Local History – May 2010

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” May 2010.

A Japanese Journey
by Lauren Coodley

How many Japanese immigrants were living in California at the turn of the 19th century? What were the chances that one of them would travel to Napa, and that his son would record the story of that trip?  Just such a journey was documented when Clarence Iwao Nishizu was interviewed in l982 about his immigrant father’s experience working at an upvalley vineyard.  Clarence Nishizu’s father came from a poor farming family in the village of Tachibana to San Francisco around 1902:

He went to work on a farm for a person by the name of Wheeler in Napa County, at a place called Zinfandel Lane, near the town of St. Helena. My uncle was there too. He worked for Mr. Wheeler who became rich by inventing and making cream of tartar, which is potassium bitartrate, a white crystalline compound with an acidulous taste, made by purifying argol, an ingredient of baking powder. After that he was the originator of manufacturing sulfur which was used for dusting grape vines to prevent rust and mildew.

By 1900, about two thousand Japanese immigrants already lived in San Francisco, while 500 or so had found a home in Southern California. By the turn of the century, Japanese laborers began to be increasingly important to the success of California agriculture. Yet, as the Chinese before them, they were viewed with suspicion. Lin Weber writes:

The few citizens with the courage to oppose public opinion did so at some peril. The Wheeler family allowed a number of Japanese workers to live on their ranch on Zinfandel Lane. Threats were made, and it was feared that ‘strong sentiment in certain corners’ would result in violence to ‘rid the community of the Japs.’” (Napa Daily Journal, February 2, l904)

The Wheeler family chose to ignore the pressure, and John Wheeler encouraged Mr. Nishizu to bring other neighbors and relatives to work on the farm. Mr. Nishizu’s son Clarence describes two of them:

Taichiro Ueno and Mr. Koheiji Fujino came to Napa at the age of sixteen. My father told me that Koheiji was more interested in leaning on the shovel and talking to his fellow countrymen than working. One day Mr. Wheeler told my father to send Koheiji over to his house so he could work as a school boy [live-in worker] and help in domestic duties around the house.

Mr. Wheeler traveled daily from St. Helena to San Francisco, where he took young Fujino to study at the grammar school there. Most likely, the two traveled on the Southern Pacific Railroad, boarding in St. Helena and disembarking in Vallejo, where they could ride a ferry across the bay. Once they arrived in San Francisco, they could take a streetcar to their destinations.  After he finished school, Fujino would go to the Bohemian Club on Taylor Street, of which Mr Wheeler was a member:

While he waited at the Bohemian Club, the ambitious Fujino learned the art of mixing drinks for the customers and became a good bartender, practicing English at the same time. When Mr. Wheeler returned, Fujino would ride back with him to their residence in St. Helena where he helped with the cooking and other household duties.

Clarence Nishizu always remembers a story about the fabled Fujino:
One night young Fujino came and banged on the door of the bunkhouse where everyone had just gone into bed and said, “I got a chicken here, let’s eat some chicken gohan.” Gohan is rice cooked with shoyu, which is a special dish in Kasuya Gun. Everybody got out of bed, cut the chicken’s head off and enjoyed the chicken gohan and had a grand time. Apparently, young Fujino was tired of eating American dishes at the Wheeler residence. He was supposed to go back to the Wheeler house that night, but he pleaded with his friends to let him stay overnight.

One of the casualties of the San Francisco earthquake in l906 was John Wheeler’s cream of tartar works. Shortly after that misfortune, Mr. Nishizu left St. Helena for Colorado hoping to go into farming for himself, but ended up working as a sharecropper. In l907, his relatives arranged for a young woman he had never met to come to the United States to marry him.

A few years later his bride gave birth to a son, Clarence, who remembers his parents’ pilgrimage back to St. Helena in search of Mr. Wheeler: “In 1927, during the summer vacation after my sophomore year in Anaheim High School, my family went to Yosemite and, afterwards, to Napa County to see Mr. Wheeler.” The Southern Pacific Railroad provided passenger service to Napa until l929, so the trio likely would have traveled up from Los Angeles on the train.  The family found Mr Wheeler in his home, and they were pleased when he recognized Mr. Nishizu. Son Clarence comments, “Mr. Wheeler was a kindly and considerate person, but he was very frugal in spite of his wealth.”

In 1991 at the age of eighty, Clarence Nishizu and his wife Helen repeated the family pilgrimage, journeying one last time upvalley:

We stopped at the old Wheeler house, which is over one hundred years old, and knocked at the door, but nobody was home. The stately mansion still stands like the day it was built with an ornate stone wall around the outside of the house. As I stood on the raised porch and looked through the window, I visualized eighty-five years ago when young Koheiji Fujino was working in that kitchen.

The Nishizus wanted to find out what happened to Mr. Wheeler. They visited the St. Helena Grower’s Foundation and spoke with the secretary, who recalled that her father had once worked for Mr. Wheeler and that Raymond Vineyards had bought the property in 1974.  She sent the couple there to learn more of the story.

