Carlo De Ferrari: Mr. History’s Lifetime Legacy

By Amy Nilson September 15, 2008 16:16

As part of a Gold Rush family, it’s only natural that Tuolumne County native Carlo De Ferrari grew up with a keen interest in prospecting.

But he’s spent a lifetime digging for nuggets of a different sort – the retired clerk-auditor is Tuolumne County’s official historian. His 32 years in county service gave him both a front seat to decades of history-in-the-making and complete access to the recorded history of Tuolumne County’s tumultuous past.

“I’ve always been captivated by history,” he says. “It’s fun, and so important. It can guide us, and if we really study it and remember its lessons, can help us avoid similar mistakes now or in the future.”

A Groveland native educated in the little one-room Moccasin Creek school, De Ferrari was surrounded by Gold Rush history. His mother, Mary Sweaney De Ferrari, was his teacher all through grade school, and gave him an early love of local heritage.

Later, his post with the county gave him a Mother Lode of source material. The back rooms and basements full of musty books and boxes were always where he found his best nuggets in their original state – and he has done more than anyone to preserve and protect not only documents, but the stories that fill in the color.

“I spent a lot of Saturdays going through old records,” he says in a classic understatement.

In fact, De Ferrari’s encyclopedic knowledge of local history is legendary, as is his discipline in recording times, dates, names and events, and connecting dots to make sense of it all in scores of articles, essays and books. He served as a founding director of the Tuolumne County Historical Society, and is known statewide as one of the region’s most knowledgeable historians.

To this day, he maintains a cross-indexed card file with more than 200,000 entries on local people, places and events, an immense collection of research that lets him track down and cross-reference nearly any topic. The records involve everything from murder cases and water wars to the realities of ranch life or the many branches of a family tree.

“It’s mostly little odds and ends you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” he explains. “I found out early on that you can’t remember this stuff. You’ve got to write down who says what, who told you, and look things up … I just got in the habit of making notes in the evening.”

Transferring a treasure

Those cards, along with his collection of more than 2,000 books and papers on local history, are being moved from De Ferrari’s Sonora home to the county’s archive building, named for Carlo himself (see separate story). County Records Manager Charles Dyer, a longtime friend and colleague of Carlo, is helping.

“It is such a treasure,” Dyer says. “It’s a collection he’s been working on for his whole life, starting with the books he had as a child. So many of these are titles that are out of print or just unavailable anywhere, and the card catalog is amazing. Eventually we’ll move it onto a computer database.”

Dyer and Carlo spend time each week working on the collection, preparing for the transfer. It’s a difficult process, particularly because Carlo lost his wife, Harriet, earlier this year.

She was nearly as passionate about local history as he was and helped him research and compile. They were coworkers at the clerk and auditor’s office for many years, and were happily married for 29 years.

“Her family had been here for three generations and she had a tremendous knowledge of local history,” Carlo says. “She had a great memory and I relied on her a lot – she knew all the secrets. Few events occurred that she didn’t recall.”

Despite his prodigious efforts, De Ferrari feels he has barely scratched the surface of local history. Every story he comes across leads to more books and journals, to old maps, court records, old newspapers and more.

“You get quite an education,” he says. “You find it everywhere and it’s all interesting.”

Early interest

De Ferrari’s quest to drill deep started as a child, when he would sit on the porches of family and friends and listen to old-timers tell of their adventures. It was the depths of the Depression, and they had so many tales of ranching, mining, railroads and adventure. Every detail captured his attention.

Then as a 7-year-old, he was asked to help with a history project. County schools Superintendent G.P. Morgan asked students to profile every school’s community. For De Ferrari, that meant the boom-and-bust history of Moccasin, first a mining town, then ranch land and finally the home base for San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy water system. Carlo was one of the youngest students on the history team – he couldn’t write yet – but he dug in with enthusiasm and collected every scrap of information he could. He was hooked on both the process and the topic.

