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The Italian Hotel

Most immigrants arriving in San Jose from Italy early in the last century were quite poor, so they stayed in boarding houses that offered furnished rooms. The building now known as the Fallon House was used for a much longer time as the Italian Hotel, where single Italian men or families would stay for a reasonable time with people like themselves while they earned enough to buy a small farm or establish a business. Property was extremely important to them; in the old country it was impossible for a man of limited means to ever own land. Many of the wealthy Italian families now in San Jose exist because their grandparents bought and worked the land.

While the Italian Hotel was a stopping off point, it was only one of many such places, all located within several blocks. West on St. John Street was the Torino Hotel, now known as Henry’s Hi Life Restaurant. The Costa Hotel, the Genova, the New York Exchange and the Swiss Hotel were all near each other on North Market Street. Of these, Henry’s Hi Life and the Fallon House are the only buildings still in existence.

Most of these establishments provided meals in addition to lodging. My first recollection of them was coming to the Italian Hotel with my mother. We carried a large empty kettle and walked directly into the kitchen. The year was 1932 and the Depression was at its height. Here, for 25 cents, my mother could get enough cooked spaghetti, ravioli, roast beef and French fries to feed our family of four. On special occasions, we were fortunate enough to eat in the dining room. The first course was a huge tureen of minestrone soup and a platter of French bread. Then came a green salad dressed in oil and vinegar. Another platter of bread arrived with plates of spaghetti and ravioli. The main course was baked chicken or roast beef with potatoes and overcooked vegetables, followed by a dessert of pudding or sherbet. Prohibition had recently been repealed and a bottle of red wine would be enjoyed by the adults.

When I returned from World War II, I purchased the building previously occupied by the Louis Bakery, owned by Louis Petrino. My building abutted the Italian Hotel property at the rear. The two owners of that establishment were Al Franzino and Al Visca, affectionately known as “Big Al” and “Little Al.” Little Al would rise at 3:30 every morning and hand-make the day’s fresh ravioli. Nothing in today’s supermarket frozen food section compares to Little Al’s ravioli. Big Al was the head chef and he would alert me when the special of the day was polenta. It was equal to Little Al’s ravioli. Layers of cornmeal mush were topped with homemade tomato sauce, pieces of chicken, rabbit or sausage, and mozzarella cheese and then baked. Mama mia, it was delicious.

Big Al was always trying a promotion to improve business. He changed the name to the Italian Cellar. Saturday night was “Opera at the Cellar,” when Franzino presented local singers. It was there that I first heard Lila Lloyd sing nearly 40 years ago. Lila had just completed playing in the excellent musical, “A Little Night Music.” But, with everyone singing, eating, talking and drinking, it was a near-disaster. If you could leave without your head bursting, you probably badly needed a hearing aid.

The times just weren’t right for the two Als and their business failed. Manny Peirera came in just as the high-rise buildings started to go up, renamed the place “Manny’s Cellar” and made a great success of it. Manny was a good operator, greeted everyone by name, and managed to get a remarkable turnover of seats. He also had a hard liquor license and many attorneys spent their afternoons resting on the bar. Manny had the greatest waitresses—two or three could serve the whole restaurant and insult every customer to the customer’s delight—and he made a fortune. The city bought the building and restored it to its 1850s splendor as early mayor Tom Fallon’s residence.

How Andrew P. Hill Saved the Redwoods

Have you ever been to Big Basin Park and stood under a giant redwood, the tallest living trees on earth, and wondered how and why they are still here? This is the story of the man who saved them: artist and photographer Andrew Putnam Hill.

Hill came to California in 1867 at the age of 14, just before the continental railway was built. His father, Elijah, had made the journey just before Andrew was born, but before he reached the golden land, Elijah and a companion were attacked by Indians. Elijah survived the fight, but he died a week later of exposure and exhaustion.

Andrew came west with his uncle and attended the small College of Santa Clara, first as a high school student and then as a college freshman. When his funds were spent, he left school to support himself. Although a Protestant, he had many Catholic friends at Santa Clara who were to assist him in later years.

His early working years were spent as a draftsman. He later attended the California School of Design, where he perfected his natural talent for art. He opened a portrait studio in San Jose with a succession of partners. Although an accomplished artist, he was a poor businessman, plagued by bad luck. In order to supplement his income and feed his growing family, he took up photography, as painting was in economic decline.

