While many people spent Memorial Day at Lake Berryessa water skiing, barbecuing and camping, others gathered there to celebrate the valley as it once was — a bountiful community of ranchers who worked, lived and played in the town of Monticello.
Before the completion of Monticello Dam in 1957 and the subsequent flooding of Berryessa Valley, Monticello existed as a rich farm community, home to some 300 residents, according to park rangers Jackson Collier and Mike McGraw with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
For the past three years, former residents of Monticello have gathered at the lake to reminisce about their beloved town and catch up on life as it is today.
Red Bluff resident Murray Clark remembers growing up in Monticello. “My roots are deep here,” said Clark, a tear in his eye. “My father was born here in 1866. I was, like, 23 when I left here in 1956.”
Clark’s family owned 600 acres in Berryessa Valley, growing wheat, barley and hay and raising cattle. The town of Monticello was his home, workplace and playground, he said.
“We would raise hell,” Clark said. “We had tomato fights. We didn’t have no Xbox. We had to learn how to entertain ourselves.”
Ousted from Berryessa Valley, Clark settled in Richmond where he was an refinery worker for Standard Oil. He didn’t come back for five years. He was bitter that his home site was under water and he had been forced to leave.
Because the land was condemned, the federal government bought properties for pennies on the dollar, Clark said. This caused a wave of resentment among Monticello residents.
His family would often get into scrapes with agents from the Bureau of Reclamation. “We’d run the S.O.B’s into the ditch,” Clark said. “I’m surprised somebody didn’t get shot.”
Mary Vieu Carpenter clearly recalls the day she and her family had to leave the valley in 1956. “I remember how upset my father was without saying a word,” she said.
Before the “damn dam” forced the family out of Monticello, Vieu Carpenter said her family had lived off the earth. Her family grew peaches, pears, alfalfa and raised cattle. Like most children of Monticello ranchers, she grew up working the land.
“It was probably the richest land in Napa County,” she said. “If you weren’t a farmer, you wouldn’t survive. A lot of people grew grapes, pears, prunes. We were the only peach orchard. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of fun. There was a lot of camaraderie.”
School teacher Virginia Dooley and her husband, Jess, were in the valley for a short time — 1952 to 1956 — but quickly became part of the Monticello family, Virginia Dooley said.
“My husband and I were the last two teachers in the valley,” she said. “At Halloween, we had this big Halloween party at the school. I can remember my husband bobbing for apples. We were party people.”
Aside from crops, residents cultivated a strong sense of community. They played cards, picnicked, hosted town-wide Halloween and Christmas celebrations, danced and enjoyed a rodeo.
“The town at different times had a hotel, a school, two gas pumps, a general store, a community hall and a bar, a roadside spot called The Hub,” Collier and McGraw of the Bureau of Reclamation wrote in a short history sheet.
“McKenzie and Sons store (originally McKenzie and Cook) was a center point for much of the activity in the town. Monticello became a popular venue for rodeos, baseball games, and ‘cow roasts’ drawing people from miles around.”
The sense of community never left the residents, even after the town was razed and people went their separate ways, Murray and Carpenter said.
Keeping the memory of Monticello alive has become a labor of love for Carol (McGinnis) Fitzpatrick who had family members who lived in Monticello. She and a few former residents built a small Monticello museum at Spanish Flat Village Center. The mini-museum is flush with photographs of Monticello families, newspaper articles and heirlooms.
“It’s important to preserve the history of the Monticello Valley,” she said. “The Monticello Valley can’t be visited again. It’s only in the memories of a few.”
Fremont resident Mark McLaughlin is spearheading an effort to install a memorial plaque at Monticello Dam in honor of the town of Monticello and its residents. In order to install the plaque, McLaughlin must get the approval of the Bureau of Reclamation. He has already received the blessing of Solano Irrigation District he said, and plans to meet with the bureau this week.
McLaughlin didn’t grow up in the valley but his grandparents, Albert and Emily McLaughlin, operated one of the largest dairies in the region, and his parents, Albert and Wilma McLaughlin, were natives of Monticello.
He said he supports the plaque project as a way to honor his Berryessa heritage. “My family endured the hardship, so that’s why I wanted to put this in here,” he said.
The plaque reads: “In memory of the human history of the town of Monticello, California and to the pioneering residents of the valley. We thank you for all the sacrifices that you had to endure.”
Anyone wishing to assist McLaughlin in establishing a plaque at the dam can contact him at email@example.com or Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org