As early as 1914, Napa politicians were warning voters of the disaster for California’s grape and wine industry if Prohibition became law. J.H. Wheeler joined other small farmers to form the Napa County Viticulture Protective Agency. By 1916, prohibition proponents from the Anti-Saloon League bought advertising on Napa’s electric train cars. Even the California Grape Protective Associations condemned saloons, and an outraged John Wheeler and other vintners withdrew from the Association in protest. When Prohibition passed in 1920, Mr. Wheeler was prepared to go into the grape juice business. But, by 1923 he changed his mind, ripped up his grapes, and planted walnut trees. Clarence Nishizu concludes:

As I left the winery I recalled the story of the late night chicken supper that Mr. Taichiro Ueno told me twenty-five years ago.

Takikomi Gohan with Chicken recipe can be found at http://japanesefood.about.com/od/rice/r/mixedrice.htm

Excerpts from interview with Mr. Clarence Iwao Nishizu by Arthur A. Hansen for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project, on June 14, 1982. Edited by Mr. Nishizu and published in 1991.

Interview and photograph discovered by Librarian Stephanie Grohs.

Lin Weber, Roots of the Present: Napa Valley l900 to l950, Wine Ventures Publishing, 200l. For more on Japanese contribution to California agriculture see California: A Multicultural Documentary History by Lauren Coodley, 2008.


Local History – February 2010

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” February 2010.

Mrs. Brewster’s Double Life
by Lauren Coodley

Just before, and after, the Gold Rush, Chinese and other immigrants came to Napa to settle what had been a Mexican state until l848. Among the others were Jewish merchant Freedman Levinson and his wife Dora.  They joined other new arrivals travelling on foot through the Panama Isthmus into Central America and then up through Mexico.  Freedman opened a small general store on Main Street where business was usually conducted in gold dust.  The family lived within walking distance of the store, and their offspring became part of Napa’s late Nineteenth Century community.

Lin Weber writes that Levinson’s daughter Sarah helped, “bind together the Jewish families who had come from so far…she made so many doses of chicken soup that she actually wore a dent in the table where she rolled her homemade noodles.”  Son Charlie opened Levinson’s clothing store on Main Street and was an active member of the Unity Volunteer Hose Company.  When he became part of the paid fire department in l906, he offered Jewish families a room to worship in the firehouse’s top floor.  Son Joe opened Levinson’s Pharmacy on the corner of Main and First, offering the only X-ray machine in town.  Daughter Clara married an Englishman she met at a Unity Hose Company dance, and they set up a tobacco shop next to Charlie’s clothing store.

Thus, when Rachel Nussbaum Friedman arrived here in l960, there was a long-established Jewish business community.  She grew up in the small town of Holly Hill, South Carolina where her family ran a store that sold work clothes, piece goods, and linens.  The Nussbaums opened a San Francisco branch of their business in the Forties, and Rachel was able to attend the University of California at Berkeley.  In l954, her father opened Brewsters in Napa on the corner of Main and Pearl Streets.  In 1960, when her husband, Larry Friedman, and her brother, Harris Nussbaum, became partners in the business, Rachel, Larry, and their two young children moved to Napa.

In the early Sixties, the town had a population of about 15,000 people:  “When I first moved to Napa, my comment was, ‘I feel like I’m moving to the end of the world.’” But quickly, Rachel realized “I loved being in a small town again.” Back then, Trancas was the north edge of town, uncrowded and barely developed with only the newly built hospital and some Italian and Chinese restaurants, reminiscent of Napa’s early immigrants, The Friedmans bought a home in the just-built Bel Aire subdivision. Rachel remembers that “Bel Aire Plaza housed only Montgomery Ward, the bowling alley, and Levinson’s Drugs, which had moved out there. But, Rachel remembers, “no competition for shopping–everyone went downtown.”

She describes Napa in those days as a “real country town where everyone was very friendly.”  Brewsters supplied work clothes, boots, bedding, cots, and almost anything else that the vineyard workers needed to survive; when the store had an outdoor sale, shoppers lined up for blocks. Louis Martini would drive up in his Cadillac clad in overalls.  The Brewsters ads were a highlight of the Napa Register, with their zany caricatures of Rachel, Larry and the crew. But this is the story of what the Register in l986 called Rachel’s “double life” – the career she created beyond the women’s department of Brewsters, with its “reasonably priced, timely fashions for women of all ages and sizes.”

Rachel had earned her undergraduate degree in child development around l950, “but there were very few jobs to go with that degree.” She gave birth to two more children and enrolled them in what was one of the first preschools in Napa, operated by Jen Terrace. Rachel worked in the classroom in trade for her kids’ tuition, and describes Jen Terrace with admiration as “the mother of early childhood development in Napa.”

It was through Jen, who worked at Head Start, that Rachel became interested in that program, then still part of the school district.  She was inspired by its successful outreach to families, and eagerly joined the Head Start advisory Board. She began teaching at Head Start and enrolled in Sonoma State University for her teaching credential, earning a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education at the age of fifty.

In the Seventies, the County Office of Education was located next door to Brewsters when the Federal Government passed a law requiring counties to offer education to special needs preschoolers for the first time. Rachel recounts:

“The Superintendant was a buddy of Larry’s. He called me up one day and said, “We’re starting this program. I spoke to Larry and he said it was okay for me to hire you. I was so incensed that he would ask Larry before he would ask me!”