In 1899, a major fire erupted in the redwood forests near the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos. Hill photographed the burning trees for a London newspaper where the editors marveled at the size of the trees. They commissioned Hill for more pictures of just the redwoods. These trees, the Sequoia Sempervirens, are the tallest trees in the world, with a lifespan of over 2,000 years. The Sequoia Gigantia may be bigger, containing more board feet than any other tree, but the Sempervirens are the tallest.

On assignment, Hill took his bulky camera to the Santa Cruz grove that we know today as Big Trees Grove near Felton. The grove was then in private ownership, and after Hill had shot many pictures of the trees, the owner, Joseph Welch, confronted him for “unauthorized” photography and demanded the glass negatives. Hill, a big man, refused and strong words were exchanged. The episode so enraged Hill that that he determined to do something about saving the redwoods, as almost all of the virgin trees had been cut for lumber.

It was suggested that the trees in Big Basin were larger and more important than those in the Big Trees Grove. In 1900, an investigative party of leading and concerned citizens explored Big Basin. They were so impressed that they vowed to save the trees and Hill began his crusade.

A long, hard battle ensued. Hill had help from many quarters: President Jordan and many faculty members of Stanford University; Father Kenna, S.J., the president of Santa Clara College; James Phelan, mayor of San Francisco and later a state senator; and, most particularly, Carrie Stevens Walter, who became the first secretary of the Sempervirens Society and participated in all of its battles. Had the forest not been saved at that time, it was estimated that in six months, there would not be any virgin trees remaining.

Hill’s campaign led him to the state legislature in Sacramento. After many months of negotiation, it came to a final vote. The preliminary indications were that the state would not approve the requested expenditure of $250,000. Hill obtained a guarantee of $50,000 from Fr. Kenna’s nephew, James Phelan, payable to the lumber companies’ owners, forfeitable if the state did not purchase the property. At midnight, the night before the vote was to be taken, Hill walked three miles (the street cars had stopped running) from Santa Clara to the Herald newspaper offices in San Jose where the editor, Harry Wells, had a special edition published headlining the guarantee. Hill waited for the papers to be printed then boarded the 4:30 a.m. train to Sacramento, where a copy was placed on each legislator’s desk. The bill passed unanimously; private citizens then matched the state’s $250,000 and, thus, California got its first state park, California Redwood Park, today known as Big Basin.

When Hill died in 1922, he left his family an estate valued at less than $900. He left all of us a legacy that is immeasurable, the wonderful giant redwoods that were born before Christ.

Louis Pellier

Who was the greatest motivator for education in “The Valley of Heart’s Delight?” For my money, it was a Frenchman who never spent a day in school here, never served on a school board and was not an instructor.

Louis Pellier was the man who introduced the prune to the Santa Clara Valley from his native France. The French prune became the dominant crop in the rich agricultural history of our valley for nearly one hundred years. If you grew up picking prunes from the ground under the trees, as I did, you soon learned that there must be a better way of making a living. Because I disliked prune picking so much, I was always both glad and eager to go back to school as soon as the picking season was finished. When we left school for summer vacation in June, we didn’t know exactly when it was to start again in the fall. The industry was so dependent on us, that school would open after the harvest was complete.

Louis Pellier arrived during the gold rush and set out for the northern mines west of Redding. He and his partner, Giacomo Yocco, did not strike it rich; rather they spent their meager savings before they went broke. Giving up on gold mining, they returned to San Francisco, where they found apples selling for $1 each, and decided that a better future lay in growing produce. Arriving in San Jose, Pellier started a nursery at a property located where St. James and San Pedro Streets intersect today.

Knowing of the success of the French prune, he dispatched his younger brother, Pierre, back to France on a twofold mission. Pierre was to bring back Louis’s fiancée to California, along with cuttings, or scions, of peach, pear, plum, cherry, apple and French prune trees. Transported in two great trunks, each cutting required special packing to keep them alive during the long sea journey; the prune scions were stuck in potatoes, and then packed in sawdust. The 500-pound shipment arrived in San Francisco in December, 1856, transshipped to Alviso aboard paddle-wheel steamer and on to San Jose by wagon.

The cuttings were planted and they flourished. More than 100,000 acres of this rich valley were covered with fruit trees during the heyday of agriculture—around 52,000 acres in prune trees.

