In high school, Larry Merla was one of the few kids from the Class of 1968 who wanted to stay in St. Helena. He didn’t get his wish, at least not right away.
Two years ago Merla and his wife of 44 years, Elayne, moved back to St. Helena after a career of moving throughout the United States. After graduation, Merla earned a degree in enology from UC Davis. He worked for Beringer Vineyards for 30 months when Nestle USA owned it, and then spent the next 26 years working for Nestle in food production.
“We transferred pretty much all over the country, from here to Ohio, to Connecticut, to Modesto, to Illinois, to Switzerland, then to Napa and then to New Jersey,” Merla said. “We went from factory to factory.” The Merlas have been married for 44 years and had three children (one died as a teenager). Their surviving two daughters have three grandchildren and the oldest just turned 12.
“I was one of the first ones to move away,” Merla said. “We moved back here two years ago when I inherited my aunt’s house. We renovated it and moved in.” Afterward, they found some old wooden hangers from St. Helena Dry Cleaners, which was next to the post office. “Their phone number was 8, as a kid, ours was 106J. I can remember going to an assembly in elementary school where they taught us how to use a dial telephone,” Merla said.
Merla’s aunt was Ida Porterfield, who started working for Robert Mondavi when she graduated from St. Helena High School in 1936. Merla relates how Porterfield got hired: Her dad was budding vineyards for Mondavi at Sunny St. Helena Winery, which is now Merryvale. He came home for lunch and told his daughter to take her typewriter out to the winery after lunch “because Bob wants a letter typed.”
Porterfield went to Charles Krug when the Mondavi family bought that winery and stayed there for 52 years.
Merla was born and raised in St. Helena. He said one of the good things about growing up on Madrona Avenue was that he was able to walk to the elementary school. When he was 9, the Merlas moved to Dean York Lane. That was when his father, Art, “had to de-clutter” and returned an enlarger and other photographic equipment to Starr Baldwin, editor, publisher and owner of the St. Helena Star.
Art Merla was an infant when his family came to the Napa Valley in the 1920s, with the tide of Italian and Swiss immigrants. Merla graduated from St. Helena High School in 1933. He went to the University of California from 1935 to 1937, but then couldn’t continue because of the Depression. Art got a job at the Star as a typesetter and photographer. He also worked at Keller’s Meat Market next door, “so he could go back and forth,” Merla said.
With World War II looming, instead of being drafted, Art joined the local unit of the National Guard. Joining Art Merla were 21 others from the Upvalley, including John Rolleri, Stanley Kelting, Art Cavagnario, Paul Engeli, John Montelli, Gene Metz, Jim Mines, Joseph Drewry, Del Stephens, Elmo Price, Truman Price, Charles Snyder, Stanley Reynolds, John Brickman and Larry Skivington.
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According to a St. Helena Star article from May 27, 2004, the group climbed aboard a Southern Pacific Railroad car at 1:45 a.m. Sunday, March 16, 1941, heading for Camp San Luis Obispo. Their unit was Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 184th Infantry. During their training and afterward, Art Merla took photographs to record their experiences. Baldwin gave Merla a large-format camera to take to the war. His son said Art Merla would send the undeveloped film along with a letter to his mother, who would take the film to Baldwin for developing and printing. Some of the photos would run in the Star, to let families know how their sons were doing.
The group was supposed to be gone one year. Instead they were gone five. Two were killed during the war.
Fifty years later, in 1994, only six of the group of 22 were still alive: John Brickman, John Montelli, John Rolleri, Larry Skivington, Truman Price and Gene Metz, who was the last surviving member. He died in October 2007.
The National Guard unit was stationed in the Pacific Theater and Merla’s job was in the logistics and supply chain. “I know when they were in the Pacific Theater, he was responsible for getting all the guys’ gear from the last camp to wherever it was they were moving to,” Merla said. His father “did a lot of patrols ahead of time to recruit people to carry the stuff and find a way to get there.”
The unit saw a lot of action in the Philippines and were involved in the Kwajalein and Leyte Gulf invasions. His father’s scrapbooks contain “pictures of all of it. Mostly they are pictures of islands with blown-up palm trees,” Merla said.
His father was a “real photographer and a rifleman, who got a couple of medals for shooting people,” Merla said. Art was a sergeant and earned a battlefield promotion to lieutenant. Then he attained the rank of captain and then major on the HQ staff. He served until the end of the war and started in the active National Guard to finish out his 20 years, when he retired.
During the war, Merla sent a letter to Baldwin saying his camera was blown up when a mortar hit the tent he was staying in. Baldwin sent him another camera. Later on, after the war, Baldwin gave Merla an enlarger, so he could develop and print the negatives at home.
There are literally thousands of negatives, which Merla gave to the St. Helena Historical Society in 2012. Along with negatives, there is an index and a caption for each. Most of the negatives are printed and in scrapbooks, as well, Larry Merla said, including a photo of Art Merla in uniform, when he came home in September 1941 and spoke to the St. Helena Rotary Club.
After the war, Art Merla was involved in the wine business as a general manager for several wineries, including Charles Krug, the Napa Valley Co-op, which is now Hall, and then worked at BV Vineyards in the late 1950s, replacing Joe Heitz who moved to Fresno, before moving back to the Napa Valley and starting his own winery.
“It was a really small fraternity in those days, the people who started in the wine business shortly after Prohibition,” Merla said. “It was a time when everybody knew everybody.”
Larry Merla knew Starr Baldwin as well. “I remember sitting in Starr’s office in the front of the Star building, talking with him, and visiting with him on the sidelines during football games at Carpy Field,” Merla said. “If there was anything going on in St. Helena, Starr was there, with at least one camera around his neck.”