Rachel accepted the position. In the preschool program she designed, “You could meet families and become close to your students, because you cannot change a child’s life without having some contact with families.”  From that first moment in 1976, Rachel was a working teacher, still full of energy when she finally retired in 2000 at the age of seventy.

“And believe me I saw miracles. I saw miracles happen…I saw children blossom. Kids that had been given up on–that was the fuel for me.” Tammy Rogers, who was Rachel’s classroom aide, says:

“She was a wonderful teacher.  What really amazed me was working with her in the classroom; she would hold a kid on each leg and still be able to talk to the moms and do paperwork. If it hadn’t been for Rachel, I would have never have gone back to school to become a teacher…I would never have known about potato pancakes…she celebrated Hanukah along with Christmas and Kwanza with the toddlers.”

In l983, Rachel and her brother Harris Nussbaum were both honored as Teacher of the Year in Napa. Rachel comments that she was called “Mr. Nussbaum’s sister” when she visited his class as a guest speaker, and “Mr Brewster’s wife” in the store.

At the community college, where Carol Kelly hired her to teach in the Early Childhood Education program, she created a new class aimed at educating preschool teachers about special needs children. Although Rachel is no longer teaching there, she feels strongly that this knowledge is crucial for every preschool teacher.

In l986, the most devastating flood in a hundred years hit the town, as the Napa River rose to levels none living had seen before. Nearly 5,000 people were evacuated, 250 homes were destroyed, and three people died. Soscol Avenue turned into a river, most of Napa’s businesses were damaged from the floodwaters, and the downtown stores were drenched with mud.  According to the Register: “Larry Friedman thanked his employees for saving the rest of the store by stacking sandbags until almost midnight; nobody has flood insurance. ‘If there’s such a thing as an off the floor sale we’ll have one,’ Friedman joked.”

But the drought years that followed eliminated Brewsters’ wet gear business, and two years after the flood, the town council voted to approve a Target Store in the Bel Aire shopping center.  Target and Costco eliminated much of Brewsters’ camping gear sales. In l998, when no buyer for the store could be found, Larry and Rachel decided it was time to close.  Kevin Courtney reported:

“News of Brewster’s demise had shaken a lot of old-time customers.  “I had a woman break into tears.  She said, ‘What am I going to do?  I’ve been coming here as a child.’ When Larry made an appearance at the store Tuesday, a shopper came up to the busy shopkeeper and whispered, ‘This is history.’

Larry Friedman died in 2005.  At his funeral, the Mayor sat shoulder to shoulder with store employees like Don Stern and Artie Kinney. Vineyard workers paid their respects alongside parents and children taught by Rachel. There was an entire row of homeless people whom Larry had befriended. Tammy Rogers remembers the event: “Mr. Friedman’s funeral was the very first time I’d ever gone to a Jewish synagogue.  It was beautiful…all kinds of people, all cultures and backgrounds.  As I sat there, I looked around and thought–What a life.”

Rachel Nussbaum Friedman just celebrated her eightieth birthday in downtown Napa at Buckhorn’s Restaurant.  Her bridge club, which began with a conversation with Ellen Doniviel, Marsha Rothman, Nadine Zeller, and Cathy Valenzuela at La Cancha Fitness Center in the early Eighties, now holds two tables of women who play monthly and gather for Christmas dinners every year. Today, Rachel’s legacy runs like a river through all the children and mothers whose lives she touched…what a life, indeed.

Sources: Napa Register “Women in Business,” August 29, 1986.
Courtney, Kevin. “Doctor’s orders: Larry must quit,” Napa Register, December 9, 1998.
Weber, Lin. Under the Vine and the Fig Tree, Wine Ventures Publishing, St. Helena, 2003.
Friedman, Larry and Rachel.  Interview by author, 2003.
Friedman, Rachel. Interview by author, New Year’s Eve 2009.
Thanks to Lauren Ellsworth for assistance with interview and Paula Amen Judah for editorial guidance.


Local History – December 2009

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” December 2009.

Treasures Of Terrace Drive
by Lauren Coodley

Ten Kinds of Snakes
It’s what he remembers: finding them in those open fields between
farmhouses & meadows where poor kids like him could feast on nature…

Sometimes history offers itself in a casual conversation; sometimes it arrives in the form of a letter in the mail. Linda McElroy wrote the following in the summer of 2008:

I have thought many times to contact you to see if you might wish to explore a piece of Napa Paradise before it is transformed.

My grandparents, John and Theresa Maddalena purchased a three acre farm for $8,000, in 1943. There is a two bedroom house, two car garage, four small rentals, one and a half acre pasture for the milk cow, chicken house, rabbit house, feed and shop rooms. Built in 1935, mostly of redwood, the buildings are in decay. The property is at 1111 Terrace Drive, about two blocks from the Tulocay Cemetery.

My Aunt Rose has lived on the property since 1943. I moved to the Benicia Arsenal in 1998 from Mt. Shasta. Within one month, my cousin,  Walter, my aunt’s only son died. From that time, I have shopped and cared for my Aunt Rose. In Sept 2007, I moved to Napa so I could care for her in her home. She died January 1, 2008.
My family is now pushing to bulldoze and sell to a developer, as soon as possible. I am on a familial archaeological dig, becoming more involved each day.

