Portal to History: Excerpts from Upcoming De Ferrari Book are Rich in Drama, Humor, Lore

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2012 12:00

More than five years ago, Carlo De Ferrari began jotting down a few stories about his family.

“I wanted to leave something about us for my nieces and nephews,” says the 89-year-old De Ferrari, Tuolumne County’s official historian. “I thought they should know something about their ancestry.”

But what seemed like a modest project mushroomed.

“The De Ferrari Family – Memories of Times Past,” to be released this fall, is not only a family album, but an autobiography and an in-depth history of the Groveland area, where De Ferrari’s grandparents settled in the mid-1800s.

This is no scrapbook with scrawled notes and spidery family trees.  The nearly 400-page book, richly illustrated with hundreds of photos, instead has the scope and sweep of a DeMille epic. Spanning centuries and continents, it is populated by a cast of hundreds – including a baseball-playing donkey, a gun-toting county supervisor, blue jay hunters, bootleggers, barkeeps, lawmen, lawyers and a quirky, heartwarming collection of Italian and Scottish-Irish relatives.

The Groveland area, whose residents for decades have complained that their small community has been overlooked, is the lively epicenter of “The De Ferrari Family.” Groveland may not have eight million stories like the 1950s TV show “Naked City,” but De Ferrari recounts dozens of south-of-the-river tales with humor, élan, and an easygoing style.

The debut offering of the newly formed Tuolumne Heritage Publications, “The De Ferrari Family” is scheduled to go on sale in November. The price is not yet set “but it will be affordable,” assures Sharon Marovich, a Heritage Publications director. A portion of the proceeds will go to the De Ferrari Archive for the care of records and collections kept there.

Heritage was founded in 2011 to produce high-quality books on Tuolumne County history and to raise funds for the archive, which runs on an annual budget of about $120,000 in county funds. Yearly funding for records preservation and restoration was cut from $11,500 seven years ago to zero, according to County Assessor-Recorder Ken Caetano, whose department oversees the facility.

Bearing the author’s name, the two-story, state-of-the-art archive is behind the Tuolumne County Library at 480 Greenley Road in Sonora. It is home to thousands of volumes, more than a million individual records, and is a frequent destination for historians, writers, researchers and genealogists from throughout the Mother Lode and state.

A third-generation Grovelander born in 1923, De Ferrari became interested in history at age 9, when he and classmates at Moccasin School wrote a report on the school and community. After graduating from Sonora High, he left college for an Army hitch in France during World War II. He returned home, moved to Sonora and began 32-years as a county official, the last dozen as the elected clerk-auditor.

Throughout his career and a productive retirement – now at 34 years and counting – De Ferrari has dedicated himself to preserving local history. He helped found the Tuolumne County Historical Society, edited its quarterly publication, CHISPA, for 40 years, and has written numerous books, magazine pieces and newspaper articles. De Ferrari was appointed the county’s official historian in 1972, and in 1999 county supervisors named its new records repository the Carlo M. De Ferrari Archive.

“I still go there every day,” says De Ferrari, who spends his archive time organizing his 5,000-volume collection of historic books and a cross-referenced collection of a quarter-million index cards on events, locations and individuals he has collected over a half century – many of which helped in research for his book.

In the book, he traces the De Ferrari side of his family back to 11th Century Italy. His mother’s side, originally from Scotland and forced by the British government to resettle in Ireland, came to the New World in the late 1600s. But most fascinating are his vivid recollections of growing up in 1920s and `30s Groveland, a boomtown amid the Depression and Prohibition thanks to construction of San Francisco’s ambitious Hetch Hetchy project. Also of great interest are his insider tales of courthouse characters and intrigue.

The final chapter is devoted to De Ferrari’s late wife, Harriet, and her own pioneer family, the Hartvigs.  Harriet and Carlo met as coworkers in the late 1940s and were married for nearly 30 years before her death in 2008.

Although the book is Carlo’s masterpiece from beginning to end, it wouldn’t have been possible without help from fellow historian and editor Sharon Marovich, Archive Manager Charlie Dyer, and Heritage Publications Directors Bill Coffill and Louise Steuben.

