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).



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