Your book was prophetic. Important reading for me. Again, I invite you to visit, maybe pick up a memento or two. I have great rabbit coop doors, farm implements, and I have not explored the garage loft yet. Most recent treasures: my grandfather’s copper still, which he used for making grappa.  Also, a stationary box with letters from Italy written 1910-1922.

Librarian Stephanie Grohs and I stepped onto Linda’s porch on a cold winter afternoon. We immediately felt the poignancy of this farm, with its haunting reminder of the unvarnished nature of rural life in Napa throughout most of the last century. We often forget that land was inexpensive here until the last twenty years. Even people of modest means could own a home in the country and raise their children there.

Typically, the homes of the less prosperous are not among those preserved, thus our images and impressions of the past are incomplete. The plain farmhouses, the rusting equipment, the quiet meadows, are too often destroyed. The beautiful downtown Victorians are not the only homes Napans once inhabited, yet they often define Napa’s history. There, on Terrace Drive, lies another truth. Historian Joseph Amato explains:

Before there were trucks and stereo systems, tract houses and motorcycles, the air was filled with other sounds. It was the roar of nature that set the evening ambience: a hubbub generated by millions of water fowl, amphibians, beetles, bugs, and birds, grasshoppers and a myriad of other creatures that thrived in the small lakes and ponds and wetlands.

Although the Maddalena farm has been sold, before Linda McElroy passed the keys to the new owner, she generously made the farm available to students working on the Napa Grid Project, organized by photography instructor John Dotta (napagridproject.wordpress.com). Their luminous images illustrated here will be featured in several upcoming exhibitions.

As I was researching this essay, I learned about the preservation of another section of the Terrace Drive neighborhood. Jeff Green remembers:

I was a reporter with the Napa County Record from l973-l976. I was covering the Napa City Council, and at one meeting a citizen came to the council with a proposal to build tennis courts on surplus land. The city administrators looked around and decided that nobody was using Fairview Park.

Green suspected otherwise, and checked with a friend who grew up near the park. He learned that kids still went there to play ball.

So, I decided I’d go bang on some doors in the neighborhood… I went up and down a couple streets and everyone was 100% opposed…They mounted a big drive to save the park, and marched on city hall. The city backed off.

Fairview Park was preserved.  Paula Amen Schmitt (nee Judah) writes:
I have fond memories of the baseball diamond at the top of “the field”, as we kids called that enormous open area between Hoffman Avenue and the two ends of Terrace Drive…

I remember going up to the diamond for a big gathering of little girls interested in playing softball—my sister Shirley and I walked up from home with our baseball gloves and our own bat. I remember being put on the Orioles team–they gave us all purple T-shirts with the team name on it, which I was terribly proud of. All the teams had bird names. I wonder if others remember that ball diamond, the air raid station—a little building where volunteers watched the skies for unknown aircraft— or the playground with swings & merry-go-round, how the area looked, the sounds. I wonder who else remembers playing there, running through the weeds, and picking cattails in the swamp.

I am grateful to Linda for her beautiful letter which introduced me to this story… and to Stephanie Grohs for arranging to film Linda to record her memories. As historian Joseph Amato reflects:

People everywhere live in an increasingly disembodied world, their landscapes and minds increasingly falling under the persuasion and control of abstract agencies and virtual images. Everywhere, place is being superseded and reshaped. Home, locale, community, and region– and the landscape they collectively form– have entered a stage of transformation.

To contribute your own memories of this neighborhood, write Paula at schmitts@inreach.com. Thanks to Wendy Ward of Preservation Napa Valley (www.preservationnapavalley.org), who is working with University of San Francisco Architecture Department and Paul Kelley Architects to produce further documentation of the Maddalena property.

Quotes by Joseph Amato are from Rethinking Home, University of California, 2002.
Special thanks to Jay Rogers, for his memories of growing up wild in rural Napa, which inspired the author’s poem which begins this essay. The poem will be available in its entirety in a poetry collection by Lauren Coodley and Paula Amen Judah to be released in 20ll.


Local History – December 2009

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” December 2009.

Stories Of Suffrage
by Lauren Coodley

History is two things: it is the past, and it
is what happens in the minds of historians
who bring to the documents their own
interests and concerns, as well as the
interests, concerns, and historical
understandings of their eras… Carol Kammen

Those of us able to publish about the histories of our regions are few and fortunate. In writing, we try to honor the many whose names might be forgotten. Sharon McGriff-Payne has just published a revelatory history of African Americans in the North Bay between l845 and l925. Her survey of property records and census figures show that 200 to 300 African-Americans lived in Napa County between the 1860s and the 1890s.

Napa’s first Black church, founded in l867, was one of the first in California. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was on Washington Street between First and Clay. In addition to providing a place of worship, it offered educational opportunities for the children of its members. That same year, the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, opened in Vallejo, and Napans might have traveled through the countryside in their horses and buggies to attend the performance. McGriff-Payne found a review stating it was “well-played considering the short time in preparation and bad weather.”

