Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fresno, Clovis & Hanford, California

Sat - Nov. 27th

Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno was built by an Italian immigrant who came from Sicily in 1901. After a dispute with his father, who was giving all his business interests to the eldest son to manage, he left for America to become a citrus magnate on his own. Arriving in America, he worked five years as a subway digger on the first Big Dig to create the Holland Tunnel. When he had saved up some money to buy land, he moved to California. There he unfortunately purchased 80 acres of what turned out to be hard pan soil a few inches beneath the surface. The brutal heat of his first summer in Fresno drove him to carve out a couple rooms below the surface for a cool retreat.

One thing led to another. He tried growing some plants with success. He kept adding plants and rooms until he had an entire home, patios, grottos, gardens, reception room and banquet room all connected by tunnels. In the chapel he had a large bell with a rope that visitors could ring, so he would know there was company when he was working in his spectacular maze of rooms.

Open-air bath. He had an electric pump to pump water from his well to the bathroom, kitchen, aquarium, and fish storage pond. He went down to the river, caught fish and brought them back to store them in his pond, so he could have fresh fish anytime.

This is one of the bedrooms with fireplace for the winter. All the rooms had open ceilings for ventilation in the summer that were covered with glass during the winter to keep in the heat and let in the light. There were also doors between the rooms to keep in the heat.

This is the kitchen and dining room with stove, icebox and built-in pantry shelves. Each room had an open skylight decorated with fruit trees or grape vines. He built everything based on his knowledge of farming and Roman architecture in the Mediterranean.

Most citrus trees don't last over 40 years. This one and several others here are over 100 years old. Of the original 20 acres of excavated rooms and tunnels, there are only about 4 acres left. The rest was sold off in the name of progress and dozed under. Across a five lane road at Carl's Jr. , they have one of the original rooms that they use for storage.
Baldassare dug out his subterrainean oasis by hand with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow in his spare time between 1906 and 1946, while cultivating the acres above ground, making wine and selling produce. This tree was planted at the third level down, 25 feet below the surface. He had a Michelangelo quote in one room. "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

This tree originally had seven different varieties of citrus growing on it from grafts, 3 varieties of oranges, 2 of lemons, grapefruit and Italian citron (cedro) which can grow up to 7 pounds. Only three or four varieties remain today. He also grew kumquat, loquat, jujube, quince, strawberries, dates and several varieties of wine and table grapes. He found a way to defeat the heat and force the brick-like land to be productive. Every tree he planted would bear fruit.
There is glass in the center of his shallow aquarium. He had a table and chair below, so he could watch the colorful fish overhead. When he was asked why he kept digging, he said, "The visions in my mind overwhelm me". He did it all from his head, no plans, nothing written down.

The temperature is cooler in the summer by 10 to 20 degrees and warmer in the winter. Frost never touches the fruit and it hangs twice as long as it does on the surface. By 1923 ten acres were already excavated with about another ten done by Baldassare's death in 1946. There were 50 rooms, miles of tunnels on several levels and an auto driveway from one end to the other with arched niches along the way to park in.

This is the banquet room showing the arches that he used, making homemade bricks from the hard pan. The ceiling is the roof from a WWII dining hall. It was purchased and put on by his brother after his death.

Just outside Fresno, we stopped in Clovis "Gateway to the Sierras", to see a statue of Ken Curtis "Festus" of Gunsmoke from 1962 to 1975. He grew up in Bent County, Colorado where his father served three terms as sheriff. He was a veteran of WWII, a staff singer on NBC Radio, a featured vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey and Shep Fields orchestras and the Sons of the Pioneers. He had numerous movie and television roles before becoming Matt Dillon's deputy. He and his wife moved to Clovis in 1980 and he performed in the Clovis Rodeo in 1991 the day before he died.

Home Sweet Home at John's sister's place in Hanford. Free camping at Kathy's KOA is great! Thanks Sis.

Just down the street. This is what Christmas in California looks like.
I dedicate this blog to our special friend, Adam Hinojos, father of our friend JoAnn. We met Adam last year and spent lots of time with him during the month we were in Hanford. He passed away shortly before we returned this year. He was a WWII veteran, a Fresno State football fan and a very interesting and funny man. It was an honor and pleasure to know him.

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