A tiny park was dedicated to the memory of Louis Pellier and his pivotal role in local history in 1977. Located at the corner of Terraine and St. James Streets, the park has remained unopened since then due to the city failing to appropriate funds to open and maintain it. The good news is that it is now being expanded and completed by developer Barry Swenson as part of his adjacent building project, and the park will finally open to the public next year after a long wait of thirty years.

Mormons in California

More than 35 years ago, our renowned historian, Clyde Arbuckle, stood at Emigration Canyon, overlooking the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and repeated the words that Mormon leader Brigham Young uttered 130 years before: “This is the place.” But then, Clyde added something that is not listed in Mormon ideology: “This is the place, I cannot go any further.” The faithful were carrying the desperately ill Young on a bed, and it was there that he urged them to stop and build their “Kingdom of God.”

For years, I have thought about the missing words: “I cannot go any further.” Study has revealed that the Mormons were really heading to California, and once there, to wrest control from the Mexican government. In mid-September 1845, Brigham Young wrote to Mormon elder Sam Brannan:

“I wish you, together with your press, paper and ten thousand of the brethren, were now at the Bay of St. Francisco, and if you clear yourself and go there, do so and we will meet you there.”

Sam Brannan left in December of 1845 from New York City aboard the chartered ship “Brooklyn” with 230 Saints, headed for California, although the publicly announced destination was Oregon. This confirms that the Mormons were to come in two parties, Brannan leading the sea party and Young the overland group. Months later, Brannan’s party arrived in San Francisco, or Yerba Buena as it was known then. The Mormons outnumbered the previous residents about five to one. But before they could get established, U.S. Navy Commander Sloat sailed into Monterey, California’s Mexican capital. On July 7, 1846, he claimed California for the United States. Sloat’s arrival was just nine days before that of the British Pacific fleet under Admiral Seymour. Seeing the stars and stripes flying over Monterey, Seymour recognized the American occupation.

Thus, it was just over a period of days that the future of California was decided, becoming an American state instead of an independent Mormon territory. It was fortunate for the Mormons too, for John Marshall discovered gold in the California foothills soon afterwards. The Saints would have been overrun by the gold-seeking 49ers. Even this proved to be a blessing, for they were having a difficult time establishing themselves in Utah. Remnants of the Mormon Battalion of soldiers, originally recruited to fight Mexico, were sent to work in the California mines. With the profits from their labor, they sent financial resources to Utah to assist the Saints in saving their Rocky Mountain territory from collapse. And Sam Brannan became one of California’s first millionaires.

Early Land Grants

Many people have asked me about the land grants dating from the Pueblo de San Jose era. Most people refer to them as the “Spanish Land Grants.” In fact, the grants were nearly all Mexican grants as the Spanish king’s land was only given to retired soldiers for their military service. Of the 44 land grants in Santa Clara County, only three were Spanish while 41 were Mexican. To receive a Mexican Grant, an individual only had to petition the governor, file a crude map of the area, and submit a fee of about twelve dollars. The petition could be for a city house lot or a 50,000 acre rancho. In addition, one had to be a Mexican citizen and of the Catholic faith. To become a Mexican citizen, an individual merely had to pledge allegiance to Mexico.

Most of those applying for a land grant were illiterate, with little ability to draw a precise map. This became a major problem in later years. The crude map was known as a “disueno,” and the boundaries were described as a certain rock, tree or stream. The problem was that a rock could be moved, a tree could die and a stream could change course. The land was measured in leagues and “varas.” A vara was originally a bit less than a yard in length, but Spain changed the length of the vara during this period, adding another layer of confusion to all the early measurements. Further complicating legal ownership in some cases was the granting of the same land by two different Mexican governors to two different petitioners.

The original Spanish plan of government was that the Indians were to be converted by the missionaries to become good Spanish citizens and then the land would be given to them to farm. This plan had a major flaw: the Indians didn’t want to farm the land and they had no concept of land ownership. Only two grants were made to Indians: Roberto and Ynigo. Roberto’s grant was called “Los Coches,” (the pigs). He only kept the land for seven years from 1840 before selling it to Antonio Sunol. This land is where Burbank and the Rose Garden areas are today. Ynigo also sold his land soon after receiving his grant and this land is where Moffett Field is today.

Later purchases of granted lands presented great difficulties in determining where the boundaries of the properties were located, and it took U.S. courts more than one hundred years to settle all of the land claims, some as recently as the 1960s.