Also helping: a host of volunteer proofreaders, and Dee Baumann, an archive volunteer and computer expert who helped bring the author’s manuscript into the online, publication-ready world of the 21st Century. ­

For information on the book’s release date, call Marovich at 532-1733 or 532-6937. To make an appointment for research at the De Ferrari Archive, call 536-1163.

Exclusive Excerpts from “The De Ferrari Family”

Shots in a coffee cup

From Chapter 2, “My Father’s Italian Heritage”

It may be said with some truth that any restaurant which did not make liquor available for their regular customers would lose them to one that did. Such patrons were served a “shot” of whiskey or brandy in a coffee cup and the uninitiated would not even be aware that the law was being broken in front of them…

There were quite a few bootleggers operating in Tuolumne County, but I never recall that anyone got poisoned by their output… I have always thought that Prohibition did more harm than good.  Previously, saloons were where men met socially, although some ladies of doubtful virtue also might be present. The so-called “decent women” avoided both, but after liquor dispensaries were driven “underground,” the feminine friends of some men started to openly accompany them to such establishments. It was probably part of the women’s rights movement of that era.

It also became the rage for men to carry flat liquor flasks in their hip or breast pockets and to encourage their dates to have a “little nip.” Some of the flasks were quite ornate and, to prevent detection, were molded to fit the body as closely as possible. I have been told by some ladies who dated them that sometimes a flask would be handed around in a group, and if all didn’t imbibe, or pretend to take a sip, it verged upon an insult!

Although I was a young boy when news of the repeal of the Volstead Act reached Groveland, I can recall the excitement and predictions that good times were coming back! Later the law required that each bar also had to serve food, perhaps with the thought that a lot of bar owners might not be able to afford this added expenditure; however it had an unforeseen result that women now had an excuse to go into a bar and eat, and soon they were an accepted part of the bar atmosphere.

Base-running donkey

From Chapter 6, “The Roaring 20s in Downtown Groveland”

This large flat provided an ideal playing area for the children. I can recall the baseball games played there by that noisy collection of neighborhood kids… Often one of the most enthusiastic participants was the old donkey named Johnny. He loved children and they returned that feeling fully. He was one of a number of “jacks” who lived on nearby ranches or in town, the descendants of those which had been there in the area’s flush gold mining days…

Johnny would hang out near the catcher. When a fair ball was hit, he would accompany the runner on the outside to whatever base he – or she – made for, and loved it when there was a home run hit. For either boys or girls it could be rather disconcerting to have the runner, ball and Johnny all heading in their direction at one time. But I never heard of him hurting anyone on any occasion. I believe that you could have piled children upon him until his legs bowed from the weight and he wouldn’t have moved or objected…

Sometimes I had Johnny all to myself. I would put a rope around his neck and climb aboard and off we would go – sometimes where I wanted and other times where he decided. One time we went down to Garrote Creek where there was a steep bank by a blackberry patch. Johnny went up the bank and I slid down over his rump and landed on my back and head. It knocked me out, and when I came to my senses, Johnny was nuzzling my face trying to get me up! After that he was more careful where he took me and I never had another tumble. I am sorry to say that one day an automobile accidentally hit and killed Johnny and that was the sad end of one of the most beloved pets of the town’s children.

Hetch Hetchy construction ends

From Chapter 6, “The Roaring Twenties in Groveland”

In the late 1920s major Hetch Hetchy construction work in the mountains began to wind down, and plans were implemented to make Livermore the future base of operations for the construction of tunnels and aqueducts in the valley division of the project…

I can recall the sad day about then when the last of the old Hetch Hetchy locomotives came to Groveland. When its whistle announced that it had crossed the divide and was coming down through Noisy Flat on its last trip, a lot of people came out to exchange waves with the crew. I recall how the crew leaned out of the windows to wave at us as the engine passed around the knoll above our row of cottages. It may have brought back memories to some former railroad employees, for when the supply trains were running some crews used a certain combination of whistles to signal their families that they would be home for dinner. On the other hand, it was said that in some cases they also served as a signal for certain other visitors to clear out prior to the arrival home of the master of the house.

