Italian consortium ran a major local industry, provided jobs for their countrymen, and constructed some of the city's major architectural monuments. This tradition filtered down to smaller-scale and utilitarian work, whether by professionals or by owner- builders.

Basalt Quarrying

The basalt deposits running east of Santa Rosa to Sonoma began to be exploited for paving  and building blocks in the mid-1880s, at the same time that Italian immigration to Santa Rosa reached significant proportions. Though the quarries remained Anglo-American owned, a group of Northern Italian stonemasons came to dominate the industry as brokers and contractors for stones and labor. The quarry laborers were mostly Italian, and "most of them came  from Tuscany in Northern Italy, many from the district of Massa-Carrara, having trained in the world- famous marble pits there" (LeBaron, Press Democrat). The Santa Rosa and Carquinez Railway, a SP branch arranged by Mark McDonald , began operation through the quarry area in 1887, with shipping points at Annadel, Melitta, and Kenwood Stations, where funicular railways brought the blocks down from the quarries . Kenwood well east of Santa Rosa was and is a small town: LeBaron describes Melitta as "very nearly a small town—a general store (Baldi's), a barber shop and those necessary taverns around the railroad station," but does not indicate that there were residences. Galeazzi's Rincon Hotel/Stone House a short distance east of town apparently did house blockmakers who worked in the quarries beyond. According to LeBaron the industry tapered off after automobiles made stone paving unacceptable in the 1910s; use of. the blocks for building in Santa Rosa continued into the 1920s, for example the Railway Express depot in Railroad Square (1925 building permit) and the Bertoli houses in the West Third Street district (1924). 


The text above is excerpted from the following report available at Heritage Survey of the City of Santa Rosa, Bloomfield, Anne., Anne Bloomfield Architectural History, August 1989.