Three years later, the l5th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The Amendment prohibiting each state in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” was ratified on February 3, 1870. Black churches in the Napa and Vallejo areas, along with those around the country, celebrated the ratification of the amendment which expanded voting rights to newly emancipated men.

The Vallejo Evening Chronicle announced: “The colored citizens of Napa will jubilee on Monday next.”  On April ll, l870, Napa’s Black residents gathered for a full day of activities, including a speech given by Rev. William R. Hillary, dancing, and a hundred gun salute, all at Napa Hall.

Frederick Sparrow was undoubtedly one of those attending the celebration. Sparrow, who owned a barbershop at 52 Main Street in Napa, was educated in one of the first schools for Black children established in the l850’s, in Sacramento. Because of his standing in the community, Sparrow was selected by his peers as one of those chosen to vote.  McGriff-Payne writes: In April l870, Frederick A. Sparrow strode the short distance from his home to the Napa County Courthouse where he registered to vote for the first time… Sparrow, who had long waited for this day, was ready.

Frederick Sparrow and his wife Alice had married in l865, and were the parents of three children. Unfortunately his youngest son died the year before his father was able to vote. The 1870 Census includes a “grandmother Nellie” among those in the Frederick Sparrow household. Frederick’s wife Alice died sometime before l877, when records show he re-married Jenny Hall. One fragment of evidence exists about Sparrow’s second wife: according to the March 31, 1877 Reporter, Jenny was enjoying the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Napa when suddenly city Marshall Thomas Earl grabbed, arrested and jailed her. Mrs. Sparrow was brought to trial, but the presiding justice acquitted her of criminal charges after hearing the testimony. She won a $5,000 lawsuit against Earl.

By l880, the census lists only Nellie Sparrow, 84, and her twelve year old granddaughter as still living in the Sparrow household. What happened to Frederick Sparrow, to his mother, his daughter, or his second wife is yet to be documented. The ongoing struggle to gain voting rights for American women would surely affect the future of Frederick Sparrow’s female descendants.

Sixteen years later, in 1896, California men cast votes on whether to extend suffrage to women. The campaign for Women’s Suffrage sent Susan B. Anthony to Napa that year.  Anthony was born into a Quaker family, the first denomination to denounce slavery, and to actively work against it in the abolitionist movement. Women were not allowed to speak in public; thus for the female abolitionists, their struggle against slavery became a struggle for women’s rights as well.

Anthony was 76 years old when she came to Napa County, and the Napa Register reported that she spoke to enthusiastic crowds. Reporters also described the local suffrage conference that was held at the Opera House a month  later, where a Mrs. Mills stated that “the anti’s are in the minority in California; California has such excellent men; and the press in California favors equal suffrage.” Mrs. B. F. Taylor added: “We cannot claim that our Constitution is of the people, for the people and by the people when one half of them are disenfranchised.”

Despite their hopeful declarations, the Equal Suffrage ballot measure of 1896 failed by a large margin, primarily due to lobbying by alcoholic beverage associations, who feared that female voters would support Prohibition. In l906, Susan B. Anthony died, still unable to vote. We don’t know which of the Sparrow women might have been able to vote in l920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified only because a Tennessee suffragist telegraphed her legislator son from her hospital bed, urging him to change his vote to “yes.”  Thanks to Sharon McGriff-Payne’s research, we now also know that the Vallejo’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established the Women’s Political Club on August l2, l920, six days before that ratification vote in Tennessee. Carol Kammen writes:

Most of what local history once was, stems from and documents a community’s elite… We consciously expand beyond this base, finding new ways to use the materials that are already in our collections and seeking additions to the archive of documents more representative of all the people of the past.

Vallejo museum curator Jim Kern is inviting the public to contribute photos, documents, and other artifacts to document African-American history between l850-l950. As our research and our collections grow, we will understand better the intersection of the l9th century struggles for equal voting rights for all Americans.

Works Cited:  Carol Kammen, On Doing Local History (Altimira Press), 2003.
Rebecca Yerger, “Suffragists Met in Opera House,” Napa Register, March 3, l996; “Napa Valley’s African-American pioneers,” Napa Register, March 01, 2009;
Sharon McGriff-Payne, John Grider’s Century: African Americans in Solano, Napa and Sonoma Counties from l845 to l925 by (iUniverse), 2009.
McGriff-Payne’s book is among those included in the author’s Napa Vallejo History class, History l53, in Spring 20l0.


Local History – November 2009

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” November 2009.


“A Fine State Of Perfection:” Dr. Phong Vu’s Napa Childhood
by Lauren Coodley

O white pear,
your flower-tufts,
thick on the branch,
bring summer and ripe fruits
in their purple hearts…

(Hilda Doolittle)

My family first came to Napa around 1981.
There was a church in the community [St Appollinaris] that had sponsored some of my other relatives to come to Napa, who then paved the way for us to come over safely. I was around the age of one at the time. My first memory that I can recall was walking around the parking lots of the Stonehouse apartments with my mother. This was where the whole collection of us had stayed for a while until we had all gotten settled. My immediate family, which consisted of my father, mother, and older brother, then moved to a duplex on Silverado Trail located across from the Hamburger stand and what was once Vallergas. We lived in this place from about 1984 – 1989. It was during this time that I first saw the pear trees at the Napa College.