The Altamont Pass (the road to Hetch Hetchy’s new headquarters), then a narrow two-lane highway connecting the San Joaquin Valley and the Livermore Valley, was dreaded by travelers in those days. Going west I can recall that the frustrations started near a roadhouse called, I believe, the “Mountain House,” or “Jack and Ethel’s.” From there on it was traffic crawling along, bumper to bumper, for what seemed like hours – and sometimes was…

At times fierce gusts of wind would suddenly blow through the gaps in the barren rolling hills and toss an automobile around. I can recall hearing that our Sonora High School principal, Vernon A. Dunlavy, had his automobile actually roll over on one such occasion. I remember that the distance between Groveland and Livermore was said then to be 105 miles of tough driving over poor highways and taking three or four hours, if one was lucky.

The back-benchers

From Chapter 6, “The Roaring Twenties in Downtown Groveland”

Some Groveland merchants on Main Street provided benches in front of their business houses… The occupants of the benches were closely watched by astute politicians, as their verbal exchanges sometimes revealed unsuspected ripples in the pools of support for candidates or issues in local elections. As election time approached, partisans tended to sit together. There were always troublemakers who migrated back and forth between the benches gathering information for one candidate or the other on current political strategy, and how they believed the election was going. Both sides fed them bogus information to carry back, and after the election was settled, it was several months before many political fences were mended again.

Blasting blue jays

From Chapter 8, “We Move East of Town”

I remember one night in 1930 when an organization called the “Groveland Gun Club” was formed by local sportsmen meeting in the rear of Dad’s bar…

It was then believed that blue jays were the predators that were responsible for an alleged decline in the valley and mountain quail populations in the county. As a result several competitions were held between the Groveland Gun Club members and those of a similar organization in Sonora to see which club could kill the most blue jays during a specified period. It was agreed that the losing club would host a ravioli dinner for the winning club. Sonora won the first time, followed with insinuations by the losers that many jays had been shot before the competition even began and the proof kept in a Sonora refrigerator.

A second competition was held, and this time the Groveland club won, with the same claims as to illegal birds being counted. Both clubs got great dinners with plenty of liquid refreshments, but no more meets were held due to difficulty in getting enough members to participate as well as the ominous Great Depression of that time.

Pistol-packin’ supe

From Chapter 18, “My Career in Public Service Begins”

The first board meeting was not too bad as it concerned routine, non-controversial issues, but in several subsequent meetings I was concerned as there was a great deal of animosity in the air… Three supervisors, Chairman Millard C. Merrell of the Fourth Supervisorial District, Ernest H. Hodge of the Third Supervisorial District, and Frank J. Dondero of the Second Supervisorial District, had become involved in a bitter controversy over a small private paper titled The Muckraker, which had allegedly been distributed to embarrass several county officials and other individuals…

I knew something about Merrell’s past and recall that some considered him to be a dangerous man when angry… Merrell often carried a .38 Special revolver in his right front pocket, which was well known to his fellow board members… Several times the exchange between him and some in the audience became so heated that there was concern over possible violence erupting. The rumor went around that another supervisor involved in the so-called “Muckraker matter” was also armed, and that one of those named by inference in that slander sheet was armed as well and attended the board meetings. I always thought that some of this was just talk, but sitting in the center of those involved kept me alert.

Ted Hunt, representing the First District, sat to the right of the chairman, and he became very concerned. He took me aside before one meeting and told me that if Merrell tried to draw his pistol, he would grab his hand, but to please come to his aid immediately, as he wasn’t sure that he could disarm him alone. My desk was directly in the center of the arc formed by the five supervisors, and I would have had to climb over the desk top to help. I said I would, but got thinking later that I might get a bullet in my belly if I did so.

It would have been hell to just come home from the war and get shot in a petty political spat which did not concern me!


Story on Carlo De Ferrari Copyright © 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine; Book Excerpts, Copyright © 2012 Carlo De Ferrari

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2012 12:00
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1 Comment

  1. Pam De Ferrari January 28, 22:54

    I just ran across this article on the De Ferrari family, I am interested in this book. It has some phone numbers to contact, but there are no area code. If I could get this I would appreciate it.
    Pam De Ferrari

    For information on the book’s release date, call Marovich at 532-1733 or 532-6937. To make an appointment for research at the De Ferrari Archive, call 536-1163.

    EDITOR’S NOTE: The area code is 209. Glad you enjoyed the story!

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