He graduated from Sonora High School and was completing junior college in Modesto when World War II broke out. He was sent with many other students to study engineering at New York University. Some months later he and his classmates were reassigned to the infantry. De Ferrari eventually was appointed to work on special projects at headquarters in Paris. (“I was the only one who could type,” he says.) He ended up staying in Paris for nearly two years, including 10 months after the war ended, as a civilian employee – helping to process thousands of homebound soldiers.

When he finally returned home himself, his brother, Byron, recommended him for an opening in the Tuolumne County clerk’s office. The county was mired in a furious courthouse political battle and, when a new staff took over the county clerk and auditor’s offices, Carlo became chief deputy.

“I was supposed to stay six months and ended up staying 32 years,” he says. “I liked the office, I liked the people and frankly I couldn’t have got a better job in Tuolumne County if I had tried.”

An advocate for the past

His reputation as an ethical, impartial and capable administrator led to three uncontested elections to a post that included overseeing elections, serving as clerk of the superior court and board of supervisors, maintaining their records, and helping prepare the county budget.

“He earned such respect and appreciation from everyone he worked with,” says Tuolumne County Administrator Craig Pedro, a Tuolumne County native himself and longtime friend of Carlo. “I consider him a role model in so many ways. And what a gentleman … he helped to guide the county through many times of change. And as a historian, no one has done more to protect the records of this county and preserve its history and heritage.”

Colleagues tell many stories of Carlo locating and stepping in to save historic records nearly lost to termite damage, water leaks and improper seizure by other entities. He once rescued an armload of historic maps he saw in a garbage can; they’re now a valued part of the county’s collections.

He also helped preserve key landmarks and captured oral histories of early residents. He helped to establish the Tuolumne County Museum, and worked tirelessly with colleagues in the historical society to publish all types of books and papers ranging from scholarly research to folksy reminiscing.

“So many people put in years of work,” De Ferrari says, “and they deserve a lot of credit. People like Donald Segerstrom, Sharon Marovich, Pat and Dusty Rhodes, Joan Gorsuch, Dwain McDonald, and so many others.”

The result is that Tuolumne County has an uncommonly extensive collection of historic papers and artifacts, well-established preservation policies and robust interest in local heritage. That richness is what led De Ferrari to focus solely on local history. “The only way you can really study something is to concentrate on a small block at a time, and then put those blocks of information together,” he says.

Much of his research can be found as articles in Chispa, the quarterly journal of the Tuolumne County Historical Society, which De Ferrari edited for 32 years. His articles have explored hundreds of topics, from the harsh side of Gold Rush crime and justice to building-by-building inventories of main streets, profiles of colorful personalities or in-depth research on a landmark, law or issue.

His knowledge sometimes helped to settle legal battles or steered the county away from a tangle. His research helped Sonora attorney James Hardin to successfully defend Tuolumne County in a suit brought by neighboring Alpine County over title to as much as 110,000 acres of land in the Dardanelles area.

And he is the expert on original documents showing the terms of use of the county courthouse that still guide decisions today.

He also devoted hundreds of hours to adding extensive notations to extend the research of others, from current-day colleagues to the county’s first histories. De Ferrari still writes daily, and at age 85 recently started using a computer.

“I love it,” he says. “If I’d had one when I started writing, I’ve have finished 10 books by now!”

These days, he’s busy completing his own book on Sonora, and capturing his family’s history in a book of memoirs, a project he’s been working at diligently for about three years. He’s got great history to draw from and connections to many Tuolumne County families. His grandparents were early pioneers. His great-grandmother walked across the Isthmus of Panama at age 12 to reach the West Coast in 1851, and his family was deeply involved in the civic and business affairs of Groveland for more than a century.

“I have a lot of nieces and nephews and cousins and I want to get this all down for them,” he says, “and I like getting it straight. Not everybody is as interested in this as me, but somewhere down the line in 100 years or so, somebody will get some of my genes and this will be a wonderful thing for them. Maybe they’ll bring it all up to date and find out a lot more.”

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Amy Nilson September 15, 2008 16:16
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