Native to temperate Europe and Western Asia, pears (Pyrus communis) are one of the two-dozen plants known to have been cultivated over 4,000 years. In the fourth century B.C., ancient Greek authors had detailed information about the propagation of pears, which Homer called “the fruit of the gods.”West Coast pears were originally brought by the Spanish to Mexico, and traveled up the California coast with the early missions. Until pear growing was established on the West Coast, imitating European standards was a luxury of the leisure class.

The boom in California pear growing came after the Gold Rush, in the late 1800’s, when farmers planted large orchards of European pears to provide fruits for a growing population. Markets remained local and town folk enjoyed fresh fruit up until World War II. After the war, the small, easily bruised heritage varieties were gradually eliminated in favor of a large pear that could be shipped, handled, and had a long shelf life: namely the Bartlett. The inland coastal valleys of California, Oregon, and Washington became the largest pear growing area in the United States, producing 90 percent of the pear crop.

Gold seekers, when they came to Napa during the winters, were willing to pay high prices for the pleasure of eating fresh fruit. The Thompson brothers, who traded lumber for land with Mariano Vallejo, planted fruit trees near Suscol Creek, which they diverted and channeled for irrigation. By l860 Thompson’s Gardens were known all over the West, with  l50,000 fruit trees thriving. In l869, when transcontinental high speed train roared to life, Napa’s fruit production exploded. Napa offered the ideal climate and available land even for people with limited incomes. By l923, the San Francisco Chronicle described Napa pears as reaching “a fine state of perfection.”

When we first came here to Napa from Vietnam, my father found a temporary job working on the Napa College campus. This is how I think we found out about the pear trees. For several years I remember my mother taking my brother and me to the pear orchards.  At first, because I was so young, my mother would tell me to wait on the concrete while she and my brother would go pick the trees. She would tell me that there were snakes nearby, which I guess scared me enough to stay put. I’ve never seen a snake there in my life. Then as I got a little bit older she eventually had me help out. We’d come fully prepared with our brown paper grocery bags and just pick away, sometimes until daylight was gone. I remember the grass was always yellow and the trees looked somewhat –“scraggly”– I guess would be the best word to describe it. The pears themselves were sometimes green, sometimes yellow, and often times with worm holes in them. After we would take them home, my mom would wash them, skin them, and cut them into pieces for my brother and me. Although sweet, I remember them being somewhat of a dry texture, not like the ones you would find at the store these days. Often times we had picked so much that the extra pears would eventually make their way to other family households. I am surprised to hear that the trees were planted by the inmates from the hospital for the Mentally Ill.  In fact, until I was older, I had always thought the hospital was somebody’s big house.

The state chose Napa in the l870’s as the site to build the 192-acre asylum because the land was so inexpensive. Two hundred and four acres of the original Tulocay Mexican land grant were purchased from Don Cayetano Juarez for $15,000. Eventually, hospital acreage totaled 2,000,  from the Napa River to the eastern skyline. The early Asylum, which locals called “The Farm,” was nearly self-sustaining, with live-in staff, vegetable fields, orchards, cattle, a bakery and a wharf on the Napa River to receive supplies. As late as the 1920’s, patients made the trip up the river in wicker cages secured to the boat deck.

Because the founders believed that farming would be therapeutic, patients raised all their own vegetables, meat and dairy products, and operated an award-winning pig sty. The patients also tended the orchards on the hospital grounds. In the late l960’s, State Senator John Dunlap arranged for the transfer of these orchard lands to the newly built community college campus, next to Kennedy Park, named for the first President associated with the Vietnam War.

My mother and father originally left Vietnam to look for a better life for my brother and me. Like many Vietnamese people after the war, they have their own story of escape which I don’t remember, but have heard many times before through their words and the words of my other relatives who also took that journey. Through the kindness of many Good Samaritans most of my family made it to California – some in Los Angeles, some in San Jose, and some, like my own family, ended up in Napa.

After the end of Vietnam War, several waves of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were admitted to the United States; between 1983 and 1991, the United States admitted between 35,000 to 52,000 each year, for a total of 367,174. Immigrant son, Andrew Lam,  writes: “Soon enough houses are bought, jobs are had, children are born, old folks are buried, and businesses opened. That is to say our roots sink slowly but deeply, into the American loam.”

I have very fond memories of growing up here. Fishing with home-made fishing rods in the Napa River, smashing quarters on the Wine Train tracks, circus acts at the Napa Fairgrounds, duck feeding near Kennedy park, July 4th fireworks on the Napa College soccer field, and even waking up to see people swimming in the streets during the 1986 flood. My most cherished pastime, however, was the weekly gatherings at my relatives’ house. Every Saturday, my mother and father would bring us to the homes of aunts and uncles where we would have Vietnamese Catholic mass. While the parents would catch up with each others’ lives, the kids would play in the streets until night. It was here in these homes, that our family was able to hold onto their culture. Although most of the children have grown up and moved on, the tradition is still going on to this day with new family friends.   I’ve been truly blessed to have lived in such a wonderful community and look forward to one day having my children call this city their home.

Phong Vu was recently married and is currently a practicing optometrist at the office of Drs. John Bosetti and Nancy Jameson.

Information on pear history from

Andrew Lam from

With her writing partner, Paula Amen Schmitt, Lauren Coodley is the author of Napa: the Transformation of an American Town (Arcadia, 2007).


Local History – October 2009

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” October 2009.


Like A Bottle Cast On The Shore
By Lauren Coodley

While today, women make important contributions to newspapers and local magazines such as this one, newspaperwomen in the Forties and Fifties, like Phyllis King, were unusual. Phyllis King was one of the few pioneer journalists who kept her job after World War II. Liz Reyna, King’s daughter, writes of her mother:

“Phyllis King Thompson was a newspaper reporter from the l940’s through the early Sixties, mostly in Napa, her birthplace. Her great grandfather, a Methodist minister, had come here in the l880’s after serving as a chaplain for the Union Army in the Civil War and as a circuit riding minister in California’s mining towns. Her grandfather, Judge Percy King, presided over Napa courts from Prohibition through World War II. Her father, Percy King Jr, was also a judge in the l950’s, and her Aunt “Babe” (Elizabeth King Robinson) was Napa’s first woman lawyer.”

Phyllis, born in l924, graduated from Napa High in 1942, attended Stanford, then moved to Marysville and worked on a daily paper during World War II. The public relations officer at nearby Camp Beale was Carl F. Beuoy, whom she would contact for camp news and would later marry.   After the war ended, the couple moved to the Midwest where they both sought work in journalism. Their two children were born in l947 and l948.

“After my mother separated from my dad, she moved back to Napa. We lived at the ranch at 2230 Big Ranch Road for a while, then moved to downtown Napa where we lived in an old Victorian on Second Street.  This is where most of my mom’s newspaper career took place. She was a versatile reporter, covering everything from what was then called ‘women’s news’, to politics, major news stories, travel, and scientific advances. She had a terrific sense of humor, a very quick mind, knew everyone in town, and was a very social person. She had reddish-brown hair, gorgeous and naturally wavy, was always slim and enjoyed up-to-date styles.”

Reyna describes how her mother simultaneously worked in a “man’s world,” as it was then frankly labeled, and also managed to “wallpaper several tall rooms in her old Victorian with only the help of two young children.” Reyna remembers watching her mother sitting at her typewriter, either at home or at the Napa Register office, with the phone cradled on her shoulder, getting information on some breaking news and pounding away at her keyboard at the same time:

“Within moments the story would roll out of the typewriter, a finished product requiring only minor edits before it would appear in the next day’s paper. She worked a full day at the Register, then came home to write Napa stories for the Sacramento Bee and the Oakland Tribune. By 9 p.m., we would drive down to the bus depot to send the stories off for the morning’s editions.”

Phyllis King herself gives a vivid account of what it was like to work for a local paper in the Forties. She describes working with Register editor Arthur MacKay “in the days when reporters used folded over half sheets of copy paper to be held easily in the left hand…before they donned horned rimmed glasses and bought clipboards.”

“Mac’s predecessor was a fellow by the name of George Peck… When George arrived in Napa, about l94l, the newsroom stretched some l5 by l2 feet, room enough for him, a reporter, and the society editor plus the morgue. The society editor had a constant flow of people in to inform her of “club happenings” (It wasn’t proper to have “social functions” during the war.)

Back in those days, people in town hung out at the Plaza Hotel bar. George used to get together there every night with the lawyers, courthouse personnel, and other interested townsfolk. One night he became deeply engrossed in conversation with a group…until he decided maybe he couldn’t make it to his rooming house three blocks away. He went to the phones and called an ambulance!”

King recounts how newspapers were produced during the War years: “In order to catch the mail, the paper had to turn from an evening to a morning publication, so the society editor handled things during the day, with the reporter and editor coming in late in the afternoon.” The publisher and composing room foreman got the paper out in the morning.

Recently, Richard Rodriguez noted that “Newspapers are about something much more intimate, something more local, something more flavored than merely news. I say “merely news,” by which I mean that there is some other aspect of the drama of our lives that newspapers used to be attentive to.”  Liz Reyna writes:

“Mom died too early, at 49, more than 30 years ago.  Her stories offered glimpses into other simpler times: when Napa’s population was only l3,000, before Berryessa Valley was flooded, when a new house was $ll,000, and the Uptown Theatre was showing Teenage Rebel. As the years pass, her old stories from high school and her many newspaper clippings, are becoming brittle and yellowed with age… like a bottle cast on the shore, they bring us back something of the person Mom was.”

Phyllis King’s writing transports us to old Napa, where everyone gathered at the downtown Plaza Hotel Bar, a time when everyone read the daily newspaper, which held those l3,000 souls together in community– the world that Phyllis King chronicled with such delight.

Notes: Phyllis King’s children are Liz Reyna of Rohnert Park, Phillip Beuoy of Santa Ynez and Laura Reed of Napa.
Thanks to Paula Amen Schmitt for editing; to Richard Rodriguez for “The Death of the San Francisco Chronicle,”
http://www.newamericamedia.org, Jun 6, 2009

Last month’s essay Fighting Fires should have been credited to Paula Amen Schmitt with Lauren Coodley.


Local History – September 2009

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” September 2009.


Fighting Fires
By Paula Amen Schmitt with Lauren Coodley

The Dry Creek-Lokoya women were really a very good team. They stuck together in spite of the opposition and they became effective public safety service providers for their community. When they faced a dilemma or a situation they had never encountered before they analyzed the problem, made a plan and set about to deal effectively with whatever the problem was.
– Norm Silver, Retired Battalion Chief, 2009.

When Lois Apperson moved with her family to Mt. Veeder Road in the early seventies, she joined the Dry Creek-Lokoya Women’s Fire Brigade (DCL), a group of women fire fighters recently formed in the Mt. Veeder area. Even though DCL was the first such female unit in the county, Apperson never thought of herself as special, nor, she thinks, did the rest of the some dozen women firefighting pioneers. “We did it out of necessity—we needed to protect our homes, and the men couldn’t get to the fires quickly from their jobs.”

The women reasoned that they could at least get the trucks to the fires so the men could go straight to the scene without having to stop to pick them up. But first they had to learn to drive the 35,000-pound vehicles. Enter California Division of Forestry (CDF) Battalion Chief Norm Silver, whom Apperson credits with inspiring the group with his “you can do anything” attitude. “He gave us the confidence to do what we did.” Silver, the first CDF training officer in the state recalls:

“I took two units down to the big parking lot at the Napa Fairgrounds on Third Street–a military surplus 1941 Dodge Power Wagon and a 1947 Dodge, which had been purchased by the county. The first rule was to learn to use the mirrors—you have to properly adjust them before turning the key. The second rule is to check the water level in the batteries before taking a truck out. After that the women practiced pulling the trucks in and out–we had to use pillows to adjust the seats for Ila Crook, the shortest gal.”

Echoing Silver’s memory, Lois Apperson remembers that 5’ 1” Joan King had to drive the big E-16 engine because she lived closest to where it was parked. “Going through the gears was difficult at first. We had to double clutch the old trucks.” Double clutching is crucial to driving any big rig, It requires extra motion and effort because the driver has to shift first into neutral and then into the desired gear, releasing the clutch twice, once for each shift. Every one of the DCL women mastered it.

Having the trucks at the scene ahead of time helped, but it didn’t get the fires put out. According to Apperson, that prompted the women to begin saying to themselves: “Why wait? We’re here—why not fight the fires ourselves until the men got here?” Norm Silver’s growing concern over slow response time prompted the same idea. However, actual fire fighting would require additional training. Silver recalls first meeting with the women in a vacant lot on Dry Creek Road. “I asked, ‘do any of you think you can’t do this?’ and not one hand went up.” The women learned to handle the ladders and the hoses, and to run the pumps. Once mastering the operation of the equipment on all three trucks, they went out on controlled burns and began fighting fires. Apperson recalls:

“CDF called us the Dry Creek Day Crew, on the pager, and soon they were calling us 24 hours a day. Some of the other rural units did not want women in their organizations, so DCL was unique compared to the rest of Napa.”

Silver agrees: “I took a couple years of razzing for being in favor of the women, but I didn’t care!” Apperson, who eventually recruited her own husband, Ruffin, to the group, remembers that “a lot of married couples joined the group together, and the men in our area were very proud of the women.” Apperson also recalls: “I would throw on denim over a nightgown or halter top, and away I would go. They didn’t make women’s boots then, so mine were old boots handed down by another firefighter’s teenaged son.”

She carries with pride memories of the 19 years she served: sitting on coiled up hoses in the cold tin sheds where they received their first training—son, Ted, starting her car while daughter, Angie, helped her into the heavy fire gear. She sees herself waiting on the road for the fire truck to pick her up, and her friend Alice Beers fighting fires into her seventies. “But what held it all together,” she adds, “was the trust the women had in each other.”

In 1981, the same year she fought the devastating Atlas Peak Fire, Apperson graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in history. A decade later, she retired from fire fighting as a Captain and the District’s Historian. “None of it ever leaves you,” she says. Lois Apperson still lives on Mt. Veeder Road, satisfied with having been part of a unique group that proved that women could fight fires. Thirteen years after DCL formed, the City of Napa hired its first female firefighter, Jane D’Zell, in 1985; her uniform is displayed at the Napa Firefighters Museum on Main Street.

Lois Apperson’s story can help us remember the almost forgotten Seventies and the many astonishing new possibilities for women inaugurated during that decade. Equally, we need to celebrate men like Norm Silvers who steadfastly encouraged women in these new adventures. The authors wish to thank Lois and Norm for graciously sharing their memories of the Lokoya-Dry Creek women’s crew.

Additional Sources:
“Fighting Fire” by Caroline Paul

Website http://www.homewine.com/slides/firegals2000/index.htm

Paula Amen Schmitt’s poems and Lauren Coodley’s essays can be found in If Not for History… Recovering the Stories of Women in Napa, available at the Napa Historical Society. Amen Schmitt also collaborated with Coodley on the second edition of the Arcadia publication, Napa: The Transformation of an American Town, available at Copperfield’s Books.